Why We Don't Have An Exit Strategy

This is our annual report cover. Our investors say they’re very pleased with how we’ve spent our time this year. Our moms still want more pictures. 

This is our annual report cover. Our investors say they’re very pleased with how we’ve spent our time this year. Our moms still want more pictures. 

Year Two of Genius Steals & Our Third Nomadiversary
by Faris & Rosie Yakob

The Preamble

Sunday was March 27th 2016. Three years ago to the day, we moved out of our apartment in NYC and took to the road. If you’re into portmanteaus, you might call it our nomadiversary

The end of 2015 marked the two year anniversary of the incorporation of our itinerant consultancy known as Genius Steals, which means we are overdue a sequel to Year One. That’s what this is. 

Look, we know these sort of pieces are the height of obnoxious self importance — the personal essay as press release has become the dominant form on Medium: 

“There’s the Our-beautiful-journey-is-just-beginning-style post announcing a company’s funding round, the Our-journey-takes-an-exciting-new-turn one announcing a pivot, and finally Our beautiful journey will continue, announcing a company’s bankruptcy.”

It’s like the Open Letter to Everyone is now the corporate annual report blended into the family Christmas letter because life/work. Or work/life.

BUT we recently ran a survey on our newsletter, Strands of Genius, and one of the most requested things was can you let us know what you’ve been up to and where? We hemmed and hawed and ultimately decided that an update to year one would be the best way we could satisfy the curiosity without becoming travel bloggers, because that ain’t happenin’.

[Shameless Plug: In January Hubspot named our newsletter one of the top seven newsletters for creatives, alongside the epic Brainpickings, which was quite a honor. You should totally subscribe.]

So, there you go, our readers have spoken. Or Tweeted. Or Whatever. 

The Danger of the Narrative Fallacy

Perhaps those of you considering taking a plunge, going for a wander, starting your own thing, might take some inspiration from our trials and travails — but please don’t take anything we do as a recommendation. We do not give that type of advice, except in the vaguest possible sense. 

“To give advice to a man who asks what to do with his life implies something very close to egomania.” “All advice can only be a product of the man who gives it. What is truth to one may be disaster to another. I do not see life through your eyes, nor you through mine.” Hunter S Thompson, at the ripe old age of 22

The narrative fallacy is very persuasive. It seems to suggest that if you just could do what Steve Jobs did, and act like you think he acted, and maybe wear turtle necks, that you could start a great company too. But that’s bullshit, because you are not Steve Jobs and neither are we. 

Contexts are specific, your life is unique, and if we were to give you advice, it would be simply to embrace that. 

Embrace making decisions in a world of perfect uncertainty, because you can only ever make the best decision with what you know, where you are. 

Early last year, Business Insider covered Genius Steals in a piece called “Sorry, Silicon Valley: The Best Way To Build Your Startup Is To Travel The World” which was cool, although it definitely depends on the kind of start-up you are talking about. (If, for example, you are building a self-driving car to compete with Elon Musk, traveling the world while taking on Tesla would probably not be the best decision. But really, though, this guy is our hero.)

he piece used quotes from the Year One piece we wrote on Medium, so… Hi, BI! ;)

he piece used quotes from the Year One piece we wrote on Medium, so… Hi, BI! ;)

And furthermore, you might not like living out of a carry-on backpack and flying every week and not having any stuff. Then again you might. (We do. Obviously.) It helps to have a partner; Neither of us think we could do it solo. But being with someone 24/7/365 isn’t something most relationships ever have to deal with and, well, you have to really, really get on with each other. 

Make Your Life Your Life’s Work

We live by one motto, and it’s this: Make your life your life’s work. [Patience and a sense of humor comes as a close second, though that’s more a mantra than a motto.] This doesn’t mean you need to quit your job and go serve drinks from a tiki bar, though by all means if you’re into that kind of thing, go for it.

This is by the artist Dallas Clayton. We like it very much. He says he is a children’s author but we think this applies much more to grown ups. 

This is by the artist Dallas Clayton. We like it very much. He says he is a children’s author but we think this applies much more to grown ups. 

We’re continuously crafting the meaning of this motto, fine-tuning the execution. For us, it simply means that our continued focus is on crafting a life that makes us happy. 

We believe that life should be more than an exit strategy. 

Having an exit strategy means you want out. An exit strategy suggests you’re mortgaging your present for a possible future — a future that will almost certainly recede out of view. (Because, if you believe Alan Watts, when you’ve been “conditioned to be in desperate need of the future”, you can never stop.) 

An exit strategy, in the world of entrepreneurship, means you’re building a company you don’t want to work at. 

When people ask us when we’re going to stop, or if we’ll sell Genius Steals, they don’t seem to understand that we are living our dream. Really and truly. 

Attention, Bourbon, & Clients

Once upon a time we were both strategists. And we’re big fans of strategic thinking. So once a year, we dedicate some time to thinking about what we’ve been up to, what we’ve enjoyed, and what’s been less fun, so that we can optimize our life. It’s not as formal as that sounds; It generally involves us being somewhere warm, and asking people who we find to be smart and interesting to be there with us, and then we all talk over piña coladas. 

We spoke at, and made friends with, Ologie, who made these lovely bookmarks out of the epilogue of Paid Attention.

We spoke at, and made friends with, Ologie, who made these lovely bookmarks out of the epilogue of Paid Attention.

When we sat down at the end of 2014, we decided our focus for 2015 would be Paid Attention. Faris spent a good chunk of his life working on this masterpiece (Rosie’s words), and we wanted to do everything we could to share his thinking with the world. 

We also decided that we’d focus more on speaking and running workshops. It’s not that we don’t love the big brand and business strategy projects, it’s just that we love the speaking & workshopping more

We spent the first part of the year working with Gibson Guitars on a brand & marketing strategy project, wrapping up just as we began the book tour.

2015 : We made the rounds, speaking at NYC’s Social Media Week, Tampa’s Gasparilla Festival, Chicago’s How Design Live, Toronto’s Planningness, Columbus’ CSCA Meetup, Oologie, PSFK’s Annual Conference, Ogilvy, Google’s Firestarters, APG’s London Meetup, the Berlin School of Creative Leadership, and somewhere in-between, Faris judged the Effie’s and the London International Awards.

