Be gluey: a leader in function, not name

I just read this great article on leadership quotes. Go on, read it. Which brings me to share one of the first lessons I learned of what leadership is.

In my high school, cadets was a major part of the school’s tradition which basically meant we dressed up in army clothes and got to roll around in the mud every so often. Our cadet unit did an expedition in the Australian outback which was a 40 kilometre trek and we had to travel with our backpacks (filled with camping gear, cooking utensils, etc). In the cadet unit, there was a platoon and each platoon had corporals all responsible for a half dozen cadets in ‘sections’ in addition to the two sergeants and a commanding officer.

This particular platoon had to make its way up the hills in the intense heat, along with an embedded ‘commando’ corporal from the commando platoon who considered himself a ‘leader’, which he was. As corporals, you would assume that they would lead the charge, which is what the commando corporal did. It was, after all, important to have someone navigate where we were going and something the ‘section’ corporal would have done normally,

As the front of pack role was taken up, not to be made redundant in his role as the ‘section’ corporal, he instead  kept an eye on his guys, so would shuffle through the line that was made. It would tun out that as the day progressed, one of the cadets was lagging. Slightly overweight, but also by no means because it was easy to carry 10-20 kilograms on your back in this heat and up a hill, he was practically at breaking point. Not allowing it to be a discussion but with great relief, this section corporal had him hand over his backpack who made it up the hill with both of their backpacks so the crew could make it up the hill quicker and by dusk.

Observing this taught me an important life lesson: leadership is about being the last guy in line. Leadership is not about walking in front of a group of people; it’s about helping the fat guy that’s behind everyone and holding back the group.

In my restaurant waiter days as a teenager, I learned the best kind of waiter is one that is invisible: filling your water without you noticing, clearing your plates without you asking, reading your mind before it has a chance to be processed by you as needing it done. That’s what the best kind of leader is my eyes: like what glue does or like what inspiration provides, it’s invisible but the essential reason why things are happening.

Put another way, be gluey. Be a leader in function, not name.

Bitcoin: the world’s receipt

Bitcoin has conflicted me. I see brilliance and world-changing potential. But its pricing instability leads me to believe it will never stabilise until it has some sort of secondary value to prevent confidence crisis and create predictability on the value as a currency. But maybe that’s the wrong question to be pondering?

In January 2014 (when I actually wrote this post but didn’t publish it) I realised that two of the innovations created by BitCoin is the blockchain and the proof of work, are useful beyond currency. For the uninitiated, every single transaction that used BitCoin is documented in a public ledger that everyone in the world can see. The proof of chain is a process that motivates ‘miners’ to validate the transaction in the blockchain. Together, you have a decentralised trust system that no central entity every needs to mediate in.

But the realisation I had was that Bitcoin is not a currency: it’s an asset. And that asset, is that it is the world’s first global decentralised system that can validate transactions.

Now imagine I sent a bitcoin transaction between two accounts that I owned, say that were valued as 25, 122,013 satoshi’s (about 1/4 the value of a Bitcoin) — numbers that can also be interpreted as Christmas day 2013.

Now go back to my assertion: Bitcoin is the world’s first global decentralised system that can validate transactions. And how many transactions occur, including non-financial records of receipt such as dates or domain name looks ups which are actually IP addresses.

Bitcoin might not be the world currency because it’s protocol isn’t fast enough for real time money spending (it takes 10 minutes to validate a transaction) and its unstable as a store of value. But when you think about it a global receipt book, I hope you now get how this is game changing.

If the entire computing revolution is based on binary code — 1’s and 0’s — so long as something can be boiled down into a number and there is value in validating it, then Bitcoin will have place in the world.

Global citizenship

Due to unexpected events, I’ve had to spend five weeks in Australia in the last six months. I’ve also by no means had time for holidays with a backlog of work so it’s made me wonder how practical a dual location life is.

For one thing, its completely redefined my view on being away from my family and friends. While not without some issues on my business, the upside has been my aging parents are happier, I’m more connected with old friends (and family, which makes me happy), and less home sick. Meanwhile I can continue to chase my ambitions in America.

Why would you want this?

