After college, I took an unconventional career path. No two-year contract with a bank or consulting firm, no paralegal work, not even a stint on my parents’ couch. I took a contract to teach English in China for a month and decided I’d figure out the rest along the way.
Over the next five years, I lived and worked my way through Mongolia, Russia, Thailand, Afghanistan, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, and Turkey. I taught English, worked as a freelance journalist, wrote analysis for a consulting firm, and threw parties to bring together the fascinating people I met along the way.
Friends openly wondered if I’d ever get back on the career path after “disappearing” for years. What they—and I, for that matter—didn’t realize then is that I was well on my way along my career path of choice: being an entrepreneur. As I found ways to support myself in my travels, and picked where I would settle, I learned several key skills that have served me well in the course of building a venture-backed startup.
In the U.S. we’ve become accustomed to clear processes. If someone breaks a contract, you sue them. If you have a problem with someone at work, you go to HR. If a website isn’t working, you file a support ticket.
In much of the world, those services and structures don’t exist or don’t work. When there’s a problem, you need to fix it yourself. Usually, you have to find out who’s responsible, then convince him or her to help you fix your problem.
I once got stranded at the northern border of Badakhshan, an autonomous region bordering Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. I had three days before I needed to catch a flight out of western Tajikistan and there were two ways to get there: drive through southern Kyrgzstan or retrace my steps along the Afghan border, which would take a minimum of five days. Until that point, it had been easy to find a ride around the region, but because of a recent dispute in southern Kyrgyzstan the border was technically closed.
My problem was compounded by the fact that I had only $200 left, the nearest ATM was on the other side of the Hindu Kush, and even if I’d been able to get there I didn’t have enough money in my bank account to buy a new plane ticket.
Resource-constrained in unfamiliar territory with no clear source of authority, explanation, or help? That’s basically startup life.
In the end, the son of the owner of the hut I’d been staying in made it his mission to find a driver, and we went door to door until we found someone with good connections at the border. We bought a few packs of cigarettes for the border guards, who were more than happy to wave us through, and I caught my flight.
As noted above, when you get stuck on something on the road, you need to find someone who can help you solve your problem, because there won’t be an obvious process. You can do this most effectively when you have an extensive network of contacts. Every developing region I’ve worked in has a specific word for influence or connections. In Chinese it’s guanxi, in Arabic it’swasta. The more you have, and the more you use it, the more effective you can be.
Many of my peers in the U.S. seem to think that the way to get a job or the way to get into a program is to apply. They send in their paperwork and have a reasonable expectation that if they are deemed worthy, they’ll get to the next step.
In less developed areas, the default assumption is that any piece of paper that is sent needs to be tracked to its final destination, and its recipient must be encouraged (gently or otherwise) to provide the desired outcome. I once overheard a banker and his trainee discussing driving licenses in a Middle Eastern country. The trainee, an American, said he was confused about why his driver’s license application was denied despite the fact that he’d crossed and dotted his Ts and Is. The senior banker explained that you had to send your license application through an intermediary who had wasta if you wanted to be sure it would get approved.
When you try and raise money without wasta, you’re going to get a lot of no’s. The entrepreneurs who rise the fastest tend to be the ones who know to work their connections rather than just pitching wildly. If you’re applying to an accelerator, don’t just ship in an application. Find out who has invested in the fund that supports it, or who is mentoring, and buy those people drinks. Or at least tweet at them.
Watching Antique Roadshow is the closest most Americans come to haggling. We’re used to seeing a price tag on things. Even when there’s an opportunity for negotiation—buying a car, for example—we never really expect more than 25% off the initial asking price.
In many countries, the buyer’s goal is to convince the seller to give away whatever he’s selling for free. Realistically, it’s more of a barter than a complete giveaway, but haggling is the norm rather than the exception.
Living in Turkey, I got used to negotiating the price of everything from a bottle of milk upward. Often money is dispensed with entirely and an elaborate system of favors takes its place. Give me this leather jacket for free and I’ll tell all my friends to come buy from you. Fix my plumbing and I’ll have my cousin fix your car, and I’ll set my cousin up with my cute friend. You get the picture.
In the entrepreneurial world, startups don’t tend to have a lot of seed capital, so their leaders need to learn how to bargain other things. What does a company in prototype phase have to offer Expedia, or Google, or Citibank? You have to sell a story: an option on new technology, or access to an otherwise difficult-to-reach market. How does a startup convince highly qualified candidates to work for next to nothing? You learn quickly to sell the strengths that you do have (flexibility, autonomy, potential upside) and de-emphasize the risks (bankruptcy).
Chris Sacca, one of Silicon Valley’s most colorful VCs, once tweeted that the one thing he required from people he hired was that they had at one point been “lost, alone, in a place where you don’t speak the language and are dependent on the kindness of others.”
When traveling, you find yourself in this position all the time. I’ve been in all sorts of places where, in retrospect, I should have freaked out. (Hitchhiking in southern Syria when the civil war was starting, spraining my ankle halfway up a mountain in rural Romania, getting severe food poisoning and diarrhea in central Myanmar… sorry Mom).
Thankfully, in the vast majority of these situations, you find out that the world isn’t that scary. Things do tend to work out if you stay calm, hope for the best, and keep moving forward.
In startups, as in travel, there are unexpected pitfalls and hard times. There’s no guarantee that you’ll make the summit, but in almost every case you will survive, and you’ll be better off for having taken the journey.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!