I thought about it long and hard. The answer I was looking for was the price of my freedom. Because to me, going down the corporate route felt like surrendering. Giving up.
First, I got a call. I didn’t take it. I needed some time to collect my thoughts. My startup had shut down a month before getting that call with €100k in debt to a major car leasing company in Turkey. The person on the other end of the call was the managing partner of that very same company.
A couple of minutes later I got a text message from my co-founder telling me they wanted to speak to me ASAP. That’s when I knew I’d never put myself in a similar situation ever again. Debt ends up ruining your mental state, and what was happening to me at that moment was a direct consequence of all the cumulated rookie mistakes I hade made to date. I had no one but myself to blame. So, I grabbed my iPhone and decided to face the music.
Before letting you in any further into my story, let me take you back to where it all started and how I pictured my startup story to go down.
It was only during my senior year that it dawned on me that I needed to start planning my professional career. Everyone I knew had either decided on moving ahead with a masters’ degree or was already talking to multinationals in the hope of getting on a fast track to becoming the next CEO. Besides being reputable and prestigious; to me, Erasmus University looked like a factory designed to pop out hard-working young talents ready to be placed in a corporate setting for the next 30 years. In retrospect, it felt like an upgraded version of the baby-boomer generation who dedicated their best years working in cubicles in return for a gold watch after life-long commitment. This time, there would be no gold watch or cubicle, but graffiti filled walls, all you can eat buffets, entertainment rooms and everything else imaginable to lure you in.
I know I’m biased, but to me, it was just an embellished variant of the same intention.
For many, this route is the best way to go for the simple reason that it works for them. Knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t be as harsh in my thinking and would agree that one could contribute on a large scale and have a significant impact on others’ lives being associated with such a company.
Anyhow, a funny thing happens when you are fresh out of college. All the strong friendship ties you build, the fun drunken nights are quickly forgotten and put on hold. It’s very much like a scene from the Hunger Games. Everyone is in a job-hunting craze, running around trying to land the dream job that will initiate their career in the best possible way. Everyone’s too preoccupied with their personal concerns and interests.
During those days, I was the lone wolf caving in for months on end in my apartment trying to plan this thing out. I knew what I wanted, but had no idea how to get there. Venture capital, angel investment, discounted cash flow – those were terms I had vaguely memorized and comprehended just well enough to get my credits. This time, I had to master them well enough to raise just enough capital to launch my startup.
When my partners and I launched our carsharing startup in 2012, we thought we were doing something unprecedented. I had come a long way from my University days in Holland where I decided to forego my masters’ study to focus on initiating my startup. The business model, being capital intensive and heavy on operations, it took me two years, to plan, make the move to Istanbul and raise enough funds to get started.
In fact, I had specific goals in mind that were leading me to take the entrepreneurial path.
1. Will to become master of my destiny
Me being in charge of the whole process from start to end gave me the confidence that it would be up to me to grow my chances for success. The one thought I disliked about having to work for a company was knowing how much money I would make not only that year but also having a pretty good idea of what my salary would look like five years from now. I didn’t like that kind of conservative thinking. The last thing I wanted to do was to put a ceiling on my potential earnings.
Of course, this can go both ways. Very few outcomes beat the satisfaction and financial returns of a spectacular startup exit. On the other hand, there’s no match to how one feels burning through years of hard work, with no payoff but a good old precautionary failure tale. (Trust me on this one. As luck would have it, I would find myself on the somber end of the spectrum)
Those days, as Steve Jobs said, my job was to “Stay hungry, stay foolish.”
The lack of it would have cost me my entrepreneurial journey.
2. Getting to Fuck You money
This one was a major motivator for me. F.U.M means having enough money to be completely financially independent while maintaining a desired lifestyle. In other words, having enough liquid assets that produce enough cash from those assets to live on without depreciating or even risking the principal. It also means being able to say “Fuck You” to any circumstance where you would have to make sacrifices you’d not want to make, or work alongside people who you’d rather not if you’d have more cash available.