  • Because we can now. Flights are quicker and cheaper. They say in ten years time, Sydney to London will take 4 hours (currently 24 hours). But even then, today it takes 14 hours Sydney to San Francisco; and 10 hours SF to London. With inflight wifi becoming standard (increasingly on domestic flights now, and I’ve done it once before on a international flight over the Pacific ocean so only a matter of time), it’s no longer wasted time.
  • Work is becoming more flexible. For example, smart engineers and designers I know just contract now, and small businesses give you flexibility when it doesn’t hurt the business — like how my old employer Vast had a virtual team for many years to attract top talent. Even our StartupHouse team is currently spread across three continents right now (and it’s a real estate business!) not to mention the entire StartupBus leadership team live in as many cities as we have people. While face time is crucial, I have to say from a business point of view, I’ve unexpectedly discovered having such strong networks in multiple locations opens up opportunities not to mention increased satisfaction from the team in the job.
  • health care is becoming more globalised  where medical tourism is a very real trend. I’ve heard of people I know getting plastic surgery in Thailand; eye laser surgery in Singapore; jaw bone surgery in Bulgaria — all because it was cheaper. Actually just this week, I was getting medical care in Australia for a quick checkup and prescription, which ended up being way cheaper without insurance than what it costs in the US with insurance.
  • Education is becoming more flexible, with remote study for adults and what we are seeing with kids being brought up on iPads is just the start. The success I’ve been hearing about AltSchool (where two former colleagues of mine are now working there) is another example how technology is enabling us to have more flexible and higher quality education

Of course, this isn’t a life for all people. Most people are quite happy to stay in the one location and for reasons of work can’t be flexible. But for those of us like me, with the travel bug or with global ambitions in business or with family spread across the world or with a multi-geography upbringing — the advances in technology are now enabling us to have a richer fuller life we desire.

Secondary value is what is holding back Bitcoin

A few nights ago I woke up in the middle night not knowing where I was. It was pitch dark, I couldn’t breathe. In shock, I jumped out of my bed and  found a door before realising what had happened. Gasping for air, all I could think was “Bitcoin liquidity crisis”.
Freshly jet lagged into a summer Australian night that I was still acclimatising  to,  I probably was impacted by the humidity, dehydrated and still confused from all the travel. But the fact I was thinking of the Bitcoin liquidity crisis, I’m going to call  this a premonition of what’s to come.
According to Former US Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, Bitcoin is a bubble. I agree.
Greenspace: Bitcoin is a bubble
What makes it a bubble, is unsustainable prices and to which Greenspan says no ‘intrinsic’ value. This is where I disagree, but does point to a real challenge with any crypto-currency.

While the innovation right now is on establishing exchanges which create a base level of liquidity, Bitcoin suffers from one critical weakness in its design. Fixable I might add, but critical.

Secondary value
On a base level, the creation of exchanges will solve the liquidity problem: more banks, more currencies, faster conversions, lower fees — will allow more people to convert their government-backed fiat-currency into Bitcoins. This will help in developing the maturity of the currency.

But it doesn’t solve the confidence issue that will impact ultimately its liquidity. This is because Bitcoin or any other crypto-currency has no secondary use if the value falls. It’s going to collapse when the social compact loses confidence. Greenspan is wrong in saying Bitcoin’s doesn’t have any intrinsic value because the algorithms developing the hashes’s are the result of mathematically complex equations ‘mined’ by a global network of  brute force computing. But he is partly right, in that those outputs in the algorithm’s don’t have any secondary value. Unlike gold which has been used as a form of currency as well as a metal for jewelry, Bitcoin’s cryptographic puzzles currently don’t have a secondary use aside from validating the blockchain.

Arguably you can say the same about any other fiat currency: if a government and society didn’t think the USD has value, the pieces of paper would be useless. But unlike the USD, Bitcoin does not have a government guaranteeing the value of the currency.

Long term this won’t be as big a deal, because if you look at the USD, no one questions the liquidity of the US government. Though with a lack of confidence, the same issues would happen if everyone in the world cashed in their Greenback (and yes, the US government wouldn’t handle that crisis and the world would lose confidence). This issue however will hold back the initial foundation of the system as it will be the basis behind a liquidity crisis due to confidence.
Which is partly why we need a Bitcoin bubble: it will lay down an infrastructure that will be a sunk cost that will result in future use “because it’s there”. But if we could invent a way to give Bitcoin secondary value by finding a way to leverage the block chain to give value elsewhere in the world (possibly the mathematical puzzles become a source of validation for the world?) then this would inject much needed confidence in the system to make this a true global currency.

The important business skill in life

I believe there is one true lesson that matters for anyone running a business in whatever space you find yourself in. A skill that if you learn the manage techniques in executing them, are transferrable to any business. Thee core concept is called “working capital”, and although they teach this as a basic accounting concept — the meaning of it is not something you can learn, but simply feel have to feel as a CEO founder.

