Lydia Lee of Screw the Cubicle is living a life made for the movies and proving that it's possible for anyone. As a cubicle escapee turned blogger, coach, and course creator, Lydia used her freedom to explore the world, eventually "settling down" running her business from Bali.
Feeling stuck and uninspired in her 6-figure corporate job, Lydia said "screw it" and decided to become her own boss. After finding success as an entrepreneur she naturally transitioned to teaching others to do the same.
Here is what she has to say...
Ashley: Hey, Teachable Tribe. Ashley over at Teachable and Make Change. I'm really thrilled today to be speaking with Lydia Lee of Screw The Cubicle. If you guys don't know her, you should. Lydia, do you want to introduce yourself?
Lydia: Yeah. I'm Lydia Lee. As you can see, I'm in Bali. Thank you first of all for having me. I love Teachable. It's something that I use in my location independent business. So I'm happy to speak to you guys. As you said, I am the Founder of Screw The Cubicle. Essentially what I do is coach corporate escapees on how to leave their job and build a business that allows some of the freedom of location, choices, whatever it is that is their definition of freedom. So I'm usually the girl that comes in the beginning stage when people are like, "I don't know if I have anything good to offer," or, "I don't know what my skills are. What can I do for a business?" So that's when I come in and go, "Let's work together. What are your talents, what are your gifts, and how can we create a business that you're going to love?"
Absolutely, and Lydia's content is amazing. We've featured it before in Make Change because it is the real deal. A lot of people say these nice, fluffy things. She actually shows you how to do it, which is awesome. So my first question for you is, at what point did you yourself say, "Screw the cubicle. Ditch that. I'm done with this"?
You know what, that Screw The Cubicle thing was in my mind for many years, but I wouldn't say I acted upon it, because as everybody I'm sure that's listening that's in a cubicle right now, it's something you think about, but it's almost this faraway dream, it's like an, "I'll do it when..." dream, "When my kids grow up, when I get more money, when I sell the house," whatever is the If.
So when I was in corporate I was the girl that always got the promotions. I was the girl that always strove for success. Let's just say my story, I climbed the corporate ladder and the view wasn't what I was expecting. So I wasn't more fulfilled, I wasn't very happy, and part of that I think is because I felt like a creator at heart. I wanted stuff to be mine, my baby, my creation, and I wasn't able to do that in a corporate job. So I actually left a six figure job in Vancouver, to my mom's horror, like, "What are you doing with your life?"
It all started when I was on a business trip. I used to work for international education. So I was traveling quite often promoting education in Canada. So I was in Russia at this moment in time, in the dead of winter in February, which is in itself this formula for depression anyway. It's so dark and cold in February in Russia.
Exactly. It's not as glamorous as people think when I'm on the road. It's like living out of hotel rooms, eight to 10 meetings a day, conferences, and I was attending my usual day of going to the next eight meetings, and I just literally had a breakdown.
I had a nervous breakdown, and I called my boyfriend at the time and was like, "I don't want to do this job anymore, my health is taking a toll, I haven't taken a holiday in two years."
All this stuff came out of me because I finally admitted that I was miserable, and of course at that moment I thought something's wrong with me, because I had a great life, I had the house, I had the car, I had the six figure job. Why am I unhappy? But obviously it's deeper than that. It's deeper than the money, it's deeper than that sort of security.
So after seeing a therapist I finally hired a coach and realized that nothing was wrong with me. I was just in the wrong place. I was doing things that weren't making me happy. It's as simple as that.
I really dedicated the next nine to 10 months really finding out first of all what I wanted to do, what did it mean for me to create, what could I start, and I ended up quitting my job about 10-11 months after that. So it was a journey. I had to work my full-time job. I worked a part-time job and I freelanced on the side just to save up enough money to be able to quit. So it's not a sexy ride, but eventually I got there.
That's so funny, too, because the more people I interview, they say the same thing. "I was really successful at my job and it just didn't fit." I think it was Jeff Goins just yesterday on our summit was like, "I climbed the ladder and the ladder was on the wrong roof."
Yeah, and I think when you taste that success, because you dream about it. You do all the things you're supposed to do, you go to university, you graduate with that degree, you get a job that's related to that degree, you climb the ladder, you keep going, you retire, and you get a pension plan.