So not only I was doing my best to stand out from the herd, but I wanted the outcome of my work to lead to a sum of money that would allow me to do anything I wanted. Or even better, money that allowed me to do nothing I did NOT want to do.
3. Having an impact on a large scale
This one has almost become cliché. Putting food on the table and a roof over one’s head is nowhere near a legitimate goal for my GEN-Y peers.
It was no different for me. The irony though, is that now, more than ever, people in their 20’s struggle to make a living and are more dependent on their parents’ help than any other generation in the past.
As for most aspiring entrepreneurs, the thought of building an actual sustainable business that primarily focuses on serving customers is not enough either. Mainstream media paints a too-good-to-be-true picture of what entrepreneurship looks like. “Million dollar exit” stories pushes everyone to gear their game towards inflating their startup’s valuation with VC money for a quick multi-million dollar turnaround.
In short, all I could think of was to “disrupt” the way people commuted in Turkey. For me, there was no reason to take on the endeavor if it wasn’t to change things drastically and “re-imagine” Turkish public transportation. After all, I was taught, urged and reminded to think BIG at all times.
I’ll save the failure story for another time. But in short what happened is that after five years of hard work, sweat and hustle none of my goals came to be. Not only I missed a chance on moving forward with my life they way I desired, but I also couldn’t help myself feeling responsible for those who had invested alongside me and had spent so much effort and goodwill on making it work.
When you fail and don’t have much to account for, you get all kinds of reactions. Almost everyone who has taken on a similar venture will value your experience and tell you what you are going through is only a natural stepping-stone on your path to becoming a successful entrepreneur. Others will happily reassure themselves that the safe and steady path they’ve chosen for themselves was the right course of action. The cold and timid souls too afraid to ever dare take risks will be right on your doorstep to bash you with their “I told you so’s”.
The downfall of my startup made me seriously contest the idea of having to rely on outside investment to make a venture work. I understand some business models can’t escape their need for it, but I was just not interested in dedicating years of my life to an unprofitable “project” that would maybe break-even a few years down the line.
I wanted to go back to basics and build an actual, profitable business. One that would let me forge my own path, advance at my own pace and one that would allow me to take the necessary time regardless of investors’ interests.
Those days, to test this assumption, I launched a simple, “non-disruptive” customized video editing service aimed at professional YouTubers. I was targeting vloggers that didn’t want to spend countless hours behind their laptops editing their content but made a good enough living through ads and sponsorships to have their footage outsourced on a monthly basis.
The website was online over a weekend. Installing a payment processor was a breeze too. It took about five days to filter and select freelancers that would be up for the job. A pretty straight forward email sequence sent to a list of cold emails brought in 2 customers the first week at a 900$/month recurring revenue rate. Every new signup would translate to 300$/month profit. Regardless of what my niche was and the lack of a fairytale exit potential, I had created a profitable business within a week time. My only job would be to supervise the process, bring in new customers and keep them happy.
It’s right then that I got the phone call that led to an offer to wipe out our company debts in exchange for our technological assets. Only, this offer came with a string attached. The deal would only go through if I was down to leading their new operation. For them, it seemed like a no-brainer. “We’ll relieve you off of your debt. We’ll get you in with a mid-5 figure signing bonus, and we’ll negotiate a lucrative salary too.” I was also told I’d be able to finish what I had started, and finally, accomplish my dreams(!)
When I realized I would need to make a quick decision on what my next move would be, the following reasoning helped me eradicate all my hesitations.
Deferred life plan vs. Lifestyle design
In the beginning of my entrepreneurial journey, I was simply excited about the notion of working on something that could entirely change the way people commuted in Turkey. I believed money would be the by-product of success. Over time, though, as I started craving an exit, I could no longer think of anything but offloading the startup. I postponed everything I was passionate about to the detriment of my health, hobbies, and personal relationships.
When the offer came through, I had a moment of clarity. I realized accepting the offer would mean risking spending my life not doing what I wanted on the bet that I could buy the freedom to do it later.
