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Tuckerman's seven lessons from seven weeks of travel

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Okay. It’s been seven weeks since my last post. But my excuse is a fine one. I’ve been too busy… travelling the globe! (Poor me.)

I could regale you with stories of debaucherous karaoke, mind-snapping cultural epiphanies and extraordinary panoramic beauty. But I’ll save those for anyone willing to sit through my 2,402 happy snaps (coming to a flickr page soon, for anyone without a life).

Instead, I hope that you (dearest Anthillians) find value in these seven business observations and tips from seven weeks of travel.

They are not mind-blowing. In fact, many are obvious. However, they do offer the perception of one person on global trends (and clever marketing initiatives) affecting businesses the world over, right now.

1. Why are there no internet cafes in Manhattan?

In a deliberate effort to temporarily sever my ties with work (a necessary precaution for any entrepreneur on leave), I did not take a laptop or phone with me on my travels. This is normally not a problem due to the plethora of internet cafes in almost every centre of tourism. The exception, it seems, is New York. Why is this so? The first reason is not that surprising: Most people travelling through the Big Apple are now already wired. The second is more impressive: Apple, it seems, has deliberately usurped the role of the public library.

Think about this for a moment. By offering every kid, among New York’s population of 8 million, free internet access within its many palatial, inner-city stores (to create movies, music, send emails or simply surf the web), Apple has begun the process of educating a generation of market leaders that Apple should be their brand of choice. That’s smart. Now, if we could only find a way of indoctrinating Australia’s youth into the ways of Anthill…

2. Is the world really in a recession?

Japan. It’s the second largest economy and another economic behemoth caught in recession. Sure, the big boys are hurting, as exports fall through the floor, but that doesn’t seem to have dampened the spirits of Japanese entrepreneurs. As a ‘Gaijin’ and carefree traveller, any local pessimism would not have been obvious to me. However, it’s clear that an emerging generation of Japanese are rejecting the ‘work to death’ ways of their parents and opting for less conventional career paths.

In fact, wherever I travelled, it was not hard to find people forging their own paths, creating their own products and services, from bricks-and-mortar English schools to kick-arse online apps. This global trend was evident from Tokyo to Paris to New York (Parisians seem able to launch businesses, while only working eight hour days and sleeping for nine hours!).

Clearly, we may be in a recession, but that seems to have triggered an innovation boom. And the biggest winner is geo-arbitraging.

3. Does anyone work in an office any more?

The days of geo-arbitraging have begun. Knowledge workers the world over seem to be rejecting the practice of 18 hour days under neon lights. Instead, they wield laptops and mobiles, while instructing their minions across the globe, buying and selling, engaging and dismissing to reflect the ever-changing values of global currencies. Or, at least, that is the impression that most modern parks and coffee shops offered this entrepreneurial traveller. Of all the lessons/observations acquired during my travels, this was the most significant.

Most entrepreneurs create infrastructure, acquire staff and sell local. This new breed of entrepreneur – observed in almost any country where a decent espresso is sold – instead engages labour from economies with poor exchange rates in order to create services that can be sold to economies with high exchange rates. The intermediary trades their knowledge and connections. Suddenly, Tim Ferris’ 2008 business bestseller ‘The Four Hour Work Week‘ has begun to makes some sense.

4. Forget stocks. It’s time to buy Virgin Megastore merchandise.

I’ve never been a fan of the Virgin Megastore, so I can’t say I was sad to see one of its largest shopfronts in Time Square close down. However, I was surprised to see the ‘Everything Must Go’ banner in Virgin’s Union Square Megastore and just about every other place – in several capital cities – where Virgin had, for a long time, held the title: ‘retail institution’. This is not a big deal, except for what it says about the music industry, media and digital sales generally.

Catching a glimpse of the future, I quickly picked up a Virgin Megastore T-Shirt, something that I will one day show to my kids and explain in austere, paternal tones that once upon a time people bought entertainment products in stores. Either that, or I’ll be wearing it in six months as a postmodern comment on the ephemeral nature of media in our modern lives (before selling it on eBay).

5. It’s a newspaper Jim, but not as we know it.

In between promotions for Star Trek and a range of progressively frightening reality television singing contests, for several weeks the global news cycle was caught in a perpetual loop, ending with a story on the Kindle2. The Kindle is a wireless reading device (a tablet) that aspires to save the newspaper (and magazine) industry by offering a new medium for the distribution of news content. In short, it’s a big iPhone but not as good. I suspect that the Kindle will have the same impact as the much touted laser-disc (an expensive stepping stone for a better product). What lesson can be gleamed from this development? See item 4 (above). I wonder if they sell T-shirts?

6. Monopolies are good. But only if you’re selling violence.

The following observation is not new. However, it gained greater meaning to this generally carefree punter during my travels. It’s also something that we often forget, or rarely appreciate, living in a stable, democratic society like Australia. So, to get serious for a moment, it seems to me that the fundamental difference between a country that is wealthy (and fosters legal entrepreneurial endeavours) and a country that is not (and fosters illegal entrepreneurial endeavours) comes down to the matter of who owns the violence. Fortunately, in Australia, the government has a monopoly on violence. Occasionally, a ‘disruptive’ upstart attempts to dislodge the status quo (think Carl Williams) but generally our elected officials wield the larger clubs. It’s kind of like Microsoft versus Netscape in the late 1990s – except without the anti-trust implications.

7. Seven weeks is not a long time in politics.

On that note, as a backward way of appreciating the stable, democratic environment we take for granted, it comes as a surprise to me how little has changed on the political/economic front in Australia during my absence.

In theory, our politicians are supposed to represent our needs (No shocks there). Yet, we rarely take advantage of this quite wondrous state of affairs.

As a quick stocktake, support for innovation still stinks, starting a business in Australia remains an option for only the most optimistic and determined (or foolhardy) and now I learn (having returned to my desk only yesterday) that Employee Share Schemes have been made largely unavailable to your average employee. How the heck else are we supposed to motivate and find quality staff, in our generally under-capitalised and unpopulated startups?! As such, I hope that you will help us help you.

In short, I’m back, brimming with ideas and itching to hear from you on what has changed (and what hasn’t) in this glorious country of ours and how we can improve things for the average Anthillian entrepreneur. If you have any ideas, I’m all ears.

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