My Story for 2009:
Lessons learned from a year living and working as a business consultant in Vietnam.
I’m coming back to California after working in Vietnam as a business consultant for the last year, and I thought I would use the transition as an opportunity to keep in touch, and share what I’ve learned.
This is the consolidated story of my experience. Why I went to Vietnam, what I did there, and why I’m coming back. In it I talk about how to find work and opportunity abroad, and what business is really like in an emerging market. I share some unexpected lessons that I’ve learned about traveling and about myself. If you’re ever tempted to run away and start a new life, some of this might be really helpful, or it might change your mind.
It would really mean a lot to me if you’d read it (when you have some time, it’s super long) and get back to me with your thoughts and feedback.
– Dangerous Ideas –
Often, while studying it, I worried that economics might be boring. Actually, it turns out that economic ideas can be extremely dangerous. The idea that an investor can increase returns by moving around the risk almost destroyed the world economy. Now financial models are being called weapons of mass destruction. Not bad.
For me the most dangerous idea I ever learned studying economics was the concept of “opportunity cost”. Opportunity cost is the realization that the true cost of something is not its price, but rather the value of what you could have had instead. An investment was only a good investment to the extent that it made more money than the next best thing. To spend a day shopping for a $30 pair of shoes costs you not only your money, but also a day that could have been spent swimming, or reading, or whatever. And for me that’s a big whatever.
I was very lucky to be born into the time, place, and situation that I was. I have never been called on to provide for my family, or defend my country, or really do anything for anyone but myself. A California style childhood of loving family and nurturing teachers has assured me that my opportunities in life are limitless and my only responsibility to the world is my own happiness. I can do anything I want with my life. Sounds good right? Except for the opportunity cost.
It turns out every hour I spend cleaning my toenails is an hour that I’m not climbing mountains, making friends, or founding companies. With infinite opportunity, every choice I make is suddenly infinitely expensive. Stupid economics.
Wait, wait, relax. That’s ok. My only goal is to be happy. A trivial luxury compared to most people’s lot in life. Frosting on the cake. Simple, right?
I wish. As if studying economics wasn’t bad enough, I had to completely cripple my ability to function in life by also studying some philosophy (not a lot, just barely enough to be annoying).
It turns out, that at some point back in Greece all these damn philosophers got together and decided that happiness is a rather silly concept, a temporary state, like being sleepy or gassy. So they came up with a much more robust version of happiness called eudaimonia.
When Doctor Kevorkian kills some someone who’s in pain, it’s called euthanasia, which roughly means “a good death”. Eudaimonia, alternatively, means a good life. And what did Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle decide a good life was? According to my philosophy 101 class, it’s human flourishing, virtue, living up to your full potential, fulfilling your opportunity in the world. Crap.
So I can’t just be childishly happy, that’s stupid. I have huge opportunity and I have to fulfill it. I have to be Jack Kerouac. I have to be Bill Gates. I have to be Siddhartha.
So, naturally, I moved to Vietnam to become a business consultant.
– Wait.. What? Why Vietnam? Why Business Consulting? –
Last June I graduated from UCSB with my degree in Business/Economics and Technology Entrepreneurship. It was finally time for the “real world”, whatever that is. I think it might have something to do with paying my own rent.
At the time I was working on two business projects, an art licensing and poster retailing company called PostersforHumans.com, and a clean tech materials startup called Nitride Solutions. Neither project was going anywhere in a hurry. Nitride Solutions was having trouble convincing Venture Capitalists to invest. My role in the company was shrinking and my attention was elsewhere. Poster retailing was barely breaking even, and publishers weren’t on board with our vision of promoting independent artists. Neither of these ventures was going to be paying any rent any time soon. So, by my definition, neither of them counted as the real world.
Furthermore, I didn’t want to stay in Santa Barbara. After graduating I saw many of my friends transform into zombie shadows of their former selves. I call them “Happy Hour People”, because I now only see them at some stupid bar during happy hour. Friends whose formerly rich and interesting lives as students are now reduced to sitting in their entry level accounting jobs, staring at excel and slowly counting down the minutes until 5pm Friday evening when they can finally go meet with the other happy hour zombies to drink mildly discounted beer and complain about work. They called this the real world, and I wanted nothing to do with it. I had a great thing going in Santa Barbara, but I needed a fresh start. Rather than cling the scraps of my college life I wanted to face adulthood head on. I had enough money saved up to do something cool. Everyone agreed that I should carpe my diem while I had the chance.
I have had some opportunities to travel before, summers backpacking around Europe and the usual tourist clichés. I no longer believe in the value of seeing the world from a train window, letting your guide book lead you from hostel to temple to cafe to museum, taking pictures of yourself standing in front of old stuff. I wanted a real experience. I wanted to go to one place and really get involved with something, really let it sink in. And I didn’t feel like graduating from college deserved a vacation, I wanted something that I could put on my resume.
So I packed my suitcase, printed some business cards that said “David Pricco – Business Development Consultant” on them, and bought a one way ticket to Hanoi, Vietnam.
I chose Hanoi because I had briefly studied abroad there four years ago and had really liked it. It was a cheap, tropical city with a good balance of traditional and modern elements. Despite the economic apocalypse, Vietnam still had strong positive GDP growth projections, and the beginnings of Startup and Venture Capital scene. Plus I figured if I didn’t find anything there I would move on to Singapore, Malaysia, Bangkok, or wherever. I didn’t have any contacts or any Vietnamese language skills, but I ended up staying in Hanoi and building a whole new life there.
I chose to be a consultant because I knew that I didn’t want to start a full entrepreneurial venture. I had already been down that road and I knew how much of a commitment starting a new business was. Doing it in Vietnam probably would have tied me to the place for a few years at least. Actually, the main reason I became a consultant is that you can’t write “unemployed” on your business card. My real goal was just to find a job, and handing someone a business card is a better introduction than handing them a resume. Besides, I figured if someone actually hired me as a consultant in the mean time, it would certainly be a step in the right direction.
– What I learned about networking and finding work abroad –
The funny thing is that back in school I would always get mad when someone told me they wanted to be a consultant after graduation. I insisted that consulting itself, is not a job. It’s an employment relationship. It just means you’re around temporarily, that you’re billing by the hour, and that you don’t get any health insurance. I always demanded to know what people were actually going to do, and no one ever really had an answer. Now it was my turn to not have an answer either.
I moved into a cheap hotel and bought a map of the city. I found a tailor and had a suit made. I bookmarked all the websites for the various business groups in town and started going to business events and conferences to network.
After a while I figured out that sitting next to high powered global executives at business conferences, chatting, trading business cards, and sending follow-up emails is not a particularly effective method of getting a job. No one really gives a damn about you, and usually the important people in a company aren’t involved in hiring for entry level positions. Big companies have HR departments and systems in place for finding new employees, they don’t just hire random folks because they sat next to the CEO at some conference. I was just a business groupie (lamest vacation ever).
Eventually I found that the key to networking with more senior executive director types was to meet them in a non-business context, like a cultural or charity event. My first consulting contract came as a result of a charity event that I had volunteered to be the photographer for. It was a bike race. I motorbiked out in front of the cyclists, squatted on the ground, and got shots of them rushing past markets and cows and temples. It was a lot of fun. At the after-party I gorged myself on free snacks and idly chatted with whoever was within 5 feet of the food table. Somehow I ended up talking about my experience with business plans, and pretty soon I had a consulting gig helping write the business plan for a health communications NGO that was applying for its next round of funding. I wasn’t even wearing my suit.
I worked on that for two months, and did a really good job, I think. At the end I didn’t know how much to bill for. I went online and found a bunch of calculators that let you add up all of your living expenses, and your equivalent annual salary to figure out your billable rate. If I tweaked all the numbers in my favor I barely hit $25 an hour. So I asked for that salary to see if I could get away with it. I charged $950 total, and they went for it. I was now officially a professional business consultant.
I learned that it was actually much more effective to network within your own peer group. People my age or other recent arrivals were a lot more willing to talk, had more time for followups, and were much more sympathetic to the challenge of getting a foot in the door. Finally, I ended up getting a full time job as a “Strategic Consultant” at a major Vietnamese financial firm. I got the job through two buddies my own age with similar interests and disposition. I had met them through the normal process of making friends, rather than by actively “networking”. They happened to live right next to me, and happened to have a position open at their company.
My new job was to work on various projects in the company, help get brokerage services up to international best practices, help with research and English language marketing, and to work with my friends to create the companies new strategic consulting division: Management Solutions. (pro-tip: businesses with “solutions” in their name don’t know what the hell they’re doing)
The idea behind the consulting division was helping the many Vietnamese companies were born during the huge business boom in 2006 and 2007. During this time foreign investment poured into Vietnam, and businesses were able to prosper doing almost anything, often without much of a plan. Now business was tough, companies needed good research, planning, and outside expertise. We spent the next few months convincing our board to approve the new division, writing our copy, making our logo, creating marketing material, researching common business problems in Vietnam, and building a network of other consulting allies that we could call in to collaborate on projects. We even got a budget to hire another four people and pretty soon I was on the other side of the table, reading resumes and conducting interviews with people way more experienced than me.
We were interviewing Harvard, Princeton, University of Chicago, and IIT grads, people with experience in Merrill Lynch and the World Bank. It almost didn’t seem fair. Doing the interviews was enlightening. I quickly realized that I had screwed up a couple of my own earlier opportunities by not being able to properly answer the simple interview question: “What can you do for me?”
I read a lot of business news and business books, so I like talking about business. A few times early on, some poor business guy would take enough pity on my attempt at networking to meet for coffee. When this happened I would start ranting and raving about my insights into their industry, clever things similar companies have done, and the sorts of problems I supposed they were facing. Eventually they would stop me, knowing that my grand purpose in all this noise and fury was to get a job, and give me a chance to pitch myself by asking me what I could do for them if they hired me. I never really have an answer ready, I usually just explained that I had a lot of business skills and was happy to do whatever. I figured they should know what to do with me. But of course I wasn’t applying to a defined job in a traditional way. What I should have said is that I could do some research into the best practices of their competitors, help them improve their website, do some online marketing, do some analysis of cost and sales data and help them figure out how their different business segments are doing. I should have spent some time thinking about this stuff before meeting them. Next time I’ll know better.
Once you master these soft networking and interview skills It’s amazing the kind of work/trouble you can get yourself into.
– What I learned about doing business in Vietnam –
Soon after getting this new job I moved into a new house with my friends Kris, Joe, and Jon. Combined, we were the only foreigners in our company. We were all early twenty-something American recent college grads with a strong interest in business and a similar short term strategy for getting the most out of life. While I was busy building this consulting division one powerpoint stack at a time, Kris and Joe were building databases of stock prices and running regressions to pull out trends, writing reports and giving talks about the economy, getting interviewed on TV about investment strategy, and advising on bond issuances. Jon was upstairs advising our fund management company, sitting in on investor meetings, brainstorming ideas for new funds, and other stuff that 22 and 23 year olds would not get to do at home. We all got motorbikes. We had a big fancy house down a crazy ancient alleyway near our work. We had food delivered every night and hired two maids to come three times a week. Little old ladies sold fruit in front of our gate in the mornings, and crazy loud frogs kept us up all night. I was making $1000 a month. My rent was $150 a month, my motorbike was $50 a month, and eating out for every meal was costing about $8 a day. Life was absurd.
Some of that excitement was canceled out by how ungodly boring Vietnamese businesses are. I’m used to California where every business is some high tech organic web2.0 paradigm shift startup disrupting a new industry with a breakthrough product and a quirky name. In Vietnam, on the other hand, there are two ways of naming a business. Half the businesses here are some combination of place, product, number, and “Joint Stock Company”. Duc Thanh Wood Processing Joint Stock Company, and Construction and Investment J.S.C. no 492 are two of our clients. The other half are Vina+product, including Vinamilk and Vinaphone. These businesses all make normal stuff in normal ways, and sell it domestically. Most industries have one or two leading companies that compete more by buddying up with customers than by worrying about improving products and methods.
In school I had learned a lot about the sorts of companies that Venture Capitalists invest in. I figured where there are Venture Capitalists there would also be interesting startups. While there are two Venture Capital funds in Vietnam, offshoots of IDG and DFJ, their portfolio companies are all just localized versions of established US web2.0 models. Vietnamese websites are able to quickly build their user base, but don’t have the supporting local advertising or online retail industries to properly monetize. As far as I know, between these two fund’s combined 40+ Vietnamese portfolio companies there is only one company, Vinagame, which has been profitable. I think it will still be a while before we more innovative startups coming out of places like Vietnam.
As we got the new consulting division off the ground we were forced to confront certain… realities. We were three inexperienced white kids armed with only our undergraduate degrees, excel, powerpoint, and a bloomberg terminal. We were operating in an environment in which business decisions are usually based on the whims of the boss, deals are made according to who was friends with who, and everything happens very, very slowly. We’ve pitched our services to a few companies, and they showed some interest, but none of it has led to anything yet.
