⚫️ The Abyss
I'm a lucid dreamer. There are times when I slip in and out of consciousness and the difference between dream state and reality blur.
Businesswear thread around me. Dark clothes accented with colour move with purpose. Eyes wide and neck craned, the endless towers are distinguished by the shimmering windows and blinking lights. I'm mesmerised.
We're in a bright restaurant and my father sits opposite me expectantly. The brewing thought materialises, I lock eyes with him and say with a childish certainty "One day, I'll work here."
Jolting awake I lift my head from my forearms and reach for the phone in my pocket. With the angry 7-minute timer off, I breathe a sigh of relief. "I'm sure it was on vibrate?" Standing, I leave the cubical and stare at the dark circles in the mirror. A splash of cold water does the trick. "Come on Raj, get a grip."
At this time, the 38th floor is empty save Kaz and I. Walking over to one of the windows characteristically barred by stainless steel shutters, I steal a few seconds to look below. The streets are mostly empty but a few cars pass their way through the financial district. Looking up, the brooding black clouds layer on layer form a perpetual darkness. The Abyss.
Shaking myself out of the trance, I join Kaz back at the desk. "Last little bit" I say. "Last little bit". He squeezes a tired smile. "Sure."
These long nights were typical of my life as a consultant in Capital Markets. Strangely, I didn’t mind the intensity. I relished the all-consuming mission. I'm the type that needs pressure to perform. But the intensity did make me question what was it all for? Countless nights obsessing over slides, process maps and management updates. Were we actually making a difference? I knew our work was important, clients rarely pay thousands a day for work they don't need, but I just couldn’t feel it. Completing a strategy project was like an earthquake in the ocean. The painstaking effort would culminate in a meticulously detailed bound deliverable that would thud on some meeting table and in the preceding conversation a decision would be made. At the centre of the quake, the resulting shift was imperceptible, but some time later on distant shores, landscapes were remade in the wake of the decision. It just wasn't satisfying. Was that the reason why I left?
Rarely are significant decisions made for a singular reason, and in truth, there were darker factors at play. Consultants are brought into organisations to enable change and typically they are paid on a
Time & Expenses or
Fixed Fees Arrangement. i.e. clients pay for the completion of a deliverable, not its quality or the intended outcome. In these arrangements, the incentives at play are predominantly short-term. Short-term thinking leads to poor decision making.
The only long-term incentive at stake is reputation; and in this game of reputation, the reputation of the firm mattered, the reputation of the client mattered and the reputation of your manager mattered. You begin to realise pretty quickly that your reputation mattered. More often than not the impression of you and your work superseded the importance of actually producing quality work, owning mistakes, or showing compassion. In these environments, the way people treated each other could be ugly. It's not sudden, the change happens slowly. An irritable look. A dismissive comment. An undermining move. All fuelled by a desire to build a reputation. Or as we were told during our graduate training, to be famous for something.
"if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you." - Nietzsche
Working on Brexit in Canary Wharf defined my early career. I proved to myself I could hack the heat, but for my new found competency and confidence I'd forsaken empathy. It was Kaz who alerted me to this change. Having completed three of these intense Brexit projects together, we'd become a unit that always had each other's back. So it hurt all the more, when he said, "you're starting to act like them". It crushed me to know that he was right. Ever so slowly you begin to change until you don't recognise the figure mirrored in your reflection. I had operated with single-minded determinism to get to the next career level, and once I was there, the thought of who I'd have to become to get the next didn't inspire. I lacked meaning and purpose.
It was time for a change.
🧘🏽♂️ The Ordinary, made Extraordinary
It's dark in this room. "How long has it been? 30 minutes, 40? Surely at least 30." At this point I'm experiencing intense pain in my ankles, knees and lower back as they begin to buckle under the weight of my frame. "Patience and persistence, Raj. Realise that your pain like all bodily sensations is temporary." I reach deeper and like I'd been instructed, tried to separate the sensation of pain, from the sensation of heat. A splintering torment in my knee interrupts my already loose focus. "The only way this pain is temporary is if I move from this f**king position." Breaking my posture, I open my eyes and enter into a hushed room of 60 souls deep in meditation. Finding my watch, I stare in disbelief at the clock-face; only 21 minutes had passed. I turn my head and scan the faces behind me. Am I the only one finding this hard?
This was late in the 3rd day of a strict regime of complete silence; 4 am wakes and hours upon hours of daily meditation interrupted only by rationed vegetarian meals. They said hunger helped to focus the mind. Having been spoilt on a rich Japanese diet for the last 9 months, this was particularly hard to bear.
