My Big Break – What Was Yours?

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In most businesses there’s no such thing as an overnight success.

People suddenly become aware of a business or person and assume it or he or she came out of nowhere “overnight.” Usually, though, you don’t see the years of preparation and work behind the scenes. Nor do you see the winding path and all the dead ends and false starts and retries.

Many factors play into success.  We might think any small amount of success we have is due to hard work or brilliance.  But chances are some of it was luck.  And often, we owe it to a person who took the time to mentor us or who simply took a chance on us. Or pushed us out of our comfort zone.

I’ve had several careers:  as a corporate attorney and General Counsel; as a CEO of a technology company; and as an entrepreneur building my own business.  In each of those careers, I’ve had at least one event that made all the difference.  Those events ultimately can be traced back to a person who inspired me or mentored me, or who just gave me a push out of my comfort zone.

One such break gave me the confidence to start Small Business Trends LLC, my current business — even though it occurred years earlier.

You see, my academic training is as an attorney.  I spent most of my legal career in-house working for corporations. Yet I was always drawn to business, even while an attorney. Being an attorney felt too restrictive  because most of the time I was in the role of advisor.  Oh I had plenty of prestige and power — after all, my word was law when it came to anything legal.

But I wanted to be the one making the decisions on business deals, not just advising. I might have gone on indefinitely as a General Counsel working in corporate law, and silently chafing in a role that I perceived as being on the sidelines of business, but for that fateful day….

My big break came when my boss at the time (the CEO of the company I worked for) walked into my office one morning and announced that I was going to be the new Vice President of Human Resources in addition to General Counsel. And 2 minutes later he walked out.

It wasn’t a request.  I didn’t apply for the HR role.  I had no interviews. It  happened — just like that.

Now, you might not consider that a “big break.”  The role was not a promotion — just an additional responsibility.

But you see, that’s the point about big breaks.  You can’t always tell at the time they happen, that they are a big break.  It’s only later when you look back that you see the momentous change.

The reason I consider it my big break?  Simple. It forced me outside of my comfort zone.

Suddenly I was responsible for new areas that I had to scramble to master.  I had to learn new things. The company I worked for promptly sent me off to the University of Michigan Business School for a crash course in executive education.  It was the beginning of my transition away from the law and feet first into business roles.

From there I held a variety of senior executive positions. Eventually I became the CEO of a subsidiary of the company I worked for.  With each new role, my knowledge grew.  I was tested again and again — and it wasn’t always pretty.

But along the way the most important thing happened.  My confidence grew.

Had it not been for my boss forcing me to go outside my comfort zone, who knows?  I might still be a General Counsel.  I don’t think I would have gained the confidence to become an entrepreneur and start my own business.

And I would have missed out on the most rewarding part of my career: being a business owner.

How about you?  What was your big break?  Was it something that pushed you out of your comfort zone, like me?  Or was it landing a big customer?   Or something different?  Tell us in the comments below.


Anita Campbell Anita Campbell is the Founder, CEO and Publisher of Small Business Trends and has been following trends in small businesses since 2003. She is the owner of BizSugar, a social media site for small businesses.

22 Reactions
  1. Anita – I just love your story! And what I notice about it is that you’ve taken the quiet time to reflect on this. Reflecting is something that we don’t often take the time to do and yet it holds so much information.

  2. The “big breaks” were really a very long series of small breaks – you’re right in echoing the saying that every overnight success is ten years in the making.

    Really, as exciting as some successes were (and as much as I had to stretch out of my comfort zone), I learned the most from my biggest failures, and I think those were critically valuable experiences.

    It was a start-up company that I built, and that fell apart when the markets crashed. I wrote about the experience on the Sales Lion:

    Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of positive steps, too, and I value each and every one of them – but really, I learned the most from the failures.

  3. My business partner and I became friends seventeen years ago, through our sons, who were in middle school. Both of us worked for major corporations. She had been transferred from LA to St. Louis by her company, uprooting her family (3 children and a husband who had to give up his career). Within a year, we were both “downsized” by our companies. We didn’t realize it at the time, but our giant corporations had done us a favor. We were tired of the corporate rat race and the overnight travel (many times at the drop of a hat, missing our children’s school milestones). We began a small marketing company with no funding and a lot of sweat equity. It took us over eighteen months, and many mistakes, to build a business and, at the same time, allow us the freedom to be there for our families. When we look back to the days that we were putting in fifteen and twenty hours a day (and still do!),pushed by the anger and frustration of having our lives changed seemingly overnight, by corporate decisions, wondering if we would ever secure a customer. We didn’t realize at the time that we would be successful. Many years later, we are learning new marketing techniques, social media, and enjoying a life which we have built for ourselves. It is challenging, and running a small business is like living on a roller coaster, but much more rewarding!

