13 days through the west on a motorcycle shows me what Left Coaster Life will be like for the foreseeable future.
In September 2008 we decided to make some radical changes. This is the story of our journey to a new life. The good, bad and ugly.
Karen and I can’t remember the last time we spent four months together in one place. Reason — I don’t think we ever have. For the most recent five years we’ve taken at least 20 trips each and every year. To almost every continent, by plane, train, ship, motorcycle, RV, car, Tuk-Tuk or any other means available (remember the camels in Egypt and Mongolia?)
It’s been a bit of cold turkey on the travel front. I tell Karen that we were better together when we were on the road. Better moods, a chirpiness in her voice, something new every day, meeting strangers that became good, if temporary friends, not having to worry about the mundane things of life and — of course — we’re both addicted to the “What’s around the corner?” disease.
We’ve learn to be “better” together in one place in a 600 square foot loft in downtown Los Angeles, which we used to refer to fondly as “Factory Place”. The fondness started to wear off in Month Two. We were forced, literally, to adapt. Karen likes to have the TV on all day, which doesn’t really work when I’m on a zoom call six feet away. Answer: ear phone plugged into the TV. I didn’t really have a home office. Answer: carve out space in the closet (literally). I needed a “Zoom Studio,” since I was doing Zoom calls all day, and no one wants to look at a closet as a backdrop (although I’ve seen worse, a lot worse:) Answer: Get a bookcase, a rack and some mounted posters to hang in front of the clothes. Voila: a studio. Not surprisingly, KR and I are on different biorhythms: I’m early to bed and early to rise; KR is the opposite. Answer: lots of ear plugs and rubber soled shoes.
NGIN’s business has picked up. We’re zooming with our members more often (we have 30 members in 14 countries) and we’re getting more calls from cities to help them build out their innovation ecosystems. All of this is done in front of a Zoom screen, looking out on the alley between Factory Place buildings. I’m writing more business articles and doing more videos. I’m starting to watch my social media audience of all things. These are strange times, indeed.
A lot of good things happened during our four month stay in our shoebox of an apartment. First, I’ve never eaten better in my life as KR had little else to focus on and we had great meal after great meal. I shattered my belief that you have to go to the gym to workout. I started running on our empty streets in place of the treadmill. Much better. I used the stairs to our second floor as a built in StairMaster. Record: 55 times up 15 steps. Weights were easy — there are thousands of videos on YouTube to choose from.
We got to know our neighborhood much better as we took Bogart and Squirt for long walks around the Arts District’s warehouses, historic buildings, closed restaurants/bars, and cold storage units. We barely needed masks as there were few people in a part of the city that is pretty busy during “normal” times, but few people actually live here. We got in the habit of having an eventing cocktail sitting in the patio of one of said closed restaurants. It was good.
For about two months, and then things …
It rapidly went downhill for KR first. She’s a passionate, knowledgable, extremely curious gardener. A couple of pots in front of our door didn’t cut it, no matter how many times I offered to build a garden bench (don’t laugh, I wouldn’t have built it, of course, I would have bought one). Her day job, that as InnKeeper of our BNB in Puerto Vallarta came to a screeching stop. Since we weren’t there, it was hard to supervise decorating or repair projects from afar.
It went downhill for me as well. We had to cancel our long-planned motorcycle trip to Africa. We couldn’t even go on shorter trips. All my races from Formula One to MotoGP were cancelled. Bars closed. Restaurants closed. It got boring wearing shorts and flip flops to work every day.
We needed to do something. We’d been wanting to get south to PV since early April, but could we get across the border, could we gas, could we get all the vehicle permits required, is it safe to go anywhere? We hesitated for about two and a half months.
On June 25th, all four of us climbed into Thor and started the drive south. We took four days rather than our usual three. We “camped” in a parking lot in Yuma and on the street in downtown Mazatlan on the way. Result? No problems at the border, in fact it was probably the easiest crossing we’ve had. They’d completed a long stretch of the main highway,15D, that has been under repair for the last several years, so the highway was better than ever. It’s now been a couple of years since they eliminated Pemex’s monopoly, so we could find Shell and Chevon stations all the way down and for once we could use credit cards. We rolled into PV on a Sunday night, parked the RV in a storage lot outside of town, and by 9PM that night we were having cocktails on the observation deck.
We’ve been in Puerto Vallarta for four weeks now and its a whole new ball game. As in Wow!
It’s impossible to describe the bliss in going from 600 sq. ft. to 5,400 sf. ft. For instance, more often than not, I have to yell “Karen, where are you, up or down?” from my office on the third floor. Each direction offers gardens and all sorts of projects that KR is working on. Simultaneously of course:)
This time at our home is different from all the others. This isn’t a vacation. And there are no guests coming, forcing us to migrate to Thor to wait their stay out. Since we are in middle of three NGIN projects (Riverside, Australia and India), I couldn’t afford to miss a step during the relocation. . Finding reliable, high(er) speed in the El Centro part of Vallarta required getting two 5G lines in the house; one for the first two floors, one specifically to my office on the third. Since its hot and muggy (87 with 60-ish humidity)in Vallarta, I had to close off and then air condition my office. Result is that I have a fully functional office for the first time south of the border. It’s good, very good.
Is it safe in Mexico? Normally, people ask us this because of the drug cartels. Now it’s COVID. Here’s a comparison of relevant data:
Someone once said, “There are three types of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics!” So, you can make your own conclusions about where its safest.
But the real question is: “Is it safe anywhere?” Not any place I can afford. California is on the verge of a roll back of openness and are some of the other states with significant spikes. When will this end? Answer: we don’t know.
We’re here for the duration.
Here’s what the Lock Down looked like north and south of the border.
All things considered, we’re happy campers. We’ll be here for a while.
From Kazakhstan to Paris, with Mexico, DC, Sacramento and Los Angeles in between.
We’ve been on lots of trips, but this has been like no other. We flew the equivalent of 1 ½ times around the world, from the warmth of the Coral Sea to the howling winds of Mongolia. From the sweet sophistication and beauty of Sydney, to the stark grandeur of Kazakhstan’s new capital city, Nur-Sultan. We’ve walked the streets of the almost tiny Ulaan Baatar’s 1 ½ million people to Beijings’s 20+ million people and everything in between. We dived on the Great Barrier Reef, 75kms off the Australian Coast, and ridden camels in the Gobi desert eight plus hours from “civilization.” We’ve conducted an “intimate” workshop among 50 people and spoke at global events with thousands of attendees in Central Asia and China. We’ve talked Big Data, big vision, the impact of the One Road, One Belt initiative on Central Asia and the nuts and bolts of how to build companies.
We’ve had to buy extra shorts because it was too hot and parkas because it was too cold. We’ve sipped lattes watching the sun rise over Australia and gulped hot coffee shivering on a stool outside a ger on the Mongolian Steppes. We’ve slept in cozy boutique hotels, in gigantic conference palaces, on a cot in a ger and in a flea-bag hotel down an alley next to Beijing’s airport. Along the way Karen fell in love with all-things-Koala (as in the little furry animals); I saw my first giraffe up close and personal; we were just feet away from the most feared animal in the Daintree Rain Forest – the guerilla-sized Cassowary bird; and in China Karen was warned not to make eye contact with the monkeys because they can become vicious.
If you have a bit of time, grab a glass of wine, settle in, and come along on this trip. It’s five in the morning, I have plenty of time, we’re in Row 59 of 60 conveniently located next door to the head, and just about to cross over the most eastern tip of Russia to Alaska.
Where to begin?
We didn’t know where we were going when we started. It just kind of unfolded as we went along. I know this sounds crazy for a 13 flight, 35-day, two business conference trip, but it’s the truth. When we got on our first flight to Sydney, we didn’t realize we would have twelve more flights to catch, none of which were booked yet. Things changed and morphed so often that we almost never knew where we would be staying more than two days out. I took care of the flights and business stuff, Karen took care of lodgings, eateries and entertainment.
Our “Itinerary” eventually unfolded to this:
- Fly to San Francisco, then catch a flight To Sydney
- Spend a couple of days in Sydney, then
- Fly to Brisbane for a week of business workshops
- Fly north to Cairns, gateway to the coast along the Great Barrier Reef
- Rent a car, drive further north to Port Arthur for a couple of days. Swim on the reef, trek through a rain forest
- Drive to Palm Cove and just hang in one of the most beautiful beach towns we’ve ever come by
- Drive back to Cairns, fly back to Brisbane, catch a flight to Abu Dahbi, and another to Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan (all in one day)
- Speak at the Astana Economic Forum and see a bit of Nur-Sultan.
