Moving Forward: Turning Unemployment To An Opportunity With David Shriner-Cahn


Losing your job can be a shock. One minute you're employed in a stable profession, and the next, you're jobless. Tony Martignetti sits down for a talk with David Shriner-Cahn, entrepreneur, podcaster, and consultant, about pivot points and moving forward. David talks about the challenges he experienced on his road to his current career, sharing the lessons he learned from the adversities in his way. He also talks about his experiences being unemployed, how he felt when he lost his first job, and how he learned to face up to its problems. Shattering the ceiling and turning unemployment into opportunity, join David in this episode to gain wisdom on pivoting and moving forward.


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Moving Forward: Turning Unemployment To An Opportunity With David Shriner-Cahn

It is my honor to introduce you to my guest, David Shriner-Cahn. David is a thriving entrepreneur, podcaster, and speaker. He's guiding highly skilled professionals who are recovering from a late-career job loss, and who yearn to impact the world with their knowledge and creativity by becoming successful entrepreneurs. He lives in New York with his wife in an empty nest after raising two kids who are now impacting the world through their own things that they're doing.


I want to welcome you, David, to the show.

Thank you so much, Tony,

Thank you for coming on. I'm looking forward to digging into your story because I know that the things that you're doing now are coming from a lifetime of making an impact in the corporate world. We're going to share your story, know what's on your mind these days, and how you're making an impact with the things you're doing.

Thank you.

To give you a little insight and to share with others how we roll on the show, we will tell your story through what's called flashpoints. These are points in your story that revealed your gifts to the world. There might be one or there may be many. As you're telling your story, we'll pause along the way and see what's showing up. With that, I'm going to turn it to you and allow you to share what you are called to share.

Thank you for your introduction. I live in New York. My family has evolved. My kids are grown up. You can guess that I've been in the working world for a lot of years. Essentially, my career has a few major buckets. Twenty-eight years as an employee. I've been an entrepreneur for several years. The flashpoints for me, career-wise, I studied Chemical Engineering. I have a Master's in Chemical Engineering from Cornell. I worked as an engineer for a few years. The first flashpoint was a job termination after I had got a very good performance review and a nice raise. It was about a month after that. My boss calls me into his office and he says, "David, I have good news and bad news. The good news is you're doing a good job. The bad news is you don't have a job." I'm like, "I didn't see this coming." It's nice to know that I was doing a good job, but it's not so nice to know that I'm unemployed.

It's really important for professionals to always have alternative plans.

It’s funny how the world pushes you to make some choices. Even though Engineering is a difficult discipline to study, it's not the easiest curriculum. I remember freshman year, one of our first events that had the whole Engineering school, the professor that was leading it said, "Look to your left and look to your right. One of the three of you won't be here in four years." It was true. A lot of Engineering students, usually they'll switch to another major. You're taking 4 or 5 technical subjects every semester. Almost none of them is easy. It's a tough curriculum. The good news is that you get out of school, you get a job, and you're well-paid right from the beginning compared to most other people. You have a profession. The reality is I was not so gung-ho into this profession. I knew that. Even though I did reasonably well in school and as a worker, I was probably not in the top 1%, but certainly, top 10% or 20%. I was certainly competent in my job. That was clear from the feedback that I got from my supervisors.

When I got that news, I was like, "I'll try to get another job." At that time, I was living in the Boston area. There weren't a lot of jobs for Chemical Engineers in Greater Boston. At least in those days, there were Engineering jobs, but they tended to be the beginning of the digital economy. It was a slightly different profession. The job opportunities would have required us to relocate, which we didn't want to do, and relocate to the places we didn't want to live. I was newly married at that point. I remember going on a job interview to a light bulb factory outside of Cleveland. I'm like, "A, I don't want to work in a light bulb factory. B, we don't want to live in the outskirts of Cleveland.” It forced me to do some soul searching. It's the trigger for me. Honestly, it was more than a year of unemployment at that point, which was excruciatingly painful.

A friend of mine recommended a personal development program. They weren't as popular then as they are now. I knew nothing about this, but I checked it out and decided to do it. I also remember it was expensive, but I found it rewarding. I ended up taking what I had learned. Within two months, I had a job offer to work in the not-for-profit sector, which was so much more personally rewarding. The job was in New York. We got to move to a place that we had both been living before. Her family was closer. We were happy about making the move as opposed to going to suburban Cleveland. The work that I ended up doing was much more satisfying. I ended up staying in the same field for over twenty years. That's where I developed a lot of leadership and management skills.