  4. Having grown up on a farm with a very entrepreneurial father (really all farmers are small business owners) I was conditioned early, but I still had to actually quit my “job” and go off on my own. It’s been about 15 months since then and I’m still learning a lot about running my own business but I wouldn’t have done it any other way.

  5. Natalie Carpenter

    Thank you for sharing the story of your big break, Anita. Having recently read Seth Godin’s “Poke the Box”, it is motivational to hear a story of how stepping out of our comfort zones can lead to breakthroughs, even if the path is not immediately apparent.

    In 2008, I took a big leap and decided to run for County Commissioner in my small corner of the world. Being a private person in a small town, it was very difficult for me to put myself in the public eye, campaign at events, and participate in debates with three other candidates. But I used my nonprofit board training in diplomacy and recalled my college classes in interpersonal communication and public speaking to jump in with both feet and give it my best.

    I didn’t win the election that November, but I remained active in a new-found world of local politics and became acquainted with a member of Town Council who happened to be the CEO of a small but international corporation based out of my home town. When I approached the company about a job last year, the CEO who had watched me throughout my campaign a few years ago gave me the opportunity to join his team of 40 and has since been wonderful at allowing me to “poke the box” and continue to learn at his company.

    Had I not made the choice to step out of my comfort zone and do something entirely new, I would not have the creative, challenging job that I have today. Thank you for reminding us that “you can’t always tell at the time they happen, that they are a big break. It’s only later when you look back that you see the momentous change.”

  6. Thanks, Anita,

    My big break came when I was fired from my franchise management position, back in 2000.

    My late father, Jerry Libava, pressed and pressed, (and pressed) me to join his franchise consulting firm.

    I finally gave in, and it’s now a 2nd-generation franchise consulting business….and it’s continually evolving.

    I guess I’ll have to post the story one day.

    One more thing; my decision to join him has led me to many, many cool places, including here.

    Thanks for your loyalty and your support of what I do, Anita.

    The Franchise King®
    Joel Libava

  7. We havent had our big break yet, its just hard to move from ebay to a website brand.. we had our blasts and crashes.. we are older (i’m 25, my brother is 21) and wiser.. we are much less richer, but we made a pact to see this dream succeed and stay in it for the long haul. We borrowed no money.. we work 16 hours a day and believe in the dream

  8. Great post Anita! My big break came from being fired as a surgical instrument distributor. It was a body blow at the time, but I ended up developing my own surgical products and built a nice little company of proprietary instrumentation.

    Breaks can come in small doses or one big large one. In my case it was a very large one! I got thrown into the pool.

    • Anita Campbell

      Hi Kip, you bring up another great point about “big breaks” — when they initially happen they can be bad news. Like being fired. But you went on to turn it into a new beginning. That’s why I always say that you have to guard your own mindset and work to stay positive, no matter how bad the news. It’s only by staying positive that you see the silver lining, eventually. – Anita

  9. What a motivational story, Anita! It’s reassuring to see that you can build the confidence and over skills over time — you don’t have to be “born” with it. Thanks for sharing!


    • Anita Campbell

      Hi Kelly,

      You definitely do NOT have to be born with certain skills. 🙂

      When I look back at the tapestry of my work life, I’ve achieved the most when I’ve pushed myself outside of my comfort zone. Along the way I stumbled, sometimes mightily. But eventually it paid off to push myself to try new fields or new industries or new roles. I think we box ourselves in with our perceptions of ourselves. Our minds can be our own biggest limiters. That’s true universally.

      – Anita

  10. Hello Anita.
    I too am from Ohio, Akron.

    I have watched your site and your posts on facebook for a while.
    I can only imagine the journey.

    I was a missionary/pastor/educator in Northern Ireland during the worst years of that war and civil unrest, as it was called.

