By dmitrizzleHeader image credit: ArtSocket
June 2013. A few months ago this time, I had a tech job. I was what they called a web producer at Kobo. My job was creating pages and emails for the marketing department.
During the interview for this particular position, I've asked the manager if there was any travel involved with the job. My hopes were that I'd have perks like trips to developer conferences. Something that could teach me to be better at my job and give me more motivation. Most of all, I was just hoping to get free flights and lodging. Discovery of new places, cultures and the glamour of travel - you know?
My parents had a job like that when they worked at Bolshoi Theatre. I still remember being a pre-teen hearing their stories of visiting Eastern and Western Europe and the crown jewel of all: The United Stages. That was a big deal, considering we were living in USSR at the time.
Unfortunately, just like all the other jobs I've had so far, this was another conveyer belt that drew my time and converted it to mediocre code. Not only there was no travel associated with my position, but there was also a tall, reinforced brick wall between me and my ability to stay expressive and creative. I had ideas, talent and aspirations to do well. It all got reduced to filling out roughly a paragraph's worth of paperwork every time I had to write ten lines of code. Fuck the pay, I'm glad that part of my life is over.
Anyways, at this moment (June 2013) I've got no official place of employment, and my place of residence (on paper) is my parents' basement. Though in reality I did have a lot of work and my life was elsewhere.
About a year ago two of my close friends and I got together to bounce some ideas over a joint. A few sessions in we came up with a plan to start a business. By that time, I already had ArtSocket in the making. But it was about not putting all the eggs in one basket. Long story short, we created a new product and started shopping for investors.
One of our potential investors demanded that we all show up in Los Angeles. I found out about him while on my goodbye trip to New York (when I took this photo) with my mom and brother Evan. That was six months ago now. I was well prepared. The flight from Beijing International Airport to LA with a 36-hour layover in Seoul.Perfect. I get to enjoy some delicious Korean food before my 16-hour slingshot to the other side of the planet.
What you should probably know about my itinerary is that I have already spent six months in China, namely Dalian. You see, after that trip to NYC I have departed on my (what I planned to be) year-long journey across Asia. Dalian was the home-base since that's where Betty's parents lived.
Unremarkable and boring as usual, my trans-Pacific flight was finally over. Exhausted, I could barely contain my excitement. It was my first business trip, paid for by the company that I co-owned with two of my best friends. Better than anything I could have ever asked for at a job interview.
After I landed I had about a week's worth of buffer time to prepare for the meeting and to do my thing. Some of it involved working on the presentation deck, website and a few demo videos. Other than that I spent quite a bit of time exploring my new neighbourhood. Went to the local climbing gym, the beach (of course!) and shopped for a few things for Betty. You see, although China does make everything, you can still have real trouble finding stuff there as it produces mostly for export. So here I was shopping for hand creams and makeup in between my trips elsewhere.
LA is a city of wealth and lifestyle contrasts. A lot of cities are full of incredibly rich hanging out next to penniless. But this one is legendary. I roamed the local open-air malls lined with palm-trees and expensive cars. I shopped at a nice grocery store (funny story, Vancouver wanted one of these but couldn't, so they copied it). And even though my room was hilariously small and uncomfortable I chilled at a beautiful campus and hung out with cool people.
While at the very same time, not too far away somebody got shot, stabbed or mugged in Compton. Or someone was making a movie about somebody being shot, stabbed or mugged in Compton.
As I have later learned, my immediate companions aren't the only ones who shaped my travel experience. As a "backpacker" I got to stay in hostels, filled up to the rim with people from around the world. At first, it seems like a shitty setup, but (unless you do it for months non-stop) it tends to amount to a rather pleasant experience. It's like a package deal: you visit one place and hear about a dozen more from your single-serving friends for free.