2015 : We made the rounds, speaking at NYC’s Social Media Week, Tampa’s Gasparilla Festival, Chicago’s How Design Live, Toronto’s Planningness, Columbus’ CSCA Meetup, Oologie, PSFK’s Annual Conference, Ogilvy, Google’s Firestarters, APG’s London Meetup, the Berlin School of Creative Leadership, and somewhere in-between, Faris judged the Effie’s and the London International Awards.

While we still spent some time abroad, 2015 had us re-discovering, and discovering the US. It wasn’t just clients and conferences; We visited Disney World for the first time together and made our way through the Bourbon Trail for our friend’s 30th birthday, where we discovered our new favorite hotel/art gallery, 21C. We went to weddings in the Hamptons, in Baltimore, Seattle, and in Nashville (x2!). We spent more time in D.C., which we love. 

Oh, and we bought a house in Washington state! 

We spent some time during the summer in Europe, between London and the lovely Aix-En-Provence. We ran a creativity and ideas workshop, and workshop training, with a lovely agency in Paris. We worked with a London startup still getting its bearings. The Guardian hosted a book launch party in London for Paid Attention. 

One of our favorite projects in 2015 was working with the InterContinental brand teams & hotel owners, running workshops in Cancun, Mexico. (Why don’t more people run workshops in Mexico?? It’s great, y’all.) One thing we’ve definitely learned is that the more the brand people work with the operations people, the better. 

We had so much fun developing the concept for this Intercontinental Summit and running the workshops during it. 

We had so much fun developing the concept for this Intercontinental Summit and running the workshops during it. 

Out Of Frame 

One of the problem with any kind of annecdata is what’s called Survivorship Bias. This is the logical error of “concentrating on the people or things that “survived” some process, and inadvertently overlooking those that did not, [simply] because of their lack of visibility.” 

It’s why books like Good To Great that attempt to reverse engineer successful companies are basically nonsense. [Most of the companies in Good To Great went to on to blow up spectacularly, but that’s slightly beside the point.] 

Saying something like “I worked very hard and became successful” is fine, as long as you appreciate how much luck was involved and don’t make the logical error of then saying “If you work hard you will definitely be successful.” Which is obviously stupid. 

Part of the problem is the visibility of things going wrong, or badly, alluded to, in the bias. We tend to promote and analyze successes, which overweights them. 

[This problem is also hugely important in science, where research that doesn’t produce any interesting results are considered failures and aren’t published. Interesting results get more funding, so careerism drives exaggeration and cherry-picking.]

It’s the same on social media. We put our best foot forward, pushing edited highlights into the stream. And it makes sense, mostly. But it also means that we have a seriously fucked up view of how other people live their lives. 

Don’t get us wrong, we like sunsets and we like rosé, as our Instagram shows, but we don’t spend our whole lives drinking at dusk. 

It’s important to talk about what happens outside of the picture-perfect moments as well.

So here goes nothing. 

Last year, an airline lost our luggage for 3 weeks. IT SUCKED. MAJORLY. Then Rosie’s life-long best friend picked up our bags in Cancun and delivered them to us in Isla Mujeres. To this day we don’t understand how she carried both our bags and her luggage. She is the best. We also now only travel with carry-ons. #LessonLearned

Last year, an airline lost our luggage for 3 weeks. IT SUCKED. MAJORLY. Then Rosie’s life-long best friend picked up our bags in Cancun and delivered them to us in Isla Mujeres. To this day we don’t understand how she carried both our bags and her luggage. She is the best. We also now only travel with carry-ons. #LessonLearned

Last year, we had a client ghost on us. The client was a referral from a friend. The client seemed to have his shit together, with a decent-sized team, and WeWork office space in both NYC and SF. The client signed a contract. 

During the final phase of the project, the client wanted us to do work that was out of scope. We had agreed to remove UI/UX from the scope (as the client wanted to keep the budget down), but kept in some copywriting hours for web copy. The client didn’t want us to just write copy, he wanted us to tell him what the website would look like, and make suggestions for modules that the copy would go into. 

We sent over assets and resources explaining UI/UX, suggesting roles for existing team members, deliverables and timelines. We paid a UI/UX consultant out of pocket to put together a top-line report for their current website, to give them some areas of focus. They came back with a wireframe, and additional copy asks, but refused to answer any questions about the copy, or to provide any feedback on the copy we had sent over. 

They stopped answering emails and avoided our phone calls. When our assistant got through from different numbers, they hung up on her. Repeatedly. We had our lawyer send over a notice, reminding them of the agreement they made. We haven’t heard from them — in any capacity — since the conversation about copy requests.

They still owe us. $18,750.

If you think that’s fucked up, we totally agree. 

But perhaps what’s even more fucked up is that it’s not easy to get paid, even with a good contract. 

If we sue our client, and get a judgement in our favor, that’s just the beginning. The judge doesn’t take the money from the guy’s bank account, you then have to hire a collector. All of these people are expensive, and all of these processes take time, not to mention emotional energy. Even though we’re confident our contract would stand up, we’d have to spend even more money on legal fees, and start crafting schedules around court appearances. Things we don’t want to do. 

We’re incredibly lucky that we can manage our overheads simply by moving, spending less on accommodation.

But all freelancers don’t have the flexibility we do, and these kinds of things happen all the time. It’s why the Freelancers Union has been pushing the Freelance Isn’t Free campaign. Even Obama’s paying attention.

Working for yourself means you take on an incredibly high amount of risk, and when shit hits the fan, it’s you that has to deal with it.

Protracted legal negotiations — and fees — are a tax on entrepreneurship in America, which is famously litigious. We work with massive global brands and their legal departments want us to sign “standard contracts,” which often don’t really apply to us, and always attempt to offload risk onto us, through chicanery like infinite indemnity clauses. 

Medical insurance and healthcare costs are famously quite onerous in America, where we are legally residents. The Affordable Care Act requires us to have health insurance in America regardless of the amount of time we spend there, otherwise we get fined on our end of year tax bill. 

