Becoming Strategic

A good strategy was the key to making moving to Thailand a reality.

Strategy is one of the most misused concepts in business literature, often interchanged randomly with notions of tactics, goals and plans. Strategy however, is simply the execution of a series of tactics, which help you reach a desired objective, nothing more nor less. In this sense it is appears to be a quite straightforward concept, but rarely is it exercised rigorously by individuals and organisations, who fail to outline and act upon all three of the elements in the strategic equation.

In the early years of my entrepreneurial adventure, the progress of growth was not linear. If you plotted it on a graph somehow, it would look like shark teeth, racing up for 6 months and then crashing. The reason for that was because I was making as many bad decisions as good ones. There was no clear and attainable objective, so all of my actions were reactive.

This constantly left me wide open for whatever opportunity or risk came along without being able to cross check ideas against a pre-existing, well thought out plan. Before we can start to even think about devising a strategy for your scheme, you need an unequivocal objective. My first objective was to get rich, which isn’t a real objective at all, because it’s not a definable goal.

In any case, it still hasn’t happened and just staying in the game and avoiding the return to paid employment was the priority at many points over the last few years. It took a long time and a lot of reading to finally know what strategy really meant and how to implement it effectively in my life and business. I use the word ‘know’ in the sense that the knowledge changed how I acted in a positive way, not just my understanding of the concept in the purely academic (and superficial) sense.

Towards the end of 2015, when my landlord tried to force me to sign another rental agreement for 12 months, I made the decision to move to Thailand. It was something that I had been talking about for years, but never came close to taking action. With big decisions like that, you can dream and plan all you like, but unless you make it an objective of absolute priority, it will be postponed indefinitely. Another year though, spent half-heartedly serving clients with marketing consultancy online, from a bedroom in Sheffield would have driven me insane. I was already unhappy, sedated by boredom and frequently anxious of cruising through daily activities semi-consciously, exercising but a fraction of my potential. Time cared little for my shortcomings of course and rolled by at a mockingly accelerated pace. Days passing without observable growth was as much a driver for change as the economic benefits leaving the grossly overpriced United Kingdom. Dropping myself in Asia with nothing more than a bag and my wits was the perfect solution for both.

That is not to say though that Thailand would have been the only cure. The anxiety endured during a life wasted in activity far below your potential and the frustration felt with access to limited resources are both caused by the acceptance of being slowly tethered to mediocrity. Any objective which pushed me to the edge of my comfort zone, exposed me to a healthy dose of risk and provided the opportunity for new projects, would have been sufficient to defibrillate me out of my indolence.

The flight was booked 6 weeks ahead and for the first time since applying for a job in London, I had an absolutely clear and actionable objective:

Objective: In a month and half, I am going to get on that flight and be in a financial position to stay in Thailand indefinitely.

Only with a clear objective, is it time to begin developing your strategy and the tactics that execute it. We proceed then to the first order of business — Developing a strategy.

To be able to live comfortably in Asia I needed to have enough cash. My consulting practice and some of the information assets I had acquired were doing well enough for me to live in England, so in theory at least I could afford to live in the much cheaper city of Chiang Mai. Living in the overpriced United Kingdom didn’t leave me with that much spare capital, which was not a problem in the low risk environment of my home town, but for being in Asia alone, I needed more.

I wanted to change how I made my money too, not just delivering services, but earning money passively, finally breaking those last chains linking money and time. I devised two strategies, one short term (6 weeks), and another medium term (9 Months). The short term strategy was to raise as much cash as possible before I left and the tactics within that strategy are obvious to all. Essentially; sell everything I don’t need and work really, really hard. The longer term strategy required much more thought though. How can I make money, live in Thailand and not have to talk to, or directly work for clients? The solution was a twofold approach. First, use the advantage of Thailand’s lower cost of living to free up resources and re-invest them into developing product and information assets, which contributed to building an empire that did meet my lifestyle requirements.

