Career Advice with Entrepreneur Gertje Vanhoutte
Updated: Dec 7, 2020
Gertje is an experienced Human Resources professional who worked in the private sector, public sector, and now as an entrepreneur. She’s a great example of somebody who is writing her own script when it comes to her career. This interview is about how she started her own business.
What is your professional background?
I studied International Business and because of that I always wanted to start a business. I wanted to know what it’s like to do everything myself. So having my own company now feels like I’m finally checking that box. I started my career at Procter and Gamble in the Human Resources department. I changed roles frequently because I got bored quickly. I worked on communications, wellbeing, diversity and inclusion.
Then I moved to the public sector, working for the European External Service in Pakistan. This was also something I always wanted to do because I’m the wife of a diplomat and I didn’t understand anything of his world. Then I moved to London and worked in the private sector again.
Changing sectors and industries was helpful for widening my perspective and learning new things. I take bits and pieces from my whole career and apply them to my current business model. My different roles helped me define what I like and what I don’t. I think doing something you hate is also very valuable. For example, doing sales is not my thing—I understand it’s my Achilles heel and the first person I’d hire for my company is someone who is a salesperson.
Having a wide range of experiences is also very important to figure out what you’re actually good at. People often say you should “work with your strengths” but sometimes you don’t know what you’re good at until you try. Something I figured out is that I’m good at communications, I kind of fell into it.
What is it like to have your own business?
What I love about having my own company is that I have flexibility in how I organize my day and that I can decide what I work on. Of course it still depends on my clients, but within the overall demand there are certain things I find really interesting and I cherrypick those projects. I’ve always been passionate about wellbeing, so that's become my niche. Now my work feels almost like a hobby.
The flipside is that the work is very unpredictable, which I’m not always comfortable with. When you have your own business, you only get out of it what you put into it. Sometimes nothing happens for a long time and I start thinking about what I'm doing wrong. Other times I get two or three tips within one week and my flexibility turns into a curse, because suddenly I have to organize my whole life around my work. So not all work-life balance issues are solved by starting your own company!
When did you feel ready to start your own company?
I think you never feel ready. It's like with getting married and having kids: the time is never right. Probably my biggest obstacle was self-confidence. It was hard to make myself believe I could do it. But I learned that you don’t have to be brilliant to succeed, that it has more to do with grit and not letting your self-doubt take you off-course.
Also, it's important to define a very clear “why”: reasons you want to do it. It might sound cliché, but having your company can feel like a rollercoaster. Some days everything is going well and I feel proud because it’s all my own achievement, but other days nothing happens. So it's crucial to know what’s important to you in your work and your life at that moment.
My recommendation for people who want to start their own business is to experiment with it first. Start building a website or blog and see if there’s an interest before you make the jump and give up a steady job.
Are there many opportunities in the (international) field of coaching and human resources?
I think for entrepreneurs in any field the possibilities are endless. The best way to think about it is when you feel annoyed by something because it doesn’t exist, that’s where there’s an opportunity. One of my biggest struggles was credibility. When you start on your own, you need to establish yourself as an expert, which takes a lot of time. It doesn’t happen overnight. You really need to build up your online presence and visibility, which can take a long time. Even if it seems there’s no return, you need to keep going.
I get most of my clients through my network, going to events and speaking to companies. People know what I do now so they put me in contact with people they know who might be interested. Talking to people—without harassing them—is very important because it pays off later. To get going, I think the direct referrals are the most important.
To test if there is an opportunity in the HR space it’s important to talk to people in that market about if they would hire someone for the gap you observed. You should first check within your own network how the demand is, because if nobody around you is interested it’s going to be hard to turn your business idea into something successful.
Is your work innovative or do you mostly provide traditional trainings and coaching to clients?
It’s a bit of both. I need traditional companies to hire me, but I also think about needs companies don’t realize they have. And for that I need a good sales pitch. The reality is that there are a zillion coaches out there and most companies train their in-house coaches anyway. It’s a hard field to get into. So I looked at what’s generally being done and gave it a twist, and found my niche in wellbeing.
Right now this feels particularly relevant because of the COVID-19 situation. Many companies are laying off staff, so a lot of people feel demotivated and stressed. Nobody really knows how to tackle it besides offering some stand-along mindfulness classes. My approach is that everything should be integrated into a framework because the frustrations employees experience are connected—and nothing will change unless you take a holistic approach.
How long did it take you to become successful?
That depends on your definition of success. This goes back to why you’re doing something in the first place. My definition of success was: to learn something new every day and being an entrepreneur, because I’d never tried it before. I also wanted to be able to spend more time at home. It took several months before I started feeling it was going in the right direction and I generated some income. In general, I think you should probably get some traction after a couple of months, otherwise there might just not be enough demand.
I gave myself a year and a half to figure out what my business was going to become and decide if perhaps, with everything I learned from the experience, it would be time to go back to working for a larger organization. Or maybe I’ll keep my business as a part-time thing instead of a main focus. I like the autonomy I have now, but I miss working with a big team and really good people to learn from. I didn’t start my business with the idea that it should be forever. I like the idea of mixing it up and getting experience on multiple fronts. I see being an entrepreneur as building new skills and as a form of career progression, not the end point of my career.