Despite all the conferences and books and reports about how Vietnam is poised to be the next “Asian tiger” economy like Taiwan or South Korea, doing business here is a disaster, a slow motion train wreck, and no one’s really interested in fixing it. The Vietnamese stock market is a good illustration of this. Part of our work is writing research reports on publicly traded Vietnamese companies. Our firm makes its money from brokerage. Since all brokers do pretty much the same thing, we try to differentiate ourselves from our competitors by offering better research. So we run discounted cash flow models, do industry analysis and projections, interview management, and make these big fat beautiful reports of everything there is to know about this or that Vietnamese company. We recently flew down to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and pitched these reports to a dozen different investment funds. But it was all just a big waste of time.
Why? The Vietnamese stock market moves up and down in one giant blob, completely independent of the actual performance of its companies. We found one publicly traded company that runs a cable car up to a pagoda on some holy mountain in the south.This company is completely detached from the rest of the Vietnamese economy. Every year thousands of people come to pay their respects at the temple during lunar new year, and they certainly don’t base their decision on their expectations of future GDP growth. Yet this company has a beta of 1, which means its stock price fluctuates in perfect lock-step with the rest of the stock market. It’s stock price goes up and down right along with the cell phone providers and construction consortiums. Another company, a cotton producer, is such a disaster that they have a negative profit margin, and 100 times more debt than money to pay it. They can’t even get their shareholders to meet to liquidate the company. Yet, on a good market day recently their stock price hit its daily trading ceiling.
In the US you could make a fortune if you spotted these sort of inconsistencies, because you could rely on the prices to eventually correct themselves. But here a savvy investor has no advantage. The market soars when an upbeat article in the economist causes some huge fund manager in New York to slightly increase their portfolio’s exposure to emerging markets. The market tanks when the Vietnamese investors suddenly get excited about gold and pull all their money out of equities. Yet all these fund managers are sitting in their fancy offices in Ho Chi Minh City, going through the motions of raising capital, allocating investment, and collecting their fees. It’s a joke. All the ideas we learned about in school require some consensus to work. You can’t be the only one in the room with your way of thinking. If you tried to drive down the street in Hanoi using the same traffic rules as at home, you’d never move a mile.
This isn’t to say anything bad about Vietnamese people. They’re incredibly flexible and have amazing abilities to work together and improvise. This business stuff is just all very new here. With developing infrastructure, education, and legal systems, business in Vietnam will truly thrive one day. But for now, it’s foolish to bring over a bunch of standard Western business models and systems and pretend they work in such a different environment.
And this explanation implies that we even had those models to offer. Recently at a conference we made friends with two guys from Deloitte (a big famous international accounting firm) that were also setting up a similar consulting division in Hanoi. They invited us over to their office, patiently gave us all sorts of helpful advice about consulting, showed us their database of research, case studies, templates, the full materials from thousands of completed consulting contracts, and their worldwide network of experts and underlings to do their bidding. They had decades of experience doing business in tough markets. Their business cards said consultant, just like ours, but we were definitely operating on completely different levels. We were essentially the “Vietnam” of business consultants, a lot of big ideas, but not much experience or planning to back them up.
After six months of this I reached a point where I realized none of it was going anywhere any time soon. I could either finish my projects and neatly wrap up my time now, just as the new hires were arriving. Or, I could dig in, get back to networking and pitching, and really dedicate myself to this for the long term. I chose the former. Screw it. I’m going home.
– What I learned about traveling and living abroad –
When I arrived in Hanoi I was still somewhat under the impression that the key to being a good traveler was to blend in with the locals, live off a few dollars a day, walk the streets and explore the alleys hunting for street food. That, I figured, is what set us true travelers apart from the loud, awful, fat, sunburned tourists waiting in line for their overpriced buffet. I was a travel snob.
After a month or two of hanging out in weird food markets and visiting temples and pagodas I realized that not only am I not Vietnamese, I’m not a little old lady, or a monk either. And if I were Vietnamese I wouldn’t be hanging out in stinky alleys eating gross street food. Living that way is just a silly indulgent fantasy, pretending to be poor and ethnic with none of the hardship. Instead I learned to embrace the life of the expatriate. I found all the local cafes and restaurants that expats go to, not because they’re ethnically authentic quaint little secrets, but because they’re good, and because it’s nice to hang out with other expats. I found a nice swimming pool and a cool arty movie theater. I learned to go out without a backpack, or a water bottle, or a notebook, or any other silly tourist/traveler junk.
I made a pretty decent life for myself out here. It’s really no big deal living in a foreign city. You can easily learn enough of any language to order food or direct a taxi, and most any big city will have enough English speakers to build a good social life. I’m lucky that these two guys in Hanoi, Tom and Elliott, made a really good expat info website called the New Hanoian. Everyone gets the idea to make one of these websites once in a while. They spring up all the time, and usually wither away in a few months after failing to solve the chicken and egg style problem of building both content and users early on. The New Hanoian worked because Tom and Elliott were on the ground everyday, getting people to use the site, and helping to add all all the info for restaurants and bars themselves. They personally programmed the hell out of it too. They managed to build in maps, different languages, and a Q&A section. Now, after a few years of development, you can rely on the site for information about almost everything you need in Hanoi. Expat businesses live or die according to their rating on the New Hanoian, and because of that accountability, are probably a lot better than they would otherwise be.
At first I was frustrated that all expats seemingly ever wanted to do was go out to restaurants and bars. I don’t really like bars, and I got sick of hanging out in restaurants. But after a while I began to discover little pockets of culture, small groups of people that have gotten together to pursue mutual hobbies in their free time. My housemate Jon is a rock climber. He found a subculture of French rock climbers that all hang out on a little rock wall set up in the rooftop laundry room of this one guy’s place. Some of my other friends here set up a DJ collective, they play dubstep and arrange big events at the two or three decent clubs in town. One of my buddies even organizes weekly ultimate frisbee games.
If I had to classify myself socially, I would have to say that I’m a hippie/nerd. Eventually I found a local stash of funky hippie brethren. They live in crazy old houses, make yummy salads out of organic mint, sit on the floor, hang out, drink tea, play drums, talk about crystals, and rarely feel the need to go to bars or restaurants. I even managed to put together my own little band of fellow nerds to play StarCraft and watch Star Trek with after work. Sometimes the new friends I’ve made remind me so much of this or that friend back home that I’m sad they’ll probably never meet. New cities are very lonely at first, but if you work at it, you can either find or make your scene.
The flip side of becoming this integrated is that as time passes, being in a foreign place becomes less and less magical. The novelty wears off. It all becomes ordinary. Your quirky part of town just becomes the normal background of your commute.
A few times, when I met with long term businessy expats, I would get asked how long I planned to stay, and half jokingly pressured to settle down and find a Vietnamese girlfriend. The real expats saw right through me. They knew I wasn’t one of them, I was just a half-pat. I was just like all the other twenty-somethings that float through Hanoi to teach English or intern at some NGO and “find themselves” for a year. They knew it wasn’t really worth their time to buddy up with me too much, because sooner or later I would miss home and fly back.
They were right.
– What I learned about life –
Coming out here was an attempt at optimizing my time, my effort, and my savings. I was trying to optimize the next step of my life according to what I thought was important.
Studying economics primarily involved learning how to take complex real world situations, reduce them to equations and graphs, and then use calculus to find the highest point, the optimum. After years of that it’s impossible not to try and apply the same framework to your own life, even if subconsciously, to imagine some ideal ratio of fun/sleep/love/money/health/travel/food/work and to constantly update your plan for getting there.
I’m finally starting to realize that you can’t optimize life like this. It’s too abstract, or maybe in some ways not abstract enough. Furiously thinking about it renders the whole point moot anyway as you’re not even mentally there to enjoy the fruits of your labor. Instead of living in the moment, you’re too busy optimizing the next thing, or at least I find that I usually am.
During school we had these standard definitions of “doing well”, like going to a good university and getting good grades. We knew when it was time to try harder, and when we could relax. We don’t have that any more, and making important life decisions is a lot harder.
It’s a cliche but I’m really trying to “live in the moment” and not always worry so much about what to do.
– What I learned about myself –
When deciding to come to Vietnam I was afraid to leave the safety and comfort of California, but I was more afraid to stay and miss out on an opportunity to travel and challenge myself. I figured this was the optimal choice. I put a high premium on leading an interesting life, and I thought I was pretty damn interesting for coming out here. I felt special and exciting. But recently I’ve realized I’m actually really just a typical American, and that thinking I’m so damn special is a big part of that.
Here in Hanoi I’ve got about a dozen American friends and acquaintances my age, and about a dozen other European or Australian friends and acquaintances my age. If you ask the Euros or Aussies what they’re doing here and why, they’ll mostly sort of shrug their shoulders and explain that they’re just doing their thing. They’ve got a good English teaching job, and life is easy and nice. Most of them stay in Hanoi for a couple of years.
Americans, on the other hand, what a bunch of silly people we are. Every one of my American friends either works for an NGO, doing traffic safety or health communications or protecting the environment, or they’re working in finance or economic research, investing money and crunching numbers. We’re all either trying to save the world or take it over. We’re all writers and we’re all photographers too. We all have some big story about what we’re doing with our lives and why we’re in Hanoi, and we have hundreds of quasi-artsy photos to prove to our friends on facebook how much fun it is. Few of us last even a year out here before we move on to our next big opportunity to be even more special and exciting. We are completely absurd.
More than just an American, I’ve also realized how much of a Californian I am. My other American friends here can’t understand why I prefer to spend my vacations just hanging out in one place instead of furiously motorbiking across the country, and why I’m willing to spend more money than I need to on fancy lunches and daily fruit smoothies. The three other Californians I’ve met in my time out here clicked as friends right away. I miss California and I can’t wait to go home.
And just as I was originally afraid to leave the comfort of home to try my luck in Vietnam eight months ago, I’m now afraid to leave the comfort of Hanoi for yet another uncertain future. I’m afraid of missing out on everything that will continue here without me. Everyone who leaves Hanoi for a wedding or something returns with reports of economic desolation in the wasteland of the outside world. Back at home, where all this started, going to Vietnam was my plan B. Now in Vietnam going back home has been my plan B. After this I’m out of plan Bs, and maybe it’s for the best, as having a plan B is dangerous.
I’ve worked on three major business projects in the last year: Nitride Solutions, PostersforHumans.com, and now the consulting division. I’ve bailed out on all of them. Each time I’ve gone with my plan B, and I’m not sure if those were the right choices. They were easy enough to justify at the time. All three projects had slowed down when the demand we were expecting never materialized. But that’s only half the story. All three times I got lazy, and stopped trying. I approached each project with a burst of energy and enthusiasm, but soon my effort was waning and I was looking over my shoulder for something else to do. It’s only my first year out of college and still very easy for me to say “it’s just not for me”, and no one really expects me to build a financially successful business anyway. Still, I feel like next time I really need to see things through instead of running away.
I rely hugely on my friends. Growing up, my mom and I were our entire family in this country, and for some long awkward teenage years I was horrifically unpopular at school. Since then I’ve always made a massive effort to be social and maintain relationships. Besides companionship and fun, I’ve relied on these relationships to find work, housing, and opportunity. Here in Vietnam I got my job and my house through my friends, and when I get back home I plan to crash at a friend’s place back in Santa Barbara and hopefully get some part-time work with a friend doing computer repair.
But as a young person what you can get through cronyism is limited. Friends can help you find opportunities, but you need to fulfill them for yourself. Being social is a lot more fun than actually working, and the illusion that it’s just as useful is a dangerous one. I need to learn how to work hard, stick with a project, and achieve things for myself.
– moving on –
As a whole, my experience in Vietnam was fantastic. I found the interesting work opportunities I was looking for, went on fun adventures, learned a lot, and made some amazing new friends. The eight months ended up costing me about $5000 net, including a week on a tropical island with a girlfriend for new year, another week motorbiking around thailand with a buddy over Vietnamese new year, having two suits tailored, and a lot of expenses that were foolish and avoidable in retrospect (including a chinese knockoff iphone). I think it would have taken me another eight months of work to break even on the trip.
Moving on now is bittersweet, going home yet leaving so much behind. It includes the recognition that I have spent not only my money here, but also my time. I have grown older out here. The great sadness of growing older is seeing your opportunities disappear as you choose one path at the expense of others. You can change your mind, and you can change your plan, but you can’t stop time. One way or another you’ll end up doing something, that something will be “the real world”, and it will probably involve doing some hard work.
But don’t despair! I’ve discovered an up-side!
Sharing this story is part of an effort to shift my narcissism from photography to writing. I used to take photos of everything I did. I wanted to prove to myself and to the rest of the world that I had been there and done that. That I wasn’t still sitting alone at home like the awkward kid I was in middle school. Recently, I looked through some old photos of myself from early college and I was so embarrassed. What an asshole I was, making some stupid face at some stupid girl at some stupid party. I can’t believe the things that I thought were important to photograph. My intentions were so shallow and obvious. At the time I thought I would treasure these memories, but now I hardly identify with the person I see in the photos.