The meditation centre was located in the rural part of the Chiba prefecture. 10 kilometres from the coast, it was on the edge of a thick green forest, lush with wildlife. I wasn't sure if it was the meditative vibrations, or the commitment of the residents to not harm a living thing, but in this biome, the insects grew large and unabashed. Every night, in the 20 man dorm room, my pathetic city boy mentality would wrestle my imagination away from animating the cockroaches and spiders that lingered above the bed.
Here, every day was the same. There are no distractions, no responsibilities, and your sole job was to spend time in your own mind. That’s it. Nothing weird - just you and your mind. So ordinary, yet the mind when left alone, so wonderfully makes the ordinary extraordinary. In meditation, I'd inadvertently comb through the inner recesses of my mind reliving forgotten memories and dreaming vivid fantasies. This extended to my normal state. As we'd go about our daily chores of brushing teeth, bathing and solitary meditation, you couldn't help but observe those around you. My mind had a field day. I'd come up with names and associated personalities, based on the tiniest of interactions. There was Bug Boy for the way he played with the grasshoppers and spiders, James Bond for the way he meticulously laid out his belongings on a spare bed, and finally, Bulldog who occupied the bed opposite me. He was about my age, but his facial expressions suggested he could have been twice that. The guy never smiled! Bulldog had the build of an athlete who was just past his prime. He wore old gym gear, glasses, and a white baseball cap, backwards. Annoyingly he was a good meditator. Like a dog who wouldn't release their clenched jaw, he stuck to the almost cruel meditation schedule. He managed in part due to his trusty handheld clock. This clock tormented me. It's barely audible tick-tock, would pierce through my meditative focus to the point where I felt compelled, like a thief in the night, to creep up to his bedside and remove the battery. The tick-tock stopped.
Before arriving at the meditation centre, I couldn't consciously keep my eyes closed for 2 mins, let alone meditate. Yet towards the end of the 10-day course, I started to find my focus, and the pain that had previously consumed me, to my shock, transcended into pleasant vibrations. I could sit perfectly still, incomplete concentration for hours on end 🧘🏽♂️. The secret? Patience and persistence. Stop counting the seconds and be present to your bodily sensations. Resist craving, resist aversion. Realise everything is impermanent - 'Annica'. In these moments, I felt intensely proud of my ancestors. They were on to something.
On the final day, you are permitted to speak to your fellow meditators - they said it was to help with re-entering society. How strange it was to speak after so long. At first, people cautiously communicated through mannerisms "You go first" or "Thank you", but as the crowd warmed up, raucous conversations broke out. Meditators introduced themselves and shared hilarious stories of their inner struggles. In these cathartic moments, I spilt my dirty little secret to Bulldog. "I knew it was you!" he cackled. "I remember turning the clock around, and thinking which cheeky f*cker pulled out the battery!". We laughed, and I soon discovered my negative preconceptions of the brooding Japanese-American man (Kelly!) were completely wrong. He was an absolute joy to speak to. That night after many tacks and turns, our conversation centred on work and after divulging my experience I got the distinct impression that Kelly was hinting at hiring me. He worked for a small-family run lobbying firm in the heart of Tokyo and it sounded cool, but I cut him short saying that "I could never work for a lobbying firm unless there was a strong ethical framework in place to decide what interests you represented." The conversation jibed, and suddenly we were scoping up an ethical framework. We teased out the complexities and imagined working on it together. It was one of those rare moments, where two minds sync and both are humbled by the ensuing magic. After 9 days of silence, the mental stimulation was exhilarating.
Tucked into bed that night, I proceeded with the day's final meditation. Eyes closed, back flat, I noticed the vibrations on my body were ecstatic, they leapt over my body like an electrical current, breaking and forming into hexagonal shapes on the surface of my skin. I knew then, that I should pursue this opportunity. Before parting ways the next morning, I told Kelly that I was serious about working together and that he shouldn't worry about the cost; I'd give him a week of my time when I returned to Tokyo. True to his word, Kelly sold the vision internally and a month or so later I appeared at the foot of their luxurious office in a newly purchased suit, a mere stone's throw away from the Imperial Palace.
Like always, I started the project with a set of interviews with the leadership team. I quickly realised that what was needed was not an ethical framework, but a shared set of values and a mission statement. Now with the freedom that comes with autonomy, Kelly and I were able to go off-script and tackle issues with a powerful combination of logic and emotion.
