By Susannah Schofield OBE, Director General, The Direct Selling Association

In today’s dynamic and rapidly evolving employment market, the concept of a career has been undergoing a profound transformation.

The traditional linear career path that was once the norm—starting at the bottom of a given company and working your way up over several decades—has given way to a range of far more fluid and diverse career trajectories being seen today.

One such approach is the portfolio career, and it is this approach that has enabled me to develop and shape my career into what it is today.

As well as being Director General of The Direct Selling Association, I’m also a mum to two girls and have also established and run (and sold) four businesses over the past ten years. Having the flexibility of a portfolio career has been crucial for me to be able to balance my life in this way and balance my roles, commitments and interests – both personal and professional.

A portfolio career is built on the premise that rather than being tied to a single job or income stream, you can use your different skills, passions, and experience across multiple roles and ways of earning. This might include a mix of part-time employment, freelance projects, consulting or entrepreneurial endeavours.

Often popular with people who either want or need greater flexibility and variety in their professional lives, portfolio careers are particularly popular amongst younger generations as well as those who want to combine a career with being a parent. As someone who spent almost two decades at a large Public Limited Company before changing tack to develop a more varied career, I believe passionately that crafting a pathway to a portfolio career offers can be both a pragmatic and empowering choice, particularly for women who want a flexible way to earn around their other commitments and interests.

Direct selling, or Direct-to-Consumer retail (D2C) is a prime example of a sector that aligns well with the portfolio career model. A business model where brands sell their products directly to consumers without the involvement of intermediaries like wholesalers, distributors, or traditional high street stores, it offers people wishing to run their own business the chance to earn independently with commission (which can be up to 25% or so) paid on products sold. In many ways D2C is akin to a franchise but without the large upfront costs to get started.

Approximately half a million people in the UK earn this way and 95% are women.  Two-thirds (64%) of people earning in this way in the UK run their D2C business alongside other jobs, demonstrating the way in which this type of earning fits around other professional and personal commitments.

Identifying your core skills and passions

The first step in crafting a portfolio career is to conduct a thorough self-assessment. Identify your core skills, interests and passions. What are you good at? What are your interests and genuine areas of expertise? What do you enjoy doing? Using these as the foundational elements of your portfolio career is often a good way to find a product range and company best suited to your interests. For instance, if you have children you may already have knowledge which is relevant to working with a children’s product brand as well as a network of people who may be interested in buying such products. Equally, if you have an interest in skincare and beauty products, you may find that sharing your knowledge and enthusiasm for such products comes naturally.

I’m a passionate advocate for women in business and regularly speak on the importance of female empowerment, flexible working and portfolio careers. So having the opportunity to lead an area of retail (D2C) that opens up opportunities for people – particularly women – in this way was a great fit, appealing to my personal interests and passions perfectly.

With a portfolio career, your personal brand can often be a powerful asset, differentiating you in a crowded marketplace and helping you attract opportunities. Invest time in building a robust online presence, whether via an active LinkedIn profile, a website, or engaging social content that showcases your expertise. Networking can also be hugely beneficial – attend industry events, join relevant online communities, and connect with influencers in your fields of interest.

Balancing multiple roles

One of the challenges of a portfolio career is managing multiple roles effectively. Time management and organisational skills are crucial. Technology can be your friend here – Use tools like project management software, calendars, and to-do lists to keep track of your commitments. It’s also important to set boundaries to maintain your work-life balance. Remember, the flexibility of a portfolio career should enhance your life, not overwhelm it.

Financial planning and stability

A portfolio career can offer financial rewards, but it is not without risks. Earnings may not always be regular and consistent, which makes financial planning critical. If you start to forge out a portfolio career, build a financial cushion to cover lean periods and ensure you have multiple income streams to mitigate risk. If you can, consider getting financial advice to create a long-term plan that aligns with your career goals and personal retirement aspirations.

Continuous learning and development

The job market is in constant flux, and so is the landscape of a portfolio career. Continuous learning and development are essential. Stay abreast of industry trends, seek out professional development opportunities, and be open to acquiring new skills. This not only makes you more versatile but also more resilient in the face of economic changes.

Leveraging technology

Technology plays a crucial role in enabling portfolio careers. For example, a large amount of  D2C / direct selling takes place online and through social media now so, if you’re not familiar with the full functionality offered by platforms such as TikTok and Instagram, it’s time to get learning! More broadly, tools like Slack and Zoom and freelance platforms such as Upwork and Fiverr also play a role by making it easier to manage multiple roles and projects.

The future of work

As the future of work continues to evolve, portfolio careers are likely to become increasingly common. They offer a way to adapt to the changing job market, providing opportunities for continuous growth, flexibility, and personal fulfilment. For those willing to embrace change and take control of their professional destiny, a portfolio career can be incredibly rewarding.

Crafting a pathway to a portfolio career requires careful planning, a willingness to embrace change, and a commitment to continuous learning. By identifying your core skills, building a strong personal brand, and leveraging technology, you can create a dynamic and fulfilling career that adapts to your life’s evolving needs and aspirations. In an era where the only constant is change, a portfolio career offers a sustainable and empowering approach to professional success.

About the author

Susannah Schofield OBE is the Director General of the Direct Selling Association, the industry body for direct-to-consumer (D2C) retail in the UK.

Before she was appointed leader of the Direct Selling Association, Susannah spent 18 years at Royal Mail, culminating in her holding the Board-level role of Commercial & Innovation Director, where she led a team of 300.

A passionate advocate for women and young people in business, Susannah was awarded an OBE for her work in this area in the 2015 Queen’s Honours List.

She continues to champion women in business and is a regular speaker on the importance of flexible working and portfolio careers.

As well as being a published author (of the business strategy book Mind the Gap), Susannah has lectured for The University of Kent and City, University of London, and also served as an advisor to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

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