Maybe years from now, I’ll re-read this, and I won’t lament the tragedy of all my lost possibilities and unfulfilled opportunities, and I won’t congratulate myself on my business insights either, because I’ll no longer think any of that is important. I’ll simply say to myself “well, at least I’m not that guy anymore.”
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Every day I wake up at around 7:15am, get dressed, bike to work, and spend the first hour of my day reading the news.
I read the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, and about a billion other miscellaneous business, economics, and entrepreneurship related publications, news aggregators, and blogs. I also have a growing list of English language Vietnam business news sources which I slowly work through over the course of the day. So probably about two hours of average total news reading daily.
I feel like studying the news is an important part of what I do. It allows me to know what’s going on domestically and internationally, to tie it all together in my mind, and to sound smart when I speak to clients or partners. I recently had a phone meeting with a brokerage VP from Morgan Stanley and he seemed a bit annoyed that I didn’t really know anything about the Morgan Stanley + Citigroup merger. Mostly though I feel that I have a pretty good overview of what’s getting discussed in the press these days.
Reading so much news is definitely distorting my perspective, but I can’t tell how.
I figure that I might have developed a hugely exaggerated view of the craziness of the current global economic and political situation, as I am constantly being bombarded by a magnified version of the worlds day to day freakouts. Or, I might have the exact opposite distortion; I might not really understand or appreciate the massive scale and importance of the changes occurring in the world right now because I am lost in the foam and froth of daily details.
Right now journalists are all grasping at understanding the potential direction, aftermath, solutions and ramifications of this current global financial-economic crisis/recession/apocalypse.
Despite really dedicating a huge amount of time and thought to figuring it all out for myself, I don’t have much of a clear idea of what’s actually going right now on or what exactly any of it means for the future.
Whatever happens though, everyone is going to claim that they saw it coming. Looking back on it, everybody says that they saw the tech/dot-com bubble coming, that it was obvious. I think at the time there were legitimate reasons to believe that tech really was the new economy, and the websites that staked their claim now would have huge ongoing advantage. Now people are starting to come out of the woodwork and claim that they saw this entire current mess coming. I doubt it. If you go back and read people’s economic predictions from a few years ago, most will probably have some argument about oil prices. Remember oil prices? Ha.
I don’t normally re-write about things that I’ve read elsewhere online, I feel that bloggers already waste far too much effort on that kind of churn. But I’m going to deviate from my rule this one time, as a kind of thought experiment.
I am going to attempt at sort out some of the major themes that I’m seeing in the news these days, and try to make some predictions about what they might mean for the future. If I’m actually right about anything, I too can look back and say “I saw it coming.” But what I expect is to look back in embarrassment and maybe some added appreciation of how unpredictable things are.
Davids interpretation of the news, and vague predictions of the future, April 2009:
There seems to be a major re-evaluation of the basic nature financial investment and risk going on. Stock prices have collapsed. Banks and huge companies are failing and getting rescued by the government. No one is investing. There was only one US IPO so far this year, and venture capital investment is down 71%. There is a global consensus that Wall Street finally went too far, fueling huge debates about new regulation and executive pay restriction.
The common wisdom used to be that the key to getting rich/financial independence/retirement in America was saving up your money and putting it in the stock market. Some stocks would do well, some would do less well, some years would be especially good, some would be not so good, but on average you could expect your money to grow about 10% annually as it had historically until about the year 2000. Even better was to buy a house, you could live in it, there were various tax benefits, and it was less abstract. This system of building wealth was implicitly promised to us by modern financial society.
This promise has been broken, and this system has failed those who relied on it. While there was always the recognition that investing involves risk, assets prices weren”t supposed to collapse like this.
I don’t believe that this happened because of any grand conspiracy or some epic level of greed in the financial industry. Everyone was playing the game according to what they thought the rules were. We all just overestimated how much asset prices were based on their underlying value, and underestimated how much they are based on peoples demand for things to invest in.
Of course we saw this in the 2001 tech bubble, and in various other historical examples of asset bubbles, all the way back to the often cited stupid Dutch tulip craze of 1600-whatever. But we don’t usually see the entire financial sector go pop. And this time the pop took the entire world economy down with it. Whoops.
We also failed to realize the extent to which our financial institutions were taking big, leveraged, bets on these assets. And how intertwined these positions were with everything else. Whoops.
So now we’re in this period of spiraling doom as the slowing down of some things fuel further slow downs in other things. Great.
Eventually though, barring further catastrophe, we’ll probably snap out of it.
That’s the big thing that everyone is trying to predict right now, how long this recession will last. Some say a long long time, some says it’s already wrapping up. I don’t think you can predict it. There are certainly still big problems to overcome: unemployment, unused capacity, toxic assets, and what have you. On the other hand there is still a world full of people that would like nothing more than to go back to making and buying stuff as usual.
Lately we’ve seen just how much economic activity relies on confidence, not just consumer confidence but also investor confidence and business confidence. People feel uncertain. How they’ll feel in six months or a year depends on the news, and the news by definition depends on random and unpredictable events. How long the gloom will last is anyone’s guess. Some percentage of predictions will be right regardless.
Whenever the economy really starts to recover, I expect that investors will want back in as they slowly regain their risk tolerance. I predict that we’ll probably see is a rush of people and cleverness back into Wall Street. New types of investment vehicles will get dreamed up, probably by new firms we haven’t heard of yet. They will have to work their way around the new regulations and figure out some clever ways to ensure investors that there is some tangible underlying value to their assets. There’s going to be a lot of money to be made by making people feel safe.
Another big theme I’m seeing dispersed through the news lately is a serious challenging of the standard beliefs of how monetary and fiscal policy are enough to stabilize the economy.
When studying economics I learned about how careful tweaking of government spending and interest rates supposedly help keep everything running smoothly.
During the last years, we’ve been hitting the monetary gas pedal as hard as we can by maintaining super low interest rates. Now we’re also injecting an incomprehensibly large fiscal stimulus to shock the economy back in to motion. This seems like the best thing to do.
Economic activity is facilitated by money, and it can be limited if there’s not enough money, or if the money is not moving fast enough. Economic also activity feeds on itself, so it can be boosted by an stimulus of cash or spending by the government. The reason we need this massive stimulus to increase the money supply so much right now is that the velocity of money is so low, everything is moving in slow motion. This should get things moving again.
Some time in the long run, I could see this hugely expanded monetary base, combined with the mounting pressures of the national debt, and growing grumpyness from countries about holding all their reserves in dollars, leading us into a situation of serious inflation.
Once the economy picks up, and the velocity of money along with it, we are going to have way too much active money flying around way too fast. If foreign governments eventually start dumping our debt it’s going to further increase the supply of dollars looking for something to do.
The other edge of that sword is that it would become a lot harder for us to continue to pay for our debt. We won’t be as able to just roll it over by selling these endless dollar bonds to countries building their reserves, as we’ve been doing. So allowing some inflation, making it cheaper for us to pay back our debt, might start to look really tempting. And that could easily get spin of control.
I can’t really say I expect this to happen. It seems like the current fed and Obama administrations will be smart enough to properly control if things get overheated, and long sighted enough not to undermine the nations long-term creditworthiness.
But then again, as we’re seeing now, sometimes the economic systems we rely on have a funny way of all failing at the same time. Something weird could happen and we might not have a choice.
My more likely prediction is that we’ll just have to get used to watching the economy very closely from now on, and controlling for new kinds of potential problems as they start to emerge – even at the expense of economic growth – instead of just trusting that the market will automatically work everything out.
It seems like this Chinese and Russian talk about moving away from the dollar as a reserve currency might be nothing more than a bunch of jumping up and down and arm waving for attention. Just a political chance to say “haha, your economy broke.” There just really isn’t any other reasonable alternative way for them to hold their reserves. They need dollars to clear international transactions, other currencies have at least as many problems, and the talk about using IMF SDRs doesn’t make any sense as they are not a currency, just a claim on other currencies. SDRs don’t do anything that you can’t do for yourself in forex markets. There is also some discussion of creating a new non-dollar international reserve currency, and I don’t think that makes much sense either. You’d still have to convert it to something to use it.
What this does show is an official grumpiness from other countries about the dominance of the dollar, and opens the window for people to imagine a non-America-dominated global financial system. But for now the structure of our global financial systems and institutions is pretty sticky and ingrained, and it really isn’t the time to be messing with them. Eventually though, these things will change. That’s always an easy bet to make.
Ok, that’s the world and the future as best as I can figure it out based on the news I’ve been reading.
I don’t think anyone else has any real idea exactly what the hell is going on either, and I have yet to read any thoughtful or convincing predictions about what to expect from it.
Of course, 5 or 10 years from now, once whatever the hell is going now has all played itself out, everybody is going to say that whatever came next was completely obvious to them all along. And I alone will be able to look back at this and prove that I never even had a clue.
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It’s important to tell people exactly what you can do for them.
A couple of times during my informal networking style job hunt I had meetings with people who were in a position to potentially hire me.
I got these meetings by putting myself out there, networking with as many businessy people as I could, making a big deal of my interest in business, telling everyone that I was looking for a project or opportunity to get involved with, and then following up by emailing them my resume. So when someone took enough interest/pity to meet with me, it was completely removed from the normal hiring process in which you are interviewing for a clearly defined position.
I would go and chat about their business, and share my various insights on the industry, talk about related articles I had read, and talk about other businesses I knew about in Hanoi. Then I would talk about myself a bit, tell them about my background and what I was looking for in Hanoi. Eventually, a point would always come in the meeting where they would take a break from the bullshit and flat out ask me “So, if we hire you, what are you going to do for us?”
I never knew what exactly to say to this. I usually explained that I had a variety of business skills, particularly relating to my experience in startups and my economics education, and that I was excited about any opportunities to use them. This never seemed to satisfy the question, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say. I figured that it’s their business and they should know what to do with new employees.
But they didn’t need any new employees, they were just nice and open minded enough to spend some time listening to some kid talk about himself, and I should have had an answer ready for them.
While they might have appreciated that I had an interesting mix of abstract skills, they were trying to imagine hiring me to run around their office doing something useful, something concrete, not just sitting around basking in the aura of my own potential.
I realized that one of the big reasons the boss at my new job was excited to hire me was not my experience with startups or my education in finance, but that I thought to say that I could also work on revamping the company’s English language website.
I’m not a web designer, and I don’t aspire to be one. I feel like writing copy and working on websites is a necessary part of any small business or new project. I don’t really think my web design skills amount to much more than your average nerdy teenager. I made the websites for my last two businesses, the advanced materials company and the art licensing company, and they came out ok. But I can always tell when a company has a site that was just thrown together by an employee instead of hiring a real marketing and design firm. There’s more to a site than just a name on the top and some sections with info.
Still, I don’t think any of that mattered to my new boss. What mattered is that he saw the clear chain of events; I hire this kid, and BOOM – better website, oh and he’ll also run around and do all sorts of smart stuff for the consulting division.
In the future, when looking for ‘informal’ positions, I’m going to make it as easy as possible for people to hire me. Before I meet with a company I will think of a few potential projects that I could work on for them right away. And as a complimentary long term strategy, I’ll build more skills that are instantly applicable, not just the theoretical stuff.
My girlfriend is currently taking a grant writing class and I think that’s a great example of the perfect sort of skill for this type of situation. She doesn’t want to be a grant writer any more than I want to be a web designer. But if I ran a non-profit or NGO, and I met someone who said they had experience in grant writing, and could come in and get right to work on a grant that might bring in some new funding, I would be a lot more excited to hire them for whatever the full time position that they actually wanted was.
What I want to do is leverage all the abstract skills that I just spent 5 years of college learning. I want to direct the macro level strategy of meaningful long term projects and ventures. But if making the occasional website is my foot-in-door opportunity to do that, then I’ll do it.
So here is the expanded version of my original point: It’s important to tell people exactly what you can do for them, to think of practical projects you can start on right away, even if they aren’t the part of the job that you’re most excited about doing. So you better build up some useful skills, otherwise, good luck convincing someone to hire you just to do the abstract stuff.
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I’ve been off the blog for a few weeks as I’ve been adjusting to working full time and finally finishing this business plan consulting project which has been eating up my free time.
So here’s an update:
After a lot of powerpointing we got our division approved. My two partners and I are now officially a strategic consulting team. We’re hiring four more people who will come in over the summer, and we have our work cut out for us.
We are stuck between a bit of a rock and a hard place. Large Vietnamese firms and international firms operating in Vietnam already have have a bunch of consultants from the big law firms, funds, and international consulting agencies running around. Plus, most of their staff have a lot more experience than we do. Small and medium sized Vietnamese firms on the other hand often don’t really understand what consulting is and whatever it is they don’t have much interest in paying for it.
This leaves us with a very narrow band of potential clients: up-and-coming mid sized Vietnamese firms that are hip to the idea of consulting and aspire to be a bit more up to international standards, but don’t really have the resources to pay for fancy real consultants and are willing to give a chance to a couple of white kids in their early 20s.
