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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Self Employment - A Different Kind of Stress and a Delicious Recipe for French Onion Soup

Now that my fourth month of self employment is coming to a close and I am getting ready to embark on the next major group of listings for Queen Elizabeth II, I have had a chance to reflect on my state of mind and to note some of the major differences between how I feel four months in compared to my former life as a very highly paid employee.

For starters, it is true that I have far less money to spend than I had then. I cannot spend money on things without thinking about whether or not the expense fits within my budget. Steph and I are having to plan our wedding on a modest budget, which we would not have to do if I was back to making six figures as I was. I will think twice about taking the car versus transit, due to the cost of parking. We only go out once a week at the most now, instead of 2-3 times as before.

However, despite this, I can honestly say that I am no less comfortable than I was before. Steph and I still have all the things that are important:

1. A nice, clean house to live in, located in a convenient area.
2. Three fantastic meals a day that are much healthier than what we ate before.
3. Basic comforts such as coffee or tea, snacks and entertainment when we want them.
4. A running vehicle that we can use when we need it.
5. Adequate clothing.
6. Room in our budget to plan a modest wedding and vacations.
7. The freedom to pursue a line of work of my own making, on my own terms.

I think the main reason why not much has changed for me in terms of comfort is that I have looked after the most important of all human desires first: the desire to set and determine our own destiny. As employees, we never really get to do this because there are always other stakeholders who have the power to change the direction of the organization away from what we value. So even though we may buy into the overall vision of a company when we start working for it, over time the fit can come undone, as it frequently does.  When that happens, it takes increasing amount of comforts to compensate for the loss of basic freedom. The big house, fancy car, suits, vacations, club memberships, dinners out etc. act almost like drugs, numbing the pain that comes from knowing deep down that someone else owns most all of your time.  While these comforts are needed at the time to keep you from being miserable, you may find that you don't really derive much long-term satisfaction from any of them. Have you ever gone away on an expensive vacation where you had to work like a dog to get ready to go away and then had to work like a dog to catch up on your return? A week after you return it feels like you never went away. So the bottom line right now seems to be that while we have to watch our money carefully now, it hasn't really affected us for the worse.

The second major difference is that I don't live for the weekend anymore. I enjoy the weekend when it comes because I don't clamour to spend it working on my passion, which is my stamps. Instead I use it to visit with Steph's family, and friends, as well as relaxing and spending time with Steph. I don't think about it ending because what follows it is a week of stimulating fun, work and I now look forward to each coming week, wondering how much I will sell, what the response to my blog posts will be, wondering what philatelic discoveries I will make and how many stamps I will successfully list. As an employee I always found myself yearning for the weekend so that I could spend some time working on what I actually love.

One major similarity is that I do experience stress. But the major compensating difference is that it is a completely different kind of stress: all of it comes from within, instead of being a reaction to external things. My stress is borne out of a drive to meet and then exceed my goals. These goals relate to maintaining a certain posting schedule for my blogs, ensuring that I ship orders out on the same day, making sure that I communicate with all my customers on a regular basis and listing all my inventory before 2017. None of these goals have been dictated to me by other people. I no longer have to think about whether I am meeting my targets because I might be demoted or lose my job. I do have to worry about whether or not I will succeed. But I have a theory on this: I think that if you have a product or service that people want and you approach your business from the perspective of wanting to help people AT A PROFIT, you will succeed - as long as you have enough capital to grow the business to the point where it can sustain itself and pay salaries without compromising growth. The key is consistency of effort, constant evaluation and adjustment, listening to and engaging your customers and being prepared to return to work temporarily if your capital runs out. One of the great advantages to an internet based business is that once it is built, it can be run part time in the evenings. So even if I get to the point where my savings cannot sustain me, I can always get a 6 month or a 1 year contract as a controller. I can save enough money in that time to last me another year. The key is not to force the business into a loss position by drawing salary when sales are insufficient to support it.

This last point, I believe is very, very critical to long term satisfaction and happiness. I have not had to think about my performance from any other perspective than how I feel about it for four months now and I have to say that the feeling of freedom is amazing. I'm probably one of the worst bosses I've ever had, because I tend not to take breaks and I tend to push myself really hard. But I feel at the end of the week that I have earned my rest. A friend asked me the other day what my hours are and after some thinking, I replied that my typical week is 60-65 hours! I couldn't believe it myself. I screamed bloody murder at having to work 55 hours a week during tax time, but now I'm working even harder. Only it doesn't feel nearly as stressful as tax season did. Part of the reason may be that I am working largely alone - undisturbed by others and free of all office politics.

I bolded the part about profit because I think that one reason why many businesses fail is that they engage in unprofitable transactions thinking "oh I'll make it up with my other profitable ones". Now there can be good reasons to engage in transactions that are either profit neutral or low profit - namely when you are trying to acquire a new customer. But there is no good reason to engage in loss transactions. Even you are trying to acquire new customers, your willingness to work for free will send entirely the wrong message. I accept most offers that customers make on my stamps, but I also regularly turn them down when they are too low to make me a profit. Customers are creatures of habit, so if a customer isn't willing to pay you enough for your product to make a living, there is no point wasting your time with them because they generally won't get better. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that if you give them a super good deal initially that they will spend more later because they generally won't. So make sure that you charge a fair and reasonable price from the start and look to deliver value to the customer in non-monetary ways by providing fast and efficient service, maintaining an informational blog that they can read, of something else of value to them.

That about sums up my observations on my state of mind after four months. Now onto an absolutely delicious recipe that I tried for French Onion Soup. You will need:

3 pounds of onions - I used yellow, but any kind will do.
1 tablespoon of flour
3 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup of grated Gruyere cheese
1 cup toasted French bread cubes
1 litre of beef stock or if vegetarian substitute 2-3 tablespoons of Vegemite dissolved in 1 litre boiling water.
2 cups of dry red wine.

My quantities of cheese and bread are based on 2 servings in stoneware soup bowls. You will have 2-4 portions of leftover soup. If you want to make more portions then increase the bread cubes and cheese proportionately - 1/2 cup bread cubes and 1/4 cup cheese per serving.

The first step is to slice the onion into rings and separate them. Put the butter and oil into a large stockpot and melt over medium-low heat. Add the onions, put the lid on and cook for 20 minutes stirring occasionally until the onions are softened. Then take the lid off and add the salt and sugar, turn the heat up to medium-high and cook the onion for another 15 minutes until they are soft and brown, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon. After the onions have reached this point, sprinkle them with the flour and cook for another 2-3 minutes. Then gradually add 2 cups of the stock, whisking it in to prevent the flour from becoming lumpy. Then add the rest of the stock and the wine. Turn the heat down to medium and simmer, covered for 30 minutes to let the flavours combine.

Preheat the oven to 425F. place the toasted French bread cubes into the bottom of each serving bowl. There should still be about 3/4 of the room left for soup. When the soup is done, ladle it into the ovenproof bowls until almost completely full. Then add the cheese on top. Put the bowls in the oven for 8 minutes or until the cheese is melted and bubbly. Serve with the rest of the French bread loaf and plenty of butter.

I find that this soup is very tasty without being overly salty the way French onion soup often is. I changed the original recipe to reduce the amount of stock by 1/2, as I like the heartiness of a thick soup. But you can use up to 2 litres of stock in this soup, and can always add more salt at the end if it is not salty enough for your taste.


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