Do you want to leave the boardroom behind and start your own business?
For some, the corporate world offers a dream job, for others being the captain of the ship is key. Michelle Chan explains how she took the leap of faith, turning her back on an established career as a chartered accountant.
Waking up at lunchtime and following her dreams has revolutionised her life.
If the words: I don’t even have a CV anymore! Excite you, read on…
Hi Michelle, before we begin, tell us which large bank you worked for as a chartered accountant…
Tell us where you’re from and a bit about you…
I was born in Hong Kong, raised in Australia and spent 10 years there.
After I did my chartered accountancy professional qualification I thought: I need to go and see the world! I wanted to see Europe. Being Australian coming to the UK was easy. I came here on my own and in a week I had found a job in finance in the city. That was over 10 years ago now and I liked ever it since. It’s not as chilled out as Australia but I really like the London vibe.
After eight years in finance, I left my job at the bank and set up my own business as a yoga instructor.
Looking back at the banking days, how do you think you found a job so easily? It seems so many young people fresh out of uni struggle to get on the career ladder today.
I came at a good time. People were saying they couldn’t find accountants here in the UK because the exams are so difficult, people in London weren’t qualifying as quickly. In Australia, the exams are easier. Financial markets were in a good place as well. Companies were spending money like there’s no tomorrow ten years ago. If you were working past 7pm they’d pay for your dinner. So it was easy because of the time.
Coming from Australia how difficult was it to adapt to the London lifestyle of living and working in the city?
Making friends was harder because you’re at an age where you’re not at uni so there was no easy group to fall into. It made making friends an effort. Added to this, people were coming and going all the time. It’s more of a struggle when people are transient. Lacking friends meant it was quite lonely in the first year and it was cold and grey so I was a bit down from adjusting to a lot all at once!
To counter this, I kept in mind why I came to the UK, to see Europe! I travelled a lot on weekends. It was something to look forward to. I thought I would only be here for two years so I travelled as much of Europe as I could…to Milan, Ibiza and that kept me going. It was hard for the first few months.
It must have been more fast paced in your industry, in London than Australia?
Yes we were working until 7pm-9pm most evenings in London, in Australia at 5pm you could leave and go home or go to the beach! It was hard work but it was a good firm to work for. I had lots of short term contacts.
So fast forward ten years, can you tell us a bit about your current lifestyle, how old you are, what you’re doing for work in London now and how your lifestyle has changed.
I became a yoga teacher almost 3 years ago. At first, part time teaching 2-3 classes a week and at peak times 20 classes a week once full time. So that’s the transition. No more 12 hour days. Now I’m 36 so it’s good to be able to manage my own schedule. I choose which clients and classes to take. I love the flexibility. Working in the banking industry it’s the strict 9-5 working day, formal wear, dressed in a suit, now it’s: wear yoga pants and I have a different mentality. I like that every week is different. I’m not a structured person so it works for me. I don’t need to ask my boss for days off. I’m my own boss.
Do you think there are drawbacks to yoga? Do you ever miss the bank?
I don’t miss the corporate life because I didn’t really fit in but I have to consider financial stability more now. I have to look at my schedule and look at my income and outgoings. Before I could buy shoes for £200 and not blink an eye lid.
I am happier now though with the value of life, the standard of life, and how I see things. I wouldn’t go back to banking but I think it set me up with great skills; people skills, managing people generally, organisation and to start off with that in business, having that experience did help. I think it would be hard to become a yoga teacher straight out of uni or something like that.
I have the flexible life now, sometimes my work starts at lunchtime. I plan my own life and I like it.
If you’d have taken a different route, arriving in the UK and wanting to set up a business, would that have been more difficult?
Yes definitely. I think the only reason I decided to go for it and quit the corporate job to teach yoga was because I knew there was a safety net there. I like back up plans. I knew I could always go back to my job in finance as I have 12 years experience and I have worked for big companies. It wasn’t as scary quitting as it might have been if I was younger, worried about how to pay the rent etc. I knew in the back of my mind, even if I was worst yoga teacher in the world, I could always go back. The safety net was there for me to take the jump. I’m not saying someone couldn’t do it without a career to step back into.
For me, I am not that personality, I’m not a risk taker.
How difficult was the start of the journey?
Entry wise wasn’t difficult so the training that I had to do wasn’t another university degree or anything. It was simple training but once you graduate from teacher training there’s a lot of competition. Because of the lifestyle in London, many people want to be yoga teachers! There aren’t as many yoga teachers in Australia I found. Maybe people aren’t as stressed or they just go and sit on the beach for half an hour! So in the beginning you have to go out of your way to offer trials and take classes for free to counter the competition and really put yourself out there.
