The following blog post is long, but hang in there, my story illustrates how backpacking and living abroad can equip you for life as an entrepreneur in ways that traditional education or work experiences cannot. Before becoming a founding member of the BrainStation team I had backpacked for a little over a year. During this time I was able to remove myself from the expectations that are forced upon us to think about what truly drives me as an individual. It wasn’t all fun and games; backpacking is hard and puts your physical and mental state to the test. As difficult as it was, it was also the most rewarding experience in my life to date. China, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand were the 10 countries I passed through during my journey, each adding new perspectives to the way I view the world to this day.
It began with an 18-hour flight to Beijing. My friend, Madelaine, and I arrived late at night. We didn’t really have a game plan for when we arrived, we only knew what our hostel was called. We were so naive, no one spoke English obviously, and we were unprepared. It was quite the fiasco trying to coordinate a bus trip to the general vicinity of where we would be bunking for the night. The air was thick and it was cold, we had packed lightly as we were heading south after Beijing. What had we gotten ourselves into? We hadn’t dipped our feet in, we cannonballed into the unknown. Bombs away!
As uneasy as we initially felt, each night we became stronger. Our confidence grew immensely as the days passed. We took 18 hour train rides, stayed in hostels that cost $3/night, ate some unusual foods and adapted to situations that we never would have experienced in Toronto, or North America for that matter. While we had spent 4 years together at Western University on wild adventures of our own, this was something completely new. It was our first time backpacking and being so distant from home and it truly put our friendship on the line. Luckily we battled adversity together and each became specialized in various roles; organization, navigation, communication, budgeting, etc…
After the first leg of our journey, and by far the most intense, Maddy and I met up with our friend Greg in Hong Kong. He was a rookie; he hadn’t been through what we had been through. Maddy and I had toughed it out and we were now the experts, or so we thought. It didn’t take long for Greg to adapt just as we had. We all slept on the cold floor of the Bangkok airport overnight, travelled for 2 days by boat along the legendary Mekong River, made border runs to ensure that our visas were adequate and crossed roads with no signs as motorcycles grazed us as they sped by. We danced with fire, consumed questionable concoctions, wrestled with elephants and danced until the sun rose.
Nearing the end of the first 2 months of our journey we all started to run out of our savings. What to do? Should I head home? The thought crossed my mind, but I wasn’t ready to give up. There was still so much to see and by this point Australia was calling to me. Air-conditioned public transport, first world infrastructure and health care; it was going to be a breeze! We all travelled to Australia to begin the next leg, one that would require us all to get jobs to survive. Greg ran out of money first, then me and then Maddy so we flew in at separate times and to separate places. We were truly alone for the first time.
I can’t speak for Maddy and Greg, but I was as close to being broke as I had ever been. I recall having $264 in my bank account when I arrived in Sydney. I stayed at a hostel with 7 other backpackers in my room that were more focused on partying, they laughed at how stressed out I was about seeking employment. Luckily I had extended my credit limit on my MasterCard before leaving Canada, I needed this to pay for food and the nightly rate at Bounce Hostel ($45). I was in rough shape as well, I was still living out of a backpack with a wardrobe consisting of tank tops, board shorts and flip flops. I needed to swipe that plastic. I bought some new threads; a casual outfit for applying to hospitality/service jobs and some dress clothes to apply to banks/agencies and potential roles aligned with my background in finance/marketing. On top of clothing I also decided to purchase a laptop, I believed this would help me to apply for jobs online at night when all of the stores, banks and other potential employers were closed. I hit the streets of Sydney with great determination, wearing a suit in the mornings because it was the middle of summer and changing into a lighter and more casual outfit in the afternoon and evenings. I searched and applied relentlessly and second-guessed myself with every hour that passed. Luckily after a few weeks I found part-time work as a customer service representative with the world’s largest chain of gyms, Fitness First. It was much needed, not just for the money but for the free gym membership. Eating too many noodles and drinking Chang beers for 2 months takes a toll on your body!