Then secondly, I would harness the unique resources and opportunities in Chiang Mai. Not only is the cost of living and goods significantly cheaper here and the level of craftsmanship so high, but there is also access to products that simply aren’t available in the UK or US, yet do have a rightful place on a given digital marketplace. ‘These products are bought by thousands, if not millions of tourists each year’ I thought, ‘so why not on Amazon too?’. Other benefits of buying locally include the ease of which you can resolve supplier problems, which have occurred numerously and will invariably continue to do so. There have been many occasions, such as when returning stock or ordering new custom variations that my thankfulness has validated the benefit of not having to liaise with Chinese companies. These were both coherent principles that would help me to make good decisions, driving me in a straight line towards my goal of true financial and location independence. Your strategy should be as simple as this too, it doesn’t need to be long and convoluted like the intricate mind maps I used to draw in sketch pads at length. Instead they look like this:

Strategic Directive #1: Run the consulting business at full steam ahead, generating as much revenue as possible. Use all of the money saved by living in Chiang Mai to invest in the product and information empire.

Strategic Directive #2: Build a series of product and information assets that utilise resources unique to Chiang Mai, which have a large disparity in value between Thailand and the western marketplaces online.

With this level of clarity, I can start to outline my tactics and get started on taking meaningful, high impact action. For the first directive it was simple.

Just carry on doing what you have been doing for years and don’t go crazy with spending money in the first few months. The second directive required me go out and find the opportunities that fitted my new requirements of earning money as efficiently as possible (preferably passively) without the need to serve clients directly. For the product empire I wanted to find a range of locally made items that could be featured together in a curated shop. I needed quick resupply times, low minimum wholesale order volumes and most of all a big gap between the price in town and similar items on websites like Amazon and Etsy.

Only a fraction of a percent of the items out there were appropriate, but with enough time and some wasted money on misguided purchases, they would be found. For I would simply keep looking. Making the empire’s next few moves into information assets was harder.

Finding a way to draw value from the resources in Chiang Mai kept me thinking for some time. Until I realised that the experience of being here and the story of how it happened, was a resource in and of itself. A particularly unique and potentially valuable resource that only I could extract. This book and the Digital Nomad X YouTube channel were born that day.

What constitutes an objective, strategy or tactic depends on whereabouts in the chain you are looking. The plan above was my high level strategy. The strategy and tactics are designed to focus energy on particular points of leverage such as the consulting business, visiting local manufacturers and suppliers or making more YouTube episodes for example. However, for many of these high level tactics, like maintaining the consulting business, they have their own set of objectives, strategies and tactics.

The tactics for the consulting business include SEO, upselling, email marketing and CRM improvements, among many others. Similarly, if you have a boss, some of their tactics will be all of your objectives. Your strategy will of course be different to mine because you will have a different vision about what you want from your life. For those of you seeking real freedom though, rather than the extreme poles of wage slavery or obscene riches, your strategy should include self-employment as an absolute minimum. Ideally the strategy will seek to secure you, over time, a growing portfolio of assets. These will vary from capital investments like real estate and financial instruments, to retail infrastructure that allows you to access revenue digitally. With low capital though, you may need to undertake services for a while, until you have finished building a route over the barriers to entry into products and information operations.

Without any capital, you have almost zero access to revenue from financial investments. Before you can start buying these (or any) assets, you need to own an empire that can afford them. Living and profiting off the dividends of your stocks, shares and bonds is the ultimate form of financial freedom. For most of us of course, myself included, we have to start in the mud, piecing together a service or retail empire with bare hands and crude tools until we can afford the entry fee into more desirable tournaments.

When you spend time working on your objectives, strategies and tactics, the hardest part is often choosing which of the in-numeral choices available to focus energy on.

It is not lack of options, but their abundance which weighs us down. We are paralysed by it. Opportunity is everywhere. There’s almost so much choice we can’t see it for what it is. Your success will come from focusing energy on one of those opportunities, for long enough to be able to profit from a better one, that you’re now in a position to take advantage of. When you have chosen the right opportunity, you simply have to devise and execute a clear plan that concentrates your forces on the points of leverage that get you closer to what you want. Regularly ask yourself, ‘am I focusing my energy on activities that matter?’. You don’t need to just do one thing, but for all of the important things you are doing, consistently focus on activities that have the most impact.

Applying the lens of your strategy will force you to make better decisions.

