Friday, 19 June 2015

WHY & HOW I QUIT MY FANCY JOB TO SET UP A TRAVEL START-UP

There’s just so many of us these days – suffering from some mid-life crisis or just jumping off the run of the mill job train that I am a bit afraid that this post may end up reading like a me-too! Yet, this is one of those stories I simply have to share....

Let me not get on about how I was dying of boredom or how the money stopped mattering to me and how the corporate life was suddenly beneath me and my higher calling in life blah blah. I think many of us have been there at some point. Yes I was bored and yes I couldn’t see myself doing the same old thing, living that life another year, but I loved working with Globus and Cosmos (the world's largest coach touring company, where I held the post of Regional Director South Asia & Middle East for over 8 years). It is not ‘one of’ but ‘the very best’ company I have seen through my career spanning 20+ years. I even had an excellent boss (ya, how many of us can say that) and oh yes the money was pretty yummy too. But I had stopped growing and leaving that as the core premise of why I quit the big bucks, let’s move on the how I did it.

DO IT RIGHT
I did it right – for the company. I sat on the chair for all of one year and one month while my bosses looked for a replacement for me and in the end while I was at it, I even helped find someone and ensured a smooth transition. I didn't walk out at the end of my six weeks notice period and it didn’t hurt that it gave me the time to figure out what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it and the money tap kept flowing during that time. But the most important thing to me was not destroying what I had taken over 8 years to build and staying committed to 'doing it right'. 

IF NOT SKILLS, UPGRADE YOUR NETWORK 
While I was at it, I also used the last year in my very last ‘working for someone else’ job to sharpen my skill but more than that my thinking. I am entrepreneurial at heart and one of the reasons I loved my job for many years was that the company let me do things my own way, yet I went ahead and joined the MPEFB program at IIM Bangalore because 20 long years experience in the industry can be a huge asset but it’s also sometimes a liability as you meet the same type of people who say the same sort of things and have the same mindsets. It was like trying to expand my vision. This was a very useful opportunity for me to break my own 'mind' barriers and meet and interact with some very interesting entrepreneurs from different industries. I also got to meet many fabulous alumni members and I certainly took to some of them, even asking one of them to become an advisor on our board at a later point (read below)..

WHY TRAVEL?
Today the world is bursting with ‘travel’ being the in-thing, the industry to be in. As I look at young, nerdy people getting off the techie-bandwagon or their limiting management jobs and starting another ‘travel start up', I have a mix of emotions. On the one hand, I am impressed because I truly believe that innovation in our industry has come from very few insiders – rest of the time we have ‘outsiders’ like Deep Kalra to thank for the Make My Trips and other disruptions that changed the way the travel business is done. On the other hand every time I have a conversation on my new company and I hear people say ‘Yes travel is rocking, no brainer really that you quit your job for a travel start up!’ – I am amused because I joined the industry when it was not the hottest place to be. In fact even 10 plus years ago, we often got to hear – those who could do nothing else got into travel! So, here’s a confession – I started a travel company because you can't teach an old dog new tricks... After 20 years in the industry the only thing I knew really well was...... Yes, the travel business. And the reason I plunged into it 23 years ago was that there was nothing else that I would have rather done than this. It’s no different today. The reason I am in it is the same – that I LOVE the travel business, I LOVE to travel and even today there is no other place I would rather be than this industry.


With that being established, the question was - where and what can I do differently – to add value to the industry, to travellers and to most of all to myself. This was the core reason I looked beyond the conventional businesses of 'customized travel', or yet another online portal or app or market-place that maybe could have made me money much faster and much more easily.

Whether I have been wrong or right in choosing the path to establishing India’s first company to offer activity basedholidays is something that only time will tell. But I went about the decision and choice in a rather stupid way. I looked at the world from my personal narrow vision. I looked at everything that I was doing in my own life.




WHY I QUIT
Some years before I quit my job, I had taken up running long distances and I found myself travelling to other countries to run Marathon races. I would often add exploring places and sightseeing to those trips. Then, to cross train for my runs, I bought myself a bicycle and I also gifted myself a trek to the Everest Base Camp on my 40th birthday. That trip was almost a defining moment (if one can call a 10 day long trek a ‘moment’) in being honest to myself that I couldn’t really continue working with my old company. For one, there was a clear mismatch now because I was promoting coach tours, while in my own life I was holidaying differently. It was a bit like cheating, but that's not reason enough as many people do amazing things for a living that they may not enjoy doing in their personal lives. The truth was that the lack of challenge in my previous job meant that I had become mechanical about my job and that was not fair to the company. But even my dis-interested, low involvement performance wasn’t the reason – it was what being mechanical at work was making ME. It was making me mediocre and MEDIOCRITY sucks. 




