Dear Dad: I'm not unemployed.

I was sitting around an enormous crib table one evening talking about moving, when a second-cousin once removed (or something) looked at me incredulously and asked:

How did you get a mortgage when you’re not working?

This question was at once insulting and revelatory: why do people feel I don’t work? On the one hand, I could consider myself successful in a “Four-hour work week” kind of way. Despite making 6 figures last year, I gave those around me the impression that I don’t work. On the other, though, despite all my hard work to build a practice and a brand, people don’t know what I do.

I suppose the tl;dr; version of the answer is:

I’m Jon Holt. I help make decision-making simple – through coaching and policy frameworks – for directors and intrapreneurs.

The question

I suppose it’s not surprising. I’ve struggled with answering the question “what do I do” myself. Part of the reason for my struggle is that I do many uncorrelated, if not unrelated, things. Some earn money, some do not. Where I differ from many, though, is that I don’t spend 60% of my time focussed on a job. Instead, I balance work, home, play, and purpose.

Those categories come from Jeff Goins’ The Art of Work where he describes how the modern workforce is migrating back to the days before the industrial revolution. How by 2030 we will have returned to an economy driven not by employees, but rather craftsmen, artisans, and freelancers. He describes a way of thinking about this kind of life to make sense of these shifting priorities: a portfolio. A portfolio perspective forces you to think about your life in a way that is more than what you do; it’s about who you are.

My portfolio

My portfolio involves many things:

  • Online marketing, communications, and sales
  • Policy governance and other decision-making frameworks
  • Dedication to long course triathlon and other ultra-endurance sports
  • Entrepreneurship and the art of bootstrapping a business
  • How food and diet contribute to our own well-being and that of the world around us
  • My wife and my family
  • An electric economy: solar power, electric cars, and passivhouses
  • Making things by hand: from beds to houses to websites and products
  • Travel and seeing the world

All of these things are important to me. Some are about the work I do. Some are about my purpose. Some are important to building a great home and contributing kids. Some are about play; after all, why are we here? All of these things contribute to and are part of the choices I make, the risks I take and the opportunities that I pursue. And perhaps that’s the best place to start to describe me by digging into the choices I make.


In many respects, traditional employment is about fulfilling a role described by someone else. I’ve never been very good at that. It assumes that someone else has the best idea of how a task should be accomplished. It assumes that all that you do will fit inside a neat box. It assumes that you are there solely for the purpose of dealing with issues as they appear. In my mind, this reactive approach to one’s work is too passive.

I like to decide how a task should be completed, or even if it should be. I like to pursue tasks with the highest return, pivoting to new tasks when old ones stop being effective. I like to build solutions to problems that I see in the marketplace rather than waiting for them to find me. For me, work is an active engagement with the world around me, focused on solutions, not problems.


To some extent, the drive for action over reaction has to do more with how I perceive my own value.

Many people in the world derive value from service. They feel valued when people come to them for solutions, advice, and even approval. For these people, being the go-to-guy is success-writ-large. Often, people will build a career on being that guy. They earn promotions for making others look good. They derive a great deal of satisfaction from building a network of colleagues and a repertoire of successfully negotiated solutions. But often these people have no internal motivation. When people stop bringing them problems to solve, they sit lost and alone. These are people whose career, and very purpose, are shaped and driven by others.

I derive value from making. I like to put the world down better than I picked it up. I like to know that I saw a void where something was meant to be, and I filled it. For people like me, seeing a problem before anyone else does and having a solution ready when people come looking is the holy grail. For people like me, the value is in the fact that the solution exists and hopefully is repeatable. Solving one person’s problem is nothing compared to building a repeatable solution for everyone. Building something I find beautiful adds something to the world, even if no one else needs it. This is purpose driven from inside.

Risk and reward

I see risk as an opportunity. I look at every situation, look at the pros and cons, and will often place greater priority on the pros, the upside, than I do on the cons. Of course, the reward and the risk need to be commensurate, but avoiding an option just because risk exists seems a lost opportunity. Freelance work in a portfolio life comes with greater risk than full-time employment. But it also comes with greater rewards in terms of balance with the other parts. And in many cases I can mitigate that risk by building in a premium to account for it.

What I risk in security I gain at home, play and fulfillment. What I risk in a collegial workplace, I gain in volunteering at the kids’ school. What I risk in advancement, I gain in flexibility. It’s all about risk and reward and the odd time a con has occurred, we’ve weathered the storm and learned something, usually many valuable things, in the process.


But the real question inherent in my ability to get a mortgage is how do you make any money if you don’t have a bum in a chair at an office every day? The mentality of pay-for-presence is one I’ve never understood. Why should I spend 40 hours a week at work if I can complete everything you expect of me in 30. Why should I get paid to sit at work if I’m doing nothing to increase the bottom line. Time spent does not equal value provided. It’s for that reason that I try to avoid hourly work whenever possible. So how do I get paid?

Regardless of what I do, I must provide value to my clients, or I won’t take payment. But if we can agree on why they’d like to have me involved in their work, we can usually determine its value. I prefer to get paid some portion of that value, regardless of how long it takes to accomplish it, assuming we do.

This, of course, takes different forms. Sometimes, I’m paid to produce a specific deliverable. That one thing is worth x to the company and I’m paid y to produce it. Sometimes, having me around to provide advice and coaching so as to shorten the churn cycle is worth x to the company, and so I’m paid a retainer or honorarium of y just to be available. Sometimes I produce a product that others find incredibly useful and they’re willing to pay me y per month in order to do so. The recurring revenue of that is based on value, not hours worked. And finally, where we can’t find a reasonable fixed (regular) payment, I’ll work on a fee for service basis.

The short version of this is, if I provide enough value to my clients, I have no problem affording a mortgage.

The Answer

So, what do I do?

I have one online business that provides a meager monthly recurring revenue stream.

I have two clients for whom I do fee for service web application support and development.

I have two retainer clients for whom I provide management consulting: analysis, design/business case, and coaching around the strategic use of their technology.

I have two honorarium positions where I’m part of a policy board guiding and directing the future of the organizations.

But more importantly, I am a dedicated work-at-home-husband when my family needs it. I am a passionate long-course triathlete (another full time job if you let it be). I am a maker of things, big and small. I can move my family 400km closer to the mountains to improve our lifestyle, just because I want to, with no worries about income or housing.


Jon Holt

A coach, an entrepreneur, and a no-bull advisor in growing small businesses through the use of practical strategy, light-weight governance and sitting back and thinking about running your business, regardless of what you do.

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