The Risk Not Taken
For the first three years of Bonobos, I lived with $3,000 in the bank, a $3,000 apartment, and $150,000 of debt. During that time — 2007 to 2010 — I was only a month away from being out of cash. I was paying myself, initially, $70,000. This is plenty of money in most places, but in NYC it can fly you pretty close to the trees on just rent and alcohol.
Sometimes I wouldn’t watch my cash balance relative to my next payroll direct deposit. As a result I’d occassionally become illiquid. With financial weapons of mass destruction like credit cards readily available to most anyone with a pulse, normally this is no big deal.
Other times it is.
I’m at dinner on a first date in the East Village. It’s a new place — for me — and I discover half through the meal the sneaky Cash Only sign on the wall. I excuse myself from my date somewhat awkwardly to go to an ATM. After much HAL-like deliberation, it expressly does not make the dispensing cash noise. Instead it starts printing a receipt — always bad news — which contains two of the most dreaded words on the planet:
The feeling of rejection by ATM is always a bad one. With a cash-only date in progress it became in fact one of the most sickening feelings you can experience.
I knew that I was running thin, but someone else possibly discovering this financial fact moved my balance sheet from a mostly private matter to semi-public shame.
I felt like a fraud.
Here is this poor woman — pun intended — around the corner at dinner who mistakenly thought I was financially viable as a human, and I’m in front of an ATM which is reminding me that I am not.
Let her pay? Nope. Way too much pride for that.
At the same time I was running a cash flow negative company which was ninety days from being out of cash. There was no venture capital belief in the company in the early years, so I raised eight million dollars over four angel rounds from over one hundred angel investors to keep us afloat.
The amount of financial stress was extraordinary. To be thirty days away from being unable to pay rent personally and ninety days away from lights out professionally for three years takes its toll.
My company had insufficient funds, and so did I.
Why would anyone put themselves under that much pressure?
The Decision Elf
That personal debt stemmed from a decision I made in 2003. Four years later, in 2007, I faced a second decision. It was a related one.
Given what’s become of my life, I literally cannot imagine it without having made the two decisions I did. But neither decision was a no-brainer at all at the time.
I’ve found that I don’t make decisions. Instead they come to me like a visitor does to your doorstep.
Here I am! I’m the Decision.
The Decision doesn’t always come when you want it to. Sometimes it shows up annoyingly early, when you’re still setting the table for dinner and the turkey’s still in the oven. Other times the Decision comes rudely late and spoils the evening by not being there for the surprise.
For me, the Second Decision came to me right when I needed it. When the Decision elf showed up, I was in the shower, and he looked familiar.
“Have I seen you before?” I asked the Decision elf.
“You don’t remember me?” he smiled back. Before I could reply, he was gone.
I was left standing in the shower, dumbfounded.
If you can’t decide what to do, get on the road. You won’t find the answer. It will find you.
Someone once told me:
The hardest part of a long-distance relationship is when the long-distance ends. That’s when the real relationship begins.
I laughed at this, humoring the conveyor of the wisdom with a polite chuckle. I secretly knew him to be wrong. Our love was too strong for that.
Snow fell on a spring day in March. I walked across Oz Park, tear-caked eyes.
He was right.
The First Decision
The next day I walked into the offices of Bain, my then employer. Do you want to move to San Salvador? You’ll be living there for the next six months.
“It has the highest murder rate in the western hemisphere,” said my dad.
“You don’t really speak Spanish,” said the voice in my head.
I looked at the Decision elf. He winked at me.
“The risk not taken is more dangerous than the risk taken,” he said softly.
Do you want to move to San Salvador?
“Yes I do,” I said.
And just like that, the First Decision was made.
Had I made it, or did it make me?
The six months I spent in El Salvador were the most impactful of my life. Living in a country where — in 2003 — the nominal GDP per capita was $2,503 quickly woke me up to how much privilege and standard of living I enjoyed in the developed world.
It reminded me of what my history professor Peter Hayes once said in college:
Live somewhere else, on the terms of the people who live there, for six months. It will change your life.
Though I’m the son of an immigrant who herself grew up in constant fear of not having money, her hard work and provision insulated me from the reality which shaped her.
What a strange thing multi-generational struggle is. One generation’s work and sacrifice creates over-confidence and perhaps hubris in the next.
I was working for an airline, and the travel on that airline was free if there was an open seat. I spent my weekends in Roatan, San Pedro, Antigua, Guatemala City, Havana, and San Jose. Fried chicken was often put in the overhead compartments of the planes.
I stayed at the Hotel Intercontinental and ordered fajitas as room service. I went to a nightclub called Code three nights a week and learned to close the night to Timbiriche.
I was only doing half of what Peter Hayes had asked me to do.
Once in Cuba, I met a man precisely my age. Let’s call him Luis. We were both 23. It was a favorite age for me as it coincides my favorite number, the number worn by childhood idols Ryne Sandberg and Michael Jordan. A Blink-182 song was popular at the time: nobody likes you when you’re 23.
