We are all the same, deep down. In everyone one of us is the same basic ingredients. Uniqueness is found in our journeys, for these are what bring shape our lives.
Our media company, China-Cloud.com, asked me to write a piece targeted at university students considering entrepreneurship. It will be translated into Chinese (not by me!) and put on the website soon. Below is the original article in English:
I want to begin by saying I don’t really believe in giving advice, but unfortunately I’m not yet wise enough to follow my own advice. Two years ago, in June 2009, I was preparing to leave India after spending almost two years there working on a web startup and then a service company I started with my German-Taiwanese friend from university. It had been a roller coaster of a time, not without difficulties, and packed full of valuable learning experiences. Even though my time left in India was limited, and there was a lot to do at my company (I was CTO), I wanted to reach out to local Indian students about to graduate and give one last presentation. In India I used to teach English to orphaned children twice a week, and once a week teach a university course about The Web. Occasionally our team had the opportunity to give guest lectures to students, inspiring them to be entrepreneurial and consider a different career path. Alas, time and circumstances were not on my side, and I left India before I had a chance to deliver my presentation. Two years later I find myself in China, still in the startup world, and still eager to share my thoughts as a young entrepreneur. So here is what I wanted to say, here are four simple tips for Business and Life:
1. “It’s one thing to know the path, but quite another to walk the path”.
This is a quote one of my most respected mentors, Richard Rhor, an American priest and philosopher. It is also a disclaimer for the remainder of my tips! Most young people including me, and many older ones get very excited about knowing the right stuff. In my experience, nowadays knowledge is worth very little without experience. To get experience, we must walk the path. Many of the things we haven’t learned yet, and some things we think we have, will not fully reveal themselves until we get out there and try it out. In my experience it’s the people who actually walk out into the world and engage with it, that really get what they want. It’s easy to know what the right thing to do is. It’s hard get your head down and actually do it.
When you take a risk and do something, opportunities pop up that you never expected; you learn things you never even knew you had to learn.
2. Success is doing what you love to do, every day.
I believe the world we live in today makes it really difficult for people to be successful. First of all, we start off thinking success is all about having money and being famous. Maybe you still believe that. That’s because the TV and movies and magazines make us think that we should aspire to be like the people we see in them. Although I’m young I’ve been able to meet many people who are rich, and some who are famous, but these are not the most successful people I’ve met. Truly successful people do what they do because they’re passionate about it, and sometimes that leads them to get rich, but it’s not the reason they do it. Apple made $65bn revenue in 2010. Do you think Steve Jobs started Apple for money, or that he works hard for fame? Of course not! He is simply passionate about creating perfect products that are simple and beautiful, yet very clever. I also know many people who are successful but not rich at all, they do simple jobs like teaching or farming, but they love their work. Secondly, discovering what you love doing is very hard, because most organisations today aren’t very good at letting you discover and use your real talents. So you need to work very hard to discover what you’re good at, even harder to make sure you can do what you’re good at for the rest of your life. Starting a business or working in a startup is one good way to learn what you like because there are always new challenges and opportunities to do something new.
Success is discovering what you’re really good at, and finding a way to do it every day.
3. Management and leadership are different things.
A great organisation needs both, but it is important to understand the difference. If you are planning to start up or do a new project, you need to know what leadership is and know how to pick great leaders to work with. In a traditional business, the big boss picks managers who have other managers report to them, and everyone has strictly defined roles, responsibilities, and people they report to. In a traditional business the organisational chart is very important, and is usually shaped like a pyramid. But people who have great leadership skills do more than tell people what to do and report to their boss. These ‘leaders’ care about the goals of the company. They are not afraid to share information with their team and encourage ideas from everyone. They take risks and do things without asking. They are open minded and easily adapt to new situations. They are not afraid to share ideas with everyone and speak out when they think something is wrong in the organisation. They admit when they are wrong and they fix things quickly. They never complain or gossip. Most of all, they inspire their team and other leaders to cooperate and achieve goals together.
