The business and careers newspaper for students

Dan is a self-employed expat based in Bali, Indonesia. He owns a design company, presents his own successful weekly podcast, and is the founder of the Tropical MBA (find out more below). Mustafa Khalifa visited Dan at home on Bali, and heard why he believes building a successful lifestyle business is the best way to create wealth and personal freedom.

What is your business background?

I didn’t study business at university – I studied philosophy and I wanted to be a rock star. Not because of music, to be honest, but because of the freedom it offered. So when I realised I had no musical talent, I looked around to see who else had personal freedom, and I saw that you can get it in business. I jumped into the corporate world, thinking that making a huge salary would mean freedom for me. It took me way too long to do the math, and see that it wasn’t working out and that I needed to be an entrepreneur and the owner of a business instead.

So how did you go about achieving this goal?

This realisation (which was four years ago) coincided with me reading a book called The 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss. At that crisis moment in my life, I realised I might have a couple of bucks in my bank account, but was never going to have the type of personal freedom I really wanted if I continued to work for somebody else. So I started an ecommerce and product development company with my best friend. We develop products in our California office, manufacture them in China, and sell them via a network of ecommerce stores that we developed with a team of engineers and marketers based here in Asia. We offer around five or six product lines in several niche markets, which include personal safes, supplies for the hotel and restaurant industry, and cat furniture!

Where does lifestyle design come in?

Lifestyle design is a concept discussed by Tim Ferriss in The 4-Hour Work Week. It pushes you to think about the ways you’re being compensated for your work, not only in currency but also time and mobility. If you consider them all as equal currency, you can begin to trade them off against each other. Cash is often thought of as the top currency, but for me time is the most important one. What most people do in the traditional setup is to try to maximise their cash income, since time and mobility aren’t really available options. But after giving it some thought, I realised I’d be willing to make much less cash if I got back a lot more time and mobility. This was my first step out of the corporate world and into the world of entrepreneurship. I realised I wasn’t going to become less wealthy just because I was going down from $100,000 per year to $25,000 per year. I was actually going to be just as well-off because I would be compensated in time and mobility for my drop in salary. And it’s this time and mobility which ultimately allowed me to generate a much larger cash income than I would ever have been able to anticipate in the corporate world.

Do you believe students and graduates in the UK can follow the same career path as you?

I don’t think it’s a career path. I think it’s an approach to life that we’re increasingly being forced to consider. At the moment, companies are asking a lot more of their employees. It’s not uncommon any more for people to get woken up in the middle of the night by their suppliers who call your BlackBerry, yelling at you from China, asking what’s going on – and your boss expects you to respond to that kind of stuff. That’s what ended up happening to me, and so I started to ask myself fundamental, existential questions like "What am I in this game for?"

Now technology like Skype empowers people. It’s much cheaper to start a business with huge firepower with the Internet. Most people in the UK who have a job can afford £300 per month to hire people in the Philippines to work for them. So now, all of a sudden, you can easily have your own team, an unprecedented opportunity. So the combination of overwork versus the power you have to set your own terms and start your own business means that lifestyle design is definitely a legitimate approach.

Essentially, lifestyle design is the attitude of the entrepreneur extended to the working man. This attitude towards your lifestyle has always existed for the ownership class, and now people like Tim Ferriss are saying you can be part of this class too. The costs of doing so have dropped to zero, so it’s just a matter of getting your mindset straight.

What is the Tropical MBA?

The Tropical MBA website is my personal blog. The "MBA" started as an internship request. I was in the Philippines hiring software developers and had a lifestyle I’d always admired and dreamed about, living on my own terms. I then thought, why wouldn’t anyone want to be living like this for the price I’m paying my Filipino software developers? I would have loved to be paid that amount to do an internship and enjoy this lifestyle. So I put a request online and the internship, now known as the Tropical MBA, took off from there. We’ve now done seven successful Tropical MBA internships. The role was basically modelled around the job ads I wish I had seen when I was 22 years old, working in a job I didn’t enjoy and looking around for something better online at night. The Tropical MBA is now my platform to try to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs.

You have recently relocated your life and business to Bali in Indonesia. Why is that?

I have location ADHD! I have too many options! I’ve been living in Asia for almost four years now, and I have many friends who live across the continent and banking relationships, business interests and employees all around the region. I love Southeast Asia, and I wanted to live in a place which has hub airports so I can get around easily. I also wanted a place where I could live a healthy lifestyle, and Bali is world-class. For me, it’s the most desirable beach location in Southeast Asia. You can eat at a five star restaurant and then walk out in your flip-flops and go swimming on the beach. And you get incredible value for your money. The villa I recently moved into has a full-time gardener and a private swimming pool, is located near to all the top spots on the island, and costs me only £900 per month. And as my business builds up, I also want to build up my standard of living, since I’ve spent the past three years riding motorcycles in Cambodia and living in huts in Vietnam.

What would you say to people who are sceptical about implementing this kind of lifestyle, and believe it’s better to play it safe by working for a large organisation?

Part of me just wants to say, fair enough. More power to you. And if you ever want to be an entrepreneur and live on your own terms then you’ll be in a better position to do so because you’ll have had world-class training and experience from top firms and top people. A lot of people who become lifestyle designers have come from the corporate world – they made their money, got great training and are now running their own lifestyle businesses.

But I think doing a corporate role is a terrible idea if you really want to do something else, if you know from the beginning that it’s not for you. If you’re worried about jumping head first into entrepreneurship, then go and learn how to be an entrepreneur. Identify someone you really admire and want to learn from and go and work for him or her. I did so and it changed everything for me.

I’m not trying to say my way is the best way to live, but I’m tickled pink that I get to live like this and I’m trying to help as many people as I can who want to do the same. This desire is why I started Tropical MBA and why I want to franchise it and make it bigger, so that I can get more smart people coming out to developing economies, like those in Southeast Asia.

What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve ever received or heard?

Philip Glass, a famous composer, said that the reason he was so successful was that every morning he woke up early, and worked hard all day long. I think that part of the reason lifestyle design is so appealing to me is that it gives you the permission to do what you want to do, and I feel that because I was focused on the things I was interested in I was able to put more time into them, and ultimately build a business from them. So the best advice is that it’s all about the time, the hours, and the passion you put into your projects. Find stuff you really like to do and focus on that. There’s an odd asceticism that exists in the corporate world where people say, "For five years I’ll do this and trade away my passion, my best energy and my time, and in return I’ll get this payoff." That to me fundamentally doesn’t feel right. And that’s why I like Philip Glass, an artist who is able to give all his time and energy to the things he cares most about. To me, as a failed musician and artist, in some ways any kind of business or enterprise is the ultimate canvas – every creative bone in your body is employed in trying to create something which is valuable to people.   

Published

26 October 2011

More articles in Commercial awareness  
Entrepreneurship

Upcoming opportunities