That's the story.
But I think a lot of us that don't want to do that, there's this nagging feeling all the time, like, is this it? Is this all I'm going to feel for the rest of my life? And I felt that for many years, but it's almost kind of like, I think everybody feels this way. So it must be normal, but it isn't.
Knowing what I know now, no, you're not supposed to be that miserable. You're not supposed to not take holidays and be pressured into working all the time.
So there's always this cost when you make a lot of money, especially working for somebody else because you're on their clock now, and that was something I'm just too stubborn to do. As Jeff said, it's not an easy road, and I think when you taste your own success, when you climb that ladder and you go, "Oh shit, I don't feel different," that's when you really know that a change has to happen.
Absolutely. I think a lot of people will find that to be, it hits home. It's really true. So I want to hear, what happened next? The ride isn't easy. So you realize I've got to get out of this, I've got to make a change, I've got to start this business." You started freelancing, you started building. What did that look like?
Initially my first business that got me to escape the cubicle was not Screw The Cubicle, because obviously at the time I was way too new to Screw The Cubicle to be teaching other people ethically.
So I actually started what I call the transition business. So a transition business is something that I already know how to do. It's a similar industry, except that I was creating, let's say, another angle of the business.
I used to promote Canada to external countries, to come bring their children, do work study programs, learn English, and that sort of stuff.
Now what I did as a creation of my first business is starting a boutique agency where I was out there in China, in Thailand, in Taiwan, going there physically and bringing the kids myself with partnerships into Vancouver, Toronto, and places in Canada. So I already knew the industry. So that was actually quite a nice, soft landing for me because I knew what to do, I had contacts, it was an easy flow for me to go in there.
I think that's why I was able to quit before a year ended. Then I did that job for about the first six months. Then I kind of went back in the cycle of feeling a bit dissatisfied again.
I thought, "What's happening? I really quit? Why am I complaining again?" I think it was just that next level of question, which is like, "Okay, great, I'm good at this, I know I can make money, I know that I will make it work, but what is the sort of deeper dissatisfaction? What is it that I really want to say? What is it that I really want to do?"
And I didn't know about that.
So I started blogging, as we all do, to try to just get it out of our system and get it out there. I started a blog called Screw The Cubicle, which is basically documenting my own journey around my identity crisis of leaving my old life and starting brand new and not knowing anything. I talked a lot about the fear of security, the fear of shaming my family.
If you come from an Asian family you'll know what I'm talking about. It's the whole guilt around giving up something when there's a recession happening in the city. So there are all these feelings, and I wrote it all out, and then people started finding my blog. And then friends of friends would take me out for coffee or dinner and go, "Can I just talk to you about how you did it? And what would I need to think about?"
So in the beginning I just literally gave everything out for free, just my advice and tips around how to save money, how to have those difficult conversations with your spouse and children, how to maybe negotiate part-time hours with your boss so that you can still work there, but maybe negotiate a different role, how to get part-time freelance work. So all this practical preparing to take the leap stuff. Then I thought, why am I not doing this on the side to try it out?
I've never coached before, but obviously it's a natural thing for me to do. I love answering questions, so let's just do that.
Eventually I was running both businesses together at the same time until Screw The Cubicle really took off and I thought, "This is way more fun, this is way more on the path around my messaging now." So I closed down the first business and started to focus on Screw The Cubicle full-time.
You did Screw The Cubicle, it took off, you have both courses, you have a blog, you have coaching. What's your favorite? What do they look like? And the impact on your business between all those different areas.
Last year I did kind of an experiment around trying different ways of delivering what I wanted to share with the world, and you don't know until you try.
In the beginning of time my whole business model was based on one-on-one private coaching, intimacy, private, personal.
That was fun, that was awesome. That's what created the products, that's what brought me closer to the pain points of my customers.
Then I thought, not everybody can afford this intimacy. So how can I get closer to more people to just jump-start the journey? They may not be ready for one-on-one coaching, but they might be ready for a short course or a book or a workbook, something kind of easy to start, and then once they warm up to the idea maybe they'll invest in themselves.
So then I started doing small group courses, weekend courses, one-week courses on just helping people with the initial pain point, which is usually, "What do I want to do with my life?" The first question. "What are my values? What do I care about? What is working in my life now, but what isn't working?" Then kind of more of the practical human side of stuff.