This all begs the question of “what exactly do we do anyway?”, and we’re still in the process of answering that for ourselves. From our point of view it’s basically anything we can get people to pay us for and actually do a good job on.
externally the answer is going to be something like:
“[Our division] works together with top management teams, boards, and investors to create the detailed analysis, long term strategies, and practical plans needed by firms to survive and to thrive in Vietnam. We provide external, objective advice offered from an independent perspective that successful firms rely on to help direct and validate their strategy.
Our international team brings the tools and best practices used by the world’s leading organizations to tackle the specific objectives of our clients. Then, by combining the resources of Thang Long Securities and Military Bank with our network of partners, we facilitate the implementation of these new plans, ensuring that they translate into real world results.”
What I wish we could just say is “Look, if your firm is having some sort of a problem that you’re not sure how to deal with, why not let us come in and take a crack at it? We’re relatively cheap, we’re smart, and we might have a different approach than you.”
Once we get good enough at making this argument we’ll have to deal with what happens when it actually works. It’s not that we’re useless, far from it, it’s just that most of our skills are very direct and analytical. We’re good at economics, which is to say that we’re good at running big sets of numbers through excel, pulling out some key ratios, running a a couple of regressions, and figuring out what causes what.
I’ve been doing the opposite kind of research lately. I’ve just been running around and meeting with everyone who will take the time to see me at funds, law firms, commercial organizations, and every company we have any sort of relationship with, and just having lunch with people and picking their brains about business in Vietnam.
What I’m figuring out about Vietnam is that solid, reliable data to analyze and to base your decisions on is very hard to come by. Because of this, and just because of the culture, a lot of decision making is very informal. Deals get made because of who knows who and on the whims of whoever owns the company
What I’m learning is that while in a place like Vietnam, because there aren’t as many qualified people, it’s more easy to jump right into doing something at a high level. The counterbalance to that is because there is so much informality it takes a really long time to actually figure out what’s going on and how to get things done.
All of the macroeconomic reports and estimates these days are guessing that Vietnam will snap out of its economic funk around the end of 2009, which should also be right about when we can expect to really get this consulting thing off the ground, and right about when I expect to really get a good sense of how to operate in this environment.
The end of 2009 is also about the very latest possible time that I plan to be leaving Vietnam.
Still, by that time I probably will have learned a lot about informal and intuitive information gathering and how to navigate through subtle social and political constructs to get stuff done as an outsider.
I figure that will be a valuable skill set when doing business back in the developed world where everyone else is just running the numbers.
Hopefully. Or maybe I’ll just get fat.
Until then, here’s a sneak preview of Vietnam’s hottest new strategic consulting team:
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- Smart and hot. Makes me wish I were a mid size firm in need of consulting.
Vietnam completely shuts down for the week of lunar New Year (we usually call it Chinese new year, the Vietnamese call it “Tet”). Everyone gets the week off to go visit their families. All shops close, all commerce stops, the streets are empty. So a friend and I went on a quick trip over to Thailand.
At some point we visited a small city called Chanthaburi in Eastern Thailand near the Cambodian Border. The city is famous for gem trading. The streets are lined with gem shops and are normally filled people haggling and looking through magnifying glasses, except during lunar New Year. Here again, most stuff was closed. Which suited me fine, I was just happy to be away from the noise and chaos of Hanoi.
So what was everybody in Chanthaburi doing instead of trading gems? They were at the local festival, sticking gold stickers on monk statues and watching matches of my new favorite obscure Thai sport: Sepak Takraw.
The game is basically volleyball, except you can only use your feet, and half the time you’re doing crazy back flips.
So far the story all makes sense right?
Well, except for one thing. All their jerseys have big AIG logos on the front.
AIG, or the American International Group, is a huge American corporate insurance company that also deals in financial services, telecommunications, ports, and aircraft leasing. They’ve been in the news a lot in the last few years over a big fraud scandal in 2005, and as one of the major financial bailouts last summer.
It’s not uncommon to see international brands in developing countries. Coca Cola and Pepsi have managed to get their logo absolutely everywhere. It seems like they must do this by subsidizing or fully sponsoring the manufacture of signs for restaurants and shops, and including free signs and placards with their deliveries. This would be pretty easy for them as Coca Cola and Pepsi have vast networks local bottling and distributing companies that they work with.
And it makes sense that Coca Cola and Pepsi want to build an international brand, especially in emerging markets.
But did a bunch of local Sepak Takraw players in an obscure Thai city end up with AIG logos on their custom team jerseys? I can only imagine two possible explanations:
One explanation is that AIG actually had such a large scale and long term global strategy that they thought it was important to really really get their brand out there into every corner of the earth. I doubt anybody at this local Thai lunar New Year festival had any business purchasing insurance or renting jumbo jets from giant American corporations.
The other explanation is that maybe AIG has been sponsoring major sports teams internationally, as many big global corporations do, and that the local business that prints up the jerseys for the Sepak Takraw teams figured they wouldn’t look legit unless they had some corporate logo action going on – in which case AIG is getting free advertising.
I wish I had thought to ask them about it. Either way it’s pretty silly.
Followup1: Googling “Sepak Takraw AIG” came up with a bunch of references to AIG: the Asian Indoor Games, which is the big annual tournament for Sepak Takraw. I guess that this suggests a variation on the second theory: the AIG logo was borrowed because their stupid three letter acronym (TLA) has a separate special meaning in this context. Ha!
Followup2: Upon re-reading my post I realize it sounds somewhat condescending and ethnocentric: “These naïve villagers couldn’t possibly understand the meaning of this American brand, how quaint, har har har!”. I should explain that the copying and misuse of brands is everywhere here and you can’t help but wonder about the stories behind it sometimes. Yesterday I got a ride from someone who’s motorbike seat said Dolce and Gabana all over it. Thailand is a major business center and I’m sure lots of people know what AIG is, but there’s still something a little off about the AIG brand showing up on sepak takraw jerseys.
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So it worked.
I finally got a job.
I am the new co-director of a currently non-existent strategic consulting division at a major Vietnamese finance firm. I have a desk, my own phone extension, a new bank account with Military Bank, an extended work visa, and one week to finish a presentation of my initial financial and strategic analysis of 3 publicly traded Vietnamese companies and a plan for how to build this new department.
I got the position thanks to the help of two friends I have here (in addition to taking the time to send the company my resume, put on my suit, and come in to meet the boss). So I got it through networking, although not really the kind I was writing about. Rather it seems to have come about totally independently of most of this running around I’ve been doing. More so just the normal kind of networking where you naturally hang out with people similar to you.
It seems like luck. I happened to meet two American guys my age, with similar tastes, preferences, and tendency towards furious nerdy argument, that live about two blocks from me, and were just put in charge of hiring some fresh meat for special projects at their finance firm. But I guess getting lucky sooner or later was the plan all along.
So now the three of us are building a plan to create a division that has to overcome a lot of challenges. First and foremost it would have to be able to offer genuine, insightful, useful, and practical advice to Vietnamese corporations. This means that we will have to have better insight into the markets, competitive dynamics, competencies, and potential for these firms than the people running them do. Then the real hard part is going to be convincing the firms to pay us to do it.
It would also have to be accepted within the complexities of interdepartmental firm politics; not taking business or power away from anyone else.
Our only tools are PowerPoint, Google, a Bloomberg terminal, our education, and our wits.
We present our analysis and our plan on Monday. If we succeed the new department we create will be our jobs. We’re bargaining to get our own office space upstairs and we might even bring in our own interns.
For me it’s really the perfect job. It will be my duty to spend all day thinking really hard about strategies I think businesses should peruse, and then to design and present them. It’s like making a cat the chief officer of finding sunny places to nap.
There’s a sad irony to all of this though. This should be triumphant success of my experiment in entrepreneurial travel which I’ve chronicled in this blog. All this time I’ve been worrying about my suit, my business cards, my resume, and my contacts, running around, trying to find an opportunity like this. Finally I do, and after just two days of working (8 to 6 today) I feel as though everything is already changing.
I feel like my weekdays, amounting to five sevenths of my life, will simply disappear to another universe; a surreal looping indoor universe of wake, commute, work, food, sleep, repeat, occasionally interrupted by menial errands.
I worry that I won’t have the free time or extra energy to devote to my writing, my photography, or my health. I’m really scared that I might not be able to put in all the time I have been into keeping up my relationships with my family, my friends, and my girlfriend. Maybe those were all just the temporary luxuries of unemployment.
I feel like such a baby. Wah wah, I have a job. I can’t keep sleeping until noon, exploring temples all day, and playing on my laptop all night like I have been for months. Poor me. On the one hand I got exactly what I wanted. On the other I feel like I’ve fallen right into the life that I came out here to escape. (the third hand is holding a duck)
I guess it’s all relative. I’m incredibly lucky and thankful to have the opportunities that I’ve had, and it’s certainly not an appropriate time to complain about having a job, especially in finance. And maybe the simple sadness of growing older is seeing your life turn from an imagined spectrum of possibilities to one single path.
I could write more about it but I have to go to sleep. I’m tired and I have work in the morning.
I’ve always been a snob
When I was younger I proudly displayed my Stanley Kubrick box set and insisted that I watched “films”, not “movies”. I made an effort to seek out local underground artists in my quest to become a connoisseur of “Hip Hop” while snubbing my peers for listening to “Rap”. In college I loved to take my friends to a particular restaurant in Santa Barbara that I was convinced made “traditional” Japanese food, and forbid them from ordering sushi. In short, I practice a level of snobbery that borders on just simply being a jerk.
In this same infantile spirit, I have during my trips abroad developed a conceptual distinction between “tourists” and “travelers”.
Oh how I loathe tourists! Loud fat sunburned families pouring out of air conditioned busses, with their fanny packs and money belts, clutching their video cameras, frantically waving their guidebooks and yelling at people in English about their free buffet.
Travelers are a different species entirely. To be a traveler is to calmly walk the earth, lightly packed, living off of a few dollars a day, blending in, easily befriending locals, playing with children, petting puppies, and finding remote hilltops to watch the sunset.
This distinction is of course completely absurd.
I learned an important lesson a few years ago on a trip to Venezuela. A friend and I took an overnight bus to a town called Mérida up in the Andes Mountains, and spent about a week just sort of walking around. Our experience of the place was limited to sidewalks, bars, cafes, restaurants, and small parks. Our interaction with other people rarely went beyond ordering our food. Still, we were proud of ourselves for being “travelers”.
Eventually we got bored and our willpower wavered. We gave in and signed up for a white water rafting tour. It was tons of fun and we finally had people to talk to besides each other. Ironically it was also a more “authentic” experience. We got to stay at their camp way outside of the city, they had a local cook that made fantastic home style Venezuelan food, and the staff was able to clear up a lot of questions that had been confusing us about Venezuela.
For example everywhere we went we saw “Si” and “No” spray painted on trees, walls, rocks, mailboxes, everything. We couldn’t figure out for the life of us why some trees would be yes and others would be no. They explained to us that this was how political activism worked in Venezuela and there had recently been another Chavez election. The “Si”s and “No”s were saying yes or no to re-electing Chavez, the local equivalent of lawn signs and bumper stickers. It would have been a thorn in my mind to leave Venezuela without knowing why, and the people in the tourism company could tell us a lot more about the place than we would ever learn by just walking around.
Being back in Vietnam I’m again faced with the challenge of not being a tourist, except with a twist. I’ve discovered a new level, above traveler, in the hierarchy. Now the struggle is to be respected as an expat. An expat, short for expatriate, simply means someone that has left their home country and moved somewhere else. A human export.
In Hanoi the term is used to refer to the community of English teachers, business folk, NGO workers, volunteers, and other whities. There is a distinct expat scene and the expats make great effort to distinguish themselves from the tourists. You will never see an expat walking around in short cargo pants, tiger beer shirt, and diagonal strapped backpack, taking a picture of a street vendor. They make a point of dressing up when they go out, constantly checking their cell phones, and always being “a regular” at the places they eat, drink, and shop. This is my peer group now here in Vietnam.
Unlike the other expats though I’m not yet working full time, and by their standards I’ve only very recently arrived. I’m not ready to resign myself to the life of work, errands, and happy hour that I came to Vietnam to escape. I still want to go adventuring.
The challenge is how to adventure without being a tourist.
My solution when I start to get sick of the city has been to get one my regular motorbike drivers to take me on a…. uh… tour outside Hanoi. I have a map of the Hanoi area that has pagodas and temples marked on it, so what I’ve been doing is just pointing at a pagoda or temple and heading off for the day. I have no particular interest in Vietnamese religious sites but I figure that they tend to be situated either in the old parts of their towns or in interesting natural areas. Besides, I can’t easily communicate any other destinations.
So I’ve gone on four trips in this manner so far. Three around Hanoi and one on Phu Quoc, an island in the south of Vietnam off of the coast of Cambodia that I visited for the holidays. These are some of the photos from around Hanoi with my motorbike guy Da:
As you can see I mostly visited a bunch of temples. I was hoping to see more countryside and little old towns. The area around Hanoi is pretty bleak. largely it’s just industrial with tons of new freeway construction. The towns were primarily just simple homes and rickety little businesses built in the same concrete block style as everything else. Also all the fields were destroyed in a recent wave of massive flooding.
