The Financial Gladiator is a German who built his career to a 6 figure income, bought real estate in Poland, quit his job and is now travelling the world on his rental income.
His strategy behind buying Polish real estate is fascinating, and so of course we also interviewed him on the podcast (Episode 38). But what especially interested me was how FG built a six figure career income by exploring and building his career and doing over 7 internships! At Financially Mint I talk a lot about career testing and building career capital, but since I personally am right at the start I can’t always provide examples. Here, FG is an excellent example of how building skills and experience can pay off in bucket loads later on. Some great career advice in this interview, enjoy! 😎
What did you study in university? Did you know what you wanted to study before starting? Did you have a clear idea of what you would do after university?
Originally I did my primary, middle school and high school in Germany, but later obtained my High School Diploma in the USA. Later I did a Bachelor Degree in Business Management in Poland and a Master Degree in International Business Australia. When I was in high school all I knew is that I wanted a job that would allow me to travel and see the world. The image of an “international business man” was on my mind without knowing exactly what that actually meant.
This is why I chose to study business. It was as generic as possible. As it didn’t hold any real specialisation, it gave me extra time to get a feel for what I liked or not. Meanwhile I was avoiding locking myself down in a specific field that I might like or not like at all.
I couldn’t imagine operating on people, sitting over law books and verdicts, or crunching numbers and counting beans all day. Jobs as highly specialised as being a doctor, lawyer, or an accountant seemed way too narrow to cover my very broad and evolving interests.
During my university days specialisation was the key to success. Or so academia and newspapers portrayed it. I really didn’t like the idea of specialising and ended up doing the same and similar things till retirement. I always did everything to not specialise, to extend myself being a generalist as much as possible. It was my contrarian nature that drove this preference and consequent behaviour. Forging my own path has always been my priority and key to my success. Following the herd was never my thing. 🐑
Do you believe a degree is essential? How do you invest in yourself?
Yes and no. I believe a degree is important for most people but I don’t agree that it gives any marketable experience, at least not in my field. Even twenty years ago I saw a degree more as a tick-box exercise to be able to apply for top graduate jobs at top companies. A degree is used as a selection filter by HR for such roles, so it is useful only at the very beginning. That said, I don’t think my first and only employer ever saw my Master Degree nor was it relevant for my salary later on whatsoever.
Whilst one could argue it was a waste of money, since there was no immediate direct ‘Return on Investment’, it wasn’t. You see, whilst studying in Australia, I found my first professional long term part-time employment which consequently progressed to a full-time position even before I graduated. It came with a visa sponsorship and relocation package and my employer later supported me in my application for Australian citizenship.
I always looked to add experience and skills to my repertoire rather than dollar. The salary increases were a consequence of my growing skills and experience. That is why I chose to study in the US, Poland, and Australia rather than continue my education just in Germany. In addition to my formal education I learned how to speak and think in English and Polish. I got to know the then new free Polish market, and about the Australian market. Had I stayed just in Germany, I would most likely not have achieved what I did in my short career before semi-retiring at 34.
Whilst I never knew how my additional experience might help me in the future, it helped me grow in non-quantifiable ways. I matured immensely by living on my own in the United States, Poland, and Australia. Since I achieved my financial freedom I continued to live in and travel to expand my horizons. I spent three months in Indonesia, one month in Thailand, six months in South America, and visited most of the European countries.
How did you invest in yourself early on?
From young on, while growing up in Germany, I was always interested in businesses and organisations. I volunteered, took summer jobs, took on additional academic classes whenever I physically could. I thrived on varying exposure and loved to collect new experiences.
Before I turned 17, I had already worked in IT support, web page design, and in a manufacturing plant in quality control during summer. I also taught dancing as an assistant dance instructor for years during the week. I founded a school newspaper that became quite successful. I played in classic rock bands for fun, and I worked with the owner of a residential and commercial real estate developer to help build schools in Africa.
7 internships! Could you give a brief description of each internship? In which industries were they and how did they help you assess each career?
Following my first year of studies I didn’t have much of a professional resume. I relied on family friends and connections to help me score three 2-3 week long mini internships during my summer break.