Have you ever had to worry about not being able to pay payroll next month? Have you ever had to raise financing to *continue* (not start) the operations of your business? That’s what I call the working capital burn. And while the tech press is littered with “acquisitions”, the truth of the matter is that the majority of businesses that get acquired knew their future was limited and/or their working capital was running out. An acquisition is a failure in the ability (which may also mean fatigue, not just lack of skill) for an entrepreneur to expand their working capital.

Working capital is a deep concept that incorporates a lot of skills in order for it to successful function. It means fundraising and revenue; it means cost control and hiring. Working capital management is one of the three core functions any CEO — big or small business — that s/he needs to be responsible for outside of setting the strategy and building the team. But the truth is, it’s something everyone in the businesses needs to be responsible for — it’s just the CEO is the only person who has a true picture of the operations.

One of the sad things about the recent financial crisis that has had many economies go into deep recession, is that thousands of businesses went bankrupt despite existing for many decades in some cases. And the reason, was because the banks stopped lending when even $20k may have been enough to boost the working capital of an existing business to continue its operations. Because you see, working capital is not something you solve once you graduate from being a startup — it’s the thing you need to think about from the first day of starting the business and the last day of ending the business.

When I hear of a CEO who is hiring staff faster than the revenue growth of the business, I shake my head. When I hear of a person giving me advice on how to run my business about investing the businesses’s cash in a certain direction despite more short-term challenges being apparent — I dismiss them because they clearly have never had to *feel* the stress of the working capital burn. When I have people claim “profit” is bad even in non-profit organisations, I can only put my hands up in despair because they don’t understand that business has costs — many of them indirect — which you need to always be thinking about and building up the cash reserves on seemingly unrelated activities.

The working capital burn is a thing that all entrepreneurs that have experienced can relate to, and why they can connect despite decades between them in age and a world of difference in terms of what business they work on. And I have to admit, despite my six years of tertiary education and three years work experience to become a chartered accountant where working capital was just one of many accounting concepts I had to learn; it wasn’t until I started my own business that I *felt* the working capital burn and really understood it. Which is why before I can trust anyone in a position of authority for a business I run or a business I invest in, I look to see if they not only get working capital, but if they’ve felt the working capital burn before.

Why entrepreneurs need to say “fuck you”

One of the StartupBus teams this year was interviewed by Y-combinator. They were turned down. Why? According to the team, it was because they were not a billion dollar company. This is something I’ve warned StartupBus teams before when they pitch investors so it doesn’t surprise me. But there’s a lesson here that I hope all entrepreneurs understand.

Professional investors are in the game to make money. Their motivation is to generate a multiple on the fund they have raised.

Why is that a problem you may ask?

Well, who cares if a company makes a billion dollars? Apparently from sounding cool that you built something like that up, as a founder, you will be so diluted through multiple rounds of funding that you will probably have a 5- 30% equity stake in the business, depending on how capital intensive the business is and how many co-founders you have.

A VC however, not only makes money on a billion dollar exit, but they get to brag about it to limited partners and to attract new entrepreneurs, which helps them raise new funds and get new deals. The way it works in venture capital is that it is all about the brand and communicating your successes. Any investor that doesn’t admit to not knowing what they are doing are full of shit. Because billion dollar exits come in two forms: entrepreneurs who successfully played a game to  take advantage of the current market (ie, an acquisition today that had it not happened may not have become a sustainable business) or fundamentally disruptive businesses that no one saw coming. I can think of many examples of the above, but I’ll hold back as my knowledge of various companies are not mean to be public  — however, all that matters is the point that billion dollar exits are either due to a confluence of market factors or a fundamentally disruptive business model. You can’t predict for that. Which is why the safest strategy, as an investor, is to back a proven entrepreneur who knows how to make opportunities like that happen.

While investors look for the 15 deals that generates 96% of the returns in a year, let’s bring this back to the entrepreneur only making $300m. Put another way, a billion dollar business is more like a $300m business for you financially speaking (assuming you have 30% of the entity, a best case scenario). But if you are a $300m business pitching a VC, you probably won’t meet the investors cost of capital (ie, their fund is $300m+) and so therefore they don’t get the returns to justify their capital. Putting that into context, a billion dollar startup that a founder has a 30% equity stake in and a $333m startup that a founder has a 90% equity stake in — is, financially speaking, the same. And what I mean by that, is the people who will make that “billion” dollars (the founders) will need to work three times harder for the same return…meaning by raising financing, the market problem that needs to be serviced needs to be three timeS bigger so that people sitting in the backseat (the investors) make just as much money out of it.

