I didn’t need to be rich. I just needed to be free.
The story below is an extract from one of the early chapters in my book, the 21st Century Emperor.
It all started 6 years ago. Fresh out of university, I was on my way to London to start my new life as a professional within the insurance industry. At the time I remember thinking I was on the road to success. I had studied hard, passed my exams and been accepted onto a graduate management program with a respectable company. In a few years I thought, I would have real options, money and freedom.
Any illusions I had though, driving down to London to start my new life, were quickly exposed to be just that, illusions. No one was getting rich in that place and certainly no one was securing any meaningful levels of options or freedom.
The more time and energy they put into their work, deeper into the rabbit hole they went. The senior management did reasonably well for themselves I’m sure, but any additional income they had gained was directly proportionate to the extra time and responsibility that was required of them.
Money and freedom it seemed were two mutually exclusive concepts. To have one, you needed to sacrifice the other.
My frustration with the new life I found myself in, essentially being an employee of a large corporation, started to build rapidly. Not only was the prospect of getting trapped on the greasy pole of promotion particularly unappealing, but the fact that at the end of the day I didn’t own the product of my labour was becoming more and more unacceptable. My time and energy were being traded for money, but all of the long term benefits were being retained by someone else.
I felt like a soldier working for an empire. Orders came down the line and I was expected to execute them without question, regardless of whether it was a cause I believed worth fighting for or not. What had I let myself get into? Every aspect of the organisation’s policies and cultures seemed designed to foster a dependency relationship with "the empire". From the politics around pay grades to the company share scheme, the corporate objective was clear. Keep working for us.
I needed to find a way out. I didn’t want to be a pawn on someone else’s chess board, however large and comfortable. I wanted to start my own operation and build wealth for myself. The problem of course was that I had no idea how to start one. I had qualifications, but no skills. I had references, but no experience. The sad fact is, that despite all of the years spent in high school, college and university, my real education only began the day I decided to learn how to support myself in the business world.
I had always been industrious and entrepreneurial as a child, cleaning cars in the local neighbourhood at around age 12 then selling sunglasses and jeans at high school. But the idea of actually "starting a business" had never really been a clear goal.
The reason for this I believe is how we have been raised and educated. In many upwardly mobile households, business is something of a dubious and dirty word. Parents want their children to graduate from medical or law schools, not opening shops, renting trucks and hustling for orders. Enterprise isn’t on the school curriculum and there’s no prospectus for colleges teaching students how to actually start, grow and sell companies. Instead, "business degrees" and "MBA’s" are really just courses designed to train future managers. The path we are encouraged to take is one of increasing amounts of specialisation into narrow fields as we pass through school and university.
This we are told, is our route to success.
The truth though is that it just saddles us with debt and in most cases provides no real benefits in term of career advantage, simply due to the fact that there are so many more graduates now, fighting for the same number of jobs.
With my mind racing around these ideas and the possibilities of starting different types of enterprises, motivation for the day job was at an all-time low, it simply had to go. I was so preoccupied, thinking about and building the enterprise that I wasn’t really that effective in the office any more. Focus was needed, and perhaps earlier than I should have, I handed in my resignation.
Looking back, the problem wasn’t really splitting my time with work and the new project. It would have been both a sensible and sustainable solution while the business was being incubated. The real issue was that at that time I had no real skills, nothing to offer the market place and a complete lack of clarity in the direction I needed to take. I simply wasn’t clear with myself about what I wanted, so all of the early projects I tried inevitably floundered.
I was obsessed with finding the "big idea", which led me to create ridiculous products such as a new genital wart treatment and an online magazine documenting changes in UK climate compliance. All of which (quite rightly) didn’t make a penny.
The key of course was not to find a 'brilliant business idea’, but instead to pick a good business model and do it better than the competition. New ideas are untested, slow to reach the market and very expensive to protect. Existing business models on the other hand can be analysed and compared against a framework of requirements that you determine for yourself. These requirements could be anything from the amount of money you have to spend, which rules out any options with higher entry costs than you can afford, to the general attractiveness of the business model itself with respect to your skills, passions or temperament.
It took me a long time before I put pen to paper and detailed exactly what I needed from the enterprise. My framework ruled out 99.9% of the options available, because I had absolutely nothing to invest and the only piece of equipment I owned was a laptop. As it turns out though, that still left me with a huge amount of choice in the business models that were available.
It is vitally important to ask yourself what it is that you want the business to do for you. Simply "making money" is not a clear enough objective. For a long time, I thought that what I wanted was just to be rich and if I was being perfectly honest, I didn’t really care how I got there. There are a number of issues with this though, all of which held me back. To start with, being rich isn’t a "goal" as much as it is a state of affairs. Saying to myself that I wanted to be rich is similar to the statement, "I want to live until I’m 80". It very well may happen, but it offers nothing in the way of clarity of how I got there or what my standard of living was going to be during the process.
We need focus and concentration of effort to reach meaningful objectives and without this, there’s almost no hope of getting there.
It was only when I started to define for myself what it was that "being rich" enabled, that I started to make progress. I didn’t necessarily want large amounts of cash, but just enough so that I could do all of the things I wanted to do while never having to worry about money. I’ve never been interested in fast cars, but I was interested in travel. I wanted to work, but I prefer to work alone and certainly didn’t want to have to go into an office every day. I didn’t want to have a boss, but at the same time, the prospect of babysitting staff was almost as unappealing. In short I needed to refine my objectives.
What I really wanted was freedom.
Freedom to go anywhere and do anything, without having to ask permission or suffer the financial consequences of throwing in the towel on a particular project, client or employer.
The world is a big place and spending my day’s window gazing and clock watching from the office had become increasingly hard to bear. Real freedom like this was something that I had previously believed was only available to the rich and perhaps why it took me so long to get started, eventually realising that this wasn’t necessarily the case.
You don’t need a large pot of cash to be free, you simply need a small pot that is being passively refilled as quickly as you are draining it. That shift in thinking made everything else possible.
I didn’t need to make a million bucks, I just needed to make a thousand or two every month. I didn’t need to run a large company, I just needed to own a profitable one. I didn’t need to be rich, I just needed to be free.
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.