[And, of course, the USA is the only country in the world that has an expatriate tax, whereby you have to pay taxes on every cent you earn anywhere in the world. OK there are actually two countries, but the other one is Eritrea, a “vicious African dictatorship”.]

At least that’s what we think. But the truth is that of all the experts we’ve spoken to, including the IRS, aren’t clear on what the rules actually are. And regardless, American health insurance isn’t global. Which means any time we’re traveling out of the country, we often are paying for travel insurance on top of existing healthcare costs. 

So perhaps it’s unsurprising to see that entrepreneurship in the US is in long term decline. (Don’t forget, friends, that most start ups, as in 90% or more, fail. Any successful company is a statistical anomaly.) 

Other drivers may include an aging population, the exorbitant costs of health insurance, the consolidated dominance and defensive maneuvering of large corporations to prevent competition, diminished liquidity which means capital disproportionately being offered to unicorn extreme growth opportunities through VCs and funds instead of small businesses that don’t want to eat the world, the absurd complexity of the USA regional tax code, and lots of other things. Who knows really. Still, graphed line goes down over time, see? 

Other drivers may include an aging population, the exorbitant costs of health insurance, the consolidated dominance and defensive maneuvering of large corporations to prevent competition, diminished liquidity which means capital disproportionately being offered to unicorn extreme growth opportunities through VCs and funds instead of small businesses that don’t want to eat the world, the absurd complexity of the USA regional tax code, and lots of other things. Who knows really. Still, graphed line goes down over time, see? 

We’re big fans of working for ourselves, of the lifestyle we’ve created.
In 2015, we were able to double our revenue. We’re super proud of what we’ve built. We love what we do. But it’s not all sunsets and rosé.

Our Experiment in Creating A Distributed Community

One of the other difficult things about being constantly on the road is community. We feed off other brilliant people, and mediated connections simply aren’t enough. 

We need to be around actual people, to celebrate and chat without purpose, to hug and hot tub, to feel connected to something bigger than ourselves — beyond just seeing people and keeping up with friends, we crave a sense of community. 

In 2015, we were intentional about cultivating this distributed community.

We went to Summit’s ski weekend, where we met other entrepreneurs and like minded people. We swung by SXSW to see friends; We didn’t buy tickets to the conference, just hung out and had a fantastic time, which we highly recommend. 

We went to Palm Springs for Coachella, which was Rosie’s first big festival —  and suffice to say she’s a convert. [As an older Brit, Faris has encountered more than his fair share before America started to get festive.]

We spent the 4th of July (and our anniversary, the 5th of July) in the Catskills with friends and friends we hadn’t met yet from the Filibuster community, who we are working with to see if we can create our own little pop-up community experiences. 

We also went to Burning Man and Summit at Sea, both of which require a bit more exploration and explanation, since they are year round communities that only congregate at the events. A bit like religions, but in the secular sense, not in some supernatural belief system sense. 

They are ways to create social cohesion based on shared values, and give people reasons to hang out together.

Burning Man is an experiment in living in the desert and meeting random people who are nice while dressing up. Or whatever you want it to be, which is the point. It has very groovy guiding principles, like radical inclusion and self expression and living in the moment and not ruining the world with trash [which they call MOOP for Matter Out Of Place].

It’s a liminal space — a place where normal social rules are overturned, identities become fluid, so you can chat to anyone. 

The philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin called this idea the carnival. 

“A carnival is a moment when everything (except arguably violence) is permitted. It occurs on the border between art and life, and is a kind of life shaped according to a pattern of play. It is usually marked by displays of excess and grotesqueness. 
It is a type of performance, but this performance is communal, with no boundary between performers and audience. It creates a situation in which diverse voices are heard and interact, breaking down conventions and enabling genuine dialogue. It creates the chance for a new perspective and a new order of things, by showing the relative nature of all that exists.” 

[Faris has been exploring liminality at festivals for a decade, please forgive his geekery.] 

It feels like the world is getting more chaotic, less predictable, as the political farce in America makes obvious. What often happens in moments like this is that we cling on to false certainties, polarizing our opinions into facts. This approach leads to fanaticism and fear, as people push against others and seek authoritarian leaders to make them feel safe again. 

The Carnival, as Michael Bakhtin explains it, is a different solution to this, an embrace of the true uncertainty that underlies everything. Hierarchies are overturned through inversions, the fool becomes the king, if only for a day. 

To remind us that we are all fools and all kings. 

Here we are as fools and kings. Masques and costumes are part of what creates a liminal space. They break down barriers.

Here we are as fools and kings. Masques and costumes are part of what creates a liminal space. They break down barriers.

This manifests in this feeling, that everyone you meet is open to meeting you and having a chat and sharing a drink, which encourages you to chat to more random people, which increases the possibility for serendipitous encounters in a virtuous cycle of awesomeness. 
[It is very fun and makes you feel very warm about humanity.]

These serendipitous encounters are at the heart of the Summit Series too. Whereas Burning Man is first come first serve, Summit is an invite-only event series, hosted over various weekend in smaller groups on the mountain they bought, and also once a year on a huge cruise liner for Summit at Sea, a conference like event with 3,500 other entrepreneurs. All of whom are inspired to meet each other and see if they can do something awesome together.

We don’t want to put a dent in the world, that’s hubris and anyway who says the dent you make is going to make things better? We want to create a life well lived, on our own terms. We want to enjoy every now we can, for as long as we can. And this is how WE are doing it. We hope you find your way. 

How you spend your days is, of course, how you spend your life. If you don’t like it, adjust accordingly, and see what happens. 


Have a wonderful year. Love,

Rosie And Faris
Founders of Genius Steals & Technomadix
March, 2016 | Montevideo, Uruguay

TL;DR

We went some places. We saw some things. We wore some animal onesies. We dressed up and went to quite a few weddings. We drank a ton of whiskey. (At the weddings, and otherwise.)

We made some money, working with and for companies like Gibson, InterContinental, Ogilvy, How Design Live, and VML amongst others. We doubled our revenue in 2015! 

