How We Value Our Time: What I Wish Every Small Business Owner Knew

Before entrepreneurship, there was retail.

That’s basically my career path in a nutshell. My retail jobs were pretty varied, a stint at CVS as a pharmacy technician, some time at Kohl’s as a cashier and supervisor, a particularly mind-numbing engagement at a hotel jewelry shop, and, finally, my 5 years at a Borders Books & Music.

When I started at Borders in 2004, I made 50 cents over minimum wage. When I got promoted to supervisor, I made $1.00 over minimum wage. In both positions, I had to be careful to never exceed 40 hours of work per week, lest I earn time and a half for the overtime—a whole $12.75 per hour.

Before too long, I was promoted to one of 3 salaried positions in the store. Now that I was the sales manager, I earned a salary of $28,000 per year. That was in mid-2005. Relatively speaking, it was a significant pay increase. But after paying my student loan bill and car payment, I didn’t really have enough left over for rent. So I lived with my parents. It wasn’t a big deal. I figured that I’d get promoted again soon enough, so I could earn enough to support myself.

This article is also available as Episode 388 of What Works.
Click here to find it on your favorite podcast player.

Holding a salaried position meant no longer clocking in and out.

In theory, I got paid to do a particular job, not work a certain number of hours. But as the corporate office cut our payroll budget more and more, the 3 salaried managers were often the only people who could make up the slack.

Within a year of my promotion, our district manager expected to see us scheduled for 50-60 hours of work per week. My salary, equivalent to $13 per hour for 40 hours per week, was worth as little as $9 per hour.

I’d worked hard to get promoted, and now I was working harder than ever, earning pennies more than I was as an hourly employee.

I was of two minds when it came to this compensation situation. On the one hand, my job was decent, and at least I was making a steady income—I came to accept this as what life had to offer me. I was a depressed, burnt-out wannabe academic with no job skills; what else was I going to do? On the other hand, I was pissed. Frustrated. Demoralized. I was angry for myself, and I was angry on behalf of my coworkers. This was no way to treat people.

Was this really what corporate thought we were worth?

Was our time so valueless? Were we so replaceable that they were happy to run us into the ground because someone else would happily take a low-wage job in a fun, casual environment?

I’d been working retail since I was 16 years old. But this was the first time I woke up to how the people at the top valued my labor. And I did not like it.

But the work and my anger were exhausting—and it started to seem like, yes, this was precisely what I was worth. Not surprisingly, this influenced how I saw the value of my time when I started working for myself. If I made $28,000 per year before, then $40,000 per year would be awesome, right? If I earned $13 per hour before, earning $25 per hour would be amazing.

The only way I knew how to calculate the value of my work was through my previous experience of selling my labor in units of time for a price I had no control over.

I had a lot to learn about value and pricing. But I also had a lot to unlearn.

I’m certainly not alone on this. Most of us have worked some sort of low-wage, hourly position. Maybe you’re working in one now. Even if you managed to avoid low-wage work, you probably worked for someone else before working for yourself. At some point, you internalized the value of your time. As Paco de Leon and I discussed, you start making the calculation, “If I want to buy this thing, I’ll have to work this many hours.” The value of your time influences how you think about productivity and efficiency. It can even start to bleed into your conception of self-worth.

How could it not? Time is how we make sense of our lives. Rather, organic time is. Clock time, on the other hand, a construction. We don’t experience hours and minutes; we encounter creative thinking, conversations, and observations.

Social theorist Barbara Adam writes:

Outside of this specific human construction, time is life; it is change and difference; it is evolution; it is development; it is birth and death, growth and decay; it is the past and future gathered up in the present; it is potential; it is origin and destiny.

That might sound overly philosophical or poetic—but it’s a critical economic differentiation. Clock time exists to bring order to the very subjective experience of time. That order can then be divvied up and commodified. Adam explains, “Clock time comes in uniform, invariable, infinitely divisible units which can be given a number value.” So clock time becomes sellable—even as it still exists as a subjective experience. There’s both a market value of our time and a personal meaning. We learn the market value of our time through paid work. The hourly wage, the salary, and even the project fee become a symbol of our time-value.

