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