Coffee with Neil Gibson
Tpub Comics, Founder and Editor in Chief
Describe your career path in two or three sentences including any twist or turns ending with where you are now.
I have had three careers. The first was in oil and gas, I worked around the world for a drilling company. I liked the work, it was a lot of responsibility at a young age, but everyone was on their third or fourth wife! I didn’t want that to be my future so I quit to do an MBA at the London Business School and went into management consulting, career number two. I did that for several years and it was fun.
In terms of career number three, I have been a big fan of comic books in my adult life. I read Beano when I was young but I stopped at age 9 because you weren’t allowed them at school and then at 16 I discovered Spiderman and X-men and thought these are great. I read those for a couple of years until I got bored of them. I thought I was ‘grown-up’ and done with comics, but in my 20s someone gave me a good one and I couldn’t believe how much it made me think. The medium is phenomenal. Of course, there is a lot of bad stuff but there is a lot of brilliant stuff that is great. It’s like TV. There are some stupid shows, but also some amazing drama and comedy out there. In any medium, there is good stuff and bad stuff.
I never thought I wanted to be a writer but I was on a project, stuck in Qatar and I had some free time so I tried writing my first comic. It was 200 pages long, a thick book for a comic, and nine months later I had a printed book in my hand. The feedback was surprisingly positive, people actually liked it which surprised me… I was terrified of being boring so I thought I could write something that was a bit creepy, that makes you think a little and now that seems to be my genre. The quandary was that I had a good job with good prospects but if I take a risk and it pays off it, every day I get to do something I love doing. So I quit and gave myself two years to see if there was any traction and within one year my book went to number one in the Amazon charts in the UK.
Wow. That was a lot longer than 2 sentences.
What decision / experience proved to be the most helpful to your new career?
I don’t know if there is a simple answer to that. There are so many incremental things that you learn as you go on. I think the decision to actually make the book in the first place and take a risk was a big push. There is a book called The Hard Thing About Hard Things, it is one of these business books by this guy who was part of a start-up and is now an investor in start-ups. He talks about the stress that he went through and he said what he realised was that there is no such thing as a silver bullet, there are just lots and lots of lead bullets and you have to shoot as many as you can, so that’s my answer.
Where or to whom did you look for inspiration when thinking about a change?
Charlotte Frisch of How To Associates. I was just thinking of doing this as a hobby but when people seemed to like my stuff I thought, this actually would be an amazing life if I could do it. But you need to talk to someone and it shouldn’t be friends or family. When I said I wanted to quit to make comics, my friends said ‘Great, Fantastic, Follow your dreams!’, but all my really good friends and my family said ‘Whoa, don’t do it, THINK about it’. It was interesting how that works so I think having someone completely impartial as a sounding board and asking you, the tough questions, is invaluable, and that’s why I think coaching is important. So a big plug for my friend for Charlotte [Editor’s note: you can read Charlotte’s 50:50 Project interview here].
How did you know it was time to make the leap?
I don’t think you ever do know but at some point, you just have to bite the bullet. I was just wrapping up on a big project so it seemed like the right time to stop.
KB: And you could always go back to management consulting.
Yes. It is important to manage the downside when you do make a jump. What are your options if it goes wrong, what is the worst that can happen? I do think you need to consider that and try and mitigate it in some way like being able to get your old job back for example. This is something that you should definitely think about.
What was the biggest challenge or hurdle to making a career change?
My own psychology. To have the confidence to actually realise I go do this. I did math, physics chemistry at A-Levels and then engineering at university; creative writing was never something I was interested in doing but I found I had a talent for it, so it is about believing in yourself. Also, if I’m honest external validation was helpful too — I sent the book off to reviewers and if the reviews had been bad I probably wouldn’t have done it but I was lucky and people who read it liked it.
What do you know now that you wish you knew then?
I always knew it was a long road. I wish I knew how important it was to continually market yourself. I knew I should do social marketing at the start but I hated it, I would never be on it at all if I didn’t have to but it is critical for people to hear about your products. Also, right from the start I should have built an email list, we only started building list because we went to a Toronto Comic Convention and our stock didn’t turn up, meaning we had nothing to sell. So we decided to give everyone a free digital comic if they provided an email address and that is how we started building our email list.
What is your top tip for people thinking of re-inventing their careers?
Passion absolutely. You have to be passionate about what you are doing and love it. I also think you need to be clear about why you want to do this and what your goal is because sometimes you’ll forget along the way.
People have different reasons, for example, some people change careers because they have something that they are passionate about, or because the industry they are in is going to die and they can see the future and need to make a move; some people are just bored and want to change. My reason was a passion, this was something I loved doing and I thought I could make a living doing something I really enjoyed.
I think my advice would be that if you are going to change, have a backup option. Make sure you manage the downside if it does go wrong, know what are your options are. I think that it is critical. But, I would also say try and get into something that you’re passionate about, not everyone can, some people don’t have something that they really love, and some people are doing it out of necessity.
Recommendation: Favourite book to read, website to browse or podcast to listen to while drinking coffee?