And symbols are sticky.

It takes quite a bit of, ahem, time to detach from a symbol, to unlearn its meaning. So what we might value is our non-clock sense of time—noticing a child growing or preparing a meal—but the financial symbol of clock time looms large. It has the potential to color every moment with “I really should be working.” Those moments begin to take on the character of that financial symbol, as well.

Recently, I spoke with Wealth Over Now founder Keina Newell about her own relationship with time and money. I wanted to see how she values time and guides her clients to value time as a money coach. She told me that time and money were tightly linked when she was first getting started. She said, “Very early on, I tried to equate time and money together. If I do an hour session and charge $50, or if I do an hour session and charge $100, then that has to equate for the time that we spend together.”

But the way she thinks about her time has shifted dramatically. Instead of considering what the time is worth, she thinks about the results. I’m sure that’s not a new concept for you if you’ve done any work on pricing and money mindset. Yet, the idea is taking on a new weight for me as I think about time and money more. Value-based pricing is not just a more accurate way to price your work or a better strategy for attaining financial sustainability. Value-based pricing is a way to square clock time with natural time. I can reason that it’s going to take me a certain amount of clock time to do the work—but the ripple effects of that work will span vast expanses of natural time. Keina explained how she sees it like this, “I’ve really pushed beyond this boundary of time. Because in a 45-minute coaching call, if we can get to one thought that shifts the way that they view money, then I think that that expands beyond the time that they spend with me.”

So how did clock time become such a potent financial symbol?

It’s actually a relatively modern phenomenon. But the belief system that clock time is part of—capitalism—has become so totalizing that it’s hard to imagine a different way of interacting with time. It all starts with the invention of wage work. The earliest form of wage work in Western Europe was the domestic system or the putting-out system, which peaked in the 17th-century. In this system, merchants distributed raw materials to workers who created the end products in their own homes or small workshops. Once the end product was finished, the merchant picked it up and paid them for the work they did. This wasn’t so much a time-for-money trade as it was like a project fee.

The 18th-century saw the beginning of the industrial revolution. Now workers were gathered up into shops and factories to work. Men earned more in factories than in fields—but they often labored 14-16 hours per day, 6 days per week, in dangerous conditions. They might be paid by the hour, or they might be paid by the day or week. Women earned less than half of what men earned. And children? They earned even less and worked in the same conditions. While industrialization created a pathway to a higher standard of living overall, it took generations to see meaningful movement in that direction. And even still, according to historian Emma Griffin, increased wages brought greater inequality and burden among workers.

In response, labor organizing started in the mid-19th century and won some concessions from the industrialists and bosses. But it wasn’t until 1938, when the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in the United States, that some workers were guaranteed a minimum wage and a 40-hour workweek or overtime pay (in Britain, the Trade Boards Act of 1909 and the National Insurance act of 1911 brought about similar reforms). It’s worth noting here that, to pass the FLSA, proponents compromised, allowing workers in industries that predominantly employed Black people and immigrants to be excluded from these guarantees, setting up a legal structure of unequal compensation that persists to this day.

Even with the relatively short history of wage work and the even shorter history of the modern construct of a “job,” the social conditioning of wage work runs deep. Not only are we conditioned to think about our time in terms of units of labor we can sell, but we’re also conditioned to believe this is natural, that there is no alternative. And corporate America turns the Monday-Friday, 9-5 job into an ideal—even when demanding far more hours and flexible boundaries on time.

This article is also available as Episode 388 of What Works.
Click here to find it on your favorite podcast player.

How many of us continue to use this structure (or lack thereof) long after we’ve set out on our own?

In an employer-worker relationship, there is always unbalanced power. While the worker may be free to accept the demands of the job or not, since paid work is required for survival for most workers, that freedom is an illusion. If the employer says you need to come in on Saturday, you come in on Saturday. When we’re working for ourselves, there’s a power vacuum if we don’t empower ourselves to make decisions in our best interests. It’s why we keep replicating familiar systems and structures for work instead of making different decisions as we want—or even need—to. Keina told me, “I was very much still in the kind of corporate mindset that you can only be paid hourly. I hadn’t been able to shift to value yet.” Or, you might remember my conversation with Elisabeth Jackson and how she worked through the entire vacation.