How difficult was it for you to set yourself up as a sole trader… setting up your accounts for your business?
I had the advantage that I was previously a chartered accountant but from what I see of other people is, it can be difficult because they don’t know how much money is coming in each week, or how much will come in.
A lot of clients can be sly and not pay invoices if you don’t chase them up.
I’m used to staying on top of this because I am used to managing budgets and being on track with money. I think some people trust people more, they avoid bringing it up or trust them to pay but there’s a lot of people saying “I forgot”. I’m not saying fraudulently! You just have to keep abreast of it. At large corps – payroll are on top of it. Whole teams are dedicated to just that, so it’s done. As a sole trader you don’t have that. When you work independently sometimes it’s harder.
Some people want to do their own thing and set up a small ltd co but there’s a lot of fear: “oh god I have to do my accounts…” As a chartered accountant what would be your advise for those wanting to start their own venture but the fear is holding them back?
I would say get advice as to what needs to be done, if it’s as simple as keeping receipts that’s fine but be aware. If you’re aware then you can plan. If you start without thinking then you have to backtrack and go over what you should have done….because you’re trying to go backwards and pick up the pieces the wrong way around. That’s always going to make anything more difficult.
Always get advice, ask friends, Google it. Be well informed. If you can afford an accountant that’s the best way but if not then make a list of 5 things that you need to do so you don’t miss the tax deadline and get a fine…little things like that.
What was the mind map A to B to be the yoga teacher you dreamed of being?
I guess I had people who had gone through the same path as me so I knew people who had done the training a year before so I asked them how did you teach here? What do I do? Do I need a CV? So that was the mode of attack: look and learn from others. Because when you start, you don’t really know. I did send 20 CVs but found out subsequently that’s not how to get a yoga job. You have to show your face and know the people. I don’t even have a CV any more! It’s not how it works, there’s no interview in this line of work. It’s not like the corporate world. It’s about trust or contact referrals and there’s a lot of luck. If you’re in the right place at the right time and they need a teacher with two hours notice then you go and do it they may ask you back. In the beginning there was a lot of going out of my way to make the class whereas now, I am more picky with which classes I take!
For those stressed or overworked in London and interested in yoga, what pose is best for stress? Where you can recover…
I talks about the yoga benefits in: Namaste from London but to relieve stress, child’s pose (Balasana) or heart melting (Anahatasana) is ideal.
What would be the checklist for someone thinking to do the same thing as you?
Finance and making sure you’re passionate.
Make sure you have 4/5 months of savings so you’re not quitting your job and then the first week you have no money for bread!
You need money to get through the change.
Secondly, make sure you’re good at it by verifying with your friends. For example, if you want be a photographer, ask your friends: is this a good picture. That’s a good litmus test, ask friends, family, ask a variety of people.
I remember when I started out, my friends said maybe play nicer music. Practical tips really help you to improve. You cannot guess how others will perceive you.
How has yoga transformed your life?
I guess before when I worked at the bank I was quite arrogant and more judging of people, the environment can shape you that way. In Chinese culture, background and money is really important and salary. I carried that for a very long time so to break out of that cycle was quite hard. My mum didn’t support me. She thought it was stupid. I had a great job, she thought and to walk away from that and be a yoga teacher was just viewed as being lower down the hierarchy.
I became more human by seeing other people like my students, for who they are, as people, without their salary on their forehead. I was arrogant before because of this hierarchy being drummed into me since I was a kid: be a doctor or an accountant…
Now I have found more of myself instead of trying to be what my family wants me to be. Through yoga, I am who I want to be. I am more confident and happy now.
It has been a freeing experience.
In retrospect, what choices would you make differently, if any?
I would have quit my job in finance sooner. I thought about leaving for years and years and years and never did anything about it. Instead of wasting those years I could have been enjoying them. I also would have worried less. When I first left my day job to become a yoga teacher, I worried a lot but I guess that’s hindsight. Now, I know to tell my younger self not to worry, everything will be ok. But back then, I had no idea that things would be ok. I would have enjoyed the journey a bit more. I quit my job and just thought the very next week I would pick up classes and be a yoga teacher. But actually, it’s ok to have that transition and just work once or twice a week. When I didn’t have classes it was a refreshing time. I could have viewed that more lightly. Perhaps seen it as a little career break, having gone from the steady workflow, 9 to 5 and then maybe taking two yoga classes a week but I was putting a lot of pressure on myself.