My intention wasn’t just to get a job to continue living abroad, but to take on work that would help me establish myself in a field of interest for when I returned home. With a great interest in the athletic apparel industry I began applying to athletic retailers so I could get experience with a brand’s product and customers from the ground level. I started to apply to Columbia, The North Face, Oakley and somehow stumbled into an interview with a brand I wasn’t overly familiar with, lululemon athletica. While I went through unorthodox interviews with lululemon, trying out yoga and CrossFit for the first time, I was also interviewing for one of the largest event management companies in the world. I jostled between spandex shorts and a custom suit I had made in Vietnam as the interviews progressed. I somehow got through 3 rounds of interviews with the event management company, using my credit card to purchase a new tie for each one (I think I was the only backpacker ever to have 3 ties). In the end I chose working at lululemon as it was more inline with my goals and aspirations, I didn’t really come all the way to Australia to find myself sitting at a desk anyways!
By the time I received my first paycheque I had swiped my way to $4,500 of debt. The weight of this was on my shoulders and I was still living out of that same hostel room after over a month! I awaited a friend from Wales, Steve, who I had met on that long boat ride along the Mekong River in Laos. He was finishing up in Asia and had expressed interest in finding a place in Sydney with me when he arrived. With a much needed loan from my spectacular Mother for the required bond on an apartment, I was finally able to move out. We moved to the “Orange County” of Australia, we lived along the Eastern Coastal Suburbs in the notorious beach community of Bondi. While the area was probably the most amazing place I’ve ever lived in, our apartment definitely was not. We lived in a rundown hub where all of those working in the hospitality/services industry resided. Steve and I shared a room in a shoebox of an apartment with an ill-tempered landlord for 6 months.
During this time I also took on work at a high end suit store called Rhodes and Beckett that shared real estate with Armani and Gucci (lululemon and Rhodes and Beckett – how far my wardrobe had come!). I was working 50+ hours a week and living in an apartment with no oven, no microwave, only a stove top. Looking back now, this was probably the happiest I have ever been in my entire life. There were 9 other apartments in the building, all filled with travellers as ambitious as we were from around the globe. No one was concerned with what school we had gone to, what career path we were pursuing, we were all there for the adventure and fun. Passport pages were far more likely to be compared than degrees and yearly salaries.
After 6 months with lululemon in Australia I was forced to make a decision, my working/holiday visa only allowed me to work with one company for half of the year. I had an opportunity to work with The North Face in Sydney but I was ready for a change and wanted to continue my journey with lululemon. I had set a goal to pursue working on the international development of lululemon’s brand and eventually move to Vancouver to work at their head office. I had grown to love the company, their community approach and the emphasis on personal health and wellbeing. I still wasn’t ready to head home yet, I flew to Queenstown, New Zealand to assist an awesome team in opening up the first store on the South Island.
Back to square one. This time it was the middle of winter, I remember being forced to buy a ski jacket, a purchase that also put me back to breakeven. Ugh. Queenstown is where they filmed a lot of Lord of the Rings; I found it hard to complain of my situation. I was living out of a hostel, yet again, in a tourism driven town of 30,000 people. At least I had a job! Steve had decided to come with me so we sprawled the classified ads (so old-school) across the table at a bar and drank beers until we found some potential options. We ended up moving in with an amazing English couple, Matt and Tabatha. At this point I had evolved from a backpack to a suitcase (I found a Samsonite on the side of the road – Dumb and Dumber anyone!?). I had no bed so I went to the Salvation Army to buy one; I was still on cloud nine that I had my own room finally! I bought some sheets and a heater and that was my setup for the next 6 months while helping to build lululemon’s brand in Queenstown. We had no Internet and I was in the best physical shape I’ve ever been in while ripping through books before bed every night. Again, I was so happy and focused.
After over a year abroad I decided to head home, I had missed my family and friends dearly and was ready to start another chapter of my life. Because I lived so minimalistic I was able to backpack up Australia’s East Coast and through Indonesia and Bali before flying home to Canada. I traveled with a group of 4 girls, 2 being friends from university. Oh, how little they knew about travelling. We swam in shark-infested waters, dodged dingos, slipped by snakes, camped in the everglades, got stuck on an island made of sand and we sure did “slap the goon”! Oh, how quickly they adapted.
For those that have made it through this tiring journey and overly long blog post, thanks for humouring my nostalgia. I believe it was necessary to go through my diverse experiences to demonstrate how alike backpacking and living abroad is to building a company. Here are my top lessons learned, none of which I would have experienced in business school or in an entry-level position out of university. If you’re wondering how I became a founder of a technology school, please refer to my lululemon blog post, it’s another story of its own.