- Jump a plane to Beijing, miss our flight, spend a night in Beijing, then fly to Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia the next day
- Hop in a Russian knock-off of a VW van and drive 8 hours west into the Mongolian steppes.
- Spend two nights staying with two different families in Mongolian yurts (called gers)
- Drive back another 8 hours, spend the night in Mongolia’s capital, Ulaan Baatar.
- Next day, catch a flight back to Beijing, then meet up with the “Silicon Valley Talks to Big Data Valley” business delegation I’m joining, and all of us fly to Guiyang, China. After 2/12 hours on one of the worst flights we’ve been on, we get to our Guiyang hotel at 2AM.
- Next morning we’re off to the Big Data Expo and do a panel discussion, some interviews and various other events.
- Have one free night to explore Guiyang and to my utter disbelief, I actually loved this Tier 4 City of 5M people.
- At 4:30 this morning we begin the 24+hour sojourn home
- 35 days, 37,000 miles, 13 flights, 10 airports, four countries, and nine cities.
- Modes of transportation: plane, subway, catamaran, bus, car, camper van, ferry, camel and a horse
No matter what type of government or place, the rich and powerful live differently than you and me. There can be a pretty stark difference when traveling. One gets a flavor of what it’s like when you’re treated like a VIP in Kazakhstan or China. In China, we went to an entire “VIP Wing” of the airport where we lounged in a comfortable room (there were about a dozen of these rooms) while visas, boarding passes, luggage, etc. were handled. In Kazakhstan, we had similar treatment, never having to worry about transportation or travel arrangements of any kind.
This pampering contrasted sharply with the more normal brutal experience of long distance travel. In Beijing’s airport it took us THREE HOURS just to check in and get through all the various immigration, security check(s), customs, etc. We were lucky to have five hours between connecting flights as we needed most of it. In a previous flight to Beijing, we missed our connection out of Beijing to Ulaan Baatar. We had to stay in a dirty, stained-carpet, brown-water-out-of the-tap kind of hotel down a back alley close to the airport. I think we had three 24hr+ travel days that were so long we couldn’t remember where we had started that morning. We also broke a record of more than a dozen “fasten your seat belt” notifications on a single flight that was constantly rocking and rolling from Beijing to Los Angeles.
But, as they say, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. Good, bad, ugly and horrible coincide with the great, breathtakingly beautiful, and the wondrous that is long distance travel. We had no major mishaps, we lost nothing important, we made all of our meetings, and walked away from every flight.
We’ll be ready to go again, soon.
The Cliff Notes Version: Go. Beautiful, clean, friendly, the most “like us” place we went, high standard of living and quality of life. It’s all about the outdoors, whether “the bush,” the beaches or the Great Barrier Reef. Sydney is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve been to (physically reminds me of SF). Write this down: Palm Cove, north of Cairns. It’s just a great little beach town.
What We Did: Sydney Zoo, traipse around Sydney, toured the Sydney Opera House, watched a Memorial Day parade, went to the Great Barrier Reef, took a tour in the Daintree Rainforest, went to a immaculately preserved mining town from the 1800s, various animal sanctuaries, swam in the ocean, a rain forest river and a pool. Goes without saying we hit lots of bars and restaurants
The Great Barrier Reef (GBR). The GBR is north of Brisbane along hundreds of miles of coast and is THE place to go. We took a catamaran from Port Douglas 75 kilometers to a part of the reef where this company had a giant pontoon boat anchored. Think beautiful ocean, snorkeling, bars and food. Spent an entire day along with 300 of our closest friends snorkeling and “ocean walking.” No question though, the GBR is in trouble. Rather than a cascade of underwater colors we all see in pictures, it is gradually turning brown, then bleached white as it slowly dies. Yes, its all about the water temperature and climate change. Yet, snorkeling over the GBR for a couple of hours is my most vivid memory of the trip. It was an out of body experience that I will never forget.
Animals: Seeing lots of animals has never been on my list of great things to do; seeing lots of animals is one of Karen’s favorite things to do. Guess what happened? Within 24 hours of landing in Sydney, we had hit its world-renowned zoo. Karen fell head over heals for the fuzzy little Koala bears. It was my first time seeing a giraffe up close and personal. The tigers just kind of looked at you wondering which one of us was for dinner. Kangaroos. Wallabies. Tasmanian Devils, and on and on and on. A couple of days later we were gliding down a river in the Daintree Rain Forest looking for crocodiles, which we found plenty of (KR even went to a Croc ranch). I’ve never been to so many animal sanctuaries in my life: butterflies, said Koalas, rain forest animals, etc., etc. By the time we left Australia, I was thinking of starting an Animal Picture Book.
Cairns, Port Douglas and Palm Cove. These are all beach towns along the north Queensland coast. All can get you to the GBR. I hated our one day and two nights in Cairns. Couldn’t find a decent bar or restaurant. Tourist Trap. Port Douglas is a wonderful little village that is probably the main jumping off point for the GBR. Very charming. Maybe a dozen or so of restaurants. Served as our headquarters while seeing everything. Palm Cove. Literally, the minute I stepped out of our car I knew I loved this place. Tiny. Right on the beach. Palms blowing in the wind. Swimming. IF we ever get back to Australia, I’m going back to Palm Cove. I wanted to stay two weeks, not two days.
Why/Where/What is it. It’s in the part of the world called Central Asia. Think all of the countries between Russia and China and you’ll get the general idea. Kazakhstan was a Soviet controlled country until the collapse of the USSR in ’90. Now it’s an independent country with strong cultural and business ties to Russia. Nur-Sultan is the capital created just 20 years ago in the northern part of Kazakhstan. Recently changed its name from Astana to Nur-Sultan, after the “First President” who is still the only President. I was invited to speak on a panel at the Astana Economic Forum about “Building Innovation Ecosystems. The AEF takes place at the 2017 Expo park built in 2017 to house a world expo that attracted more than 100 countries. It’s a truly spectacular place, built on a grand scale with some of the most stunning architecture I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, it’s on the outskirts of Nur-Sultan with nothing in walking distance but a US-style mall. Nur-Sultan is one of the two coldest capital cities on earth. Temperatures get down to -30F with 50 mph winds in the winter. BTW, the other coldest capital city is Ulaan Baatar, our next stop: )
The People/Culture: Aside from looking different from Karen and I, most everything else was relatable. People in every city (towns are another story) dress pretty much the same, they buy the same (American) branded merchandise, and do the same things. Babies cry. Girls giggle. Boys run around. Boyfriend and girlfriend hold hands. Families take selfies. While many of the restaurants looked the same, the food was something other-worldly as I had my first piece of Horse Meat and sipped some Camel’s milk. It’s reassuring to know that one can get a Corona almost everywhere: )
The Physical Place: We only saw parts of the 20-year new capital in the northern part of Kazakhstan, which is in the middle of the Kazakhstan steppes. Weather changed pretty rapidly from 35ish to 65ish in 24 hours. It’s the wind however that makes the biggest impression. Even in the summer, the plane was rocking and rolling on our approach to Nur-Sultan.
There is a “grand vision” nature to all the architecture we saw. Buildings are built for scale, huge in size and shape. Style is hard to describe, something between over-the-top Vegas and Eurasian. Even in early summer, there isn’t much green yet around. The one exception to all of this is… a shopping mall which looks and feels like a shopping mall anywhere.
Since we had three days between the end of Kazakhstan and the beginning of the Chinese leg, we thought we’d see what Mongolia’s like. After all, it was half way…
The Cliff Notes Version: We flew into Mongolia’s capital, Ulaan Baatar in the upper eastern part of the country, hired a guide and driver, and then proceeded to spend the next two and a half days going west into the Mongolian steppes and Gobi desert. We spent two nights with two different families sleeping in Mongolian gers. We rode camels, horses, and had a cocktail sitting next to a goat. We watched a real Mongolian BBQ get cooked and huddled around a cup of coffee sitting out side in the “brisk” Mongolian morning. We learned about Genghis Khan and how Mongolia dominated the world around 1200 BC. We spent our last night in Ulaan Baatar doing what tourists do — shopping.
The Nomads and Herders of Mongolia: By far and away the most amazing thing was to experience/see how most Mongolians outside the city live. They are called nomads for a reason. The easiest way to describe them is to understand that they aren’t farmers or ranchers in our sense of the word, but rather “herders.” Most have up to five different herds of animals — goats, cows, horses, sheep, camels for example — and no fenced in land to graze. Instead, they “herd” each type of animal throughout each day, moving from one pasture to another. They do this on horseback and (the younger generation) on motorcycles with the help of a dog. It starts at sunrise and goes on past sunset.
