Life is Hard - My Journey from Engineering to Entrepreneurship to Digital Marketing

life is hard

If you were to ask me how long it took to figure out what I wanted to do in life, I would say, more or less about 26 years. I am currently 28. Like most people my age (or perhaps most people in general), I have spent 93% of my life wandering, unsure of purpose. Ten years ago I graduated high school and entered Ryerson University to study Electrical Engineering.

Today, I am the lead SEM & SEO Specialist working on various digital marketing initiatives. How did that happen?

Early Beginnings

My parents moved us from our home in the Philippines when I was 5 in hopes of having a better future in Canada. My childhood was, for the most part, joyful, but tough. Being an immigrant child is hard; expectations are super high and converging from several directions, all at once. Most immigrant parents are taking a bet on their children to live out successful lives, to build a foundation and legacy for the family name in a new country. These expectations are a lot of pressure for most immigrant children, and I am no exception.

Electrical Engineering

With a Filipino upbringing, the most obvious and straightforward path would be engineering. I studied electrical engineering at Ryerson University. There I learned about the foundations of being an engineer: optimize, simplify, and optimize some more. The underlying purpose of an engineer is to find an economical solution to a technical problem. I also learned the fundamentals of efficient design, programming, and finances along with a few liberal studies.

I started my engineering career as an internship student at the largest electricity utility in Ontario. I created and managed a database that housed about 100,000 data points for 1011 distribution stations across Ontario. The purpose was to assess the condition of each distribution station and determine the priority in which to invest and fix the stations with the worse conditions. This initiative required knowledge of database programming, analytical assessments and an excellent understanding of financial optimization.

When I finished my internship and graduated University, I landed a job as project coordinator for a solar energy company that specialized in installing rooftop PV solar panels. There I learned the essence of project and time management, coordinating with several stakeholders and meeting multiple deadlines. Eventually, I moved on to designing these installations, optimizing for efficient design, forecasting their performance and lastly, comparing the predicted and actual performance. This position required knowledge in analytics assessment, engineering, and optimization. Most of my days were spent on Excel looking at a vast magnitude of solar energy data and trying to make sense of it all.


Although I was good at my job, I didn’t feel fulfilled. Over time, I lost a sense of purpose and became overburdened with stress and anxiety, in an environment that started to make me unhappy. I wanted to do something more with life. So to compensate for my lack of purpose, I started filming. I studied Hollywood cinema in University and always had a knack for storytelling. I had lots of ideas for short films and commercials that one day I just decided to start creating them and share them on Youtube and Facebook. People began taking notice, and I got a few pro-bono gigs making videos for events, weddings, and small upcoming brands. I loved it! But I never turned it into a business. At the time, I didn’t think I knew how. I wanted to just keep it as a creative outlet where I could release my stress and anxiety rooted in my day job.

Shit Happens…

At the same time, I started reading very spiritual self-help books to lift my spirits. I finished reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and my view on life changed. I appreciated the different outlook and perspective the book had to offer. And I also really wanted to buy a motorcycle and take a trip across Canada. I researched on various bikes and looked at a few courses and applied to get my license. Then, shit happens.

During the second day of my motorcycle course, I got into an accident, fell off my bike and broke my left ankle. I was out of commission for about six months. During that time, I was working remotely, but I was no longer able to shoot videos. My spirit was at its lowest point, coupled with the stress and anxiety of work. During those six months, I reevaluated my life and started thinking about what I wanted to do. I had a love for videography, but I didn’t want to make videos for other people, I wanted to do it for me. That’s when I decided I needed to start my own business - a brand I could create and market and focus all of my creativity.


When my ankle healed, I came back to work and gave my one-month notice. I was going to start my own business! I had a purpose once again. At the time, I was really into Canadian-made menswear but had trouble getting my hands on them without having to travel to Toronto. I thought to myself; I should start a menswear shop in Mississauga where I live. I went through the whole business planning stage, bootstrapped with all my savings and studied all various forms of marketing. I took as many free online courses I could find and studied HTML, CSS, and JavaScript to create my website. I had a comprehensive business plan filled with financial and marketing strategies.

At the time, I was pushing for guerrilla-style marketing: low spend, high gain. I researched, learned and implemented Content Marketing, Search Engine Optimization, organic Social Media Marketing and organic Video Marketing. I didn’t want to spend a dime on ads or marketing agencies because firstly, I didn’t have the budget for it and secondly, I didn’t see the ROI for it (at the time). I opened my shop in late Spring, and I felt so proud of the work I accomplished. The grand opening was a success, and I made my first sale that day.

Shit Happens… again

Several months after the grand opening, my shop was failing. I was having a hard time balancing all the activities required to keep a business afloat. My financial and marketing strategies were veering off course, but I kept doing the same things over and over thinking it would change for the better. I wasn’t getting enough foot traffic, and when I did, people loved the merchandise but didn’t like the price. My video marketing and SEO initiatives started gaining momentum but weren’t as fast as I had hoped. So I finally decided to try pay-per-click via Facebook and Adwords. Admittedly, I had no idea what I was doing. So I needed to learn fast! Through trial and error, I finally figured out best practices that worked for me. However, my foot traffic marginally increased while my ad spends went through the roof.

Eventually, I found myself in the red and could no longer sustain the business. My overhead costs were just way too expensive, and there wasn’t enough revenue to make up for the expenses. My spirit was yet again at its lowest point; the lowest its ever been. The stress and anxiety I experienced in my previous day job was no match for the stress and anxiety I felt owning a failing business. I was uninspired, unmotivated and wasn’t getting enough sleep. The shop I built became my prison, and I thought I had no way out.

