“If you find yourself doing things like everyone else, you are almost certainly doing them wrong”. This has been my motto as long as I can remember and it has led to an incredible life. Living this way has enabled me to run several successful companies, join charity boards, and travel the world. Nowadays, at age 33, my home is a tropical island in the Caribbean. I work from my spare room in the morning, and play volleyball on the beach and drink cerveza as the sun sets. Every day my own, living life for me.
Let me regale you with my story.
I did university very differently to most. I focused heavily on the extra-curricular activities, spending lots of time on campus, yet only a minority of this in class. It was an incredible time of exploration and adventure. The many friends from those days are still my closest. It’s those people who have played the biggest role in my career. From helping me recruit staff, to secure contracts, or simply push me to think more broadly about the world.
On my first day I met another enthusiastic student, Nick Wee. From day #1 we were thick as thieves, always planning the next event or social gathering. Together we started the Arts Society on Caulfield campus which quickly grew to become the second largest club. This led to me being invited to run events for the student union. The man that recruited me, Kelvin Jewell, is still one of my closest friends.
Running events for Monsu, we tested our marketing nous, and pushed the limits of Monash’s tolerance at the same time. A number of the events we created still run to this day, although probably not as scandalous as their former selves.
During these years, we took campus participation from appallingly low levels, to getting all segments of the community involved. Our events and parties would sell out in a matter of hours. The skills I learned planning, implementing and running these events, were as formative as any book driven education. It was real hands on marketing, prioritisation and people management.
Kelvin was also the founder of FOSBY, a marketing staff and student weekly networking night that still exists to this day. At FOSBY I got to know marketing staff, Peter Wagstaff, Jane Carroll, Colin Jevons and Cori Hodge. All of them remain close friends. I’m not sure if I’ve ever told them how important a role they played in my education. The impromptu discussion of marketing and how the real world works (albeit over many refreshments) taught me much more than class itself.
A few years after graduating, Peter invited me to tutor Digital Marketing. From that first class I picked three interns to work at my agency (my employer at the time). From interns they became staff, and from staff they became some of my closest friends. One even took my job when I started my own agency and another helped start the agency with me. We’ve all helped each other progress and achieve our dreams.
At this point in the story, you should have noticed a common theme. It’s the people around you that progress your career, and enrich your life. Don’t rely on the traditional model--challenge yourself, make true connections and don’t be afraid to chase an idea, even if it seems hopeless.
When I graduated, I went about getting a job like every clueless student does. I fired off CVs like bullets from a machine gun. It was a particularly silly way to achieve employment. I was asking others for value, without offering any in return. The right way to go about it was shown by Julian Cole. During his studies he built a database of marketing industry contacts. Every Monday at 8am he sent an email with his viral video of the week, and some emerging digital trends. By the time he graduated, he could walk into any ad agency in Victoria and they instantly knew who he was.
I fell into my first digital agency and took a significant pay cut to do it. Starting on just $38,000 I worked my way up from the bottom. Google Adwords had just been released, and I committed wholeheartedly to becoming the best at using it. I didn’t know it then, but spend 10,000 hours on anything and you will become a master. This is exactly what I did.
I would race home from work to get back on the computer and monitor my client’s progression. It was in this role that the soft skills I’d been polishing at university came to the floor. On top of leading my Adwords strategy department, I was also sitting on top of the sales results. My contact with clients allowed me to pitch upsells more easily than a cold sale, and this frustrated the sales team to no end. Week on week, my name was always on top of the sales board.
Despite all my great work, and smashing my KPIs, I was not promoted. The company was quite a ‘boys club’, with the directors all taking turns to pat each other on the back. So I tried a different tact. I made it my mission to become friends with the four main directors. A strategy highly successful to my career. When the operations director was getting married, I was the only ‘non-director’ staff member invited to his bachelor party. This brought me into the inner fold, and within two weeks I received that promotion bump I’d been seeking. It taught me how the world really works, and forever changed the way I approached work. It’s the people around you that matter. You can be amazing at your work, but if people don’t love your personality, you are treading water.