MONEY MATTERS
Romantic as it sounded, I thought that I would rather be broke and grow, than be extremely comfortable and uncreative. I remembered my younger days when most material things in my life revolved around ‘next month’ – yet it was when I was broke, pushed against the wall, that I fought the hardest, thought the hardest and worked the hardest. I clearly did MORE with myself. I know it’s kind of stupid to work all the way up to the top position where you earn a fabulous work-life balance and then look back and say those crappy early days were your happiest but that’s exactly how I felt. And from where I am today, let me tell you that a great work-life balance, money and a corporate status are all wonderful things to have... unless the feeling in the pit of your belly is so strong that it renders all of it meaningless, giving you sleepless nights. So some unsolicited advice here would be to not quit your well paying job if you are not ready to DIE (or come close to it is what I really mean) for your passion! The road I have taken is hard, the road most entrepreneurs take is hard..

Most people who say money doesn't matter usually have a good amount of it tucked away somewhere. Van Gogh survived because his brother funded his art and even social entrepreneurs for whom money is not a motivation, need it to realise their mission. So please don't get fooled by jazzy headlines that say I  gave up the money to follow my passion - they make great headers and get eyeballs and that's the purpose of those lines. It is true that I gave up the money and it is also true that I am following my passion but my stand on this is that if you want to earn thousands, you need to stop loving your hundreds. If you want to earn lakhs stop loving your thousands and if you want to earn crores you're gonna stop loving your lakhs. Quit the good for the great. Quit the big for the bigger.


Now giving up the lakhs doesn't guarantee that you will get to the crores, but if you don't try - guaranteed that you will stay where you are. It is also very uncomfortable to downgrade your lifestyle but I was ready to do that in the short to medium term. I have done it. In fact I started way before I quit my job. I scaled back on my lifestyle cutting out many meaningless things that cluttered it - eating out, fancy clothes blah blah.

And even then it is not the love of money that attracts money, it is your love for what you do plus some real hard work and a smart execution of your idea that is more likely to do that.

When standing on the cross-roads, asking myself what I should do. Like for many of us, I had quite a few choices - as a published author I could earn through writing more books, today even google pays people who keep jamming content on their blogs (and mine has had close to 2 million views in case you haven't noticed). I have been offered thousands of dollars for my FB page and even been paid for speaking assignments at events. But many of these things I consider hobbies. Not to say that others can't make a living from hobbies, I know many who do - it's just that my work from the travel industry is what I consider as my main 'source of income' and the combination of my experience and expertise just made it a much better calculated risk. 



I like that sort of risk. It was the same reason I proposed to a stranger 15 years ago without ever having met him even though I was just out of a 4 month old marriage with someone I lived-in with for two years (read that story in Wise Enough to be Foolish). I have a simple way of assessing these things - I ask: What is the worst that can happen? The answer was losing some money and maybe a hand to mouth existence for some time and that's not so bad in the larger scheme of life. I knew the worst case scenario would never be that I can't earn myself three square meals, pay my bills and most important continue to travel. And so that was that - I decided to quit my job right after I returned from the Base Camp. 

THINKING INSIDE OUT
Anyhow, as I looked on for what my options could be, I found the gap in the way I was living my own life – traveling to run, travelling to trek and hike and travelling to cycle. That’s how I came up with the idea of marathon touring, cycling tours, hiking and trekking tours etc. Its not a new concept to the world but it is new to India and the reason the others have not taken it up is that it is a super-niche and sustaining an entire business on something so specialized is very hard. But if you haven’t guessed it yet – I like the difficult. And it made perfect sense for me to combine my experience in the travel business and my passion for travelling differently. The fact is that no other travel style has given me as much opportunity to experience places differently as one can really get behind the scenes, engage with the locals. Adding this value to the lives of discerning travellers is good but even more rewarding is knowing that you are playing your part in keeping the local communities going by bringing business and economic support to their lives.  

In some ways thinking inside out is a mistake because one tends to think that most customers are like themselves and I have realised they are not always. Many more would rather save that money on getting a cheaper holiday or even not do the things one is so passionate about but the advantage of thinking that your customers are like yourself is that you go that extra mile to do all those little things that make your travels different because you are servicing your travellers the way you would service yourself and I think that is a good thing and a ‘sustainable advantage’ that you can build through your team. I have often dissuaded people from doing things that can earn me a lot of money because I don't think they make the best experience and most appreciate it.  