1.) Determination – My backpacking adventure didn’t begin with the flight to Beijing, it started after I graduated university and took on 3 different jobs over the span of 6 months to save enough to get through Asia and arrive safely in Australia. I didn’t see my friends much that summer, I was working full-time doing promotions and social media management for vitaminwater, part-time as a bar back and on my day off I transported luxury vehicles to various dealerships across the city. When I arrived in Sydney I also worked 3 jobs without hesitance. Building a company is similar in that you need to set your sights on an end goal and see it through, sacrifices will have to be made. In building a business I also became comfortable with going into debt after my experience in Australia, I believe in myself and my team so much that I will put myself in a less than ideal position in the short-term because I know the long-term gains will be worth it.
2.) Budgeting – I had budgeted enough savings to take me through Asia for 2 months and to help me arrive in Australia. I needed to be wary of my budget, just like a startup, to ensure that I was able to arrive at the intended destination. What is the return on investment? For a backpacker it is the pleasure that comes from a given tour, hostel, excursion, but for a startup it will define your ability to grow your brand and see it through all the way.
3.) Confidence – As a backpacker you need to be confident in your every move, a simple slip up can cost you. You’re consistently venturing down unknown paths and charting new territories. As a founder you must believe in the path you’re venturing down, it’s easy to get lost. You need to be confident heading into a room of people you’ve never met before, I can’t stress how valuable this has been in building a brand from scratch. Backpacking was like the school of hard knocks in networking.
4.) Learning – Embrace it all as a learning experience, both the highs and the lows. Be the figurative sponge that you always hear about. I learned about so many different countries and cultures, not by reading about them but by experiencing them. I also learnt more about myself in one year than in the rest of my entire life. In a startup, if you don’t know it you learn it and you’re continually progressing based on your experiences. There is no budget to outsource! It also strengthens your team and enhances your organization’s chances of survival.
5.) Teamwork – Going in alone is sometimes what needs to be done but know that you will never be as strong as the collective whole. No one is good at everything, but everyone is good at something. When you’ve established a team while travelling or building a business you need to divide and conquer based on strengths and interests for the greater good. Create a team around you that has your back and make sure they know you have theirs; it can be a lonely journey otherwise.
6.) Planning – This is so vital to any journey. When you’re travelling into a new country every week you need to have some sort of game plan. When starting a business I would highly suggest utilizing project management tools and methodologies because there is going to be more coming at you than you can handle. It is like trying to take a drink from a water hydrant. Create a high level strategy and constantly be revisiting it. What does your roadmap look like?
7.) Resiliency – A bit counterintuitive, but f%*k planning, everything is going to change. Be ready to adapt to whatever comes at you. Oh, but seriously, planning is still a good thing, that was a little harsh. Just know it isn’t the be all and end all. Your ability to adapt is the MOST important thing.
8.) Resourcefulness – Be comfortable with being uncomfortable. The fact that I lived on a used mattress and out of a suitcase meant that I was able to afford travelling for that much longer. In business, it also means that I’ll be able to outlast my competitors when the times get tough, and I assure you – they will. Are your goals as a traveller or entrepreneur that important to you that you’ll sleep on the floor or in a hostel with 7 rambunctious backpackers? If not then get out of the way, someone else’s answer will be yes and you better hope I’m not your competitor because I’m pretty gross. I’m currently living out of a den with enough room for a bed and my record player.
9.) Compassion – Always treat those how you wish to be treated. As you continue your travelling or building your business you will have new members join your team constantly. Give them the chance to be an amateur and grow like you once did, guide them through this development process. They will come from diverse backgrounds and experiences. Understand that no one can function at 100%, 100% of the time. Be compassionate to those around you and their lives outside of the startup scene.
10.) Authenticity- That ego – lose it. Right now. You need to be okay with failing and looking silly. Those around you will feed off of your humbleness and enjoy being around you. While building BrainStation I’ve worked retail, I’ve done promotions and I’m probably going to need a part-time job to have spending money this summer. I doubt I’d be comfortable doing those things if I hadn’t travelled and really assessed what matters most. Worrying about what other people think can’t be one of them. When you can push that aside then you’re able to be your authentic self, and that’s something that so few people will ever experience unfortunately. Always stay true.