This newsletter is my process of writing a self-help book, tentatively titled How To Make Money: Financial Advice For Poets.
After this I’m going to focus more on other people’s experience, at least for a while.
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When I was 20 years old, with a few weeks left of summer vacation, I bought a one way ticket to Amsterdam. My plan was to get a job and make enough money to buy a ticket back. I’m not sure why I thought that was possible, or a good idea.
I stayed in the Christian Youth Hostel and went door to door asking for work in the Red Light District. I’m going to skip some details that include an elephant costume, the Heineken Kidnapping, and an international gang war. But Amsterdam was a very interesting place in 1992 (I’ve written all these stories in my books, but the point of this newsletter is to give advice you can use).
I was hired as a barker for the Casa Rosso. The owner, or rather the guy with the long hair and a machine gun in his briefcase, said I could work this spot because nobody else was using it during the day. It didn’t cost him anything; barkers were only paid on commission. A barker is the person in front of the club yelling, “Live Sex Show! You’re not here for the architecture!”
If you’ve visited Amsterdam’s Red Light District you might remember all the different shows and the men trying to get you to come inside. But there’s actually only one sex show. All those little store-front theaters are empty. If you bought a ticket I would say, “Great, follow me!” And quickly walk you to where the actual show was taking place, in the theater on Achterburgwal with the large pink elephant sign, 3 blocks away.
Why were there so many stores selling the same show? Perhaps to discourage competition. But I think it also worked by wearing you down.
I was good at selling a live sex show. A great salesman can sell anything but I can only sell what I believe in. I believed in the show because I was 20 years old and it was real.
In other words, I’m not a great salesman but I’m a great evangelist. Though an evangelist is just a type of salesperson. Evangelists are notorious suckers because they believe in their own product, like the people working on political campaigns for free, or putting all their savings in Bitcoin. For the same reasons they’re often the most valuable people in any corporation. Evangelists burn fast and bright and some come with an expiration date. Many become millionaires. At the end of the work day they’re invigorated.
Unlike the other barkers I only spoke one language, but I could relate to Americans, the tourists with the most money. I always sold to couples. Particularly the woman. I sold them on the experience, the memory, the novelty. If the woman was curious the man didn’t require any selling. If someone asked if the performers were beautiful I would say it was beside the point. Beauty was subjective.
We were told to sell tickets between 15 and 50 guilders. I figured out that if I never lowered the price I would make more money. By refusing to lower the price I differentiated myself from every other barker in the Red Light. If someone asked why the show across the canal was only 15 guilders I would say, “Because that’s a 15 guilder show. This is a 50 guilder show.”
If 10 people are selling the exact same thing, being different is the only thing that matters. By refusing to lower prices I created a different product from anything else available, the same thing General Motors did when they released the Saturn.
Because I refused to lower the price I created an illusion of quality. And as a result the customers enjoyed the show more.
People believe that you get what you pay for, but that’s only true when you’re shopping at Costco. Anybody that tells you you get what you pay for is struggling to make sense of an indefinable world, to maintain a sense of continuity and control where none exist. Platitudes, like outlines, can give structure to our lives, something to hold onto and that enables us to survive through chaos. They’re important, and I love them, but they’re also bullshit.
We tell ourselves stories in order to live, as Joan Didion would say.
I wasn’t the best sales person but because I refused to lower the price, and was excited about the product, I outsold everyone, by a lot, and was promoted to the night shift at the main theater. It was more money than I’d ever made in my life, maybe $1000 in cash every week. I was happy and felt successful, which resulted in dating the cabaret dancer whose husband was in jail for murder, a woman that was out of my league by any measure. I bought a Hugo Boss suit that felt like pajamas. And what a discovery! Not only did I make more money by refusing to lower the price, but my customers were happier as well, so in that way you do get what you pay for. Because once you lower the price of something your customer never knows if you might have lowered it more. Uncertainty is the handmaiden of regret.
The lessons of selling a live sex show are: Never lower the price, and sell what you believe in.
At some point I broke up a bogus acid deal, and a pickpocket came after me with a knife, and winter arrived. Miriam’s husband was getting out of jail. Also I missed half a year of college. I’d only meant to be in Amsterdam for 2 weeks. After four months it was time to leave. The return ticket was surprisingly expensive.
It was years before I made money again. I tried selling cars but only made it a couple of days. I have no ability to convince someone to buy something I wouldn’t buy myself. I finished college, had a heroin overdose, etc. I think I spent two years applying for “real” jobs but nobody would hire me (despite the fact that my fiancé was a recruiter). I remember in particular applying to work for a shampoo company and the person saying, “You don’t want to work here.” And I thought, of course I don’t want to work here. Nobody wants to work here. But what was it about me that made it so obvious? I’ve always had a guilty face.
I got by bartending, selling drugs, and teaching LSAT classes. And then I ended up in San Francisco (my fiancé went east, I went west). I got a temp job writing catalog copy because I said I was poet, which was kind of true. I’m skipping many details since this isn’t creative non-fiction, it’s self help, and I want to get to the parts that might be useful.
This is how what I learned selling a live sex show was useful in a different environment.
One day I went to my employer and said I hadn’t done any work in two weeks and he didn’t know that because there was no system of accountability.
Rather than having me escorted out of the building they let me hire my friends to write copy, paid by the submission (commission), rather than the hour, and we quickly finished the project. When that was done they hired me, at the age of 27, my first full time job with health insurance and stock options. I’d never had a salary before. Then they decided to take down the website I’d been hired to manage. I worried I would be let go so I asked a friend to help me get search engine rankings, and with the extra traffic they couldn’t take down the website anymore; my job was safe. Since that worked I decided to sell our clients search engine optimization. This was 1999, and it was a different time. You had to work across multiple directories. I didn’t know how to do any of that but my friend was very good at it.
We charged $3,000 a month, which was just a number I came up. It was exactly like selling a live sex show. I refused to budge on the price and soon we were billing a million dollars annually. It’s a long time ago, so I’m not going to get all the facts right. But I knew this was the right price, and the right way to sell it, just based on what I had learned in Amsterdam. They raised my salary to $80,000, which was insane, and I was given the title Director of Emerging Technologies, though I still didn’t know how my own product worked. The search engines kept changing but the fees were high enough to hire smart people to stay up to date as the rules changed.
You could say it was a consulting model. People were getting what they paid for, but only because they were lucky.
Eventually new bosses came. They wanted to hide the pricing, charge differently depending on the client. They talked about loss leaders and scaling up to go public. This added many layers of work, and people, and unhappy customers, and made my job miserable. All these sales people under-charging and over-promising, creating unnecessary work. Previously the customers were happy, now they were frequently upset, though nothing had changed.
After a year the company went out of business. The search engine department was always profitable, but the rest of the company wasn’t. The people I hired started their own search engine optimization company in the ashes, which is still in business today. They wanted me to join the new company with them, or they were nice enough to say they did. I didn’t take them up on it though, which is why we’re still friends.
I would have one more “real” job, 20 years later with Epic Magazine, that also lasted about a year. I never did end up getting married.
Thank you for reading. Remember all advice is autobiographical.
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