Life is Hard

Through long conversations and counselling with friends and family, I finally decided to cut my losses and close the shop for good. I started applying for engineering jobs, but since I was away from the industry for awhile, I barely qualified anymore. I landed a few interviews, but all fell through. I had to reevaluate my life and career again, but this time I needed to do it fast because I was flat out broke. And so I took a hard look at my interests, education, skills, and experiences to see where I could go and what would keep me happy.

I had a strong background in analytics, design-theory and efficiency optimization through engineering. I taught myself front-end development building my website. And I had implemented various marketing strategies via content marketing, search engine optimization and social media marketing. What could I do with these things?

Digital Marketing

While researching for career options, I found an article about a former engineer who switched their career to digital marketing. I started researching on the different types of digital marketing positions: Technical SEO, SEO strategist, PPC Manager, Social Media Coordinator, Content Writer, etc. The more I researched, the more I got excited! I looked at all the requirements and qualifications, and despite where my career started, I had very relevant skills and experiences for these positions. The hard lessons I learned owning a business also gave me another advantage - I knew what not to do when marketing for a business.

5 Essential Requirements in Marketing

The number of transferable skills between engineering and digital marketing is remarkable. Recall, the purpose of an engineer is to find an economical solution to a technical problem. It is more or less the same function as a digital marketer. A digital marketer’s end goal is to achieve a high return on investment with low cost per acquisition, through a particular set of channels or platforms. Being analytical, I took a look at my own life, skills, and experiences and assessed whether a career in digital marketing was appropriate. I found myself looking at the following:

1. Data-Driven Initiatives

The need to analyze thousands of data points and make a compelling story out of it in engineering is not only a “nice-to-have” in marketing but is now a requirement. Long gone are the days of businesses relying solely on commercials and billboards. Unlike traditional marketing, digital marketing bears the burden of having to prove its value because of its ability to quantify every single point of interaction between consumer and brand. However, with digital marketing, data allows for testing to make a digital marketer’s efforts more efficient. Data-driven marketing is where I can apply my analytics skills and storytelling abilities.

2. Defining Goals and Strategy

The digital marketing landscape is an unforgiving place for those who don’t define a goal. 80% of the work in digital marketing is understanding the current situation and determining the desired situation. The gap in between the present and the desired situation is where strategy comes into play. Failing to define a goal is where I believe most digital marketers fail with their initiatives: by creating open-ended campaigns that don’t meet a necessary end goal. They are merely doing tactical action items without seeing the bigger picture. Defining goals and strategy is an excellent parallel to an engineer’s function. An engineer needs to fully understand the given problem along with the constraints and parameters. There are likely multiple solutions to a given problem, but it is up to the engineer to determine the best solution that operates within a set of constraints yet fulfills the parameters required.

3. Test, optimize and simplify

Before committing to a specific change on a webpage, A/B testing is required to either prove or disprove a hypothesis. Digital marketing is an iterative process where small changes can make a huge impact. Similarly, before launching a full-scale production, engineers need to test their designs with prototypes or simulations to make improvements. The idea is to optimize, simplify and optimize some more. My understanding of continual improvement through design-testing and optimization in engineering is a skill also required in digital marketing.

4. Understanding Human Behaviour

Although data-driven marketing is necessary, digital marketers cannot solely rely on it. People are people, and human behaviour can be challenging to make sense of and tricky to quantify. Back in the day, traditional SEO strategists optimized websites solely for search engines. Today, contemporary SEO strategists optimize sites for real-life users. UX designers have become an integral part of the equation when it comes to SEO and SEM initiatives. A UX designer’s purpose is to enhance user satisfaction. Understanding human behaviour is where I can apply my experiences interacting with people who came to my shop. When having a business, your success and failure rely heavily on customer satisfaction. A digital marketer needs to leverage user-satisfaction into their strategy to yield significant results.

5. Positive Client-Relationship

Both engineers and digital marketers need to communicate their assessments precisely to a client. But as a former business owner, this is where I felt I could make a huge impact. Experiencing my entrepreneurial failings, allows me to not only empathize with business owners but sympathize with them as well. I understand the day-to-day stresses of having to keep a business afloat. I know the anxiety that comes with being an entrepreneur. And I can most definitely communicate in their language. A business owner just wants to know - are we up or down? Being not only in the engineering world but having my own business allows me to create a sympathetic and positive client-relationship - a relationship necessary to thrive in the digital marketing industry.

From Engineer to Business Owner to Marketer

After several days of thinking and meditating, I finally took the plunge and started applying for digital marketing positions, especially ones that dealt with SEO. 2 years ago around this time, I eventually restarted my career as an SEO engineer. Over time, I started managing PPC campaigns and became the lead on both SEO and SEM initiatives. Today, I have an exciting and fulfilling career where I get to leverage my skills, education, interests and experiences all in one. The purpose I had been longing for was clear as ever.

I love assessing a significant amount of data and making sense of it. I love leveraging videos for brand awareness campaigns. I love seeing my clients get excited when I report to them about an increase in conversions. I love everything about digital marketing thanks to engineering and entrepreneurship. To this day, I always wear my Iron Ring. It’s a reminder that even though I don’t have a degree in marketing or computer science, I am qualified to work in the digital marketing industry.

I’m not a working engineer, but I still practice the essence of engineering. I no longer own a business, but I operate on behalf of my clients as if I do.

Neil Laborce.

Written on December 10, 2017