Christine Funke moved abroad just after finishing college in the States, was an expat in China for several years and now lives in Germany and runs a portable virtual assistance business.
Christine’s story in a nutshell:
I moved abroad right after college and fell in love with being an expat. I lived in China for 5 years, met my German husband there through an expat handball league, and we moved to Germany soon after.
I was able to work for my old company at home when we moved to Germany, but once that project finished I needed a new career direction, and one that was portable and could be flexible when we traveled and could go wherever we go next. I handled online communications as the VP for the American International Women’s Club in Cologne for two years and that style of work suits me and works well as a virtual job.
So, last summer I started my own virtual assistant business, Spark Virtual Assistance, where I could support other business owners and freelancers with their technical online marketing tasks. And most of my clients are English-speaking expats living in Europe who’ve had to design their own portable careers.
Biggest start up / expat challenge:
The language! I work in English and support businesses who mostly work in English here in Europe, but everything concerning my business is in German. I’d like to be completely in control of my business, but I rely a lot on my German husband for translations, paperwork and understanding the self-employment laws and taxes, but he’s supportive of this adventure and is my personal business consultant.
Who are your cheerleaders?:
My husband, as he’s been my sounding board and (unpaid) consultant from the beginning, and a few friends who have been there from the beginning and have listened to me go back and forth on this and that. We talk regularly on Skype and they have always believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself.
What are your words of Wisdom?:
I kept a quote written on a sticky note on my desk in line of vision during this whole process: “Fake it until you become it” by Amy Cuddy in a TED Talk. I’ve kept this one and relied on it to get me through those first months when I really didn’t feel like a business owner or felt like I knew what I was doing. And while I was learning a lot at that time, my clients relied on me to get things done and I had to deliver whether I felt like a business person or not!
After a year being in business, my motto now is get started and learn as you go. Life is too short to put things on hold and learn everything possible, plus education happens as you are living and working.
How working mothers are supported and treated has been the biggest cultural difference between the US and Germany for me. Neither side has a perfect model: the US doesn’t offer enough for mothers and those who would like to stay home, and Germany doesn’t offer enough for women who would like to go back to work immediately. All of my friends are having kids now and it’s really interesting to compare stories from expat friends here and friends back in the US.
My biggest fear is making a mistake, and while I’m not sure I’ve overcome the fear I can manage it a lot better with the time I’ve invested and the experience I’ve gained.
Fear is something you have to battle with in your head, and for me, when I get a bit paralyzed in fear of making a mistake, it helps me to think clearly about the actual consequences should I make that mistake and then it turns out the consequences are not so bad and I will always be able to recover.
After previously working intense jobs, my personal mission statement is to support women as they grow their businesses while maintaining a good work-life balance. So far I think I’m doing a pretty good job: I take off Fridays occasionally for a long weekend trip, I take up to two hours for a lunch break (including a daily nap), and I don’t work weekends or week nights.
I still work a lot but my personal life is just as important as having a gratifying job.
Working practices and benefits in your adopted country:
Working from home is becoming a lot more popular in Germany, though many Germans don’t like mixing work and personal life AT ALL. I try to explain how I keep it separate but they end up just tuning me out.
Benefits will kick in once we start a family. Freelancers can receive maternity leave and financial support, which I know is unheard of in many countries. Plus my husband will have the option to take off a significant amount of time which we’ll figure out once that time comes.
I just recently celebrated my first year in business! I have a lot of clients, I send newsletters regularly, my monthly income is stabilizing, and I can still take time off whenever I want.
I’m also doing a web design professional certificate program through Sessions College for Professional Design online. I hope to add web design and other design tasks to my mixed bag of services that I offer clients.
Where you find inspiration from:
My clients and colleagues, i.e. contacts I’ve made online through Facebook groups. I hear about their journeys to and in self-employment which include hurdle after hurdle and kids and tricky circumstances, and I’m so impressed that their passion for doing what they love keeps them going.
How you stay motivated:
A great to-do list app (Wunderlist) and hiking plans on the weekend! 🙂 I joke a bit, but it’s true. You can work for work’s sake, but I work because I like to see my client’s businesses grow and I’m excited about what I get to do when work is done for the day.
Useful tools for expats in business:
Social networks for connecting with people and clients you may not meet in your current country (especially with a big language barrier) and file sharing programs for collaborating online, like Dropbox or Google Drive. It may be a learning curve to certain generations but if you’re doing any type of business or marketing online then using programs like that will make a huge difference.
Nothing beats in-person networking. Find your local women’s group or a professional network and go to events. People will meet you, talk with you and get a sense of you in person that no amount of emails can replace. Skype is a close replacement, but sharing a coffee or cocktail can start all sorts of adventures.
I network regularly with American women’s groups here in Germany and have found many of my clients through those connections.
I am also a big proponent of Facebook or LinkedIn groups for networking. It’s good to seek them out for colleagues or peers, or where your potential clients might hang out. Give and take: like and comment on other people’s things and they’ll do the same for you. You never know where a new connection might lead.
Plans for the future:
For my business, start offering more web design and design services and increase and steady my monthly income. And of course still enjoy my daily nap.
For life, start a family and travel a lot more with my husband. I want to keep that work-life balance and being self-employed will allow me the flexibility to do so.
Even though sometimes being an expat can be a lonely existence with moving around a lot and foreign cultures and languages, there are a lot of us out there and it’s meaningful to connect with people who understand what you’re going through. Thank you, Internet!