Happiness is a serious business
A tale of friendship, of struggle, and of a need for belonging.
This is the transcript of a talk given by Laurence McCahill & Carlos Saba, the founders of The Happy Startup School at ECHO in Costa Rica, June 2017.
I was born in the Philippines. I arrived in the UK when I was just three years old.
One of my earliest memories was peering out the window of a black London taxi on our way from Heathrow airport to my new home.
I remember staring at the rows and rows of identical houses and being amazed. I pointed at them and said to my mum in Filipino:
“They all look the same!?!”
This was a whole new world, a new adventure.
With an Italian father and Filipino mother and now living in the UK, it was hard to know where my roots really were. Whilst I had lots of family in both countries, whenever I went to either I still felt like a foreigner.
I remember as a child visiting my Dad’s family in Italy wandering around the village where my father was born feeling very different, exposed and vulnerable. People would stare at me and call out “Cinesino!” (little Chinese boy).
I felt hurt and confused – this was supposed to be my father’s home? Thankfully my cousins and close friends saw past any differences and loved me for who I was.
These experiences early in my life taught me the importance of being part of something – and of not being ashamed to be who you really are.
At primary school I changed friends as often as I changed clothes, but when I got to high school everything somehow clicked.
I’m not sure how or when, but pretty soon I found myself with four close classmates. Whilst we found ourselves at the same school, we were from wildly different backgrounds – Sri Lanka, Malta, Ireland, Italy, Philippines.
But we also had lots in common too:
- we were terrible with girls
- we got regularly turned away from nightclubs
- and we certainly weren’t playground entrepreneurs
But our shared values of family, loyalty and self-ridicule have served us well.
We’re still amazingly close 30 years on. And this has spilled over to the next generation — all our kids are now friends.
I’d had a fairly conventional upbringing until this moment.
My Mum was a nurse and my Dad a high school teacher.
So I definitely hadn’t expected that they’d decide to jack in all this stability and buy a pub.
Our suburban life was thrown on its head.
Now bedtime was when the bell rang for last orders at the bar.
And home became wherever we were.
This move was partly down to my Dad being a bit of a risk taker. One of 7 — he was the Irish rebel of his family (in contrast his sister Una became a Nun). Despite this he became a renowned teacher and in his spare time a top-class musician. He played all of the top Irish halls in London, recorded many albums and was in a very select group of musicians who have played the Royal Albert Hall.
He was also an alcoholic.
I remember one crazy adventure when we had to get my Dad to a big family gathering 3 hours away despite him being worse for wear.
Picture a hot summers day, a silver Jaguar with blue leather seats. Me with my customary teenage floppy hair in the passenger seat, my brother — now heavily into his punk phase — driving, and my Dad and his sister the Nun in the back.
We looked like we were on our way to a stag do (bachelor party).
The three of us somehow got him there without too many others noticing the state he was in, although God knows how.
This was to be the start of a long road of recovery. He soon changed his ways and had his last drink in 1991.
Fast forward 10 years
After our various studies both of us found ourselves in the same industry. Laurence soon found that his Economics degree wouldn’t be the ticket to a meaningful life he’d hoped for. And I’d left my career as a scientist behind to become technical Director of an agency in Soho.
But despite each of us mostly enjoying our work, the politics started to take over and we found we had the same frustrations with the industry we were in.
We weren’t sure what the exact answer was, but we knew there had to be a better way.
No suits or minions
Soon after we decided to create a company where we got to work on what we wanted, with people we wanted to.
This served us well for a good few years until we started working more and more with entrepreneurs. So many of whom were coming to us to build the next Facebook.
We explored the idea of sharing what we’d learnt, both from working with early-stage entrepreneurs, but also from reading about different ways of doing business — from Ricardo Semler’s Maverick to Delivering Happiness from Tony Hsieh. Whilst we loved tech, we were more interested in what made a great company.
Pretty soon after The Happy Startup School was born.
And a grand opening it was — a meetup above a pub (not mine I hastened to add), with about 20 people and a dog.
But it gave us fuel to do it again. And we’d found our first fan.
10 years running an agency and pretty much no-one cared.
Within a month of starting HSS we’d had more love. We wanted more of this.
Building two visions
“If you chase two rabbits, you’ll catch neither.”
Whilst the agency was still growing, HSS was getting more attention. We were getting lots more people coming to our events and joining our community.
Although we got to work on some great products, the trouble was I’d had enough of building other people’s visions. I felt we had a more important vision to bring to life. One that could touch people’s lives in a profound way.
We had a responsibility to bring this into the world. If we didn’t, I’d die full of regret.
I’ll never forget when I went for a coffee with a good friend Charles Davies. He sat me down, looked me in the eye and said:
“So what are you? If you’re a web design agency we have nothing in common. If you’re The Happy Startup School we have everything in common.”
And the final nail in the coffin:
“You’re not happy and you’re not a startup.”
Soon after we hosted our first retreat in the mountains — Alptitude. And after a full day hike through the elements, I got to share our predicament with the group of fellow entrepreneurs.
“Do we close down our successful company to follow our dream (and help others achieve theirs), even though we’ve no idea whether it will work?”
Despite us having to make some tough decisions, the response was unanimous. One comment summed it up for us:
“The world doesn’t need another design agency (even though you’re a very good one). It needs a crack team of superheroes fighting for better business.”
At this point, for the first time, we felt the power of the community we’d created. A few days before these were 25 strangers, but not were a crowd of hearts propelling us forward, to follow our calling.
And that thing we were worried about? Well the client we let down took on our former employees and all worked out fine.
A friend factory
Looking around us, we notice that other people were also sheepwalking through their lives. With no passion or purpose in their work.
People were coming to our events having lost their lust for life. It was our job to help them find it.
However we couldn’t give people the answer, we could only create the conditions for them to find it themselves.
And find it they did.
One moment in particular I remember at our first Summercamp in 2014 when a lady approached me across a packed, noisy dance floor, with the lights flashing all around and held out a napkin. She held her finger up to her lips and passed me this:
Life is short
And stories like this fuel us to this day.
Never more has the power of the happy startup community become more meaningful to me than recently.
Just 7 weeks ago, after a short illness, my dad — my hero — was gone.
His death has taught me so much — but mainly that nothing is more precious than the moments we have on this planet. And the people you meet along the way.
The support I’ve had from our tribe has been overwhelming. At times like this you know what true friendship means.
My Dad had his battles but overcame them with courage and love. He used to say to me that you’ll meet lots of people in your life, but be able to count your real friends on one hand. Our journey with The Happy Startup School over these last 5 years has meant we’re running of of hands.
All this love, this feeling – the highs, the lows – has come from finding something we truly believed in, and giving it everything we’ve got.
We’ve only got one life. This is not a dress rehersal.
So, think about it. What it is you want? When you get to your last few days on this planet do you want to look back with pride or regret?
Feeling like you’ve played every song there is to play or died with the music still in you?
At The Happy Startup School we run experiences and programs that set you on the right path.