When I was first starting out in my business I feel like I was one of the first people to use Elance .. this was back in 2004. I know Elance was founded in 1999 but even in 2004 it was still relatively new. This gave me huge advantages in my web development company at the time. I was able to do sales in the US and outsource to India when the whole idea of outsourcing , especially for small and medium sized businesses was relatively new.
Before this time I was doing the sales and creating the web sites myself and it was a real struggle. After I learned how effective I could be at delegating the task to a developer that was even better at I am, I could focus more time and energy on the marketing and sales side.
The only challenge I now faced was that I had so many projects that were closing and the Elance developers were taking on so many other projects, that I felt like I needed more control over the project management. This is why I eventually traveled at the age of 20 to India to setup my own web agency. I met with all my main Elance contractors in person at the time and it was great to finally meet them in person! The online outsourcing story was coming to life.
Within 3 months time I setup an office in Noida, just outside Delhi. I partnered with two of the people that had been my main contractors. And we went into business together. I was overly ambitious and under capitalized and my bright ambitions for building a web agency empire burned out quickly .. after investing heavily into a large 4,000 square meter office, computers, desks, servers etc. and allowing my team in the US to run on their own for 3 months with sales declining.. I realized that I was a fuze burning on both ends and it was only a matter of time before the dynamite I was holding in my hands would explode.
So I tossed it.. literally.. just a few months later we stopped taking new projects. We closed the offices in Noida and the US.. my partners decided it was better and more efficient to take on smaller projects and operate more efficiently they way they were used to. And my “rocket ship” analogy soon gave way to the “bicycle” .. which is far better when it comes to being more efficient and surviving rather than trying to do everything as fast and as big as possible and exploding in mid air.
But my adventures in India were just the start. They lead me to see a new model emerging. The call center outsourcing model that was taking off in India at the time. What I loved about call centers was the model was residual, scalable and at the time – decent margin. This was better than what I was doing in the web design world, where we’d build a relationship and then when we’d finish a project they were done with us and we’d have to find a new project. In the call center world we could close a deal and still be working with the same client 12 years later (like we have been now).
So at the same time I was exploring India I went to visit a friend in the Philippines. He was working as a manager of a call center in Ortigas, a business district of Manila. What I noticed right away was that for a young, single , 20 year old – Manila seemed to offer more favorable distractions than India. And by distractions I do mean an abundance of women that seemed far more open to a young, white foreigner than India did. This was all I needed to come up with various “logical” reasons on why it made more business sense to be in Philippines versus India.
I started in the call center business very naive and ignorant and stumbled my way through various mistakes .. from a failed partnership, to various poor hiring decisions, to takeovers, to government raids, law suits .. to almost losing it all, to winning it back 3x .
What I realized over 12 years of doing business in a foreign environment and growing somewhat more wise
– Don’t partner with friends without clear roles & expectations and without a clear exit plan .. unless you want to lose a friend and a partner
– Don’t hire people simply because you like them .. dig deeper into their philosophy and look closely at how they live their lives. A quick analysis involves the 4 C’s: Do they care about the project? Are they competent for the role? Did you clearly communicate your expectations? Are you both happy with the compensation for the results? These things can change over time but they are a good reference point to keep going back to.
– Trust always implies risks: I lived in Manila for 5 years.. I wanted to leave after 2. I took a leap of faith after my 5th year when the business still did not feel really “stable” to simply try to organize things as best I could and leave.. go travel / explore the world and work remotely. I knew I was taking a chance by trusting the teams that I was leaving on their own without my daily oversight in the office. I knew that by putting them in touch with clients directly there was a chance they could work side deal. I knew that by leaving them responsible for purchasing decisions and negotiating contracts with vendors that they might carve out some skin for themselves. I knew there was a possibility by allowing some people to manage cash or bank accounts, that they might steal some. I knew there was a possibility that the whole thing could implode and I might regret it. But I also knew that if I didn’t leave , take these risks and and start doing all the things I really wanted to do, that I might regret that more. The world was calling my name and I had the means NOW to listen to it. Even if everything fell apart, at least I did what I felt in my heart was most important and that could never be taken away from me.
As it turns out — all of the things that could have happened DID happen. And more! Including
– a government raid that took 200 computers and software , saying they were unlicensed.. a raid that was actually called in by a former IT who had been responsible for licensing everything. He earned a fee for calling in the tip and used the raid as leverage to call all of our former clients and tell them we were going out of business. On top of the insult we had to place a quarter page ad in the biggest newspaper apologizing for having unlicensed software.
– We had a glass door broken down by an irate ex-employee.