    I did not fit the mould that was being forced upon me.
    I earned three degrees. B.Div., Th.M., and a Ph.D.Ed..
    None of them are from accredited schools, but that does not mean I did not earn them, I did.

    In my life I always wanted to be more business oriented with my work. My income depended upon the various associations and denomination I as affiliated with.
    No security there at all, for anyone in these positions; and politics is rife, go figure?

    I left and took regular employment while I studied business on my own dime. It has been a ride indeed.

    This year I started The Small Business Compass: a social tool for helping small business owners navigate the terrain of owning a business rather than wandering across it.

    I started with a blog: and I will take it from there.

    There is no real big breaks to speak of, just a moral dilema that forced me to choose. I chose not to sacrifice myself or my family for the welfare of everyone else in the name of selfless glory??

    Not the most brilliant of stories but it is layered with all the living I have and can muster.

    Billy Delaney

  11. Brandon Yanofsky

    Hey Anita

    I don’t know why but this was exactly the article I needed today. Definitely a hard mind numbing day.

    Today, I decided to get out of my comfort zone and try cold calling. I still feel out of my comfort zone.

    But hopefully, I can look back and see what I learned from all this. Look back and, like you, see it as my turning point.

  12. Haven’t had mine yet. I currently manage several retail stores for a company. And time is creeping up on me, I just turned 50. Thought I had that ‘big break’ two years ago, a good customer of mine, who has also become a good friend and golf companion, was ready to lend me start-up capital. He is a very successful CPA, also heads an Angel Network which is how he makes most of his wealth, and where the loan would have come from. My wife and I spent 5-6 months preparing the business plan documents, attempting to subsidize the business with loans, investigating the franchisor, talking with current franchisees, even visiting two of them in other states, we thought we were ready. My buddy asked three questions at our last meeting pertaining to the business venture – “What do you get for the franchise fee? How come the franchisor makes all their money with the franchise fee and none from royalties? Why can’t you do this on your own without the franchise expense?” We had not thought about these basic things. Wow. And we thought we were ready. After getting answers to these questions it was clear this was not the ‘right’ business. Earlier this month, we got a call from that franchisor wanting to know if we were still interested. That call came from a call center based outside the US. Hmmmm….called the franchisees we had met with during out initial investigation, yep, the franchisor went belly up, and they all lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. So maybe that WAS my big break moment, I just haven’t been able to capitalize on it — yet.

  13. I love hearing your story. My “big break” came when I quit/got fired from a company where I refused to sign the ridiculous noncompete agreement. It was something I felt so passionately about…I ended up without a job. I had no idea what to do, so I turned to freelance writing. Which became Egg. Which is now almost 5 years old! Thanks, ex-boss! Best thing you could have done for me!

  14. Misti Aljoe- Graber

    Yes, many small breaks lead to the BIG BREAK, I broke my back 🙁 @ UPS my job for 12plus great years. I loved my job and was always dreaming of OPENING a small grooming/boarding business when I retired. Well, I did it early and I am elated. Thanks to AmEx/Facebook in the last month I have learned some much needed basics. So many things to do…Yellowpole Acres Pet Spa & Resort is edited to continue the hard work and now get the best BIG BREAK. Thanks again for all the FYI.

  15. Benjamin Winterburn

    My big break hasn’t broken yet. I own a very small sole proprietor e-commerce business called I’ve been at it for a year now, building my website, perfecting my SEO skills, gathering inventory, marketing through social media and everything else in-between. I feel like I’m preparing myself for the moment that big break comes and when it does, I’ll be ready. Thank you for your inspirational story.

  16. When we look back to the days that we were putting in fifteen and twenty hours a day.

  17. My big break was actually a bad job… I started out as a brick mason here in Texas and worked for quite a few different companies… One day, at work, I noticed that the scaffolding which was 6 stories high, wasn’t tied to the wall we were building as required by OSHA. (They can fall down and people can die). Having grown tired of the job, I decided to get down and go to the foreman’s office and let him know that it was an unsafe condition. His response didn’t give me any hope of a change. I decided that I was done. I put my tools in the truck and collected my final check. As a result of this, I started my own business. First buying a mixer, then a trailer, then, over time, all the tools I needed. I like communicating with the customer a lot better than working for any company I have ever worked for. I take time to do the job right and make it look like art .It just gives me the added incentive to perform that I needed.