Visa Matters

I am beginning to see a lot of humour in this situation of late.

Being Indian, I need a visa to get out of my front door. And I am generally not surprised to see an immigration officer eye me up and down before deciding to stamp my passport. Oh, and of course I better smile through the process.

I have had many bones to pick on this whole issue of visa and immigration. In fact, I was an angry young man for many months last year. Talk about visa and I’d begin fuming. That’s changed. Maybe I’ve grown up. Maybe not. I’ve just come to accept it as it is.

There are many obvious reasons to be pissed off with the system. It is not based on merit. Far from it actually. It’s probably the most legalized racist system that exists. Easy passage is directly proportional to the lightness of skin. The process is also age old, complicated and incredibly annoying. And it took me a good year or so to make peace with it and accept it.

I have even gone through the whole process intellectualizing what the right immigration system should be. That phase has gone too.

Right now, I look at my 17 point check list to get myself a Schengen business visa and grin from ear to ear. Of course, there’s the voice in my head that laughs out loud and says ‘Here we go again.’

There are some things we control and some things we don’t control. For things we control, it’s best we think and act. For things we don’t control, finding humour is probably the best thing we can do.

What You Bring to the Table

You always bring something to the table.

You bring the best and worst of you. The worst being a flipside of the best of you.

In a world where input, information and discussions seem to have every instant, word of mouth is more important than ever before. And, whether you like it or not, whenever you are mentioned, what you bring to the table is mentioned in the same breath.

This means you are not invited into tables where what you bring to the table is not seen as welcome, and, what you think you bring to the table is not necessarily what you bring to the table.

The important question, of course, is what do you bring to the table?

And if you have space for more questions, are you saying No to tables that wouldn’t match your offering? 

One more while we are at it. Does it make you someone of value in the tables you’d like to be invited to?

Aaron Klein: Interview XII – Real Leader Interviews

Regulars here have heard of Aaron Klein before. He has been an inspiration of late for a few things (the most visible of which has been a change on font on this blog).

Aaron and I met via Disqus at AVC.com a few months back and we’ve been in touch thanks to commenting on each other’s blogs since. Aaron is one of those full of energy and inspiration. He is the CEO of a start up, a Trustee at a college, leading charity projects to help educate kids in Ethiopia and most importantly, a husband and father of 2 wonderful kids Casey and himself brought home from South Korea and Ethiopia – 2 kids who have changed their lives. Oh, and he also has a wonderful daily blog.

In short, a great guy and someone I’ve been looking forward to meet for a long while. I am sure you will enjoy this interview..

About Aaron:

Aaron Klein is the co-founder and CEO of Riskalyze, a technology startup that is revolutionizing how we make risk/reward decisions with our investments.

He’s also been elected twice as a Sierra College Trustee, and advocates for adoption and ending the global orphan crisis as a co-founder of Hope Takes Root.

Most importantly, he’s a husband and a father who believes in Isaiah 1:17’s radical mandate for changing the world.

One of our goals with Real Leader interviews it to keep it to short 15 minute interview. With Aaron, that was simply impossible. It was a laughter fest from the first minute as he rolled out one funny comment after another.

Please note that the internet connection in the Sierra foothills (the beautiful area where Aaron lives) is not the most predictable – so the video is not the clearest at all times. Our champion editor has worked hard to make it seamless. Our apologies for any part that may not be all that clear!

Rohan: Hi Aaron! Would be great to hear your story. How did it all begin?

Aaron: I have a rather interesting background! I started working for my dad when I was 12. He had a wholesale distribution business for security equipment like automatic gates. I literally started with packing boxes. I wanted to work with my dad and he thought ‘what else can this 12 year old kid do anyway’! I was gradually learning though. I started doing inventory and then operations. Later, I got into marketing for his products. At one point, I had to do slow down on college work because his industry had taken a dive. Suddenly they needed all hands on deck and there was no time for anyone to leave. Especially an 18-year-old low paid college kid like me! That was some experience.

In 2000, one of my good friends, my dad and I decided we should start something new with the internet. I was very excited about it! I have been on the computer from 1994 and I got network in 1995 in my dad’s office. My dad would often ask me to shut it down because he had to send a fax! Coming back to 2000, we started off with a web-consulting group. Towards the end of 2001, dad’s industry was getting tougher to stick to. I was trying to sell the company to a bigger competitor at that time. And in December 2001 we did sell it!