Which means absolutely nothing about the problem you are solving in the world. The fact the entire silicon valley ecosystem is influenced by the investor industry, at a time when the costs of doing a startup have dropped dramatically — is a misalignment that will change one day.

If an investor says your business isn’t biggest enough, it means 20% of your hard work isn’t high enough to meet their capital hurdle of providing a certain return to their limited partners which will impact the investors future fundraising. And sadly, this fact is lost on a lot of entrepreneurs who feel they need a sense of validation despite having identified a real market problem. Which ironically, I think is what separates the true disruptive entrepreneurs from the rest. They are the ones that say “fuck you, I’m going to make this work”. And they end up disapproving the assumptions the investors falsely asserted when rejecting the teams’ vision because fundamentally disruptive businesses are never obvious from the outset.

Bitcoin makes sense for the future

Bitcoin fascinates me. Whether it’s the future of currency itself I don’t know, but it will pave the way for the future so it’s worth studying.

There are two reasons that people claim make Bitcoin flawed.

The first is that it’s based on ECDSA (Elliptic Curve Digital Signature Algorithmwhich consists of a private key (a secret number known only to the person that generated it), a public key (a number that corresponds to a private key which is calculated from the private key but that is very difficult with current computing to reverse engineer to predict a private key), and a signature (a number that proves an operation took place that  used a hash and the private key). Values can be determined without the private key ever being disclosed, so that a bitcoin can correspond to a public ledger to prove the authenticited of ownership — for example, an algorithm can determine with the public key on a signature to determine it was produced by a hash and the private key, without needing to know the private key.

And so the critique goes, if someone can build a sufficiently powerful quantum computer, Shor’s algorithm will enable someone to steal bitcoin’s at will as they can crack the secret of someone’s private key. But basically, it’s practically impossible for this to happen. I’m not crypto expert, but I’ll leave this for others to digest further.

The second critique is due to the known limitation that bitcoin will one day cap at 21 million units. If bitcoins go missing, we will never be able to replace them — such is the case with physical currency today which goes out of circulation (but a central authority issuing it can reprint them). And inherently, Bitcoin is considered to be deflationary — the problem with deflation is the decreased price level of goods and services. Meaning, because it’s got a future guaranteed scarcity it will get scarcer and lead to deflation so therefore it’s doomed.

This is what I want to explore further because it’s worth clarifying some fundamental assumptions about the world.

What is value?
Let’s start with a functional definition of value. “Value is energy applied to resources where the perceived utility of the output is more than the inputs.” That definition implies there are three sources of value in the world: energy, resources, and outputs that have used the application of energy on resources and becomes a transformation. And the utility of a transformation, is different from say energy and the resources that went into it, simply due to perception of it. Basically, value is at core about utility.

Resources are finite: we only have a limited amount on earth that we can use. And most of it is not usable, as we don’t have the capacity to extract the resources in a usable way. Energy on the other hand, by the human definition, is unlimited — the sun sends 1.KW for every square metre of the earth surface for free. But what limits energy is the ability to capture it, store it and transport it — so therefore energy has value. We need energy to function: animal and plant life need it to function, and we need it to extract resources as well as apply it to transform resource into new products.

Is energy in itself valuable? Well, only if we use it: if a plant sits in the sun, it’s free — as does a human who will get Vitamin D that helps it function. Just because it’s free though doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value: it’s just the price is low. Humans also need other vitamins to survive, and it requires the expenditure of energy to acquire future sources of energy — that energy could be valued as time to hunt down animals for example.

Do resources have value? If it’s utilised, it has value — and the more it’s used, the scarcer it becomes for other uses which is why it gets regulated by price when there are competing seekers of the resource. Like energy, the question isn’t if there is value: the issue is what is the price of that value. It’s how to price that utility to regulate its usage.

Theoretically, you could say the current available energy in the world that can be used and the current available resources are what is value in the world, as well as the products created through the transformation of resources with energy. Value is what the total utility in the world is. And if there are no competing uses of those pieces of value, then prices are practically nil: but once there is competing needs for limited pieces of value like resources, that’s when we see the price increase.

And that is, why fundamentally, all value is tied to scarcity: the scarcer the value (supply) and the higher the demand, the higher the price.  This is fundamental economic theory which is the study of how to best allocate limited resources in an world that is based on the assumption of unlimited wants — which theoretically, makes sense. What breaks down is that interpretation of the theory.