I also believed it was imperative for me to design a lifestyle that would allow me to pursue ideas and work I was truly passionate about. I wanted to prioritize happiness by only spending my energy on things that would excite me. Building a 9 to 5 career to achieve freedom to pursue my dreams a decade or two down the road just wasn’t enough to convince me.
Corporate ladder game vs. Cash flow game
I’d been in the startup “game” for five years. The premise was that unpaid 80-hours a week marathons induced with Red Bull and nootropics was to lead to a phenomenal startup exit. This meant getting a piece of that crazy money that was being abundantly thrown around.
This is not any different than the “dream” sold to investment bankers who slave away for years to clinch a spot at the partners’ table.
This time, I was being offered a pretty lucrative deal that would let me climb the stairs of the corporate ladder. Even better, I’d be able to climb them fast. The question is; which wall was the ladder really leaning towards? Where would I get to after having climbed that ladder?
On the other hand, I had the opportunity to build wealth through a sustainable stream of cash flow I would create for myself. In many ways, the idea of building a solid and growing cash flow stream independently seemed more attractive than working relentlessly for a defined salary that would increase based on my performance, which in turn, would be judged by others.
Building multiple sources of income vs. Investing all my energy into one
The experience I gained at my startup taught me the dangers of devoting years of my life in one particular line of work. While I was going back to the drawing board with no savings, friends who had chosen the stable path had done well and were on track for comfortable life. I no longer wanted to live a fragile lifestyle that could be shattered by factors I had little control over. I knew if I accepted the offer, all I could think of would be ways to get out in due time to follow my dreams.
Investing all my energy into sustaining a well-paid salary as my sole source of income seemed like a risky option. Why? Because first of all, a monthly salary is very addicting and hard to renounce after you’ve established a comfortable life for your family. Second, because I didn’t want all my earnings to be controlled and tied down to a boss’ decision.
On the contrary, the thought of building multiple sources of income would give me the opportunity to try and test various ideas without my lifestyle being directly affected by it.
FU Money vs. FU Mentality
Initially, my intention was to put all distractions aside and grind for years on end, growing my startup. The goal was to sell the company a couple of years down the line for the kind of money that would allow me to say Fuck You to any professional circumstance I deemed unfit. The result was me coming close to accept any kind of offer to keep the standard of life I was used to. So basically, the very opposite of my intention. This time, I was looking for ways to achieve the type of freedom money would bring without having much of it. I was ready to make the shift. I had seriously been considering the notion of trying geo-arbitrage as a way to bootstrap my way through a sustainable income. That meant relocating (or traveling around) places that have a lower cost of living while generating revenue on a “strong” currency. This way I’d be able to take my time to grow my earnings while maintaining a high standard of life. Doing all of this while exploring new places, immersing myself in new cultures and broadening my horizon.
Right after the offer came through, I immediately brought it up to my girlfriend Celine. She was going through a much harder time. She had regularly been in and out of routine checkups related to the thyroid cancer treatment she had been through in late 2014. (Thankfully, she’s now cured and well).
We’ve thought it through and decided to say NO. We chose to adopt a mindset that would free us from everything we had dreaded for so long. And say YES to every single opportunity that would enhance our happiness.
My goal at this point was to convince the interested party to acquire our assets while offering remote consultancy for a given period. Regardless of what the outcome would be, we booked two one-way tickets to Bangkok with a vague idea of where we would go next. In a matter of 2 months, Celine single-handedly managed to sell almost all our belongings. In January 2016, we boarded the plane that would take us to our first stop in our nomadic journey.
After many months of tough negotiations, which I conducted in 7 different locations in Southeast Asia, my partners and I were able to conclude the sale of our technological assets. A moment of pure relief. One part of me couldn’t believe the process took so long. The other part was ecstatic about having detached the string that was attached. I had managed to get rid of our debts without becoming an employee – more importantly, doing what I what I had planned on doing all along.
It turns out when you take the leap and follow your heart some things just fall in place.
– Crafted in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam