He won a Chinese kickboxing title by pushing opponents out of the ring. He regularly analyses his own blood to identify trends. And he once outsourced the administration of his dating to teams in five countries. Who says Tim Ferriss can’t work a four-hour week? Valerie Khoo spends some quality time with the man, then road-tests his productivity theories.
On a cold night in Sydney at a hip bar in the centre of town, about 150 people are listening to a self-confessed geek-turned-author talk about the phenomenon that has become his life. Addressing the crowd, holding a glass of white wine, Timothy Ferriss doesn’t know anyone in the room – apart from his publicist and a mate he’s staying with while he’s in town. The crowd, many with Ferriss’s book in hand, has turned up as a result of a blog post announcing his brief visit to the Harbour City.
There’s the 20-something graphic designer who read the book last month and insisted that his girlfriend read it too,the mortgage broker in his 40s who is wondering if he can really apply the principles Ferriss describes in the best-seller and the 30-something lawyer who just wants to see what the fuss is all about.
After all, Ferriss is selling a dream: The 4-Hour Work Week. It’s the title of his book and a concept that has resulted in the book being published in 31 languages. Released late last year, it debuted on the New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-seller lists. It has also hit best-seller lists in Germany and Japan. Although the book has sold a more modest 10,000 copies in Australia, this has been achieved with little or no publicity. Yet there are fans at the bar who are asking to have their books signed and their picture taken with its author. It’s a form of celebrity that has been fuelled almost entirely through blogs, social media and buzz created online.
Then again, when you are promising a four-hour work week, it’s probably not that hard to seduce an audience. However, Ferriss emphasises that his book isn’t about inactivity but rather a thought-provoking discussion he hopes will make people consider how they can design their lifestyle.
“The 4-Hour Work Week is a collection of case studies and principles to look at this broad concept of lifestyle design as an alternative to traditional career planning,” says 30-year-old Ferriss. “It looks at how normal people can outsource and automate their lives. And a big part of that is reclaiming time.”However you choose to describe it, the book has hit a nerve with readers. In a world where constant email access and long work days have become the norm, Ferriss encourages people to buck the trend, wean themselves off email, automate and outsource as much as possible.
The seed for this philosophy began after his girlfriend broke up with him in mid-2004, complaining that she never spent time with him. Ferriss admits her complaints were well founded. “I was putting in 80 to 100-hour work weeks. That’s not an exaggeration,” says Ferriss, who worked in Silicon Valley first as a low-level employee and then as CEO of his own company. This wake-up call resulted in Ferriss packing up to go on holiday for what was supposed to be four weeks. “The objective was to either redesign my company and work style to allow some semblance of a life, or to shut it down completely and start it from scratch.
”He only allowed himself to check emails once a week and says he almost suffered a nervous breakdown from the withdrawal. “Those four weeks turned into about 18 months of travelling through more than 15 countries seeing how far I could push some of these concepts related to outsourcing and automating, not just relate to my business – but also my life,” says Ferriss.
It was during this time the idea for his book was born. “One reason I wanted to write the book was because of my best friends,” he says. “They’re well educated, they work extremely hard and some of them make extremely good incomes. One of my close friends is in investment banking. I remember speaking to him… and he had finally bought his dream car – a Porsche Boxster. He had talked about it for years and years. He was so excited about his car but when I spoke to him about a month later I asked him: ‘How’s the car going?’ He said: ‘I’m going to sell it.’”
When Ferriss quizzed his friend about the reason why, his mate admitted the car had been gathering dust. He had barely spent half an hour behind the wheel due to his gruelling work schedule.
Ferriss’s book challenges what is considered normal in working life. While the book is most relevant for entrepreneurs who, theoretically, have the power to shape their lifestyle more so than employees, Ferriss also suggests ways employees can adjust their employers’ expectations of how and where they work.
The concepts range from getting a virtual assistant to filter your emails based on clear criteria set by you, weaning yourself off information overload (do you need all those RSS feeds?) and unchaining yourself from the office with remote access tools. “The book is designed to be modular,” he says. “It’s a menu of options. No one who reads the book is going to use everything.” Instead, Ferriss encourages readers to apply the tips that will suit their own lifestyle and goals.
One concept he discusses is geo-arbitrage, where you can take advantage of global currency differences and payment expectations to outsource work at a lower rate than you are used to paying. This frees you up to either pursue your interests or earn income at a much higher rate, thus increasing your productivity.
Ferriss points out that this is not just about outsourcing to India or other developing countries. “Consider some of the depressed regions of Australia,” he says to the crowd. “You might be able to apply the same principles of geo-arbitrage within your own country.”
While there are certainly sceptics who don’t believe his ideas will work on a practical level, he also has a legion of fans who regularly flood his blog posts with comments and add to his ideas.
Ferriss’s commitment to living his philosophy means he can travel the world. He now fundraises to build schools in developing countries. So far, he’s built two schools in Vietnam and is building another in India. Ferriss is also an angel investor in technology companies, with a keen interest in social media.
This is unsurprising since he uses online social media strategies in his charity fundraising. It was also his foray into social media that contributed to the success of his book. Recognising that his publishers would be responsible for liaising with traditional media – such as radio, television and magazines – Ferriss realised he could concentrate on blogs and social media. “I knew nothing about social media but recognised that it was one of the few hands I had to play because the publishers were very hesitant and nervous about that world,” he says. “So I started educating myself on blogs and looking at how different blogs were quantified.”
While Ferriss jokes that he “got drunk with bloggers” at blogging and new media conferences, getting to know them informally before even mentioning his book, it was a calculated move on his part. “If you’re on a blog that is well read even by 1,000 people, it’s not how much traffic they have, it’s who reads their blog,” he says. “Would you rather be on a blog that’s read by 100,000 regular readers? Or would you rather be on a blog that has 1,000 readers who are all bloggers? I would go for the second option because then you get immediate syndication.”
Ferriss made a point of leaving comments on relevant blogs and got to know other bloggers in the four months before his book release. The strategy worked and enough online buzz was created for the book to make a mark. “It ended up hitting the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal bestseller lists in the first week and that just blew my mind,” says Ferriss. “That was with Amazon sales alone because there was so little distribution [in book shops at the time]. Amazon ran out of stock. When that happened I thought: ‘Holy crap. I guess there’s something here.’”
While Ferriss may be pleasantly surprised by this result, he’s no stranger to unorthodox success. He has broken a Guinness World Record in tango and won a gold medal at the Chinese Kickboxing Championships. Again, this has been the result of an ordered, strategic approach. He was training for the tango world championships when he realised that he would be training such long hours, he may as well apply to break the world record. His victory in kickboxing came, by his own admission, through looking for loopholes in the rules and exploiting them. He writes in his book: “If one combatant fell off the elevated platform three times in a single round, his opponent won by default. I decided to use this technicality as my single technique and just push people off.… The result? I won all of my matches by technical knockout and went home national champion.”
You get the sense his whole life is one big experiment. With a keen interest in nutrition and biochemistry, Ferriss has quarterly blood tests and analyses trends in the results. “Doctors don’t do it,” he says. “So I do the trending myself.”
The experimentation knows no bounds. On a bet with a friend who said people couldn’t outsource the time spent in bars on the dating scene, he outsourced his dating through www.elance.com. “I put up a request for proposals and had a professional specification sheet indicating that people should set dates up for me,” he says. “I ended up with teams in India, the Philippines, Canada, Croatia and even a team of Americans working in Jamaica.”
Ferriss gave each of them an online profile of himself at sites like match.com and Yahoo Personals. “They were given guidelines and there were performance bonuses for the best performing team,” he says. “The upshot of it was that I had 20 coffee dates in one weekend.” They were all held at staggered times and Ferriss alternated between three different coffee shops near his apartment.
“As ridiculous as it sounds, it’s good proof of the concept of personal outsourcing. Anything you can imagine or do via computer or phone can be outsourced.” One of Ferriss’s coffee dates turned into an eight-month relationship, which ended when Ferriss moved cities.
While The 4-Hour Work Week implies that it can change your working habits, at its core is simply a spirit of rebellion and the idea that you can march to a different drum. “I would say that whenever you find yourself on the side of majority, it’s time to take pause and reflect,” says Ferriss, citing Mark Twain. “So consistently test assumptions, always ask why. Most things people say you have to do – or that you should do – fall apart.”
ROAD-TESTING THE 4-HOUR WORK WEEK
Can you really create a four-hour work week? I decided to put some of Tim Ferriss’s advice to the test. The 4-Hour Work Week contains many ideas and suggestions on ways you can streamline life, leverage your time and earn more money in order to create the life you want. I picked a few ideas to implement… and here are the results.
