Tag Archive for 'life'

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.

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 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.

The long term emotional mind

Last night I was at a dinner on a long table of accomplished entrepreneurs and some investors, having an open discussion about entrepreneurship with the guest of honour Kevin Rose. Among many discussion points, the question was asked to the table: what traits do you look for in a founder?

Before we get to that, let’s start with what does it actually mean to be an entrepreneur? Well, quite simply someone who organises resources to create a product that customers pay for. A lot of people have enterprising personalities and so could fall under this definition, but a successful entrepreneur in my eyes is someone who is able to make an income from a product they created (whether from cash flow or from investment). How much income, well that’s a personal question but the point is you’re making money because of you.

But what is it, from a DNA point of view, that makes someone a successful entrepreneur? Someone who takes on “risk”? Someone who is a generalist in their skills? Good at delegation? Yes and no: these are descriptive traits that don’t define the entrepreneur. I think there are actually two things that makes someone a successful entrepreneur, and both these points I learned by one of the most successful entrepreneur’s I know, Steve Outrim.

The first is thinking long term. At a table with people like Gower Smith, Sam Morgan, and several other accomplished people I’ve come to respect — Outrim asked the question on what was the single most important trait in success and he identified the ability to think long term as the key to his success, which everyone nodded in agreement.

The second nugget of wisdom, was shared earlier this year by Outrim at a house warming party to a few of us and he was insistent that was understood him. He pointed to his head: it’s the ability to not let anything affect you mentally. It was a point that took me some reflection to truly appreciate the implications of what he meant.

Think about that. Even if you don’t have your own business, let me help you relate.

On thinking long term, what do you plan to do with your life? For some of us, that freaks us out and for others we have a meticulous plan on what. Entrepreneurs think about their company and 10 years from now. A long term vision, with assumptions that need to get validated, which translate into activities today to enable those assumptions.

The emotional mind, is a tougher one to explain but something all true entrepreneurs will relate to more. As a point of comparison, imagine you are in a relationship and you have your heart broken: most of us have experienced that at some stage in our life. It’s horrible and like a gas that infects your thoughts that you can’t control. Likewise, the feeling of being in love (if you’ve truly experienced it) can uplift you in ways that words cannot explain. Both those highs and lows reflect your emotional self, what all normal human beings experience. Let’s call them “intense” thoughts.

For the entreprener, that experience happens on a daily basis: you start the day with your heart broken and you end the day on a high. Imagine going through intense thoughts every day for years at a time? Can you imagine what impact that has on a person?

Bravery, commitment, and intelligence (specifically, the ability to learn quickly) are three other traits that I think define a sucessful entrepreneur. But its the ability to think long term and deal with the demons in your head that I think separates the boys from the men.

Indeed, I believe the role of a CEO is very similar: my experience is that the best CEO’s think strategically into the long term, but also, have a strong emotional control of their mind. But a CEO is also a job.

Think about it as an employee, where you worry about your bonus or getting promoted. That anxiety is what entrepreneurs face, but from the other perspective: making sure there is enough cash in the bank to pay their staff bonuses and have them rewarded so they can keep them on deck. As an employee, you can face resentment if your expectations are not met; as a CEO founder, you could face jail time if you don’t manage expectations.

I will leave you with this one thought, which is how do you develop these two essential traits which are more than just skills but a state of mind. As Confusion says:

By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third, by experience, which is the most bitter.

Measuring success

In March this year, I posted my still evolving thought process on what success is. In the post, I said how success, like religion, is a personal thing and so there is no right answer. But I proposed a framework to think about the question: whereby I defined success as having three dimensions, which have no minimum or maximum value but simply are a constant pursuit of development. Those dimensions are existence, freedom, and impact and which I suggest you read before continuing with this post.

The problem with that framework, is it actually is still too broad. And where it lacks in detail, it also lacks in something fundamental: metrics to measure success. Six months later, this is how my thought process has evolved — still evolving, but I hope can stimulate your own thinking about your life.

On the pursuit of existence
You can define existence as a variety of ways, but I think a fundamental concept is your life expectancy as well as the quality of it. How long can you live, in years, to your full ability — being the ultimate (never ending) goal.

Number of years you are alive I think is a pretty self-explanatory thing to say as a goal: 75 years is better than 50 years. Less obvious, is how able you are: a 65 year old on life support due to lungs, kidneys and liver issues from poor dietary habits, is by no means the same as a healthy 65 year old. If life span is the number to measure this dimension of success, then your health is the factor to create an expected value: 65 years at 25% capacity versus 65 at 95% is 16 years versus 62 years. Literally, a life time apart.

Which is why your nutrition matters: look after yourself in your 20s and you’ll be doing better in your 40s, not just in life span but life quality. Drinking soft drinks at 30 once  a day hurts your  long term health quality and will reduce your life span expected value. We forget that, and it’s only when people get older do they regret not thinking about this (so I’m told).

But then there is a flip side to being a health freak:  being 30 worrying about what you eat hurts you in different ways, like your freedom and experiences. More on that below.

On the pursuit of freedom
Whether you claim to chase money or not, the point is moot: money is what makes the world go around because it’s what we’ve agreed to be a mutually exchagable form of value. Money simply represents value, and its accumulation has value not from the paper bills/plastic notes/lumps of metal itself that money is printed as but what it represents: purchasing power to save your time (not a representation of your capital base, which is materialism).

