Taxi rides make up a small percentage of my adult life. Over the years I’ve developed an appreciation for the humanity of taxi drivers, particularly in big cities. First and foremost, taxi drivers provide a public service in a small space. I can’t think of anything close, other than elevator operators in New York. Second, drivers are arguably the most accurate leading indicator for a regional economy. When cash gets tight, drivers are some of the first to feel it. Plus, drivers often work half a shift to cover running costs, even in a decent market. So every dollar counts.
In direct comparison to US domestic travel, the typical business trip in Australia goes like this:
Get to the airport 45′ early, and within 10′ your bag is checked and you are through security. Rare identification checks, no security intimidation (replaced by profiling), and generally a smooth process. Flights are almost always on time, never overbooked, and generally the planes are clean and operated by happy staff. En route travelers are quiet, with minimal use of mobile phones, and no carry on baggage dramas. You land. Within 45′ you have your luggage and are in the central business district of whatever city. The majority of domestic planes are clean and usually have leather seats. No first class, all one service, like JetBlue but no cookie. This is a domestic travel utopia.
Look, it’s not quite perfect. I’ve been profiled/questioned prior to an international flight. And one time in 3 years I got stuck on a tarmac for 1 hour. And another time my flight was cancelled, due to computer system failures in the airline. And one week I got bilked on hotel rates due to a city-wide overbooking in Melbourne. Still, these are minor taxes to pay for a functional travel environment.
Back in America, every time I land in LAX, you reenter the third world travel purgatory, otherwise known as domestic US travel. For efficiency, you have the most complex web of connecting flights, designed to conserve fuel, maximize payload, and pump the margins for the greater good of lamenting shareholders. Granted, there are 15x the number of cities and people in comparison to Australia/New Zealand, and 5x the number of airlines competing for the same result.
The first half of the US travel problem is the traveler. There are too many travelers carrying 50 lbs of crap on the plane in shopping bags. Everyone pushes as if impatience results in activity. Road warriors operate with robotic precision and zero sensitivity. Truly miserable airline staff (particularly evident on United, American, US Air) should find a happier future as prison wardens.
The bigger problem is the airline industry concept of selling a mediocre product in a vain attempt to endlessly trim for margin improvement. How about clean the planes? Increase direct flights. Fix the baggage problem, making it worthwhile to check your bags. Throw obnoxious travelers off the plane (like the conductors on the Acela express train line). Hire people who love travel. Take some pride in the business. Staff your airports with decision-makers. Make airlines a luxury item (which it is), instead of a cattle-wagon on wings.
Long before business, I played music. A lot, and if for no reason other than loving it. And it was in good company, with great friends. We started practicing in the basement of public buildings, which evolved to playing semi-legally in semi-public buildings, which led to dive bars, clubs, houses, outdoor venues, you name it. Eventually we started clocking regional touring miles to meccas and non-meccas of indie rock of the time.
Then I took a couple turns and entered the business world in my early 20’s. This was not a graceful transition- but it works. For the last 2 years I’ve been immersed in living an expat life in Sydney and running a regional start-up business.
Running a startup consultancy embodies everything of consulting and nothing of consulting at the same time. On one hand, you have constant complexity and change, and on the other you have an ever steady flow of grunt work that rewards itself in multiples as you succeed. It’s a high touch business, and everything you do counts. With your clients, your people, your suppliers. There’s no such thing as dumb luck, yet you must have some luck to survive – particularly in the early stages.
But do business and music world follow entirely separate paths?
Bad Shows and Good Shows
I remember dozens of average shows, some remarkably bad, and a handful of epic shows. The epic would be least anticipated and least planned. In business you have a constant run of meetings, deliverables, interviews, and communications. It’s tempting to let ‘normal’ define all, but you well and truly do have sessions that define the business and your own experience within. In this business, you must perform well constantly, but you’re most meaningful and fulfilling performances often happen with least predictability.
Practice and Performance
In music you spend disproportionate time practicing and improving and a relatively minute slice of time producing or performing live. Business couldn’t be more opposite, whereby you spend most time producing or attempting to perform, and little to no time actually practicing the form. It’s pathetic really – the value of ‘busy’ versus the value of quality performance. But in both cases, you do make mistakes and improve from them.
The Beauty of Imperfections
The business world maintains a false sense of security in the idea of perfection. We diminish the value of failure and promote value on perfect. Until, at least you have a humbling mistake and are forced through the motions of post-mortems. But in music (at least the kind I enjoy) you thrive on imperfections, possibly evolving from them and drawing from them new ideas. It’s the whole point.