In the past I could have been accused of jumping on any opportunity that floated by. Being burned repeatedly though fosters caution and for many years after, I avoided them completely. In fact, opportunities presented themselves even more frequently when I moved to Chiang Mai, but armed with strategy, I had reference points to guide my decisions. Most of the shiny prospects that appeared while in Asia didn’t fit into the framework I had outlined, so were passed on, politely. When a friend and fellow ex pat living in Chiang Mai wanted to sell his Etsy store however, it was immediately obvious that this asset slotted perfectly into the second strategic directive. It was a complete business, already generating revenue and had secured some good reviews. The artwork and branding were considerably better than my own Etsy start-up and the additional extras he included with the product packaging were a really nice touch. All of this could be (and was) quickly incorporated into my fledgling product empire. Not only this, but the product range and supplier relations he had built were with local Chiang Mai manufactures. I could ship them in small envelopes meaning the postal cost were extremely low and the profit margins were over 1000%. It ticked all of the boxes so I moved decisively to acquire it before any other grubby hands started presenting their own offers of interest.

For almost all types of business one of the biggest impact areas is marketing. The best tactics build assets as you execute them, not just display text ads to random audiences on forums for 30 days. For instance, regular social media activity has the secondary benefit of increasing long term visibility of your website on Google.

Developing a set of explainer videos for your product or service will increase conversions, but can also be re-used in other areas of your marketing to raise awareness or build the brand. Your business will grow to the extent you can develop and improve these assets, which can be defined as any platform, digital or otherwise, that generates leads and revenue. The value of the asset is measured in how efficiently (with respect to time and labour) it generates or contributes to sustainable profits.

The tactics employed in your arsenal will ultimately depend on the directives within your strategy. Whether you are choosing to focus energy on SEO and social media or advertisements and content marketing you should think about them as pieces of artillery and the individual actions taken, as the ammunition.

The more your big guns are calibrated, the better chance you have for your actions landing on target, pushing forward your agenda with devastating precision. For example, lets imagine (in the hypothetical presence of perfect information) we discover there are 87 steps that need to be taken to 100% optimise a particular website for maximum visibility on search engines. An individual who performs each task, one after the other, would be executing his SEO marketing tactic perfectly. Each round of labour smashing through the barriers between the present reality and what he wants it to be — Owning a lucrative asset at the very top of Google search listings for a popular keyword. Your empire is small, so you only need a few extremely well maintained guns with plenty of ammunition. If you are new to marketing it will take time to learn how to operate the tactics you have chosen. My first attempts at off page SEO were laughable. Copying and pasting terrible sales messages into forum posts and wondering why I kept getting banned and people weren’t buying.

Just as we need objectives, strategies and tactics for our life’s work, the empire, we need them on a micro basis for ‘marketing strategy’ too. Your tactics will be actions like Pay Per Click (PPC) marketing, SEO, following up leads and email marketing. Which tactics you select and how you allocate resources will be the strategy. Not all of the tactics are suitable for the entrepreneur who is engineering personal freedom though. Call centres do work, but they are extremely human resource intensive. TV advertisements have a huge reach, but they lack precision and cost small fortunes to deploy. Email marketing can be a powerful driver of sales, but you need a large list of people who are interested in what you say.

Your marketing strategy needs to implement a set of carefully selected tactics, that help you to reach your marketing objectives. The first job will be to discover the best target to focus resources (time, money and physical labour) on.

Ultimately you need to place yourself in space where your customers are already in, or close to, the psychological mind-set of buying a particular product or service. People browsing #vintageclothes on Pinterest and Instagram could be encouraged to buy related items on your Etsy store. Similarly, a director browsing LinkedIn for potential new recruits, may be interested in talking to a company about improving their payroll system. It’s vital for you to identify in your strategy which tactics have the most leverage for your business and then concentrate your forces accordingly. The problem is not a lack of options; quite the reverse.

The challenge is knowing where you should go all in.

This is the essence of strategy — Identify an absolutely clear objective, then devise a strategy that focuses energy on the highest areas of leverage that help you to reach it. Where possible, implement tactics that acquire assets as they are executed, allowing you to recycle work and recapture expended effort.

Originally published at A Digital Nomad in Thailand. The story below is an extract from one of the early chapters in my book, the 21st Century Emperor.

David Black is an author and location independent entrepreneur (digital nomad) living in Thailand. He is the producer of the popular YouTube channel “Digital Nomad X” and in his first book, the “21st Century Emperor”, he shares the inspiring story of how he left the corporate world in London and started on the path to securing genuine financial and location independence. You can learn more about his ideas on business and freedom on the Digital Nomad X blog.

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