Photo by Joss Woodhead on Unsplash

A story about journeys in life and business

Back in April 2017 Gustavo Razzetti published a great story on “Why 50 is the new age for launching a startup”. Read it here if you missed it. I pitched in with a few thoughts of my own at the time, but it felt like a bigger story was hiding inside the small one. This is the bigger story or at least the beginning of it. It starts with a question:

Before giving my answer to that question let me take you on a trip back in time to 1991. In 1991 Nirvana released “Nevermind” and U2 released “Achtung Baby”. The internet, cell phones, digital cameras and GPS were not around for general use. In short it was easier to be off the grid than on it. I was a 22-year old student at the Technical University of Denmark. I was also fed up with studying and seriously needed a break to get some perspective on life.

So I did what any sensible young person would do in those days. I took leave from my engineering studies to go travelling for 6 months. I had very limited experience with backpacking and I wanted to see places completely different from my usual circles in Europe. Some of my friends had visited South East Asia and told wonderful stories from their adventures and I decided this was my target.

My bank thought it was a terrible idea, but friends and family gave their full support (not unlike being a startup founder) and soon I was on my way with a backpack, a one-way ticket to Singapore and the classic Lonely Planet guidebook “South East Asia on a shoestring”. This guidebook incidently is part of the story of how Tony and Maureen Wheeler founded Lonely Planet, another great startup story, which you can read about here.

Arrived in Singapore I found the usual hangouts for backpackers and started sucking up both the South East Asia experience and the special backpacker culture.

Backpackers can be more or less hardcore, but follow a certain mindset. The purists among them looked with complete disdain on guidebooks. The goal was to go where no man had gone before and find pristine and unspoiled sites. Such sites would obviously not be in the guidebook. For rookies like me it was however quite acceptable to find new places “shortly” after the true explorers. One thing we could all agree upon was, that mainstream tourists were simply the worst.

Once a place was ready to receive tourists, then we, the backpackers, would be out of there jumping to the next island. We conveniently ignored the irony behind the fact, that our own exploration laid the foundation for the oncoming mass tourism. This was before the novel “The Beach” by Alex Garland was published, but the novel captures the spirit of the backpackers very precisely.

My journey through Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Hong Kong is a separate story with many lessons for life, but let’s just say that I traveled to the other side of the planet, met lots of wonderful people, explored many places and through it all simply ended up discovering myself. When the money ran out I made my way back home and completed my studies with new energy and perspectives.

When I talk with young high schoolers, which I do every year as part of a programme to give them some perspectives on choices of study and possible career paths, I always stress that career planning is a myth. It is a non-linear process, which is strongly influenced by this thing called life. As John Lennon said: “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans”.

Corporate life can be very bizarre and one day I may dive into some of these stories, but on the other hand it has a certain logic to it and corporations have a lot to offer in terms of exciting careers if you play the game and find yourself in the right position at the right time.

Throughout my corporate career I have worked in different industries: fertilizers, industrial coatings, pharmaceuticals, public transportation. I have also worked in most parts of the value chain: R&D, production, sales & marketing, business development, finance and leadership. I have had the (for me) good fortune to work with many exciting regions of the world including my old favourite South East Asia (proving that the “investment” in the backpacker trip was worth it). These are some of the great opportunities that corporates can offer. Then there is the whole income part.

Hindsight is an exact science. This is why, when you talk with experienced executives, it seems that there was always a plan behind their careers. That their younger selves looked into the future and planned all the individual steps leading them to the current pinnacle of their career. In my case I know there was no such planning. Instead I grabbed the opportunities which presented themselves to me and which I worked hard to make myself eligible for.

But there is a common thread:

All my jobs, regardless of company and position, have been about changing the status quo. Finding new ways to do things or optimizing the existing. It has been about changing processes and implementing new technology. It has been about getting people, processes and technology to work together. Today this would simply be called innovation or even intrapreneurship. I also realised another thing:

My first venture into entrepreneurship came as an unexpected opportunity. I got fired (also part of corporate life) and parted ways with the company with some money in my account. By coincidence (or was it) I had been talking with an inventor about his project and now I had both time and money to partner up with him. It was a great idea but from a business point of view it was a failure. We never got the project off the ground. But I learned a lot. I built a network in the startup community. I learned from other entrepreneurs and explored many exciting startups and business partners. And once again in the end I ended up discovering myself. When the money ran out (again) I returned to corporate life, but something had changed.

At the end of the three-year turn around programme I was participating in I had another idea on hand for a possible startup. Together with my then co-founder we had a evaluated the idea and had not been able to kill it as a stupid idea.

I quit my job in February 2015 and have been working on my startup since then. So the answers to the original question: “How do you know?” are the following:

  • Just go: the backpacker mantra is to just go and explore. You will learn on the way. When you have many years of business experience you already know some of the things that young entrepreneurs need to discover. This does not mean there is nothing to learn for the experienced entrepreneurs. It is just different.
  • Know yourself: when you are conscious about your skills and what drives you and what doesn’t then you can spot the right opportunities. This journey takes a lifetime and it is one of the reasons why putting yourself in situations where you learn about yourself are truly valuable. And to be completely clear. Knowing that entrepreneurship is NOT your thing is as important as knowing that it is.
  • One for the money: I have tried to run out of money several times in my life. It is scary, way out of the comfort zone, but once you have tried it and you have eliminated all excesses in your life you realize that there are actually a lot of things, you don’t really need. You also realize that you are able to pull yourself up again. And finally you discover that your friends and family really do have your back when times are tough.
  • And two for the show: It’s only rock’n’roll and I like it. Building a company is really hard work. It comes with sacrifices. But so does anything worthwhile doing. So feel the beat and don’t let the fear of failure beat you. I felt the music in my first venture and have been rocking to the beat ever since.

The best time to start a company is when you feel ready for it. There are some distinct advantages to having experience as Gustavo nicely described. There are other advantage to starting while you are young. We all have different journeys but the entrepreneurial mindset will drive us forward regardless of age.

Which brings me back to the backpackers. Corporates are to many entrepreneurs the same as mass tourism is to backpackers. Startup founders and backpackers are the rebels exploring new paths and new worlds. Corporates and mass tourism will follow. They will try to imitate the backpackers, which will drive the backpackers to go even further. We like to think, that these are two different worlds, but ultimately both sides depend on each other like a hero needs a vilain. And with this reflection I end this part of my story and I leave you with the words of Seasick Steve.

Thank you for reading this far and special thanks to Gustavo Razzetti for the inspiration. I hope you enjoyed it and if you have any questions/comments then be sure to leave them below.

I wish all readers a Happy New Year and hope that 2019 will be an enjoyable and prosperous year for you, whichever journey you are on.

CEO & co-founder of tech company Acumex (https://www.acumex.net/). Passionate about entrepreneurship, diversity, lifelong learning and experimenting. And books.