Pretty much everything that I learned about leadership management, I learned through different kinds of professional development programs while I was working. I got to be good at it. The second flashpoint was after being in the field for over twenty years, I had plateaued in my job. I couldn't go up any higher in the organization I was in. There were some changes going on above me that gave some indication that there was going to be a duplication of my skill set. It was not a performance issue for me, but it looked like my job might be in jeopardy. At that point, I was way more aware of these kinds of things. You learn the first time. I was much older and had seen a lot in the workplace by then. I had to make a decision about what I wanted to do next. I liked the fields. I wanted to stay serving the not-for-profit sector.

The question was, did I want to go on to a higher position, which would have been a CEO role in another nonprofit agency? I had that entrepreneurial itch for a long time. I hired a lot of consultants in my work when I was in the not-for-profit sector. I knew a lot about what they did. I thought, "I want to be a consultant." That was the next move that I wanted to make. Again, the trigger was that I was told that my job was over. I knew that it was coming, but still it was traumatic when it happened, anyway. I did start a consulting business. The rest is entrepreneurial history.

We're going to dig into that. Every time you lose a job and go through that process, it gets easier after you've been through it a few times because you're more prepared to deal with the aftermath. I don't think it necessarily loses its shock. It's still shocking and a moment where you're like, "I thought the world is this and now it's this. This is the way things were. Now, I have to plan for some alternative future." That is why it takes your breath away. It makes you rethink what you thought you knew about the world.

Tony, what you just said is one of the keys to getting through these transitions better, which is having alternative plans. I believe that it's important for professionals to always have alternative plans. It's like you don't want to be deciding where the exit is when there's a fire. You want to have the fire drill when there's no fire so that you know exactly what you're going to do when stuff happens.

I'd love to dig into more of how you're helping people through that process. I'd like to take us back a bit and talk about what brought you into Chemical Engineering in the first place. Was there something about your upbringing that you said, "This is what I want to do?" What brought you into that space in the first place? Was there something that excited you about that? Was there some family history in that space?

There was family history. My father worked as an Engineer. I did better in Math and Science in high school than I did in Humanities. It seemed natural for me to study something that was more Math and Science-based in college. Honestly, I was strongly encouraged by my parents to consider Engineering because it was perceived to be fairly safe or risk-averse. I come from a family that was very risk-averse, not entrepreneurial, which is part of the reason why it took me 2/3 of my career to become an entrepreneur.

It’s funny when I asked a question but it's also part of what I'm trying to lean into and understand more. There are so many people who are reading and their environment shapes them. It shaped them into what they believe and what they think is possible. If you grew up in a risk-averse environment, taking a risk is catastrophic. It's not possible. It does not compute. When you started to think about going into nonprofit, I think about it for a moment and I say, "Here's somebody who had this job in an Engineering field and then moved into nonprofit. It's quite a leap."

It’s quite a leap. I got some interesting reactions from people. From my first job, it was a decrease in compensation. Although in the corporate sector, you can make more money as an employee than you can in the not-for-profit sector, at the upper levels, but for mid-level jobs, the disparity isn't as much as you think.

There's also something about working in a not-for-profit that scratches another itch, which is to say that you're not just measuring yourself based on your salary. I'm asking this as a question ultimately. Does it fill another purpose or it fills a purpose of feeling good about the work you do?

The reality is if you're earning enough to support your lifestyle, then what difference does it make?

It's a question that we all have to ask each other from time to time is what matters? What is it all for? What's most important to me right now? Is it the money, the paycheck or some bigger purpose that I want to serve? I love the question that comes down to it is, what's my contribution? Would you agree?

It's funny how the world pushes you to make some choices.

Yes. One of the biggest regrets people have towards the end of their lives is actions that they hadn't taken earlier, particularly actions that have an impact. Their regrets are very rarely about how much income they brought in or how much they have accumulated in assets. The regrets are almost always about other things.

I want to take it back now to where we last left off in terms of your story. Here you are, you decided that your job is being eliminated. In essence, it's going away. You decide you want to become a consultant. Tell me what happens. How do you decide to go about it?

It was a decision but I didn't have any clients, no business structure, and no clear business model. When I think back on it, there was an idea and a rough plan but there were a lot of details that were missing. Like with many people, I did start getting clients. It’s what usually happens with the consultants. It came through relationships and people I knew. I started to develop positioning for my business which was related to my skill set. My skillset in the not-for-profit sector was management, operations, and finances. I had some clients that needed help in their operations, doing some business planning, and organizational development. Those are all areas that I had a lot of experience in.