For example, it’s fine to say there are unlimited wants in the world — but that’s a assumption that says there will always be competing demands for resources so therefore everything needs a price. Which again, is fine: it’s just this assumption of an assumption needs to assume a more fundamental assumption: a price of zero doesn’t make something less valuable than the same resource which has a price of more than zero. If you can buy a diamond for $1 but it normally would be valued $1000, that doesn’t mean it’s less valuable fundamentally: it just has less competition and so therefore less cost to acquire.

What is currency?
Arguably, you could say the sum of value in the world is all the stored energy, available resources, and transformations in the world which has utility. The world’s currency system should be tied to that: if you could exchange all the value in the world, it should be equal that.

Currency should be a way to store value and transport it. The energy I applied with my time which created more perceived value than the energy itself in the form of knowledge,  I want to store for a future use where I can exchange that for something of similar value. Therefore, a currency needs to have a consistent form of pricing (to make value comparable) and it ideally has a stable means of being valued (ie, storing it a year ago should theoretically be valued as the same as storing it today).

But the hard thing about utility  is that it’s hard to measure at the one point in time –even though we know there is a fundamental fixed amount that can be used in the world. But that’s why the assumption that a currency should have a fixed supply makes perfect sense: the price mechanism of currency adjusts for changes in utility (assuming the supply of currency doesn’t degrade, which is another factor why modern day currency can adjust in value).

Bitcoin’s fixed supply
Which brings us to the question: does Bitcoin having a fixed supply make sense? Yes.

But what about the risk of “deflation” in the world due to a fixed supply? Well, it’s not that value in the world goes does — it’s just the pricing of that value might go down.

The above discussion I hope answers those questions.

And what about if there are missing bitcoin’s in the world, which creates a supply constraint on this new currency? Bitcoin’s are divisible up to 8 decimal places which means one bitcoin has 100 million components (yes, they have a name: called a “Satoshi”). Ignoring the clear economic incentive to not lose Bitcoin’s, lost coins get lost in the noise and this divisibility allows it to adapt. With 21 million final bitcoin’s divisible by 100 million, that means 2.1 quadrillion units of currency or Satoshi’s. To put that in comparison, in 2009 there was approximately 8.3 trillion US dollars in the world or 0.0083 quadrillion cents. If one cent was one Satoshi, that would be 2100 trillion US cents or 21 trillion US dollars.

Some say the value of the US economy to be 188 trillion dollars (different from GDP, which simply accounts for   spending in one year). Assuming the US economy in 2009 accounted for one quarter fo the world economy (based on GDP), we can assume the world has a price on the value in the world of about 750 trillion US dollars or 0.8 quandrillion.

If the total *value* of available Satoshi’s in the world one day equals that amount (One Satoshi equals 0.35714285714 US cents  or 750 trillion divided by 2.1 quadrillion) — then who cares if a few bitcoin’s get lost along the way. What we have now is a currency that does what currency is meant to do: store value for the exchange of value in society.

Why do we need money?

Here’s a question for you: if I was to give you money for reading this post, what would you spend it on? $100,000 to be exact. Imagine what you could do with that money? Now hold that thought, because I’m going to ask you again after you walk through this thought experiment.

Our economic system is designed to make us think that making more money is a good thing. Society is measured on GDP which is based on the concept of aggregate demand. What we spend reflects what our demand at all price points are for the good and services in an economy, thereby allowing economists to measure the value of the economy (or better said, to price the value of gross domestic product). So if more aggregate spending makes a bigger GDP, then more personal spending is considered wealth.

And bingo, that’s why we have a materialistic society. But without going into the value judgement of that, let’s dig deeper. Because to spend, it means you need money. Money you generate from an income. (It’s why you want that pay rise.) The more money we can make, the better off we are…we are made to think. Because after all, more money means more spending. And more spending results in a enthusiastic nod from the economists that society has a more valuable economy.

Let’s break this down now: what is money? When it all boils down, money is an agreement in society, to represent value (because money itself has no real intrinsic value outside of the raw materials). Therefore, with money, you can exchange that value with something else of value. Which brings me to the question behind this post: what value does money allow us to purchase?

I mean, buying a car is value — but what are we really buying? It is the convenience enabled by this transportation? It is the dignity generated from being associated with an asset?

What value does money purchase?
As humans, we are governed by two instincts: survival and procreation. If we lived in caves with no food stores, we would spend every waking hour trying to generate sources of food. And because all living beings have a life cycle that eventually ends, we’ve developed an instinct in procreation, which I believe is ‘survival’ in a different sense: of the genes, the kind, the species we are. These two instincts are at the core of value that we purchase with value, but there’s more.