They’re nomadic because they literally move their gers each season. They plan these moves very carefully, relocating to particular pastures for specific reasons. They usually have a winter place that has a more permanent structure for the family and animals, still primitive.
A typical family (BTW, that means the extended family of mom, dad, grandparents, brothers, grandkids) might have 2-3 gers, a small Russian truck, a motorcycle, and all the things that might go in them. They can put up a ger and fully furnish it in one hour, which seems impossible when you see how they’re constructed and what’s inside one. Each ger has a couple of hard cots, a stove in the center, a couple of wooden dressers to store stuff, plastic table and chairs to eat and sit at, and…. a flat screen TV which is powered by a couple of solar panels stuck in the ground with a couple of wires running to a car battery inside.
There is no running water, no indoor plumbing, no “trash collection,” etc. Everything is carried in, grown, harvested or carried out. Usually in the truck, motorcycle or horse.
As you would expect, mom takes care of the food and house, dad, grand dad and son take care of the animals. If they have breakfast, its very very early in the morning before starting to move the herds. Dinner takes place around 6 or 7, after which they prepare the animals for night. During the night one can hear lots of conversation and laughing. Vodka is the preferred drink.
While the herder life wouldn’t be characterized as civilized by those of us living in cities, especially cities in the West, I’m not so sure it is not civilized in the usual meaning. These folks have a close relationship with each other, the land and their animals. They eat what they grow or can find. There isn’t a lot of time for things that aren’t work related, but once again, they seem to be a happy bunch. No one punches a clock, no one take orders, no one has the stress of a deadline.
The Cliff Notes Version. I was asked to speak on a panel at China’s largest Big Data conference on the future of work and cities, all of which I know little or nothing about. Who was it that said, “Often wrong, but never in doubt”? That’s my motto in these situations: ) Anyway, I was a part of the “Silicon Valley in Dialog with Data Valley” delegation to this conference in Guiyang, China, which is a rather small (5M) 3rd or 4th Tier City in Southwest China. It was a hit and run kind of event since we literally flew in at 2AM on Saturday and flew out at 7AM on Monday.
The group included entrepreneurs, futurists and forward-thinking folks from government and business. It turned out to be a really good group, we did a couple of really interesting panel discussions and had a fun time exploring Guiyang on the last night. Even though they were from Germany, SF and LA, we all kind of clicked.
Guiyang and China:. I have very conflicted feelings about China and the Chinese folks I’ve met. I’ve been to China 2-3 times previously, but only to the Tier 1 cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. While Hong Kong is pretty and interesting, I’m not too enamored with Beijing and Shanghai, mostly because of the depressing pollution and the always-present oversight of the Chinese government. Everything about China’s government is pretty antithetical to us Americans. But, that’s probably MY problem as most of the Chinese people I see and interact with seem pretty happy. This is a much longer discussion for a different time, so let’s just say that much of China’s way of governing isn’t for me.
So it was pretty surprising when I fell in love with the city of Guiyang! It’s mountainous, green, has at least one river running through it, and is pretty interesting architecture wise. Its the first night out that I’ve had in China that I wasn’t totally aware that we were in China. It seemed like just another city in some part of the world where the language and visual sightings were different, but the rest felt comfortable. I tried more “real” Chinese food this trip than in all my previous trips combined and liked most of it. I even saw KR try a piece or two:)
Congratulations if you’ve made it this far! You’re probably as tired as we were.
Until the next time.
This holiday season we were both south of the border and south of freezing temperatures in Mexico and New Mexico. It was fun in both environs.
Warning: this post covers almost six months, so its a bit long. Skip to the pics if you want a scan.
This is how we spent the second half of 2018: We took four RV trips, I gave four speeches at a m/c rally, attended a climate summit in SF, took two train trips, flew to PV a couple of times, went to Pakistan for the first time, I worked with the Trump Administration and to top it all off – I go under the knife for a 4 1/2 hour surgery.
One of our pleasant surprises of the second half is we use Thor (25 ft Class B RV) much more often than we expected and in a totally different way. We bought it for long, meandering trips as well as a second bedroom in PV. But most of our trips have turned out to be short stints to beaches and lakes in which Bogart and Squirt can run free. We’ve made a “Thor Weekend” really Plug & Play as we can be packed and ready to go in under an hour. There’s an RV park on a beach 45 minutes from downtown LA.. We go there most often despite being directly beneath LAX’s runways and across the street from a huge sewage treatment plan and oil refinery:)
Going to Pakistan wasn’t on my bucket list. The Taliban. Radical Islam. Osama bin Laden and the land of the Burka sums up what I knew of Pakistan before getting the invitation to speak at the 021Disrupt conference in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city. I could only stay 3 1/2 days, so KR didn’t come along.
Let me cut to the chase. Here’s what I encountered in Karachi.
- I continue to be surprised that there are young, enthusiastic entrepreneurs in most emerging countries and Pakistan is no different. The 021Disrupt conference drew 500+ entrepreneurs, students, and investors. I met with a great many very fine young people who were all earnestly trying to build a company. But, like most every other developing nation, Pakistan’s entrepreneurs have little support from government, businesses, investors, universities and other stakeholders. It’s this “ecosystem” that accelerates innovation in developed nations.
- Pakistan is country of paradoxes for an American entrepreneur. First, the country was created specifically so that Muslims could live the life that their religion specifies. This is not just a country that has a Muslim population, its a country that was created for them. It’s a country which is tightly controlled by its federal government and military. Yet, I didn’t see a country that looked 100% traditional Muslim. At least at the events I went to — diplomatic, entrepreneurial, academic, social — there was a mix of traditional and Western dress by both the women and men. The women I spoke with were smart, articulate and independent. Net net, it felt comfortable. I discovered to my surprise that no alcohol is served anywhere except private clubs and only available for sale in black market stores.
- I was more aware of security in Pakistan than any country I’ve been to. It wasn’t blatant, no armed soldiers on street corners and in hotel lobbies as in Ethiopia. No, it was a serious consideration whenever outside the hotel. For the first time, I learned what US Green Zones, Yellow Zones or Red Zones meant. Green = an American government employee on station can go there anytime without permission. Yellow = an American can go with the permission of their immediate boss. Red= an American only can go with the permission of the Ambassador. This was the first time I’d been to a Red Zone. Yet, it was pretty heartening to listen to Pakistani government officials at a lunch meeting discuss the causes — and potential solutions — of radicalism in a realistic, long-term way. There was no white-washing.
- Physically, Karachi is a lot like Mumbai or Delhi. At 20+ million people, all three cities are of similar size. Karachi looks a lot like India, except possibly less depressing, slightly less garbage, with more cars vs Tuk Tuks. Karachi is located in a desert — it gets 2 days of rain each year! There doesn’t appear to be a lot of infrastructure (sidewalks and things like that) and like Delhi, it doesn’t feel like a walking city compared to Mumbai.
- Finally, Pakistan provides a real-life prism into the immigration issue. Pakistan is one of the biggest supporters of radical Islam and supports terrorism against the US in Afghanistan. Its one of the last countries I’d want someone immigrating from. Yet, the young entrepreneurs I met would be welcome additions to our country. All you have to do is look into the eyes of a young Pakistani who visited US once, thinks its a magical place, and desperately wants live here to know what “I want to escape a bad place for the opportunity of America” looks like. Go figure.
On a lighter note, KR and I went to the annual Horizons Unlimited meeting of motorcycle adventurers in Mariposa, California this September. Its a three day event filled with training sessions, war stories, how-to sessions sprinkled around meals with fellow motorcyclists. We all camped in tents at the county fair grounds. We spent five days to and from the meeting, riding around California’s gold country. I was asked to make four — count’m four — presentations: “How to go to the Isle of Man TT races”, a travelogue of our two trips through Europe, unusual places to ride in California, and how to “rewire” your life for travel. While I was sure the last one would be the least popular, it was actually the most popular and generated the most interaction. Apparently getting one’s life under control in order to pursue your passion is a pretty important subject no matter the passion..
I finally got the chance to take the Amtrak train down the coast to San Diego and then north to San Luis Obispo. It was unique mode of transportation from our norm and I highly recommend it. The view is great, not worrying about the drive was terrific, the food was acceptable, and it made for great scenery — inside and outside the coach. If any of you are contemplating this trip, email me and I’ll give you some pointers.