I met a few guys from Spain, Kenya and Belgium. One of them was Suzan Fastré, who later ended up contributing her genius photographs to this site. A few of them were on vacation. Most were here for work or looking for opportunities. Their stories of life elsewhere, the wildly different education, socio-economic and cultural environments amused me for hours. We drank a lot and cooked shitty food in a dingy kitchen.
I even brought a friend with me all the way from China: my Spanish classical guitar. It was lovely playing it in the courtyard early in the morning while it was still cool. Later I brought it to the Santa Monica beach for an ultimate hipster experience. I just wanted to play. I love music.
As I roamed around, a thought came over me. It was the same thought I was having during my trip to New York. This country, United Stages, has the most recognizable cityscapes in the world. Even if most people never even been here. I imagine it would still be strangely familiar to any first-time visitor.
We all saw it on TV. The images from New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles dominate the screens around the world. The lifestyle and the standards are exported onto everyone. "American Dream", a construct uttered by politicians has had a enormous impact on the people around the globe, beyond politics.
Could be just me of course. But China does not look familiar, not even a little bit. Everything is new and different there. Not at all like the movies. The U.S., on the other hand, has been a transformation. A transformation of the things I've seen on TV and movies into a real thing I could touch, smell and taste.
After Arjun (my business partner, friend) had arrived it was finally game time. Unfortunately, our meeting didn't work out.
The excuses that investors give sometimes make little sense. It's often based on the fact that they never want to say "no". Nobody wants to reject the next Facebook. And no investor, no matter how much money and success they've had in the past can ever really know whether a business or idea will do well. Just the estimates based on stats, policies and personal preferences.
Unicorns never abide by statistics. They are special, and nobody can ever devise a formula to find one. But failing businesses do follow a pattern.
Anyways, we were told that our product was awesome, and the team seemed accomplished. But we couldn't continue because our engineer didn't make the meeting. So we walked down the marble stair set through the lobby, into the courtyard and then home.
We knew nothing about rejections. For example, we didn't know that it takes on average about a hundred meetings to get VC funding. And that this one was a first in a long series of others, which would ultimately lead to "yes"'s. We took it pretty hard because the trip was expensive and time-consuming. Fortunately, we had one more meeting lined up in San Francisco.
The city laid about 8 hours north, across the desert highway. It was a fun drive. On the way, we got to see some cool things. Like oil pumps right next to vineyards. Huge citrus plantations and gigantic water channels feeding them. And of course, the "fields of gold". Just the hills with sun-burnt grass... That looked incredible.
The trip itself sparked some interesting conversations. One of the themes was globalization. Global e-commerce is a paradox. At the core, it holds a promise that anyone in their pyjamas can build a successful business from their mom's apartment. And sell products or service worldwide. Here we are travelling across our blue marble, just like hundreds of other entrepreneurs to make our ends meet. And make it in just one country. What would it be like when we truly go international?
We then agreed that after our recent experiences, world cultures are much more diverse than we first thought them to be. It's one thing to learn about how people live elsewhere while expecting everyone to behave according to the norms of one country. But living, working or doing business elsewhere forces significant changes in often unexpected ways. Take an example of powerful corporations failing to penetrate foreign markets. We want different things, depending on what our culture dictates those wishes to be.
Our meeting in SF didn't make us millionaires either. It was another step, another something that we did and learned from on our journey towards building a business. At the time, of course, it felt like a failure. Later we compared it to failing grades in high school. Devastating at the moment, but compared to what the life can bring us in the future - insignificant.
I must add that this trip was not all about these two meetings. It was a lot of firsts, which is always fun. A first international business trip, first time I met an old friend in a foreign country and first road trip across American desert. It felt inspiring; the scenery was beautiful. I was lucky enough to bring back home a few great photos. I guess in some way I have achieved some of my "working" goals.
On my flight back to China I tallied up the results. Money spent: about 4K. Time taken: two weeks. Money earned: 0. But if I could do it again, I would.This article is an edited version of what was originally posted on June 07, 2013.