Lesson №1: Never run out of money
In the summer of 2016 most of my friends were deep in the job-hunt. I on the other hand was still busy writing my thesis and finishing my graduate internship in Amsterdam. As an intern in a small environmental consultancy, I felt like I was juggling with knives, while the future was uncertain. About a month before the internship ended, I presented my work to one of the company’s clients. To my surprise they loved my work so much, that they asked me whether I would like to do a project for them. “Is that a proposal?” I asked. “Yes it is, if you want it”. “Of course!”, I replied, and this is how the long and winding road of my freelance career started.
Over the next months I did things I never thought I would. I registered my own business in the chamber of commerce, I created invoices, did project management, visited clients, toured factory facilities, all while wearing trousers and a sports jacket. I was working passionately on the project, making sure that my work was of value to the client. For the first time in my life I had something I was building on my own and things were looking that they would get better. I had a crazy sense of optimism and I started making plans for my future projects.
The first thing I did with my consulting fee was to hire the best Dutch language teacher money could buy. I had seen many foreign students struggling to get a job in my field because of the language barrier. I figured that if I was gonna have any luck with jobs or social life in this country, I had to learn the native tongue. That was easier said than done though, as the Dutch have an insane amount of regional accents given the size of the country. To make things worse, in the west where I lived, they invariably switch to English if they sense a hint of foreign accent. But I would stand my ground firm as rock. I would not switch back to English, even if that meant having 7-year-old conversations with local people for the next half-year.
My biggest goal at the time was to land a project with the local municipality about sustainability. I found the opportunities would be endless for the city, so I started putting the word out and introducing myself at events. Later I also gathered a team to make a youtube channel about sustainability. I ended up going to a conference in Belgium to meet contacts from the EU, in order to get potential funding. However the trip was an utter failure and that point I started realising that money was running out of my pocket like blood from a severed artery.
By December I had spent pretty much all of my earnings from the freelance project. I calculated that based on my savings, I could manage until March, April at best. My rent was quite expensive for a man in dire straits. To make things worse, there was nothing new on the horizon. Nor did I know that to land new projects would take on average up to six months. Furthermore, the municipality did not seem that interested in working with a foreign recent graduate who didn’t speak the language and had no formal business experience or local network . My initial expectations had no firm grip on reality and I was taking tough life lessons.
Lesson №2: When you do run out of money, be flexible
By the beginning of the new year, it was obvious that if I was not getting a project anytime soon, I was going to be broke. The hardest part was that I wasn’t ready to give up my dream of being a freelancer and doing all the projects that I wanted. So I did not look for a steady job. Instead I doubled down on the municipality project. I called them every week and I got rejected every week. I called my old clients, doubled down on learning Dutch as well. I read every business book I could find and steadily started polishing my LinkedIN. I also went to quite a few events and eventually I met with a interesting startup in Amsterdam. They wanted to work with me to develop an innovative project. However, when the push came to shove they did not have any funding for that and neither could I afford to wait.
February arrived and due to expenses that I hadn’t taken into account, I was running out of money by the end of the month! What was I gonna do? I didn’t want to go back to Greece or ask my parents for help. I needed cash and fast! But first I had to reduce unnecessary expenses, such as good food and yoga classes. The rent was next: I had a yearly contract, so I wanted to break out of it and find something cheaper. Luckily, two of my housemates were also leaving, thus moved in to a cheaper room in our house. Job done. Next move was finding that extra cash to keep me in Holland, thus I had to be once again creative.
I sat in the living room and wrote down on a piece of paper all the skills that I possessed. Two of them was that I had worked as a waiter and that I spoke Greek. You can see where this was going. I called and emailed all the Greek restaurants in the area. Finally someone from a family tavern in a nearby town replied. I drank a coffee with my future boss, a 32-year-old Dutch-born Greek man and we got along well from the start. The only problem was that I completely sucked as a waiter. I would forget orders, drop things and I didn’t speak good enough Dutch.
Eventually the boss confronted me: “Look Theo, I like you and I like your company, but your are not that good a waiter. Maybe we can find something else you can do. You told me you are good with computers, while I have no idea about them. So how about you help me with that?”. Fortunately I had gained experience in online marketing during my internship; I knew how to design business cards and send massive emails.
I would go to the restaurant once a week. Sitting silently at a table next to the bar with my laptop, I would work for his online campaign. If the restaurant was getting too busy, I would grab the disk and deliver drinks to the customers with a big smile. It was humble work, but I kept calm and carried on, because I could see a direct result of my efforts. I felt useful. The boss was a very good manager and knew how to motivate his staff. I learnt a lot from him and that job helped me from drowning financially and emotionally during that tough period.
Lesson №3: If you are going to take risks, first protect the downside
The biggest lesson I learnt from this experience was that whenever taking any sort of risk, you have to protect the downside first. You have to make sure that if you fail, you have a sofa to crush, a second job, a warm meal to eat, a solid partner. That removes a lot of the stress of failure and helps you get back on your feet again. Losing is part of the game, and small experiments, small failures, are necessary for learning. The time at the restaurant made me also realise that I had actually achieved some things last year. I had started my own business in a foreign country with very little experience. I had tried very hard to learn the language within very limited time. I had taken a project fresh out of university and I finished it on time and within budget. I met many new people and I tried my luck in acquiring different projects while learning how to sell myself from scratch.
And sell myself I did. Eventually I managed to bounce back and started applying for steady jobs. This would help me gain experience, network and funds if I ever wanted to try freelancing again. In other words, I was going to protect the downside. To my surprise, my Dutch level after nine months was good enough to convince people that I can master the language. This opened up three times more positions than before. I started applying like there was no tomorrow: I sent fifty letters in two weeks and I got invited to three interviews. I got two job offers and accepted a well-paying job in the sustainability department of global materials company. Happy with myself, I booked the cheapest ticket to the south of France, where I dissappeared for a couple of weeks.
After finishing my last Sunday shift at the restaurant, I grabbed my bike to ride home. I stopped for a minute next to my favourite canal. I stared at the moon reflecting on the surface of the water. When was the last time I had actually took the time to enjoy simple things like that? I was living in one of the most beautiful cities in the world and I had forgotten to take the time to appreciate it. I stepped on my bike again feeling at peace with myself. I rode back home confident that everything would turn up alright in the end.