"I became interested in communications strategy and consulting because I realized a lot of people need help telling the truth about important ideas," says Neil Chudgar.
Neil Chudgar’s entrepreneurial journey is a unique one. Starting off in academia, there was a time when he didn’t think there was any other option than teaching. One impactful life event changed all that. Today, as a communications strategist and consultant, Neil Chudgar’s deliverables are ideas and language. He specializes in helping people tell the truth powerfully and compassionately.
Ironically, he finds the language that’s needed to help his clients by not using any at all. In order to get to the heart of what they really need to say, he will sit down with them and simply listen. The space he creates for his clients by not saying a word allows them to open up and start talking about issues they aren’t normally able to talk about.
What was life like before you started your business and what motivated you to quit your day job and start your own business?
I was a new English professor at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. I had graduated with a Ph.D. in eighteenth-century British literature and landed the job right out of school–it was a huge stroke of luck. Then, as I started creeping up on tenure, my father passed away unexpectedly. That’s when I really started thinking about the future. I realized if I got tenure, I’d have a job to do that is safe and comfortable with a good income and solid vacation…and I’d have that job for the rest of my life.
Being in education, your schedule is dictated by the academic calendar and you’re never really required to think too far into the future. When I lost my father, I was forced to start thinking about my limited time on this planet and I wasn’t sure if I was doing what I wanted to be doing. Trusted friends told me that life’s too short not to truly enjoy what you’re doing.
That advice was just theoretical until the summer of 2013. A dear friend of mine was let go from a job he’d had for a dozen years. After that happened, he gathered a bunch of people to help him discover what could do next to be helpful in the world. At this meeting, realized I was actually the youngest person there, and everyone older than me had already had at least two careers. It really wasn’t until that day–that moment–that it occurred to me I could actually do something other than teaching. (My friend who’d been fired—he ended up getting the perfect job for him, leading a plucky edtech company here in town.)
Not too long after that realization, I submitted my notice to the college. People cheered me on and told me I’d have no trouble finding a new job—turns out that wasn’t exactly the case. I started to shift my mindset from convincing someone to hire me to figure out what I could do in the world that needed to get done. The first opportunity came from a friend who needed work done for a communications agency she was starting. I took that contract and, turns out, it was good work for me to do so I kept doing it. That first client led to more, and eventually, I realized a lot of people need help telling the truth about important ideas that are hard to talk about. That’s how I became a communications consultant.
Neil’s 3 pearls of wisdom for entrepreneurs:
- Passion is great but feeling useful is better. Find out what you can do well that the world needs done, rather than trying to figure out what you love. Solving a problem for a client that they couldn’t have solved without you is profoundly rewarding.
- Just start doing the work. Take every opportunity to do the work that people need done. If you’re good at it, people will keep wanting you to do it. And if you can do that work for hours at a time, day after day, and still look forward to getting up in the morning, you’ve got yourself a calling.
- No one owes you. Get over the notion that you were owed a living. If you think about it, this is incredibly liberating because it means that if you want to get paid it is 100% up to you–do the work and get paid, don’t do the work and don’t get paid.
Describe the biggest challenge you’ve experienced as a small business owner and how you dealt with it.
My product is my ideas, so it’s very easy to mistake my work for myself. If my work doesn’t go over well with my clients or if I don’t win a project, it’s easy to feel as though that reflects on me as a human being. So whenever I start confusing my work with myself as a person I just have to keep reminding myself that the work is just that–work.
Once I started being able to separate myself from my work and understand that the value I have as a human does not come from whether or not clients are pleased, it started getting easier. It may seem obvious, but I’ve observed other entrepreneurs experiencing the same confusion between professional success and self-worth.
What’s really helped me is talking regularly with wise people. I’m lucky enough to have built a stable of trusted friends, associates and mentors–people whose judgment I trust from many walks of life. I talk to my husband about business as well. My network of wise people keeps my head on straight.
Share a story where you went above and beyond to solve a problem.
I had one client that was a non-profit and they needed help communicating their message more effectively. After some digging, I discovered the trouble was that their message answering a question anyone was asking.
With help from their team, we went all the way back to the fundamental concepts that underlay their thinking, language and actions. As a result, we came to a clearer and deeper understanding of where their work fit into the bigger picture. Now, they’re starting to communicate in ways that connect with people and address actual concerns.
It’s a typical work day. Where can we find you?
In the early days, it was either coffee shops or my house. I needed to get out of the coffee shops for a couple reasons: I was surrounded by people but couldn’t talk to them and I was drinking way too much coffee.
Today, I work at CoCo, a coworking space in downtown Minneapolis. The historic trading floor of the Minneapolis Grain Exchange has been converted into a beautiful shared office space half a city block long with windows 3 stories tall. It’s the most wonderful, inspirational place I can imagine working in.
Inspiration or perspiration?
Bit of a trick question because it’s both. I think people tend to think about one more than the other, constitutionally.
Who is your role model?
I have so much respect for my friend Rick at Ashton Construction. He’s been working to help my husband and me finish out basement for a while now. Not only is he a wonderful human being, he’s also really really skilled at the work he does. And more than that, he operates with immense integrity in his business dealings. He prides himself on being fair and evenhanded, he clearly loves what he does, and he’s exceptionally good at it. That’s exactly how I want to be in my business.
Do you have a motivational mantra or inspirational quote that helps you get you out of bed in the morning?
I frequently come back to a passage I remember well from my Catholic upbringing:
Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all. (I Corinthians 12:4-6)
All of us have different types of work to do, but they’re all equally worth doing, and equally inspired. Nobody’s work is less important than anybody else’s and everyone’s work is needed.
Work-Life balance is *tough* for a small business owner. How do you stay balanced?
Here at CoCo I have a membership where I have to leave by 6 p.m. every day. I could go up to the next membership tier if I wanted, but I keep it at this level on purpose to make sure I’m always getting home for dinner. I still might have to do work in the evenings and on weekends but I try and keep it to a minimum.
Honestly, when I first started out I’d feel guilty if I wasn’t available to my clients around the clock; I’d take it as some sort of personal failure. As time’s passed, I’ve realized it’s totally ok for me to say ‘sorry can’t do that for you now—I’m going home, but I’ll get to it first thing tomorrow morning’. It’s stopped being as difficult when I realized that my value as a human isn’t derived from my work.
What’s next for Neil Chudgar?
The truth is I have no idea. In my last career, I was very much in charge and always knew what the next milestone was. The work I’m doing now is not at all what I would have predicted. I try to stay loose and flexible and just see what my clients actually need help talking and thinking about. This strategy always uncovers a set of problems that I find intensely compelling.
So I guess my strategy is not to have a strategy. Just to keep doing good work and saying yes whenever I can. And if something doesn’t line up with my values, I’ll say no. It’s worked beautifully so far.
Neil can do clapping push-ups and one-armed pull-ups, and he’ll be happy to show you (whether you ask him to or not).
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about the author
Amanda is a content editor at FreshBooks, writing and producing blog content to help small business owners achieve their goals and enjoy (yes, actually enjoy!) running their business. Amanda’s background in education and customer support makes her a natural communicator who loves empowering others to succeed. When she’s not writing and editing content, Amanda takes her dog, Jonny, on adventures searching for the best coleslaw in Toronto.