Influencers & Profiles

Why women leave (the corporate world): Kate Dinon

Zoe Dattner /

For anyone who’s only ever worked for someone else and has had that daydream about breaking out to start their own thing, it can be a painful, frustrating thought process.

Deciding what you want to do, what you’re good at and how to make it work, coupled with anxiety about money, failure and everything in between, has halted many a pioneer in their tracks.

Kate Dinon is someone who has met this challenge with considered method and clarity of thought, to make the bold move of changing a career to start a business.

Who: Kate Dinon

What: Kate Dinon Brand Strategy and PR

Elevator pitch: I run my own public relations and brand consulting agency working with big brands and technology startups.

What lead you here?

A few things. One was wanting to manage my lifestyle, to manage a life that suited my personal passions; my family, wanting to maintain friendships, travel when I wanted.

And secondly, it allows me to work with whichever people I want or whatever projects I find interesting. So it gives me total freedom and control.

What were you doing before this that made you feel like those sorts of things weren’t accessible to you?

I spent my entire twenties working in corporates. I started at BHP Billiton working in HR, which was amazing. I learned a lot in a short period of time because I had a global role. I got to travel, and run global programs, and work with people from all over the world, which was great.

And then I moved to a comms role when I moved overseas. I just had much more of an affinity for communications than I did with HR, so I naturally felt it was more suited to my personality and my interests.

But it was still within the confines of a corporation. There was quarterly reporting cycles, and daily disclosure requirements, being aware of what the market was doing, and what the commodity price was doing. So there was always something that was outside of my own control.

As much as I loved the experience of it, I didn’t like the elements of being always on 24/7. 

What was happening in your life at the time that lead you to thinking, “I’m going to get out of here and start my own business”?

It was a lot of things coming together. It was having worked in the corporate environment for 12 years. It had got to the point where I’d taken all the learning I could from that environment for my career and I didn’t need the confines of a corporate anymore to keep learning.

The second thing was we moved back to Australia, so there was a blank piece of paper in front of me. Those two things lead me to think about starting my own business. My husband had a job, so we had financial security from that perspective. I’m not sure I would have done it if he didn’t have a job. I needed to have that safety net.

Or I thought I did. In reality I didn’t, but I thought I did.

You thought you needed a safety net, but in hindsight you think you could have done it without one?

I’m not earning as much as I was when I was in the corporate world. But I don’t judge the value of my life on money alone. So while I’m not earning as much financially, I’ve made a lifestyle — so much fun, every day, what I do — and I employ people, so I feel like that’s a better net result.

So when I say I could have done it without a safety net, what I mean is that I got up to a relatively good annual income quicker than I thought I would. I thought it would take me a good two-to-three years to build up a client list and income, but it happened a lot quicker than that.

What are some of the scarier moments — or challenging moments — of running a business that you’ve experienced?

The more challenging moments are, boringly, administration. Not having departments you can just push stuff off too.

So, insurances, payroll tax, BAS, all the things that you leave at the bottom of you to-do list. Employment contracts — any contract or insurance policy I find quite challenging to make myself look at. And then to apply myself to making sure it’s done thoroughly and properly. It’s just not my natural strong suit.

I think a lot of people who run businesses say that as well. I don’t think anyone likes doing it. It’s a very particular mindset that people have.

And it’s crazy, when you think about how many people run small businesses!

So what I have come to really appreciate is my network of fellow small business owners, particularly other women who run PR agencies that I’ve become friends with. Whenever I’ve had to recruit in this way I’ll say, “Who’s a good bookkeeper? Who’s a good employment lawyer who could deal with this? Tell me about a good insurance policy, what do you pay on your public liability …?”

So I’ve got a good network of people that I can ask. And I have proactively sought out other PR agency owners that I could befriend so that I could have these conversations.

And is that something you feel is a little different from the way the corporate world behaves? In terms of seeking out these relationships and developing a support network around you?