I don’t remember what Luis and I spoke about exactly. I do remember him asking me if I’d send him shoes. I do remember feeling that it was mostly being lucky, not good, that led to his asking me for shoes and not the other way around.
I lost his address. I didn’t know how to ship to Cuba. I wondered if I’d get in trouble with the government. The shoes never got sent.
There are a lot of good excuses for not helping someone.
Travel doesn’t shape you so much as the people you meet along the way shape you. While living and traveling in Central America, I became friends with a couple of South Africans who approached life differently than I did.
For me travel was a novelty; for them it was a way of life. From observing them I came to the self-assessment that I had been living my life wrong. I had the good fortune to be able to go places, and yet I had lived the first quarter century of my life more or less tethered to Chicago.
Two South Africans in particular, Matt Bresler and Dave Eadie, inspired me to change. Four years later they’d both wire money into Bonobos as angel investors without really knowing a thing about the company.
I wanted to be like them. Imitation, it turns out, is a great engine for personal growth. I decided to travel as much as I could. Over the next four years, squeezed between another job and two years in business school, I went to thirty countries. Over the past decade, I think the number is closer to fifty.
The number doesn’t count; I quit the tally when my accomplishment orientation to travel thankfully evaporated.
We did this place, we did that place. Really? You did it, and now it’s done?
What does count is a perspective on what wealth really is that set into my bones. Wealth is the substance in you, it’s the people that care for you and that you care for, it is experiences had and perspective acquired.
When I went to Joburg the summer after living in San Salvador, Dave Eadie shepherded me everywhere: a great sleeping bag set-up on his hometown floor, karaoke with all his friends, nights out at the Nite Fever, a chauffered drop-off on the way to his beloved field hockey match for me to take in a solo, biltong-filled viewing of the Lions-Sharks rugby.
Dave in his life took the risk of traveling first and then the risk of quitting a job he grew tired of second. He was an inspiration when it comes to avoiding the risk not taken.
He is also a past tense person, because he’s gone. Unfathomably we lost Dave in 2011.
Too bright a light to go out at thirty-five, and yet on he went.
He was too alive to die, and yet that’s not how it works.
Is it too much to say that Dave changed my life, and that in that way he lives on? That the way in which we influence and change others — when we can — is the only way to stay alive?
Kalaw to Inle Lake
Two years later, on a trek in Burma, my cousin and I stayed with a family. The father was a doctoral engineer relegated to plowing due to the lack of opportunity in the country. Let’s call him Sing.
The night we stayed with him Sing slaughtered a goat so that we could eat in style. We slept above cows. The palpable closeness of Sing’s family was a reminder of what we sometimes lose in the developed world as we move away from tribal, extended-family living into suburban-cloistered, nuclear-family living. Everything else about their lives was a reminder of what we do have.
The developing world gives you this gift of realizing you have everything you need. It provides an opposing force, also a gift, but harder to detect and even more of a gut-punch upon discovery: it reveals you may be lacking some things you could have or perhaps once had but which you have not chosen.
During two months in Southeast Asia I traveled on twenty-five dollars a day including lodging. My only possessions were books, a small backpack, and a camera. I realized that everything I needed to be happy was already inside me.
An open heart finds friends almost anywhere it goes.
I spent every dollar I had on travel and adventure and ended up in the financial hole.
It is a paradox.
The risk is not in doing something that feels risky. The risk is in not doing something that feels risky.
Very little is obvious in the research on human decision-making and happiness. Very few things are proven. One thing that is proven is this: the only regrets octogenarians have are for the risks not taken.
If the risk taken does pan out, it is good. But if it doesn’t — and here’s the key thing — we find a way to justify the risk taken as learning.
Gretzky knew this:
You miss one-hundred percent of the shots you don’t take.
North of Kisumu
It’s now 2007 and I’m in southwestern Kenya, near the city where Obama’s father was born. I’m with the cofounder of Kiva, Jessica Jackley, and she has organized home visits for us with local entrepreneurs.
I stay with Stanley and his family. He runs a small grocery store, and has two kids not unlike the ones you see in the photo snapped above. My mandate was to do MBA analysis to help him with his grocery store.
There is nothing to do; it is very well run.
The mornings are spent in an outhouse which doubles as a shower. A normally cold bucket of water to wash is a heated one for me, their guest. I dump it over my head, and watch my soap co-mingle with a lot more as it rolls down the drain.
Chickens walk the yard, Stanley’s children are smiling at their guest from far away lands, the feeling of family bonds is strong, and the sense of future prospects dim. After dinner Stanley’s wife tells me how when people die, the grieving scream for the dead. They scream in anguish. She wants to know if I do the same.
I don’t know how to answer. It is four years before Dave will die. It seemed impossible at the time. When he left, I didn’t scream at all. I went numb in the cab on the way to a charity event in Manhattan. I went through the motions. I told myself I was fine. The next day I cried a lot and bought a piece of art with a thousand faces on it.