An unexpected bonus was that the temples are often built on craggy rocks that have natural caves that you can explore. They build little shrines inside the caves and light incense which makes for a surreal atmosphere.
In Phu Quoc my experience was a bit different.
The island is a big tourist destination, mostly for Germans and Russians. So I never really got the feeling that I was “off the beaten path”. The upside was that being on an island, or perhaps just because of the whims of my motorbike guy, we saw a much greater variation of stuff than I had around Hanoi. The drive itself was also much more scenic.
Again we went to a temple on a hilltop (this one was covered in swastikas which is always feels a bit weird to me). We also had lunch on a beach with very fine white sand which was almost like baking soda, saw a weird park with an alligator pond, visited a little fishing village, and had some overpriced beers at a creepy karaoke bar.
Then something really cool happened.
There is a “Holy Grail” in the version of reality that exists in the minds of tourists, and I found it. It is being invited to a local home for a traditional dinner. For whatever reason it is considered to be the most “authentic” experience one can have.
There are tour companies that offer this as part of their trips, but it’s just not the same to have dinner in a house that gets paid to host a van load of tourists every other day of the week. My motorbike guy liked me enough though to invite me to join him for some dinner and meet his wife and kids.
He lived in a ramshackle little dwelling. It consisted of three rooms and a tiny outside area nestled in with a bunch of other similar buildings. It had one dinky little power cord strung in from the street that powered a fluorescent tube in the entry/living room.
We had picked up two kilos of scallops from a street vendor and grilled them on top of a coal fire in a bucket. On each one we plopped a spoonful of sauce made out of oil, green onions, garlic, salt, and then we heaped on some ground up peanuts.
Having had some time to reflect on it I think the key to good tourism, traveling, whatever, is to mix it up. Tour companies are often run by local expats with a real love of the place. They are an easy way to see the sites and make some friends. Going off on your own can be lonely and confusing, but you’re a lot more likely to have a unique experience. Plus you get to feel like a “traveler”.
I have a friend who has always been excellent at expressing complex ideas clearly. He has a background in business and politics, loves to argue about history and philosophy, and at the time I knew him he was writing the dissertation for his doctorate in ethnomusicology. A really out there guy, but smart as hell.
When he moved away to Finland (where else?) I inherited from him a book about writing which he highly recommended. The book is called Style: towards clarity and grace, written by Joseph Williams and Gregory Colomb.
I’ve been carrying it around since then, for about 2 years, meaning to read it.
I finally started and it’s fantastic.
The authors explain their theory on how we experience writing and what sorts of problems cause writing to seem awkward, confusing, and unclear (or as they really like to say, turgid).
They show many subtly different ways of writing similar things and explain why some express the idea more clearly than others. They also suggest different methods for improving your writing.
A funny part of the book is in the introduction where the authors quote many previous authors that have also written about clarity. Ironically, these quotes aren’t clear at all. This shows the real difficulty in actually writing clearly, even when you’re really trying.
“The utterance of a gentleman ought to be deliberate and clear, without being measured… Simplicity should be the firm aim, after one is removed from vulgarity, and let the finer shades of accomplishment be acquired as they can be attained. In no case, however, can one who aims at turgid language, exaggerated sentiments, or pedantic utterances, lay claim to be either a man or a woman of the world. “ – James Fenimore Cooper, The American Democrat, 1838
Orwell couldn’t pull it off either:
“The keynote [of such a style] is the elimination of simple verbs. Instead of being a single word, such as break, stop, spoil, mend, kill, a verb becomes a phrase, made up of a noun or adjective tacked on to some general-purposes verb such as prove, serve, form, play, render. In addition, the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active, and noun constructions are used instead of gerunds (by examination instead of be examining). The range of verbs is further cut down by means of the –ize and de- formations, and the banal statements are given an appearance of profundity by means of the not un-formation.” – George Orwell from his essay “Politics and the English Language”
Even the authors of this book get caught in some serious sillyness:
“Finally, some of us write badly not because we intend to or because we never learned how, but because occasionally we seem to experience transient episodes of stylistic aphasia.”
For me it was watching Obama’s inauguration speech that really solidified my current excitement about the power of clear communication. He uses all the ideas presented in this book very naturally in his speeches.
The authors start with simple sentence level issues such as expressing actions and conditions in specific verbs, adverbs or adjectives. So instead of saying “The intention of the committee is the improvement of morale.”, it would be clearer to write “The committee intends to improve morale.”. Rather than making strong rules against things like passives and nominalizations, they explain why these structures exist and when they are appropriate to use.
The book then moves on to worrying about where ideas appear within a sentence and how this placement links sentences together. The authors continue to expand the scope of their concepts until they are discussing where in paragraphs to introduce new ideas and how to build on them, and finally how to structure whole arguments and papers.
The focus is mostly on the writing of complex or technical prose. So while I started reading the book with the hope that it would help me in writing this blog, I find it’s actually helping much more in my ongoing work revising the business plan for the health communications company that I’m consulting for.
Here is an example sentence from the business plan I’m editing:
“In the near future (within the next 2-3 years), CCRD will continue to mainly source for contracts from programs managed by the GOV and international donors the scope and clienteles, and thus, the market share of CCRD will be expanded as a result of capacity building and increased experiences which will contribute to CCRD’s improved reputation and recognition as an unique health/development strategic communication expertise; And its gradually entry into new markets, i.e.:” [followed by a list of markets]
This is my best attempt at fixing it.
“CCRD’s success in expanding capacity and increasing experience have improved its reputation as a dependable source for health and development communication expertise in Vietnam. Because of this, CCRD has seen an increase in both its market share and the scope of its clients.
In the near future (the next 2-3 years), CCRD will continue to mainly source contracts from programs managed by the Government of Vietnam and international donors, while also beginning to gradually expand into new markets, including: “
The real hard part is going to be when I have to boil 50 pages of that into a clear, convincing, and professional 8 page executive summary.
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I recently used up the last of my batch of 100 business cards.
People here love trading business cards, especially at these conferences. I’ve been handing the things to everyone I meet. (I could say that I’ve been handing them out like hotcakes, but when’s the last time someone handed you a hot cake?)
So far I’ve gotten three work opportunities.
For those of you keeping score at home that’s a hit rate of 3%.
The one I’m most excited about is a possible position at a French architecture firm as a “green building project manager”.
For all the businessy events I’ve gone to lately I actually ended up with this just by chatting with one of the regulars at Derry’s, the bar nearest to where I’m staying, after popping in for a late meal on a Sunday night.
He’s working as an architect here in Hanoi so we started talking about the green building conference I had recently been to. I also mentioned that I briefly studied in an architecture program at Cal Poly and have kept up on news relating to green and modular building ever since.
When I told him that I was looking for work here in Hanoi he said there might have an opening for me at his firm. My job would be to research different methods of green building and put together presentations for clients on why they should bother.
Right now I’m holding my breath waiting for the boss to come back from vacation to have a real interview.
Another recipient of one of the three lucky cards was a partner in a new hotel management company. I arranged to meet with him and the company’s founder. They asked me about my experience with marketing and I told them about my various marketing classes and my marketing experience in my previous businesses and jobs. They said they might want to hire me, starting at $1000 a month full time, to do various marketing projects for them.
To test me out they gave me a bunch of convoluted fact sheets, brochures, and other copy about their hotels that needed to be translated from nonsense English into regular English. They also accepted my offer to make a quick simple website for them, as they don’t have one yet. All free of charge.
So I spent a few long nights re-engineering passages like this:
“Tan Da Resort is created by the peaceful atmospheres & harmony, that you find similarities between Human & Nature. The green air outside is created from bamboo & natures breath, while setting is simple furniture but modelled with the combination of wood & Vietnamese bamboo to refresh your life and get away from the work pressure.”
I also put together this simple website entirely out of content I pulled from a PowerPoint stack they forwarded me.
They responded by saying they were very dissatisfied with the website and without thanking me for the copy editing. They can keep their stupid $1000 a month job. I don’t want to do marketing anyway.
The third opportunity came as a follow-up from the bike trip photography I did. One of the participants I spoke with works in a local NGO that specializes in health communications. I had told him about my experience with business plans. It turns out his organization is in the process of finishing a business plan to present to their primary donor for their next round of funding. They didn’t have any experience with business plans and needed some help.
I finally got to put on my new suit and meet with them to discuss their progress. They decided to pay me a consulting fee to help get the plan presentation ready. This is actually something I am very qualified to do. We studied business plans extensively in my Technology Management Program at UCSB and I co-authored the business plan for my previous company, Nitride Solutions, through countless versions and revisions and presented it to investors.
This project is a huge milestone for me. For starters I am thrilled that someone is taking the title of “Business Development Consulting” displayed on my business card seriously (especially considering that I sort of just made it up on the spot).
More importantly though is that I am getting paid for work that I literally did on my laptop while sitting on the beach watching the sunset. I’m charging $25 an hour consulting fee x 40 hours of work, so while this doesn’t get me much closer to financial sustainability, it does somewhat justify my fantasy about earning money by applying my business skills abroad.
3 Comments »
- Hey David, glad to know about your business plan consultation and best wishes for your architecture company opportunity. How these opportunities came to you also seems very interesting to me – in a bar and through a bike trip! Well, chance does favor the prepared mind.
Comment by Ashish — January 2, 2009 @ Friday, January 2, 2009
- Compared to the vendors that you interviewed, you are making hella pho fella! So congratulations, way to bring home the giant tortillas.
Comment by tover — January 5, 2009 @ Monday, January 5, 2009
- Man, that H&K site and their response are an absolutely hilarious combination. The amount of effort you put into it was likely completely lost on them. But also, as per your title on the card, it’s not advisable to give anything away for free.
If Adam Smith were alive today Vietnam would be for him what the Galapagos were for Darwin.
The ideas of specialization and exchange of labor are completely pervasive here. Tiny businesses pour out of every nook and alley. People set up 3 stool restaurants on the sidewalk. Most barber shops are just a mirror hung from a tree and a chair, and you can even pay to have your ears cleaned while you drink your beer at the park by someone carrying what looks like a lock pick set of tiny ear-goop-scoopers.
You can even buy Buddha off the back of a motorbike.
Having studied business for the last 5 years I can’t help be be incredibly curious about how much money each of these businesses make, why each person ended up selling their particular product or service, and how they compete with each other.
So I asked a local Vietnamese friend of mine to come out for the afternoon with me and help me to interview some of these street entrepreneurs. I asked them how long they have been selling their product, why they chose that product, how much money they make per day, what their prices and profit margins are, and how business has been lately.
I converted the currency at rate of 17,000 Vietnamese Dong per US Dollar. I also adjusted their daily income based on US purchasing power using Purchasing Power Parity rate of 2.6 from the IMF (PPP adjusted GDP divided by Nominal GDP). You can ignore this if your not into economics, it’s just to give you a better idea of of how much stuff you could actually buy with that amount of money in Vietnam. Although keep in mind that food can be especially cheap in Vietnam so even $2 a day is enough to feed one person if you’re buying ingredients at local markets and cooking them at home in family portions.
We first spoke with 3 bike or basket style street vendors on my street.
Tin Stuff Seller: has two shoulder baskets filled with pots and teapots made of tin
- Time selling tin stuff: 10 years
- Why tin stuff: She likes it and they make it near her town, although she buys it from a reseller not directly from the maker.
- Daily net income: $1.75 US or $4.50 in purchasing power, although she complained that some days she makes as little as $0.47/$1.22ppp.
- Cost, Price, Profit for a tin pot: $1.18, $1.29, $0.11
- Business lately: Difficult. She says it’s very easy for people to buy this stuff from many stores in town.
Sandal Seller: has a rolling cart filled with colorful pairs of plastic sandals
- Time selling sandals: 5-6 years
- Why sandals: The sandal factory is in her village so everyone from there sells sandals.
- Daily net income: $2.64 US, or $6.88 in purchasing power.
- Cost, Price, Profit: $0.52, $0.61, $0.09
- Business lately: hasn’t been good, she had only sold 4 pairs so far that day. (at about 1pm)
Giant Rice Cracker Seller: two big plastic bags of stacks of tortilla like rice crackers
- Time selling giant rice crackers: 2 years
- Why giant rice crackers: Normally she works on a farm, but this is the off season and she has lots of free time. She also buys them from a reseller.
- Daily net income: $1.50 / $3.80ppp.
- Cost, Price, Profit: $0.18, $0.29, $0.11
- Business lately, slow because the weather has been hot, people buy more when it’s cold.
Next I went to the pho (Vietnamese rice noodle soup) place next door to me.
- Time selling pho: 15 years for the woman and her husband who currently run the place, and her parents ran it for 20 years before that. 35 total.
- Why sell pho: family tradition
- Net Income (whole business): $60 per day, $1,800 per month
- Employee pay: $76 per month / $200ppp (x 8 employees)
- Rent: $600 per month
- Owner Profit: $564 per month /$1,468ppp
- Business lately: good
Finally we headed over to the more touristy old quarter of town and interviewed a few microbusinesses there.
