Leverage your context

This post has been overdue. This is attributable primarily to the fact that I needed to experience some more different cities other than Berlin where I spent all of my career so far before feeling sufficiently qualified to write on the topic of how your location and your network affect freelancing.

In the second half of last year I traveled to London, Dublin and New York to get a sense of what living and working there feels like or, as Paul Graham put it in his essay “Cities and Ambition”1, pick up the messages these places send. End of January this year I moved to Munich, a place I grew up close to, with a yearn for mountains and a curiosity to dive into the local data community in my chest.

1. Location

My personal context is mostly Europe and I can not claim to have lived in places other than Berlin and Munich for an extended period of time. Hence I’ll summarize impressions and abstracted thoughts, take them with a grain of salt.

After graduating university, I landed in Berlin kind of as a default choice in Germany. Comparing the startup environment I “grew up” in professionally in Berlin to other cities I have been to my verdict would be that Berlin bears a bunch of properties quite favorable to freelancing.

If you pick a location to start or continue your freelancing career in, I’d ask myself some of the following questions:

  • What’s the share of small, medium or large companies in town?
  • How does everything but the professional world map to my skills and ambitions?

In order to ask each of these questions, you’ll need to gradually gather more empirical information about the city. The second question will make it easier to plan how to develop your network and through which communities you can gain the most momentum when you’re starting out. Finally, the third question should give you a perspective on earning potential and development of your own skills.

The first question should give you a realistic impression of what kind of income you can expect and how you can map your personal growth ambition to the city. Having a larger variety of companies will allow you to experience different stages of demand and technology cycles, be it greenfield projects, change management or extension of existing setups or targeted improvements and automation. Whatever your current skill level or ambitions are, you want to be in a place where mastering a certain technology or skill will be a catalyst for you to scale that knowledge horizontally to other places or be the basis for unlocking the next skill you want to master.

The second question closely maps to the thoughts Graham expressed in the essay above. Our environment determines us much more than most of us likely realize. If you have doubts about that, go read the essay now - Graham expressed the paradigm much better than I could. In order to leverage your surroundings, think about what things do influence you which are out of your reach. In Europe, London and Dublin would allow you to live in English speaking cities, which might make daily life much easier and diverse than in Paris, Stockholm or Berlin where you’d probably want to learn bits of the local language eventually. On the other hand, English as the official language might also mean much more competition. Dublin would allow you to go to the sea, getting around in London takes probably at least an hour, Berlin stands for freedom but also chaotic public administration and in Munich you can step on a train and be in the mountains in an hour. All of the things mentioned above form or attract people differently. Get a feeling for the messages cities send and what you see yourself doing after work is finished. The base vibe you pick up in a city will influence all other aspects of your life and it will determine how much friends unrelated to your field of work or strangers you meet over time might be catalysts to your career.

2. Network

The main question I asked myself when visiting a city was:

  • What are the top three contextual networks in town?

It will help you assess how much networking can be a catalyst to scale your projects. Somewhat related to the size of companies, you want to think about how working for a certain customer relates to other people in their network. In Berlin, alumni of Rocket Internet ventures as well as early Groupon employees are spread all over the city as many of them went on to start their own companies or became C-level managers. Another catalyst is Factory Berlin2, a coworking community of mostly solo freelancers. As such, networks are not siloed in Big Cos. From my experience, those networks are more closely knit than those you’d find at meetup groups and allow you to jump between industries and business models if you wish to do so. At this point I have to note that I have close to no experience working for proper corporates, where you might network to switch between teams. More importantly than which type of companies or teams you aim for, most definitely look out for such catalyst, contextual networks in the city you see yourself working.

While the networks I mentioned above are quite accessible, the equivalent I know of in Munich - alumni of the CDTM, a joint institute of Munich’s two federal universities - might be slightly less so, as much of the activities and exchange happens in a university context. I’d have a much harder time coming up with numbers two and three for Munich.

I assume places like Stockholm, the Valley and Tel Aviv also have multiple strong networks spread throughout the entire ecosystem. Again, I can’t assess how well this concept maps to places like Dublin for example, where the share of people working in Big Tech Cos is much higher compared to a larger number of smaller startups.

Closing thoughts

Ultimately, the take away conclusion I reached from tipping my toes into different cities is looking for catalysts as early and much as possible. But this can’t be done from reading on the internet. You need to get to a place and if you’ve gotten a feeling and seriously consider going there start to network as soon as possible. I underestimated this when moving to Munich and while I set myself an experimentation period of six months before I’d make a final assessment I have to admit my assumptions about working there were too theoretical. I should have asked freelancers, gone to meetups, acquired projects before moving, not only after.

Nonetheless, both freelancing as well as changing locations have been tremendously beneficial to growing both as a person and with regards to my career.

As a conclusion of this series of reflections, I’d say there never has been a better time than now to go free solo.

This is part 4 of 4 posts on the topic.

Part 1: Context, Market & Formalities

Part 2: Principles & Personality

Part 3: Skills & Your Personal Value Proposition