Definitely. One of the biggest differences for me is that in a corporate everything is handed to you on a plate. You’re not hungry, you’re not out there worrying how you’re going to meet your targets or pay your staff. You’ve got a salary, you’ve got work to do, you’ve got other departments who can help you.

So, I think that it just leads to quite an inward looking approach. Whereas with your own business, all you do is go out there and meet people every day, talk to people, refer other people work. You get referrals. It’s just the way all the good things happen — it comes through your network.

And particularly in your line of business, that’s part and parcel, because what you’re doing is so much about relationships. What advice would you give to women who are running businesses for whom that does not come naturally? Who are pretty isolated?

First thing I would do is reach out to other female business owners in a similar line of work to you. Even if you do feel like you’re competitors. There’s always enough work out there for good people. So reach out to people who are already doing what you do. People whose work you admire, who you think you might be able to refer work to from time to time and vice versa.

Second thing is, proactively reach out to people who you would consider to be influential in your broader network, and find a meaningful way to engage them that benefits both of you. And if you can’t think of what that thing is right now, then just wait. They’re on your radar, at the top of your mind, something will come up and you’ll have a genuine reason to reach out to them.

You don’t have to go out and meet 20 people at once. You just have to meet a couple of people every year who can have a real impact on your business.

That’s excellent advice. And also manageable — that whole idea that it only has to be a couple of people rather than thinking, “I’ve gotta turn up at 5 different big networking events…”

Yeah, that’s the wrong way to go about it. You’re better off thinking, who are the three to five people that would really make a difference to your business, if you had a relationship with them? Then find meaningful ways to engage those people.

As opposed to going to one event per week or whatever. Be a bit more strategic in how you set those networking goals.

What kind of encouragement would you give women who are in safe, highly paid roles in the corporate world who perhaps hanker for what you’ve been talking about. What advice would you give them about making this leap?

You have to be really clear about what value you add in the world outside of your organisation. Because once you’re stripped away from having those walls around you, there’s so many people that you’re competing with. You need to be really clear about what you do and why you do it better than anyone else.

It takes a couple of years before the phone starts ringing. You have to be prepared to hustle every day, and to get a lot of nos, and to keep doing it, keep finding people that get what you’re doing and find ways to help them.

Until people are paying you, just help people as much as you can and it will come back to you.

But do that before you leave the corporate. Before you make the jump, if you want to make the transition a bit easier, do that research, where you find out who the five people are that will meaningfully impact your business if you had a relationship with them and work to build that relationship before you make the jump, if that’s an option.

And finding out what your value is to the world, what you can contribute, what you’re good at — how does one attempt to answer that question if you haven’t thought about it much before?

If you’re already thinking about going out on your own you should have some sense of what it is that you’ll be doing. And within that, really, list down all the knowledge you have, all the brands that you’ve worked with, all the projects that you’ve worked on, depending on what it is and what field you’re in. What are all of the elements that make up your knowledge and the experience that you bring to the table today? Then hopefully when you look at that you’ll be able to start clustering some things together, see some areas that make sense.

That’s what I did, before I started my business, to figure out exactly how I was going to position myself.

So mine was a mix, initially, of my passions and my experience. So I said, I’m going to do PR for the resources, industrial and arts sectors, which is a really bizarre mix. But it was a mix of what I knew, and that’s how I positioned myself. It’s moved on from there, and that’s fine. What you say on day one doesn’t have to be what you say in year four, but going out and being able to articulate what you can do and who you want to do it with is really important.

So, is this a choice you’ve made forever?

Nothing is forever! Ever. I would never say never to going back in-house somewhere one day, because I think corporates are also changing. I think they’re being forced to. The culture that exists within some corporates today, it won’t be like that in five or 10 years time.

There’s always going to be room for amazing brands and amazing organisations, and I just want to keep learning. 

So right now I’m very happy doing what I’m doing, and I have no plans to change. But you never know…

Read about why W Health and Fitness founder Sarah Wills left the corporate world, and what made Mary Morton take her “leap of faith”

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Zoe Dattner

Zoe Dattner is the publisher of SmartCompany and StartupSmart.