Highlights of 2015 included DisneyWorld, Coachella, the Bourbon Trail (& 21C hotel, our favorite hotel in the US by far), discovering that a full English breakfast salad is a thing, FiliBuster 4th of July, Star Wars’ Secret Cinema, visiting the Eiffel Tower, Chateau La Coste’s art walk, stomping on grapes at our friend’s vineyard in Tuscany (& visiting the hot springs nearby), Burning Man, running into Rosie’s dad on the plane to Nashville after Burning Man (totally unplanned!), Summit at Sea, our annual Whiskey Weekend, and all of our trips to Isla Mujeres.

Lowlights of 2015 included losing our luggage for 3 weeks, double paying for healthcare, trying to figure out taxes for a global-micro-business like ours, a client ghosting on us (to the tune of $18k), realizing that book publishers aren’t really as knowledgable or agile as they claim.

As you can see, the highs very much outweigh the lows. And we’re starting to get really good at the whole nomadic living thing.  

‘Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.’ — Rumi
Yellow is supposed to be lucky in Peru, where we rang in 2016. A BELATED HAPPY NEW YEAR TO YOU!

Yellow is supposed to be lucky in Peru, where we rang in 2016. A BELATED HAPPY NEW YEAR TO YOU!

Still here? It’s over. Go home. Go. Unless you’re nomads like us ;)

[If you really want more, subscribe to our newsletter already!]

 

Travel Booking is Broken

Marriott and Fast Company asked Faris to join the Creative Braintrust as part of their Travel Brilliantly campaign. This was a piece he wrote about how terrible the travel booking experience has becomes because of technology and what might make it better.

 

Once upon a time, the details of booking, the beginning of every travel tale, were veiled from view. The High (or Main) Street travel agent, purveyor of packaged dreams, was one of the first victims of digital disintermediation. Even before the record labels realized, or acknowledged, that their business model was about to be torn apart, travel became something you could book yourself. This wasn’t possible before.

If you’re over the age of 30, you may remember going to a store, browsing endless brochures, and then asking someone with a computer terminal (one that you were never allowed to see) what flights and rooms were available and how much they would cost. Agents had access to the information, you did not.

In fact, what they had access to was more than simply information: it was the ability to make bookings, through a restricted form of read/write access to what was an early private network and search engine. One many still use to this day.

It’s called SABRE: the Semi Automated Business Research Environment. This reservation system, originally developed by IBM for American Airlines in the 1970s, is used by 400 airlines and 100,000 hotels worldwide to search, price, and book travel. It’s what Expedia and American Express use to find your flights. It is still accessed through intermediaries, just online. It’s currently a privately held company (which also owns Travelocity) and still the dominant technology provider for one of the world’s largest industries.

Today, thanks to the web, most travel stories begin, like so much else, with a search. Or, more accurately, with many, many hours, of searching. First comes the dreaming, inspiration phase. This can take you from Facebook to Conde Nast Traveller, from Foursquare to TripAdvisor, and (usually) this is the fun bit.

But once you know where and when you want to go, you are confronted with the travel booking experience: a rabbit hole inside which everything seems to get bigger or smaller, depending on which choice you make. This is not (usually) the fun bit. According to research done by the Boston Consulting Group:

"Leisure travelers spend an average of 42 hours in the travel cycle across 17 of the major travel websites."

Even if some of these web services are wonderful, the sheer volume and duration has a cumulative, usually deleterious, impact on the start of your travel experience.

Metasearch engines and online travel agents promise transparency, comparison, and discounts. These businesses were one of the great success stories of the early web. Lastminute.com in the U.K. was a dotcom darling, although the brand promise of last-minute discounts never really rang true for the customer. Even today, they still generate huge revenues. Priceline stock trades at nearly $1,000 a share—more than Google, more than Apple at its very peak (which is why brand spokesman William Shatner’s negotiation to take some of his fee in stock was so very smart).

As technology has advanced so has the functionality and design of these travel sites. When the travel providers themselves embraced the web, they provided a new set of options, allowing consumers to book directly. Yet if you run comparative searches—on Kayak, Skyscanner, Hipmunk, Momondo, or the airline websites themselves—you seem to find different flights, or the same flights at different prices.

The more you search, the more likely you are to realize a fundamental aspect of the travel industry: dynamic pricing.

Coupled with enough disintermediation to put the information into the hands of the customer, it creates purchase anxiety, which is what leads to all those hours of searching. Because the prices seem to be different, you are driven to search again and again. This is reflected in changes in one of the key metrics in the online travel industry: the "look to book" ratio. Ten years ago it was 1 in 100, today it’s 1 in 1,000.

In some ways, dynamic pricing is simple economics: Both airlines and hotels charge different prices for the same product, depending on demand, actual and predicted, and a number of other factors including the point of sale, which allows for market based prices by country or purchase channel. Supply in the travel market is relatively fixed, so demand is modulated by dynamic pricing. Higher prices are charged during peak times, but digital data also allows for more personalized pricing.

Savvy shoppers tend to run multiple comparative searches, but this leaves cookies and can indicate increased demand, which in turn could be used to adjust the displayed prices and availability. It has been suggested that using incognito mode when browsing for flights could help show variances in prices displayed but availability may suddenly seem to vanish once you log in to an airline or travel agency website that has a better idea of the kinds of prices you have historically paid or are statistically likely to pay.

Data, especially when aggregated, can also work for the consumer. Kayak’s price graphs suggest how prices compare to recent searches by other members, letting you know if prices are rising or falling. Bing Travel makes predictions on the best time to buy tickets based on the fluctuating prices. Kayak unveiled a similar service this year. They are both based on proprietary algorithms and their own aggregated data—the predictions don’t always align.

The web has shown us that industries where there are layers of intermediaries and unarticulated problems borne by customers, such as spending 42 hours planning and booking a trip, are ripe for disruption.

Google’s purchase of ITA, a travel search and pricing company similar to SABRE that powers companies like Kayak, indicated their intention to get deeply involved in the sector. They subsequently rolled out their own flight search tool but are understandably cautious about disrupting relationships with some of their biggest customers, the other players in the online travel industry.