It wasn’t long after that I quit the company. It was clearly the wrong fit for my personality. I disliked the culture, and felt let down by their inability to adapt.
I moved to a small boutique agency in Prahran. Lured by a more flexible work arrangement and the office being only 100m from my house, this seemed like the perfect fit. The beauty of a small company is that you wear many hats. Your opinion matters, and you effectively become an owner (without the profits). This is where I got my first look at freedom, and what it would be like for my time to be my own. But it would be another six years until I really knew what that meant.
I setup the Monash University intern network from the Prahran office, and helped over 50 Monash grads start their careers. My theory was to offer as much value as we received. The students that came through weren’t interested in working for free. They wanted to start a career, so the deal was simple. I signed off on the internship no matter what. If they wanted to never turn up, that was up to them. But for those that put in effort and showed up, I taught everything I knew, and helped them start a career. Of all the interns, those working with me almost all worked longer hours, and were more committed than their internship unit required. Like me, they understood the value exchange, and though this open and clear communication, they were empowered to make the most of the opportunity. Again, it reinforced the lesson to look after people around you, no matter who they are.
This management philosophy helped me win a prestigious award: The Australian Institute of Management's, Top 30 under 30 Australian managers. This sounds incredibly impressive, until you hear the application was merely to write a letter about your management theory. The institute only vetted me for 5 minutes on a routine phone interview. My friend Kelvin Jewell, who at the time was teaching sales and negotiation at Monash, largely wrote the letter for me. A couple weeks later my name was printed as an award winner. The lesson here, is not to be overawed by things that seem impressive or insurmountable. Look behind the curtain, and you’ll usually find a pretty simple solution to achieving your goal.
I had a similar experience when I started moonlighting, both taking on private clients, and working with a friend Sean Andrews to start a company called Plox. Sean was already stocking Dick Smith, Harvey Norman and a number of other electronics stores, so it was natural that Plox quickly became the Australian leader in portable phone chargers (power banks). Articles got written about our success, and our brand was visible in over 500 major retailers across the country and overseas. At one point I even started receiving calls by people who had been sold knock-off copies from China (a sure sign you’ve done something right).
By most people’s standards, I was now classed as successful. I was living a fancy city life, lots of social sports, a nice car, apartment and girlfriend. Yet inside I was still burning with desire. I knew there was an itch I needed to scratch, I just didn’t know what it was. So I took a chance.
The impetus to start my own company came when playing poker with another Monash Grad, Jeremy Chen. I’d been talking about starting my own ad agency, when he turned, looked me in the eyes and said “burn the boats, Josh”. What he was referring to, was the story of the Viking invaders. When they landed on foreign soils, the commander would instruct the men to burn the boats. It was a motivator to win the battles ahead, as there was no way to retreat. What Jeremy was telling me to do, was to quit my comfortable job and take a chance. Burn the boats.
Taking that chance was the best thing I ever did. I founded JMarketing, a digital agency with only a vague idea of how I would sustain my lifestyle. My first hire, Simon Dortmans, was a former Monash intern, and my first handful of clients were all friends, almost all from Monash. They knew I needed a kick start, and despite being small businesses themselves, they found the money to start us on retainer. The agency was borne.
Despite my years of experience in digital advertising, nothing prepared me for running my own company. The learning process is immense, and I regularly found myself running between new sales, delivering new products, accounting and a million other issues. It was exhausting and scary. Often we didn’t know where our money was coming from, client’s wouldn’t pay, or we would go through periods with nothing to do. With every day I learned more, and got closer to stability.
About 18 months after starting the company, a chance meeting with Andrew Dehnert, an old high school friend (and Monash graduate) saw JMarketing absorb his agency, taking on his clients, staff and office. It was a great opportunity for me to expand, and Andrew wanted to focus on new opportunities so for him, transitioning to silent directorship was perfect. This chance encounter tripled our size overnight. This was great for my ego, but brought with it a world of new problems, learning, and stress.