We no longer live in caves. We’ve freed ourselves from this burden of daily food generation to enable our being — which in itself reflects a fundamental concept, which is “time”. Significant, because we remove this burden by purchasing time — we go to restaurants and we purchase tomatoes from the super market, buying outputs from the labour of other people who did what we would have done ourselves (what’s stoping you from growing a tomato in your backyard?). But what’s even more significant, is that as we generate value elsewhere in society so that we can then purchase other people’s time (which we would have otherwise had to do ourselves), we end up having more available time. And humans then ask: what next?

Given we have senses in hearing, touching, seeing, smelling and tasting — by activating our senses, we give a sense of purpose to what we do with our available time. Which is why we seek an ‘experience’. The pursuit of experiences give us, at their base level, a sense of sensory fulfillment.

I believe a final super-category outside of survival, procreation, time and experiences  is power. Because without power, we cannot control our behaviour. We cannot determine how we use our time. Power enables us to shape our environment in a way which further aligns with our goals in survival, procreation, and stimulating our senses. Without power, we can’t use our time. Freedom in my eyes — one of the key dimensions to success in life — is a combination of time and power: the ability to do what you want whenever you want.

Applying those thoughts
You go to the doctor to ensure you are healthy: that’s survival. But you go to the dermatologist to clear that awkward (but harmless) skin imperfection on your face: that’s your desire to remove an impediment to your status in society, which amongst other things, can impact your ability to procreate. You purchase a car so that you can experience more in life, buy time so that you can do more, and give you a rush due to the sensory excitement of driving — but potentially also to have status which will lead to better procreation opportunities.

In my eyes, of all the things I mentioned above, the ultimate of all value is survival and procreation. To say purchasing time is the ultimate, is not true because it’s simply a means to an end. But time, despite this, is probably the most significant of all the factors for what we purchase. If you dedicated you life to one goal, arguably you will be able to get access to that prize. But it could take years, require other people to assist — purchasing access provides value. Think of how advertisers purchase space in publications: they purchase access to an audience that has taken many years to develop by the mast head. (But if the company, like how Apple has, invests in building its own brand and audience — the need to advertise and access those audiences becomes less necessary.)

I mean hey, who needs to purchase more time when you can survive, procreate, and have your senses stimulated with the power to do so as you please? Well, of course we wil always feel like we need more time: because we will never get enough of a good thing. And which is why time dominates our purchasing decisions.

What do we need money for?
Now let’s me ask that question again: if I was to give you $100,000 for the labour you went through to read this post — what would you spend it on? And when you’ve answered that, is money necessary for you to achieve that?

If money is the goal in your life, then maybe you’ve drunk too much cool-aid from the economists who have mistakenly identified the basis of aggregate demand. Which is done on the assumption that humans have unlimited wants and are only limited in achieving them due to scarcity in supply. And short of disputing the fundamental problem in our society, which is based on an inappropriate theoretical understanding of what us human’s desire in life, just remember this one indisputable fact: money purchases value, but money doesn’t create value (in the ultimate sense).

Benjamin Franklin made the observation that time is money, which as a cliche, is to mean your time is valuable like how it is to making money. I wonder though when he said it, he actually called it out for what it really is.

Ripples

I get a lot of  random email, and sometimes, it’s the stuff that makes me sit upright. Question things. But of the kind I’m talking about, usually I just smile. Here’s one from today.

I got back to Australia at the end of January. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the start-up community in Adelaide had a bunch of activity going on. One of my friends had heard about the silicon beach meetups in Sydney so got some sponsorship from Microsoft and started a regular meetup.

This lead to Adelaide having its first start-up weekend, which resulted in a burst of activity and resulted in Adelaide’s first tech co-working space being born. They got more interested than anticipated and quickly needed a bigger space, so the guys knocked on a ton of doors and moved into a huge rundown space in the middle of the city.

After talking to a few people who stayed at start-up house they are now looking at opening up a similar type of hacker accommodation in one of the empty floors above the co-working space.

Just thought you might like to know some of the ripple effects hitting the Adelaide eco-system from your awesome work in the valley. Looking forward to staying at the new start-up house when I move back mid year.

The fact so many people around the world have already copied or flagged that they are doing something similar as StartupBus and StartupHouse (not to mention Silicon Beach, though in the way it’s described above that was by design) is flattering. But that’s not the first reaction I had in each case until I realised a very important fact in life.