Discussing the purchase, Eric Schmidt suggested that the travel search experience was broken, ready for innovation and new interface ideas. Over time, travel search and price predictions and alerts could become more seamlessly integrated into Google products, allowing it to make tailored suggestions and proactive recommendations based on your personal data and behavior. Once booked, ticket information from your Gmail inbox could be integrated into Google Now and Calendar.

User experience designers have long challenged travel companies to put the user first and many sites have begun to raise their game, creating utilities to add value to their offering and lock in customers.

If you email your booking confirmation to trips@kayak.com, the details appear in your Kayak app, remind you when to check in, update you on flight status. Design company Fantasy Interactive recently posted a digital thought experiment online, their vision for the future of an airline website, responsive of course, providing decision assistance at every juncture, smoothing the pathway to purchase, hoping to eliminate some of the anxiety and time spent searching.

In the future, searching and booking may become as simple as "Once Upon A Time."

Share your ideas at www.travelbrilliantly.com

Faris Yakob is the Creative Braintrust Creativity Expert and Founder of GeniusSteals

Year One

GENIUS STEALS: Year One

Starting a company while planning a wedding while living on the road

This month marks the two year anniversary of Rosie and I leaving our jobs — and the 97th week we’ve been living on the road.

(That’s nearly 700 days, for those of you counting.)

We call ourselves accidental entrepreneurs because we didn’t intentionally choose this path. We lived in a world of people who lived to work. And while we loved what we did, we fell into a different camp: We worked to live. And more specifically, to fund our wanderlust.

This is not, in any way, an attempt to suggest that our path is the future, the present, or even replicable. There were and are so many particulars that make this work for us, as we’ll try to explain.

YEAR ZERO — January 2013

We had been living in New York City [greatest city on earth™] for five wonderful years.

Well, mostly.

New York is an amazing place to live and work. It had been amazing. We met at the kind of party that only seems to exist in NYC.

This was the key to the after party

[Secret online codes led to an Urban Rabbit Hole in Soho. A party where people painted t-shirts printed with a map of Manhattan to indicate meaningful places for them. A boss that Rosie hadn’t even met yet wrote an article on PSFK that led us down this rabbit hole. Only in NYC.]

It’s fair to say we had both been pretty successful in our agency jobs. Faris got a few C-Level gigs under his belt, started a digital agency that was growing; Rosie was on a meteoric path and seemed to love everywhere she worked.

And boy did we make some lovely friends with whom we had many, many great times.

But it started to wear us out. The default — and seemingly only acceptable response — to the question “How are you?” was “busy”.

It began to seem like people were always too busy.

We encountered a lot of cynicism.

Not so much from young people, but looking around at some of the grown ups frightened us. We couldn’t see many people we wanted to be. There were broken families, seemingly caused at least in part by the endless hours work culture that agencies cultivate to make their margins. People who hadn’t taken vacation days in years, and too many people seemingly going through the motions of what they thought they should be doing.

It sometimes seemed like it was more important to look busy than to be doing actual work, especially at some bigger companies. This seemed to lead to lots of busy work and sitting in the office late for no real reason and meetings. Meetings every weekend in some cases. Because there were too many other meetings during the week. We used to joke that if a meeting hadn’t moved at least three times then it wasn’t going to happen.

so. many. meetings.

When Faris proposed to Rosie on January 3rd 2013, [on top of a pyramid in Belize] he made a further proposition — that he sell his equity in the agency, she quit her job, and they’d take a break to travel the world.

We had speaking engagements in Germany, Croatia, Sydney that year — so we used them to slingshot through South East Asia, and generally go wandering. Clear the head, get inspired, drink 25 cent beer, all that jazz.

Here is a random huge buddha. He has big earlobes because he used to be a rich prince and they wore big earrings but then he took them out.

We planned to decide where to live, factoring lifestyle, weather, work. But if you’re reading this now, you’ll know that we never made that decision.

As soon as we stopped being fully employed, people started to reach out to us. Could you help with this? Could you think about that?

Sure, we thought, why not? One agency gig and we could extend our trip in Asia for weeks, maybe months.

We worked on a pitch for a London agency while sitting on the beach in Bali. Wrote a series of articles for Fast Company / Marriott on the Future of Travel.

Faris was the creativity correspondent of the creative braintrust: double creative!

Hosted some workshops in Beijing for P&G. Did some strategy consulting for agencies that we aren’t allowed to talk about. Did a 2-day innovation sprint for a pitch for an agency in Sydney.

We liked the external gratification, the appreciation. Since we weren’t intending to work, we said no to most projects. We only made exceptions when it was something that seemed interesting, a luxury we didn’t have in our previous work lives.

We hadn’t tried to solicit any business — in fact we actively avoided it. But at the end of the year, instead of seeing the number in our bank account diminish by the amount we had allocated to traveling, we saw that we broke even.

We giggled, toasted ourselves and in hushed voices discussed: What if we didn’t go back to the agency world? What if we didn’t settle down? What if we planned another big trip and did this again?

Working didn’t really feel that much like working when we got to collaborate with each other. When our desks were wherever we chose. When we didn’t have to sit in meetings in offices. When we could take a break for a few hours, a few days or a few weeks to go exploring, without feeling guilty.

We decided we’d do some planning of our own, and went to Rosie’s family house in Isla Mujeres, Mexico for a few weeks and billed it as our first ever business retreat. We had too many “agency offsites” that ended up onsite, or just barely offsite, and since we were in charge, we were going to do things differently.

We thought about the projects we had taken on — what was interesting, exciting and profitable.

We set some goals. We decided we’d do it for another year. If we met our financial goals, we’d keep going. If we didn’t, we’d seek jobs in the agency world.

We went to Nashville for the holidays and incorporated Genius Steals as an LLC on December 14, 2013.

YEAR ONE — 2014

One of the things about being in professional services is that you consult and provide services to businesses, without ever having necessarily run a business. Even if you were senior leadership of an agency, you have a finance department, a legal, HR, and so on.

Starting a company means you have to do all of that, you have to be everything. It’s not easy, nor obvious, especially if you are a global micro business with no fixed abode.

We lived on the road, bouncing from project to project. Staying as long as a project needed us in person; a day, a week, a month, three. Hotels, AirBNB, short term rentals, visiting with friends or family on the way around.