I’m writing this post from bed two weeks after going through a 4 1/2 surgery to resection my colon. Basically, they cut a six inch section out and re-attached the ends. It’s been quite an experience that I’m glad to have come through fine. I have one peace of advice for everyone reading this over the age of 50 – get a colonoscopy now if you haven’t had one for a year. It saved my life.
OK, enough with the words, here’s what all of this looked like in pictures.
That’s it for now. I’ll try to write more often.
PS: One fun fact for 2018: We took 18 trips this year, which is the fewest number in the last four years. We’re at 42 countries and counting. We need to pick up the pace : )
Trying to start a company isn’t for the weak-kneed. I’ve tried eleven times so far, with NGIN being No. 12. Measured by money, and most would argue there’s no other measurement worth calculating, only one of them has made a lot of it. Two of them have been truly special places to work, having a lasting effect on all of us. Just one of them has might make a lasting impact on something greater than those who have worked there.
Building companies is a young man’s (and woman’s) game as only they have the energy and are blind to the risks. Being resilient is essential if you’re going to push through the daily set-backs. “Peaks and valleys” is too kind of a phrase to describe what its like. There is nothing remotely valley-ish about the life-changing, gut-wrenching consequences of the failures that inevitably happen. Nor does peaks describe the pure, unadulterated joy of succeeding, even for a moment.
Which brings us back to No. 12 — NGIN. I’m old enough to know the chances of success are low and the risks of failure (it will be expensive). I get exhausted quicker and it takes longer to recover. I’ve already had too many “What the f__k am I doing?” sessions while nursing a screwdriver and ruminating over some lost opportunity. Geez, who needs this?
Well, that’s the rub because I think the whole world needs what NGIN is trying to accomplish. I keep thinking that if we can build a global innovation ecosystem, we can slow climate change, help the poor, and spread the entrepreneurial spirit. The other part of the answer to “who needs this?” is apparently, reluctantly, sheepishly — me, I need to be doing something that’s challenging. So, we’re going to run at this pretty hard and see where it goes.
Which brings us to the last 26 days as KR and I have been traipsing through Europe looking for funding for NGIN. This is not an academic exercise as NGIN has at best a couple of thousand dollars in the bank and isn’t paying its team of three much of anything but the satisfaction of knowing we’re doing something “good.” NGIN runs out of money in September.
When we got on the plane to DC, I only had a vague notion of a plan. I was going to go to as many conferences, speak on every panel I could find, talk to as many potential sources of funding that I could corner, and come up with as many fundable ideas as I could. Basically, the plan was to hustle, just like FMIG or LACI or whatever else I’ve done.
Twenty-six days, seven cities, seven countries, six plane rides, two train rides, dozens of Ubers, a bus ride or two, miles and miles of walking, five conferences, three speeches, and 26+ meetings later… I still don’t know if I found us some money. That’s just the way these things roll, you never know until you know.
Yet, I’m f___king proud that I found three real, serious (as in $100M serious) chances to get NGIN funded. I did what I set out and now its time to drag one of these over the finish line. The biggest thing we accomplished was giving us some hope that we have a chance.
We moved around like we were on the run from the law, never staying in one place very long and changing our mode of transportation constantly. We packed light (considering those 26 meetings), got conversant in the language of trains, subways, trams, taxis et al – all of which were in something other than English, and learned to not unpack if not needed. We ate well, drank at will, crammed in as much prowling around as we could, and met tons of nice people. Note to self: scrambling around Europe is a lot nicer than scrambling around India or China.
There were lots of firsts on this trip. Of the seven cities/countries we went to, four countries (Austria, Hungary, Denmark and Finland) and five cities (Vienna, Budapest, Malmö, Copenhagen, and Helsinki) were new. I’d never packed for a twenty-six day BUSINESS trip, with suits, ties, shirts, et. al in sufficient quantity to look fresh at every meeting. I’ve never made a pitch for a $100M program in a train station before and I’ll remember Malmö’s train station for a while.
We went to our first Mozart concert in a marvelous Vienna theater. We went to our first bar in a converted canal control tower in Copenhagen (and it was a non profit too!). Speaking about bars, we went to our first “Ruins Bar” in Budapest and the “First American Bar” in Vienna. The most unexpected great meal, of many great meals, was a Swedish restaurant tucked in a shopping mall in the party district of old Budapest.
Being an AirBnB guest rather than as our normal role as a host was new as well. It’s not an accident that KR gets lots of great reviews for Corona Adobe as our guests get treated to a whole other level than we generally experienced. Finally, we did not lose one item, although we might have come close a couple of times. KR and I have a workable “have we got everything” and “always look back” routine.
Here’s the speed dating version of our trip
- DC, Vienna, Budapest, Malmö, Copenhagen, Helsinki, and London (in that order)
- Vienna was regal, pretty, clean, well-organized, a bit formal, the locals were kind of cold and there were a ton of tourists even in May. Probably not our favorite place.
- Budapest was gorgeous, both physically and architecturally, it looked lived in, has a great vibe, faster paced, and the Danube is, well the Danube. Definitely on the return list.
- Malmö was, well, Swedish. The land of IKEA architecture, clean lines, homogeneous people, lots and lots of runners and bikers, and is worth a half day to see (we were there two). Everyone was outside as it was warm and sunny in May, a phenomena not usually experienced, if at all, until July.
- Copenhagen rivaled Budapest for beauty and KR would argue it was prettier. Canals, charming neighborhoods, the first rush hour traffic jam of bicyclists I’ve seen, people were edgier (there were five tattoo parlors on our little street). Ditto for the sunshine impact – the canals and cafes were lined with sunbathers.
- Budapest was the easiest on the pocketbook, bordering on inexpensive. Copenhagen was by far the worst, followed closely by Helsinki. Copenhagen is so expensive that I wouldn’t go back for that reason alone.
- All the Nordic countries are clean, modern, pleasant and white. I’m not talking about snow. Only “service” people were a different shade, and the number of African Americans we saw on this whole trip could be counted on both hands.
- If you want to see what a city looks like whose primary mode of transportation are bicycles, go to Copenhagen. Everyone rides, in all manner of dress, in all directions, all the time. Maybe its because there’s a 150% tax on new cars. I wonder what it looks like in mid-March when it gets dark at 3:00PM and its snowing?
- All of Europe, and especially the Nordic countries, were celebrating truly spectacular weather for May. We only had a day or two of rain, the rest was great. We love traveling in May as it’s a “shoulder” month in which prices are still not the high season and you can get lucky with the weather.
Here’s what our twenty six days looked like in pictures:
Part 4: What’s the problem, anyway?
All scientists, researchers and engineers should skip this article
Today, most of the world’s leaders (not You Know Who) acknowledge climate change’s threat and have committed billions of dollars to research new sustainable energy technologies or scale existing sustainable solutions (e.g., wind and solar). Unfortunately, much – if not most – of this investment will be under-utilized because there is no mechanism that can efficiently get new technology solutions out of research labs into the market on a global basis. This has created a global innovation gap between technology and the markets that desperately need its benefits today.
The Innovation Gap
There is no coordinated, efficient, comprehensive way of bridging this gap today – it’s all ad hoc with loosely connected efforts. Incubators, or other innovation centers, are most often regionally focused with sporadic connections to other parts of the world. Existing “networks” are usually only skin deep and concentrate on periodic convening events.
Don’t look to the national labs or the research universities to bridge this gap, because they have a “Not my job!” attitude when it comes to commercialization. Researchers are not incentivized to focus on the application of their invention and frankly most of them don’t have the skills to build businesses quickly. Despite what happens behind their lab doors, most universities aren’t flexible, fast-paced, and creative enough.
Why isn’t it the role of the private sector – specifically the venture capital and start up communities on the Left and Right Coasts — to bridge this gap? Well yes and no. Capital – especially venture capital – flows to the use with the best return in the quickest amount of time, which is not impact technology. We bend metal, build products, do chemistry. The average impact technology exit for a VC fund is 10+ years vs. 7+ years in the App and Mobile worlds. Hence, most VC money – and their well-developed support systems – has moved downstream on the impact technology market. As a result, the “flow” of risk investment capital to early stage clean technology entrepreneurs is best described as a trickle.
But the lack of money isn’t the only thing that’s causing in the innovation gap. Where are the entrepreneur assistance programs that cover the full range of cleantech start up issues needed to grow a clean technology company? There are some stand-out examples – Greentown Labs in Boston, the Austin Technology Incubator come to mind – but not many and certainly not around the world.
The kind of “ecosystems” that are needed are very different from those that support for the digital and media technologies. Condensed programs aimed at getting an investment in a couple of months’ time just don’t work for chemistry or hardware based technology companies. We need longer incubation, we need pilot programs with large customers or government agencies, we need help in scaling up manufacturing, expertise in developing a distribution network, a supply chain, etc., etc. The number of organizations that attempt this kind of assistance can be measured on two hands.