REALITY SHOW BEGINS
Anyway all those romantic feelings of the challenge when you are broke disappeared rather quickly as I did really go broke – within a matter of months. What I was expecting is that one-tenth of India’s population would queue up outside our office to get on our unique, experiential trips. What I was finding was travellers coming up to us and saying 'Do you do Disneyland?' or ‘I love the sound of it but I don’t know how to ride a cycle.’ (jeez what were you doing when you were 8 years old?)

Luckily for me I learnt two lessons from this experience (of going broke) – First - that you can't run a business on romantic feelings – you need money and to earn money you need customers. The second lesson was that if you have built credibility and a professional reputation through your past actions – you will find enough people to bail you out. This is why history matters and everything you do in your professional and personal life matters. Doing it right does matter. This is Karma. No angel investor knows whether they will ever get great returns from anyone's 'reputation' but they know that they are putting their money on a horse who will run hard to try to win the race. We got the funding (and even refused some people) and we got back on the race track almost as quickly as we were about to get thrown out of the game. This was the time we roped in some fabulous advisors with both expertise and experience to help us with the future. This was also the time we wrote our mission statement.

To LEAD the Activity Based Experiential travel space and CHANGE lives by spreading the love by INSPIRING travellers to become adventurers... one holiday, one traveller, one community at a time!

WHAT REALLY MATTERS 
There’s a whole lot of new things out there in the business world - buzz words like scale, valuation, VCs, dilution, acquisitions and what not.. many of these can actually be intimidating at times. Technology is changing so rapidly that yesterday’s verdict is a thousand years old and unless you are a business that is driven by technology I would say – keep your eye on the ball and stay focused on your goal. It is so easy to get distracted by fads that keep cropping up everyday. But it is not those hashtags that are going to get your top and bottom line up. There are only two things that will do that – your customers and your team.

I cannot emphasise enough on the latter – particularly in India where quality talent is in short supply and also as a lone entrepreneur who started out by herself, with no one to share my ideas, challenges and options with. Bottom line is that you cannot implement and deliver the standards you have set for yourself and your venture unless you get this part right. I have really struggled. I have been amused with random co-founder applications who bring literally nothing to the table expect 'I love to travel' but despite the pain, I have often chosen to do it myself over having someone ‘half-way’ there to service our travellers. I have made it harder for myself by being extremely selective about people who want to become part of our team – often dissuading them with the cons than offering them the pros. It is important to me that everyone in the team is a passionate believer so they are in it to 'do what it takes'. It takes time, patience and a lot of good luck to get a dream team together and we are getting there  one step at a time. 

Keeping the eye on the ball is everything for us, and that ball in our company is the customer. We have engaged closely with them to hear everything that they had to say to fine tune our offerings – softening it with small group tours, tours based with ‘#dothedifferent’, food walking and other experiential holidays in addition to the cycling, trekking and marathon tours that we are so passionate about. We like to hear each traveller's feedback and we reward them for sharing it with us. To us they are the ultimate focus. We just love it when they come back and tell us how wonderful their holiday was. This week a doctor from Kohlapur who took an 8 day walking tour with us called to tell us how pale the big cities looked after they had seen the beautiful meadows and stunning villages and forests of Austria. That puts the biggest smile on my face – that we made a difference to someone’s life. We love that we make it possible for people to get on marathon races they can never get entries for. We love it when people tell us all their friends have been to Italy but they are the only ones why cycled through it. We love it when solo travellers say they met amazing people on our trips and the small size helped them forge meaningful relationships with other travellers. We love what we do. We are different and we want to make people see the world differently.

We haven’t been all perfect. We have made mistakes but we don’t just correct the wrongs, we also work on the okay experiences to try and make them GREAT. Because that’s what we want Active Holiday Company to be – a GREAT company that delivers GREAT experiences and we WILL BE THAT (we are already on our way there).


Oh AND ABOUT THE CAR
There have been some stories in the media about me being the girl who sold her Honda City for following my passion. There are two truths here – I did sell my car and a bicycle did replace it (and to cross train for my marathons). It is also true that I set up the Active Holiday Company to follow my passion but the real reason I sold off the car was because it was expensive to maintain. It was only logical that I started using the bicycle for commuting. I knew that my new life would need some serious financial adjustments (and I have made them) and since I don’t know how to drive, it made perfect sense to sell the damn car and get myself a brand new bicycle. After all only the one who lives actively can promote active holidays.