I’ve seen everything from outright copying of the brand and concept that’s gotten legal, to working intensely with the “copycats” and seeing first hand what they built — and even seeing friends try to replicate their own versions of the concept. Naturally, it can  be disappointing to see your work being copied without being able to expand on your own business where you benefit, or more to the frustration, the sense of losing control on value you created.  But that’s the nature of the market and competition, and actually, I’m more thrilled than disappointed because I’ve come to learn first hand with each of the above that there  really is secret sauce in your own work. You cannot copy the creativity that led to the original concepts themselves which become more valuable for their future evolution. When you copy an idea, you are simply redrawing a photograph of a moving crowd that has since moved on.

So when you can get over that point to realise it’s not a threat, you realise something cooler. You’re creating a ripple effect. But the thing about ripples is that they can be more than that: add some wind and it leads to a wave. That wave might capsize the boats or at the very least ruffle them — but let’s also remember, it’s that movement from a wave that leads to change in our society. And that, is way cooler than anything you will ever do in your life that’s being copied.

What the startup visa should really look like

US immigration is a subject that all foreign entrepreneurs in the United States have lost quite a bit of sleep over. Over the years, I’ve spent days researching, talking to lawyers, listening to stories of survival — and despite solving my own situation, it’s still to this day something that sits at the back of my mind as I’m constantly counseling entrepreneurs with their own situations. The reason this is so hard is because  the only way I could be an entrepreneur in the US (in the mould I wanted, which is a bootstrapping one), I needed to work for a US corporation and at night build my businesses: which is exactly what I did and how I did it (two years in the making). Its taken three years to get to a point where I can now focus on what inspired me to move to America: to build a big, global enterprise.

The entire startup visa movement frustrates me because it’s dependent on raising funding: I believe the best businesses bootstrap and raise funding when they actually need it. Hopefully this post can lead to a more productive dialogue in government policy, coming from someone that directly is impacted by all these discussions.

The options
The US visa system has a few categories that entrepreneur’s can “hack” to make them legal.

  • H1B: this is the standard work visa that foreigner’s go on, with several variants like the E3 visa (which Australian’s uniquely get). Of the H1B’s, about 65,000 new visa’s are issued every year and most of the people that have them work for big corporations. To satisfy the requirements of the visa, you need to file a petition which means three separate advertisements go out in newspapers allowing American citizen’s to apply for the job — only if no one applies and accepted that the petition satisfied.
  • O1: awarded to individuals with extraordinary ability.
  • L1: Individuals who are executives, managers or staff of a US affiliate (ie, a multinational).
  • E1 and E2: A treaty visa only available to a few countries (ie, the next in line  E3 mentioned above was due to the US-Australia free trade agreement), and which are the trader and investor visa respectively. With the E2, the rule of thumb is if you bring in about 100k of capital into the country…however, it’s more complicated than that. It’s the closest thing to a entrepreneur’s visa, but it has some difficult hurdles.
  • EB-5: This is a greencard (or permanent resident) which is probably the best type of visa for an entrepreneur as it gives them complete freedom. The catch? You need to bring $1 million into the country first.

Pretty much all the above employment-based visa’s (H1B, E3, L1) require three things. The first is that the foreigner needs to be paid above the prevailing wage for similar employees in that occupation and city. (The thinking here is that a foreigner needs to be paid more than local’s, so that firms are not motivated to hire cheap labour to the disadvantage of US citizens.)

The second is that the person satisfies educational and work experience. You need to have a US equivalent undergraduate degree or 12 years work experience (a year in college is calculcated as three’s in the workforce for every year of study) in the field you are working in. Actually, the L1 is exempt from this, which is why it’s the main alternative for people without degrees…though it comes with the challenge  of an existing business in your home country that’s been operating for over a year.

The third is that a US firm is “sponsoring” you. Basically, what this means is you have a job offer.

This all sounds reasonable. right? The US should get to cherry pick well educated foreigner’s working at companies that have a real need and which won’t disadvantage  US citizens. Yes, it should — but when you get into the details, this is when this system falls apart.

Problems with the visas
Did you know a fashion model can easily get a O1 if she has appeared in a few print magazines, but an entrepreneur has to basically have won a noble prize? I could write a book about the issues each of the above visa’s have, but I want to keep this post light as it’s a complicated subject.