One of the things that I often hear people say when they come into the space of consulting is getting very clear about what you truly can bring to the table. I can imagine that when you started this process, you had to dig in and say, "What is it that I'm truly gifted at? What did I learn in my career that I can bring to the table?" That sounds like what you did. Did that evolve or change over time? Did you find it’s like, “Rinse, wash, and repeat?”

It evolved quite a bit. One of the pivot points happened about a year into my business. A friend of mine, who was a social worker, had worked at agencies for 30 years also ended up starting her own business after a job loss. She invited me to come visit her at the BNI chapter. I knew nothing about business networking. I walked into the room. I was like, "I have to get up and give a 60-second pitch about myself. I've never done anything like this.” I got through that, but I saw the power of structured networking, particularly when you're in a business like I was in which word of mouth referrals was key to business development. I ended up joining.

Interestingly enough, within about 4 or 5 months, I got invited to be on the leadership team. I was like, "I'm new to this whole thing and they want me to be in a leadership team. Why not?” I was skilled at managing groups of people. That was one of the things that I had done a lot in my work before that. That worked out well. A few months later, one of the members who ran a small business asked me for help with his business. I'm like, "What do I know about running a small business?" He said, "You can do this." I ended up helping him with his business. He and his partner wanted to do a capital expansion for a service business. I brought a friend of mine into work with me on it, who was a brilliant consultant. We create a little mathematical model for the expansion and looked at the marketing. It was clear that they were going to invest a lot of money and it probably wasn't going to work.

That's a tough message to learn.

We saved them from a big loss. That was the first private business client and then others asked me. I started picking up more small business clients. I realized that there wasn't much difference between the nonprofit organizations that I had been used to serving and privately held businesses. As a matter of fact, privately held businesses are way less complex to run than nonprofits. In nonprofits, you have this weird triangle where you have the people you serve, staff that are providing the services, and another group of stakeholders who provide the money. The decision-making is way more complex than in a small private business where you have customers who make the decisions about buying and paying the bills and the company that's providing the products or services. The decision-making process is way simpler in a business.

I was thinking the same thing that nonprofits sometimes get that people think, "Nonprofit, we don't take it seriously." In reality, it's a great place to learn the business, how to get things done, how to lead effectively, come out of nonprofit, and then come into more of a commercial business. It allows you to take that to the next level, which is to see how to apply those lessons in a different setting. I'm sure that's where you shine.

I had a podcast guest early on in my podcasting days who was a marketing specialist. He said, "If you want to learn how to market, lead a group of volunteers in a nonprofit and try to get them to do things."

Tell me more. What happened as you move forward in this business? Were there any other pivot points along that business, or now, this is what you're doing?

There were more pivot points. Content creation was the next major pivot point. I looked around at other consultants that served small organizations like I did. I looked to see what they were doing that I wasn't doing. It was content creation. I started the blog. This was several years ago. That started to create some greater visibility. I went from the blog to the podcast in 2014. The first podcast that I launched was Smashing the Plateau, which I'm still hosting many hundreds of episodes later, which where we focused initially on my specialty, which was implementation. I found that there were a lot of podcasts about startups. There was a lot about marketing and sales. I didn't see that there was a whole lot about what it takes to be successful as an entrepreneur, which is focus, discipline, and perseverance. Perseverance being a major one. That was the theme of the show.

Podcasting changed my networking big time. It changed my relationship building because now it's connecting with people from all over the world as you and I met through podcasting. We're not in the same city. We've never met in person. Post-COVID, people are getting more used to doing a lot more things online. In 2014, this wasn't the case. As a matter of fact, I don't think Zoom existed yet when I started podcasting. Everything we were doing was just audio. I used Skype for many years to record. Even though you could turn your video on, most people didn't have the bandwidth to be able to hold a good signal with video and audio, so we use the audio. Podcasting changed who I was interacting with. This is several years ago, I reflected on who was in my network? Who were the podcast guests? What did we talk about? Who was in the audience? It was mostly consultants, coaches, and solopreneurs that ran these unique service businesses that were based on the skill set of the owner.

