Teacher turned marketer Alex Spencer of Prezzybox shares her perspectives on the importance of climbing the right career ladder in episode 78 of the Career Relaunch® podcast. She explains how taking a temporary hit to her salary was worth it to her in the long run because it ultimately gave her the chance to do work she found more meaningful. We also discuss the true measures of your professional success and satisfaction (hint–it’s not just salary!) and the importance of being selective and specific about your next target role.
During this episode’s Mental Fuel segment, I talked about how money can understandably stop people from making the changes they want in their careers. If you’re thinking about making a career change, but a potential salary drop is standing in your way, try to get crystal clear on what exact, temporary salary decrease you could stomach, both practically and psychologically.
What salary decrease wouldn’t have a significant impact on your ability to do the important things you want to do in your life and career? What is that exact figure? Do the math, and write it down. Maybe seeing that number can help you clarify exactly what is and is not possible when considering your next move.
Alex Spencer started her career as an English lecturer teaching 16-18 year olds at a further education college in England, but eventually changed career paths to become a PR and Marketing Executive at the online gift retailer Prezzybox. On the side, she also freelances as a content writer and volunteers for NOW-U, a non-profit organization helping to tackle some of the world’s most pressing environmental and social problems. And she’s also the mum to one.
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Teaser (first ~15s): A nice job title and a high salary isn’t all that you need to make you happy. You need to do something that gives you energy and gives you joy and brings you happiness. You’re not going to get that no matter how high your salary is if you’re not happy in what you’re doing.
Joseph: Okay. Good morning, Alex, and welcome to Career Relaunch. It is great to have you on the show.
Alex: [02:35] Thank you so much for having me. It’s great to be here. Thank you.
Joseph: We got a lot to cover today. I want to talk about your time as a teacher and how you made the shift into marketing. But, I would love to start by getting a glimpse into what is keeping you busy right now in your career and your life.
Alex: [02:53] At home, I have a husband and daughter who is only 16 months. She’s just started walking, so she takes up an awful lot of time and energy. She is the most wonderful thing but she is always on the go. I’m surprised that I do have the energy to work alongside it. Somehow, I managed to go to work for Prezzybox. We’re one of the leading online gift retailers in the UK. I work as a marketing and PR executive at Prezzybox. They are just a wonderful company to work for. I can’t praise them highly enough. I’m, at the moment, trying to focus on learning as much as I can about marketing, the broad sort of spectrum really of SEO, PR, social content marketing. That’s what I’m focused on at the moment, learning as much as I can.
Joseph: For those people who are not super familiar with the geography of the UK, can you give a glimpse into where you’re based and what you’re setup is there?
Alex: [03:50] I live in the Midlands. I can’t say where it is but nobody would ever heard of where I live because it’s a very small town in the Midlands. Essentially, I live near to Derby, quite near to Birmingham, and about two hours from London, just to give it some context. It’s quite nice and quiet where we live in the Midlands. And then, I work in Warwickshire, again in the Midlands, in a converted farmhouse. We have office dogs and goats, which is interesting, to say the least.
Joseph: Oh, wow! You’ve got quite the scenic setup over there then?
Alex: [04:20] It’s certainly nowhere near a city. Not the sort of typical office block that you would imagine. It’s basically a farmhouse, sort of down a country lane. We have a big field outside, and that’s where the office goats and dogs currently reside. Although, we’re not in the office at the moment. We’re going in a little bit. Obviously, with the pandemic, we were remote working. We started to go back in a little bit, but not fully so we are all missing the animals quite a lot. Although, they are being taken care of, just in case anyone was panicking about that.
Joseph: I’ve heard of office dogs. I have to say, Alex, this is the first time I’ve ever heard of an office goat.
Alex: [05:00] Yeah.
Joseph: Check that out, at some point.
Alex: [05:04] We like to do things differently.
Joseph: You mentioned you’re working in marketing and PR right now. I know you haven’t always worked in that sector. Can we go back in time a little bit and start from the beginning? Can you tell us about your time as a teacher and what you were focused on? The types of students you were teaching at the time, and then we’ll kind of go forward from there.