The first internship was a job rotation at a local waste and recycling company. I experienced logistics, accounting, project planning, and lastly supporting the managing director directly. My key challenge was to calculate how much it was cost to demolish and remove an ex manufacturing site that has poisoned its grounds through toxic side products.
My second internship was working alongside the branch director of a local commercial bank and dealing with all sorts of arising issues. After being told to copy about 60 folders of documents for a secretary I walked straight out and never looked back.
The third internship was in the legal projects department of an energy company. I was looking at developing and assessing a strategy to introduce biofuels for energy generation in their power plant.
Towards the end of my second year of studies, I decided to formally apply for companies’ internship programs. It was horrible. I must have sent close to one hundred applications only to be almost entirely ignored. Two companies interviewed me and offered an internship. I ended up taking the very low paid German one given it was a known management consultancy and I was curious about this industry. I ended up doing two consecutive content assistant internships with them working in the CEO’s office. I wrote my diploma thesis with them later on.
It was one of the toughest jobs I had in my life working regular 100+ hr weeks. One time rocking up at NATO Headquarters I needed to sign in at reception. The problem was I was so tired that I forgot my name. What I didn’t realise at the time is that the CEO would later sign my recommendation letter which opened doors at companies all over Germany and Europe. His signature was worth gold and it all paid off. The same CEO also mentioned to me to look into Business and IT consulting work next, recognising my affinity for technology.
My sixth internship experience was just before leaving for my Masters in Australia. I had 3 months and 4 days till my flight out of Europe. I decided to test the recommendation letter and sent 8 applications on a Sunday night. By Monday midday I was invited to 8 interviews across 8 companies. I got offered 7 roles by Wednesday evening, following a very intensive two days of in person and over the phone interviews and travel. I started the following day. It felt amazing, especially considering that a year earlier barely anybody reacted to my internship applications at all. I decided to listen to my previous boss and took a job with a business consultancy focusing on IT projects within a large German organisation.
My seventh internship experience was in Australia. I tried to find a part-time role with one of the Big 5 (the 5 biggest consulting houses globally, today the Big 4) but nobody wanted to entertain an interview. I had to start back at zero and because I didn’t really budget properly for the high cost of living costs in Australia. I was completely broke walking 40km a day to save on public transport in worn out shoes. I ended up working for a hotel while studying during the day full-time and working nights, weekends, and holidays.
I really wanted to join another professional organisation to gain more experience but since nobody was willing to hire me, I decided to contact my old employer and ask for help. My previous German manager connected me with a regional leader in Singapore who in turn connected me with a manager in Australia. I ended up getting hired for the summer break which then got extended into a part-time position during my last year of Uni. Before I graduated from my Master Degree I had an offer to start full-time in Australia. It was a management consulting gig in a tech company.
The offer didn’t stop me from looking for jobs in Europe. I applied for several trainee programs across major corporations in Germany and Poland. None of the offers that came in could compete with the Australian one. I decided to commence my career in the Down Under.
So you see, before taking up my first job in Australia, I had 4.5 years of studies completed, worked many side jobs across varying industries and completed a total of 2 years full-time equivalent professional internship jobs.
I opted to take internships with no pay or very little remuneration over higher paying jobs, like the hotel job for instance. I was offered higher paid jobs in boutique consultancies but I opted for continuing working within a large corporation because I figured long-term it would pay off. Most importantly though, I learnt what types of jobs wouldn’t make me happy. Those were the ones sitting 9-5 behind a desk, or being all day on the phone. I preferred intellectually challenging jobs that provided exposure to varies complex topics. The work as a management consultant allowed me to travel on the company dime, while making a very decent salary and keep my costs down. I knew I wanted to advise top executives and directors of large companies by the time I started my Master degree. I will never forget running my first workshop with 12 executives on optimising their business. What a thrill that was being only 24.
Knowing what you want to do when in life is why I think everyone should try to gain as much varied work experience as possible during their studies. It helps to narrow down the most suitable career.
What are some other ways you were testing careers?
Besides doing internships and seeing for yourself, the single most effective way to test or assess other careers is by talking to people or working with people in those careers. Internships give you this opportunity and this is often missed by other interns, as I have observed. There was rarely a day I wouldn’t try to eat lunch, meet over a coffee, or schedule a dinner/ beer after work with my colleagues to learn from them and their experiences. I would quiz them about their careers, their current jobs, their happiness, and future plans.