I also observed that, like me, many of these people had jobs before they went out on their own. As I looked into it, I saw that there was perhaps a niche that I could serve that I wasn't focusing on, which is how you make that transition that I made in 2006. I sent out an email to my list. It was the most opened email ever sent out. I was thinking about focusing on this. I would be interested in hearing reactions and talking to people. I got a lot of responses. I set up a lot of one-on-one calls. I discovered that many of the people that I already knew that had to have a corporate career and then became a consultant or a coach. What I didn't know was that many of them made the transition when they got fired because they didn't talk about it. I discovered that not only was this a common occurrence and there was probably a need to do something. I started another podcast called, Going Solo, to talk about the transition. One of the things that I discovered once I launched the podcast and through all these discussions is there's a lot of shame and guilt around making the transition if you are told that your job has ended, as opposed to you're doing it proactively.

Somebody else's breakthrough is what we notice after they have taken hundreds or maybe thousands of steps and pivots.

It's still an uncomfortable conversation when you say it years later. Sometimes, you say like, "My job was eliminated." You want to come from a place of power or a place of like, "I decided that this was the case.” It's very rarely the case that is what happens.

That's now the audience that I serve. It’s people who have gone through the transition from employee to self-employed. They're selling their expertise and they're trying to create an impact on their terms.

Get rid of the shame of it's okay to be let go and create your impact on your terms.

It can make it much more powerful, too.

Podcasting has worked out positively for you in terms of being able to amplify your message and be able to impact people's lives because you're bringing people on and helping them to get their messages out there, which is powerful. Beyond the podcast, the work that you're doing with people is helping them to launch businesses to make sure the business is going in the right direction. Tell me more about the work that you're doing right now with entrepreneurs and getting them to be successful.

The people that go from employee to self-employed make some mistakes. The mistakes are not necessarily what you think they might be. One of them is not being clear and honest with themselves about what it is they want. One of the things as an employee, you put yourself in a box that's been created by the employer. You get used to ignoring your desires so that you can succeed as an employee. As an entrepreneur, the whole purpose of being an entrepreneur is so that you can fulfill your own desires. You've got to be honest with yourself about what those desires are. People that create successful consulting coaching businesses often get to a place where they're busy. They're making money, but they feel like their business is running them instead of them running their business, and they feel like they have a glorified job.

The reason is they're not being clear with themselves and what the whole purpose of starting their businesses like what is it they want? Who do they want to serve? What kinds of hours do they want to work? How many hours do they want to work? How much money did they want? How much money do they want and need to make? What's the money for? There are some bigger questions that they need to answer. They've got to be clear on what their goals and objectives are. If they can do that before they start their business, they're so much better off. Their goals and objectives may change over time but being honest with themselves about what it is you want to do and why can set the stage for greater success earlier. That's number one. It’s clear on your purpose.

The second thing is, as you think about what it is you love doing most, what's your most confident in doing, who you want to serve, and what you think they need and want, you've got to do market research. Too many people are afraid to ask their target audience what they want. As a consultant or coach, people are afraid to do this but you're much better off having some discussions with people in your target audience about this and sell them something before you create it. If you're a skilled expert, creating it is the easy part. You will be able to do it. Selling it is probably much harder, so find the people who want it, sell it, then create it. That is another mistake. People will spend a lot of time creating a website and programs before they try to sell them and then they get disappointed when nobody buys them. That's an important thing.

As part of the mix, you've got to be clear on what kind of business model you want. There are different kinds of business models or different ways of making money and there are different ways of pricing. You can create a business as an example where the business is primarily about you and your personal brand. In which case, you've got to develop a strong personal brand. Your clients are going to want FaceTime with you. You're going to have to be on a lot. On the flip side, you can create the same impact with the same clients by creating a team where the team does all the work and all you're doing is setting things up and running it. You have more of a lifestyle business where you may not have to work very many hours if you set it up right. It might take longer to set up because you got to build the whole team and everything, but then, you can spend a lot of time on the beach. You got to be clear on what business model is going to serve that.

I listened and I'm thinking to myself like, “How many of these mistakes that I make in the early days of starting my business and realizing that because I did them wrong and I had to fix them.” That's also a message here too because you didn't necessarily have it right or don't get it right the first time, it doesn't mean you can't correct the course. Anything can be fixed.

There's no right and wrong in entrepreneurship.

