In July I traveled to Turkey and Georgia for a 3 week vacation. As I often travel solo I carry a notepad and a Kindle everywhere allowing myself to stop, sit on a bench and immerse myself in the local culture. In my first days in Istanbul I walked for hours and stopped to write this reflective piece on a stone slab in the shadow the Sultan Selim Turbesi Mosque, 100 metres away from the famous blue mosque.
I sit on a centuries old slab hundreds of meters from Istanbul’s famous blue mosque. Visiting ancient monuments has me pondering the beauty of imperfection. I’m not talking about the missing manhole covers of Kenya but rather the handcrafted artisanal work compiled over centuries.
Minutes ago I stood looking at a dozen tombs, above a round ceiling was meticulously painted. Handmade wall tiles surrounded the tomb displaying flowers. Stones of different colours lie under my bare feet, the texture of history.
As someone who adopts new technology I see the advent of computer controlled tools and 3D printers. These technologies have massive potential, but will we lose the flaws of a tired hand, the uniqueness of a hand painted mural?
We will gain more art and style as new tools enable younger people to express themselves in different ways, but there is a certain appreciation for age-old crafts and time-consuming techniques.
Without modern tools the breathtaking mosques took significantly longer but have lasted for centuries. Will our art and architecture enabled by technology have the same uniqueness? Will it last?
The photo above was taken on a hike outside Nairobi, Kenya (Ngong Hills).
On February 27th, 2015 I landed in Kenya intending to work for Spire Education a company trying to bridge the skills gap between University education and Employment. They had offered me a 6-month fellowship the week before and I was also communicating with organizations in Zambia and Uganda.
This story starts in late 2014, I’d received a “Welcome to the team” e-mail from a large chain of primary schools in Kenya. Weeks later I received another e-mail, they no longer were filling the position. I’d already mentally shifted and was selling things on Craigslist along with organizing my apartment. After months of job hunting from Vancouver I booked a one-way ticket to Nairobi and gave myself a month to find a position before landing in Kenya. Risky but I felt if I showed commitment and started conversations with multiple employers before landing it would be maximum 1 month of job hunting upon arrival.
Fast forward to February 27th, I landed at the airport after 36 hours of travel and went to my friend Val’s place. Little did I know he was about an hour by taxi from the office due to Nairobi’s famous traffic jams. The cab couldn’t find the small house that served as an office and we circled Kilimani for a half hour repeatedly calling for directions. I arrived late and the whole company was walking into a meeting, one of the founders asked me to join. They had push ups for people that arrived late, funny introductions, vibrant energy and a closing game that left the whole team smiling. In the follow-up meeting with the business development director and the founder they clarified that the fellowship role was only 6 months and they couldn’t promise full-time employment afterwards. I weighed my options and picked Spire over a 1-year fellowship based in Uganda and a long-term full time role with a Zambian company. After talking to several staff members about their rapid pace of growth and great culture I knew that I’d enjoy my time at Spire.
Little did I know that the company hadn’t dialed in their main product, a career accelerator and the staffing up exercise was to test if marketing efforts would lead to greater sales. Over the last two months the vision was murky and I could see the current product wasn’t successful but expected pivots following the fourth cohort. 1 month into the fellowship I joined the business development team to promote our corporate training programs. We were selling long-term high end training to fast growing companies, I know the sales were making the company money and I assumed it would sustain growth while the current product matured and found it’s niche.
On Monday April 27th at 6pm I noticed an appointment appear on my calendar for the following day. A meeting with both founders from 12 to 1230pm; in my 2 months of employment we’d had one meeting together on a special project. I texted one founder and he clarified it was with regards to direction and strategy, I assumed my role was shifting and went back to cooking dinner.
At 12 noon I walked into a meeting, after a bit of small talk they confirmed that the company was changing directions. I nodded, and then came the surprise. They were letting me go. Here I was 2 months into a short 6 month contract in a new country after paying for a flight over and passing up two other opportunities. I understood the business decision, my whole team along with most of marketing was cut one appointment after another for 7 hours, 14 people total. The product was shifting to partnerships only rather than an in-house career accelerator, corporate training was growing more organically needing less staff and they wanted to build a chain of high schools as the main focus.
You learn a lot more from turmoil in life than from stability. I knew this was a difficult decision for the founders and they announced that anyone laid off would get assistance when looking for a new role. Certain aspects could have been improved but I understood that it’s a rare circumstance to have to lay off 1/3 of your staff in one day. To their credit they have been taking time to meet up, discuss local opportunities and facilitate introductions.
Since graduating 6 years ago I’ve founded a pre-revenue start up which was shut down after a year emptying my meager bank account. Watched a company president hire the best man from his wedding as a VP without informing his staff. Another client kept me working after running out of money and still owes me a month and a half of full time consulting. Others failed to manage projects while I was working remotely in Northern India or didn’t renew contracts with a week’s notice… so a layoff with a month severance isn’t that bad!
Small business and Start up life is extremely risky, you receive very little formal training and the pay isn’t lucrative. You’d think I’d have learned my lesson and moved on to a career at SAP or another global firm, bought an overly expensive road bike and planned short vacations months in advance while balancing an large mortgage.
