‘If I do this one more day, I might be doing it forever’: Ian Schafer on leaving the agency business

Longtime agency veteran Ian Schafer recently announced his exit from the agency business following a midlife crisis that motivated him to try something new. On this week’s Starting Out, Schafer talks about learning to manage a business and pivoting to a new chapter.

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When I started an agency, I didn’t come from a school. I was not an agency guy. I didn’t aim to be Ogilvy. I didn’t even like the business model. For me, it was just an excuse to do the things that I wanted to do in an industry where I wanted to work, that I knew very well. I started a company because I thought I couldn’t work for anybody else — because I was smarter than anyone I would work for, which is not true. Turns out, that’s exactly what you need to think to start a company. You have to have a certain amount of stubbornness, humility, willingness to learn and money. I was 26; if it didn’t work, I would get a job. I didn’t have a family to feed. I didn’t care how many hours I worked.

There was stress about business performance, and it actually manifested in physical health issues that I deal with to this day. Meeting payroll, knowing that people are believing in me. It was when I started hiring people that it became stressful. It was not for the faint of heart. I think I’m a bit faint of heart, but I had to deal with that. One of the gifts you endow upon yourself when you start a business is you have to figure out how to sleep. It’s very easy to not sleep.

Every award, every accolade, everything someone said I’d done was great might mean that I’m actually not good at anything else but doing that. It was a complex I gave myself. I might be great at a bunch of different things, and the challenge to myself is, can I be great at any other thing? I expect everything out of myself, that I would put everything on the line for myself. Can I will myself to excel at something else?

Turning 40, you start realizing a lot of things — like, you cannot be on the 40 under 40 list. I was on a 40 over 40 list, and that was maybe worse. It was just like, “Congratulations, you’ve survived.” You feel mortal. I don’t like thinking about mortality at all. A lot of things in my life are motivated by fear. Would other people think I would be qualified to do anything else? I just felt when I turned 40 — when I had the midlife crisis — if I do this one more day, I might be doing it forever. Am I OK with that? I had to come to terms with that and start planning. When I was 40, whether I knew it or not, I had already started planning my exit from the industry.

I want the agency to outlive me. I’d rather do that than be deemed irrelevant. The fact that it will be without me and maybe even better without me let me walk away.


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