Alex: [05:22] I suppose my first, sort of what people might say, real job after university was a teacher. I was teaching in a further education college in the UK. Sixteen to 18-year-olds who’d just left compulsory education and are going on to study whatever they would like to study: engineering, travel and tourism, more vocational subjects. It was my job to teach them English. It’s a strange one. I wasn’t a teacher in the conventional sense. The students hadn’t quite managed to get the grades that the government likes them to get. The equivalent of a C grade. It was my job to teach them their English again. It was very interesting, because understandably, as a 16-year-old going into education, finally being able to choose what you want to do, and then to be told, “Oh, hang on a second. You’ve got to do your English again.” To many of those 16-year-olds, that’s quite frustrating understandably.
Joseph: Had you always wanted to become a teacher? How did you get into the field of teaching?
Alex: [06:35] No. My life is just a series of falling into things. Thankfully, now that I’ve fallen into marketing, I’ve kind of realized that this is what I want to do forever, and it’s the best thing that ever happened. But, in terms of teaching, in my interview — I was being interviewed for another position in the college, I mentioned that I might like to look into English teaching in the future. Fast forward, not even 24 hours, I’ve been offered a position as an English teacher. It was something that was on my mind, but not something that I just thought it’s my life ambition.
Joseph: You mentioned this is a further education college, and that these are 16- to 18-year-olds who were there learning English but didn’t necessarily want to be there learning English. Can you describe the student profile and the learning environment there?
Alex: [07:22] They were absolutely amazing young people. I learned so much from them. Their resilience, their thirst for learning was amazing. It’s just that, again, understandably, they wanted to be there to learn their chosen vocation. They wanted to be there to learn engineering or their desired electrical apprenticeships, employment apprenticeships, and all sorts of different vocational subjects that they were super interested in and they loved their subjects. But again, a requirement of doing those subjects was that they had to also, if they hadn’t got their C grade in English or Maths actually, they had to do English and Maths again. They would go to their classes, as usual, as normal. Go to their engineering classes, or travel and tourism classes, and then they would have a couple of hours with me per week. I don’t think it’s a couple of hours that they necessarily look forward to, but I did try my best to sort of make it as engaging as possible or as much as you possibly can do. Obviously, you have to follow the curriculum and you have to teach them to pass the exam, ultimately.
There’s only so much you can do and so much flexibility there. I did try as much as I can because I feel like with my personality, I tried to sort of form a bond with them as much as I possibly could. I did sort of completely sympathize with that position. I explain to them that I understand how frustrating that it must be to be told, “Okay. Go in that room now after two hours and do something you don’t want to do.” Especially, at that age, when you’re a teenager and you’re going into adulthood, it’s like you want that freedom and that autonomy. It felt like I was kind of taking that away from them, so I almost felt guilty about doing it. But, I was trying to help them in their future careers at the same time.
Joseph: At what point did it occur to you that teaching may not be what you wanted to do the rest of your life?
Alex: [09:11] To be honest, it was quite soon into me working as a teacher, which sounds crazy. Because many people say, “Well, why didn’t you just leave?” And, I understand that. But, I think the idea of being labeled as what is often seen as a negative thing, a job hopper or career hopper, I think that was what I was afraid of because I only just started it and thought, “Well actually, I’m quite good at it.” I’ve got loads of support from my colleagues. I thought, “I’ve got to make this work.” It’s a respected profession. I know I’d have job security. It was really difficult to know when the right time was. I think, in hindsight, probably should have done it, left sooner rather than later. I was so obsessed with not being labeled a “career hopper,” which I now realize is silly because you spend more time at work than you do with your family in your life, and you have to be happy with your job. Quite soon but it did take me a couple of years to make the leap.
Joseph: What was it like for you during those couple of years when you knew you weren’t in the right location but you couldn’t quite bring yourself to move on to something else?
Alex: [10:20] It’s really hard. Anyone who’s in the same position will know how hard it is because it’s a constant battle of wills of what is the right thing to do. Do you stay? Especially, if you’ve got what is seen by society as a respected career, and a safe career, and a secure career. Do you stay? Again, with the salary, decent salary. It wasn’t just the job title that I would be giving up, it was the salary as well. It was just a constant battle of, “What do I do? Do I try and stick it out? Is it going to get easier for me?”