The week flew by, and I could feel the impact of the work on the organisation. Spirits were lifted, decisions were made and radically transparent conversations were had. During that brief period, it felt like the company had healed some of its growth pains, and it felt f*cking good! Now this, I could feel. I could see the impact.
Elated, the first person I call, [drum roll please 🥁] was Peter Huang. A month or so beforehand he'd visited me in Japan, and we'd spent the fortnight on a rollercoaster ride of the country. We'd spoke of work, of dreams, of love and during one hedonistic festival night running a clothing brand together! Given his brave decision to jump into entrepreneurship at the beginning of his career, Pete was always first to mind on anything remotely related to start-ups. Telling him of my recent experience, "forget working for corporates, we can do things differently and so much better." At this point working with Pete wasn't an option; he was deep into his work at Monzo.
📞 The Calling
I remember exactly where I was when the call came. It was late in Sydney, and I'd been out running that afternoon in a bid to train for the Melbourne Marathon. Sitting back in a canvas chair I cradled my blistered feet and bitterly regretted my decision. It was then that the phone rang. Sensing something, I picked up and quickly made my way outside in an effort to not disturb the family whose Airbnb I was staying at. "Hey Pete, how are you?". I began to pace the square garden. He dropped the news - Pete was leaving Monzo 💥. A mixture of confusion and excitement took hold.
Rapidly the path to what was next cleared in my mind, the past year's experiences and what I knew of Pete's ambitions collected like threads in one hand. I didn't need guidance anymore, I knew what the next step was. "We should start a business together!", I said with absolute conviction. A momentary pause. "really?😂 " laughs Pete. "Yeah, we totally should!". "And the idea?" he replies.
I then launch into a speech about how we don't need an idea to decide on whether we should start a business. "You know, a little like those Entrepreneur First people that you keep telling me about". If we've got the people, the idea will just come. Instinctively, I just knew it would work; but if I had to rationalise why, it would be because we've been great friends for years, and with that depth of experience came an unshakable bond. I trusted Pete. We'd lived and travelled together, and we knew how to argue and debate to find common ground. Pete was one of the few people I had a deep respect for. Pete had some thinking to do, so we resolved to consider the option seriously when I was back home in the U.K. Pete is the first friend I see off the plane! In the lead up I write to him. "You know what this is right? This is the beginning."
RK: You know what this is, right? This is the beginning. This is the first chapter. The prologue has been written. We start a company. PH: I'm a bit confused right now! Let's have an honest think about what our strengths and weaknesses are, and then areas of interest, passions, goals and timescales. - 21st October 2019.
Having caught up briefly as friends; we decide to carve out 2-3 hours to speak seriously about being co-founders. At Pete's recommendation, he asks that we think about our strengths and weaknesses, areas of interest, true passions, goals and timescales. We also plan to finish this activity by attending a Fireside chat from the CEO of Depop, hosted by Entrepreneur First (EF).
We meet at a Gelato shop in Bermondsey, near the EF event. In the booth at the back, we begin to strategise and listen to each other's plans and ambitions. Quickly the ideas start forming. "We could build a multi-purpose space, like gym, events, office. Hmm, how would we get the space?"
"We're strong generalists, what about buying an old business and modernising it?" The ideas flow and there are genuine moments of excitement. But given the number of unknowns, I suggested testing the working relationship. Pete agrees and soon enough we find a project to work on.
👵🏽 Grandma Insights
Age and wisdom are intricately connected. At the age of 27, I can look at the decisions I've made and the resulting experiences over the past 27 years and I can piece together how they have shaped who I am and my current standing. So for me, I can offer advice based on a limited window. My parents at the age of 57, and grandmother at the age of 80 can do the same.
When first breaching the idea of leaving my well-paying job to start a business after a year out of 'real' work; you can't blame my parents for their hesitation.
Having set up her own business before, my mother understood the appeal and drive behind doing so. Mum: "I don't want to stomp on the dream, but I'm concerned that you might give up a well-paying job and a wonderful life for something that is unclear".
My Dad was less restrained:
"You want the facts? Here:
- 90% of startups fail
- You won't be able to get a mortgage until you have 3 years of business accounts in addition to the promise of future contracts.
- You'll work like a dog with no holidays and no sick pay
- In addition to your work, you'll spend countless hours worrying about your staff and their problems.
- Even if you're successful, you won't get to actually do the work, you'll spend all your time selling and bringing the money in
And that's not even including the opportunity cost." At this point, he starts calculating my lost earnings 😅. "Assuming it takes you 3 years to earn your current wage, in that time you could be earning around 100k a year. What kind of business is going to earn you 100k a year in 3 years?"
