Making the Switch
Boy, had Nicole Lee earned her cush job with a six-figure salary as an associate director at a prestigious public accountant firm. It took seven years to earn her degrees (a bachelor’s in accounting and business management and a master’s in taxation) and licensure, she worked more than 12 hours a day and even met her husband, also an accountant, at work. But after 10 years she quit, took time off to raise her young daughter, then started pursuing her interest in personal training full-time. By 2013, with a personal training certification from the National Academy of Sports Medicine under her belt, Nicole launched her own personal training business called FitNYC.
Making the move from certified public accountant to certified personal trainer was rewarding, but it was also challenging. Here are eight big lessons Nicole learned along the way, in her own words.
Photo: Nicole Lee
A Job Can Be About Passion, Not Just Security
I chose accounting as my college major for two reasons: one, because it was a skill (rather than a theoretical degree, like psychology) that could get me a job rather quickly, and two, my uncle is a CPA and seemed like he and his family lived comfortably. So, why not? All in all, I spent four years in undergraduate and then three years in part-time grad school, plus work and studying for the CPA exam.
I climbed the corporate ladder from staff to associate director, and I was well on my way for a very successful, highly lucrative career. But I realize now that you have to love what you do. As a CPA, the pace could be grueling. It wasn’t until I left the corporate world for a few months that I was truly able to “wash the corporate off of me” and relax and enjoy life more.
Pay Attention: Your True Calling Could Be Right Under Your Nose
Even amidst my busy schedule as an accountant, I always made time for the gym. I was sold on my first job out of college when they showed me their expansive in-office gym that provided trainers, clothes, towels etc. I thought that was a perfect fit for me!
Throughout the years, I always tried to keep up with my running and some weight training. I met my now-husband at one of my jobs. He happened to be really into weight lifting and I was really into running, so we started working out together after work. It was during that time that I also started seeing a trainer to change it up a little and saw what a huge impact working with him made on me. I remember stretching in my office and keeping spreadsheets on my PC with my diet and workout schedule/tracker. My husband and I used to even joke that in our next life, we would be personal trainers.
Compared to my job, fitness always helped me decompress. I just never thought of it as a career until years later.
Use Strengths From Your First Career to Build the Second
My strengths as an associate director in taxation definitely helped with starting my personal training business. I have an extroverted (leadership) personality, a willingness to always work hard (though, to the detriment of friends and family all too often) and generally good people skills.
In client service, whether in accounting or fitness, you need to know how to read someone. Otherwise, there’s not much about being a CPA that’s like being a trainer. But don’t let this stop you. There was a huge benefit from being a business person and understanding the liability and tax implications better than the average Joe about starting your own business. Couple that with a willingness to work hard, and it’s a great recipe for success.
Don’t Forget the Issues You Struggled With in Your First Career
For me, work-life balance and time management issues were a huge challenge. My biggest weakness when I was an accountant was always the inability to say “no” to my senior management. I never said no to anything. I would get put on committees or given more projects, but I’d be smiling on the outside saying, “Hey, no problem!” Then I’d walk to my office, close my door and cry because I was so overwhelmed. I never knew how to set limitations and expectations because I was afraid to say no and let down senior management.
As I progressed up the corporate food chain, I learned to schedule time off right after quarterly deadlines so I could catch up on my personal life, decompress a little. These days, with my new business, I feel like the work-life balance is so much better. I make time for family and friends again. In fact, my daughter Alexis gets to see me on the job, whether training people at my gym, competing in local competitions or just at home working out.
Keep Your Priorities in Check
I’ve always worked late hours, as does my husband, and it became a twisted state of normal living (What? People don’t work until 9pm every night?). Yet, fitting in my gym time with work became more of a question of when, not if. Sometimes, I would even sneak out at 6pm for an hour, then go back to work for another two hours. Did anyone notice? I’m not sure, but the point is: I did what was needed to fit in what was important to me.
But I definitely regret not being able to say no to senior management for so long. I have to admit that I lost some close friends during my last job because I worked so much. I was called into work time and again during weekends, holidays, vacations, and I missed some very important events in my personal life.
Don’t Be Afraid to Make a Change When You’ve Had Enough
When my husband and I were trying to conceive, I was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, a hormonal disorder that can affect a woman’s fertility. This was a big blow to me. I knew I had to get healthy mentally and physically to have a child, so I was able to drop my hours at work to 70 percent.
Then, when I finally was pregnant, I went on long-term disability in my seventh month of pregnancy. In March 2010, we were blessed with our last-effort miracle baby. Still, after my allotted eight-week, post-delivery maternity leave, I did go back to four days in the office, one day at home.
In fairness, my employer tried to work with me, but the stressful demands at my job just weren’t going to work. So I formally quit in August 2010, when my daughter was 5 months old. Now, as my own boss, I love being a trainer because I’m helping people be healthier versions of themselves in everyday life. I get personal satisfaction now that I wasn’t getting before.
Find a Mentor
In April 2013, after a few years of focusing solely on my daughter, I decided that fitness is what I wanted to do full time. I started planting the seeds for my company, FitNYC, by working part time as a youth coach at Asphalt Green Battery Park City, taking the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) certified personal trainer exam and shadowing some great trainers in Manhattan to learn how they organized their businesses and to build niches to be successful. So now I offer personal training with a focus on functional fitness and health, sports performance enhancement and conditioning services to adults and youth age 4 to 14.
Have what I call “persistent patience.” A new career and business takes time to grow. You have to put yourself out there to make your business happen, but recognize that all new ventures take time.
Fitness training is a tough field to be successful in like any business you build for yourself. I learned fast I had to find a niche to help build my client base. Right now, I’m bringing functional fitness, or CrossFit-style training, to my business, for example. I’m also interested in youth sports and landed a coaching job at Asphalt Green. Adding these elements takes time, but they all help bring more clients.