Traveling the World

MAY15_26_hbr_nguyen_img_079Photo by Andrew Nguyen

After college, I took an unconventional career path. No two-year contract with a bank or consulting firm, no paralegal work, not even a stint on my parents’ couch. I took a contract to teach English in China for a month and decided I’d figure out the rest along the way.

Over the next five years, I lived and worked my way through Mongolia, Russia, Thailand, Afghanistan, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, and Turkey. I taught English, worked as a freelance journalist, wrote analysis for a consulting firm, and threw parties to bring together the fascinating people I met along the way.

Friends openly wondered if I’d ever get back on the career path after “disappearing” for years. What they—and I, for that matter—didn’t realize then is that I was well on my way along my career path of choice: being an entrepreneur. As I found ways to support myself in my travels, and picked where I would settle, I learned several key skills that have served me well in the course of building a venture-backed startup.

In the U.S. we’ve become accustomed to clear processes. If someone breaks a contract, you sue them. If you have a problem with someone at work, you go to HR. If a website isn’t working, you file a support ticket.

In much of the world, those services and structures don’t exist or don’t work. When there’s a problem, you need to fix it yourself. Usually, you have to find out who’s responsible, then convince him or her to help you fix your problem.

I once got stranded at the northern border of Badakhshan, an autonomous region bordering Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. I had three days before I needed to catch a flight out of western Tajikistan and there were two ways to get there: drive through southern Kyrgzstan or retrace my steps along the Afghan border, which would take a minimum of five days. Until that point, it had been easy to find a ride around the region, but because of a recent dispute in southern Kyrgyzstan the border was technically closed.

My problem was compounded by the fact that I had only $200 left, the nearest ATM was on the other side of the Hindu Kush, and even if I’d been able to get there I didn’t have enough money in my bank account to buy a new plane ticket.

Resource-constrained in unfamiliar territory with no clear source of authority, explanation, or help? That’s basically startup life.

In the end, the son of the owner of the hut I’d been staying in made it his mission to find a driver, and we went door to door until we found someone with good connections at the border. We bought a few packs of cigarettes for the border guards, who were more than happy to wave us through, and I caught my flight.

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