We worked with the world’s biggest food company, the world’s biggest beverage brand, the fastest growing pet food company, technology companies, advertising agencies, digital agencies, media companies.

We became advisors to start-ups in exchange for equity.

This is a start-up we advise. It has raised a couple of rounds of funding. It is founded on thinking that we strongly believe in about ideas being new non-obvious combinations.

We worked alongside clients in London, NYC, LA, Dubai, Istanbul, Kansas, Las Vegas and remotely from Nashville, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, Aix-en-Provence, Marseille, Mexico, Singapore, Sri Lanka, and even Myanmar, where the internet went out pretty much all the time.

This is Faris on a conference call with a client from our place in Isla Mujeres, Mexico

We traveled in between. When we were in Singapore and found out we’d have a last-minute-ish gig in Dubai, we bought a $100 plane ticket to Chiang Mai and took a cooking class over the weekend.

We warmed to the idea that we were technomads.

In the middle of the year we got married, and it was awesome. We honeymooned. We hung with family and friends. We celebrated ourselves, and our love for each other.

We appeared as talking heads in an excellent series called The Day Before Tomorrow.

This is the first episode on the future present of health that Rosie is in.

We started collaborating on a weekly newsletter called Strands of Genius — just hailed as an essential read for the curious creative.

[You should totally subscribe if you are curious and creative.]

We had a core set of beliefs, about ideas, strategy and the world as it is now and soon will be, and we used those to inform what Genius Steals stands for and how we work.

These are some of our beliefs, which live as reminders on the back of our business cards

We learned a lot. A lot, a lot.

About ourselves, and about running a business that allows you to live a life you love.

  • We’ve worked in a number of ways: from a single hour speech or inspiration sessions, workshops for a day or a few, rapid turn around innovation ideas, a few weeks working on a specific brief, all the way to 6 months on a longer project, fully engaged. We feel like 4 months is the maximum we want to do, for now. No time to get bored, or fall out of love. We love our clients, and have had return business already.
  • No assholes, really. We make the final calls on the projects we take and the people we work with. We don’t work with people who aren’t nice. We say yes to jobs with people who genuinely want to do great work together, and who sometimes agree to dye their hair pink if/when goals are met.
  • Rosie is the managing director — she took on the burden of running a business like a compete natural. Faris takes the lead on product and philopsophy. He found the brain space he needed to finally finish his book and get a publisher — it comes out in AprilBoth of us feel like the other person is doing the more difficult work, which leads to inherent appreciation.
  • When you find something that neither you nor your partner want to do, that’s your first hire. We hired a virtual assistant, Merritt viaWorldwide101, who has been a lifesaver in all things from changing names on frequent flier accounts (and not only that, but also coming up with a unique password that works for every airline!) to helping with the footnotes on Faris’ book, researching and booking hotels and flights, invoicing and billing for our clients (including reconciling QuickBooks), and a bajillion other things that need to happen.
  • Having a routine is, in theory, helpful, but in practice, often stressful. We manage sleep cycles and personal sanity by doing yoga and meditation. We prioritize our health and schedule meetings around yoga classes. When we can’t find a studio, we practice with Erin Motz online. Headspace guides our evening meditation.
  • This means that Mondays don’t exist. Well, they do, but we always plan a “lie in” (as the Brits say.) This also means we might be working on a Friday night or Saturday afternoon. We try to cap our paid work at 50% of our time, meaning most weeks we spend 20 hours or less on client work. And when we do need to buckle down, it’s exciting, not tiring.
  • One of the things we learned early on was to always have a contract and to never sign the one they give you straight away. Large corporations have learned an unpleasant risk management trick — it’s called an unlimited indemnity clause.

In essence, what they try to do is offload risk, infinite amounts of it, to smaller partners. Never agree to this. We are, of course, responsible for the quality and impact of our work, but only that. We are not indemnifying massive corporations in perpetuity. That’s insane. It’s just us. Lawyers are a tax on entrepreneurship in the USA. Agreeing the scope with clients is usually quick and easy. Sorting through the contracts with the legal teams can take weeks. We have never signed something we aren’t comfortable with. If we don’t like it, we walk away.

  • We aggressively manage our overheads to make sure we can walk away. We don’t have a place to store things, so we don’t buy much. We can live in Cambodia for months on a single month’s rent in NYC. We work with partners on a freelance basis, finding the right talent for the gig.

[Shout if you want to work with us. We like nice, smart people.]

YEAR TWO

Just began, with a big project with a lovely client who genuinely wants help, who also happens to be a great drinking partner.

The book launch of Paid Attentionis coming, and some lovely speaking gigs lined up. A new column for Admap. We’ll be all over the USA, then in London, then who knows?

We couldn’t be more excited.

Are we busy?
I guess, but we’d never put it that way — we’re just having fun.

 

Rosie and Faris Yakob are cofounders of Genius Steals. Obviously. We wrote this piece together.Despite living on the road you can reliably find us online @faris @rosieyakob.

You should subscribe to strands of genius, if you haven’t already.

Is the World Ready for Global Nomads?

PSFK is a trends and innovation site. They're always filling our head with interesting things, and so when they asked if we'd write a piece to accompany their report on the Nomad Class, we were happy to oblige. 

Below is bit of what we wrote. For the full post on PSFK, click on through here. (Our Op-Ed is free to read even without an account.)

More people like us? Yes please!

More people like us? Yes please!

Is the world ready for global nomads?
Entrepreneurs Faris and Rosie spent three years in 30+ countries—here, they tell us how they do it

In March 2016, we will have been living as classy nomads for three years. We met in New York City, a dazzling, hyper-accelerated place, where the population density seems to make everyone move faster in some macro version of Brownian motion. We fell in love there, spent five years there, made friends there, made a life there.

When we announced we were leaving, people said what all New Yorkers say to people who are leaving: “BUT WHY?! This is the greatest city in the world!” Maybe so, but until we’ve been everywhere else, how will we know that for sure?