In society, we are so focussed on the material and the bigger numbers but we forget the character of what matters. But its key to understand income  — recurring monetary inflow — is such a key concept to success, because it enables freedom: without the ability to pay for food and shelter, you’re going to spend the rest of your waking time trying to find solutions to these issues, an opportunity cost.

When I spent nine months backpacking around Europe in 2005, I observed how people travelling, like how I had become, are very primitive in their activities: look for a new hostel to sleep in, find a new place to eat food.  I was quite literally, a cave man. Even with cash to pay for these, the search took time. Now imagine you need a summer job as a working holiday to experience the travel, and you’ve just knocked out more time outs during the day to experience your “travel”. Travel might be temporary, but rephrase what I said now for regular life and the point remains. “Living” means surviving as its most basic, but we can do better than that as humans.

When it comes to measuring success on freedom, understandably income should be considered a core benchmark. Not how much you spend, but how much you can make — that spending power gives you not material wealth, but something much more valuable: your time. Income can buy you food, shelter, and the ability to outsource or delegate functions in your life that time would otherwise need to be expended.

However, how much you make is not the ultimate because its not secured. Which is why the ultimate measure of income in capital: after all, capital is simply the accumulation of income. Capital is the result of income, without the need to personally exert yourself from getting the benefit of it; more specifically, capital can been monetised, generating a passive income which is the ultimate in enabling freedom.

Therefore when it comes to success in terms of capital, $100,000 is much more valuable than $10,000, obviously. But a subtle point to remember, is that to get the value of capital it either is locked up making a passive income (say, in real estate with a rental) or it’s liquid so that it enables the ability for you to use that purchasing power for your life.

One million dollars in the bank that can be withdrawn tomorrow? Very successful. One million dollars invested in a property making a 10% return? Also, very successful though not very liquid:but that’s ok becayse it’s generating $100,000 a year in passive income, on top of the capital base that grows through capital gain. One million dollars locked up in an stock market investment that can’t be liquidated for a month? Not good — but very good if it generates a 10% return on say, the stock market in that month.

But simply attaining capital is not life accomplished because if inflation rates are 9%, then that 10% return on real estate and stock is actually only a 1% return. That passive income (or rather, purchasing power) now is only 1% of the capital base. And that’s fine because capital has value in immediate liquidity (also purchasing power), but sometimes it’s worth trading short term liquidity to grow that capital base otherwise inflation will catch up and any income dependent on that capital will actually erode in value. Capital generates passive income, but that capital needs to be secured through investment to not have it be eroded.

Therefore the ultimate measure of capital is lifetime cashflow in real purchasing power. You can try to accumulate it, and you want to grow it above inflation. But once you’ve done that, you’re now getting greedy: the time cost in your life now actually impacts on your freedom, the whole point of capital accumulation, passive income and purchasing power. But as you dance with growing your capital base , income stream, and ultimately freedom, let’s not forget being busy we dream of more time, but when you have too much time on your hands it can be downright depressing. Enter impact.

On the pursuit of impact
Impact, like existence and freedom, is a core tenent to life about what I think matters if you want to define success. Impact not only gives you purpose but it gives you direction in life. Impact boost your self esteem. Better still, impact benefits your surroundings better than how you found it.

However impact is a hard thing to quantify. Is it number of people you “impacted” and what does that mean? As a raw score, sure helping one person once a day is better than helping one person once a month. But nothing in life is free: “helping” often comes with a benefit for the other party, such as profit for the business merchant, conversion for the religious zealot, or an orgasm for the sexual expectant.

If you go though life travelling the world, you leave an impact through the people you meet; if you toil yourself to build a business, you leave an impact through the products you create. But when impact is simply measured by “number of people”, it’s actually not all that solid: their needs to be not a mutual exchange, but a net positive where an interaction outputted more than what was entered with.

So what makes it a net positive? When you’ve really touched someone. But you can never know if you did that, so failing that we need to make sure one person was touched by the impact: you. You might have spent three months suffering, but that story will inspire, educate, and benefit 1000 other people in a profound way — and we may never know until your funeral, though you remember those three months. You might travel speaking to one hundred thousand people, of which only 1% where meaningful conversations: but no one remembers your name to prove it, but you remember the experience.

So when it comes to measuring impact, it’s not just number of people but number of people’s who’s lives you have touched. And by touch, it’s not a number but a meaningful impact that comes from your own life experience. One hour a day in a homeless soup kitchen is a different kind of impact from one hour a day building a game that someone plays on their smart phone. And neither is better than the other, so long as someone’s soul was touched; the most important one, being your own.

Meaning, whatever it is you’re doing, you’re leaving an impact by touching the lives of other people, but one person who we can measure is your own in the form of experience which is the only number that we can reliably count.

Success: measured
For those that think in numbers, success as a number  = (Number of years you are alive times by how able you are due to health) multiplied by (capital base times by return) multiplied by (number of people impacted times percentage that were truly touched). That gives the theoretical optimum to the ultimate thing.

Otherwise said, if you have a long healthy long life and you have a lot of purchasing power to buy freedom, then you have more time to impact which ultimately leads to the only thing that matters: number of life experiences (which along they way, benefited others as well that increased their own existence, freedom, and impact).

And that, I believe, is a what a rich life is.