Could you give us some numbers? When did you really start earning good money?
Until I started working professionally, all my side gigs were paying peanuts if anything. The least I earned as intern was zero, the most was 650 Euro a month. I started making good money with my first full-time job in Australia. My starting salary was 90,000 Australian Dollars. This was twice the salary a normal highly educated graduate would receive. The main reason was that I had been with the company for two years already throughout my studies. I was bringing in billable days, working on customer sites weeks at a time (during each break) while studying. Even though I made the company some $100k a year, my salary was $1,800 a month as a part-time student employee. I treated this an an investment into my future career with the employer. It wasn’t easy to reject offers in the range of $5,000-$6,000 a month from other consultancies in the meantime.
I’m attaching my compensation package progression below. The last year is an outlier my team and I were retrenched and I accepted a package to leave my company on good terms. I always followed my approach to choose experience over salary for my entire career. Sometimes I would accept a job that is lower paid, but that I believed would provide me better experience to round off my skills and experience set.
You were happy at your job but not fulfilled, why was this the case?
You ask a very good question. I loved my job. It was exciting, paid very well, it allowed me to go around the world many times and work across many countries regularly. I loved the travel bit in particular.
However, over the years, I grew new hobbies and interests. There was too little time in the day to do a great job and pursue my interests outside of my career. That is why I started looking for a way out. I started crunching the numbers and observing investment opportunities to create a basic passive income.
When the real estate market in Poland showed some good opportunities I decided to go for it, quit my job, invest in Poland, and start pursuing my other hobbies full-time. It was also time to fulfil some dreams that just took more than the 20 days leave I had a year.
Since I left, I have been building a couple of businesses including my real estate operation while spending more time with my Polish family. I have been traveling around Asia, Europe, and South America, while learning a little Spanish and Bahasa Indonesia. Lastly, I fulfilled my dream to become a diving instructor and worked in this field in Indonesia and Spain last year. This is what has kept me busy for the past two and a half years.
What would you have done differently? Do you wish you had had a more balanced life?
I guess it wouldn’t have hurt to learn about the FI movement when I started my career. I didn’t and I lived like most of my peers during my twenties. Blowing serious money on parties, gadgets, short term luxury escapades, vacations, and holidays. Buying an expensive sports car and living large in general. Do I regret that? Not much, I had so much fun following the work hard/ party hard mantra. Would I have been in a better financial position if I cut my spending by 10%? Yes, for sure, it would have been a lot better and I probably wouldn’t have noticed it really given my career income.
How should other 20 something year olds invest in themselves? What is your recommendation to others getting started with their careers?
Educate yourself, gain diverse work experience, and pick a career that suits your interests. Ideally find one that pays well along with it and you almost certainly can achieve financial independence and maybe even retire early. There is no better time for learning than when you are young. Brain cells unfortunately age just as much as the rest of our bodies. Pick up as many languages, international experience, and work experience as possible when you are young. Help others, and it in combination it will all come back in buckets to you.
Conclusion by Financially Mint
What a fascinating story! FG’s work experience is mind blowing – and it’s all paid off in the end! Here are some of the golden nuggets I took away from this interview:
- Add experience rather than a dollar to your repertoire (I call this ‘portfolio’)
- Internships are a great way to not only to build experience but also to make contacts, learn new skills and test a career path (here’s a blog post about it)
- Push yourself to get out of your own country, the opportunities for learning are much higher once you start exploring
- When working as an intern, take your colleagues out to lunch, talk to as many people as possible and learn about their jobs, lives and experiences.
- Choose experience over salary
- Gain diverse work experience and pick a career that suits your interest
I find FG’s story fascinating because he really proves that taking your time to explore careers will pay off in the end. This something that I’ve discovered too, through books, talking to people and the various experiments I’ve done. FG not only explored careers, but he also made sure those careers would add value to his portfolio. In other words, he was striving to build career capital (skills, connections, portfolio) all the while he was doing those internships. This is proof that investing in yourself at an early stage, can pay back in huge amounts later on. 🤑