A Teachable Moment
This open letter from a young customer support employee of Yelp in San Francisco to her CEO has garnered a variety of comments that display a common bifurcation: some are sympathetic to her struggle to get by in a very costly region on a modest salary, while others wonder if the letter is an Onion parody of clueless entitlement: An Open Letter To My CEO.
I am sympathetic to anyone who arrives in a very competitive “big city” with no local contacts and not a lot of experience or specialized training. That describes me when I arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area a few decades ago.
My B.A. is in philosophy, which has a similar market value to your degree in English, i.e. near-zero. But this doesn’t mean my training in philosophy has no value; it simply means you can’t walk up to a potential employer and say, “Hi, I have a degree in philosophy, hire me.”
The value is only reaped by applying what you have learned. Studying philosophy taught me a number of specific analytic skills: to seek out false assumptions and identify problems and potential solutions. If you can’t frame the problem accurately and coherently, it’s impossible to identify any useful solutions.
These skills have served me well, despite my “worthless” degree. Though nobody had any sound reason to pay me a lot of money simply because I had a B.A. in philosophy, life presents a constant flow of problems that need to be analyzed in ways that enable the development of solutions.
In other words, there is a super-abundance of opportunities to apply what I learned.
Taking my own experience as an employee, employer, business owner and entrepreneur, I’ve condensed what I’ve learned about creating value (i.e. earnings) and the emerging economy into a book: Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy.
It is less a career-guidance book and more of an explanation of how the economy actually works. It covers the eight essential skills you need to successfully navigate the economy as it is, not as we wish it was.
Rather than tell you the book is useful, I’ll apply what’s in it.
I don’t think your age, gender, ethnicity, etc. is relevant. Anyone can apply what I’m sharing.
You have identified what you perceive as your two big problems: the cost of living in the S.F. Bay Area is very high, and your pay is too modest to enable the lifestyle you anticipated/expected.
You identified these two problems but do not propose any solutions to either one; and you missed the two real problems. Problems don’t solve themselves; problem-solving requires analysis, diligence and a willingness to learn from others, to experiment and fail–not once, but continually.
You did not identify the third problem: your expectations are completely mis-aligned with reality. The S.F. Bay Area is one of the most attractive, stimulating, dynamic urban regions in the world, and it attracts capital and talent from all over the globe.
The demand to live and work here outstrips the supply of dwellings and high-paying jobs, so the costs of living are very high and the pay for labor is low unless you’re able to take advantage of specific skills or social contacts.
Many of the people who come here seeking work are highly educated, experienced, creative, ambitious, hard-working, dedicated, etc., and many possess enviable social skills (social capital).
If you intend to find work here (i.e. if you don’t have a large monthly income from a trust fund), you will be competing against extremely competitive, ambitious people, many of whom focus not on the hardships but on the opportunities. Expecting to outcompete these people for a high-paying job is unrealistic unless you have competitive skills, a strong work ethic, abundant social and human capital, etc.
Whatever you lack, you will have to acquire in order to be competitive in this environment.
If you want a degree that opens doors, earn a PhD in EE/CS from UC Berkeley or Stanford, or get top marks in your Stanford/Haas School (UCB) MBA program.
For the rest of us mere mortals, credentials don’t offer much advantage, as this is one of the most over-credentialed locales on the planet.
The question is: what can you do to create value? It’s not so much a matter of having job skills or experience; it’s how those can be applied to create value–either for your employer or for your own enterprise.
So the real problem you have is: what can you do to increase your value creation and thus your earnings? “Unfair” doesn’t count. Labor has a market value, end of story. Unfortunately, there is an oversupply of labor around the world and a scarcity of high-paying jobs.
It may seem like there is an abundance of high-paying jobs in the Bay Area because we’re in the bubble factory of the world, but this is only a reflection of frothy VC-fueled valuations of zero-profit companies and highly paid employees’ ability to make their employers obscene amounts of money.
If you want to earn $100,000, you need to bring in $500,000 in revenues for your employee, minimum.
The second problem you have is: what can you do to dramatically lower your cost of living? Since you didn’t properly identify the actual problems, you were incapable of finding solutions. Now that we’ve identified your real problems, we can seek solutions.
As for living costs: your goal should be to live on one of your two paychecks a month: $733. Immigrants often get by on low-paying jobs and yet manage to buy a house and pay the mortgage off in five years. They do this by sharing expenses. If you want a very low-cost lifestyle, try befriending immigrants in your social circle (or add them to your circle). Someone will likely know someone in their extended group who has a room for rent (in a house they’re buying by pooling six adults’ modest wages).