It was a bunch of different and varied experiences for me! And so, by the time I was in my 20s, I had moved from packing boxes to selling a company. My dad started working for the company we’d sold his business to, while my friend and I worked with the web-consulting firm. We later figured out that real value was in building a product. So we sold the web consulting company in 2005 and launched a business operation software for wholesale distribution companies. Our first client was the one we sold my dad’s company to! We got funding from that contract because we built it to suit their needs.

We made a boatload of mistakes with that company! It was good to learn from the mistakes though. Our biggest mistake was that we did a sort of exclusive-for-that-industry product. So we made the best business operation software for them, but we could not sell it to anyone else! Nevertheless, we were doing quite well. We had established contacts.

It was starting to get tougher though. In 2005, I could not make any venture capitalist believe that small businesses were going to buy their software over the Internet. No one bought that idea! They said small businesses buy their software off the shelves and this is never going to work. We started wondering what we were going to do. We needed about 25 million dollars of capital in this project.

We raised the first million and I sunk way more of my money than fit my risk tolerance into that company. (This is going to be funny in just a moment!) We were doing okay but about 2 weeks before the deal was going to close, the lead investor expired. And we hit the wall at 90 miles/hour. It was a huge life lesson. I don’t want to go through that ever again.

I learned a lot about risk tolerance, that’s for sure! I am not involved in the old company now, but that software is still running today with a couple of clients.

Then, a financial services company came calling as they needed to build a product developing team. They had a great marketing team but needed the ability to build technology products. So I went to work with them for about 4 years. That was the first time I was working in financial services. I explored a lot of areas there. I think it is a very interesting industry. It’s both dynamic and static in its own way.

One of the things I saw there was the huge holes that exist for individual investors. There are probably 14000 stocks in the ETFC that you can invest in and 269 million web pages where you can get ideas for investing. On the flipside there are all kinds of places you can go to execute these investments. There is no shortage of ideas and no shortage of execution. An investing decision involves figuring out the execution.

There is this great technology that quantifies risk tolerance. An old friend of mine invented it. He has a PhD in complex computer systems. He started to invest his money and he saw the way financial services assess risk in portfolios and he felt it was total baloney! He decided to come up with his own way of doing it and patented it. We started off with that.

And that’s our company – it’s called Riskalyze and it’s going very well. It looks at the investments and finds the one that fits the user. It’s helping people understand investments better and take decisions better.

Rohan: It’s been very interesting so far. It would be great to hear about some of the defining moments in the journey so far?

Aaron: It sounds funny but I’ve had a 21-year-old career by the age of 33! (My dad clearly had no idea about child labor laws!) The business operations software experience was a big learning. There was a team working for me, there was money involved and it was a very painful experience. In the learning process, sometimes you cant avoid that.

However, I feel it’s my job as a CEO to make sure that we are always headed in the right direction; that we are not stuck on the wrong trajectory. That’s one of the biggest learnings. Assessing the trajectory you are on in a startup is quite important because running a start up is a bit like taking a leap off a cliff. And they don’t allow parachutes!

You have to figure it out and make sure you are aware!

Rohan: It would nice to hear about things you do apart from your work life. Your kids and the projects with Africa..

Aaron: My wife and I decided to adopt in 2006. My son Spencer was born in South Korea. We flew to Seoul and brought him home. We did that again in October 2008. Our daughter Emma was born in Ethiopia. We met her Christmas morning in 2009. We flew home with her on New Years Eve 2010!

They have changed our lives! It’s hard to explain. A lot of people meet us and go ‘Thank you for what you are doing for these kids’. I don’t really see it that way. These kids are bringing more richness into our lives than what we could ever do for them.

Adoption is really about finding families for kids and not the other way around!

Rohan: You had a two-day trip to the South of Ethiopia as well right?

Aaron: When we went to adopt, we didn’t really travel throughout the country and left with a limited view. It’s like going to Central London and thinking that’s all there is to the UK!

There are a lot of core issues behind the situation there. It has to do with poverty in the developing world and how a lot of aid has not reached where it has to go. One part of the world cannot adopt another part of the world’s kids. That is not really a solution to the issue. We have to go deeper than that.

We thought we should solve the problem by preventing kids from becoming orphans in the first place. It starts with food and education. If you can ensure this and make them self-sufficient, we can break the cycle of dependency and ultimately poverty.