Alley shop: sells drinks, cigarettes, and handicrafts
- Time running the alley shop: Her mother has been running it for 10 years, she’s just watching over it for the day while her mom is out.
- Daily net income: $5 /$12ppp
- Free rent because they live in the building down the alley. She buys most of her stuff off of other vendors and her husband makes the carved stone handicrafts.
- Most of her customers are Vietnamese but she gets a lot of tourists too.
- Water Bottle Cost, Price, Profit: $0.20, $0.35, $0.15
- Business lately: fine
Tea and Beer guy: has a little stoop set up at the entrance to a small alley (declined having his photo taken)
- How Long: 20 years, since his retirement
- Daily net income: $3 /$7.65ppp
- Why: he’s retired and likes sitting out on the street and selling tea to his neighbors. He used to be a general accountant for the Hanoi Energy Ministry.
- He makes most of his money from tea, which he sells for about $0.18 and is practically free for him to make.
- He also sells packs of cigarettes; cost, price, profit: $0.55, $0.60, $0.05
- Business Lately: Good, he has a lot of regular daily customers.
Paintings Shop: a small gallery that sells reproduction and custom paintings, mostly to tourists
- How Long: Current owners have been running the shop for one year, they bought it from the previous owners along with the entire building. They live above the shop.
- Why Paintings: There are a lot of other painting shops on the street, it’s a good tourist area, and it already was a painting shop. They took a 6 month training course from an experienced ‘master’ painter before they started.
- Business Net Income: $1000 monthly
- Salary per painter: $60 monthly /$152ppp
- They sell about 6 paintings a week for $30-50 depending on size and difficulty, their costs are negligible.
Shoe Repair Guy: sits on a stool on the corner in front of his house fixing shoes
- How long: He’s been doing this for the five years since he’s retired.
- Why shoe repair: he lives on the end of a street of shoe stores and there are other shoe repair guys also set up here. He also explained that he used to work as a welder which was very hard and dangerous, he finds shoe repair very peaceful comparatively.
- Daily net income: $9 /$22.50ppp
- His costs are negligible but the initial investment for his tools and grinder was about $60.
- He gets about 10-15 customers per day that pay between $0.50 and $5.00 depending on the kind of repair.
I’ve made a few realizations about these businesses: They survive in part because an incredible capacity for idleness. A lot of these people live in their families’ home and really exist in a world without bills and other overhead expenses that need to be supported by a full time job. If it’s not their role to support a family they can really afford to just bring in a little bit of money once in a while.
They also don’t directly compete with each other on price, quality, or the variety or novelty of their goods and services. They don’t even compete geographically. You can find long streets of nothing but stores that all sell identical brown shoes (or light bulbs, or mannequins). They rely on social networks and loyalty for their marketing. People buy from vendors that they have family or social connections to, and they stay very loyal to one vendor. Everyone has their particular guy for everything.
Originally I was disappointed that the Muhammad Yunnus model of micro-finance hadn’t caught on here in Vietnam. Now I realize that it already exists here and it always has. They just don’t need any smarty-pants outside economists to come here and set up a financial structure for making small loans to individual and family ventures. Vietnamese already do this very efficiently within their family and social networks.
Culturally and sociologically this is a fantastic part of the urban world. Everyone knows everyone else on their block. Hugely complex and intertwining social networks keep order in the city. And people who would otherwise be left out of the economy get to participate, especially the elderly.
I think the US could benefit a lot if people could run businesses out of their homes, especially in poor dense urban environments. I imagine you might not have as much violence on the streets if they were filled with grandmothers selling soup and people repairing bicycles and kids running around buying eggs from their neighbors.
On the other hand none of these businesses probably pay taxes, follow any particular health code or minimum wage, or are legally liable. This works here though because they are socially liable to their families and neighborhoods. I’m not sure if it would in the US.
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In a previous post I talked about my quest to get a proper suit. I decided to take the time and get a suit custom tailored.
Unfortunately the tailor I wanted was unavailable, so I thought I would get another cheaper suit made of a lighter material to hold me over and to wear on hot days.
Then silliness struck; once I had just been fitted for interim suit my first choice tailor became available after all. So I ended up getting two suits made simultaneously for me by two different tailors.
I didn’t tell them about each other.
Nguyen was the first tailor. He and his wife run a small tailor shop that I found listed on an expat info website I use (the New Hanoian). I had it made out of a lightweight grey cotton acrylic kind of fabric that I chose from the fabrics he had in the store. I also emailed him some photos of the style of suit I prefer.
Linh was the tailor that came highly recommended to me. She has a side company that makes cleverly branded, high end, natural, handmade soaps in small batches for export to fancy hotels in the US and Europe.
Linh first met me to talk about what kind of suit I wanted: two button, single vented, and slim fitting, with narrow notched lapels and the jacket cut high. Two days later we went together to the fabric market to pick out the fabric for the suit. I chose a black wool and cotton blend, and a blue paisley for the lining.
Here’s how they turned out:
The black suit on the left came out really well. It feels heavy and warm, and is the right combination of soft and firm. It fits well and it’s cut how I wanted. Combined fabric and tailoring cost $250.
The Grey suit on right came out ok. It fits fine, though the jacket is a bit longer than I wanted, and the fabric feels a bit stiff and thin. It also feels a but frumpy, almost like wearing a suit that’s a prop in a play. It is still tailor made, so it’s serviceable. It only cost $85.
What I didn’t realize is that this whole business confrence scene that I’ve been hanging around doesn’t really exist near the holidays. Now I have to wait for the first good opportunity to try them out. Also I need a tie.
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I went to another conference last week. This one was my favorite so far. It was hosted by the Vietnam Green Building Council on the topic of Green Building in Vietnam. They brought in some really good speakers from Singapore and India. I learned a lot about the cost/benefit of different levels of green building and a lot about the real specifics of the planning and building process. There was also really interesting discussion about the role of green building certification and even some analysis of developer incentive. There was even a really detailed lecture on exactly how air conditioners work and how to make them more efficient.
What also made it good was the crowd. Everybody there was either a serious industry expert, an active member of a relevant NGO, or a representative of a company somehow involved in green building. Again there were awesome real time translation headphones and great free food.
There was also this wonderfully unnecessary powerpoint slide:
I met a few really interesting people, including a partner from a Venture Capital firm that was starting a clean tech fund. That was very exciting for me as it’s a perfect match for my background. I pitched to a couple of clean tech VCs when I was working for Nitride Solutions and really learned a lot about the venture capital process from my technology entrepreneurship program at UCSB. I emailed him my resume. He responded today that they’ve filled up all the positions for their clean tech fund. I emailed back making the case to make a spot for me, even if only as intern or research assistant or something else entry-level. I don’t have high hopes though.
I am starting to feel conflicted. So far I have been very picky about who I actually send my resume to. For starters I don’t want to get a reputation in the small business community here as being the guy who sends everyone his resume. More importantly though is the first job I take here is really going to set the tone for my whole career. I would much rather start out in venture capital, or micro-financing, carbon credit trading or something else interesting like the wine importing company I applied to. I’m afraid to do something bland might really stick with me and put me down a boring career path.
Next time I look for a job I don’t want to have on my resume that I spent the last two years exporting low grade galvanized steel because that will make to make the case for doing something cool even harder. At this point I’m still a blank canvas.
On the other hand I’ve been here over a month now and I haven’t made any real progress in finding an actual job or project. I’m starting to get tempted to just go the traditional route and spam my resume to every company I find.
Doing that would call into question my most basic assumption of what I’m doing here: the idea that if you can put yourself out there in the business world, actively network, and make an effort to impress people you meet, you can get on the inside track to a good job several rungs up the career ladder from what you would get just responding to employment ads.
Perhaps it is still a good idea, but I’m just not very good at it. Maybe I don’t make a good first impression. There is always that evil little demon that lives in our heads that causes us to talk to most about what we know the least about. At the time we think we are cleverly implying a greater underlying knowledge but in reality we probably just come off looking like idiots. Maybe mentioning that I’m looking for work so early when I meet people is a turn off.
I could blame it on the economic crisis, but I think that’s a cheap excuse. Sure companies are cutting costs, but life still goes on. Besides, I haven’t met anyone else out here trying to do what I’m doing, so there really only needs to be one opening somewhere for what I’m doing to work.
Oh well. I’ll keep at it for now. If nothing comes up by mid janurary I’ll have to change strategy.
I saw a post on the NewHanoian the other day looking for models for a shoot of new tours by a tourism company. In exchange for modeling you get a free tour. It sounded cool so I called the guy in charge and told him I’d like to participate.
He was doing a bunch of different tours, unfortunately I could only make it to one heading out to a traditional pottery village outside of Hanoi.
The van had to wait for me to catch up from investment outlook lecture thing I had attended that morning. There were three of us “models” and three people from the tourism company. The other two models were a really nice guy from San Diego who was studying in Vietnam and a girl I was actually already friends with who’s working here as a German teacher.
We all went into a little pottery workshop they knew and they carefully positioned me in front of a ovoid lump of clay on a makeshift pottery wheel. I proceeded to mangle the lump into something like an misshapen oversized ashtray while they took some pictures. I think it became apparent pretty early on that I wasn’t a very good model for this task. They figured out instead to take the San Diego guy and put him in front of an already made vase and just have him pretend like he was putting the finishing touches on it. Later we went back to Hanoi to eat some street food back and take photos of that.
I had my camera with me and figured I could help out by taking a few pictures. I got a couple of decent ones. I also had a flash with me which I lent to the photographer as the pottery studio was somewhat dark. Later in the evening we used my camera for the street food shots as it had a low light advantage. Normally I wouldn’t butt in when a professional photographer is working but they were just using their head sales guy as an interim photographer and he appreciated the help.
The next day I ran into the head tour company guy at a coffee shop near my place. We talked for a while and I told him to give me a call if he ever wants a photographer. He gave me a call the next day and said he needed a photographer for a shoot involving a couple going to the flower market and buying flowers, and then sitting by the lake together with the flowers. So we called up the german girl again, and found a new guy from Colorado to join us, and went off early Monday morning to the lake and the flower market.
The tour company guy had written out these very detailed descriptions and diagrams of the exact shots he wanted. He basically wanted a lovely couple, romantically buying daisies from a bike vendor and then sitting by the lake on a bench holding the daisies with the girl resting her head on the guys shoulder. Plus a lot of holding hands and gazing lovingly into each others eyes. It was all for a honeymooner tour of some sort.
The shoot didn’t go so well. The models were awkward in general and extremely uncomfortable acting like a couple. The age gap is pretty obvious. I know as a photographer a big part of my job is supposed to be making people feel good in front of the camera but I can only do so much (and I’ve never been good at it anyway).
Also these imagined scenes weren’t working out in reality. We weren’t on the right side of the lake to get a bench with a silhouette of a tree next to it and a view of the pagoda. The foreground was very dark and it was tough to get it exposed and still be able to see the pagoda. Once we got to the flower market they weren’t selling daisies. Then the only bike vendor we could find had a huge bucket of big green plants strapped permanently to her bike making it really hard to compose the scene.
On top of all that I forgot to bring my portrait lens to Vietnam so I had to shoot everything in wide angel which really wasn’t appropriate for the lake shots. Ideally I would have had a telephoto lens so I could compress the distance between the subjects and the pagoda, and some sort of a wireless flash and bouncer to correct for the lighting.
I’m not even getting paid for this. The hope was that if I do a good job that he can hire me for bigger projects and recommend me to friends in the industry. I would say I did an ok job.
The dream is that eventually I could get paid well to go on tours as a photographer. I think I still need some more experience and certainly some more equipment before I reach that level. This is a start at least.
I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing here in Hanoi 10 years ago. The internet is really what’s made it possible for me. I’ve learned about these business conferences I’ve been going to from local Vietnam business news and organization websites, like the website for the US chamber of commerce in Hanoi. There are also Hanoi groups on both Facebook.com and CouchSurfing.com. I’ve met up with people from both sites, expats and local Vietnamese, and made some friends.
Most helpful though has been a site called the New Hanoian (http://newhanoian.com). This is a local expat information site. People go on this site and exchange reviews and advice about how to do and where to get almost everything.
The site has a fantastic built in google map feature with all the local streets manually added in, so that when you look up any business or event it shows you the location. This sounds normal enough, but in Hanoi this is a big deal as streets are tiny and winding and the names change every two blocks. Because of how useful the site is, and how helpful and nice its’ community is, it has become very popular for planning and promoting events. It’s great for me because the people and organizations that plan the events have profiles on the site it’s very easy to get in contact with the afterward. Plus the site has internal groups that plan their own events. There’s a photographers BBQ coming up that I’m pretty excited about.
I tried to start a website like this back in my freshman year of college. It was supposed to have reviews of local music venues, listings of local music events, and a message board for people to talk and plan things out together. I imagined that this site would foster a really interesting online community that would spill over into real life and actually facilitate the independent music scene in Santa Barbara.