NYC gives a lot, but takes a lot too. Everyone should live there once, but leave before they get hard, as journalist Mary Schmich wrote in the Chicago Tribune. The next lines were “Live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft. Travel.” And of course, the whole piece was turned into a spoken word song called “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)” by Baz Luhrman.

Maybe we were getting hard, maybe not, but we were definitely busy. NYC is hard work, and you have to work hard at the same time, because there are just so. Many. Meetings.

We did not plan to go fully nomadic. We didn’t set out to build a location independent strategy and innovation consultancy; We are accidental entrepreneurs, husband and wife, and for two people who love traveling, who love talking to strangers, being technomads gives us the flexibility to do just that.

Take Off

We had speaking gigs that would allow us to slingshot from NYC, through Europe and around to Sydney, over the course of a few months. So we quit our jobs and decided we’d spend some time traveling. It made sense for us to stop paying rent in Manhattan if we wanted to take advantage of the opportunities we were being offered, as long as we could tolerate that level of risk.

The first year on the road we had no idea what we were doing. We had massive rucksacks full of stuff we never used, a classic traveller mistake. And we had to get used to spending 24 hours a day, seven days a week together. That’s how adventures work. You learn as you go. Consuming TripAdvisor for tips, then pushing back against recommendation fatigue.

Nomad Protip: Always take fewer things than you think you’ll need — pack clothes with dual purposes. Dresses for warm weather that can be paired with leggings in cool weather. Swim trunks can double as workout shorts. If you really find yourself missing something from the road, you can usually buy it. (That said, if you lose your iPhone in Mexico or Istanbul or Singapore… good luck.) We now only use carry-on sized rucksacks. It’s easier than you think.

t was just a long vacation to begin with. Then we got an email from a friend, the managing partner of a large advertising agency in London. Could we help out on a pitch? Do a couple days of thinking, have some ideas, send it through? Why not spend a couple days brainstorming on the beach in Bali drinking beer, we thought.

Then we got another email. And then another.

Read full post on PSFK. 

 

Memory Hacking

FastCompany and Marriott hired Faris to join the Travel Brilliantly Creative Braintrust, back when we first started traveling. This piece talks about how to have better memories. Behavioral economics? Yep. Sci Fi? Yep. Under 10 minutes to read? Indeed. 

Traveling is a way to create memories by having experiences we don’t usually have.

How day-to-day experiences are compiled into memories is dependent in large part on when the story you tell yourself starts and stops. Life is experienced contiguously as an ongoing stream, a timeline, if you like. The psychological present is estimated to be about 3 seconds and each 3 seconds are either the beginning of a story, an ‘event’, or the end of one. If nothing important to the story happens in those 3 seconds (one, two, three)...they vanish. As Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman has pointed out, our minds convey to us an illusion of verisimilitude. We believe that our memories are accurate records of our lives, but this simply isn’t the case. They are packaged up as stories: details that don’t fit the narrative are blurred out, key moments are highlighted and amplified. The almost fractal self-similarity of a working day, week, month, year, blurs things together over time. Vacations can act like punctuation, ways to anchor a specific year in the mind. What were you doing in 2005? How about 2006 or 2007?

In his magnum opus Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman makes the distinction between two modes of thought he dubs the ‘experiencing self’ and the ‘remembering self’. The experiencing self is the one active during those 3 seconds, the remembering self is the aspect that chunks life up into memories, into the stories that we tell other people and ourselves. What makes the remembering self happy is not the same as what makes the experiencing self happy. Specifically, the remembering self doesn’t care about duration, it simply rates an experience and creates a story. This story is based on peak moments or changes and how the experience ends.

Endings are especially important because the remembering self uses it as a heuristic with which to judge the whole. Kahneman calls this ‘duration neglect’ and ‘the peak end rule’.

Understanding that stories are defined by beginnings, key changes, and especially endings can have a dramatic impact on the way we experience, plan, and think about travel. Say you take a great two week vacation, or the same vacation for one week. Assume the second week is just as good as the first. From the point of view of the experiencing self, two weeks at a beautiful beach resort is twice as good as one, but for the remembering self that isn’t the case. For the remembering self there will be very little difference, since no significant changes, no new elements, are added to the story.

Kahneman suggests that vacations are undertaken under the aegis of the remembering self, trying to maximise future memories, rather than future experiences, because the remembering self is the one that makes the decisions. He posits a thought experiment. Imagine if you could have the perfect vacation but could not take any photographs and at the end your memory would be erased. Would you do it?

Travel is active memory construction.

This is why you buy souvenirs, a word derived from the French, literally meaning memory. This is why tourists have always taken so many photographs. Before the mediation generation began to capture and broadcast every moment of their lives, vacations were the only time you took a camera with you everywhere, taking snapshots of everything and anything. Capturing memories, artefacts for the remembering self, which shapes the planning and even the experience as it is constantly being framed. Photographs are mediated intersections between the experiencing and remembering selves.

In the 1970s, the cliche was the dreaded invitation to the neighbour’s house to view a seemingly endless slideshow of holiday snaps. Then came the ritual of dropping off rolls of film for development, collecting them days, then hours, the one hour, later, seeing how many of the photos actually came out, which were appropriate for sharing, putting a few into frames, and then filing the rest away in albums rarely to be consumed again. Digital cameras meant that film was no longer a limiting factor so we no longer had to restrict ourselves to those special Kodak moments, we could capture pictures of everything, take multiples of every shot to get the perfect memory. Now images are captured, filtered, and immediately broadcast before drifting down the stream.

Some memories don’t work well in freeze frame though. Nick Woodman realized there was no simple way to capture footage while surfing. So he created a prototype wearable camera in a waterproof housing, which ultimately became the GoPro, a lightweight wearable waterproof HD video camera. It is now one of the world’s biggest selling cameras. A search on Youtube returns more than 10 million GoPro videos. A friend of mine recently posted a comment on Facebook suggesting he felt unusual being the only person not wearing a GoPro whilst hiking a famous trail. There is of course joy in capturing and sharing all these moments, but the "tyranny of the remembering self" needs balancing out with the understanding that mediating experiences, by definition, puts something between you and the experience. Recently bands have begun asking audiences to please put their phones away and actually just watch the performance, to return some primacy to the experience itself, to the experiencing self.