I took another trip in September 2010 and travelled throughout the country. I walked into Adami Tulu, this tiny village of 3000 people and it hit me. The kids were there and at one point I played a video for them on my phone. About 80 kids just piled around and the sky closed in! It was amazing. There is a school in the nearby village of Ziway. We have invested there too.

The biggest industry that region of Ethiopia, is made up of 22 acres of greenhouses. And they supply roses for the entire country of Denmark! Remarkable right? So, outside these greenhouses there are people sitting and hoping that someone inside falls sick and leaves because, that way they get to work. There was very little hope in the area.

We have built a couple of classroom buildings there. It was amazing to see it all come together. Some more buildings are under construction now. We have launched a sponsor program for the kids at the school. $19 a month is giving a kid food and education. That feels amazing!

We want to start some self-sustaining business ventures to fund the operation of the school. The goal is that 50% of the school’s operating costs will be covered by the business ventures in 5 years. At that point we will be able to cut the cost of the sponsorship or redirect the funds to other places of need!

Rohan: What a great story! Could you sum up Riskalyze for us in a few words?

Aaron: Riskalyze is all about quantifying your investment decisions. Making your decisions should be captured into an equation. And really, half of this equation comes from the risk tolerance. So, it goes back into the Internet and finds the investments that fit you! If you go to Google to do this, you’ll find investments that were hot in the past and a bunch of ads from companies that ask you to pick them. These are not ideal.

When you go to the software and tell it that these are your ideas and this is your risk tolerance, it calculates an optimum portfolio that fits you!

Rohan: What are your words of advice for the leaders (and aspiring ones!) out there reading this?

Aaron: The most important lesson is that every moment counts! We have to be purposeful and very intentional. I don’t think people spend a lot of time thinking about the kind of life they want to have and about the things they want to do. We don’t spend nearly as much time building the structure and the systems to achieve that.

I have a good example on that. 12 hours ago, I received an email from you saying ‘Aaron, let’s chat directly on Skype. I don’t check emails for 24 hours on Saturday.’ You do that to help yourself achieve what you want to do and that’s a good example.

Build a routine that works for you! In my case, I work on my start up on the weekdays and often do a 6 hour day on Saturdays. That’s life! On Sunday morning, we go to church and on Sunday afternoon, we always do something as a family! I make sure that I do as much as I can on Saturdays so I can keep Sunday focused for family. That’s not going to work for everybody but it’s up to you to build systems that work for yourself. If you are intentional in how you plan your life, you are going to be a lot more successful!

My dad taught me a lot about business and about life. He and I are still fantastic friends and we get along great. He was always dedicated to his family. I learnt all this from him. I remember this song called ‘This moment’ which talks about living in the moment and not in the future. A lot of that thinking has led me to be more intentional about things..

It’s interviews like that make me thankful for the many who have worked hard to make this ‘Interview Real Leaders’ idea a reality. I had so much fun and have taken away an immense amount of positive energy going forward.

Thank you so much, Aaron for your time. As I’ve told you multiple times after our chat, I cannot wait to meet you – hopefully in California this year!

Over the last month, 3 of us have been working on getting these Real interviews out to you. This was the first one that was entirely a team effort. I did the interviewing, our talented iPad artist EB did the editing and talented artist and blogger Dhanya did the transcription. We hope to make steady incremental improvements to our efforts.

And we look forward to all your thoughts and feedback on what we could do better.

Happy Monday! And have a great week!

On Richard Branson and the Musical Cabbie

This week’s book learning is from ‘Screw It, Let’s Do it’ by Richard Branson.

When Richard Branson was a young entrepreneur getting started with Virgin Music, he flew to Japan and set up numerous meetings with the big shots in the media industry. He had some vague ideas of a joint venture but really, he was just a broke man with some outrageous ideas. Yet, he found himself being listened to and being treated very courteously and patiently.

That experience had a deep impact on him and he decided that he would be as polite and courteous to all those around him. This resolution was tested when he was on his way to a meeting in a taxi with a very chatty taxi driver.

‘Oy I know you. You’re that Dick Branson who runs that record label.’

Branson smiled, hoping he would shut up. But he went on and said he was also a drummer in a band and asked if he could play a demo tape. Branson’s heart sank but he didn’t want to be rude so he replied with a ‘That will be lovely’.