While back in Canada for a year after traveling I worked as a freelance consultant while deciding on my next direction, I barely broke even. I felt it wasn’t fair to start working then quit to move overseas for my dream job. People often assume Gen Y jumps around from job to job because they are entitled but the reality is that the workforce often views retention just as loosely. We have to be agile, business is changing rapidly and if we aren’t flexible our companies or our jobs will disappear.
Luckily I’d already set up a side income project for a Canadian Tea exporter and within days of getting laid off had contacted 50+ people informing them of my current situation. My resume might not have brand names or long term stints but it has built resilience. I now put more energy into personal brand development with my podcast, extending my network and my consulting business. I almost always try to have a side contract and invest in tools that help me manage my network when things go south.
What’s my next step? After years of flying around the world working for the cost of living I feel like I am extremely close to the break that will allow me to live internationally, feel like I’m building an amazing company AND afford to fly home to see family. Those 50+ people have pointed me in the direction of a few companies and hard work over the last few years has built relationships with many others.
Years ago I read an article in Inc magazine about entrepreneurs and how many businesses had failed before they found their fit. After 6 years of trial and error I think I have figured out my direction going forward. The career I’ve chosen is one of attrition, to be successful far from home in new cultures with unproven technologies you have to be flexible and driven. The past 6 years have strengthened my resolve and taught me lessons that will help in the long term.
Now I just need to figure out the next 6 months, the perpetual story of my life!
Note: Ryan is looking for a role or consulting contract at the intersection of hardware, mobile networks and digital finance (mobile money). He’s got a few irons in the fire but if you know any companies or projects in this space please forward them along. Thanks!
After traveling Africa for 9 months in 2012 and 2013 I thought I’d grown accustomed to rough conditions, chicken buses and hot summer days. I recently returned to Nairobi and decided to stay with a friend for my first few weeks on the ground. Google Maps indicated the distance to the office would be about 17 kilometers, manageable I thought sitting in my Vancouver apartment. Without a car I’d be taking public transit, Matatu buses that are a little bit bigger than a VW van but manage to fit a clown car’s worth of people. In Kenya they are numbered and follow specific routes, all vehicles are privately owned investments. Adam Smith’s magical invisible hand makes sure people get to and from work each day.
A typical Matatu
Two days after leaving Vancouver I arrived in Nairobi tired and jet lagged, after a quick nap I headed into town for a brief visit to Spire’s office. My cab took an hour to navigate a maze of streets and I suddenly knew taking public transit during rush hour would be slightly more complex. I accepted the fellowship offer and headed back to Embakasi near Nairobi’s largest airport at the edge of town.
Monday morning was the first test, 40 minutes in the mini bus and rather than catch my connector I walked the hour into work. Great exercise and an awesome way to see a new city, but in 25+C heat I arrived slightly sweaty. It was a nice introduction but not sustainable each way. When I headed home I jumped in the wrong bus, was dropped off half way to the town connector and walked for about 30 minutes. Then completely lost downtown I asked a random Kenyan walking past for the Commercial station, luckily he was heading into town and was on the same bus. By the end of the day I’d spent about 5 hours walking or on a hot bus… I was tired.
Tuesday started two hours earlier 5:45am, out by 6:20am. I had a positive outlook, I was going to run up from town and avoid the transfer. With a change of clothes and a computer on my back I quickly realized that altitude plus hills all the way to work were substantially more difficult running than walking. When I left work that night I grabbed a motorcycle taxi as traffic was gridlocked, costs were adding up quickly due to the long commute. The advantage of motorcycles is that they can lane split and you arrive at your destination much quicker, the disadvantage is that journeys are often quite … sketchy. After leaving from the Number 33 Matatu stand the day before I assumed that once in the central core I could find the small area where they were parked. After dark I wandered around, people were running in all directions to catch buses and it was packed! Eventually I found my bus by slowly retracing my steps from the previous day. If only informal economies could ingrate with Google Maps.
Wednesday I left at about the same time but had to be into the office for an 8am meeting, I quickly regretted not leaving earlier. The Matatu wasn’t at the compound gate where it had been the previous 2 days, I waited 15 minutes. I knew something was up when the Kenyans kept walking past me rather than stopping at the bus stop. I grabbed a nearby motorcycle taxi which dropped me at the next stage 500 meters away, our bus instantly hit a massive traffic jam. Imagine 12 people in a small van in 28C sunshine, matatus quickly turn into saunas.
During that fifth journey back and forth from Embakasi I decided to move into town and am writing this post from my dinning room table which I share with other expats within walking distance of work. I learned a lot in those 10+ hours commuting to and from work. The main point was that in order to arrive on time locate yourself close to your work, it saves both time and you don’t have to stress over road conditions. The other lesson learned was experiencing the commute that many Kenyans make both to and from work daily. Waking up hours before the sun rises and getting home after it sets. Matatus often drive erratically and blare music, plus the cramped conditions make it impossible to sit and read.