I knew it wasn’t right. It didn’t feel right. Even though I feel I worked so hard to be a good teacher. It just never felt right. I knew pretty much, straight away, that it wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Other sort of factors, I guess pressure. The pressure that I thought I might face from other people sort of stopped me from doing that, until I started to do freelance copywriting work on the side, and that’s when everything changed.
Joseph: Yeah, let’s shift gears. Let’s talk a little bit about that. You started doing copywriting on the side. How did you get into that and how did you find your clients?
Alex: [11:32] The link between English teaching and marketing is quite strong because what you’re doing is creating content all the time for your students. You have to show them not only how to write fiction, but how to write nonfiction. We did a lot of creative marketing. Sort of leaflets and bits and bobs like that, and adverts. I loved that! I thought, “Hang on a second, I love doing this!” As much as I love the students as well, I thought, “This creating content and writing, surely, there’s got to be something in this. Maybe this is something that I need to focus on.” So, I started to freelance as a copywriter thinking, “Well, if nobody hires me, that’s fine. It’s not a full-time job.” I went on Upwork and started speaking to a lovely lady who I thought, “Oh, my gosh! She’s willing to pay me to write. This is crazy!” I did some content for her blog. That’s how it started.
I got a couple more clients and thought people are paying me to do this. Maybe it’s something that I can do full-time because that was the job that was giving me energy rather than taking it from me. I think if you’re coming home from work every day, feeling burnt out and feeling lethargic, and so tired, it’s a sign that things are not quite right.
Joseph: You mentioned Upwork. I’d like to talk about that for just a second for people who are not familiar with Upwork. Upwork is one of the many online freelancer marketplace platforms out there. There are, I guess, wow, tens of thousands of freelancers on these sites. How did you get started on Upwork? How did you build up your profile? Did you just literally put up a headshot, and then put up a quick description of yourself? Could you just give a glimpse into how you got started on that sort of a platform?
Alex: [13:15] It is daunting. Certainly because when you go on it, you realize how many thousands of freelancers you’re kind of competing with. I’d never been paid to write before. What I did was, I built up quite a sort of portfolio by creating content for my students. I kind of used that basically as a portfolio and put some work up. I think finding your niche is a really good way of going about it. I was interested in healthy eating and healthy living, and so that’s the angle that I went down. I searched for jobs that would involve creating content around that topic because it was something that I was genuinely interested in. That’s how I found my first client.
I think the fact that in my proposal to her I explained that enthusiasm. She said that that’s why I stood out because I didn’t just say, “Oh, well. I really like writing. Can I write for you?” I said, “I really like writing. Can I write for you? I really like the subject that your blog is about, and I think I can add a lot of value to it.”
Joseph: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I guess the temptation when you’re just getting started on these platforms, Alex, is to try to be everything to everyone. But, actually, by being more specific, it’s easier for people to understand what to do with you, and it’s easier to stand out. I guess as somebody myself who’s hired people on Upwork, I’m definitely looking for specialists who focus on a particular area. That’s a good point about that.
I also want to talk a little bit about how you went from this freelance work into the work you’re doing right now. I know you kind of walked me through this process but can you just tell me how you uncovered this opportunity to work more full-time in marketing?
Alex: [14:55] After a sort of maybe a couple of months of freelancing, it wasn’t very long at all. I started to look into full-time jobs, thinking “Okay. Well, I might have to take a pay cut, but I love doing it.” Like I said before, it’s something that gives me energy and makes me happy and makes me smile, rather than taking my energy from me. I thought there’s got to be something. Someone’s got to give me a shot, even though I’ve got no experience. Yes, I might be starting at the bottom of the ladder again. But, for me, it was completely worth it. So, I started to look into jobs, and I saw this position as a copywriter at Prezzybox.
Joseph: Where did you find the ad? Was it just on their website?
Alex: [15:33] It was on Indeed.
Joseph: So job recruitment platform.