Then as my business grew and as I expanded into the digital world, which I am in now, then I started teaching those parts, the strategic parts of how to turn your skills into a digital business.
My business grew with me as I grew as an entrepreneur as well. So then the small classes were kind of an experiment, like, can I do it? Can I do it with 15 people at a time rather than one on one?
And it worked.
It worked and it was way easier. I was repeating myself anyway with every client so this was a good community to do it with, and then what I loved about group classes is that you get the support and collaboration of other people that are in the space that you're at. So they were all kind of working together, which also made my job a lot easier. I fell in love with group coaching.
After that I partnered up with someone in Bali here and we did retreats for corporate escapees. So people who want to come to Bali, learn about location independence, digital nomads, digital business. We ran seven retreats last year, which is a lot of life experiences. But that also taught me a big thing, which is that I crave human connection, too. I don't want to hide behind a laptop all the time. I want some human connection.
That was a great blend of digital stuff, virtual stuff, plus this retreat, physical thing where I get to meet people.
Then courses really came for me, where I started with Teachable, courses came for me pretty much late last year when I basically beta tested a group program live first, refined it, and then repackaged it and marketed it as a digital online self-guided course, which is now on Teachable that people can sign up for.
So it's kind of, I find it's like, work with people one-on-one first, go into more of a larger format of students, know that you can teach and facilitate or learn how to do it anyway, and then go into self-guided courses because you're more confident in the delivery without you being physically there. But it really did take me those steps in order for me to release a course, create the right exercises, create the right videos where I can be like, all right, it was just there, and I'm not there, they can still learn and be able to move forward.
Check out Lydia's free training: Create Your Dream Business and learn how you can follow in her footsteps and escape the cubicle!
I really like your post, Top Five Priorities To Launch Your Business. I think that's something we all struggle with as we start building our business. It's like, where do you focus your time?
Because you're just one person or one person with maybe a VA here and there. Is there one activity that you suggest for people, like courses or blogging or this or that? Or how do you help people make that decision?
Everyone's going to be different in the stage of business they're in. So a lot of people I find in my community, they're having what I call this business pornography.
They're like, "Oh my god, I need a mailing list. I need an opt-in. Yeah, and I need to be on Periscope, and then I have to run like 50 webinars."
The list never ends and you're like, holy shit, and then you don't do anything because you're overwhelmed.
That always happens.
So my question always is, "What is the most immediate pain you're currently having?" Most of the time whenever we dig further most people's issue right away is they don't know what to offer.
What is the thing they're offering? What is the problem you're solving? Not just an offer, but what's the problem you solve for whom? What's that niche of people? What's that niche problem that you solve? So they'll start blogging and having all these pretty things up, their website and logos up, but nothing to offer really.
It's like, just book a call with me. No one knows what they're doing. So they're not really positioning themselves well in the sense of what do they do for people that justifies an exchange of money?
Because again, it's not the sexy bit. So that's usually the part I find where people need help the most. So once they figure out what problems they solve, what skills they're using to solve that, how can they package their skills, that's a really hard thing for service-based people.
Our strengths are intangible. Our strengths are our words, our strategy, our brain. How do you make people see that? So you've got to paint that picture. You've got to be able to help people that's the value and where you can bring them. What's the destination they want to go to and how you bring them there. So that's usually the first part. Figure that out, and then things like marketing and what would my topics be on a webinar and how do I engage my community, that gets way easier because then you know what has to happen, what do you have to teach them to get them from A to B. And there might be like 10 major topics. So that dictates for you your blogs, your content, your pieces of information. So I have a spreadsheet, for example, that has these eight major topics I always cover. People love these topics.
Then I break them down into multiple topics, mini topics, that are related, and then I never run out of content.
So I would say just get rid of the noise. Stop looking at business groups and stop looking at other people for a minute. Take a pause and just go, "What's the most important thing that I need to figure out right now that's going to bring me the confidence to then know myself what to do next?"
Most of the time it's about offer, it's about do I know what I'm doing, and then they have to find customers.
Without a customer you don't have a business. So they may have to test out their, what I call, the beta test stage, beta testing what you think you can offer to a lab rat, which is not a lab rat, but people, your first three testers, and don't charge money.