Understanding the differing needs of the experiencing self and remembering self can help us travel in ways that work for both, hacking the system.

Duration neglect suggests that taking more frequent shorter trips, or staying in a few different places on longer ones, will create more distinct memories. The peak end rule suggests that if you do stay at a few places, you should try to stay at the best places, or do the things you are most looking forward to, towards the end of the trip. Capturing memories is wonderful, but not every experience needs to be mediated and shared, as the act of capturing something removes us slightly from the experience itself.

Many years before Kahneman posited his amnesiac vacation thought experiment, science fiction author Philip K Dick mooted its mirror in his short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale [which the Total Recall movies were loosely based on.] In the story, people who can’t afford vacations can opt instead to visit REKAL Incorporated, who will implant an ‘extra-factual memory’ of an amazing trip to Mars, or wherever else your heart desires. This then is the complete surrender to the remembering self, the abnegation of experience, nothing but a story of travel. The ultimate memory hack.

Share your ideas at www.travelbrilliantly.com

View this piece on FastCompany.com

Traveling Without Moving Fast

Marriott and Fast Company asked Faris to join the Creative Braintrust as part of their Travel Brilliantly campaign. This was a piece he wrote about how virtual technology could impact travel.

'The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one's own country as a foreign land.' G. K. Chesterton

There is at least one vision of the future of travel that will never require anyone to go anywhere.

It’s the ultimate expression of a cultural idea that has preoccupied human beings since we began to artificially replicate aspects of reality. McLuhan raised it in relation to broadcast television, when we could for the first time see [vision] things that were happening far [tele] away. He called this the "global village" - a "simultaneous happening" as everything is streamed in real time everywhere. Television did not do this, of course. It was simply the herald to a greater technology which was to follow, as McLuhan predicted, and other futurists took up this version in his wake.

Television, world changing as it was, worked in one direction, with some experiences selected, edited and broadcast to all. The greater technology renders distinctions between broadcaster and consumer irrelevant, as every experience is broadcast from every device in every direction to everyone. McLuhan called this shift the "global theatre" but you could argue Shakespeare got there first. The idea achieved a kind of apotheosis with the emergence of the social web, where we began to see everyone electively uploading their edited life experiences to feed the stream. As Joshua Harris foretold, and lived through the consequences of experimenting with, We Live In Public.

Fast forward then, to one logical end point, with infinite bandwidth and storage, infinitely more sophisticated mediation technologies, and the ubiquitous presence of cameras on glasses or contact lenses or on any IP enabled object [i.e. all of them]. Thanks to the kooky exponential function of Moore’s Law, this future possibility need not be very far away. All the technologies exist and 1 to 100% is only two steps if you’re counting exponentially.

Let’s put aside the utopian/dystopian discussion of a panopticon created by the people, a Little Brother where every life experience is consumable at any moment. If you think it’s hard to decide what to give your attention to now, imagine when there are 7 billion lifestations to scroll through. Everyone’s reality becomes ‘television’. In an infinite, utterly democratic media environment, the aggregation of attention itself is the only way to gauge the relative value of any quantum of content. The world will always know what’s trending, but never necessarily why - or if it’s relevant to them and their interests.

Let’s consider instead one possible way it could impact travel.

In 1990’s Life After Television: The Coming Transformation Of Media and American Life[a prescient and telling conjunction], media futurist George Gilder sums it up succinctly:

Viewers will be able to "go comfortably sightseeing from their living room through high-resolution screens, visiting Third-World countries without having to worry about airfare or exchange rates...you could fly an airplane over the Alps or climb Mount Everest".

If you can experience something [almost] indistinguishable from really being there, safely, cheaply, intensely - would you travel at all? Is the journey really the destination or is that just something we say, while wishing we could teleport to and from the beach without any of that messy in-between stuff. Why not experience everything, anything, in higher than reality resolution, like the eponymous Better Than Life game from the Red Dwarf novel.

These virtual trips are already a fact of life for drone pilots. Everyday they fly through real landscapes and carry out real missions. Then they log off and are immediately back at home. These experiences are both real and virtual. The pilots on these missions suffer similar extreme stress consequences as pilots in the field, even more so in some cases. These are not your average tourist excursions but the discombobulation is inevitable. Heightened mediation means that when you disengage, you must recombobulate back into your own life, just as you do after being manhandled by the TSA.

As technology makes everywhere accessible so that we might see differences, other powerful forces drive everywhere to become more similar. Decades of globalization driven by the quest for economic growth homogenize as technology flattens. Global brands provide products and retail environments recognisable to all, everywhere. A Starbucks on every island, P&G products in every supermarket, and indeed supermarkets themselves everywhere. This should not be understood as in some way nefarious. Indeed, for a developing nation, the arrival of global brands can signal safety, reliability and prosperity, just as they did when the emerged everywhere else. But, by the same token, the make things similar everywhere they are. Language shifts in response as the subset of English sometimes called "Globish" spreads as the lingua franca of commerce. Advertising in China, and many other countries, often includes English to connote cosmopolitan values.

So the corners of the world we can suddenly ‘travel’ to through every pair of eyes are rapidly becoming superficially the same. But they are not really the same, which is what will always distinguish being there from seeing there.

When we log on, from our sofa, to the lifechannel of a dramatic episode currently trending in a market in Marrakesh, we have none of the mundane experiences necessary to understand it except through the similarities we incorrectly contextualize. Only the exciting moments will attract attention. Rather than being forced out of a frame of reference, by small daily reminders that they are not universal, we put everything we see into our own frame, reinforcing our assumptions, confirming our biases. All the world’s a stage and everyone went to their local drama school. This doesn’t highlight things we habitually ignore, igniting new comparisons. Finding similarities in different things is the art of creativity, making new non-obvious connections between the disparate. Reality experienced through an eyeFrame doesn’t force us out of our now dominant role as audience, one step removed.

That’s why, if Chesterton was right, travel experiences that are even better than the real thing will never be as good as the real thing. The only way to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land is to spend a lot of time walking somewhere else.

Share your ideas at www.travelbrilliantly.com

View this piece on FastCompany.com