Alex: [15:37] Yeah. I’ve not looked at many, but indeed was just one of the first ones that I looked at and looked for. A lot of copywriter positions were in London. And, because I live 2 1/2 hours away from London, that is just not something that I could do. There’s no way I could commute to London, even though that’s where all the jobs were and there was no way of me moving there. I was a bit hesitant about changing careers because I thought, “Well, there can’t be that many marketing positions in the Midlands.” But, little did I know, there’s plenty. I saw this copywriter position, and instead of just sending over a CV, which is what it asked for, I wrote. Prezzybox is an online gift retailer so we sell lots of awesome gifts. I went on the site and I did some product descriptions for some of the products that were on the site, sent them over to the managing director. He gave me an interview because I was the only one that had done that. I’ve gone above and beyond, and it’s not something that everyone has time for. But, if you can go above and beyond, obviously, of course, that’s going to make you stand out. That’s how I got the interview.
Joseph: That’s really interesting because I think it can be very daunting to try to approach a job application process as somebody who doesn’t necessarily come from that more traditional linear background. And then, you’re going into the interview itself, trying to sell yourself as somebody who can take on this role. Can you tell us a little bit about the interview and how that went for you?
Alex: [17:03] It’s very daunting, isn’t it? Very daunting, unless you’ve got lots of years of experience. Like you’re going into a room and saying, “Hi there. I haven’t done this before but I promise I could do it.” It’s a very bizarre situation. Especially for graduates, that’s just normal because I’d been out of uni for a few years. It was a difficult thing to do, to be honest, to start again. But, the interview was amazing, and Prezzybox is a very informal, sort of family-friendly environment. It wasn’t what I was expecting at all. I arrived dressed very formally with my portfolio in hand, my degree certificate, and all my qualifications. Thinking, “Okay. Well, I don’t know what this is going to be, but I’ll be prepared.” It was just more like a chat. The managing director was just amazing! He was so funny. He made me feel so at ease. It was the most fun I’ve ever had in an interview. I got my degree certificate and said, “Oh, you know, don’t you see it?” He just wasn’t interested, not in a negative way. It’s just that he valued enthusiasm more than pieces of paper. In fact, our Chief Operations Officer at the moment, he didn’t have any qualifications in marketing. He sort of started at the bottom at Prezzybox and worked his way right to the top. There, at Prezzybox, is more about you as a person and what you can bring to the company. They’re not so bothered about your qualifications.
Joseph: What happened after the interview?
Alex: [18:33] They were really interested in taking me on, but that was for a temporary position. I forgot to mention that. That would have been a temporary role for three months. I was having to make this really big decision. “Okay. Do I leave this secure permanent job that I’m quite good at?” And, I think I would have had job security there. Do I leave that and do I leave this respected profession to do something that my family didn’t even know? My family didn’t understand what copywriting was, which is fair. Because I don’t think I understood when I was at university or when I was younger what copyrighting in marketing was either. But, do I leave that secure job to do a temporary role and take a big pay cut as well? About £10,000 less at this job. It was a difficult one. Me and my husband had lots of long chats about it. Thinking, “Can we make this work? Is it the right decision? Is it sensible?” To be honest, it wasn’t sensible, but we made it work and I did it anyway. The rest is history. And now, I’m still there.
Joseph: I can see. You’re talking about some pretty major tradeoffs to consider there, which is permanent to temporary, you mentioned a major pay cut. What ultimately tipped the scales for you to decide that, “Yeah, I want to do this.”
Alex: [19:51] It’s a really tricky one because not everybody is in the position to take massive pay cut. It’s not something that everyone can do. But, if you are in a position to take a pay cut for something that you genuinely enjoy, it’s the best thing that I’ve ever done. Of course, you have to adapt in terms of your lifestyle if you’re taking a big pay cut. But, if you are happy when you get home from work and if you are doing a job that brings you joy, the two don’t compare. And also, you are going to progress, salary-wise, and in terms of your position much quicker in a career that you enjoy than a career that you’re just forcing to make work. That’s what I was doing with teaching. I was forcing it to work. Whereas, with this job, I just want to learn everything and I want to progress and I want to do this for the rest of my life. I’ve now worked my way up, back up to my previous salary. I think you could do that much easier if you are doing something that you really enjoy.