"Classic". A smile forms in the corner of my mouth. Here comes the rebuttal. Taking each point in turn.
"Fair points, you're right.
- Yes, 90% of startups fail. I know that. But if we fail, it would have been worth it. Just think what I will have learnt along the way.
- This is true, hadn't thought of that 😬, looks like we'll need to grow quick. Let's work backwards to set some goals.
- Working like a dog is exactly what I want! But this time, I want the efforts of today to extend into tomorrow. I want to build something more than a title.
- You know more than most I'm carefree, I'm pretty sure I can hack a larger realm of concern. You forget, I've also got Pete.
- Creating new opportunities and creating phenomenal relationships, that's the stuff I'm good at 😉
Yes, there's an opportunity cost! But let me tell you, when I think about the experience I will gain from working in the firm to working on my own venture with Pete, there is little question in my mind where I'll learn more. This is a ten-year game, not three. Besides, countless people leave consulting for an industry, only to come back with a promotion. This startup could go belly up and it wouldn't matter. Why? Because unlike most of the consultants working their way up the greasy pole, I will have had real business experience. Currently, I've got zip! Dad, if anything, this is a short-cut. Can you see that?"
I'm not sure he agreed.
"Look we'll even time-box it. We'll work on it for 6 months and see how far we get. If it's not going well, then I'll just a get a job. No harm done."
I must have resonated because this monologue got him thinking. Comments and questions flew back and forth, and we sat down to work out how much Pete and I would need to pull in to earn us 100k each in 3 years. Heading to bed that night, I welled up. "How lucky am I to have them? This is what it is to be privileged. I'll miss them when they're gone."
The parental challenge helped to refine my thinking. It shook off the romance of the pursuit and made me face the hard cold facts. I was choosing a long road.
Our test project went better than expected. It was clear that Pete and I had a strong competency fit. We naturally covered different areas, but there was enough in common to double-check each other's work. More encouragingly we spent every day laughing like school kids. It was a pleasure to work with Pete. He is smart, efficient and funny and I started to picture the road ahead. Admittedly, as Pete prepared to go to San Francisco I got a little worried. I could just imagine him being offered an opportunity of a lifetime in Silicon Valley, and our brief window of opportunity would fade into the scrapbook. Putting those thoughts to the side, I dusted off my laptop, ironed my shirts and boarded the train to Bank Underground Station, back into the belly of the beast.
Accenture is made up of almost half a million employees worldwide, its sprawling limbs extend to over 120 countries. As with most consultancies, it's able to serve these employees with relatively little office space as most work is done in its client offices. So day-to-day the home office always has a different makeup. The day I returned was no different. Sitting back in a free chair, I observed the buzz of activity; pensive looks at a whiteboard; an insightful presentation in a nearby conference room; a nervous-looking graduate sat with a manager hovering at the desk's corner. I felt a wave of nostalgia wash over me. This place had been good to me. I'd learnt more than I'd like to admit.
Letting my network know I was back in town, I was greeted by old faces. Like old friends, we quickly slipped back into the same rhythm of conversation. Catching up on their personal lives, I was enthralled to hear of new events, partners and anecdotes yet when the conversation turned to work. The same drama persisted like a soap re-run on its last legs.
"I need to find my next project!"
"I'm not sure if I made promotion"
"My manager just doesn't understand"
Their comments reminded me that beneath the gloss, people often felt undervalued, unsupported or stuck. In these moments, I felt the pressure to make the Accenture exit (Accexit).
To my relief, Pete returned from San Francisco with his decision made. He'd identified the areas he needed greater clarity on, asked for advice from people he respected and having completed the mental calculus, had made a decision. I loved the way his mind operated, efficient and logical, much like his suggestion of a company name - 2020. Apart from the obvious implications of 20:20 vision, it appealed to his logical side that valued balance and numbers. For me, I liked the implied deadline. "The 1st of January 2020. That's the date we need to found our business." With a goal set, then began the work to make it possible. I pursued a double life; days working at Accenture, nights and weekends working with Pete on our new venture. Each week we got a little closer to our goal, and I felt like I was climbing a ladder rung by rung, edging closer the top.