– An angry wife come to the office with a knife to find her cheating husband.
– Multiple corrupt government officials looking for hand outs
“Consultants” that pretended to perform services only to find out months later they hadn’t done anything except collect money and make false reports
– Clients stealing staff
– Staff stealing clients
It all seems so simple when you are just starting out. Just sell X to Y for Z .. thats it right? No, hell no. It gets far more complicated than that when you work with people. And the complication multiples the more people you get involved. At our peak we had over 300 staff.
I consider running a call center similar to what it must be like trying to run a small empire – try to keep the people happy so they don’t rebel. This goes for the staff as much as it does the clients. And hopefully generate enough profit to sustain a lifestyle.
That’s the good news. Somehow through all of this I managed to do both: keep the people happy, create a sustainable income so that I could continue to live my dreams around the world.
So yes, for the most part people see the end result and say, that man is damn lucky. What they don’t see are the battle scars beneath the surface that at any point could have been a fatal hit. If by luck, they mean lucky that no hit was fatal – they are right! But if by luck they mean handed these blessings – they are right to a degree. They are indeed blessings, but they weren’t handed. They were hard fought, on hands and knees crawling through the mud , to arrive at the podium, covered in blood sweat and tears, eyes glistening in the sun, appreciating the reward for the risk and pain that was paid to achieve it.
What I can say is that
1 – You’re never actually prepared for the journey. There’s just no way to prepare for it. There’s no way to imagine the countless obstacles , pains and aches along the way. If there was, I think all of us would ask to return back where we came from at the time we were born. We cannot possibly IMAGINE all of the challenges that lay ahead in any endeavor.. that includes living itself! Once you accept the possibility that you are never ready.. that means you can start living.. or in business, that means you can start doing! You can take risks .. because by simply being alive you’re already at risk. There’s no such thing as security or being truly “ready” to embark on a mission – like being born, you just do it.
2 – Trust requires risk. But you can get a hell of a lot more done with trust than you can by playing it safe. Yes I’ve trusted people that have taken advantage more times than I can count.. but the NET GAIN of trusting has allowed me to build an organization of more than 300 people that produce a NET GAIN that is greater than any of the losses I have suffered. Will I be taken advantage of in the future? I’m sure of it. Will it be fatal? Most likely not – I’ve become too diversified for that to happen. And I have built in reserves and safety nets to limit the blood loss. Am I being taken advantage of right now? Quite possibly.
As James Madison once said “If men were angels, no government would be necessary” .. in a way a company is private government that ensures law, order and ultimately a space to be free that does not violate or harm others. But there is always a potential dark side and if a person gets greedy or desperate and they are in a position of power, they may reach for more than their fair share. You just have to do your best to ensure that no person is in a position where it can be fatal to the company and that the overall NET GAIN of trust is greater than the loss. Or if you do put a person in a position that could be fatal to the company, that you understand the risks thoroughly, that you put your faith in this person knowing that it could end badly but at the very least YOU will still be alive 🙂
3 – Dream forward. There are all kinds of things that can happen to bring your energy down or make you look back and wish you had done things differently. I find that you’ll gain far more wind in your sails by being pointed towards the future than being obsessed about anything in the past. The past is far less changeable than the future. And even when someone rightly owes you something, as a matter of principle yes you can fight for it. But there’s so much abundance in the world for creative, resourceful, ambitions people to tap, that often I find the fight may not be worth it. Not to mention the energy of creating something and building something is far more rewarding than fighting for something from the past. Yes there are court cases I could have won, people I could have punished for wrong doing .. but I’m still happy and still thriving and still moving forward towards my dreams at a pace that maybe wouldn’t have the same momentum if I fought for everything I felt like I deserved from past agreements.
I can only control me.. and I have 100% control over being future oriented rather than past oriented.
4 – Meditate. I can say that the only thing that has allowed me to keep my sanity through thick and thin is a daily routine that includes meditation. It allows me the mini-escapes each day that allow me to operate at my best and continue to look at things as an observer rather than a victim. As an observer of the great drama of life I get to remain amused and curious, even when tragedy befalls the actor (myself). And in the good times I can step into the role of the character and feel what it’s like to bask in the sunshine. And either way I can realize that my time here is short, and that who I am beneath the surface is so much more than what anyone may realize me to be, for better or worse. So I care a lot less what people say or think and focus instead on what brings me joy, what brings me peace, what brings the greatest rewards and I find that its compassion for feeling. First of all how you’re feeling and then how others are feeling. The most selfish thing you can do is be compassionate about how others are feeling, and bring them up. Because at the end of the day this is what will bring you the greatest happiness in life.