It might seem strange to talk about employer-worker relationship dynamics or wage work amid a conversation about entrepreneurship. I’m, of course, not trying to equate the challenges of the low-wage working class—or even the no-wage working class—with the choices we have as entrepreneurs and professionals. Yet, the way I see it, today’s micro-business owners have much more in common with the working class than they do the capitalist class.

Okay, but aren’t entrepreneurs and business owners capitalists? Kate Strathmann and I tackled this question last year. Kate explained that we operate businesses that are still tied to our labor. That labor might be coaching, writing, teaching, producing, interviewing… it might not look like labor, but it is. Even in a highly scaled small business, the owner is often responsible for some significant share of the labor. But at the same time, we operate our businesses within an incentive system that prioritizes profit and short-term decision-making.

The economic, political, and even moral systems we operate in perform best if we subdue our class consciousness and align ourselves with the powers that be. Which then leads to the reverse of the question I asked above: Can business owners be workers in a political sense? My argument is yes. That, in fact, entrepreneurship-as-labor is a natural product of late-stage capitalism. As others’ profit motives have squeezed every ounce of sustainability from working-class jobs—and even most professional careers—the necessary response has been to seek our own profit motives and exploit ourselves in the process.

Luckily, we can find ways to operate more humanely even within the existing economic structure.

While I was talking with Keina, I noticed that she frequently used the word “desire” to describe the thought process behind her decision-making. Now, desire is a tricky thing. A lot of work and money goes into convincing us that we desire certain things. And desire can also be a way to justify a very individualistic, get-what’s-mine approach to business-building. But desire can also be profoundly generative and spark more creative thinking.

Desire is something that wage work hasn’t really allowed us to focus on. We’re trained to do what the company wants us to do rather than what we really want to do—desire doesn’t really fit into the orderly structure of a business. We operate in value systems that tell us what to care about and marketing systems that tell us what we desire. These systems provide clarity, a sense of certainty. And as we lean into that clarity, we start to lose track of our own values and desires. Recently, I heard the philosopher C. Thi Nguyen use game design to explain this. In providing a clear and specific environment, he said game designers make sure that the points system, character’s abilities, and the game’s setting all fit. They make sense together. Think Mario running ever rightward, collecting coins, and jumping over obstacles which perfectly fit Mario’s capabilities.

But the real world, to state the obvious, is not a game. We end up with a mismatch between the points system, the goal, our abilities, and the environment we operate in. So our desire—what we want and why we want it—is easily co-opted. I asked Keina how she’s learned to trust her desire. She told me, “Every time I do something that’s outside of societal norms, I put that in my trust bucket.” Last year, she told me, a dear friend and neighbor had her baby earlier than expected. The time her husband had taken off didn’t overlap with the sudden arrival. So Keina realized that she could clear her schedule and support her friend and her children. At the same time, she still had to talk herself through the fact that she could have been signing new clients and making sales that week. That experience went in her trust bucket! “That went into my bucket for myself to say, I can trust myself to take unplanned time off,” she said.

Prioritizing what we desire is one way to radically change our relationship to work.

No matter your personal priorities for work, thinking critically about what you want instead of how you should be working opens the door to some pretty creative ways to spend your working time.

Similarly, Keina and I discussed how she sees the value of her own time and structures her work. She told me, “When I worked for someone else, I thought about all the things I would do if I was in control of my time.” Now, with the opportunity to actually do those things if she wants to, Keina said she checks herself against that old daydreaming to make sure that she’s actually doing the things she wants to do—and more importantly, that she’s creating a business with the structure to allow for that. With that in mind, Keina built out her ideal week. She coaches Tuesday through Thursday. Monday is for consults and admin work. And Friday is for any spillover—although she tries to take every other Friday off.