In music, it was driving and then moving your kit in and out of places. Hours, days, weeks of time driving city to city. When you do arrive, then the manual work begins. In business it’s the endless volume of administration. No matter what you do, there is an endless stream of administration. I’d take driving over paperwork a thousand times over. Even in Iowa.
This only can happen with a lot of practice, yet an abandonment of your fundamental study. It’s arguably the most free form of art. So in business, are we best suited to practice the known truths, or seek variants and different forms of expression to make it work? The people who seem to enjoy their businesses the most are constantly seeking ways to improve it and grow it. The least prolific and miserable appear to be stuck in a pattern of repetitive motion, constantly seeking a better outcome via the same techniques with less and less spirit – the antithesis of art.
- Walked into a small privately run ink/toner shop in the local area
- Asked for a quote on toner for my little A4 work printer
- AUD$400.00 excluding GST, but we’ll have to order it in for you
- Went to the regional ebay site, bought and had the same kit delivered for AUD$60.00 in 3 days
Granted, the shop is located in an area renowned for predatory pricing, and paying 2-4x the global fair-market norm for products is fairly routine. But when the cost of toner exceeds that of your printer, do you really have to wonder why is retail in Australia tanking? Maybe the dim-bulbs will start to flicker that international online purchasing will bury retail where there isn’t already a monopoly (such as food, fuel) or unregulated markets dominated by tax/levy schemes (housing, automobiles).
Jumping into starting up a regional business (for a multi-national company), I anticipated there would be a steep learning curve and quite a bit of risk. So along the way, you pick up whatever advice you can get and some of it becomes incredibly valuable. Here’s a sampling:
|Sometimes you have to make a radical change and accept a lot of risk to open new paths||Now that the first year is over, I realize taking the risk of moving around the world to start up a new region is the best career change I possibly could have made. If you remove the grueling administration associated with small scale business, it’s the ultimate consulting project.|
|Keep your activity levels high||This advice kept me moving during the hardest part – the early days when you’re a one man band and juggling act. It has also resulted in finding niches of the market that are underserved or ignored. The best part is that the random fruits of early network building still come in very handy and fuel the ongoing effort.|
|You absolutely need a business plan||True, however the business plan takes on different roles over time. At first it was a gauge of ‘what assumptions changed and why’ and now it is a tool to focus and tweak, manage risks, and drive to goals/metrics.|
|You will make mistakes||You have to be prepared for some amount of failure. The first realization was that I boarded a roller coaster that doesn’t stop, it just hits the occasional flat run of track. The second realization is that you make the most of the ups and downs, and maintain a larger view of the win/loss record. Playing your own strengths, in addition to those of your team makes statistics improve. Oddly, the occasional defeat proves to be one of the best motivators to work harder and smarter.|
|You can’t just show up and get business in a few months||Absolutely true, in fact the Australian business culture runs on relationship and trust. Entering market was incredibly difficult as a newcomer (and continues to be a challenge). Once you have relationships and deliver value, you at least have a shot. In some ways, this traditional style of commerce is much better than the transactional “slam-bam-thank-you-mam” culture of business elsewhere.|
|You can’t come here and talk about who you were or what you did (in the US) unless you want to piss everyone off||This was directed at someone else fortunately, but was quite true in general. You’re better off not to break out the career history in business conversation. PowerPoint based conversations are equally useless. The ‘here and now’ atmosphere renders career pedigree a useless commodity.|
|You can transact globally with regional clients||Rubbish. Technically you can, but if you are sourcing labor in-region you immediately void a myriad of tax and employment regulations. If you import short-term labor you are most likely breaching immigration/visa policy. Most importantly, no one will take you seriously if you are taking a global trading position. Regional trading is vital.|
|Don’t try to associate with expats||Not true. In fact, a huge number of people in Australia hail from elsewhere, so people tend to share their histories and have a bit of interest if you share a history of packing up your kit and moving around the world. At times working in Australia reminds me of working in New York City or Brooklyn, a verifiable melting pot.|
|Be extremely careful in how you build your team||Every additional person counts and maintaining a good culture of positive thinkers and doers is crucial. I’ve always heard this advise from entrepreneurs but you only understand the gravity of this advice when you are building from ground-up.|
|Be wary of sharing information in market||Spoofing for competitive intel is constant issue, but the more you establish good relationships the less it happens. I’ve noticed the highly reputable people neither share or pry. After getting burned a few times you start to see the signs….|
|Drive revenue, don’t worry about profit||This came from several people who are some of the most successful I’ve ever met and continue to hold in high regard. Very true to the point that you need to quickly build up a book of business, but hazardous if you want to have a job in a year. Healthy revenues are the only revenues if your destiny is measured in form of sustainable numbers.|