An ecosystem of ecosystems
We need to connect scientists with entrepreneurs with investors, with customers, with policy makers in 40+ countries. (yes, you read that right – 40. More on that later). At its core, our envisioned network is a collaboration of entrepreneurs and other innovators driven by a common mission to slow climate change and build economic wealth at the same time. Globally. In real time. At scale.
We are already working on this and have made significant progress in the last 24 months with supporters in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Germany, Italy, Finland, India, China, and Japan. This is just a start – significant for sure – but we know the road before us will be challenge.
We’re looking for the few who have the guts to tackle the earth’s biggest problems by building the world’s greatest impact technology companies. And, we don’t care about your age, gender, sexual preference, religion, or race or whatever else might make you special.
If you want to help build this network, then I want to talk to you. Anytime. email@example.com
Part 3: Late to the Climate Change Game
Can a Newbie make a contribution?
I’ve come late to the earth-is-in-danger party. While I started thinking about clean technologies in 2008, I looked at it as a great business opportunity that could also bring much needed economic development. My mantra was: “Let’s take advantage of this huge business opportunity and diminish our dependence on fossil fuels from parts of the world that don’t like us.” I didn’t look beyond the business side of it.
That was turned upside down on my first trip to China. Beijing’s smog was at a level I’d never seen before, at a scale that was hard to imagine. Then I went to Shanghai. Singapore. Seoul. Delhi. Mumbai. It was the same everywhere in Asia. Like most people, I equated pollution with GHG’s (green house gases) because we can see how smog is making the atmosphere worse. The unfortunate truth is that where there is one, there is usually the other. Even on this most basic level, how could we not think what was happening in Asia wasn’t going to impact us in the United States?
My first trip to Africa taught me something else about climate change – its impact on the poor. Women and children in Ethiopian villages still spend much of their time walking to and from the village water well to fill buckets. And they literally farm their lands with the same type of tools we were using in the 1600’s. Ethiopia is not unique, like much of Africa, they farm with basic hand-made tools, partially because they don’t have access to cheap energy. Today, more than 500 million people in Africa alone still don’t have access to electricity.
These are the same people that suffer first and hardest from the effects of climate change. Storms. Draught. Flooding. These weather events are literally life-threatening. There’s no backup plan because they can’t afford Plan A, let along Plan B. The World Bank predicts that more than 100 million people will be thrust into poverty from climate change by 2030.
I’ve seen first-hand how a little bit of technology can change people’s lives. A 20-watt solar panel held on a thatched roof by some wire enables a family in Peru to do homework at night, to read at night, to listen to a radio. Electricity literally changes lives. And it changes our lives as well, since this family isn’t burning kerosene lamps that contribute to GHGs. These same micro sustainable technologies are beginning to be implemented in Kenya and Ethiopia and throughout Sub-Sahara Africa.
My “Aha!’ moment came when I connected these dots: there are two sides to climate change – the climate side and the economic side. IF we can help entrepreneurs get their sustainable technology products/technologies to the markets most in need, then we could fight climate change and poverty at the same time!
In the past 20 years, 4.2 billion people have been affected by weather- related disasters, including significant loss of lives. Developing countries are the most affected by climate impacts. (The World Economic and Social Survey 2016).
Poor people and poor countries are exposed and vulnerable to all types of climate-related shocks – natural disasters that destroy assets and livelihoods; waterborne diseases and pests that become more prevalent during heat waves, floods, or droughts; crop failure from reduced rainfall; and spikes in food prices that follow extreme weather events. (“Shockwaves: Managing the Impacts of Climate Change on Poverty”, 2016).
Impoverished communities tend to be more dependent on climate-sensitive sectors and natural resources for survival, so climate change poses an extreme threat on the livelihood, food security, and health of the poor; women are particularly vulnerable (The Science of Adaptation; a Framework for Assessment, Mitigation, and Adaptation).
In Africa today, more than 500 million people live without electricity. Without effective climate action, 100 million more people will live in extreme poverty by 2030. (Shockwaves, 2016)
Here’s a radical thought: climate change isn’t going to be solved only by scientists and engineers. In fact, if you’re a scientist or engineer, its best that you don’t read the next part of the story.
Part 2: In Search of Entrepreneurs
The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in lots of unexpected places. Ecosystems that help those entrepreneurs? Not so much.
In most countries, I’d be in jail or minimally be an outcast from my family and friends because I’ve lost other people’s money while trying to start a company. Aside from societal punishment, failing at being an “entrepreneur” is gut-wrenching. Laying off people who’ve bet their future on you is one of the worst things in life. I’ve tried to build eleven companies and countless other things. None of them were “Unicorns,” but of the eleven, seven got off the ground, six got market traction, five made a bit of money, and one made a lot of money. And the jury is still out on one of them. Running hard at something is a lot of fun, and it’s pretty addictive.
I’ve spent a good part of the last six years looking for bright entrepreneurs who we could help. At first, it was in all the usual places: Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Chicago, Seattle, Dallas, Boston, Houston, DC and lots more. Then I went to China, India, Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Italy, Germany, Ethiopia, UAE, Mexico and Egypt among others. In each instance, I went looking for entrepreneurs and organizations committed to helping them build sustainable businesses. As a result, about 40% of the companies that LACI has helped have been from outside Los Angeles.
I didn’t expect to find much in places like Ethiopia or Morocco. I was mainly looking for business opportunities for Los Angeles companies, not expecting to find much in the way of home-grown talent. I was surprised at most every stop — the fact is that entrepreneurs aren’t just born in California or Boston or NY, but in pretty much every corner of the world.
These are bright young people looking to build companies to support themselves and create products that will help their countries. In India, I came across a poster in one of its most prominent universities that was a take-off on the UK WWII “Keep Calm” posters that says it all: “Keep Calm and Hire Yourself”
Spend a couple of hours with the Girls Can Code (left) club in Addis Abba and its impossible not to be excited for our collective future. Or the young woman architect who’s designed simple, scaleable homes with a material that is in plentiful supply in Africa: plastic coke bottles. I met an English entrepreneur at the “Rise Up” entrepreneurial conference in Cairo that had an off-the-grid solar energy pack for Kenyan farmers for less than 50 cents a day! Very very cool.
Finding effective support systems to help these entrepreneurs around the world is a much more difficult task. Having the desire to start a company is one thing. Being willing to take the risk is essential, of course. But what about having the confidence to take the step? About even knowing what the first step is? Getting help, encouragement and practical advice is in very short supply anyplace outside the First World.
Many countries just don’t know what it takes either. Their policies restrict capital and/or just starting a business They have no history of successful company-building, hence they have no successful mentors to help the next generation. Failure/bankruptcy can land you in jail. Literally.
This is where the U.S.’s leadership is most apparent. We have the culture, the experience, the knowledge, and the support systems to assist entrepreneurs in making great companies. Yet, most of the time this knowledge just doesn’t get through to the developing countries that need it.
IMHO, its mainly because the NGO organizations that offer this type of help aren’t very entrepreneurial. Their staff is well-meaning, highly intelligent, but taking a class in entrepreneurship and being an expert on “competitiveness” doesn’t mean you know how to be an entrepreneur.
So, what happens in these countries when entrepreneurs have no supporting ecosystem? These countries are forced to buy innovation from others since they can’t develop it on their own. They buy it from China or Germany or the UK or the US or Israel or Finland. This helps their country insofar as they get new sustainable technologies that address key problems (energy, food, water, waste).
Unfortunately, they along the way they under nourish their home-grown entrepreneurs, perpetuating the big-corporations-selling-into-the-emerging-markets cycle that is so dominant in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In other words, it doesn’t help them build a domestic supply chain, nor the entrepreneurs to supply it, that can lift them out of poverty.
And here’s why this is important to you and me. Without entrepreneurial ecosystems to get new inventions into the market in every corner of the globe, we won’t slow climate change fast enough to save our planet. The data is pretty clear: the whole world is polluting and generating GHGs and the whole world needs to slow itself down.
“Why not let GE or Siemens or SAP or any of dozens of global companies solve the world’s problems?” you might be asking. After all, they’re the ones with the might, the knowledge, the connections, the scale to tackle these huge problems. Yes, but they’re also slow moving, incredibly expensive, risk adverse and politically attached.
We need to move fast. We need to move boldly. We need to fail fast and invent a better solution. Now!
