I’m re-reading The Four Hour Work Week after 7 years…
I remember the first time I read it, sitting on a train headed towards the town of Viterbo, Italy. Blown away would be an understatement of my reaction to reading Ferriss’ now cult classic.
Shortly thereafter I dove head first into lifestyle design and creating internet businesses. The goal being for these businesses to give me freedom: financially and location-wise. I had just turned 23 and had an online business on eBay since I was 19. Armed with my new found learnings, I assumed I had collected the final pieces to having things all “figured out”… little did I know.
Fast forward almost 7 years, I was now based in San Francisco and entrenched in the startup world of Silicon Valley. I ran a company of 450 people, with humble beginnings as a “lifestyle business” I had started on a whim years prior. Zirtual.com (formerly called Virtual Zeta) is an offshore matching service for virtual assistants, that was sold ad hoc through this ol’ blog’s sidebar.
Then came August 9th of 2015. Overnight, I had to let roughly 450 people go. Why? A variety of reasons—mostly we “grew broke”, I didn’t understand our unit economics the way I should have and fell into the very Silicon Valley cycle of grow at all cost.
I can’t rehash the whole story here- mostly because it is still too raw and painful, but also because when life crashes around you overnight one often loses sight of the specifics and the whole period appears as a hazy blur in your mind’s rearview mirror.
I do know that during the turmoil I wrote this post as an attempted explanation. To which I got both reactions of loving support and those of extreme vitriol—maybe I deserved, both, or neither.
Growth at all cost
When we first raised money for Zirtual, we were profitable—albeit barely. We raised money from some amazing investors with the idea of growth in mind. Though unfortunately, what we didn’t have a clear idea of was what “growth” actually meant. Did it mean doubling our size year-over-year? Did it mean growing at a loss? Did it mean returning a comfortable profit each quarter?
Growth as an idea seemed like the right goal to chase… San Francisco continually touts that their startups are “making a dent in the universe”, and how would a new company achieve that if it was not hockey stick-ing?
Knowing your “why?”
When people asked me why I started Zirtual, it was the sum of my own obsession with delegation and appreciation of virtual work, combined with a strong desire to create jobs. My co-founders and I hung our hats on the idea that one day we would employ tens of thousands.
The issue was, I didn’t dive into the *why* behind those wants. I also didn’t realize that it’s far, far better to teach a man to fish—than to employ a man at your fishery.
My initial desire of creating a lifestyle business that gave me freedom and choice, coupled with an intent focus on growing a massive company that employed lots of people … were sadly diametrically opposed. Unlucky for me, and for those who worked at Zirtual, this revelation didn’t hit home until after the crash.
I don’t want to be a Unicorn, I want to be a Pegasus
Not long after raising our first venture round, I lost track of my initial (and lifelong) desire for freedom and enough money to do what I want—but not collect things I don’t need. My entire life was Zirtual, mostly because I loved the people who worked there and believed wholeheartedly in power of delegation. But I did get a case of Unicorn creep.
This is because being in tech, especially in San Francisco, it’s hard to escape the constant flow of people talking about Unicorns (not the mythical creature sadly, this instead refers to a startup that has a valuation of over 1 billion dollars). We got caught up, we wanted to grow Zirtual into a billion-dollar company—which would mean we’d have tons more clients and would create tons more jobs. It seemed like a win-win-win.
Over the last 8 weeks I’ve done a lot of deep diving into what I want- what makes me happy, why I wasn’t happy for the last year or so, but was so disconnected from my own soul that I would have sworn on a bible I was “Great!”.
Thus full circle back to the 4HWW, it seemed fitting to read the book that had originally sparked my online business bug, and try to reconnect with the 23-year old girl who read it for the first time many years prior.
What did 23-year old Maren want? And what does 30-year old Maren want?
Reconciled, I did and still do want freedom, peace, happiness, bringing joy to others, having enough money to to buy nice quality of the minimal items I need to be comfortable, the ability to travel at will and sometimes do “posh” things.
Do I need a billion dollars to do that? Do I need a hundred million, or only one? Do I need 99.99% of my “network” tied up in RSUs that can disappear with a bad economy? Or… do I need a set, stable, amount of income each month… that ideally performs good in good times, and great in bad times.
I don’t want to be a Unicorn. Mythical, rarely seen, known to disappear into the mist… leaving those who glimpsed it wondering : “Wait, was that just a horse with a cone on it’s head?”.
I want to be a Pegasus. A creature known as the source of inspiration to poets, artists and heros. A being that is able to spread out it’s beautiful wings and fly off… whenever it feels like.
Pegasus is a visual embodiment of freedom, magic and joy.
So I restart my quest, initiated with this blog so many years ago—to escape the 9 to 5, and to create freedom and adventure in my life through starting businesses that bring others joy.
I hope documenting my journey will help inspire you to start your own.