riding the Ferriss wheel…

Hands up how many of you have read The Four Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss?

Most of you.  As I thought.  Me too.

And now hands up how many of you have successfully created passive businesses which take up almost none of your time yet which generate enough monthly income to indulge in exciting leisure pursuits and world travel?

Nope, me neither.

Now, I ain’t knocking Mr Ferriss.  Not by any stretch.  I like him and his books.  In fact, The Mack and I have a shared fantasy about which one of us he would choose to marry if he had the choice.  Let’s just say I’m edging it.

a pied-piper for the 21st century 

For those who haven’t read the book, here’s a quick recap.  Tim (I feel ok calling him Tim, after all, we are to be married) says that it’s possible to escape the 9 to 5 grind, to outsource the admin side of your life to overseas virtual assistants and to develop businesses which run themselves, freeing you up to spend your life taking adventure holidays and learning new skills.  And in his book he shares his very detailed blueprint for how you do all this.

Wondrous, I hear you say.  Where do I sign?

I know.  Revolutionary.  I felt exactly the same way.  In fact, Tim was probably the single biggest catalyst for me leaving my job and adopting my new attitude towards the work/life balance (ditch the work, get a life).  He is smart, authoritative, engaging and his vision is hugely compelling.  Who wouldn’t want to follow him to the promised land?

I still think that the book is essential reading for anyone wanting to get more perspective and flexibility into their working life.  It’s just that in the intervening years since the first edition of the book came out (2007), an awful lot has changed in the world and I’m not sure whether the lifestyle oasis that Tim’s guiding us towards isn’t a bit of a mirage.

the abridged version

From a business perspective, it doesn’t make sense for Tim to scrap his existing template and revise his whole book to bring it bang up to date (and I appreciate that the 2011 edition does try to do a bit of that).  But I don’t have anything invested, so I’m going to do it for him.  It’s what any good wife would do…

Chapter 1.  Time Management and Productivity

I, like Tim, do not read newspapers (I’m a happy ignoramus).  I try not to spend hours on the world wide waste of time unless I’m actively looking for something I need.  I also try to limit my consumption of the general pointless amount of white noise and dross that makes up most of the (social) media nowadays.

Update:  The amount of blah blah seems to increase year on year.  Stop trying to ingest all the information that is available to you.  Be uber-selective.  If it really is news, you’ll hear about it.  Limit yourself to one Daily Mail Showbiz binge a month – any more than that and you might as well repeatedly smash your head against the nearest wall – research has shown it has the same effect on your brain.  

I also try to do important tasks in the morning, before I’ve found too much time for procrastination and diversion.  And I try to do them in chunks, so that there’s a greater chance I will complete them.  The alternative is a sorry trail of half-finished projects looking at me reproachfully as I try to slink out the door unnoticed at the end of the day.

Update: Everything nowadays is billed as urgent.  Don’t fall for it.  There is a world of difference between something that is important and urgent and something that is just urgent.  Be disciplined and stick to your guns.  Do your most important tasks before midday.  Then mentally take the rest of the day off.  You’ve earned it.

However, unlike Tim, I don’t find it necessary to limit responding to email only twice a day at allotted times.  I haven’t set up automated voicemail systems and email bounce-backs with instructions to my correspondents.  Nor have I bothered to set up timers that kick me off the internet if they feel I’ve been spending too long looking at dogs for adoption from Battersea.

Update: By all means, if you are an email/internet/facebook/twitter/angry birds addict and your attention span without Ritalin is that of an ADHD gnat, then might I suggest the radical move of not opening those applications until you’ve finished your work.  But unless you are a really, really busy important person (and, in fairness, Tim is probably one of those), I wouldn’t bother with installing a fortress-like time management regime – it mainly makes you look pompous and, ironically, like you have too much time on your hands.

Chapter 2.  Outsource the Boring Stuff

When my younger sister was out of work and I was working crazy hours, I used to pay her to do those errands that I never had time for.  It was the perfect arrangement.  She got a bit of cash to tide her over, I had dry-cleaned clothes and food in the house and my bills were paid on time.  It was what I imagine having a wife must be like.

So I am all in favour of paying someone to help you with tasks if your time is taken up elsewhere or if it is better spent doing other things.

Tim recommends using a virtual assistant.  Mainly based in India or increasingly the Philippines, you pay your VA company an hourly rate (you can bulk-buy time to save money) and you are assigned an assistant who will perform admin, research or similar tasks for you.

Great idea and, back in 2007, probably quite exciting places for a young, bright graduate in those countries to work.  Fast-forward 5 years and it seems as though those graduates are being funneled into jobs with Google and Apple instead.  Hmmm.

Update: Recent experience with some of the big firms (AskSunday, Brickwork) has been underwhelming.  The assistants have struggled to cope with anything but incredibly basic web-research and cut-and-paste tasks, one explaining that he “was not skilled in summarising or tables”.  Okay then.  Unless you get lucky and find a good one, at around $12/hour, I don’t think it’s worth it for all but the most routine and boring research tasks that you just cannot make yourself do.

Some of my friends use Elance, oDesk and 99designs to find freelance contractors.  Again, reviews have been mixed, so I wouldn’t rely on these outsourced services for anything that is commercially important or time-sensitive.

Chapter 3.  Passive Aggressive Business Building

I really want to believe that it’s possible to create a business that isn’t resource heavy, that can just live on in the background, quietly raking in the money whilst you sun yourself in Acapulco (erm, wasn’t that the plot to that weird Phil Collins film, Buster…?).

And believe you me, I have dissected the step-by-step guide on how to do this, from researching a niche market, picking your product, testing uptake, figuring out how to automate the fulfillment process etc.  And I think that all of this is really sound advice for any start-up business.

But the bottom line is, I think the concept of a passive business is pretty much a holy grail situation.  If found, it’s a happy accident and you’re going to be rich and famous.  One example I came across recently was a former sports fan forum site that made millions for its owners when they added affiliate links to betting sites.  Genius.  But pure fluke.

Most businesses take years, time, money, commitment and aggressive focus to deliver any sort of real return. This isn’t a get-rich-quick solution, no matter how it’s presented.

The way I look at it is through Tim’s own path.  He learned the lessons presented in the book through doing things the hard way.  He’s developed some sensible principles to shortcut many of the hurdles he encountered.  But the fact is that he now makes his money on the back of his books, which required huge amounts of research, time, effort, promotion etc., etc.  So don’t expect instant success on an £11.99 paperback investment.

Update: Read Tim’s book for overall inspiration and to get a feel for how you might build out a business.  Take the building blocks from 4HWW around ideation of your business (it’s always easier to sell what you know, so what are your interests? what opportunities do you spot within your interest group?), assumption testing (cheap marketing and advertising tools, the basics on adwords, launch pages etc.), the 80/20 rule (focus on the 20% of customers who represent 80% of your sales), but expect to put some hard graft in too. 

Epilogue

4HWW is a best-seller for a reason.  It’s an easily digestible introduction to engineering a better working life.  I think it’s particularly helpful for us corporate-whores who struggle to see a life outside of the big box.  So if you’re looking to make lifestyle resolutions this New Year, then get a copy for Christmas.

Just keep in mind when you’re reading and dreamlining that it’s not a miracle overnight prescription.  Tim makes it sound so easy, but I can promise you that it’s a bit of a slog on the other side.  However, given that I’m writing this from a beach bar in Goa, I’d definitely agree that the section on mini-retirement definitely has something going for it…

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