Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Value of an Hour: Reductio Ad Absurdium

I'm working out of the Sandbox collaborative space at Wannalancit this month.  This experience presents a lot of natural networking opportunities, and it has allowed me to meet many of the members of the Winter Accelerator class.

One member of the class is a budding commercial filmmaker who is charging a (very) low fee to clients as he gains his footing, grows his network, gets established, etc.  When I heard the fee, I said to him, "Let me guess -- you're constantly hearing 'charge more' from everyone around you."

When he confirmed that, I said, "Don't listen to people who say your price signals a lack of confidence in yourself.  In fact, the reality may be the complete opposite -- maybe you're so confident in yourself that you are willing to start w/this low fee because you know you're good.  You'll do what you have to do to get started, and once your value is clear, you'll be able to command a better fee."

One thing I'm sure he contends with is the whole "What's an hour of your time really worth?" question.  I've already done a few blog entries on that particular question -- I think it's a fascinating one that most people probably never stop to fully dissect.  While it's important to bear the question in mind, it's also important not to get too carried away with it.

Rather than think in terms of the per-value worth of everything I do, I frame a lot of my work in terms of what I need to make each month. There is a bar I need to clear, and there are five separate means by which I clear it (and I realize there's an uphill-both-ways-in-the-snow quality to that, but I also realize that one person who works one 100-hour-a-week job is actually outworking someone with 5 part-time jobs with fewer total hours, so I think the whole 'here's how many jobs I work' thing is often overdone).

One thing I do to help clear the bar is tutoring.  Today, for instance, I'll tutor a high school kid who goes to Lincoln-Sudbury for the SAT before driving to BU to tutor an undergrad taking Introductory Calculus.  In theory, I'll make good money for it (3 total hours of work, billing at 50/per).  However, more detailed accounting makes that per-hour figure far less sexy.  Factor in the driving time, mileage costs, and the downtime (for instance, if I'm 10 minutes early, that's not billed time) and suddenly the per-hour figure falls precipitously. Now, take out the prep time, which was considerable for the second student (it took me a few hours w/Khan Academy, some old textbooks, and some sample tests I found online to get back into Gameday Shape for Calculus).  Now that $50 per hour has fallen to something barely better than minimum wage (although, in fairness, the *cost* of that time should be amortized across several sessions, as I'll have the student all semester).

So should that suggest that I reconsider that line of work?

If anything, maybe it means I should try to steer students towards Skype, which is amazingly more efficient than schlepping around from Lowell to Sudbury to Kenmore and back before the Super Bowl.

But if it means dropping this line of work (which I enjoy doing, by the way) how do I snap my fingers and replace the 2k+/month I'm now making for tutoring?

I'm starting to see more and more money coming across the table w/my start-up related work.  But y'know what?  If you take the paychecks I've been getting, and start adding travel time, travel expense, and prep time into the denominator, that money starts to look less impressive, too.

Same for the Reserves.  A drill weekend is great, but prep time + travel + duty day time cuts into the hourly sum quite a bit.  So maybe that needs to go, too.

Ditto for teaching CS 101.  I get a nice monthly paycheck, but the prep work is intense (mostly b/c it's a first go-around), it's a six-hour commitment when I include travel on top of the three teaching hours, and there are e-mails to answer, papers to grade, homeworks to review, etc.  So if I really thought I was such hot stuff that I couldn't work for less than $50/hr, I'd have to drop that too, right?

Dividend investing requires minimal time, and comes out better month-to-month (compounding has a funny way of doing that).  So by a strict application of time-to-value, that's the only thing I should keep.  Never mind the fact that it doesn't even come close to paying my most major two bills (mortgage and day care).

Of course, I'm being facetious about whether I'd drop ANY of those things.  For the short- and even medium-term, I'll happily keep them all, thank you very much.

I will gladly accept, and even embrace, the fact that I'm juggling several balls to make it all work.  After all, it's my own choosing -- I forsook the more standard finance/consulting MBA path to pursue an entrepreneurial vision that is slowly but surely gaining traction all the time.

As long as I can get enough time each day for sleep/exercise to stay healthy, and am able to spend some weeknights and weekend days w/family, I'll do whatever else I have to in order to make sure I can keep my neck and ears fully above the waterline while I kick to stay afloat.

The bigger picture is that I'm creating value in ways that's going to pay dividends (figurative or literal) down the road.  Narrowly focusing on the short-term, immediate return on each hour of time seems like a good way to stay idle...and broke.  


C R Krieger said...

Great questions.

However, if you weren't doing the tutoring, what would you be doing with the time?

Regards  —  Cliff

The New Englander said...

For right now, it's a moot point, b/c tutoring helps me clear my monthly hurdle.. but a good answer would be, "Building up my business -- researching, calling prospects, improving our material, etc."

...and that's why tutoring will be the first thing I shed once I'm able to clear the hurdle without it.