Maybe that’s not how everyone does it, but that’s how I am doing it.


Thursday, 14 May 2015

Working Mothers: Innocent Till Proven Guilty

I wake up on Mother's Day and apart from the surprises waiting for me, I stumble upon the interviews of a few famous mommies in well known dailies.  The one thing that strikes me about more than half of these interviews, and generally about working mothers, is the common response to the 'most difficult part of being a mother with a career' – GUILT! I really don't get it and that's why I had to get down to writing this..

Let me explain. Ever since I set up my adventure travel start-up I deal with the work-life balance challenge everyday. Managing a venture, for that matter any job that you are passionately involved with, is like having another child and it can consume long waking hours of your day. But why should anyone be guilty about following their passion? I am not.

I do struggle to find the time to find time for my kids and truth is that I am never satisfied with the time I spend with them (read all my year end notes to see how this goal gets carried forward every year) but it doesn't mean that I don't spend time with them. I do spend many days travelling for work and I will be honest to admit that sometimes even for pleasure and I have even had to miss an odd sports day on account of work but I am not guilty that I am passionately and deeply involved with my work. And because I am that sort of person I am also passionately and deeply involved with my kids. 

Sorry mommies. You can call me weird and heartless but that's the truth – I am not guilty that I spend hours, days and sometimes more that that away from my kids choosing my work over them. Sometimes, I do the same for the kids. I take off from work and take breaks that are totally devoted to them. I love my children as do all parents. In fact I love them to bits. They are the centre of my life and not a day goes by that I don't communicate with them, no matter what corner of the world I am in. Do I miss them? Of course I do. But am I guilty that I am away doing things that matter to me, help me get closer to what I consider my purpose and having an awesome time doing so? I am afraid not.

The way I see it is that it helps me to be a better person and a happier one and that in turn helps me to be a better parent and a happier one. And pray, why is this guilt honour reserved for the mothers? How is it any different for the fathers who do the same? How come we don't hear any daddy’s complain about how guilty they feel? It is just that they are not socially pressurized into believing that it's not okay for them to get away for hours and days at the cost of their kids, while we women are.

I confess: My time away from my kids seems to bother everyone else a lot more. The neighbours and an odd distant family member and even some random well wishers who know little about our lives. To everyone, let me settle it once and for all here: Our kids are fine! They have a mother – yes a real one – even if you don't know or see her. They are well brought up, know their manners, are healthy and clean, know how to have fun and even feel sad. They are just like other kids. They are independent – I would like to say as independent as any other kid whose mother has devoted her whole life to raising them but often I think they are more independent. Of course I am going to say that because I am their mother but truth is that my kids have had to figure out many things on their own while their mommy's away jamming on what she loves to do. 

Don't get me wrong, I am totally respectful of mothers who have chosen to devote their lives to raising their kids (mainly because I could never do it) and everyone is entitled to their choices. This is not about working mothers versus home mothers but the point here however is that generally speaking, children of working mothers are far more likely to be handling their homework, uniforms, squabbles and schedules better than kids who have their parents (usually mothers) doing it all for them. And why should I be guilty of doing anything that contributes to my children becoming their own person? The entire purpose of parenting is to make children independent. 

My kids know that my time is a huge asset in my life. I spend a lot of time away from them and therefore I love my time with them. They know that I do things that are meaningful to me when I could be reading film gossip magazines or attending kitty parties, that I don't. When I do purposeful things with my life and time, it teaches them to manage their time well. To fit in the things that matter to them, no matter what. Find the time to read, find the time to play that song, find time to cycle, find the time to be silly, find the time to bond with friends, find the time to stare into space. And working women feel guilty about inculcating that in their kids?

It’s also a ridiculous assumption that working mothers don't know what’s going on in the lives of their children, or that the kids are not cared for and looked after. Kids are extremely adaptable and whatever they see from childhood is what is normal to them. To my daughters having a mother who travels for work and loves to travel for pleasure is a normal thing. There’s a little drama sometimes – you know the clinging before a trip – sometimes hoping that I don't go. I am their mother and of course they will miss me. But I go. Because I want to. Because I have to. Because it makes me happy. Because it is what makes me me. I have never apologized for what I do. And that's how I want my children to be. A bit selfish. Because only when you take care of yourself and your needs can you take care of others. 

It’s time we became the working mothers that the next generation deserves. My daughters will be working mothers one day and I want them to remember that they had a mother who's proud of the choices she made. Let's be mothers who are teaching kids, everyday, through their actions that they too should go after things they love, that make them tick and make them happy – no matter what! 