So, I ask you this: What would happen if we built a global entrepreneurial ecosystem dedicated to impact technologies? My answer: We would fight climate change. Reduce poverty. And help entrepreneurs develop around the world.
All in one fell swoop.
Part 3 of this series looks at the connection between climate change and poverty. And it asks a basic question: can entrepreneurs – not climate scientists – slow climate change?
Part 1: The Journey
From the Garage to Around the Globe and Back Again
One Sunday morning in March of 2011, I was recovering from a night of partying in La Paz Bolivia. The Bolivian’s throw a pretty wicked Carnival. Karen (my wife) and I could never resist a good party, especially a street party in a new city. We’d spent the winter in South America riding our motorcycle. I felt we were just getting started on our m/c journey, while Karen felt it was about time to call it quits. Then the phone rang and everything changed.
Jim called to ask if I was interested in starting up a new incubator in Los Angeles focused on clean technologies. Jim was a consultant to the City of Los Angeles, preparing the RFP seeking candidates to lead the project, and he was pretty persuasive that I should apply. Three weeks later I was in LA, interviewing for the job. In June 2011 my partner, Neal Anderson, and I got the contract to build a cleantech incubator for Los Angeles. I would become CEO and Neal would be COO.
Three weeks later I was standing in a gutted 2000 sq. ft. bus repair garage, wondering one thing — how could this empty building become anything? Frankly, few people believed that we could/should build a business incubator dedicated to clean technologies in Los Angeles. Most thought the concept of LACI wouldn’t amount to much. What was cleantech? What was an incubator? Why should the City spend its money on this with all its other problems? I went through 1,500 business cards that first year trying to answer those questions and many more.
We sold our house in the Hollywood Hills and moved three blocks away from LACI. We needed to be all in if this was going to work. Not because I wanted to make a lot of money, but because I thought it was the right thing to do, that it would help the citizens of Los Angeles, and primarily the citizens of Boyle Heights, East LA, Lincoln Heights, and South Central. It was my way of giving back.
Over the past six years the team at LACI has figured out how to create an ecosystem that helps entrepreneurs make their ideas a reality. I’ve seen the power that creating a nourishing environment and providing practical support can have on the entrepreneur, on the community, on the country, and on students. We’ve helped build these “things” for the City of Los Angeles, the City of Fremont, Mexico City, the State of Washington, CSUN, the Port, and Ethiopia.
Here’s a touch of background on LACI for those of you who don’t know much about it and want to. The Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator brings together capital, universities, research, government support, entrepreneurs, corporate partners, and business leaders to drive innovation throughout the regional, state, and (now) global economy. LACI has helped 100+ companies raise $135M+, create 1,500+ jobs, and delivered more than $340M in long term economic value for the City of Los Angeles. As a result, LACI has ranked in the UBI Global’s coveted “Global Top 10” in 2014, 2015 and 2016. LACI was also selected as the Department of Energy’s clean energy incubator for the State of California and the California Energy Commission’s manager of its Southern California Clean Energy Innovation Cluster.
In December 2015 LACI moved into the 60,000 sq. ft. state-of-the-art La Kretz Innovation Campus which houses all of LACI’s Portfolio Companies as well as providing chemistry and electronics labs and prototyping center. LACI is the only incubator that is housed in the same facility as the R&D department of a major utility (the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power).
Building LACI has been the most rewarding work of my life. I’ve learned a lot about government, how to grow economies, what cleantech entrepreneurs need, and what I’m good at (and what I’m not). Building a complex entrepreneurial support system is part hard work, part smarts, and a whole lot of “magic.” How do you get all the pieces to click? I’ve spent six years figuring that out.
Now it’s time for my “Next Big Thing”.
Strangely enough, I first glimpsed my future when visiting one of the oldest places on earth – the Cradle of Civilization. Frankly, visiting Ethiopia was pretty much a shock to the system. It’s a country where women spend the majority of their day getting water and preparing food, while the men and boys farm with truly ancient farm tools. How could this ancient, backward country represent the future of cleantech? Well that’s for Part 2 of this story.
Two factors drive FW’s Trip-O-Meter’s index: Are we going to someplace interesting, different and far away? And are we getting there on something with wheels (e.g. motorcycle, then RV, then car, etc.). Our current trip scored about a going-in “6” as it included twelve days on the motorcycle (a very good thing) but we were going north in California on a route that I’ve been on before. What’s far away about another California trip?
For the answer, go to a place called Sawyer’s Bar Bar (it’s a town, not a bar). Located deep in the Klamath Forest, packed along side the Salmon river, its one of the remotest places we’ve been to regardless of continent. Easily three plus hours to the nearest store of any kind (in a town called Forks on Salmon — no kidding), down a gravel road that requires 100% concentration to avoid pot holes, cliffs and said river, it reminded one of the West Coast version of Deliverance. What makes it all the more other-worldly is that Sawyer’s Bar Bar residents are still in the 21st century: trucks, indoor plumbing, off-the-grid electricity, etc. Why would anyone want to live so far-out, yet still enjoy the perks of the civilized world? My only conclusion is that they love animals more than people:)
Another rather remote place is the “Lost Coast” area just south of Eureka. While it doesn’t have the Deliverance feel, its remote and foreboding. Walk along the beach, with the slightly-below gale force wind and gray skies, and you shiver thinking about being in any kind of boat out there. We camped along the beach at a campground that had more warning signs about various dangers (from bears to tsunami) than most army bases. It’s also about two hours away from any civilization, in this instance Garberville.
Garberville is in another world, namely the Hippies of the 60’s. Located in Humboldt county, Weed Capital of the US, Garberville is all tie-died shirts and dresses. Just like the ’60s, there are a lot of street kids looking for their next high, either pharmaceutically-induced or other wise. Garberville and other Humboldt towns are undergoing a major economic change as California moves toward legalized pot. Among other things, this is causing a severe housing shortage as most homes are being used as grow-houses. I’m not making this stuff up:) Try buying a shack in Humboldt and it will cost as much as our house in Hollywood.
We tend to meet the nicest people in local bars, which probably says too much about us and how we travel:) Maybe its because we look like we need some help after a long days ride? A bartender in Chester clued us in on which roads to take to Mt. Shasta. It was fascinating to listen to him explain why on earth he made the move from LA to Chester. After listening to him describe the wonders of Chester (population is in the hundreds) I was thinking of making the move myself:) We had a great chat with some fellow bikers in Garberville and learned about a guy who’s criss-crossed the U.S. numerous times on a quad pulling a trailer, mostly on dirt roads! He almost convinced me that pulling a trailer with NVII isn’t a big deal.
After 2100+ miles and 12 nights, we’re ready to get home and do the complete opposite – get back on the road again:) We miss the Dos Diablos (Squirt and Bogart) and I can tell that KR is getting tired of moving every day. Factory Place here we come. We also talked about going to Central America/Columbia/Ecuador/Peru after the first of the year. Admittedly we had this conversation after a couple of drinks.
Here’s what this trip looked like.
I’m leaving for China tomorrow with Gov. Brown (well, we’ll be in the same conference:). Somebody has to pick up the leadership mantel for saving our environment now that Washington DC has abdicated. California is stepping forward as its the perfect case study for countering alternative facts: we have the most regulations regarding pollution and carbon emission yet our economy is growing much faster than the national average. The single largest factory in California — employing more people than any other — is the one I stopped on the way home:)
I’ll let you know how it goes.
After more than five years at the helm of LACI, I offered my resignation as CEO on December 22nd of last year. The Board asked that I stay with LACI running our international operations, so I’ll still have something to keep me busy for bit longer. We’ve been conducting a search for my replacement ever since and I believe the new CEO will start early this summer. Freedom here I come!
I’ve been pretty schitzo about this whole subject for a long long time. I first tried to stop working full time about seventeen years ago after my Internet Titan phase ended. I figured we had enough money to scrape by and I was anxious to get on the road. But then I fell back into bad habits and tried to buy a company, start a couple of others, and was lured back to the start-up world full time at Idealab a couple of years later. I quit again two years later, but that didn’t last long either as a couple of friends and I started a management consulting company. That lasted four more years and I finally said “ENOUGH! – I’m outta here!” Karen and I sold the our house in Hollywood, bought a base of operations in Mexico, packed up Now Voyager I (our m/c), and went down to South America for an extended “adventure riding” get-away.
How far does a guy have to go to get away? Obviously, Bolivia wasn’t far enough as that’s when I got a call about building LACI. Frankly, I just found it impossible to resist the pull of building things. LACI was both an irresistible challenge and a chance to do a good thing. It’s been fun, all consuming, stressful, invigorating, challenging, tiring, fairly lucrative, and immensely rewarding.
