After a week in Hong Kong, I made my way back to New Zealand. As I waited patiently for the tea shipment to arrive, I tried to keep myself as busy as possible. I got into a routine of posting regularly on social media, packing orders, and taking care of customer service. It felt like the entrepreneurial phase of the business had come to an end and I now had to focus on the mundane task of running a small business. Within a few days, it started to feel much more like a job — a job I had very little interest in doing. Rather than concentrating on marketing and trying to drive up sales, I started to think about whether I even needed to be directly involved in the business. I liked the idea of setting up a business and selling a product that people could consume over and over, which would throw off cash for the foreseeable future. I would then be able to use the cash to invest in other products and business ideas.
My experiences outsourcing fulfilment during my time in Hong Kong and China gave me a taste of what it felt like to make money without having to do the parts of the job I didn’t enjoy. Now that I was back, I was spending 4-5 hours each day mixing and packing tea, shipping out orders, and replying to customer emails. For a time, it felt nice to be busy; but as the weeks dragged on, I began to question whether it was the best use of my time. A lot of people like the feeling of being busy — it gives them a sense of purpose and a reason to get out of bed in the morning. I am not one of those people. I didn’t like the idea of wasting mental energy on a task that could be completed by someone else. It’s simply a matter of perception. Most people would rather stay busy and work full time making $60,000 every year for five years, than make $300,000 in one year followed by four years of free time. Ignoring the obvious impact of present value variations and progressive taxation, the financial outcome is the same. The only difference is the time spent. Free time allows you to think. When you think, you start to ask questions. When you start to ask questions, you start to frame your life in the context of an inevitable death. Why did I work so hard? Why did I not spend more time with my family? Why did I not take better care of my health?
Meet Steve. Steve is the owner of a 100-space carpark lot in central Auckland. If you park before 9am, you are charged an early-bird rate of $15 for the day until 8pm. Hour-to-hour rates vary depending on the length of a stay, but start at $4 an hour. The carpark space is a simple two-story structure featuring a single entrance and exit. The exit is manned by a solitary worker who sits alone in a booth and checks tickets as people leave the carpark. Steve is hoping to do away with the manned booth in the very near future and replace it with an automated ticketing machine. Aside from the ticketing booth, Steve’s business has very few expenses. He is able to generate over $3000 a day before expenses and taxes are paid — it’s a very sound investment. Steve’s problem is that he feels lazy. He is able to collect all this money, but he doesn’t have to do anything. Rather than manning the ticketing booth, he spends much of his time travelling to holiday destinations and sitting poolside at his generous home in an upmarket neighbourhood. His neighbour, Juliette, can’t stand Steve. Everything seems to come easy to him. Juliette is a dentist. She works long hours and has made a lot of sacrifices to get to where she is.
Steve’s story started when he was much younger and saved up all of his pay so he could purchase an empty lot in an undesirable area of town. He didn’t have any plans for the land, but thought that he could make a little bit of money if he just left it for a few years and then flipped it. As the city grew, the complexion of the area started to change. Steve saw an opportunity and started to allow people to park in his lot for a modest fee. When the Council opened a train stop nearby, people began parking on Steve’s lot to catch the train into work. The space soon became overcrowded. On weekdays, there were so many cars lining up in the morning that he was having to turn people away. He decided to add a second level and went to the bank for a loan to complete the construction. He had good cash flow and the land had increased in value, so he was able to borrow a substantial sum. The second level was a basic steel structure that was manufactured a few kilometres away and assembled on site. The structure went up in a matter of weeks and Steve’s income doubled. He made the decision to increase prices so he could pay down the loan as quickly as possible — he was allergic to interest payments. Steve feared that the increased prices may put customers off, but he was glad to see that it didn’t have any effect. Demand was still sky high. Customers had to park somewhere and his lot was the closest to the train station. People were apparently willing to pay whatever he wanted to charge.
His life quickly changed. He started spending his money on luxury items: he bought a nice watch, an expensive European car, and a membership to an exclusive golf club outside of Auckland. Life was good. He was making more money than he could spend. Once Steve had collected all the material things he had ever wanted, he began to feel empty. Everything was going so well, so what happened? Without a sense of purpose, he felt like his life no longer had meaning. He reflected on the fact that his parents had worked themselves to death in menial jobs, but always believed that they were doing something that mattered. Nothing his parents did mattered of course, but they always held that belief. Their lives would have fallen apart if they ever began to doubt their place in the world. Steve was starting to doubt his. He had too much time to think. He couldn’t switch his brain off. His spending habits had given him something to do during the day, but he needed more stimulation. Rather than burying himself in work or starting another business, Steve sought stimulation in other areas of his life. He began travelling for a purpose and started a charity to support children who had lost their parents at a young age. He amassed a large collection of books and became an avid reader — reading at least one book a week, no matter what else he had going on in his life. In time, Steve’s anxieties subsidised. He started to study life, rather than question it.
