Career Advice: How my Corporate Job at Disney Made me a Better Entrepreneur

How My Corporate Film Career Made Me a Better Entrepreneur - Lessons from working for others from the Greatest Story for Business Blog

How My Corporate Career Made Me a Better Entrepreneur

I love being an entrepreneur now, but I never thought I'd have my own business. I always wanted to work for someone else.

Growing up, my dream was to make and write movies. So my career began with 5 years in the corporate film industry in Los Angeles, where I worked to become a producer or development executive at a major movie studio.

And after a lot of blood, sweat, and coffee-getting - I got the dream job I wanted: writing and designing story presentations of upcoming movies for Disney.

After hitting that high note, in late 2013 I actually gave up that job, left my career, and moved to NC. I did this so I could start Greatest Story to help real people tell their stories through branding for their businesses and lives. There's a longer story there but that gets you to my present - life as an entrepreneur and small business owner!

Through starting and growing my own business, I've realized that the lifestyle, flexibility, creative opportunities of entrepreneurship really agree with me - so much more than the life of being an employee. Though (clearly) you should never say never, it’d be hard for me to imagine ever working for someone else again.

Given this, you might think that I would regret my corporate film career and that I wish I’d known all of this about myself sooner.

But I really don’t. It's quite the contrary. I value and use my experience in Corporate America and the entertainment industry every single day in my business - it has without a doubt made me a better entrepreneur.

Here’s just a few of the things I learned from my time of climbing the ladder, paying dues, and living the corporate life.

Intense research skills are an attainable super power.

My first “gig” in LA was as the 2nd assistant to the President of Lionsgate films (the studio that makes "The Hunger Games" movies). After multiple film internships, writing several feature length screenplays, and doing tons of script coverage - I was ready for the creative work from day one.

But what I got, Devil Wears Prada-style, were tasks like researching and repurchasing a lost pair of swim goggles, figuring out bike deliveries in Italy, creating expense reports, and of course - coffee runs.

And the funny thing is, I use the bizarre research skills I honed in this position ALL THE TIME.

I learned, through a magical combination of Google, relationship building, and context clue sleuthing, how to find the impossible and deliver it to people who need it.

Though I did no shortage of crazy tasks, one of my favorite stories was helping my executive boss find a special poem to feature in a photobook he was creating for his wife. On only a vague idea of what I was looking for, I was able to do what he and his personal assistant couldn’t do- find the elusive poem that would complete the gift that he was taking the few free personal minutes he had between meetings to create. This has nothing to do with moviemaking, but I know it mattered and made a difference to him.

Today, I use my Sherlock-style Google skills constantly to serve my brand clients, wedding couples, and even to build new presentations. And without having been asked to pull off impossible and crazy tasks, I am sure these skills would not be nearly as sharp as they are.

Place value on double - wait, TRIPLE - checking.

When you’re an assistant to someone, your life is CONFIRMING details. I’m lucky that my 1st assistant boss at Lionsgate engrained in me her system of confirming - double and triple - checking everything: meetings, contacts, even car appointments. 

Though I felt it was overkill at the time and didn’t see the wisdom in it, I absolutely saw the value when I moved over to Disney and became the first assistant and later, a team coordinator. I lived and died on my ability to ensure everything was taken care of, a skill I needed at the bottom and at the top of working with major executives to deliver presentations. 

I’ve carried this concept over to working with my own clients and knowing how to follow up with new connections and collaborators. It’s crazy to say it, but these systems taught me so much and has empowered me to run a smooth and organized business. So thanks Robyn - I'm sorry I didn’t appreciate your organization style at the time! 

Everyone is worth knowing.

As I got a close up look at Corporate America, I learned how important it was to value every single person I worked with and to build relationships with a diverse group of people at all levels and all backgrounds.

I strongly believe everyone is worth knowing and I definitely learned that lesson from my time working for others. You can read more about why everyone is worth knowing in a past post here.

There is no career nirvana.

Growing up, I thought you worked like crazy to get your dream job and then everything is golden from there. No problems - just happy 24/7 - while you rake in cash and enjoy what you worked so hard for.

Obviously, this is a total myth (bummer!). Busting that myth for myself is part of what led me to being an entrepreneur.

I’ll never forget what a director at Disney told me over dinner, years before I ever worked at the company and saw this firsthand.

On climbing the ladder, she said,
“The problems don’t change. The walls just get sexier.”

This advice has only proven more and more true over the course of my career. What I was seeking didn’t exist without personal fulfillment. There will always be challenges at every level, though the problems may be more exciting.