I first wrote my letter of resignation in February of 2016. I didn’t send it in. Every time I got close, I’d edit it and put it away to think about it. I went through eight drafts:) before sending it off nine months later. So, this is really it.
Ohhh man, this is both exciting and pretty damn scary.
Let’s talk excitement first. I’m pretty sick and tired of my friends having all the fun. You know who you are, Sam, Chuck, Bill, Larry, Keith et al. How come you get to have so much fun and I’m still pulling on the oars of commerce? Geez, they seem happy! What the F____ am I missing? I want IN!
As readers of this blog will attest, Karen and I like to travel. Long, sometimes hard, but always interesting travel. This is less a hobby and more like a compulsion. Our 800 sq. ft. loft in LA has three or four globes and a dozen or so maps taped on the walls. We have more space dedicated to travel paraphernalia than we do to normal stuff (like furniture:). Not too may days go by without feeling the pull of Let’s Get Out There!
Now, let’s talk scary as in I’m scared shitless that 9 months into this I’m going to be stark, raving bored. What happens if everyone is right about me — I can’t possibly not work because I’m a f____g workaholic! The common view is that I’ll be so bored that I’ll rue the day that I hung up my keyboard.
I’m sure the first among the “Are you sure?” crowd is my dearest wife. Karen doesn’t need a lot of “help” in her daily routines. (She’s probably thinking, Geez, now I’m going to make lunch and dinner every day for Him?) This could end badly:) Yet we have experience in being together 24/7. We built FMIG together. Much of my Eat-What-You-Kill work has taken place at a home office. Spending lots of time on a m/c or in an RV doesn’t leave a lot of room for much personal space – either literal or figuratively speaking. So, there’s hope that the Boss of Factory Place, Corona and LBS can learn to Love Her Man even if he’s around a lot.
The other elephant in the room is money. How much does one need to make it all the way? It’s the unanswerable question as there are lots of ever-changing moving parts. Like how long? Like how healthy? Like how well? I’ve read all the papers on what to do financially when you stop working full time. They’re all kind of mundane and pretty obvious. My answer of course is that I’m not going to stop working, I’m just not going to work 24/7 anymore. One really pleasant surprise on the money front is that our home in Puerto Vallarta –Corona Adobe — has turned into a real source of extra income. This is 100% due to KR’s decoration and hostess talents. Who would have thunk it? By the way, the Sales Pitch by KR for getting Thor (our RV) was that we needed something to live in when Corona was rented out. Yah, and I also bought a bridge…
Seven years ago I wrote a series of posts on “Rewiring,” a concept I didn’t invent but one I took to immediately. To me, Rewiring means getting control of your life by re-configuring how you live and work to get more freedom and enjoyment. The idea was to turn the work-drives-lifestyle rule upside down: figure out how to live the life you want and then rewire to get there. Here’s the first post: “Rewiring your Your Life” In 2010 we had embarked on a rewiring job so that we could earn a living while traveling far, wide and long. I’m pretty much still there:)
But now that we’re approaching Launch Time, I’ve been giving some thought to what all of the guys mentioned above do — have fun. So here’s Fred’s everyday bucket full of fun:
Astute readers might notice a few themes from above, like he certainly doesn’t like to do much that does involve going places, fast. Hard to argue that one. But that’s the good thing about The Next Step, I get to be passionate about the things I want to be passionate about, when I want. The more I think about this, it could be a very good thing.
I don’t know where to start after being away for seven months. There are so many high and low-lights that its tough to figure out how to put a theme around them. Maybe its just that we continue to live an interesting life? One of contrasts, unpredictability, playing hard, working harder, and traveling by almost every means imaginable which now includes a few yards on the back of a camel:)
Here’s a speed dating summary of the last half of 2016
- Lots of travel — twelve trips in the past six months to India, Africa, the East Coast and Mexico. You know something is weird when you know which terminals to avoid at Heathrow and where the best lounges are at most of the airports we hit.
- Two huge events for LACI — the Grand Opening of the new 60,000 sq. foot La Kretz Innovation Campus and the less than grand election on November 8th. Both will shape LACI for years to come. I won’t be going back to DC any time soon.
- 2016 will be LACI’s best year as measured by almost any metric: we’ve grown the number of companies we serve by 40%, the number of jobs created by 70%, the long term economic value we’ve generate by 40%, and the size of the NGIN network to 20 members in nine countries. Our 2016 budget is 8X the budget we started with five years ago.
- “El Diablo” — aka Bogart — has driven KR to the edge of sanity, forcing us to put him through a two week intensive training session. The result; the family has a leadership problem. No s__t!
- Our Mexico places –the Corona Adobe and Little Big Sur — continue to draw guests from near and far. KR has turned into the Innkeeper with the Most-est and our 2016 rental revenue is 2X that of 2015. Onward and upward!
- Life in the Arts District continues to get more and more interesting. The addition of a scooter, a 2006 Aprila Scarabeo, has made getting around really interesting. New establishments are popping up almost daily. The retail complex around the corner under construction has applied for 17 liquor licenses. Yaahhh boy! Our 800 sq. ft. loft continues to work as USA central the Walti clan.
- We’re finally starting to use Thor, our 2016 Leisure Travel Van “Libero RV, after about a year of sitting in the parking lot. As with any of our travel vehicles, we’re in the process of figuring out how to configure it to our liking. Not surprising, we need more electrical power!
Well, those are the headlines. Feel free to close this up or to skip down to the pictures now. For those of you who want more color commentary, I’m here to serve, so read on:)
In the seven months since we last wrote after coming back from Spain, Morocco and Ethiopia, we’ve traveled to India, Egypt, Mexico, the East Coast, and Northern California.
This was our third trip to India and the second speaking tour for the State Department I’ve done. We covered four cities in about ten days. I did 25+ speeches/meetings in Delhi, Chandigarh, Indore and Hyderabad.
It was the first trip that KR and I didn’t venture out of the hotel often except for business! Part of this was because two of the hotels we stayed in were absolutely fabulous. Part of it was getting in sync with a time zone 15 hours ahead of Los Angeles. But the real reason was laying around in bed all day, half way around the world, is the only way I can get away and relax. When was the last time you just hung around in bed for an entire day? Exactly my point:)
I’m still conflicted about India. We got out of just the mega cities of Delhi and Mumbai this trip to the North and the Central parts of India. Hyderabad, in the south central region, is a tech boom town in which all the major multinational companies have huge presences. It’s a go-go entrepreneurial hub, strewn across rocky hills and spread out for mile and miles. I was never in a car less than 90 minutes to any meeting as the traffic was so bad.
Yet, unless you’re rich, India just isn’t that attractive of a place. 800 million people or so mean there’s just a mass of humanity, their trash, their houses, their vehicles, their animals, and their shops every which way. The rivers are polluted. The country can’t really feed all its population and still has 300 million people (the size of the US) without access to electricity. The idea of sidewalks and parks aren’t really on the agenda anytime soon.
I hold hope that we’ve not seen the “good stuff” yet:) KR has pretty much given up and doesn’t care to go back. Maybe that’s why we didn’t get out of the hotel much:)
Cairo was a whole different deal. I liked the vibe immediately. The city is much more interesting visually, it’s much older and has the advantage of being split down the center by the Nile, which we got to sail on by the way. The architecture is interesting, at least in the upper scale part of town that most foreigners hang. The streets are full of cars with the occasional motorcycle, which is pretty much the opposite of India’s cities.
No surprise, most of the perceptions that we Westerners have about Egypt, Muslims and the MENA region aren’t true. The US government is mightily mistrusted by most Egyptians that would speak about it. Even those people who were living in or working for US companies, felt that our history in the Middle East was horrible. We were/are only looking out for our own self interests. I’m not sure this can be fixed…
KR and I spoke with the young woman who served as our guide and for the first time I got an explanation of the Muslim religion that wasn’t scary or angry or intimidating. And while I’m not a religious guy, I could understand how she felt and had empathy. We could live next door to each other without thinking twice.
We’ve gone to a number of far-flung countries in search of business. I’ve met with probably a hundred groups in the last 12 moths and no matter if its Ethiopia (which makes Mexico feel like a 21st century country) or India or Egypt or Morocco or Spain or… there is one surprising commonality: entrepreneurship is alive and well, even in the most desperate lands. Young people are excited about starting companies, about creating new products, about using innovation to solve their countries problems. It can’t help but give folks like me hope for the future and a bounce in my step.