I also love the fact that everything you described is a lesson that you learn along the journey where you say like, "Once I get crystal clear about what I want, what I truly want for the people around me and the people I truly want to serve, it somehow starts to come together." You start to work less hard. It’s not about hard work but smarter work. Things start to come more aligned. There's a certain feeling that I got when I started hearing you describe this. There was so much struggle in the early days of starting things out because of the fact that there wasn't that clarity around. What do I want for me? What am I trying to create for me? That's what everyone else who's reading or anyone else who goes in this journey struggles with. They don't necessarily set that path for themselves. I appreciate you sharing that. I want to ask one more question around this. What are the lessons you've learned about yourself along this journey that you want to share with people? What have you learned in this journey to becoming who you are now?

Be less afraid to take risks. Have the courage to take the first step. The first step is always the hardest. Figure out ways to set up a structure to force you to take that first step. If you're not taking a step that makes you uncomfortable, you're not growing. When you feel discomfort, that's a good sign. It means you're probably doing something where you're going to grow. You may discover that your first step provides some results that are not what you want. That's okay. Be clear on what are your criteria for success. How would you measure that? Make sure you take time to reflect. Look at your metrics. If it's not working the way you want, where can you change it? Especially in the online world, there's a lot of attention paid to "breakthroughs." You see all these successes that are thrown at you in marketing messages. The reality is that somebody else's breakthrough is what we notice after they have taken hundreds or maybe thousands of steps and pivots. I've yet to find somebody who has had a breakthrough where it has happened just like that.

There's rarely an overnight success.

The first step is always the hardest. Be less afraid to take risks. Have the courage to take the first step.

There's rarely a success that somebody has made on her or his own.

That's a very consistent theme throughout a lot of the guests on my show. We don't go it alone. We have a lot of people support us, sometimes invisibly and sometimes very visibly lifting us up and sharing the journey with us. I have one last question for you. What are some books that have had an impact on you on your journey and why?

The ONE Thing by Gary Keller. It's a classic. A very simple idea which where the 80/20 rule in business and life. 80% of our success comes from 20% of our activity. How do we dial down and find that 20% to work on over the course of a year, month, week, or day? Make sure that we're conscious and careful of how we use our time because that's our most precious commodity. We can all make more money. We can't make more time to 24 hours in a day and 168 hours in a week. You're not going to be working all the time, I hope. You're going to be sleeping and doing some personal things as well.

There's a book that I read. It's a fascinating book by a friend of mine. Michael Schein wrote The Hype Handbook. He describes him as the world's most notorious con artist. The following they have created from demagogues, politicians, people in business, and people in the arts. What do they do to create influence? He's distilled it down to a dozen principles that are fascinating. If you're self-employed, it's a worthwhile read because it'll give you some insight into some things you may not think about in terms of your own marketing and positioning.

I'm going to pick that book up. I feel like I've heard of it before but the way you described it sounds like it's right up my alley. I'm a huge fan of The ONE Thing. Some books, just by the title alone, you know that they're onto something. The ONE Thing sums it all up right there. The focus that comes from focusing on that one thing and how big of an impact being so intentional and the 80/20 rule. It’s so powerful. I can't thank you enough for sharing those recommendations, but also the insights, stories, and everything has been so powerful. I'm leaving with a lot of great insights and I know the people who are reading are too. Thank you so much, David. This has been powerful.

Thank you so much for allowing me to share some of my story, Tony.

Before we let you go, I want to make sure we give people an opportunity to find out where they can find out more about you. What's the best place?

They can go to our website, which is also the name of 1 of my 2 podcasts. I'm active on LinkedIn. If you search for David Shriner-Cahn, I'm the only one who's going to come up.

Thank you again. Thanks to readers for coming on the journey. It has been a powerful hour. I appreciate it.

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About David Shriner-Cahn

I’m David Shriner-Cahn, host of Smashing the Plateau. I started my business, TEND Strategic Partners, in 2006, following a long career as an employee. Beginning my professional life as a chemical engineer, I transitioned into the not-for-profit sector, where I was in leadership and management roles for many years.

Once I was in my own business, I realized I had much to learn about how to be a successful entrepreneur. I discovered that it can be lonely, too. I gained knowledge and support being around other entrepreneurs.

In 2014, we launched Smashing the Plateau to share the stories, experiences and strategies of entrepreneurs that strive for long-term success. We have hundreds of episodes addressing a wide variety of topics and challenges faced every day by entrepreneurs.

In 2019, we added Going Solo to share strategies for highly-skilled professionals to build their own business following a late career job loss.

If you need help finding a solution – or have a question about a challenge you are facing – please get in touch with me. We are here to serve our listeners, and I’d love to have a chance to hear your story.

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