Photo: The streets of Karol Bagh in Delhi during the weekly night market. Photograph from my apartment balcony.
My career started in the travel industry after college and I built up a company’s India operations nearly from scratch, then helped build out operations in new countries across Asia. At times, I wasn’t sure if business was teaching me how to travel, or travel was teaching me how to do business. If you’ve been to India, you know negotiation is cutthroat, and my prime example was a three day stand off in the Delhi offices of a major Indian Airline after they decided to change a quoted fare for hundreds of group seats that would blow my margins out of the water. They claimed there was an error, but I eventually got them to honor the original fares after those long, very hot days. I’ve been lucky enough to travel to 6 of 7 continents and experience life in places like Bangkok and Delhi, stroll the beaches of Fiji and the Cayman Islands, learn to surf in Costa Rica, not-so-luckily be chased by Burmese Military through the Kachin state, and catch Malaria in the remote villages of Burkina Faso. Here are a few of the lessons I have learned and hopefully there are a few takeaways that will help you:
Accept Advice & Filter Wisely
People that have done something before are great resources and can provide great feedback. Just because they’ve been there, doesn’t mean you need to go down the same road. I lived, worked and traveled based out of the backpacker haven of McLeod Ganj, also known as the home to the Tibetan Government-in-Exile and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It was an amazing experience, but I can’t count how many times I would overhear backpackers saying, “You can’t miss this,” “You have to go here,” “If you only go one place in India, go here.” Having lived in India and traveled to most of these places, my opinions differed greatly, especially for someone that only has a limited time to see India. People experience travel in different ways, and you can’t tell someone to skip seeing the Taj Mahal on their short trip to go visit a monastery in a village without a name, no matter how great your personal experience was there. If you have the time, by all means take these detours, and get lost, but don’t let them derail your experience.
Having gone through the Entrepreneur Roundtable Accelerator in New York when starting my first company, my co-founder and I had access to amazing mentors that had started very successful companies. However, after several months of critiques, suggestions, and conversations, it was easy to get distracted (read my co-founder’s take here). If you accept every critique or suggestion as gold, you will make your head spin and lose focus. While many of the people offering you advice may have been successful before, not everyone has been successful in what you are building, so keep your eyes on the road and filter the gold from the sand. You don’t want to miss the Taj Mahal for a roadside stupa.
Expect The Unexpected
In travel and in business, you can only plan so much. Be ready to roll with the punches and understand that some of the unexpected situations that can happen to you aren’t the end of the world. Imagine you arrive to a destination and that hostel or hotel you booked with an amazing website “lost” your reservation and are trying to charge double. Then you realize it is also really a rat-infested dump and not what the website was showing. Initially, you are irate, because you just wanted a bed to sleep in and don’t want to go searching the streets of Tamarindo, Costa Rica for a new hotel. Then you find a cleaner, better one with no website, and all is well in the world.
In business, it is the same, that glorious big partnership you were going to land just fell through with a Fortune 500 company. You were miserable, but instead you landed three smaller partners. Rather than managing every demand that big brand made, those three smaller partners helped you develop and drive your product to the next level and referred you to others and created a snowball effect of new business referrals. When I went through my NOLS semester in Alaska, there is one lesson that sticks with me across all aspects in life. When something goes wrong, just “stop and smoke a cigarette.” No need to really smoke, but the idea is that those two minutes of processing and assessing a situation allow you to make a decision from the bigger picture.
Less Is More
My wife and I will take week vacations and typically share the same roll aboard suitcase. We’ve learned that when it is just the two of us, we don’t care that the other may re-wear the same clothes to dinner throughout the week. We pack efficiently and in doing so, we’re not checking luggage, we beat everyone else through customs, then we also aren’t lugging huge bags filled with junk we don’t need. The convenience of packing light, and getting certain things you need on a whim locally makes moving around easier, and allows you to have side adventures when you realize you need to find Tylenol in Udon Thani, Thailand (which by the way is known as Paracetamol there, just in case you need it!). Be efficient with your packing and you’ll find you need a lot less. Tim Ferriss has a great article about what he packs, and is spot on (Side note: I also vouch for Ex Officio or Patagonia travel underwear, as you can wash them in the sink wherever you are).
When building a business, focus on those core activities that are going to be moving the needle for you. Just because a competitor adds a feature to their product doesn’t mean that you need to as well. Chasing the rabbit down the hole time and again will distract you and set you back, if not kill your business. While your competitors were adding features, and you focused on the core needs of your business to win new customers and grow your revenue, that is the progress you need to get ahead.
Leave Your Bubble & Grow
Travel allows you to explore new cultures, eat new foods, meet new people, and expand your horizons. By leaving your daily life behind and looking at the world from a different perspective, you can understand how people around the world problem-solve the same day-to-day things you do, but with different resources. Think outside the box, step away from things periodically and it can give you a fresh perspective to break through some of the blockages you may have in both life and business.
When All Else Fails: Smile, Smile, Smile
The next time you are at the airport look for a gate with a canceled flight and watch the person yelling at a gate agent and the dozen reasons why this inconvenience just essentially caused their life to be over. Then try to find another person that is treating the agent incredibly well, smiling, and even joking about the canceled flight. I would estimate that 9 out of 10 times, the person smiling and making light of a bad situation will not only spend less time with the agent rescheduling their flight, but most likely will also have that agent ensuring they have the earliest flight they can get the person on, the seat they want, and help turn the inconvenience into a better situation. As the Grateful Dead says, “Nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile.”
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