Joseph: I know that a lot of people, Alex, when they’re thinking about making a move a few years after already investing some time into one career, are very fearful of this idea. I think you prefer to of starting again or starting over. Can you just explain what that like was for you to start again in a career? Knowing that this is the career that you wanted to do but I’m just curious what that experience was like for you to “start over again.”
Alex: [21:15] It is very difficult because the question you asked about starting again, it was different for me because I haven’t been teaching for a couple of years. But, I imagine it’s even harder if you’ve got an established career and you’ve been there for however many years, it is never, ever too late to change. It is never too late to do something that you want to do. It’s never too late to try something new. I find it difficult because when this age of social media where everybody shares everything, it was quite tough sort of seeing my peers move up the ladder quicker than I was because, of course, I’d started again. That was quite tough. But, at the end of the day, it all comes back to I was going home happy. I was going home, not burnt out. I was going home thinking, “Okay. I didn’t have the Sunday night dread anymore,” which is what a lot of people experience. I enjoyed being at work. I enjoyed spending time with colleagues. It’s just a completely different experience. I’ve said this before, and I say it so much because it’s so true, you do spend more time at work than you do, in many instances, with your family and your friends. Life is way too short to be going to a job every day that you don’t enjoy, or that burns you out, or that makes you stressed. It’s just not worth it. This is a strange quote to pull out, but I was watching the UK version of “The Office” recently. Tim was speaking about his career change and he said, “It’s better to be at the bottom of a ladder you want to climb than halfway up one that you don’t.” And, I feel like that’s a perfect sort of analysis of what any career change, really. It’s better to be at the bottom of the ladder that you want to move up, of course, it is.
Joseph: That’s a good segue, Alex, into the last topic I was hoping to cover with you before we wrap up with what you’re focused on right now at Prezzybox. But, just some of the lessons that you’ve learned along the way and just your experience of relaunching your career. You had mentioned something about a topic that I think relates to what you just mentioned, which is that your job doesn’t feel like work anymore to you. What does it feel like to you?
Alex: [23:24] That’s an amazing question. It definitely doesn’t. I mean Prezzybox is wonderful. We have a fantastic work-life balance. We have very achievable targets. We’re all working as a team. If we have a struggle, we can just ask our manager and we’ll have that support straight away. I’m not just saying that, it is genuinely true. If I want to do a bit outside of work, then I will. I don’t have to, but if I want to, then I will because it does make me happy. Like this morning, I was writing a blog about our Prezzybox staff’s favorite, funny films, and it’s just things like that. It just doesn’t feel like work. It just feels like I’m back at teaching and creating content again but that was the bit of that job that I enjoyed. It has changed my life completely.
My husband was experiencing a similar thing in his job. And, because of my career change, he did something similar within his work. And so, his work-life balance is completely changed. It has a knock-on effect with your home life, definitely. We’re both just so much happier now. So much less stressed. I can’t stress enough how important it is to change. If you need to change, and if you’re in a position to change your career, whether that’s because you’re stressed or burnt out or whatever it is, it doesn’t matter the reason. But, if you’re in a position to do so, you have to do it. You just have to do it because it can change your life completely, and it can change your home life as well.
Joseph: What was something that you were stuck on when you were pondering the career change that you felt you ultimately had to overcome to move forward?
Alex: [25:03] One of the biggest things that was stopping me was because I am terrible at comparing myself with other people. Again, I think because social media bombards you with people — which is wonderful. People being so successful, and maybe up the ladder, and all this success which is fantastic. But, it can make you feel inferior and it can make you feel a bit vulnerable in terms of your position. I certainly had to ignore the fact that I would be behind if I compared myself to some of my peers of the same age.
And then, once I did that and I thought, “Well, you have 40 years or more of working. I’ve got plenty of time to move up because I am ambitious and I do want to progress.” But, what’s the point of doing that in something that you’re not happy with, and in a career that you’re not happy with? Once I’ve sort of silenced the little voices in my head that were saying, “Oh, you can’t do that because then you’ll be behind.” What does that mean? Everyone’s on a different journey, and everyone takes different paths. You should never compare yourself to other people because that, ultimately, will hold you back.