The first big issue, is that the entire visa system biases established large corporations. To explain this point, I can share with you how hard it is to be a foreign startup employee by the simple requirement of being “sponsored”, which means you need to have a job waiting for you. If you’ve ever applied for a job, you’ll appreciate it’s not that easy…and if you live in another country, I can assure you, finding these jobs is even harder. Multi-nationals have professional departments where they can talk to overseas colleagues and get recommendations, but if you’re applying to work at a startup in the US you’re starting from scratch with the added communication barrier. You’ve basically got to come on “holiday” to the US and prove yourself in what is a cliquey community, so that a startup will hire you.

So why does it matter that the visa system biases the large corporation? Because startups breed startups themselves and are the best training ground for the next generation of entrepreneurs. Startups are not like normal businesses and founders are more selective about the people they hire, given how much risk there is. The extra effort of hiring someone from overseas (relocation costs, lawyer costs on visa’s, etc) only to find they are a dud, means it’s a bigger commitment to take on a foreigner. Again why is this relevant? Because making the visa process easier for startup employees, will indirectly lead to a lot more startups as foreigners tend to be a lot hungrier and research has shown a lot more entrepreneurial.

The second big issue is that you need to be paid a salary if you are to employ yourself in your business. Why is that a bad thing? Because it means I need to hire one less person. To work fulltime on my projects which have become two operationally independent businesses, I need to pay myself above the prevailing wage, which means I have to hire one less person that probably would free my time to grow the business.

The third issue is that it’s not practical. The E2 visa for example was designed for an industrial age, where you would take leases out on offices and invest money in capital expenditure on a store front. (In the information economy, the biggest expense are employees.) More problematic with the E2, is that you need to have an *already existing* business in the US, and of the $100,000 you need to invest in the economy (it’s more complicated than that, but it’s a good standard number), you need to have already *committed* to spending the cash. To rephrase this, you need to have already signed a lease to an office (which you can’t do without a credit history and operating history), spent a bunch of money, and THEN you will be eligible to get the visa. It’s a domino effect here, like the fact you can’t get  a social security number without a visa, which means you can’t open a bank account, which means you can’t get US customers to pay you. And what business man would sign a 12 months lease during their three month “holiday” to show a commitment of funds, when they don’t even have the assurance they can let back into the country?

The fourth issue is that it limits the types of people that are eligible. I used to have a portfolio company (a dozen employees, over a million dollars in capital raised) that couldn’t keep their 19 year co-founder in the country and who’s making headlines in Silicon Valley with his work, simply because he doesn’t have a degree (and so it invalidates that important test for an employment visa). This makes perfect sense for employees who are resources to grow something, but for entrepreneurs that start something? They are the rebels. The college drop out mythology of Silicon Valley where companies like Dell, Facebook, and other household names led to the creation of billion dollar businesses is incompatible with the fact foreign entrepreneurs need to have a degree.

A solution
The reason visa law is such a problematic area is because US citizen’s view foreigner’s as stealing jobs, who in turn vote out politicians who are seen as not creating jobs for them. It also creates a risk where a new liability gets brought into the country, as residents can claim their share of social security which is already bankrupt. I totally understand that.

However, this is where there is a fundamental misunderstanding about the threat of foreigner’s and what they need. Using me as proof, this year, I’ve had three American citizens on my payroll and I plan to increase that as my cashflow grows. When it comes to entrepreneurs, all we really want is the freedom to operate in the United States. I quite happily will pay taxes and not get any rights to pensions, so long as I have the freedom to live in the US and start my businesses. What entrepreneur’s need is a self-employment visa, where they don’t need anything but themselves and time to create the value they are motivated by.

It really is simple to solve this: give entrepreneurs freedom to travel in the United States, to get into agreements, and to interact with the US economy. Require them to check in every so often to prove they are not secretly working at Burger King and using that money to party in Vegas. Restrict any rights to benefits (like social security) and have them pay taxes.  And allow them to graduate into new visa’s (like a greencard) once certain milestones have been hit like revenue thresholds (tax paid) and employment (aggregate demand in the economy increases).

Immigration is so complicated that its taken me 1800 words to write this and I have only skirted the issues. But the solution is honestly simple: enable foreigner’s to generate wealth and jobs by removing the roadblocks. Give them freedom to operate, that’s it.

We no longer live in an isolated world and the freedom of the labor force to move around the world is one of the great benefits of globalisation. If the US can recognise that, it will remain the land of opportunity attracting the world’s best to continue America’s status in the world economy. But until then, I’m going to continue watching the sorry state of the US economy by politicians who are left with no option on how to get out of this mess and shutting the door on the very people who can help save America.