I envy owners of Berlin Spätkaufs (Spätis): They buy low and sell high. For €.50 per unit price (or less), they get Fisherman’s Friend mints and turn around and sell them for €1.50 or €1.70. They have a very clear and up-to-the-minute accounting of profit and loss, of what is valuable and what is not, of what sells and what stays. The markup on low-priced products is unbelievably high and unbelievably unnoticed. Volume is key, and products are undifferentiated and invariable. Value is perceived and gained in the instant or a short time after purchase. Cash changes hands and products last a week or much less. Very little surprise, wonder, or thought is provoked by a purchase of mints.
I don’t sell products. In the knowledge industry, as most of us are in, the math is not so simple. How do you price your time and knowledge, measure the value you impart to people, and get your clients to pay for it? Mints are easily countable and quantifiable; knowledge and experience, much less so.
The knowledge and service industries deal in intangibles: feelings, experience, perspectives, counseling, group and individual psychology, understanding, growth, and information. Time horizons are long and value in this context varies substantially from person to person.
From Teacher to Solopreneur
Since becoming a teacher in 2010, I have relabeled, repositioned, and reskilled myself as a trainer, consultant, lecturer, editor, writer, and moderator. I no longer call the people I work with students, but clients. Time is measured in quarters and calendar years. I am accountant, marketing and sales director, business development executive, director of studies, key accounts manager, web and social media VP, copywriter, CFO, and office assistant, all while carrying out direct client-interfacing functions, roles, and tasks.
For most of us working in this field, we are self-employed business people or freelancers. And my choice to work in Germany as a freelancer has meant constant adaptation. I was little prepared after leaving the Berlin School of English to be my own business. Learning and adapting my approach to work has been promising, unclear, exhilarating, down, up, changing, and scary. I’ve headed in one encouraging direction, backtracked, changed course, and sometimes gone even further down a previously tread path. I have been steadily searching since 2010 for ways to make work better and to make it work for me. Where to begin has been a regular question.
Professional development to me is the marriage of ideas from management professor, author, and researcher Michael Porter with those of career counselor and self-work author Richard Nelson Bolles. One phrase from Porter has stayed with me: “stuck in the middle,” a phrase to describe businesses competing on price only, without a strategy, unfocused and undifferentiated. From Bolles, the sentence, “No one is going to care of or rescue you or your career. You have to do it yourself.” I don’t want to be stuck in the middle and I don’t expect or want anyone else to shape my career.