From Kitchen to Cubicle

What business owners returning to corporate life should know.

ByColumn<br/>by Michelle Goodman
September 09, 2008, 6:15 PM

Nov. 12, 2009 &#151; -- After a decade of running his own e-commerce business, Brian Leleux from Lafayette, La., realized it was time to do the unthinkable: get a job.

"It's weird putting what I've done on a resume and wondering if it will all be discounted because I worked for myself," said Leleux, who decided to look for full-time work after his sales dwindled to half of what they were three years ago. "Will recruiters and hiring managers discard my resume because it's not, in their eyes, a legitimate job with genuine experience?"

Experts say Leleux is right to question how those in the hiring seat may regard his entrepreneurial background.

"With employers, a red flag does go up," said resume writer and personal branding expert Abby Locke of Premier Writing Solutions, based in Washington, D.C.

"They think, 'Is the person going to be really committed? Are they going to be hard to manage because they have an entrepreneurial spirit? Are they just applying because business is slow but planning to leave the second the economy picks up?'"

That's not to say business owners returning to the corporate womb will find themselves in a hopeless situation. You'll just have to be a tad more strategic about the positions and companies you target, the way you craft your resume and how you discuss your experience in interviews.

A big mistake transitioning entrepreneurs make is using beefy titles like "CEO," "president" or "owner" on their resumes, said Locke. If you're applying for a lesser position, you risk looking overqualified.

Instead, Locke suggests choosing a job title that best describes your day-to-day contributions to the company.

"Look at what your tasks were," she said. "Did you have to raise money to start the business? Did you build the business from the ground up? Did you go from zero clients to 100 in a year, and is that beyond the industry standard?"

In doing so, you may find a title like "VP of business development," "director of human resources" or "director of sales" more fitting.

A Title That Was 'Hard to Swallow'

Michelle Lewis, owner of a natural dog food company, ScooterFood, took this idea to heart when she decided to supplement her dwindling income with a full-time job this year.

"I didn't expect to find a position at the same level as my last full-time job," said the Brooklyn, N.Y., resident. "And I was willing to consider entry level."

Because she was flexible, she found a job in four months -- as an administrative assistant for an academic organization.

"The title was hard to swallow, but the work doesn't fit into the usual admin position," said Lewis, who worked as creative director of a Web company before launching her business in 2006. "Sure, billing and filing are part of it, but the main responsibility focuses on categorizing academic books and journals. I am learning a lot."

Savvy interviewers will ask what happened to your business. A quick explanation is all that's required, Locke said.

A simple, "The industry's changed dramatically in the past couple of years and I'm looking to do something different" will suffice, she added. So will explaining that you sold your business, or that you're looking to return to the career you loved before trying your hand at self-employment.

"You have to position yourself as someone who's right for that job without dwelling on what went wrong with your business," Locke advised.

"If business was not a success, it's best not to get into the specifics," agreed Atlanta-based job hunting coach Miriam Salpeter of Keppie Careers. "Focus on the future and how you perfectly suit the organization's current needs."

You also can play the "I'm looking for bigger challenges and better resources" card, said Seattle-based interview coach Lewis Lin. In other words, emphasize the advantages of working for a more established firm.

What about interviewers who can't imagine why anyone would trade being their own boss for being a corporate cog?

"Don't refute their utopian view," Lin said. "Quickly acknowledge the benefits, but then highlight why the position you are applying for is better for you."

Pick the Right Position and Industry

Of course, some jobs and fields value entrepreneurial experience more than others. Choose wisely and you'll have an easier time explaining why you're the best person for the job.

"Another startup or a relatively new company may welcome you with open arms," Locke said.

Same goes for larger organizations looking to hire a sales manager or business development director.

No matter how badly you need income, be sure you consider a company's culture before accepting an offer.

"Someone who's an entrepreneur may not like an environment that's more rigid and structured," Locke said.

James Clark, whose home inspection business dried up in 2008, can attest to that. Next to the steady paycheck, the thing he likes best about his current job as a full-time inspector for the city of Seattle is the freedom.

"I'm very autonomous," he said. "It's almost like working for myself -- without having to do all the taxes and paperwork."

For Lewis, the dog food manufacturer, the structure of being at someone else's office by 9 a.m. each day has been an unexpected boon.

"I'm really liking it," she said. "The academic focus of the full-time job feeds another side of me. And being around fellow office workers is wonderful. It was the best move I could have made."

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist and former cubicle dweller. She is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube". For more information, see

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