It was a very short lived project. I never really got around to reviewing all the venues. When I tried to get my friends to talk to each other on the message board I ran into a chicken and egg problem. With a blank message board people didn’t know what to post. There weren’t any conversations going on to show what the message board was for. Also, there was no real incentive to go back and check up on your post and read responses on such a sparsely trafficked website.Worse still was that I wasn’t even part of the music scene in Santa Barbara, neither were my friends. I just wanted to make a website and feel important.
In the end the real thing that killed the site was simply that people just didn’t need it. There wasn’t much of a live music scene in town. Most people just went to dance clubs, bars and house parties. What small music scene there was got by just fine promoting on myspace, facebook, and putting up fliers at coffee shops.
After a month I shut the thing down. I felt pretty silly about it for a while. In retrospect it was a great learning experience. Since then I’ve literally had over a dozen friends and acquaintances ask me for guidance and advice on very similar projects. They includes a local surfing site, a local bar/club site, a local coupon site, a local employer review site, a site to help people find particular items of clothing out of magazines, a myspace for babies, and a computer game like interface that you use to go about your daily life by listing your various goals and accomplishments.
My spiel usually goes like this: It’s a cute idea but you should give it up because a quick Google search will show you that there’s already 5 websites trying to do exactly what you’re doing. If that doesn’t phase them I go on to explain that the first big problem is creating a site that has enough actually content and usefulness from day 1 to attract the initial group of users. Furthermore, those first users are really going to set the whole tone of the site for the rest of it’s existence so they need to be carefully nurtured.
Plus it’s really very difficult to get users. The era of “surfing the web” are over. Most people now have about 6 websites or so that they check every day, and asking them to add another one to their routine is really asking a lot. Especially when you take into consideration that you’re now competing not just with websites similar to your own, but also with all other the millions of helpful and entertaining sites that the user could spend their internet browsing time on. You actually need to relentlessly promote your site to keep it in peoples mind.
A bunch of sites have sprung up trying to the ‘craigslist’ of my university, or of the UC system, or of colleges in general. The only one that’s stuck at my school is called ULoop. They spent the last two years consistently putting flyers everywhere, taking out ads in the school paper and on facebook, plus promoting and sponsoring other peoples events and organizing a few of their own. Even after all that the site is basically just a few people asking each other for chemistry textbooks or a room for rent, and it has no real revenue model as far as I can tell.
So even if your site does take off it’s really hard to get it to actually make any money to justify all the time you have to pour into it. Most people think that they’re fine with that and are happy to do it as a hobby, but it really starts to feel like a job after a while. It’s hard to justify an unpaid job that consists mostly of sitting in front of your computer for hours every dealing with annoyed and confused users or website errors.
Of course all of these warnings also assume that the person has the competence to design, build, maintain, and most importantly scale the website in the first place.
All of this advice had to do with different reasons why these sites fail. What I hadn’t really thought about is why some succeed. I guess I had always assumed that they just sort of were in the right place at the right time and got lucky.
Thinking about the New Hanoian though I realize that the key is that people have to genuinely need your site. The New Hanoian works because if you’re living in Vietnam, and you’re not from Vietnam, doing most day to day stuff is very difficult. People really need this information just to get through their week. If you think about it all other successful web2.0 social community websites give the users something they really need.
I’ve had a few chances to meet the and talk to the guys running the New Hanoian and they’re genuienly very nice. More importantly though is they are very active in the community here, they know everyone and they really know about all the businesses and orginizations that use the site.
Anyone planning on starting a community web2.0 social networking whatever website should really study the New Hanoian.
Bonus business idea: having a group of writers paid to act as message board posters in the early days of a new online community. Call it Social Seed or something. Contract based on # of users and # of posts per day. Some users also in charge of monitoring post quality.
Lately I’ve been networking full time, going out to these business conferences and other social events, meeting people that I think might help lead me to an interesting job or other promising opportunities.
It’s been a learning experience. At first I was talking to a lot of people at these business conferences who really weren’t my peers in any way. They were all older than me, and usually worked very high up in big organizations, banks, trade groups, government ministries, embassy’s and NGOs. I had some interesting, if a bit awkward, conversations with these folks during these events. But they would never respond if I wrote them an email trying to follow up.
Recently I’ve been going to different sorts of social gatherings, and a lot more charity fundraisers and events. Charity events are a big deal here because so many people work in NGOs, and it’s very important to expats to stay involved. I’ve been recognizing and getting to better know people I’ve already met, instead of always starting fresh. Most importantly still is that I’m really starting to meet some more people closer to my age, background, and situation. This week I’ve met some other recent graduates getting into economics and finance, a few younger professionals that are also looking for projects to work on or their next job, and some guys from San Fransisco working doing environmental research.
The first lesson I’ve learned is that business conferences and lectures aren’t very hospitable to social outsiders.
Most of the time is spent listening to a presenter. Before and after the event people tend to greet and say goodbye to those they already know, although it’s not too hard to sneak in an introduction and a handshake here and there. The real trick is in which table you sit at to eat. The instinct is to try and sit with people who look important. What happens though is that they engage mostly in conversation amongst themselves about issues that really are none of your business. It’s a lot better to sit with people who look like they’re also somewhat new or out of place simply because they’re a lot easier to talk to.
The second lesson I’ve learned is that if you can find it’s be a lot better to network within your own peer group.
It’s more fun. You have a lot more in common so there’s more to talk about and more opportunity to make friends. That commonality also makes them a lot more likely to identify with your job search and not mind helping you out. Of course the down side is that unlike hanging out with executives they can’t actually give you a job. Still, they can ask their employers if they’re hiring and recommend you or if they get an offer to do something they can pass it on to you.
The third lesson I’ve learned is that you can’t just talk to someone about business for five minutes, trade cards, email them to follow up, and expect a response.
You really have to hang around in the same circles and meet people a few times before they really can be bothered to deal with you. Worse, if you did email them and they didn’t respond it makes it awkward next time you meet.
This last one is more of an observation than a lesson: a good personality trait for networking is a genuine annoyance at having to eat by yourself. I push myself to meet a lot of people largely because I really just hate sitting alone and silently starting at my food for 20 minutes every night.
Not much direct progress yet though. I sent my resume to a really interesting wine importing company / restaurant group. If they find a place for me in their orginization I’m hoping that I can tap some of my friends back home who have wine industry connections as a resource. I’ve also met a few guys that are interesting in exporting furniture, and some other guys that also have experience in that market. It’s not really the kind of exciting cutting edge industry I would prefer. Still, a lot of people say it’s a good opportunity here and it could lead to interesting things. It’s also a good time for that sort of project, some WTO rules benifiting vietnamese exports are about to kick in and vietnam is about to finish it’s first deep water international shipping port.
I continue to meet a lot of teachers that say they could get me a great job teaching, and I’m still keeping that as my backup plan. Though I did design a few flyers for tutoring advanced business english. I have no idea what the market for that looks like.
Another piece of advice I keep getting is that I should really have my own apartment and motorbike. I don’t think I’ll take those steps until I have found some good work here though. I want to be able to easily pick up and move if I hear about something promising to do elsewhere.
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I was talking to my mom the other day about what I’m doing out here, and she thought of a really clever, if not particularly flattering way of describing it. In her words I’m essentially a “Business-Groupie”. Thanks mom.
Actually this is pretty accurate. Basically what I’ve been doing so far is going to businessy events and butting in, hoping to absorb some of the success of those around me through pure osmosis.
I think a nicer analogy would be looking for love. A good strategy when you’re single (analogy: unemployed) is simply to go out to places where you think you might find single people of the gender you desire (business opportunities) and basically make a nuisance of yourself until you find someone you’re compatible with. Once that happens, all the people you didn’t really click with (companies that never emailed you back) don’t really matter any more.
Until then I’m reminded of a Smiths lyric:
“There’s a club, if you’d like to go, you could meet somebody who really loves you. So you go, and you stand on your own, and you leave on your own, and you go home, and you cry, and you want to die.
You shut your mouth. How can you say, I go about things the wrong way? I am Human and I need to be loved, just like everybody else does.”
Or in my case: I am human and I need a job.
Please indulge me while my analogy machine plops out another stinker: This is also a lot like the cliche of a pretty girl from the country going to Hollywood and hoping to be “discovered” and become a famous actress.
Until you get discovered, you need a day job. Something easy you can do in the off hours of being discovered so you don’t run out of money. I realize now that I too need a day job, or at least an internship.
Also, you have to think about what you’ll do here in the off chance that you don’t get discovered. In Hollywood I guess (to continue the cliche) that would be going into porn. I think the local equivalent might be teaching English. It’s easy, it pays well, and you’re basically just selling yourself. No great personal achievement. Still, always an option.
Either way, until what I’m trying to do works out, I’m essentially just on the worlds lamest vacation. While the other tourists spend their time biking through the mountains, kayaking across picturesque bays, touring ancient ruins, and getting really drunk… I go to business conferences and hand out my card to people at coffee shops. Woo!
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Earlier this week I attended something called SME week. The name is a bit misleading, I trekked all the way across the city on Monday to the national convention center only to find a bunch of people setting up booths. It was actually a single tuesday of talks regarding the development of small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in Vietnam.
I sat through 11 hours of lectures and presentations from various state officials, bank executives, and foreign research teams regarding what Vietnam needs to do to improve the business environment for SMEs. The gist of the talks is that small businesses have been largely ignored so far in economic development efforts despite accounting for a large percentage of total businesses, employment, and GDP. What they really need is better access to capital, a more organized relationship with supporting and complementary industries, and a streamlined universal online registration process to replace the absurdly complex and inconsistent bureaucracy they have to deal with now.
One particularly Vietnamese moment was one when one speaker made the an analogy between business and family. He explained that in Vietnam the government is like the parents, big businesses are the older brothers, and small businesses are the younger siblings. The younger siblings are naive and vunreble, but the parents are busy and somewhat out of touch, so they need to ask to the older brothers to take care of their younger siblings and help them out. In a culture where family roles are very important this was a fantastic analogy, and one that would probably just bewilder people in the US.
It was interesting to hear how officially, through various decrees and memorandums, the Vietnamese government is creating a business utopia. Then, speaking privately to others at the conference to learn how all this big talk is very slow to trickle it’s way down through the bureaucracy. For example, there are these new websites that describe all the steps necessary to go through the various permitting and registration of creating a new venture. Apparently though, once you show up at the government office everything is completely different. There are also laws that dictate the maximum prices of various registration and services like notarization, but in reality these laws are ignored and prices tend to be invented on the spot with a heavy premium charged for timeliness.
Still, it’s progress that the government at least knows exactly what it should be doing. Eventually, the older generation which still regards business as an evil that needs constant government control will retire. In it’s place will be a younger generation of leaders that has whipped been up into a pro-business frenzy. When that happens all of these referendums, memorandums, and decrees will probably just snap right into place.
Some of the highlights for me were:
Having a pair of super high tech wireless headphones that broadcasted real time English translations of what everybody was saying. I really didn’t want to give them back at the end, but I guess they wouldn’t exactly have worked outside of the conference.
The organizers, in an attempt to magnify the sense of busy business, decided to have two other confrences in the building simultaneously. One of which was a water technology conference in which my friend with the arsenic filtration company was running a booth. So I got to skip out and hang out with him for a while. The other was a security equipment conference in which every booth was covered in video survaliance cameras and complex locks, walking through it was very weird.
Free food was provided. The first such session of which was a modest free cup of tea and some watermelon. Because it was still early in the morning all the confrence attendees, including many students from local universities, were still there. The result was total and complete anarchy as people trampled and pushed each other to get their free tea and watermelon. By the end of the 20 min break the floor was covered in spilled tea and crushed watermelon. Another very Vietnamese experience. I learned my lesson and snuck out a few min early to get first crack at the lunch. The funny thing about the lunch was how the few westerners in attendce made a point to really enjoy the Vietnamese food, while the Vietnamese loaded up on plates of ham and white bread. Go figure.
By the time the time the buffet dinner was put out almost nobody was still around, so I really got to indulge:
Last but not least, the powerpoint slide from hell:
One thing about Vietnam that took me a while to realize is how excellently dressed everybody is. Not in the Italian or French way of being particularly fashionable or interesting. Just that even the motobike drivers are always wearing perfectly clean, non-wrinkled dress pants, dress shoes, and a collared shirt. Almost everybody here is always dressed up. Besides kids and construction workers the only people that you tend to see dressed sloppily are the backpackers in their cargo shorts and tiger beer T-shirts.
So if I want anybody to take me seriously in this country I’m going to have to dress nicely. Two problems. One, I don’t really have any nice clothing with me. That’s easily taken care of as there is clothing for sale everywhere here. Two, and this one is the real problem, I don’t really have any idea how to dress up. I’ve never really had a job that’s required it. I don’t even know how to properly tie my own tie. The few times I’ve had to back at home I’ve quickly discovered that almost nobody else my age does either.
So I’ve decided to make a quest of it. First I went online and started reading all about suits, shirts, ties and shoes. First I found a couple of articles that reinforced what I was doing, like this one http://online.wsj.com/public/article/SB119992386358079373.html?mod=blog which basically says that young people in business today think it’s ok to dress like shit and the older guard hates them for it.