A week after returning from Kenya, I turn on the shower at my palatial second year share house. Called the White House, it looks like Tony Montana could be doing lines off the glass kitchen table.
My bathroom is on the ground floor, and set off from a backyard entrance with hedges where the original Bonobos e-commerce photography was shot. The shower has two heads, impossibly good-feeling after dumping water over my head just a week earlier in the outhouse.
That’s when it hits me.
The Second Decision
Should I take a job or start a company?
It’s my second year of business school, and I’ve been agonizing. The job offer is good, it’s with a venture capital firm. It’s more money than anyone in my family has ever made. Recently my parents tell me they never had more than $12,000 in the bank from when my older sister was born until I graduated college.
I’ve got $150,000 of debt and growing, the job offer is for more than that. Meanwhile my own start-up idea of building a platform for reading and writing is floundering.
This is a no-brainer, right?
And yet something tugs at the soul. I want to build something. I want to create something. That’s why I came to school. From my experiences on the road, I know I don’t need much. My housemate has developed these better-fitting pants and they are selling like hot-cakes. One of my most influential professors tells me that if it were him, he’d take the VC job. Ironically a few months later he’d become our first angel investor. As the warmth of the shower hits me — the sheer engineered heat and luxury of it all washing over me — the answer shows up.
I’m in 94027, the wealthiest zip code in the country, I’ve just come from one of the poorest places in the world, and the Decision elf is back.
“Have I seen you before?” I asked him.
“You don’t remember me?” he smiled back. Before I could reply, he was gone. I was left standing in the shower, dumbfounded.
“Come back!” I implored.
He returns right away.
“Haven’t I taught you anything?” he said, smiling.
“What do you mean?” I wondered.
That’s when I realize: it was the same Decision elf I had met in 2003, he was just wearing new clothes. I had to smile. I already knew what to do. It was a different question and a different life moment, but it was the same Decision. He didn’t need to say it again; his words from four years earlier rang in my ears:
The risk not taken is more dangerous than the risk taken.
I realized that I had defined risk the wrong way twice. The first time was thinking it was risky to travel abroad in the developing world, and yet what a risk it would have been not to have done so. The second time I had been thinking risk was not taking a steady job. No — I realized — risk is not having access to food, healthcare, and education. Risk is what is facing Stanley’s children, it is not what is facing me.
It turns out there is risk in taking the steady job. The risk is generally not financial.
It is spiritual.
The day after the Decision Elf visited me in the shower I saw a close friend at Stanford. I informed him of my decision — against an intimidating financial backdrop — to start a company instead of taking the job. I’ll never forget what he said because it rang true to the moment:
You’ll never starve, and you’ll always have a place to sleep. Worst comes to worst, you can always stay on our couch.
It was a passing comment, but it stayed with me. There is protection for you in this world if you make it known that you need it.
I stayed on that couch many times.
I met my parents for a graduation trip to Tahoe not long after to tell them I was not taking the steady job. Instead I was cashing in my last remaining asset, a 401K, and becoming a founder. My debt would increase, not decrease.
I was going to prove that the world had changed — that you could now build a brand online. We were going to take Brian’s pants and sell them online. We were going to prove that the internet was going to become the core medium for story-telling, for delivering great service, and for transacting goods: that it was the future of how brands would be built.
I failed to wow my parents with start-up speak, about how we were going to “bundle” great-fitting clothes with a better experience of buying those clothes through an online-driven model, how we were going to “disrupt” the industry.
They supported me with confident smiles and measured encouragement nevertheless. My mom, an Indian immigrant who has now been in the US for four decades, had never been to Lake Tahoe. My dad, a US history teacher, had not been there since he was courting my mom.
I didn’t consider then that while they had not taken the risk I was taking, they had taken other kinds. Don’t ask your parents what to do. Instead inform them of your plans, and ask them what risks they took at your age.
For my mom, coming to the US at 19. That elf showed up when her father got sick. For both of them, a cross-cultural marriage long before it was accepted, let alone in vogue. My dad wrote to my grandmother, asking her permission — translated into Punjabi. My grandmother gave her approval. Luckily, so did my mom.
It is a funny thing about life: we honor the sacrifices of our forebears not by doing precisely what they would choose for us at that moment, but by following the spirit of them wanting us to be happy. We do not do the bidding they would prescribe for us a generation away, but instead by doing what they might choose for themselves if they were our age. If they’ve done well by us and we by them, perhaps we accomplish more each generation as we go.
My parents and I circled the lake by car, content with California’s beauty from behind the wheel.
The risk you are thinking of is scary, but here’s the good news:
You’ll figure it out.
Like that date-night in front of the ATM: it turns out you can charge a credit card for cash.
If you have something you want to do, it might later feel — with some luck — that the universe conspired to enable you to do it. That’s certainly how I feel.
So what are you waiting for?
Your eighty-year old self asks nothing of you but this.