In university I developed a test. A way to measure if my life was improving or stalling. Quite simply, every week I would ask myself if I had created a good story to tell. This was great for many reasons:
- I could make any room of people laugh.
- It focused me on achieving my goals.
- I spent time researching varying areas of interest.
- I took holidays and trips away on a whim.
If a week went by where I didn’t have a good yarn to tell, it was a sign to pick up the pace. This method was effective for creating momentum and achieving goals. I still recommend it to you for getting things done, although it does have drawbacks. In hindsight, I realise it was stifling my creativity. Like Duncker’s candle experiment, it focused me too much on immediate goals. I wasn’t aware of the bigger picture, because my dreams constrained my current reality.
I was living a fast-paced city life. I had lots of friends, a desirable job, a great apartment and beautiful woman. The problem was, my reality was limited to my life in Melbourne. In my heart I knew my life was supposed to be more than that. I knew I could be happy every day, not just a few hours every day. I’d felt deep pangs of desire when visiting my friend Julian Cole in New York a year earlier, yet it wasn’t my reality
The truth was, I was working crazy hours to keep the business afloat. I felt stressed constantly. My rent and staff costs were crazy, and I was being pulled in a million directions by a million different people. My so-called ‘success’ was also my biggest curse. I was constantly stressed, had no time, and earning more money only bought a nicer scotch on a Friday. There was too much time spent stressing or sleeping and not enough living life.
In 2015 I made a snap decision. After months of working to exhaustion, I’d had enough. I closed my Australian office, let go most of my staff and clients, and started to travel. Armed with a vague six month travel plan, my laptop, girlfriend and a few clients, I started a real adventure.
My friend Jonathon Ingram once regaled me with a story of the sabbatical he took. A three month period where he rode his motorbike across Africa. The part of the story that struck me was when he said:
“After a full month of sitting on an island doing nothing, I finally realised how stressed I was”.
When I started my travel it felt like every month that passed peeled back another layer of stress. The full impact of this is hard to explain in words. You are simply so used to living in your world, you don’t realise how stress changes you. Unknowingly to me, I was regressing back to that happy, university student I had been a decade before. I was happier, funnier and more engaging than at the peak of my professional career. Coincidentally, these soft skills are part of what led to the evolution of my company. Positivity breeds positivity, and doors just kept opening.
Doors kept opening
My girlfriend, Tuscany and I travelled extensively over the first six months. From South East Asia, through the Middle East, Canada, USA, Mexico, Cuba and more. Everywhere we went, doors seemed to open. We lived in NYC for a while and new clients mystically appeared. The people we met along the way were drawn to our story and life-loving attitudes. In being so free and happy, we attracted opportunity.
To quote Fight Club, “The things you own, end up owning you”. When we shed the chains of possession, we were no longer chained to work certain hours, or earn certain money. In finding freedom, we found opportunity and within a year the financial returns had come as well.
As a side note we learned how to travel with only 10kg of luggage. The freedom of shedding your ‘stuff’ is truly liberating.
Amazing life opportunities arose. In one adventure we travelled to London on a whim to talk at The Ultimate Man Conference. Our time flexibility meant I could grab any and every opportunity. Some of which ended up being highly lucrative. Like a $50 contract won on UpWork speeding up a WordPress website. That client turned into over $100,000 in marketing services.
It’s also important to note, my story is not in isolation. My friend James Deagan, started in Vietnam with us. He found his way to the UK and ended up working with famous chef Gordon Ramsey, running his digital marketing. This is particularly special for me. James was once my intern, then became a colleague, and a very dear friend. It’s through people like James, that I’ve been able to open doors and make things happen. The power of networking cannot be understated. Really good networkers don’t make things happen, they offer value to others around them and opportunities just appear.