This is an excellent example of building structure around what you desire instead of what you think working is supposed to look like. Many people want to figure out what they’re going to sell or who they’re going to tell it to first. Some think about what business model they’ll use or how they’ll market the business. But the most effective way to start building a business is to focus on your own needs—and the needs of anyone you’re working with—first.

I think about designing a new business or redesigning an existing business as a math problem with many unknown variables. The only way to figure out the equation is to start assigning values to those variables. The variable I always start with is what a business owner is trying to get out of their business. Money, sure. But if all you wanted was money, you could work for someone else.

For some, it’s flexibility. For others, it’s a balance between work and caregiving. For others, it’s intellectual curiosity, health, or a particular type of work. Once we’ve landed on the personal priorities that we’ll use for that first variable, we can start solving other variables like business model, product, marketing, etc… Each of those variables is dependent on the value of the first—what you want out of this business. When you design a business by starting with your personal priorities, you end up with something much more cohesive and much less likely to put you on the path to burnout.

Another way that Keina builds her business structure around her personal priorities is how she aligns her revenue and sales goals. Here’s what she told me:

One of the things I didn’t want to do when I stopped working for someone else was just creating consistent 40-60 hour week weeks where I’m always overworked.

So when I think about time, I think about how many clients I actually want to work with to generate the level of revenue I want. So, if you’re going to sell $100 units to get to $400,000, how long is that going to take me? How am I going to feel? Is that how I desire to feel?

Time will always be a factor when we design our businesses and think about how we want to work. It’s not like we’re going throw away all of our clocks! But I think we can find ways to keep clock time in its place and the thinking that Keina does around her goals, how much work they take, and how she wants to feel is an excellent example of that.

Everything we’ve discussed here regarding time, money, and wage work impacts how we think about our own time and money—but it also affects how we consider other people’s time. I’ve noticed that well-meaning, thoughtful business owners who are fierce advocates for their own unconventional working conditions often don’t extend that same thoughtfulness to the people who work for them.

We lose sight of our solidarity with the worker as we play out the story of entrepreneurship and ownership. For every creative and self-caring decision we make in service of our desire, we can choose to leave room for others to make their own creative and self-caring decisions. Keina told me that she’s already thinking about creating a workplace that offers a different relationship to work for her future hires. She asks herself, “What type of conditions will I create for them? And how do I create an environment in which they get to do the things that excite them? [What can I do so] they feel liberated and be able to have this amount of flexibility?”

My husband and I both worked in environments where the maxim “if you have time to lean, you have time to clean” was used often. That probably doesn’t apply to your work! (And it shouldn’t apply to anyone who works for you, either.) But most of us have some version of this that we whip out when we’re not meeting some expectation of productivity. We can be so critical of others and ourselves when we believe we could be using our time more wisely or productively. “Time is money” can be used as a cudgel. If we’re beating ourselves up about how we use our time, we’re not doing any favors!

When I asked Keina whether time is money, she told me she was undecided. But that what she was clear about is that awareness is key to how we make decisions about our time and our money. Keina brings thoughtfulness and intention to every aspect of her work and business. And that with that intention, she’s sure that the way she spends her time is valuable whether it’s actually money or not.

There’s quite a bit of ambiguity in the relationship between time and money, between work and value.

The moment we think we’ve got it nailed, something pops up that makes us question our thinking. If you don’t know what you should charge per hour, what the value of your offer is to your customer, or whether you should invest in something that’s going to save you time—trust me, you are not alone.

I think the best thing we can do for ourselves is to avoid trying to come up with the “right” answer to what our time is worth or even what our offer is worth. And instead, cultivate awareness. What stories am I playing out when I think about this price? What power dynamics are at play that might influence how I perceive the value of my time? How have my previous experiences with money and time shaped my experience now?

I really value how Keina is always learning, paying attention, and creating the space to experiment—all within a straightforward business model. She’s created the exact conditions she’s needed to bring awareness to these questions of time and money—and the results speak for themselves.

This article is also available as Episode 388 of What Works.
Click here to find it on your favorite podcast player.

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