Just do it for free so that you can run through the process and then know that your formula works, your stats work. That's usually my advice.
Absolutely, and I think that's echoed by almost everyone I've talked to that's been successful, it's finding this offer, this idea, and it's based on a pain point, and really testing that. Because you want to test it when it's there rather than when you've created this whole business or you're scattered.
Totally. And the same thing goes for courses. How many people say, "I have a course idea," and they put it out there and crickets? No one buys the course, and it's because they haven't tested the process with real humans.
If you're in a human business, you've got to test it with humans, and that might just be three people or a small, condensed kind of group. Then once you run through it, then you have the opportunity to fix it.
Yeah, absolutely, preach. One thing we did here at Teachable, it was so small, but we used a microphone that didn't record us that well, and halfway into the content people were like, "You need a different microphone." So rather than having this whole piece of content that didn't work, it was one lecture that we could redo.
That's right, exactly. So for Teachable, same thing. You talked about the preselling. That's what I did. I didn't even really think I could do that, but then I was like, of course I can. I have the framework. I know what I'm going to teach. I may not have the meat of it just yet, but I know what I'm going to teach. So I did a presale page as well, and actually I got more sales on my presale phase than my actual launch because people were excited. They wanted to be early adopters of a new idea.
On a little bit of a lighter, fun note, how did you end up in Bali?
Honestly, I don't even know. What happened was, so come this September I would have been living in Bali for three years. I can't believe this. It's been a whirlwind.
So originally three years ago, I'm from Vancouver in Canada originally. So I was based out of there, I started my business there, but it's really expensive. You know what I'm talking about. You're in New York. So you know.
As a startup every penny counts. I want to invest back into my business, but living in Vancouver was super expensive. I thought, could I research, and I was a huge Tim Ferriss fan, so obviously I read the Four Hour Workweek and go, can this work for me? Are these just for coders and programmers? Can a person like me, a coach, do this?
I ended up actually selling everything that I owned in Vancouver, all my 38 pairs of shoes, and my furniture, I sold it all, rented my house out, and took a backpack and just went, "I'm just going to go for six months. I'm just going to live in a couple different countries in Southeast Asia, see if I like it, and then I'll just come right back." So I did that. I started off in Cambodia.
I was writing a book at the time and somehow Cambodia was very noisy for me, so someone suggested Ubud in Bali. Ubud is famous from the Eat, Pray, Love book as you guys all know. I thought, great, I'll go there and have good food, do yoga, be quiet, and just do some work.
I got here, found a great co-working space here, and ended up meeting tons of startups and digital nomads just like me, and I went, "This is my community." I've been just based out of here in the last three years.
I haven't returned home yet. I'm returning home for the first time this summer, but it's my base. I live out here, but then I still travel through to different places in Asia, but my stuff, my backpack and whatever I've accumulated in the last two years, is here. So it's by accident, but I think once you find your community, once you find your lifestyle choice, I think it's a no-brainer.
You've been featured in publications like the Telegraph, Elle Canada, Forbes. Those are really big names, and not a lot of people get there. How did you do that?
Lucky for me one of my own clients and also a friend was an ex-journalist who actually coached me on figuring out how to pitch to big publications like that.
I was actually just re-purposing a lot of my old blogs. I didn't have to write anything new. I just re-purposed old blogs to places like that, and it got accepted within 24 hours.
Forbes accepted me within 24 hours, Huffington Post in like six hours, really quickly. I got very lucky, but also I think it was kind of strategic direction of figuring out what they want to hear and then pulling the right content that I already have and turning that into an article.
The other features like the Telegraph, Virgin also featured me on a spread, was from journalists actually approaching me. I think how that happened was that I have quite a good visibility presence on the online world.
I pride myself on just showing up. I don't care if my hair is done or not. Today I look okay, but most of the time in Bali I'm sweaty and stringy hair, but I will film a video, I will always connect with my community through showing my face somehow.
I have a YouTube channel, I've got tons of different places you can find me. I think they found me through those platforms. I always think the power of continuing to show up, it doesn't matter if you start with one person, one audience member to 1,000 or 10,000 people, just consistently show up.
Every week film that video. Don't stop because eventually somebody will notice. Eventually someone will care, and they did. So then all of a sudden it just came out of nowhere.
When that article for Virgin was, I was one of the interviewees which I actually mention Teachable in it because they said, "What do you use for your tools?" I'm like, "Teachable." So you guys were in it as well. So that got tweeted by Richard Branson.
Then the next week after that my Huffington Post article was shared by Tim Ferriss on his group, and that was also another amazing time. So you just never know what the hell can happen in the digital world, but just keep showing up.
As far as branding it's like, okay, I'm just going to show up, what are the few things I need to do to stay consistent, keep with my brand, if I'm not going to worry about my appearance what do I worry about?
Right. First of all, we want to think about our audience. We want to think about how people want to hear things. I've found that my best way of delivery is verbal and you can see me.
My writing takes a bit longer. I can write, but it will be more time to think about it. But if I talk it out I'm just a better communicator, and people have said I really loved seeing you on a webinar or I loved your videos.
I keep thinking of them and going, right, they told me that. I need to serve them.
Instead of writing tons of blogs when that pains me and also they don't want to read it, they'd rather hear it, then I focus my efforts on that delivery. I think part of that is this reflection around how do you want to express yourself as an individual? Everyone does it differently. Not everyone's an extrovert. Not everyone's an introvert.
Then pick the platform that best showcases that style. If Periscope and being on video you're just like, "Uh," and you just don't like it, they're not going to want to see you because you look nervous and you look like you hate it there. So that won't work.
But if writing is your jam, just do more of that. Write more blogs, write more articles, submit them to big publications, write on Medium, go on Twitter, whatever it is, do that and immerse yourself in that.
I ended up really picking those avenues. I would try different things. I had a podcast at one point, and then I realized that I was being spread too thin as a solopreneur.
I had to choose the right platforms that felt easy for me, felt like I would do it, I would have fun doing them, and then I would get the most return in terms of feedback or suggestions from other people. Now I focus on my YouTube channel, I focus on things like live training, because that's where people see my face and they seem to like that the most, and I like it as well.
I'm great at working in batches. If I have to film one video a week, what I'll usually do is dedicate one day a month for three or four hours literally filming back to back.
Use anything you have. Don't do this waiting thing, like I need a DSLR camera and then a tripod. No. Just film straight from your laptop.
Honestly, all my videos, most of them except for maybe some promo videos are straight from my laptop right now, the same camera you see right now. It's not perfect. Sometimes I use headphones. Sometimes I hide my podcast mic at my crotch, literally. I do whatever it takes, it's not perfect, but it doesn't matter. It's the content.
Absolutely. I love that. It's interesting too because I've talked to a couple of people and they're like, "I created one course and I just kind of did it with whatever technology I had just to do it, and then I made money. So I decided to invest in the second one," and their audience actually preferred the first one where they have this rough and dirty video where it feels like you're actually talking to someone and not a brand.
I love that and I think a lot of people, when they buy your product, they're buying you. They're buying your personality. They're buying your style. So they need to feel that it's an authentic connection, whatever that feels like for you, do that.
I think people, as long as it's not rocky and you're giving people a headache, most of the tools that we have right now are iPhones, Android phones, your Macbook. It's all good enough.
I always say even to my clients, "Go with good enough because good enough gets you to show up now. Not one year later, not when things are perfect. Just do it. Say the ums, say the uh." It doesn't matter. I say ums all the time. Nobody cares. They care about the fact that I'm helping them. That's all. I love that.
I used Fiverr in the beginning of time to design my headers and workbooks and stuff. They weren't pretty. Now sometimes I just do them on Canva. It's just super bootstrap, but they're out and I'm not worrying about perfect, and people really appreciate that.
Is there anything right now that you're struggling with?
Well, one of the things I sometimes struggle with living in Bali is, we're getting better in the infrastructure of internet, which is very essential to my business. So a lot of the times I love working from home. That's where I'm comfortable. That's where I kind of get more creative, but it's not always available.
The internet is not always available as strongly as home. Today I had to come in, as you can see, to a co-working space, which is fine. But sometimes I think if you have this impromptu thing you want to film and upload right away, and I can't do that. I literally have to film, take my scooter, run out to the co-working space, upload the video. So it's a process.
