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. 


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…

karma drama

Apparently, the karmic trade-off for trying to create a new lifestyle where you head off to India for a month when the weather gets too brrrrr in London goes a little something like this:

Friday night: T -4 days:  Begin packing your suitcase.  Notice that your passport isn’t where it normally lives.  Start to feel a little hot and twitchy.  Look in all the places where you might have put it for “safety”.  Nada.  Feel sick but head out to dinner anyway, trusting that it will turn up tomorrow.

Saturday morning: T -3.5 days:  Wake up at 7am having had anxiety dreams all night.  Try desperately to remember what the hell might have happened to your passport.  Curse your utterly useless memory.  Curse everything.  Curse your boyfriend for not getting out of bed immediately to help you look for the passport.  Call Southern Trains, Brighton station and a succession of pubs in Brighton to see if they have it, cos naturally you went to a mate’s comedy gig straight after picking up your Indian visa. Nothing’s been handed in.  Call the passport advice line to find out what can be done.  Book an appointment at the Peterborough passport office for 8am on Monday morning.  Call the Indian High Commission about your visa.  Curse them for being closed.

Saturday afternoon: T -3 days:  Turn your entire flat upside down.  Look inside your knee high boots, pillowcases, food cupboards and some rucksacks that you haven’t used since 1993.  Just in case.  Call your mum in panic.  Call your sister and let her know she might be flying out on Tuesday without you.  Feel terrible.

Curl up in a ball under the covers and vow not to wake up until it’s all better. Then realise that the post-office might shut early on a Sat, so race down there on your bike and get a passport application form.  Actually make that two, because you’re bloody useless at filling in forms.  You need passport photos too, but you have filthy, matted hair and puffy eyes from crying.  Somehow, you don’t think that look will help persuade the authorities to issue you with an emergency passport.

Sunday morning T -2.5 days:  Survey the futile wreckage of your bedroom. Resign yourself to breaking your neck as you try to navigate the obstacle course you’ve created by taking everything you own out of the 3 loft spaces in your room. At least that would be one solution to the passport problem.

Accept your mum’s offer to join in the hunt-the-passport game that afternoon. Mums have a spidey-sense when it comes to finding lost stuff. Try really hard not to get your hopes up that your mum will spot it instantly she gets there and say, “oh darling, here it is, how could you have missed that?”.

Sunday afternoon: T -2 days:

Go along with your mum’s suggestion and start praying fervently to St Anthony and St Jude.  Leave your mum to her search whilst you make outlandish promises to various deities in return for your passport revealing itself.  After a few hours, admit defeat and console your mum in her disappointment that the saints let her down this time.

Get new passport photos. Sulk that your boyfriend made you accept the first shots the man took. Grudgingly admit that otherwise you would have been in Snappy Snaps all night and that maybe that is just how you look. Secretly decide to get them done again at Euston.  Meet your ex at Euston and have him countersign your passport application.  Try and get an early night in prep for your new passport and visa mission tomorrow.  Finally fall asleep at 1am and then wake up every half hour, terrified you’ll sleep through your alarm.

Monday morning T-1.5 days:  Drag yourself out of bed at 5am.  Go the tube only to find that there are no trains via Kings Cross.  Run to the nearest minicab office.  They’ve got nothing for half an hour.  Have a little cry at the ridiculousness of it all.  Sprint the 10 mins down to Kentish Town.  Get a bus to Kings Cross just in time for your train.  Calm yourself with some soothing Bon Iver on the hour-long train journey to Peterborough.  Put some make-up on to improve your chances of the passport office processing your application quickly.

Make it to the passport office dead on time at 8am.  Marvel once again at how everyone outside of London is always so much more friendly and helpful.  Feel that your crack-of-dawn start was worth it when the nice lady agrees to issue you with a new passport on the 4-hour service, “even though they don’t normally do that for lost passports”.  Loiter in the shopping centre for warmth whilst waiting for the shops to open.  Text your mum to ask her to contact the Indian High Commission to find out what you have to do to get a same day replacement visa.