And just as they were getting to the end of the trip, the cabbie put on the tape and Branson then heard the words ‘I can feel it coming in the air tonight.’

That’s when the cabbie got out laughing like mad. He was the one and only Phil Collins..

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A bad mood, a bad day, work, busy-ness and other things seem to get in the way of us being the best we can be.

‘You meet the same people on the way down as you met on your way up. So, treat them well’ is a quote I really like.

Branson’s story reminded me of that wise quote..

Here’s to being polite and kind to everyone we meet this week!

Why E-Learning Will Never Beat the Real Thing

My (really cool) guitar teacher received a whole bunch of emails this week. Following my months of personal spring cleaning, I was feeling the effects of spring this week. And that flowed to my guitar learning as I sent him email after email speaking of songs I really wanted to learn. The excitement was palpable. And I kept checking out song lessons online to figure out if songs were easy or difficult.

He joked towards the end of the lesson that after all those emails, he thought he’d better give me lots to do this week or he’d lose me to online lessons.

My immediate response was that that would not happen in the near future. I explained to him that I’m one of those people that gets the maximum out of learning when a teacher is involved – it comes with my low attention span. I’ve written about why I don’t even attempt to be self taught these days.

That response did get me thinking though. I found myself reflecting on a normal occurrence when I’m home. One of the most important parts of my trip is to make time to visit/speak to my secondary school teachers.

And now I fully understand why. In my case, my teachers have made all the difference in the world. I’ve been fortunate to be blessed with many great ones – starting with my mom and family, moving on to my teachers in school, mentors in my workplace and close friends all through. All of the good that exists within me exists because of these individuals who have taken time to teach me things. And I wouldn’t be anywhere without them. Just a very energetic kid with a very low attention span. 

Online education is a big thing these days. Many teachers have felt threatened by this new unknown monster. My view on this is simple – it will likely work very well as an accompaniment to learning but, at the end of the day, all those kids closer to the attention deficit side of the spectrum (half the population one would think..) would still need that guiding hand especially when they are young. And if you’re a good teacher you’re invaluable anyway. (The bad ones have reasons to be worried.)

It takes a long long time to learn how to learn. I think of it as developing an approach to learning. And especially for someone like me, I really mean the LONG. It’s a learned trait and is not a natural one and it is one I can apply with lots of effort to things that are really important. It has a draining effect at the end of the day as such focus/attention to detail while learning is not natural. It takes work.

It becomes very obvious when I’m working on learning something on the side. My attention just doesn’t hold. I lose interest very quickly. And this has happened twice with the guitar. It’s only over time I’ve learnt that the teacher makes all the difference in the world. When I think of tennis, I think of Chris and all of what he’s taught me. It’s similar with the guitar. A couple of years down the line, I’ll probably be good enough to pick stuff up on the guitar from a video online. It’s still a long way away..

It’s liberating when you learn these things about yourself. At least in my case, I used to look around at friends of mine who seemed to have nailed approach much much earlier in life and I used to find myself questioning my intelligence and ability to learn something or anything. It’s only over time that I’ve learnt that I’ve got a different style..

So, I’d like to take this moment and thank all of those people who’ve been a part of my life and who’ve taught me so many wonderful lessons. You might have done it as a teacher, a mentor, a colleague or as a friend and you might have done it intentionally or even unintentionally but you’ve had impact. I don’t learn these things better any other way…

Thank you for taking the time and making the effort.. I commit to passing it on.

And I couldn’t help but crack up when I saw this.

(I’m assuming you’ve seen this type of meme go around. If you haven’t, clicking this will put it in context)

I’ve Learned…

Reblogged from Bits of Wisdom. Every once in a while, a great one like this comes along..

I’ve learned-
that you cannot make someone love you. All you can do is be someone who can be loved. The rest is up to them.

I’ve learned-
that no matter how much I care, some people just don’t care back.

I’ve learned-
that it takes years to build up trust, and only seconds to destroy it.

I’ve learned-
that no matter how good a friend is, they’re going to hurt you every once in a while and you must forgive them for that.

I’ve learned-
that it’s not what you have in your life but who you have in your life that counts.

I’ve learned-
that you should never ruin an apology with an excuse.

I’ve learned-
that you can get by on charm for about fifteen minutes. After that, you’d better know something.

I’ve learned-
that you shouldn’t compare yourself to the best others can do.