Ferriss says: In his book, Ferriss writes about how he outsourced customer service for order tracking and returns of one of his products. He used to respond to product-related queries, an exercise that resulted in 200 emails a day and many hours of work. Empowering his customer service representatives to deal with the problems themselves (as long as it would cost less than $100 to resolve) cut down his emails to 20 per week, decreased the percentage of returns, reduced the cost of outsourcing and boosted his profit margins.
My roadtest: I run the Sydney Writers’ Centre and although my staff deal with the bulk of the day to day enquiries, I’ve always been on hand to deal with more specific writing-related queries or “out of the box” requests. To apply Ferriss’s advice, I identified the most common questions asked by customers and students, created a robust FAQ and trained my staff about how to deal with most of the queries. It’s an obvious solution but why hadn’t I done it before? Apart from the time investment required at the start to do this, there was also my ego. I (mistakenly) felt that prospects and students had to talk to me. The reality is that most people don’t care who they talk to as long as they get the answers they want. After empowering my staff to answer the questions and resolve problems, my time spent on these issues has decreased by about 80 percent. I still handle the “really out of the box” queries but now my time is freed up to do more innovative work.
LEARN TO PROPOSE
Ferriss says: “Stop asking for opinions and start proposing solutions.” In other words, don’t canvas opinion on what movie to watch. Suggest a movie and a session time to speed up the process.
My roadtest: It sounds so obvious but I always thought it “polite” to hear other people out. I experimented with this approach for two weeks and have now decided to apply it religiously in all aspects of work and life. It hasn’t suddenly provided me with many more hours in the day, but it definitely eliminates back-and-forth emails and helps me nail down my schedule a lot quicker than before.
OUTSOURCING AND GEO-ARBITRAGING
Ferriss says: Explore using virtual assistants and take advantage of differentials in currency and earnings expectations. He suggests elance.com and guru.com
My roadtest: Without a doubt, I have found this to be the most useful and successful idea gleaned from the book. While Ferriss even experimented by outsourcing his dating, my experiment was far less glamorous. After engaging two different transcriptionists (paying an average of $80 per audio hour) in Australia, I decided to experiment with geo-arbitraging and searched for one online. Starting with guru.com, I received about 50 bids from transcriptionists around the world – including one from Australia – offering to do the work at fees ranging from $10 to $90 per audio hour. The most expensive bid was from the Australian. I ended up choosing a transcriptionist in Tennessee in the US at $25 per audio hour. Her bid wasn’t the cheapest but I was impressed by her written communication. Her transcription skills were flawless and I used her consistently until she got a full time job. I have since found another equally skilled transcriptionist on Guru, this time based in Ohio. She charges $35 per audio hour.
With these two good experiences, I posted a job on elance.com for someone to do online research and compile a list of 20 blogs on the topic of lifestyle entrepreneurship. I outlined clear specifications on how the blogs should be picked ranging from frequency of posts, average number of comments and Google page rank. Several people bid for the job and I awarded it to another virtual assistant based in the US. She did a comprehensive job for a total of $50 and I will definitely use her again.
My experiment into geo-arbitraging has exceeded my expectations. The biggest surprise has been that I have not outsourced to a developing country but to college-educated graduates in the US at a fraction of what I would pay in Australia.
Ferris says: Create a product, sell it online, automate your systems so that payment, delivery and fulfillment can be done at the click of a mouse. The book offers a number of real-life examples of people who have done just that, including Doug from ProSoundEffects.com who began selling on eBay, progressing to a more sophisticated online store. Doug makes about $10,000 per month and works less than two hours a week.
My roadtest: Creating a brand new product in time for the deadline for this article wasn’t all that easy. So I used a product I already created for the Sydney Writers’ Centre: an audio program called Reinvent Yourself: So You Want to be a Writer. It’s already available for sale on the centre’s website. But I created a new website www.valeriekhoo.com which is my blog on how I use technology to create the lifestyle I want. The product is available on that site. I currently average a handful of orders per week for that product so that’s nowhere near $10,000 a month, but it’s early days. Ask me in a few months.
I haven’t created a four-hour work week. In fact, I’m not sure if the number of hours I work has decreased at all. Instead, with the hours I’ve saved by outsourcing and streamlining my time, I’ve managed to fill them with new ideas and projects. I’m still experimenting. Stay tuned.
Photography: Kym Thompson