About 17 years ago, I moved to New York City to join a large nonprofit. It was a dream come true for me. Over the following 13 years, I received an excellent education worth far more than any MBA, and learned from outstanding mentors.
I loved my job.
I got married in 2008 to a wonderful girl from Germany, whom I had met through friends. She joined me in New York, leaving family, friends, and home behind. I was always appreciative of her sacrifice. But from the moment I fell in love with her, I knew that I had to be ready to do the same. It was only fair.
In 2011, while planning the next few years of our life together, my wife and I discovered she had become pregnant with our first child.
We were stunned.
We decided to move to Germany to be closer to my wife's family. Her sister was pregnant at the same time, and we liked the idea of the cousins growing up together. Germany had a strong economy, good (and inexpensive) health care, and was family friendly: In addition to a lower crime rate than the U.S., the shrinking German population has led to government-approved incentives for parents.
If you've ever moved to another country, you know how it goes. The first few months are exciting, like an extended vacation. In our area, most everyone speaks (some) English...but I found it important to learn the language, so I began attending a German language course--every morning, Monday through Friday.
Fast forward some months. The money was running out. It was difficult to find work in my field because of my limited language skills. I was willing to try other things, but we ended up living on assistance from the German social system (their equivalent of welfare).
I remember writing an essay towards the end of my language course (in broken German, mind you) defending our position. "My wife and her parents have paid taxes for years," I asserted, passionately. "They've supported this system for so long, it's only right that we get something back now that we're in need."
But on the inside, I was ashamed.
Ashamed that I wasn't able to provide for my wife and our new little boy. Ashamed that I had become dependent on the government. It lit a fire under me. I was willing to do whatever it took to get my family out of this position.
Before long, I noticed a need around me. There was a host of German executives and companies who needed to better their English communication skills. I started consulting for a few clients, and one job led to another. Eventually, I broadened out as I found work with U.S. companies as well.
Unwittingly, I had started my own business.
Why this matters to you
Whether you work for yourself or not, this story should affect you. The economy is drastically different than it was 50 years ago, or even 20 years ago. The number of freelancers and independent contractors continues to rise, and the rules are changing. Sure, the government intervenes at times (as they did recently with Uber)...But that's like trying to block a tsunami with a few sandbags.
I've studied the meaning of the term "entrepreneur", and even written about it. In my opinion, an entrepreneur is someone who runs his or her own company, leaving behind the structure and stability an employer offers and taking on the risk (and reward) of working for self. My definition includes the freelancers and self-employed. These persons aren't all viewed as innovators, but they are forced to expand their horizons and learn about all areas of business.
And most importantly: If we don't hustle, we go hungry.
This is why you hear so much about the rise of the entrepreneur--despite reports and analytics that claim the opposite. The truth is, most researchers don’t count sole proprietorships (companies owned and operated by one person with no employees) as real companies.
But the number of these individuals is rising, and not just in America. Technology has provided more opportunities for self-employment, and increasing numbers are taking on risk and reward. Whether they truly want to or not, is a different story.
I was one of the latter. I would have happily put in an honest 40 hours a week in exchange for the security of working for someone else. But a few months on welfare convinced me that I had to move forward, and not wait around for a job to come to me.
These past few years, I've learned more than I could in any business school. When you begin working for yourself, you are the R&D, sales and marketing, and finance departments. You learn the value of sincere, authentic communication. I'm still learning, and will continue to do so. But my work isn't theory: It's bias to action, trial and error, do or die. It's not all glamorous, but it becomes a part of you.
To all of you fellow business owners, self-employed and independent contractors out there, I respect you. Your job isn’t an easy one. Some of us chose this life. But for others, this life chose us.
We are the new entrepreneurs. Hear us roar.