I’ve learned-
that you can do something in an instant that will give you heartache for life.

I’ve learned-
that it’s taking me a long time to become the person I want to be.

I’ve learned-
that you should always leave loved ones with loving words. It may be the last time you see them.

I’ve learned-
that you can keep going long after you can’t.

I’ve learned-
that we are responsible for what we do, no matter how we feel.

I’ve learned-
that either you control your attitude or it controls you.

I’ve learned-
that regardless of how hot and steamy a relationship is at first, the passion fades and there had better be something else to take its place.

I’ve learned-
that heroes are the people who do what has to be done when it needs to be done, regardless of the consequences.

I’ve learned-
that money is a lousy way of keeping score.

I’ve learned-
that my best friend and I can do anything or nothing and have the best time.

I’ve learned-
that sometimes the people you expect to kick you when you’re down will be the ones to help you get back up.

I’ve learned-
that sometimes when I’m angry I have the right to be angry, but that doesn’t give me the right to be cruel.

I’ve learned-
that true friendship continues to grow, even over the longest distance. Same goes for true love.

I’ve learned-
that just because someone doesn’t love you the way you want them to doesn’t mean they don’t love you with all they have.

I’ve learned-
that maturity has more to do with what types of experiences you’ve had and what you’ve learned from them and less to do with how many birthdays you’ve celebrated.

I’ve learned-
that you should never tell a child their dreams are unlikely or outlandish. Few things are more humiliating, and what a tragedy it would be if they believed it.

I’ve learned-
that your family won’t always be there for you. It may seem funny, but people you aren’t related to can take care of you and love you and teach you to trust people again. Families aren’t biological.

I’ve learned-
that it isn’t always enough to be forgiven by others. Sometimes you are to learn to forgive yourself.

I’ve learned-
that no matter how bad your heart is broken the world doesn’t stop for your grief.

I’ve learned-
that our background and circumstances may have influenced who we are, but we are responsible for who we become.

I’ve learned-
that a rich person is not the one who has the most, but is one who needs the least.

I’ve learned-
that just because two people argue, it doesn’t mean they don’t love each other. And just because they don’t argue, it doesn’t mean they do.

I’ve learned-
that we don’t have to change friends if we understand that friends change.

I’ve learned-
that you shouldn’t be so eager to find out a secret. It could change your life forever.

I’ve learned-
that two people can look at the exact same thing and see something totally different.

I’ve learned-
that no matter how you try to protect your children, they will eventually get hurt and you will hurt in the process.

I’ve learned-
that even when you think you have no more to give, when a friend cries out to you, you will find the strength to help.

I’ve learned-
that credentials on the wall do not make you a decent human being.

I’ve learned-
that the people you care about most in life are taken from you too soon.

I’ve learned-
that it’s hard to determine where to draw the line between being nice and not hurting people’s feelings, and standing up for what you believe.

I’ve learned-
that people will forget what you said, and people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

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The Paradox of Options

Before we take decisions, we make it out life’s purpose to ‘create options’. The bigger decisions, the more the options we like to have.

Yeah. I took that job and turned down blah, blah and blah. or

Yeah. I had great difficulty choosing that school. I had all these great schools to choose from.

Options make us feel good. They make us feel like we’re not desperate. Probably most importantly, they feed our illusion of control.

They don’t make our decisions easy by any stretch of the imagination unless we have one clear winner. If they are all equal or sort of equal, then choosing becomes a very difficult process. We end up consulting everyone relevant looking for a rational, logical reason and then end up taking a decision based on our emotions anyway..

That said, they still make us feel good at least for a little while. And nothing good comes without it’s share of challenge.

Paradoxically, the moment we make a decision and decide to plough ahead is the moment when options become like spoilt food in the fridge. Keep them for too long and they begin to stink. They remind us that they still exist and make us think of what life might have been if we had chosen them.

Sometimes, as a result of our visceral emotional reaction to losing things we have, we aim to keep as many options as we can open for as long as we possibly can. People do this with jobs, schools and often, even with relationships!

The issue here is that while options may give us a bit of joy the moment they appear – in the long run, they don’t really make us happy.

In fact, feeding them has exactly the opposite effect.

Predictable irrationality.

It probably comes down to our definition of success. We think of success as having an array of options and then choosing the most logical/rational option that would give us maximum benefit.

The big question, of course, is – Is that really success?