She tells you that in order to get a replacement visa, you must undertake a quest that will test your strength of character, your physical endurance and most of all, your sanity.  Despair at the lunacy of a system that will not accept the production of a brand new passport as evidence of the loss of an old passport, but also requires a receipt from the police confirming that you have reported the loss.  Stumble upon the Peterborough constabulary HQ.  Report the loss to them and get your receipt.

Monday afternoon T-1 day:  Pick up your new passport at midday.  Sprint to the train station to get the next train back to London.  Arrive to find that all trains are delayed by a couple of hours.  Call your boyfriend from the far end of the platform where your fellow passengers can’t hear your frustrated sobs.  Declare it all pointless and that you can’t go on.  Put the phone down on your boyfriend as he tells you to pull yourself together and compares your situation to Challenge Anneka.

Get on the train which magically speeds you to London on time.  Find the nearest internet cafe and print off your new Indian visa application.  Wonder how many internet cafes in London now have your passport and personal details stored on their systems.  Take the tube to Holborn and run down Kingsway to the Indian High Commission at Aldwych.  Arrive dead on 2pm – just in time for the afternoon session of the emergency visa counter.  Dare to believe that maybe this will all come good after all.

Stand 4th in line in the queue.  Watch as the people in front of you address the visa official as “Sir” and behave very deferentially.  Make a mental note to do the same.  Notice that the woman behind you appears distressed.  She tells you that her mother passed away last night and she is trying to get a visa to fly to India that evening to be with her family.  Tell her to take your place in the queue and offer your condolences for her loss.  Chat to her about her children, her job and why you are going to India.  Reassure her that she will get her visa and that it will all be ok.

When it’s your turn at the counter, look the man in the eyes and explain that you spoke to another official this morning who told you to come to the High Commission to obtain a replacement visa.  Explain that you had a visa issued in October, but lost your passport on Friday and you have a flight booked tomorrow which you will lose if you cannot get a new visa.  Explain that you have travelled to Peterborough at 5am to get a new passport.  Show him all your documents, including the all-elusive police receipt.

Start to tremble as the man tells you that they will not issue you a new visa today.  And dismisses your assertion that one of his colleagues said that you would get one.  He looks perplexed at why you would hand him a police report of the loss.  He goes on to say that they will not accept the application at the High Commission and that you have to go to the nearest visa office at Victoria.  He says the very best they can do is to expedite your application, but it will take 24 hours to process.

Normally that would be ok, because you don’t fly until 9pm tomorrow.  So, normally, you would have time to pick up your new visa and head straight to the airport.  Except that tomorrow is Diwali, the biggest religious festival in India and both the visa office and High Commission are closed.  So your luck’s run out and all of that rushing around and trying so hard and wishing so strongly have come to nothing.

Try to remain coherent and respectful as the tears start to fall and you try to beseech them to do something more to help you.  Explain that it’s not for you that you’re doing this – you’re going to India with your sister who has been recently bereaved and you don’t want her to have to travel alone.  Totally impassive reaction.  Force a “thank you” as they mark your papers “urgent”, so that you can collect your new visa at 11am on Wednesday morning.  14 hours too late for your flight.

Make your way to the bus stop on the Strand feeling utterly desolate.  Cry openly and loudly as you walk down the street and get on the bus.  Ignore the curious stares of the other passengers.  It’s just a typical bus journey in London, people.  Nothing to see here.  Deliver your paperwork to the visa office and explain your story.  They find it all rather amusing.  Particularly the part where they get to tell you that, if it weren’t for Diwali, you’d have been fine.  Quite the punchline.

Call your travel agency to find out what can be done about your flight.  They promise to call you back with options.  They don’t, but you decide to speak to them in the morning, since there’s nothing you can do to change the situation tonight.

Call your mum and sister and tell them the bad news.  Offer to put your sis up in a hotel near the airport in Goa until you can fly out.  Tell her the latest you’ll be there will be Sunday, cos you can take a friend’s unwanted direct flight out on Saturday night.

Tuesday morning: T-0.5:  Go to your sister’s house and start looking for hotels.  Realise quickly that they are all booked up because of Diwali.  Experience the now familiar surge of adrenalin and cortisol which is what you’ve been running on for the past few days.  Spend 3 hours looking for a hotel that (a) doesn’t cost same as India’s annual GDP and (b) doesn’t have reviews on Trip Advisor written by cockroaches who’ve had a lovely stay there.  Find one and quickly book it.  Then receive an email that says that the room isn’t booked until you receive a confirmation email from the hotel, which can take 12 hours.  Only there aren’t 12 hours before your sister is due to check in.  Brilliant.