Why is leadership so important in this day and age? It’s not just a cool new way of doing management. People with great leadership skills are required more than ever in modern companies because of business expectations and employee expectations. In todays business environment, especially in the technology sector, markets and demands change quickly, innovations happen fast and only good leaders can adapt quickly and lead their team to success. Also, today employees expect better managers and better teams, and it is very easy for them to change jobs if they aren’t satisfied. How many times have you heard someone say ‘I left my company because of my boss’ or ‘I don’t like the culture of the company’? Today employees care who they work for. There is a global company with 20,000 employees that has an almost flat organisational structure, every week the company founders speak to everyone via live video conference, and engineers can spend 20% of their time on their own personal projects. It’s name? Google.
Sure, things get done in a management focussed organisation, but the leading businesses of today’s world are built by people who understand the importance of great leadership.
4. People are everything.
The Chinese know this better than anyone else! It’s all about people. Business, entrepreneurship, teams, even great ideas and technologies. Friends often come to me to ask for startup advise, and immediately start talking about their great idea. The problem is, a great idea is not worth anything without people to build it, people to manage it, people to fund it, people to sell it, and people who will buy it. We entrepreneurs often get carried away with a great new technology, and forget that it’s people who are our most important asset. Did you know most venture capitalists place much higher value on the people in the team than on the idea or the business plan? Great people are not always your friends or people who are like you either. It’s important to have a good mix of people with different backgrounds and skills in any team. Of course simply finding good people is not enough, you need to attract them, and they need to want to work with you, buy from you and invest in you. If you want to start up, being a tolerant, humble, happy person is very important. All the successful people I know are nice to others, and fun to be around.
To be successful, identify great people, attract them, and work with them.
Neither business or life is easy. There are no quick tips or ‘Top 10′ lists which solve real life problems. The best thing advise like this can do is give you a glimpse of what is still left to be learned, but I believe the only way to really learn something is to actually doing it. Even I don’t fully understand because I still have a lot left to do! One thing I do know is that standing up and doing something difficult will open doors to you that you never knew existed. As 20th century Scottish explorer William Hutchinson Murray says:
” The moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves as well. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen accidents, meetings and material assistance that no one could have dreamed would come their way. Whatever you can do or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now. ”
William Hutchinson Murray, 1951
Jack Ma, Robin Li, and my chairman Edward Tian, are among those who understand this statement better than anyone. They got out there, found something they’re passionate about, attracted great people, and just did it. Good luck!
A hairdresser ties you to a place. I remember the dark winter afternoon, back in 1999 when I was 15, when I first took the plunge and changed hairdresser in my local town. It was just before the 4th year ball, and I was determined to get a ‘cooler’ haircut. I wandered into ‘Dynamic’ hairdressers and was pleased that the tough looking balding owner of the joint would be the one cutting my hair. The start of a new identity. Time for a cooler Nick. It’s true our hair is a big part of our identity, and it’s important that we get it right. Hairdressers get to know us, to know our identity, to understand what we want. We trust them, because we feel good and secure walking out of their shop, knowing that our identity can live on. We talk to them, about life, and their life, and we feel relaxed letting them cut our hair, because they’ve done it before, right in the same shop. It’s an intimate relationship. I spent five years in London, and never once got my hair cut there. It was always something I saved for going home, occasionally planning trips to ensure my hair wouldn’t be too long before the next one.
I used to think home is where the heart is. That might put home wherever you happen to be, if your heart is with the now, with adventure. Then I came up with a better definition of home: It’s the place you would choose to die, if you had that choice. That would firmly put home back with my parents in Scotland.
But perhaps home is just where you prefer to get your hair cut. A bold traveller is one who is comfortable getting their hair cut anywhere. I have had a few haircuts in India, not having the luxury to return home to Scotland so often. I’ve learned to get used to the small crowd of amused onlookers who cheer on the local hairdresser in his endeavour of cutting blonde hair. I don’t expect much for INR 20, which is about US $0.50. Last weekend I had my haircut at a place I’ve been to once before, just before I returned home for Becky’s wedding in April. It was good. I liked the job he did. In fact, I was so satisfied I left feeling perhaps I can call this home…