So, who is right? Steve or Juliette? There is no right or wrong answer. It’s entirely subjective. The only thing to keep in mind is that Steve can always sell his business and start working again, but Juliette will never be able to do what Steve did. Why? Steve’s outlook on life led him to take risks; in taking those risks, he got incredibly lucky. He didn’t set out to start a business that threw off cash and gave him a source of passive income. He attracted that type of business to himself, because it aligned with his belief system that making money didn’t have to be a struggle.
Juliette is wired differently. She needs to work because her life would lack meaning without her dental practice. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, most successful people think this way. Why does Warren Buffet continue to work when he is one of the richest people on earth and has been for some time? Why does Paul McCartney continue to release music when he makes tens of millions of dollars each year in royalty payments? Why does Meryl Streep continue to take acting roles when she has more than enough money to retire? Anyone with US$15m in assets has enough money to stop working and never have to worry about money again — so, why do they continue to work? Perhaps the answer is simple. Maybe they are passionate about what they do and it gives their life meaning. Work is a big part of our identity. Who are we without it?
As I waited for my tea shipment to arrive, I spent a lot of time alone, thinking. I stopped going out with friends and largely isolated myself from the outside world. My mind was riddled with self-doubt. Was I doing the right thing? My parents were concerned that I was throwing my life away. What if they were right? What if I was throwing my life away? I started to think about what success meant for me. Success in life is often framed in terms of happiness and contentment. For me, success looked different. It meant having a purpose and thinking independently and having the free time to read widely. Despite my best efforts, blocking out the world didn’t make me feel better. The silence became much louder than the noise. I was thinking around the clock and never gave myself a chance to relax. I tried to quiet the crazy but ended up silencing the sane. Meditation and self-medication offered a temporary reprieve, but nothing lasted. In the end, my own self-doubt did a lot more damage than the criticism I received from others. I was overthinking everything in a way that I never had when I was employed. Employees float through life: everything is easy. Get up, go to work, come home, repeat. As an employee, I didn’t have to think critically about anything. Time passes, quickly. What scares me now is that I don’t remember the years of my life when I was employed. It feels like it happened to someone else. I do, however, remember every second of my time in business; I felt conscious for the first time in my life. I felt like I was forced to experience life. Why then, did I crave employment? I wanted an easy way out. I wanted to feel numb again. Without financial security, I was unable to enjoy much of my time in business and I was unable to find contentment in other areas of my life.
My own self-doubt did a lot more damage than the criticism I received from others
I realised that much of my self-doubt stemmed from the fact that I was a poor fit for my business. The idea of product-founder fit is a very important metric when looking at whether someone will be successful in business. It didn’t make sense for me to be involved in a business like OMGTEA. I looked past the obvious incompatibility by telling myself that founders don’t need to have an emotional connection to what they are selling. Just because a person makes money selling Casio watches, doesn’t mean they can’t wear a Rolex and appreciate Swiss timepieces. It is obviously better when someone embodies a brand, but I saw a separation between how I chose to derive my wealth and how I chose to express myself.
Just because a person makes money selling Casio watches, doesn’t mean they can’t wear a Rolex and appreciate Swiss timepieces
However, when I stepped back and looked at the business and looked at myself, it was clear that I was doing the wrong thing. While that much was obvious, I was too financially committed to quit. I also started to question why it was such a poor fit for me. What did a good fit look like? Maybe I was more suited for employment after all. I had no idea who I was. I had spent my life trying to fit in. I had spent my life dressing the same as everyone else and listening to music my friends liked and watching shows that were popular on television. I never figured out who I was or what I liked. Having a business allowed me to start asking questions. It was a chance for me to rebel against normalcy.
I was sick of having the same pointless conversations over and over. I used to be just like everyone else, but over time I developed a different set of priorities. Without the security of a regular pay check, I had to be more selective with how I spent my time. As a result, I found it increasingly difficult to relate to normal people with stable jobs. I don’t care about your holidays or what you did in the weekend; I don’t care that your mother in law is unbearably obnoxious; I certainly don’t care about your million-dollar business idea that you’ve been talking about for the last ten years.
The final straw for me was a conversation I had with a close friend about his upcoming wedding. I struggled to understand the logic behind spending almost all of his savings, tens of thousands of dollars, on a wedding day. Why not go on a holiday instead? Why not save the money and put it towards a house? Why not start that business you always talked about? I don’t have a problem with marriage. Marriage is a legal construct; a wedding, however, is a commercial one. We have been conditioned to think that we need to buy a big engagement ring and an expensive wedding dress and that we need to host the wedding at an upmarket venue or an exotic location. Conventional thinking is that there is a direct correlation between how much we spend on a wedding day and how much we love our significant other. When it’s all said and done, we get to walk away from that day with a few awkward glamour photos in front of a tractor in the middle of a field, looking nothing like our true selves. It’s a fantasy. One special day where we can live someone else’s life. We then go back to reality and start having arguments about money. Over time, these arguments put unbearable strain on the relationship and the marriage ends in divorce.