Taking a Career-cation

Article by:
David Niu, EO Seattle
David Niu
EO Seattle

They say entrepreneurship is all about taking risk. In February, I took a big one: I sold everything, stuffed the rest into storage and bought one-way tickets to New Zealand for my wife, my then 10-month-old daughter and myself. After starting and managing two companies in the past 13 years, I decided to take a much-needed “career-cation” and travel around the world for six months. My goal: To create lifelong experiences with my family, while soul searching about the next chapter of my life and entrepreneurial journey. Here are some lessons I learned during my travels:

Give Yourself Room to Breathe

I always think that I’m going to be refreshed after a week or two on a sandy beach, but I learned that’s so far from the truth. My preconceived notions, judgments and biases did not fade from black to grey to white until I was about six months on the road. My mind became more open and receptive to angles, especially when it came to business. For example, when I left home, I was obsessing over how I could simplify the annual performance review process in business. If I hadn’t shaken up my surroundings and preconceived biases with my career-cation, I don’t think I would have been open-minded enough to take a new approach with my company’s first offering. By giving myself room to breathe, I was able to gain enough escape velocity for my mind to open up after years of the same societal, familial and personal expectations.

Connect. Connect. Connect.

While traveling to seven countries, I leveraged the EO network to learn from entrepreneurs in various industries. I met a winemaker in New Zealand, a fruit trader in Shanghai, China, and a financial advisor in Seoul, South Korea. These entrepreneurs ran businesses outside of my technology industry, which gave me a more holistic understanding of what it takes to manage people. The first thing I realized was that regardless of industry or location, managing people is the most gratifying, yet challenging, part of owning a business. Each entrepreneur I met shared tips on how to better manage their teams. In Seoul, I learned the importance of leveraging the after-work drinking culture, as well as conducting one-on-ones with different team members each week and asking, “What are we not doing that we should be doing?” And in New Zealand, I learned the value of teaching your staff yoga, because if they learn a shared activity, they’re more likely to look up to you as a mentor and less likely to leave.

Define Your Cultural Values

When I was starting my first business, I focused on customers, products, strategies, etc. With my new venture, TINYhr, I’m building my business around people and culture. During my travels, I wrote on a sheet of paper all of the people whom I loved working with in the past and all of the people who didn’t fit. Then I wrote down potential cultural values, overlayed them on the two columns of individuals and asked myself, “Do these values enable the ‘A’ players to flourish and weed out those who don’t fit?” The answer was “no.” So I kept editing and sharpening my cultural values until it met those two criteria.

Don’t Compromise those Cultural Values

EO Sydney’s Andrea Culligan liked my approach regarding cultural values, but mentioned that they aren’t true values unless I was willing to hire and fire based on them. I now embrace that approach, and have also added my own rule, which is that I’m also willing to forego revenue if I don’t find the right person. In my past life, I’d bring someone on board because we needed them for a new project. I now realize the long-term costs outweigh the benefits. So now, before I consider working with a contractor or hiring an employee, I always share with them our vision, mission mand cultural values. If they aren’t on board with these guideposts, it’s OK, but I won’t work with them.

When I first told my Forum, friends and family about my career-cation idea, I received one of two responses: “You’re crazy!” or “I wish I could do that.” I believe that the truth is somewhere in the middle. By making the decision to travel the world with my family, I learned so much about my wife, my daughter, my passion and myself. Now, I can’t wait for the next career-cation— who knows what it will teach me!

David Niu is the founder of TINYpulse.com, a lightweight employee morale and feedback solution. Fun fact: David enjoys marathons, triathlons and “tough muddering” when not busy daydreaming about the next family career-cation.


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