Why We Don’t Have An Exit Strategy
Year Two of Genius Steals & Our Third Nomadiversary
by Faris & Rosie Yakob
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.
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’.
In January Hubspot named our newsletter one of the top seven newsletters for creatives, alongside the epic Brainpickings, which was quite a honor.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.)
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.
“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.
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,
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
Still here? It’s over. Go home. Go.
Unless you’re nomads like us ;)
[If you really want more, subscribe to our newsletter already!]