After reading a bit I decided to have a suit tailored. A lot of asking around led me to one tailor in particular that came highly recommended. I spent a day trying to find her place, it was gone. I went back online, emailed my friend, got her phone number, called her up. It turns out she is booked out and busy until mid December. I decided that I’ll just buy two suits, one lighter weight (cheaper) one to hold me over, and then a nice dark heavy one later. Earlier this week I went to the first tailor. I just got a call from the other one that she’s available so I figured what the hell, might as well go to her now too.
This is risky though, for example: As a guy, going to get my haircut is always really quite stressful. They always put a lot of pressure on you to know what kind of a haircut you want, which I never do. Then how long you want your sideburns, if you want the back squared off or rounded off, if you want the edges blended or tapered or layered or set on fucking fire. Then they make you feel like the only person in the entire world who doesn’t want ‘product’ in their hair. Luckily there’s that moment when you return to the real world remember that it’s ok not to wear hair gel.
I figure going to the tailor is a more hardcore version of getting a haircut. So I’ve made damn sure I know what kind of cuffs and lapels and buttons and stitches and fabrics and cuts I want. Because if I didn’t know, I doubt my Vietnamese tailor is going to know how to perfectly give me that ‘hip young professional California start-up casual aspiring venture capitalist’ look either. So I went online, found a bunch of blogs on men’s fashion, and started collecting pictures of suits and pieces of suits and people in suits that I liked. Here are some highlights:
I’ll post an update when I’ve gotten my suits and we’ll see how they work out.
Some good links on suit theory:
I was at an event the other night and something very interesting happened. Actually, it wasn’t very interesting at the time, but upon further reflection I’ve learned a lot from it.
It was an Italian Food Festival and I was just hanging out, being social, and destroying small mountains of food. I ended up these meeting two married expat couples, one Lithuanian and one Danish, each in their late 20s. I spent the rest of the night hanging out with the guys while their wives chatted.
The Lithuanian guy was in Hanoi running a factory. His company made a special kind of water filter that filtered arsenic, which is apparently a natural problem with the ground water in Vietnam. The company was commercializing a technology developed together by a Vietnamese university and a Japanese University where he had studied. In many ways this company was very similar, although much farther along, to the materials company I helped found and was working with in California. We casually spoke for a long time about the market for water filtration, the different kinds of capital that can fund this kind of a company, and the difficulties of doing business in a place like Vietnam. We also just spoke of other trivial nonsense like which swimming pool was the best in Hanoi and discussed trading some of our downloads with each other.
The Danish guy was working for a company that was equally interesting to me. He was helping to develop file transfer protocols for a company here in hanoi that remotely edits real estate photography. It was his job to basically facilitate the transfer of gigabytes worth of digital images from all over the world to his company and then back. He was actually tackling the same issues that I had to deal with, although on a smaller scale, in my art licensing company when artists transferred very large scans and raw digital images to us. Again, we spoke about his business, and other miscellaneous mutual interests.
Then I noticed someone I recognized. She noticed me too and came over to say hello. She was a very pretty french girl my age working for some sort of international organization whom I had sat next to at the American Chamber of Commerce Investment Outlook lecture event thing the previous week.
She laughingly asked how my business was going, and I admitted that nothing has really developed and I’m still just getting used to being in Hanoi. She then introduced me to a french guy she was hanging out with. I said something awkward about how I like french people, and got an awkward look in response. Then he asked who I was working for here in Hanoi. The girl answered for me: “nobody”. They both kind of chuckled at this and wandered off.
God I was embarrassed. Then I realized that I was actually wearing the identical outfit that had made me feel so out of place at the event and felt even worse. The evening was sort of winding down so I excused myself to my new friends and headed back to my hotel to sulk.
Only now that I’ve had a few days to think about it have I realized how great I was actually doing. I had, without any great effort on my part, struck up the beginnings of a friendship with two people who both worked for the exact sorts of companies I was interested in. I had done it just by being myself and speaking only form my true knowledge and experience in a comfortable social setting. The Lithuanian guy had even invited me to come see his factory. Unfortunately I didn’t think to get the email of the Danish guy.
So what’s the lesson? When you set out to do something and fail it’s dramatic, like a dead cat falling out of the sky and straight into your tomato soup and splashing it all over your white shirt. Doing something successfully though is usually pretty casual, unless your an olympic pole vaulter or something, because it just tends to work out the way you imagined it would.
My first two travel business experiences out here have somewhat unspectacular. On Monday I went to an Investment Outlook for 2009 Lecture given by a Vietnamese government official and hosted in a fancy hotel by the American Chamber of Commerce. The gist of the talk was that because of the economic downturn it was predicted that there was going to be a lot less foreign direct investment coming into the country as in the previous years. The guests were various people working in major corporations in Hanoi, some investors, attorneys, and a journalist for NPR.
Mostly the event was just an excuse for people to put on their suit, trade business cards, and have a fancy lunch. I failed on all three accounts. I showed up in jeans and a collared shirt, only had 3 of my new business cards in my wallet, and had already eaten a big meal before I came. As if that wasn’t bad enough my conversations with people were pretty awkward and I spilled some food on myself after shooing away the hostess that tried to put my napkin on my lap for me. Sigh. Luckily I think everybody else was too distracted by their economic apocalypse to notice. Next time I’ll come better prepared.
I also had some coffee (Vietnamese coffee is fantastic by the way) with another expat, the first I’ve met from the states. He wants my help in lining up some local manufacturing for his friends companies. More updates to come on that if it ends up going anywhere.
Small run manufacturing would be a fun project to do while traveling through Southeast Asia. It’s very easy in a place like this to bring a design for a product to a manufacturer like a factory, tailor, or woodworker and have an initial run of under 100 produced. I’m not talking about making your own solar powered laptop or anything requiring serious engineering. Let’s say you had an idea for a dress or a backpack. You could come over here with some plans/diagrams/schematics, find the local district of people who make similar stuff, and have a few made. After a bit of back and forth, and maybe spending a few hundred dollars, you would probably end up with something pretty similar to what you imagined. Then if you had any sort of connections with retailers or distributors you could send them a few samples to see if they wanted to place an order. You could even invent your own brand for the project.
In reality the life cycle of new retail products is a lot more complex and involves going to a lot of trade shows. Perhaps though, if you could target the right niche, you could bypass all of that.
For example California is filled with hemp stores selling stuff made of hemp. I bet if you designed a sweet little messenger style laptop bag, maybe with a cool lock on the top, had it made out of hemp, and put a panda bear or something on the side of it you’d be in business. Or what if you made people elaborate custom Halloween costumes. All you would need is their measurements and pictures of what they wanted to look like. I would want an old western style suit like the one Daniel Day Lewis wore in There Will be Blood. Also, because you’re actually on the ground here you can ensure that your stuff isn’t being made in sweatshops.
The temptation for me personally is to go through all of my pictures from burning man and other hippie festivals to look for really cool custom clothing that people made and try to get some similar stuff whipped up. Of course this is a huge ethical conflict; these people very thoughtfully chose to express themselves by wearing stuff that wasn’t pumped out of a factory in Asia. It’s seems wrong to steal their ideas and do something in the exact opposite spirit as what they intended. But cool hippie clothes made of colorful Vietnamese silk sold on San Francisco would easily make somebody a lot of money.
The ethical middle ground would probably be to approach people, tell them about your idea, and ask them to make a few designs for you. Or you could just use the uncreative cop-out of giving 10% of the money you make to a charity for blind buddhist orphans.
Another interesting project would be to bring western things to new markets. I went bowling the other day here in Hanoi. I thought I was in for a wild experience, bowling in Vietnam, crazy. I was wrong. It was a perfectly normal American style bowling alley, complete with those stupid animations when you make a strike or a gutter ball. It was half full of a few groups of Vietnamese kids, a couple of older guys that you could tell hung out there a lot, and a few Europeans. All the bowling equipment was American, they charged about $2 a game, they severed beer and soft drinks, and they even had a little arcade with videogames and air hockey on the side.
What struck me about this is how funny it is that some American bowling equipment company one day randomly getting a sale from Vietnam. My guess is that a Vietnamese entrepreneur traveled somewhere, saw a bowling alley, and figured he would build one back in Hanoi. And why not? They have ipods in the stores here for way more than they would be in the US. Someone is probably just ordering them retail and reselling them at a markup. It makes you wonder about all the other things that there might be a market for here. I’m tempted to tell my friend Bryan to come here and setup a paintball park. Somehow though I can imagine that being politically awkward.
I realized that there is a key assumption implicit in my whole entrepreneurial travel theory that I haven’t explored yet. Not only does it have to be possible to travel in a way that allows you to work. It also has to be true that you can show up somewhere and hope to join a company out of the blue.
I have met several other recent graduates working in Hanoi in international organizations (rather than just as English teachers). So far though, all of them went through a rigorous application and selection process to end up in some sort of one to two year special program. They didn’t just sort of show up and ask around. (Which is basically what I’m doing)
As I see it there are essentially two ways to get entry level jobs. One way is you have develop some sort of particular and instantly applicable skill that you can prove you have, such as studying accounting and passing the CPA exam. Then if a company decides they need an accountant, and you qualify as an accountant, and you can go straight in and get to work.
The alternative, which I guess is the path that most people follow, is to send out your resume, put on a tie, and hope that through an eventual combination of effort and luck some company decides that they need another person around and it might as well be you. Then they actually take the time to teach you to do something useful. A lot of what you do will probably be proprietary to that company, but enough will probably be general enough in the industry that you can get your next job just by showing that you’ve worked in the field for some years already.
The sticky issue is that there are tons of people trying to go that second route. So many that most big companies, in an effort to be fair and to choose the best applicants, have some sort of complex application and selection process already in place. It’s rather silly to just fire off an email to a company saying who you are and asking if they have any openings. Part of the problem is there isn’t really any one in particular who it’s appropriate to send it to.
It’s probably no good to quantitatively compare the two methods. My guess is that it’s a question of standard deviation. Anyone with enough math and patience to study accounting can pass the CPA exam and land a good job. The success of just putting yourself out there is going to depend a lot on your personality, your ability to impress, the kind of social circles you float around in, and simply luck. A friend of mine got offered a job on the spot after chatting with an IBM executive at a party.
Maybe the key to this is that entrepreneurial travel isn’t about finding a ‘job’ in the traditional sense. It’s more about consulting or helping to put deals together or working in a much more temporary capacity. Of course that type of work goes back to the first of having some sort of a universal skill you can apply anywhere you go. My idea of not really being able to do anything in particular, and hoping to get paid for short periods of specialized work might simply not add up. We’ll see.
Disclaimer: This might just be a convoluted and insane self justification for not getting a real job.
My goal is simple. I want to see if it’s possible to travel in a new way.
I plan to take my very Californian mishmash of business and computer skills and see if I can use them to work while traveling around the world. This blog will be a record of my attempt. Because if I can do it, there’s about 10,000 coffee shops in San Fransisco, New York, Seattle, and Boston overflowing with people that can do it too.
So here’s the big Picture:
Normally when you travel, you take a few weeks off, buy a lonely planet guidebook, and head somewhere with a buddy to eat exotic food, drink a lot of beer with other travelers, and take pictures of yourself standing in front of famous old stuff. Then you come home, pick up your mail, water your plants, give your friends some trinkets, make sit through your slideshow of the photos of you standing in front of famous old stuff, and go back to your normal life.
Of course, there are options for deeper and more long term sorts of experiences. You can arrange to stay with a local family, study abroad, volunteer, or work. Those are all great things to do. Eventually though you reach a point when you want to start building something resembling a career. Unless your life dream is to be a bartender the kind of work most people do while traveling isn’t really worth putting on your resume.
In the last 15 years the costal cities of the US have been infested with coffee shops overflowing with young hipsters putting together spotless business plans for the next facebook/iphone/web3.0 killer app. Everyone seems to have a website, a blog, a following on twitter, a brand new laptop, a fancy camera, a clever business card, and a pithy elevator pitch for whatever their current project is. An army of webdesigners, bloggers, photographers, and business students all plugged into the cutting edge of consumer culture and waiting for their chance to present their dream to some poor venture capitalist that’s already heard 15 other versions of the same idea. They’ll be lucky to get a job at the apple store and a decent internship.
Because of how concentrated they are it’s easy to become cynical and forget what an amazing skill set that these people have developed. They have learned to create the shiny happy hip face of new businesses. They’ve also developed a highly sophisticated intuitive sense of consumer culture. They know what kind of products and marketing are cool and instill trust and excitement in the consumer and what sends up warning flags.
Their problem is that on their own they (we) tend not to be very good at profitably making a product or service of real value that some big company isn’t already doing a pretty good job at providing.
The rest of the world on the other hand, faces the opposite problem. They already know how to make or do whatever it is they make or do. But they often don’t understand how to get their product to consumers outside if their local markets.
What if, armed with this skillset of business and internet knowledge, these coffee shop hoards could travel around the world and help connect local companies into the global economy?
Stay tuned to find out.