That's really the only thing that's really in my world that's kind of bothering me from Bali, but I'm not going to complain, because as I said, I've got a good life here as well. I think another thing about business in terms of growth, I'm reaching that point right now where I'm outgrowing my old audience, which is interesting.
Now it's like, I used to coach a lot on the self-development part of fear and mindset, which I still do, but I was really focused on people who really had no idea what they wanted to do with their lives, and now my focus is more on the second phase of people where they've done the soul searching, they've done the courses and developed a bit of a knack for understanding what they want, and now I'm kind of focusing more on helping people grow their business, launch it, grow it, and get that visibility that I've been lucky enough to get.
I don't want to abandon the first guys either. I don't want to abandon the first immediate beginner stage, but what that's challenged me to do now is actually instead of coaching them personally now, I'm now able to turn my steps that I would do in a coaching session into a book or audios or a 30 day email course or something.
It's challenging me to create products that serve the beginner stage and then dedicate and commit my time, the personal time, the one-on-one step, towards more of this other stage that I'm more excited about now.
I think as your business changes there are adjustments and I'm going through that adjustment right now of what should I make into a course.
At least you're aware of it. You're not dragging it into one thing, you're not inflexible. You're still meeting those audience pain points as they evolve.
It's learning new skills to be able to do that.
I had to get trained on how to teach. One of the big misconceptions for coaches, for example, is they think coaching is the same thing as teaching.
It's actually not true. There's a difference and there are different ways of learning when you have an online course, whereas coaching, you're there to fix it. You're there to say the right stuff, but when you're not there you better damn well be filming videos or having exercises that really will hit the mark.
I had to get training, I had to hire someone who was a curriculum coach to actually help me develop curriculum, develop exercises, which I think is really essential for me feeling confident around not being there for courses or physically there for courses.
You always have to up-skill. I believe you always want to up-skill, but it's all exciting because all change always means that you're growing. It is a sticky stage for me, but at the same time it's what has to happen for me to get to that next level, too.
Before I let you go, is there any last minute advice you would give to someone who's watching this from their desk, watching this at home and thinking, "Man, it might be time to make that leap and go."
It's going to be one simple advice, which is basically decide to decide.
As in, once you make that choice in your head and you really commit to that choice, not the, "I'll do it when..." at that start of the call I said is kind of looming mindset thing, is that once you decide this life, the life that you're living is not the life that is meant for you, you're designed for something else, you may not know what that something else is, but you just know in your heart of hearts this is not where you're supposed to be, trust that feeling and then just decide to make a choice.
Once you decide to make a choice that's like, I'm going to do whatever it takes to find out what the next path is for me, you will then have a much bigger awareness around who to ask for help with, who to talk to, how to deal with this when you've decided that you want to go there, you don't want to be here. Then things happen for you. You meet the right people, you might hire somebody. That can all change in a matter of days when that happens, but you do need to decide, which seems really simple, but really it's the catalyst to go, "I don't want this."
Yeah, when you make that decision it's all of a sudden like, from kind of intangible, I'm not really doing anything, to doing it.
Exactly. And know that you don't need to do it alone. I always think about, who do you admire? Do you know someone having a life that you want? Or you see a blogger as like, I want to be like that person, reach out to that person and ask the question, "How did you get to where you got to," because perhaps there's something in their story that they're willing to share that can help you out.
I always think the power of community. Ask people for help, ask for support, ask people how they did it, and be able to absorb the tips and advice that they've gone through, and then make it work for you, but without action nothing happens. So we have to feel it.
The choice comes from the heart. Then we have to use our nice logical brain to think up ways that we can do this. When you're working a full-time job it's not about full-time trying to coach yourself out of that job because you don't have enough time, but block off one day a week, maybe Sundays from 3-5 p.m. where you dedicate to researching stuff online or reaching out to a coach online or being a part of groups that allow you to ask questions.
Immerse yourself into your exit plan, because if you don't focus on it, you don't commit to it, you don't dedicate a small amount of time every week, in time it will again be this sort of fleeting thought, and another year will go by and another year will go by, which is what happened to me.
Decide to decide. Create some action to commit to it. Get an accountability buddy, get a coach, whatever it is that you need, and make it happen, because it will.