How I Got Into Fintech, part 3
For one year, I travelled across Southeast Asia and Australia.
Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Philippines and Indonesia. My heart soaked up all the different cultures, people and experiences. My body embraced the generous beaches, the warm sea and the bright sun light. And my mind took its first steps in learning about finances and economics, as I began reading on business mindsets, the psychology of wealth and the idea of money as a tool of fair exchange.
The journey itself was full of stark contrasts. In Thailand I could live for less than £10 a day. In Australia that wouldn’t even get me a bed in the cheapest of hostels. In Laos I saw kids wash themselves in the same brown waters where just a dozen meters downstream some other kid would be quenching their thirst, because families couldn’t afford clean or bottled water (or family planning, for that matter). And in Macau I saw casinos packed with gamblers at 10 in the morning, and hotel lobbies with gold bars as floor decoration.
Sadly, I never managed to venture West to visit India, but I suspect the experience would’ve been even more surreal. It remains something on my bucket list, together with many other countries and regions of the Asian continent.
Months of nomadic wandering were tempered with the occasional longing for a place to just be, so now and again I’d take a break and linger in one place for an extended period of time and do some volunteering. At one point I spent several weeks with yoga communities near Melbourne and Sydney, and shortly afterwards a whole month with a Buddhist community near Brisbane, where I fell in love with Buddhism and yogic culture.
On another occasion, much earlier in the journey, I spent a couple of months in Northern Thailand, volunteering at New Life Foundation, a support community for people recovering from drug addiction, alcoholism and mental burnout, where I finally had a chance to put some of my design thinking skills and recent financial learnings into practice.
A very young project only two years old at the time, New Life was founded by Johan Hansen, a Belgian entrepreneur, and Julien Gryp, who had both met at a detox centre in Thailand, and realised the need for a “middle space” where people could strengthen their minds against the psychological grip of their past addictions before returning to society. Julien remained in Thailand as New Life’s director, while Johan returned to Europe from where he continued to mentor the project financially and pay the occasional visit.
When I joined the Foundation in February 2012, they were still overly reliant on Johan’s sponsorship, and were beginning to develop severe cash flow problems.
They had already figured out how to get a continuous stream of paying volunteers by advertising in the right channels, and even seemed to benefit from this curious karma regarding who and when these volunteers would show up – one week someone would mention something like “oh, we could really use someone with plumbing skills”, and the following week someone would show up with exactly those skills as if by serendipity. This happened on a few occasions while I was there.
In fact, my arrival at New Life coincided with the presence of a lovely Finnish couple, Jonas Lindström and Titiu Nylund, who were both designers and coders; Niamh Kane, a massage therapist with graphic design skills; and Jonathan Donnelly, who was quite savvy in online marketing. Together we were sort of an improvised design team.
But despite their supply of paying volunteers, New Life was still struggling with finding enough paying residents (people in recovery), even with the price of their programmes being a fraction of what you’d pay in the Western World. And this was starting to take its toll on the financial stability of the operation – some behind-doors conversations between Julien, Jonathan and myself ranged from “what if we serve less fruit for breakfast, then we might afford the bills this month” to “should we charge the volunteers more”.
The more I thought about it, the more I suspected that New Life’s financial problems laid on a deeper level than just bills and expenses. Somehow, on a self-identity level, they seemed to have misinterpreted what being a “non-profit” literally meant, and overlooked the fact that they were still a business like any other, and that any business requires profit to stay healthy and thrive.
Their perception of fair exchange leaned too much on the “giving” side, something they excelled at because that was the side of their operation they had given the most focus to. Now they needed a helping hand with balancing the “receiving” part.
So, for the two-and-a-half months I stayed at New Life, the focus of our little design team was to educate and empower New Life on how it could become ultimately sustainable. Jonas and Titiu had to leave soon after my arrival to continue their own journey, but not before they rebuilt the entire New Life website using WordPress, so that the Foundation would no longer have to pay the web design agency every time they needed a change made (!).
Jonathan helped promote the Foundation in the right platforms so that potential residents could finally hear about our work and recovery programmes. And my job was to make sure that our doors were always open to the people who wanted to help us.
But I’ll tell you more about that next week.