During the days of the abyss, I took diving lessons at the Olympic swimming pool in Stratford. Week by week, we'd progress up in height. Jumping first off the pool's edge, then the 2 metres, then 5 metres, next the 7 meters and finally the 10 meters. I was that pushy little student that always wanted to jump higher and having nailed a 5-meter pike, I asked if I could jump the 10. The teacher relented "Yes, but just a straight jump." I climbed each ladder with a nervous excitement reaching the top quickly. "Jumping off the 10 meters, is the equivalent to jumping off two double-decker buses stacked on top of each other". That fact wordlessly replayed as I walked towards the edge. Peering over, doubts took hold as my body physically recalled from the edge. "Oh god, that’s high. Perhaps you should go at the suggested pace. What if you fuck this up?".
As the 1st of January drew closer, my father's warnings similarly echoed in my mind. It was at this point, that I decided to seek the counsel of my grandmother (another privilege).
Sitting down over a plate of her famous chicken curry, I went into detail about my plans for 2020; how I was going to leave my well-paying job to chase a dream with Pete, but also how I had doubts. I was giving up a dream job for many and that was risky. Expecting a diplomatic answer, I was surprised by her forthright response; "to progress, you have to take risk. As long as it's calculated, take it." I was well reminded, that I was speaking to a woman who had left her rural village in Kerala with just enough to make the journey to join my grandfather in England. I was speaking to an entrepreneur that after experiencing a racially motivated dismissal from her senior nursing post, had built the first high-end South Indian restaurant in Newcastle. That night she conveyed her wisdom in a set of stories that cleared the nagging doubts and hardened my resolve. I distilled her thoughts and presented them to Pete the next day:
Hold your body stiff, point your toes and jump straight. Hold your body stiff, point your toes and jump high and straight! High and straight. High and straight. Come on' you got this. You've got this.
My grandmother's words embolden Pete and me. Like a mantra they calmed nerves. Now, I just needed my parent's blessing before I could jump.
I'm proud of the relationship I've created with my parents. For many years we've been able to discuss absolutely anything, from work to women, and because of the transparency, we've developed a healthy respect for each other. Whilst they may not agree with every decision I make, they trust my decision-making process. Most probably, because I share it with them! Having had rocky relationships with their own parents, they've treasured this insight.
Returning from the Japanese adventure, I'd moved home, so there was plenty of time to walk them through our plans, and slowly with the directed effort, they came around. For my mother, she could see that I was disenfranchised with Accenture, and understood that if I didn't make the jump now, then I might lose my opportunity to go on this journey with Pete. She had watched Pete & I grow up and understood how much our friendship meant to each other. Asking her now what persuaded her, she said: "If you were going into business with an unknown entity, then I'd have been worried." Recalling one of my birthdays "Pete was the one who wrote you that card, with a picture book of your memories together. I knew he cared about you and wasn't going to mess you around." For my father, it was the same, "I liked and respected Pete a lot, you both presented a logical approach to starting a business. What's more, I could see how excited you both were. As a parent, you're happy when your kids are happy. I trusted you to make an intelligent decision".
My parents looked at the decisions that had shaped their lives and provided insight from that timeframe. What was important was creating stability, being able to get a mortgage, getting solid experience on the CV. My grandmother came from a perspective of what would leave you feeling fulfilled at the end of your life. Her final piece of advice "Despite what anyone says, as long as you can live with the decision, take it."
Thanks for reading!
So, if you felt that flicker of energy, the proactivity to start a serendipitous chat or feel curious to work with us get in touch! 😊
We invite you to continue following our journey! 🚀 Each month we'll be releasing stories as we experienced them, a year out of sync. So in February 2021, we tell the story of February 2020. This way, we can share our highs and lows of entrepreneurship, with all its grit and gloss; without fearing sensitivities.
The next bit is for those looking to work at, or with twenty--twenty.
So those were the moments of significance that led up to the founding moment. But, a year has passed, and what's happened since?
This year, we've Catalysed 4 Ventures.
📸 We worked with Perfocal to take over the UK Photography Market, navigating COVID successfully. Despite much turbulence, we implemented 30+ growth projects, improved the consumer offering by building out merchandising, started the B2B offering, grew double digit % and most importantly, made friends for life. We've extended our relationship by committing to scale their business sales team and process further.
💙 We saved an NHS health clinic hundreds of hours spent on team appraisals, and now we're working on a major project together to improve the patient experience significantly.
🤖 We launched an MVP for digitising the Dublin AI community
⛩️ We've supported a family business in Tokyo to achieve greater company alignment
Most significantly, we hired a spectacular Catalyst, 🔗 Holly Simmons, who is currently leading Perfocal's business team efforts.
We're looking to grow substantially this year with more great projects and more great people. So, if you're a highly ambitious individual of strong character, let's have a chat!
2020 may have ended for many, but for us, twenty--twenty has only just begun.