Opening my eyes
With freedom and flexibility, comes new experiences. I found myself drawn to new things, and experiencing new adventures on a daily basis. We saw sights like the ancient city of Petra, fished for squid in Vietnam and ate with the locals in Cuba. We met hundreds of people and formed lifelong bonds. We had our eyes opened to things we never considered.
The last three months we’ve spent traversing Europe. Visiting friends, and experiencing their culture. It has become our lifestyle.
I still work hard, running my agency from my laptop, but now the focus is on enjoying every day, not working for the sake of it. This has allowed us to really make the most of life, and strike up relationships with many amazing people.
As one of many examples, our friend Thomas in Austria we met on a beach in Mexico. We visited him in Kufstein, Austria, and are now planning to spend a month or two there next year. It’s not a reality we would ever have considered back in Melbourne.
Breaking out of ‘reality’ is the first step in finding your happiness. For many of us, we just do. Humans love repetition, and we love to colour between the lines. Stepping outside this comfort zone takes a concerted effort. I like a quote from Tim Ferriss, “If you find yourself doing things like everyone else. You are certainly doing it wrong”.
This way of thinking is a difficult pill to swallow. There’s a lot of social pressure telling you how you should be living life. However the truth is happiness fuels success better than any job promotion ever can. Across our journey, nothing has been more obvious than this. The happiest people we meet are living life their own way. They challenge societal convention, living their dream.
Opportunity to experiment
The mental freedom left me open to research and experiment. My workload had decreased from 12 hours per day, to just a few. Now I had time to think through the gaps in my business, and assess new opportunities. In this period I unlocked secrets to:
- Closing sales
- Packaging products
- Opening new markets
- Hiring staff
- Forming strong bonds
- Finding incredible software
- Curing my bad back
- and so much more.
My client based flourished. No longer trapped in Australia, I attracted clients from the USA, Canada and Europe. The budgets these companies were willing to pay dwarfed my old Australian clients. I was working less and earning more than before.
I started new businesses. Researching emerging markets and areas of interest, new financial streams appeared. I even had time to learn about crypto-currency (BitCoin etc). From modest beginnings, my portfolio has steadily grown. It’s a hobby outside work that keep my mind active and engaged.
In my wildest dreams I wouldn’t have imagined I’d end up living on an island in the Caribbean. The day we found it, I knew I was home.
It’s only 5 miles long by 0.5 mile wide, and home to one of the top 10 beaches in the world, as well as some of the best and most diverse people I’ve ever met.
I run my agency ‘JMarketing’ from my spare room, play beach volleyball in the afternoon, and dine out every night. I found my paradise.
We have a revolving door of friends that visit the island. Everyone talks about how incredible it is. The warm, clear water. The amazing snorkeling, our friend Matti’s beach club. Even the infamous nightly party at Poc Na, the Caribbean-side beach club.
It’s a lifestyle I would never have imagined possible. By giving myself the freedom to explore, try new things and push boundaries, I took a great life, and made it better.
So what’s the lesson?
Should we all quit our work and travel? Should everyone aspire to live on an island? No, that would be ridiculous advice. Hunter S Thompson once wrote a letter to his friend Hume Logan. In it he described giving advice to someone else as the ‘blind leading the blind’. You should take from my story what appeals to you, and nothing more.
The question I will pose to you is this: if you took a gamble and lost everything, could you get back to where you are now? Invariably the answer is Yes. How many billionaires have lost fortunes, only to make them again? Is your $100k salary so incredible you could never obtain another? If you accept this, then perhaps giving yourself permission to do things differently, or chase a dream, isn’t that risky after all.
The biggest lesson, is to be good to people around you. Be the best version of yourself and opportunities will come your way. Create real rapport with everyone you can. You don’t know where they will be tomorrow. It’s the people that like you, that open doors. Spend as much time developing your interpersonal skills, as you do your study. I promise it will pay dividends in a million different ways.
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