Joseph: I catch myself doing that and have done that throughout my career. Especially, during times when I’m thinking about changing careers is to just go on LinkedIn, and just scroll through, and you see who’s getting promoted, and which new job they’ve landed at, which amazing company. For those people out there, and I’m one of those people, who are stuck on this very common barrier of comparing yourself to others and wanting to keep up with their peers, any advice that you have for people on how to let that go and how to silence that comparison voice inside your head?
Alex: [26:50] From a practical perspective, I think taking a break from social media is the first thing to do if you’re considering a career change. Because if you’re on LinkedIn every day like you say, it’s fantastic and it’s lovely to celebrate people’s success. But again, it can make you feel insecure. I think if you’re considering that change, come off of LinkedIn for a while, don’t go on it. Try to stay away from social media in general. Obviously, unless your job depends on it, try to stay away from it. To sort of clear your head and say, “Well, it doesn’t matter what they’re doing. It only matters what I’m doing.”
And also, I have known in the past some people who have fantastic job titles and great salaries, but ultimately are not happy with their job and what they’re doing. And so, that high salary and job title doesn’t make up for that. It’s not a good trade-off. I think most of us would much rather be, stable financially, of course. You have to be able to afford what you need to afford. But, you’d much rather have a lower salary, a better work-life balance, and be happier at work when you spend eight hours plus there a day, than having a fancy job title just so that others look at you and say, “Oh, that’s a fancy job title.” You can’t compare the two. I think practically coming off of LinkedIn and coming off of anything that makes you compare yourself to other people is my first piece of advice.
Secondly, remember that a nice job title and a high salary aren’t all that you need to make you happy. You need to do something that, like I said before, gives you energy and gives you joy and brings you happiness. You’re not going to get that no matter how high your salary is if you’re not happy in what you’re doing.
Joseph: Alright. Well, that is great advice. I would love to wrap up, Alex, with what you’re doing right now and would just enjoy hearing a little bit more about what you’re up to, both in your role at Prezzybox, and also, can you just give us a sampling of the types of things that you guys sell over there? I’ve been on your website myself, and there’s a very interesting array of products you have on there.
Alex: [28:49] Absolutely. At the moment, as you might expect, because we’re a gift company, we are gearing up to the busiest time of year. It’s already getting busy in terms of Christmas gifts. We do about 50% of our sales during Christmas. Sort of on the run-up to Christmas. Things are super busy right now. We’ve just come back from an event in London, from a press event, where we’ve met with lots of journalists and wonderful influencers. We are just gearing up with our Christmas strategy. We’re trying to gear up for this really, really busy time of year right now.
In terms of what I’m doing specifically, we’re looking at PR campaigns that we can push out for Christmas. And also, we’re doing a lot of copywriting because we’re adding a lot of Christmas products to the site. But, like you say, we do have some pretty awesome stuff. We do like putting names and faces on things. We have like a personalized Toblerone. We have a personalized jar of Marmite. For anyone outside of the UK, it’s a very divisive food, Marmite is. I would urge you to try it. If you can’t, you either love it or you hate it. That’s what we’re doing at the moment. Things are getting very busy.
Joseph: Alright. Very cool. I would encourage people to check out some of the products you have. I browsed around on your joke and novelty gifts. That probably took more time than I would have thought. I was just browsing through that page. You got a lot of really interesting products on there. I definitely recommend people check out Prezzybox.
Alex: [30:18] Thank you.
Alright. Well, thank you so much, Alex, for telling me about your life as a teacher and your shift into the freelance, and then the full-time marketing world. And also, just the importance of doing work that brings you joy, energy, and happiness. Best of luck with your marketing and PR role there at Prezzybox. I hope the upcoming holiday season goes well for you guys.
Alex: [30:39] Me, too. Thank you so much, Joseph. It’s wonderful to speak to you. Thank you.
Joseph: As I hope you heard some useful insights from Alex about being specific about what you’re looking to do next, the importance of climbing the right ladder, and the fact that job titles and salary aren’t everything.