This keeps me from seeking an end point or trying to avoid all problems. No matter how successful my business will be, there will always be issues and challenges to face. I have learned it's normal and the goal is progress, not perfection (as entrepreneur Emily Ley says).

Which leads me to--

Be where you are in your career on purpose.

When I looked closer at the corporate world, I observed that there are varying degrees of success. I could see outward success (your job title, your social capital, what others think of you) and inner success (feeling fulfilled by your job, enjoying the work you do, being happy).

Not everyone experienced both sides of success together. In fact, I saw so many people I admired and identified with feeling low on their inner success bucket, while being so outwardly successful.

Have you heard of “golden handcuffs?” It’s a term often referred to as a job or opportunity that’s so good that it’d be unwise to walk away from - even if you’re unhappy - because it's so good on paper. 

Jobs in Corporate America, especially high on the ladder after years of scraping and struggle, can be those golden handcuffs.

And while I saw people who felt high on both scales of success, I also saw those who felt trapped or felt afraid to change what they were. There were also those that stayed intensely frustrated with their path, railing against it day in and day out, pulled between looking successful but not feeling their success inwardly. 

The same might be said for those who feel trapped in businesses they’ve started as entrepreneurs. It's something we can and do all face no matter how we work.

What all of this taught me is how important it is to be wherever you are in your career on purpose - for reasons that you choose. 

If you are in a corporate job to give your family an awesome quality of life, then embrace that - don’t rail against it every day and make yourself miserable. If you want to run your own side business but aren't in a position to leave your full time job, try looking at the day job as “fundraising” you are doing to fund your dream (a phrase borrowed from the incredible Bob Goff).

Another version of this is:
“Wherever you are, be all there.”
-Jim Elliot

If you don’t like where you are, you can change it or you can reframe its purpose to you. You don’t have to be trapped by it - you don’t have to feel like you are failing or fighting every day.

I remember this every day when I start my work day - because I've seen how important it is to make that decision each day on purpose.

There is empowerment in knowing the grass isn’t greener, and what the grass actually is.

Once I saw that career nirvana was a myth and that inner and outer success weren’t always mutually exclusive, I realized that for me, my life’s work needed to matter more than getting the job promotion or a big salary. 

This was the type of thinking that in late 2013, led me to quit my dream job at Disney and start my own branding agency with a storytelling twist, Greatest Story

In creating this business, I took a risk and gave myself an opportunity to know the trade off’s between being an employee and being my own boss. 

Having done both now, I know more about myself and the work I want to do. I know what the trade off’s truly are. And because of that, I don’t sit and wonder if the grass is greener on either side. 

For example - I know that it’s amazing to get a weekly paycheck, but I love being in control of my creative destiny more. I struggle with not having sick days, but I embrace setting my own schedule and work tasks. And the list goes on. 

Knowing the differences firsthand makes sure that I can’t excuse my way out of my career goals and that I can embrace my chosen path - even when things are tough.

On Regret and Changing Course

I think the best part of having had a corporate career before I became an entrepreneur is that the experience has been incredibly additive.

Today, I've only shared a few of my favorite lessons from my time in the film industry, but I can't say I could have predicted that. 

Though I imagined quitting the industry for years before I actually did, I was always afraid of what it would mean if I changed my path:

What if people think I’m stupid for leaving?
Am I giving up?
Why did I do this in the first place, if I’m meant to do something else?
Did I start with the wrong dream?
Will this mean I’ll regret everything to this point?

Looking back now, I can tell you that my corporate career was an unbelievably valuable chapter of my life - one that inspires me every single day.

When I made my choice, nobody thought I was stupid or giving up - everyone was genuinely happy for me to try something new. Taking that risk meant I learned some huge things about myself and what kind of work I want to do. And no, I don’t regret a thing.

I could never regret what I learned, the experiences I had, and of course - the relationships I built and continue to treasure. By leaving, I didn’t have to give them up - I just got to make room for something new - for possibility. 

And that wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn't gone down this exact path in the first place, chasing my first dream of working in the film industry.

So wherever you are - whether you work for someone, work for yourself, or aren’t in the working world yet - just remember, it’s all about the journey.

Make sure to go on it on purpose and remember every step you take is valuable because you are taking it - one foot in front of the other. If I've learned anything, it's that you'll cherish the pages behind you and those you’ve yet to write, because after all - they're all a part of your story.

PS:  You can read more about my career story here or listen to this clip from Jason Zook's Action Army Podcast.