Changing lanes mid-career might not be as hard as you think.
Changing lanes mid-career might not be as hard as you think.
A view from Harry Lang

Time for a change? One marketer maps his journey into portfolio working

Crafting a portfolio career might not be as hard as you think and the opportunities offered by this increasingly popular way of working are endless, writes marketing consultant Harry Lang.

"I want to leave work, travel the world, then start my own business."

Come on, admit it – how many of you marketing types have, at some point (possibly after a few too many, late on a Thursday night) stumbled back from the bar and made such a gung-ho statement? A few, I’d guess – perhaps more than 50%. In fact, if you simplify the above to…

"F*** this for a game of cards. Life’s too short. I’m quitting to do something – anything – more meaningful with my time."

…then the proportion probably goes up to somewhere north of 95%.

We all dream, but the ever-rising cost of living or the 25-year mortgage horizon can easily put paid to any wanderlustful ambitions you may have had. The feeling that you’re trapped in the status quo, unable to do want you want because you have to stick with what you need to do can be stifling – even a little depressing.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. An ever-increasing number of marketers are opening up their careers and personal lives by ‘portfolio working’, meaning they look for multiple revenue streams not limited to one single nine-to-six (or nine-to-ten, if you’re agency-side) job. It’s a midway compromise between the trappings of wage-slavery and globe-travelling, wallet-sapping frivolity.

I’ve recently had a little experience in portfolio working. Having decamped from a lucrative (but ultimately demoralising) career in online gaming in Gibraltar, where a Spanish beach life and low rate of income tax made it very hard to complain, I decided a change was in order. I became very aware that I might one day look back on a career in which the highlight was writing a slam-dunk press release for a bingo jackpot won by Mrs Morag McMiggins of Pitlochry.

So Mrs Lang and I packed up the car, sauntered across Europe and threw most of our savings at a lettings agent to allow us to reintegrate back into the global city (and hub of a million career choices) that is London.

Money was needed, thus work required – so I went on the hunt.

Take a tactical approach

Unlike my first stint in London (starting some 16 years ago), where I supplemented my frugal agency salary with sidelines as diverse as pub quizmaster, focus-group monkey, knee model (don’t ask), ticket tout and secret shopper, this time around I’ve tried to be a little more tactical. An early piece of fortune offered up a consultancy gig for a Californian social casino, so two weeks of employment and one brand architecture document later, I was up and running.

Since then (and while interviewing for permanent roles) I’ve picked up the occasional quid by copywriting for affiliate websites, straight-up consultancy on a day rate, taking part in over-the-phone research, helping my wife set up an art website and a couple of rounds of poor quality golf.

For more industrious portfolio workers, the opportunities are endless. For example, you could take a line at the farthest end of the spectrum and work six months on, six months off, allowing you to travel, work for a charity (or combine the two with VSO), set up a sideline business, learn a language or renovate your house. For those with a family to feed, freelance contracts are becoming more common – pure nine-to-five contract jobs would allow you a clear couple of hours in the evening (plus the weekends) to pursue other professional interests.

If you’re getting itchy feet in a traditional job and fancy moving your career in a more disruptive direction, there are some key questions you can ask yourself before you take the plunge into portfolio working.

The five Cs of portfolio working

  1. Cash. How much do you have banked, how much do you need to pay for essentials/ bills/ rent and how much would you be prepared to invest to back yourself and your ventures so you can realistically work on your dreams? How much money do you actually need to earn every month to keep everything ticking over?
  2. Capability. What are you good at? What work is available to you? What skill sets can you sell for the best return? Most importantly, what do you enjoy doing and can you make money doing it? (This last one, I’ve found, is the clincher – work on what you love and it doesn’t feel like work at all.)
  3. Compromise. You’re not going to be the next CMO of Google by becoming a jack of all trades. On the other hand, you might be back home for story time on weeknights. Work out what your real motivations are and you’ll likely find money, while an essential evil, isn’t alone on your priority list.
  4. Change. Successful portfolio work is all about flexibility and being able to move with the times and the needs of potential clients. Don’t know how to build a website for a local SME client? Spend an evening on Wix or Wordpress, et voilà. Don’t understand App Store Optimisation? No problem – there are plenty of credible blogs out there. Iinvest a few evenings to get the basics, sign up to credible newsletters and you’ll be more informed than 99% of the marketing world in less than a month.
  5. Cojones. Metaphorically, you need to take these in hand and take the leap from under the duvet and into the scary unknown. Pensions? You’ll have to sort that yourself. Mobile phone and laptop? Take the debit card to Amazon. But for every perk and creature comfort you sacrifice by taking ownership of your working life, you’ll also avoid a pointless 9am status meeting. Put that way, it seems like a pretty good trade.

These days, there’s also a middle ground for those bored with the everyday but unable or unwilling to portfolio-work alone. Influenced by Silicone Valley’s obsession with empowerment and accountability, many tech start-ups in the UK adopt flexible working practices. You can have an exciting day job and the freedom to explore your passions. Look at Airbnb, Hailo, Osper, Just Park, Essence – most of Google’s Tech City in fact – and they’ll offer a working environment a million miles from the traditional.

It may be that none of this is of interest to you. You love your job, your work/ life balance is perfect and you have a package of share options just itching to vest in three years' time. If that’s the case, then great.

If not, there’s a whole world of interesting work out there for hungry, talented and flexible marketers who are prepared to take that first brave step into the unknown.


Harry Lang is a London-based marketing consultant working on strategy, brand, ASO and acquisition projects.