I’ve written from and worked in multiple emerging market countries but typically had accommodation provided nearby. This experience of walking in another man’s shoes will hopefully remain with me throughout my international career in bottom of the pyramid innovation. The ability to emphasize and understand why someone is late for a meeting or had to leave early from the office is critical. Knowing the hurdles required to achieve success in a new market and being accommodating requires empathy. This week I discovered empathy is taught one drop of sweat at a time in a hot matatu while stressing about your first meeting!
Last week I read a statistic that there are over 500 web portals servicing the CrowdFunding space globally, although only a small percentage offer equity stakes. Many are focusing on specific regions or niches, so which one is best for you? Really investing comes down to what you love and what you know, find your passion and it’ll be a lot easier to read into all the little details before investing. What do you get excited about, what do you read about; knowing the industry will help you define what’s hot and innovative and what will fizzle out in the next two to three years. The difference between those “hot companies” with a 5-20% return per annum that the media covers and a 20X return is that you need to catch a rising star before everyone else sees where the industry is going. If you created a Social Media platform in 2010, it most likely struggled to gain adoption after FaceBook’s first mover advantage. The same can be said about creating a platform in 1999, it was too early for mass adoption and many companies that created the concept lost market share as the second generation of companies figured out their deficiencies and built a better product. There is a ‘Sweet spot” with early stage companies where you enter the market before it’s too crowded, while also not entering so early that your venture runs out of funds before the product is adopted.
Do you want to invest in the latest health product to hit grocery stores or would you rather invest in a drone that delivers tacos on college campuses. What guides your investment decisions, your experience or your interests? If you have worked in consumer retail you might understand the business plan of a new granola bar company, or an electrical engineer might see the value in the latest smartwatch. As CrowdFunding matures more and more niche sites are popping up providing opportunities for all investors. I predict that this will significantly increase the number of accredited investors (doctors, dentists, etc) investing in high risk (high reward) businesses that match their personal beliefs and interests. Currently only 3% of US accredited investors are classified as ‘angels’. Angels invest because they enjoy it, imagine getting to pick the next rock star company and then telling all your friends while also making a fortune. As online investing becomes more social (one of the predictions of the top upcoming 2014 trends) and engaging you will see more people enter the space especially when it goes mainstream after Title 3 of the JOBS act is finalized. Title 3 will allow everyday individuals to invest in private ventures within limitations.
Below I’ve place a very small list of American CrowdFunding platforms. The industry matured significantly in 2013 and we should see more major players emerging while we catch up to Europe where they have been crowdfunding for a bit longer on sites like CrowdCube.
After reading my last post Equity Crowdfunding you might be interested in putting money into a small scrappy start up company. ‘Angel Investing’ is the term used to describe rich individuals that seed or provide the early stage funds for a startup to grow big enough to attain financial stability. Angels are often the first stage of financing after ‘family & friends’ and help bridge the gap before Venture Capital funding. They are essential to the start up ecosystem and equity crowdfunding is generating more interest in the space. ‘Angels’ are often retired entrepreneurs providing advice and connection to the (often) younger management team. Angels like advising and staying in touch with the entrepreneurial community without the day to day operational stresses of a new venture. Angel Investing is also quite social, ‘Angel Forums’ in different cities allow for co-investing in several companies to diversify the risk while also sharing information.
In September 2013 the SEC removed the ban on public solicitation, this opens up Angel Investing from a murky old boys club to the modern transparent web portal. Portfolio managers often mention that a small percentage of your assets should be held in high risk high reward areas. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize many people made money on Facebook, and several other of the recent social media darlings. Equity CrowdFunding provides you the opportunity to place your bet on the next hot company and ride the wave. Although ‘Retail Crowdfunding’ or equity crowdfunding for the everyday man will only be legal after the SEC finalizes Title 3 of the JOBS act I’d recommend all investors stay up to speed around the changes in securities laws. Lower ‘buy ins’ via portals also allow investors to spread the risk. Previously if an angel group wanted to place a 200,000 dollar investment into a start up they’d have to pull from their small geographic member base. With crowdfunding portals the minimum investable amount is as low as 1000 dollars on many sites. This makes it easier to achieve a portfolio of 12-15 companies with 10% of your overall portfolio.
During the past few months since returning to Vancouver I’ve been working on a start up called Exploration Funder which is launching in January 2014. We facilitate investing opportunities in mineral resource exploration companies. I’m usually then asked… “So what’s equity crowdfunding?”
Crowdfunding is the concept of sourcing small amounts of money from many people. The sum adds up to something substantial, crowdfunding originated with Kiva.org. They realized that many people could fund the businesses of overseas entrepreneurs with micro-finance loans. More recently the industry pivoted towards products on Kickstarter, the concept of ‘pre-sale’ or ‘pretail’ allows a company to prove the demand for their product prior to manufacturing. Most recently equity crowdfunding is the latest iteration providing investors the opportunity to receive equity in emerging start ups. Most of what I’m discussing applies in the United States, although Exploration Funder is physically located in Canada our customer base is American and we are a US registered company. Canada has backwards and confusing securities policies making it more complicated with a smaller market.