Turning a Layoff Into Lemonade and Now Lemonade Detroit

Erik Proulx turned his pink slip into a blank slate, and he's been encouraging others to do likewise ever since. The former ad agency copywriter is the creative mind behind Lemonade, a documentary on the transformative powers of getting laid off.

That's right, transformative. Getting canned is bad -- no getting around that. But for Proulx and others who lost ad industry jobs that he depicts in the movie, it was an unexpected opportunity to chase down a long-buried dream. "If you lose a job, it's a kick in the ass to actually do it," he says. "You have a blank canvas to do what you always thought about, whether you're 25, 40 or 60."

In the 30-minute film, one layoff casualty finds his new calling as a coffee roaster, another as a yoga instructor. Another decides to change his gender.

In the 18 months since the film's debut, Proulx figures millions of people have seen the movie on the Documentary Channel or similar European TV networks, where it continues to air, or at one of 10 U.S. appearances he's made to promote it. It's been a staple at pop-up showings sponsored by people who fell in love with the film and wanted to share it with friends. It's also available for free viewing on Proulx's website.

From Glowing Review to Goodbye

Proulx was let go from his ad agency job in October 2008, right when the economy tanked. It happened two days after he'd gotten a glowing review with the promise of a promotion and raise, and was the third time he'd been laid off during a 15-year advertising career.

Not long after, he started a blog called Please Feed the Animals about being unemployed. That led him to stories of other people who'd used their own layoffs to embrace something new, material that ultimately inspired him to make Lemonade.

Now he's the one doing the inspiring. After seeing the movie's two-minute trailer online, one Canadian couple went through matching career overhauls. The husband, a one-time actor who'd turned corporate, went after and got TV, movie and stage roles again and started a production company. His wife, who'd lost her oil industry job, took up photography, wrote a novel and was hired to ghost write an artist's autobiography. "In short, we have a staggeringly different lifestyle with an amazing 6-year-old (who) we teach to always follow her dreams no matter what," they wrote Proulx.

Chronicling Detroit's Rebirth

Proulx, who turns 40 in December, is working on a follow-up: Lemonade: Detroit, a tale of that city's decline and rebirth and the people making it happen. He showed a rough cut of a short version of the film in April at the FutureMidwest Conference in Detroit. He's raising money to pay for a longer version by selling sponsorships, at $1 per frame. And he's got a book in the works.

Meanwhile, he pays the bills running a freelance advertising business, directing commercials and videos. "I feel like I'm able to walk my own talk," he says of what he does. "I feel like I can be an example of what I believe, which is that the least secure place to be right now is a full-time employee anywhere. The biggest thing people need to get over is their own fear of uncertainty. People would rather be unhappy than uncertain. I embrace the opposite of that."

A catastrophe like losing a job can be a catalyst for major life change, but Proulx says the past two years have taught him that you don't need to get laid off to reinvent yourself. "A very high percentage of people who reach out to me are looking for some inspiration to change what they're currently doing, and not necessarily to find a job after a layoff," he says.

© 2010 Entrepreneur Media, Inc. dba SecondAct

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