Sunday, 5 April 2015

A Tribute to Malli Mastan Babu

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

BEFORE YA FILL THAT CUP, GET OUT AND EMPTY IT!

Yup, not original lines, and corny as they may be – coming right out of The Monk Who Sold his Ferrari (and I am not saying that because I sold my Honda City to buy a bicycle), it's literally how I would describe 2014! After years of being comfortable, buying clothes that I didn't wear, jewellery that I never used and spending on things that I didn’t really need – I went on a cleansing binge – no doubt promoted by the depleting bank balance after I finally quit my job. But, I gotta to say what a roller coaster ride it has been…..

Reminiscing about past months I just get a sense of how much more I have done – with so much less.. so many firsts and so many experiences to be grateful for. Jan 2014 and I finally got off the bus – quit a job that I loved and I got paid well to do. What is that thing they say? Falling out of love? Must have been that, as I parted ways with a lump in my throat and at times tears in my eyes. But, if we are honest with ourselves and let our conscience guide us, we can never be wrong.

The months that followed were exciting. I set up an adventure travel company and started doing things that I could have never done till I freed myself from what took up my living hours. That bicycle became my commute vehicle and I even won a local race on it. It has become one of the more 'precious' belongings I have now.


It is love for cycling that brought me and the Prime Minister of Bhutan on the lunch table in Drukland in May 2014.  Wow - lunch with the Prime Minister... yeahhh. 


And before that, I had already led the first amateur group of Indian runners to London - making it possible for them to realize their dream to run the London Marathon. It wasn’t a first just for me and Active Holiday Company – it was a first for India and it's running community… and that was just the beginning as we started getting more and more races under our umbrella – Berlin, Chicago, Dubai, Great Wall, Munich, Angkor Wat.. the list goes on...


On to India’s first cycling tour brochure, India’s first Adventure Travel Symposium, an amazing partnership with two incredible brands – Intrepid and Exodus – yup.. we've just gotten started..



On the personal front, even though the new venture barely left me any time to pursue my love for running and travelling, I managed to realize my 42 @ 42 in 42 dream – finishing a full marathon for the first time in my life despite very little running throughout the year. All thanks to the amazing bunch of Ultra Warriors and my personal pacer Brijesh Gajera – you are my best boys! 



And, that time when I went really really broke was good test of who my 'real' friends are. Surprise, surprise – there were many.. I count my blessing and thank God for ensuring I was at the right time at the right place at various points of my life over the last four decades so I could meet you – be it college hostel room mate distress or that I had to marry my ex-husband to become friends with some… or that we ended up working for the same company (never mind that it shut down!).. In your strange ways, God – you do many things right..



If there’s anything I never get enough of – it is having fun with my young ladies – my 13 and 11 year old teenagers (ya the 11 year old has been 19 for years now!). They dance, they sing, they jump, they run, they cook, they dream and they are everything I would love them to be – just perfectly themselves…  How I enjoy their arguments, comments, jokes and at times even their temper tantrums. 

As my Godson gets ready to fly out of the nest – I feel a twinge in my heart at the thought of them growing up too soon. But I am guessing that we will soon be gouging each other’s eyes out so the pain of separation will diminish as they get ready to lead their own lives. God bless them and I will love them forever.. no matter what they do and where they live..



It's not all perfect. I missed my sister, I missed my holidays with my bestie... ya sometimes you need money for those kinda things..  


I miss my old team – in particular my 3 pillars. I miss Raghavendra’s green tea. The distance may have grown but so has the fondness. Yet old gives way to the new, as I work on building a new team and its going to be as awesome as the one I had before. 



Yet, for every minus we have in life - there is significant plus. For every penny I have earned less, I have re-used, re-cycled, reduced from what I already had - in cash, kind, willpower and courage... and boy – have I accumulated over the years! 

Most of all, if it was not for the dent in my pocket – I would have never taken the risks I took and never enjoyed the amazing experiences. If there is a way to do that without being broke, I wouldn’t know and I don’t regret it. I only know I emptied my cup and it’s not just full, its overflowing… I feel more charged, creative, fresh, challenged and happy than ever before.. and I am guessing that's what being rich is all about. 




2014 – I say farewell to you with a big kiss. You were a defining year of my life and you slipped by before I could notice you were around. You have set the bar higher. What will 2015 bring me?  Whatever it will be – I am not afraid or worried – because when the cup is empty – it can give nothing – it only takes…  HAPPY 2015!!