A big part of travel is having the right mode of transportation:) To date, our stable includes (by length of ownership):
- The Iron Duke (’96 Jeep Grand Cherokee): This is the Mexican equivalent of the New Yorker’s “station car.” 162,000 miles strong, its role is to carry Karen, the dogs, our guests, friends and assorted neighbors around Puerto Vallarta and environs carrying as much stuff as can be crammed in. Usually twice a year it makes the 1,500 mile trip to/from PV to Los Angeles. Karen hates the Iron Duke because she has to drive it. I love the Duke because he can’t be hurt. Who cares if someone puts a new crease in his side door?
- The Bullet (’01 Jaguar XKR Silverstone). The Bullet is now the LA version of the Duke. He wasn’t always that way as he started out as a mint-condition-not-a-scratch-to-be-seen exotic sports car, before he encountered the streets of downtown Los Angeles… After fifteen years, he only has 72,000 miles since the distance from front door to front office door is 2-3 blocks.
- Now Voyager II (2014 BMW 1200 GS motorcycle): The vehicular love of my life, NV II is KR and my Adventure Vehicle to far away places. NV II has an unusual combination of space-age technology with tractor-like reliability. It’s simply the best motorcycle I’ve ever owned. This is beyond surprising given that NV I (another BMW) was the worst, most unreliable motorcycle I’ve ever owned. NV II meets our thirst for adventure the freedom of motorcycling. NVII has already been to the UK, IOM, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Morocco, Luxembourg, Belgium and Monaco. He’s barely broken in:)
- Thor (’16 Leisure Travel Vans Libero): Thor is a mini RV that KR calls our little jewel box. Prime function of Thor is to take ALL FOUR OF US to far away places, but mainly places in North America. Thor is a small, but fully functional, Class C+ RV that has excellent interior finishes. Fully functional means: bed, toilet, shower, kitchen, refrigerator on-board power, satellite TV, dining room table and enough storage that includes a small closet. Thor is still a work in progress relative to outfitting, but has a big future.
- Rover (’06 Aprilla Scarabeo motor scooter): Newest member of the family, Rover’s job is to be the local get-about when we’re roaming in Thor. Rover sits on a rack in the back of Thor, ready to to go to the store, bar, or just down the street from wherever Thor is parked. Rover continues an interesting trend in the Walti vehicle ownership history: two Yahama RZ 250’s, two Honda Pacific Coasts, two Fieros, two Jaguar XK8s, and two Scarabeos… Go figure.
- Potential New Additions to the Stable: Highest on the list of new members is a Ural motorcycle/sidecar ensemble. This would be a creative and practical solution to my wanting to go everywhere on a motorcycle with KR’s desire to take Bogart and Squirt everywhere with us. KR, Bogart and Squirt could sit in the sidecar. Also on the list of potential additions are a Moto Guzzi m/c, a Morgan 3-Wheeler (if the Ural doesn’t make the cut), a replacement for the Iron Duke (shush, don’t tell KR), a Corvette, a Jag F-Type, a Jag Station Wagon, a Ferrari, and a …..:)
- Planes, trains, etc. Well, there haven’t been any trains in the last year, but we have taken ferries, taxis, Ubers, big big planes, small planes, pongas, buses, vans, the aforementioned camel, a sail boat, and a Tuk-tuk or two. I recommend the Airbus 380 and the Brittany Ferry, but not in the cattle car areas. British Air’s food quality has gone down hill, which is a great disappointment. Flight to avoid at all costs is the American out of Reagan to LAX at 5PM. ALWAYS two hours late, no inflight entertainment, no wi-fi, and the center seat is usually the only one available. Who says that airline consolidations are a good thing?
Life in the Loft
It’s hard to believe, but KR and I have been living in our 800 square foot loft in downtown Los Angeles for more than five years! Factory Place is located in the “Arts District,” which is LA’s industrial area that’s rapidly becoming the West Coast version of NY’s Meat Packing District. This place just reeks of coolness and weirdness and diversity and creativity and … money. Someone told me that the Arts District has the highest HH income of any area in LA other than Beverly Hills. I don’t believe that, but like all major metro downtown areas, it costs lots of money to live here so those who do are well off. Research shows that downtown LA has equal parts Hispanics, African Americans, Asians and White Folks and it shows on the streets and sidewalks. Diversity is a very interesting thing if one is open to it.
The family sedan for most people on this planet is not a sedan, but a motor scooter or motorcycle. The work horse of Asia, much of Africa, and even big swaths of Europe has two wheels, not four, and accommodates between one and five people, depending. Traffic, parking, gas mileage, and cost are all made the easier on a scooter.
This summer we shifted to a two-wheel family sedan as well, the aforementioned “Rover.” I now drive Rover the five blocks to work, we use him to go to dinner at night in downtown, or to see friends in Hollywood. He’s the easiest, most convenient vehicle I’ve owned in quite a while. I recommend one to all:)
Life South of the Border
Let me state this up front: Mexico is becoming the safest place in North America to live and visit. There aren’t any terrorists in Mexico. Narco’s? For sure, but it feels a lot safer to me than going to France, or Belgium, or San Bernardino, or Germany or… Shake your head in disbelief, think I’m crazy all you like, but it’s the truth.
The Peso continues to take it in the shorts via the dollar. When we bought/built Corona, the ratio was $1.00 = $11 pesos. As I write this, the dollar equals 20.5 pesos! For those of us who live/visit Mexico, this has made a huge difference. It’s generally a good time to be an American tourist in much of the world in terms of currency.
Here’s one practical example of the impact of the dollar/peso devaluation on our life. We have a wonderful maid who comes to Corona five days a week from 10AM to 3PM and we pay her $7000 pesos/month. That equals about $340 dollars a month in today’s valuation!
Here’s another. I recently had to get the Iron Duke fixed. He needed a new coil, plugs, distributor, oil change, radiator repair, tune-up and an ECM unit fix. Total cost was $3700 pesos = $180.00. PICKED UP AND DELIVERED:)
The dollar is at all time high via the British Pound, Euro, Egyptian Pound, Mexican Peso, etc. Lesson to be learned: never, never keep your money in a foreign currency even if you live abroad.
Our palapa in the jungle, “Little Big Sur,” continues to be a challenge to upkeep and rent remotely, but remains a joy to actually use. LBS is best understood as a land-locked version of owning a boat; just keep putting money in and every sailing is actually a repair/maintenance outing:) Our annual Jungle Storm event turns into an all out “invite your friends to the jungle to repair and fix-up LBS.” Every visit to LBS is preceded by a visit to Home Depot:)
Two Seismic Events
The Grand Opening event for our new campus on October 7th was the result of more than five plus years of labor and $47M in capital investment. 2300 VIPs, stakeholders, sponsors, and friends RSVP’d to our event. Two Mayors and assorted other VIPs gave speeches, cut the ribbon, took part in tours and gave press interviews. The new 60,000 square foot purpose built campus is the Taj Mahal of cleantech with desks for over 250 entrepreneurs, a chemistry lab, electronics lab, an advanced prototyping center, micro grid, and a model ‘smart home of the future’. The La Kretz Innovation Campus elevates LACI to a new level of prominence in the world of clean technology innovation.
Thirty one days later and the Trump Trampling washed over LACI like a tsunami. We literally had to send out “keep calm and carry on ” notices and hold numerous counseling sessions as everyone is this building believed that the sustainable world as we know it was coming to an end. And frankly, nothing that has happened since the election gives us hope he was “just kidding.”
My view is that LACI will survive and prosper no matter what. Market forces and mega trends are at our back. But, I’m worried shitless that the New Administration will step away from its commitment to sustainable sources of energy and the steps necessary to reduce/slow climate change. This won’t really impact us here in the US as we’re all comparatively rich. If it gets hotter, we’ll just turn the air conditioning on. Drought and crop reduction? We’ll just pay more for food. No, its the poor who feel the brunt of the effects of climate change. The World Bank estimates that climate change will push another 100 million people into poverty by 2030. This is serious stuff that the Leader of the Free World doesn’t seem to understand or give a shit.
And please, don’t talk to me about “clean coal.” Coal is as likely to be clean as the Lock Ness Monster is likely to jump out of the lagoon tomorrow.
To the Future, we go!
I’m looking forward to what 2017 will bring, none the less. KR and I have plans and ideas of what it will entail, but who knows? We wish all of you a wonderful holiday season and a great and prosperous New Year!
Here’s what all of this looked like in pictures.
CAIRO (DEC 2016)
INDIA (OCT 2016)
LOS ANGELES (OCT 2016)
MEXICO (DEC 2016)
ON THE ROAD HOME (DEC 2016/JAN 2017)
I promise to write more often.