As for food–shop only in Chinatown or ethnic markets. If you are careful and observe what the older ladies are buying, you will not be able to carry $20 of groceries. Just recently, I bought two pounds of beautiful tangerines for $1 in Chinatown and wonderfully fresh yao-choy veggies for less than $2. Many fish are available for $2 or $3 a pound; if you’re vegan, pressed tofu is a cheap substitute for meat.
Asian-style cooking only uses a few ounces of meat/meat substitute anyway.
A carton of black beans used for seasoning (it adds umami) will cost you $1.29, and last you a year. A jar of chili bean sauce (a teaspoon enlivens a dish most wonderfully) costs $2.29.
You get the point: learn to cook vegetable-based meals and your costs to eat gourmet food will drop under $100 per month. A pound of beans and some Asian veggies will feed you for a week, and with some cheap seasoning, it will be delicious.
We eat better at home for $150 than people who spend $2,000 a month eating out. Anybody can learn how to cook with low-cost ingredients on YouTube University. Make a pot of spicy dal, experiment.
If you don’t have any family to share expenses with, form a family-type group of responsible, honest friends. Rent a house with them, make some basic good-neighbor rules, and kick out whomever fails to fulfill their duties and responsibilities. It will be good experience for running your own enterprise.
Here is my version of a letter you could have sent Yelp’s CEO:
I know you’re busy, but I have two ideas that will immediately lower the costs of providing customer support while boosting productivity and employee retention.
After three months in customer support, I’ve observed that a few employees have developed ways to handle customer issues quickly and with relatively few coupons. Others solve customer issues by throwing coupons at everyone.
I’ve developed a brief, concise training program that would give every customer support employee the tools to resolve customer problems more efficiently and at lower cost than the present system.
If customer support teams were able to earn bonuses based on their improved productivity and lower costs, this would immediately improve employee retention, at a modest cost that would be more than paid for by higher productivity.
The benefits from these two ideas would be immediate. I am hoping you can get me fifteen minutes with the V.P. of customer support to present my training/productivity ideas, and I’m excited by the possibility that we could make dramatic improvements with a modest investment of time and virtually no capital costs.
cc: V.P. of customer support
Which letter do you think would be more effective in accomplishing your goal of earning more money–your letter or my letter? As management guru Peter Drucker noted, businesses don’t have profits, they only have expenses. Value creation boils down to cutting costs, boosting revenues and increasing productivity.
This is as true of a sole proprietorship as it is of a major corporation.
If the management of Yelp failed to show interest in your letter/proposal and did not even hear you out, you learned a very important lesson:
Yelp’s management is incompetent and/or dysfunctional, and there is no opportunity for you at Yelp. This new knowledge clarifies your solution: find a job at a company/agency that is open to new ideas and is thus a place where you might be able to contribute value and grow your own human/social capital–and your earnings.
If you want to be in PR/media, start designing media/PR campaigns for small businesses for free. Most won’t have any social media exposure; they will welcome your efforts to boost their revenues/customer base.
This is your job from hour 41 (after your full-time gig) to hour 55. Convincing small businesses to give you, an inexperienced person with no track record, hard cash, will be difficult; convincing them to let you design and produce a social-media campaign and share any increase in revenues with you is a much easier sell, because you’re taking the risks: if the campaign flops, you earn nothing, and the business owner isn’t out any cash.
But you will have learned a lot by the time you run 10 or 20 such campaigns, and if you do a good job, are honest, forthright and do what you say you’re going to do, you’ll assemble a useful network of contacts that will lead to opportunities you cannot anticipate.
There is much more in my book, but I hope you’ve learned something that can be applied to your future endeavors from this Teachable Moment.
P.S. Ever since my first summer job decades ago, I’ve been chasing financial security. Not win-the-lottery, Bill Gates riches (although it would be nice!), but simply a feeling of financial control. I want my financial worries to if not disappear at least be manageable and comprehensible.
And like most of you, the way I’ve moved toward my goal has always hinged not just on having a job but a career.
You don’t have to be a financial blogger to know that “having a job” and “having a career” do not mean the same thing today as they did when I first started swinging a hammer for a paycheck.
Even the basic concept “getting a job” has changed so radically that jobs–getting and keeping them, and the perceived lack of them–is the number one financial topic among friends, family and for that matter, complete strangers.
So I sat down and wrote this book: Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy.
It details everything I’ve verified about employment and the economy, and lays out an action plan to get you employed.
I am proud of this book. It is the culmination of both my practical work experiences and my financial analysis, and it is a useful, practical, and clarifying read.