Steidel was 28 when he opened the salon. The décor is mostly white with black accents. The grey floor tiles reflect the halogen lights he has just switched on. The air has a slight chemical smell, a reminder of yesterday’s appointments. Soon after the owner walks through the door, the first customer appears. It’s time to “flip the switch,” as Steidel puts it. “I leave any unpleasant thoughts outside,” he says. “The last thing people want when they get their hair done is a depressing conversation. Thank God I’m usually in a good mood.”
A 15-minute drive away, a bit closer to Heidelberg, Beate Gozdan starts her workday at almost exactly the same time Steidel does. Beaming, she walks into her practice. She’s obviously glad to be here. Gozdan, 50, is an oral surgeon – through and through. She strides down the long, brightly lit hallway to her office, where her eight employees, wearing purple smocks, assemble around the computer, just as they do every morning. The day’s appointments appear on the screen. All of the regular slots are taken; beneath them are the slots reserved for emergencies. Making sure everything goes smoothly is very important, since only well-organized medical practices survive financially.
What Steidel’s salon and Gozdan’s practice have in common is their place in German society or, more precisely, their roots in the country’s middle class. After 17 years of running her own practice, Gozdan has a very comfortable life. Yet it never would have been possible without her parents. After arriving in Germany as refugees, they worked hard and moved up the economic ladder. They also made sure their daughter got a good education.
Gozdan and Steidel are no exception. Like many self-employed people, they feel that their work gives meaning to their life. They are not afraid to assume responsibility – for themselves, their customers, their employees and society as a whole. The hairstylist and oral surgeon have much in common and are typical of the small-business owners in Germany who help hold society together, especially beyond the major cities. The biggest difference can be seen in their take-home pay. Yet money is not the main factor in their jobs. A hairstylist earns an average income, a medical professional considerably more. That, however, is not the best way to measure the value of the work they do. It’s more about an ethos, an attitude of doing things right. And that is measured in whether the results benefit others. That attitude, well-known to Steidel and Gozdan, can often be found among the self-employed. As Amway’s Global Entrepreneurship Report shows, independence and self-determination, not income, are the main reasons people decide to go into business for themselves.
Steidel and Gozdan have different backgrounds, to be sure. And the paths that led them to self-employment clearly show how varied this economic sector can be. Steidel, for example, completed a standard three-year vocational training program, learning his trade before opening the salon. Gozdan, conversely, runs her practice together with her husband. Before opening the practice, she had to invest a lot – above all, a lot of time. Ten years passed between the day she enrolled at university and the day she completed her medical training – the same amount of time all oral surgeons spend learning the ins and outs of their profession. In other words, a willingness to work hard is one more thing the two business owners share. Neither Steidel nor Gozdan takes a break. Both remain focused, proceeding purposefully through their well-organized days, only allowing themselves a moment or two for a brief chat.
Steidel even used to come to the salon at night, directly after arriving home from a vacation, to enjoy the atmosphere and inhale the familiar smell. It’s a ritual he no longer indulges in – out of consideration for his wife.
The boundary between work and downtime is blurry. That, too, is typical, although not just of the self-employed. When Gozdan is at home taking care of her two children, she still thinks about work. The practice is open from early until late, and Gozdan usually does not leave before 5 p.m. Her husband often works until 9 p.m. Sitting around the kitchen table in the evening, they discuss the practice. Work schedules are assembled, case histories revisited. “I read dental publications as if they were whodunits,” Gozdan admits. “There are always new developments in our profession. It’s very exciting.”
Money is a means, not an end. When she was at university, Gozdan lived in a room that was barely bigger than a broom closet. When she later did her medical training, the pay was secondary – the work was important. She knew there would be enough money. Today she and her husband put most of their surplus income back into the practice. Certainly, they have more than enough to get by on – the car they drive is one of the nicer models on the road and their home is spacious and has a pool. Yet for their last vacation they travelled through France in a motor home. Not exactly the lap of luxury.
Steidel’s material existence is more modest. All the same, he owns his own home, drives a Mini and occasionally takes his family on an extended vacation. A few years ago they went to the United States. His income is sufficient, he says, “but that’s only because I still work at the salon as much as I can. Month for month I definitely have to make sure the business rocks.”
Gozdan’s and Steidel’s lives are strikingly similar. The differences are, upon closer inspection, fewer and smaller than one might think.
What is happiness? “Having a healthy family,” says Steidel. “Sounds like a cliché, but it’s true.” He found out how important health is when his daughter developed leukemia 15 years ago. Back then his wife had just had their second child. For six months he divided his time between the hospital and the salon – a difficult period, certainly. But what does money mean, when you consider a situation like that? The idea of leading a rich man’s life – fast car, high society – doesn’t interest him in the least, he says.
When Gozdan thinks about having another life, she dreams of going abroad – to join a development aid organization. In a few years, when the children are done with school, she and her husband would like to take a leave of absence from the practice. They want to go to Africa or Asia for a few weeks – maybe even months – to provide dental care to people who would not otherwise receive it. Volunteering your skills to help others – that, too, is a sort of luxury.