Email your travel agent.  Ask them how much a single flight to Goa would be on Weds or Thurs.  Explain that you will use the return portion of your existing flight for the way back.  Receive an email back saying that if you don’t make your outbound flight then you will automatically forfeit your return leg.  Immediately start crying again.  Call Jet Airways who tell you that this is not true, that it is only a travel agency policy.  Call the travel agency and go absolutely ballistic.  They’re sticking to their guns.  It’s not their policy, it’s the airline’s policy.  And no, they won’t do a conference call with you and the airline to resolve it.  Why would they – this way they get to keep the money from your original booking and get more from you to book a replacement flight.  Utter bloody scam.

Call Jet again.  Speak to several people, including a manager.  Now they’ve changed their tune.  The first person you spoke to gave you wrong information.  You can’t use your return leg even though you’ve paid for it.  You’ll have to book a whole new flight.  No, they won’t put you through to their lawyers.  No, they can’t tell you where this is in your ticket’s terms and conditions.  End the call, seething.

Call your boyfriend.  He tells you that you will be issuing a claim in the small claims’ court tomorrow and delivering it personally to your travel agent.  He reassures you that you will “get this sorted”.  He means business and sounds worryingly enthused at the prospect of door-stepping the travel agents.

Tuesday afternoon: T-0:  Accompany your sister to the airport.  Buy champagne in Cafe Rouge in a last-ditch attempt to distract her from the fact that she has to fly out alone.  Tell her that you’ll get her hotel room confirmed by the time she lands, or you’ll find her another.

Travel back from Heathrow to central London, watching the Diwali fireworks from the tube window….

Wednesday morning:  Get up at 6am to confirm your sister’s room with the hotel and arrange a taxi pick-up for her at the airport.  Feel absurdly grateful when this turns out to be easy.  Decide that you don’t have the appetite to “go f*** some people up” today, as your boyfriend suggests.  Buy a one way ticket from Goa to London on the same flight that you forfeited.  Work out that you are approximately £750 down on the trip before you’ve even left.  Cry again – it’s what you do best now.  Go to pick up your visa, terrified that something will have gone wrong and it won’t be ready.  Guard your passport with your life, checking it obsessively all the way home.

Thursday and Friday:  Try to get some perspective back in your life and calm the hell down.

Saturday afternoon:  Have a delicious meal with your boyfriend at Crystal kebabs on Holloway Road.  Your guvech stew could easily feed four, so you won’t need to eat on the plane.  Relax at home with a last cup of tea before heading to the airport.  Your boyfriend’s meeting his sister-in-law later for a drink.  She tells him that the Northern line is down this weekend.  You’d meant to check it, but forgotten.  Mildly panic.  Call a minicab to Euston.  Tube to Victoria.  Spend an extortionate amount of money on a single ticket on the Gatwick Express.  Hear footsteps behind you as you board and your boyfriend’s voice telling you that the guard on the gate let him through “because he’s Italian and they love a bit of romance”.  Allow your boyfriend to nearly break your skull on the platform by dipping you for a Hollywood kiss.

Breeze through empty check-in desks and security lanes at Gatwick.  Get picked as always for the 360 body scan.  Do your twirl.  Down some melatonin with a glass of wine (sancerre rose – in the Wetherspoons – fancy!) and head to your gate.  It really would be the final straw if you were to fall asleep before you made it onto the plane.  Find yourself sitting in an aisle seat at the back of the plane next to a nice older man.  Make polite small talk till you’ve taken off.  Then put your hoodie up, your eye-mask on, your headphones in and drift in and out of sleep for almost the entire flight.

Arrive in Goa.  See your sister waiting for you at the airport exit.  Whoop whoop. And she’s not even got too much of a head-start tan.  Get a taxi down to Agonda beach.  Receive a warm welcome from the staff at Jardim a Mar, who remember you from last year.  Dump your bags in your beach hut.  Run down to the sea.

And relax.