by Pamela Skillings
An excerpt from Escape from Corporate America: A Practical Guide to Creating the Career of Your Dreams, by Pamela Skillings. Paperback: 352 pages, Ballantine Books, reprinted with permission.
Return to main article Swim in a Smaller Pond.
Name: Ben Cikanek
Previous occupation: Management consultant
Current occupation: Executive director of operations at Kidrobot
Ben Cikanek doesn’t seem like the corporate type. He works surrounded by toys in his office at Kidrobot, the world’s premier creator and retailer of limited-edition art toys and apparel. Kidrobot products are collaborations with famous artists and have a serious cult following. New releases of limited-edition Kidrobot toys have been known to cause near riots in the company’s stores in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
But Ben wasn’t always on the cutting edge. “I think my reason for studying business was partially because my mom always imagined me as a professional,” he remembers. During college, Ben scored an interview for a high-paying summer job with one of the Big 5 accounting firms.
“They had these summer jobs and were throwing money around,” he says. The firm wooed him with dinners at expensive restaurants and limousine rides. Ben thought he had the job in the bag and was surprised when he didn’t get it.
“I called them and asked them to reconsider because I had no other options for the summer and had just assumed they were going to hire me,” he says. “Which is kind of hilarious in retrospect, but made sense in my twenty-year-old mind.”
Shockingly, the company actually returned his call and offered him the job. “That just reconfirmed my philosophy in life that a no is never actually a no.”
Ben had a good experience that summer and landed an offer for a full-time job after graduation. “At the time I was applying to film schools, and I thought I would do the job for a few months and then get the hell out.”
When he didn’t get into the prestigious film programs he’d applied for, Ben had to rethink his strategy. “At that point, I was out of school and working for this big accounting firm, making piles of money that I didn’t know what to do with as a kid of that age,” he says. “But I was completely miserable and exhausted from flying back and forth every single week between Denver and Chicago.” He soon reached a decision. “I pretty much completely hated my life and was about to quit my job and just figure something else out entirely,” he remembers. Then he discovered the company’s Accelerated Solutions Environment (ASE).
“ASE was a little spin-off suborganization at the firm that did this incredible creative problem-solving work for clients,” he explains. “They seemed like they were having a lot of fun, so I would just go back every day and try to convince them to let me work for them.”
Eventually, he won them over and was offered a job. He loved the work, but didn’t love the idea of the traditional consulting career path. “I wasn’t cut out to go from management consultant to senior consultant to manager to partner,” he says. “So I structured a contractor relationship with the ASE so that I could work two hundred days a year and have time for my outside interests.”
He used that time to go to film school, study at the Improv in Chicago, and write and produce plays. “I had this very big creative life outside of my work.”
When Paul Budnitz, the founder of Kidrobot, asked to meet about a job opportunity, Ben happily agreed: “Paul was very interesting to me because he was written up in Wired magazine as the first human being ever to edit a feature-length film on a home computer.”
Paul sat down and handed Ben a study of Kidrobot’s Dunny figure, a vinyl action figure that has been reimagined by dozens of artists over the years. The Dunny series is one of Kidrobot’s most popular product lines. “Today we sell millions of dollars’ worth every year,” Ben says.
But at the time, Ben told Paul that he had no interest in leaving his comfortable part-time consulting gig. “I told him I didn’t want the job and I didn’t want a boss and he said, ‘You’re perfect!’ ” Ben remembers. “And the truth of the matter was that I was getting pretty damn sick of doing consulting work for those big companies.” He ended up accepting the position as the director of operations for Kidrobot.
It didn’t hurt that the job came with a healthy potential upside. “I have the kind of deal that says when Kidrobot succeeds, I get to enjoy the benefits of that success,” Ben says. “As just a flat salary job, it probably wouldn’t have been as appealing to me.”
That deal was a pretty good move on Ben’s part. For 2008, Kidrobot is on track to generate ten times the revenue the company earned in 2004. Future plans include expanding the Kidrobot clothing line (currently sold in Kidrobot outlets and at Barneys New York), opening approximately twenty new stores, and much more.
“It’s hard to remember the person I was two years ago,” says Ben. “The breadth of what I have been exposed to and the energy here have really changed me.”
He loves the feeling that he is helping to build a company. “I think everybody has that sensibility because the autonomy that Paul gave me, I have in turn granted to everyone else here,” he says. Despite his busy work schedule, Ben also still makes time for theater projects. He is the artistic director for a theater company in New York called Kids with Guns.”We just had our latest production reviewed by The New York Times.”
He can’t imagine ever going back to a corporate gig. “Everyone that I know is miserable in their corporate job,” he says. “I think the reason people don’t quit is because you build up a lifestyle around your job, and no matter how much you make, even if it’s half a million dollars a year, you are going to figure out how to spend it.”
Ben Cikanek’s Advice on Escaping Corporate America
“You’ve got to pay the bills, but if you are willing to work your ass off you can do two things at once. And once that second thing takes off enough for you to jump ship, then you do it.”
Return to main article Swim in a Smaller Pond.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
Pamela Skillings is a successful entrepreneur, a certified career coach, and the author of Escape from Corporate America: A Practical Guide to Creating the Career of Your Dreams, a career guide for entrepreneurs and other renegades. For more information, see her Website, Escape from Corporate America.