Recently, I had lunch with the CEO of a company that had just been acquired. It was a real good news story.
George, the guy involved, is the most humble, down to earth, honest and conscientious man I have ever worked with.
Over lunch, he showed me his bank balance. He had picked up a couple of million quid in the exit, and boy, he had earned it.
I had been through the journey with him, as a Non-Exec. I had witnessed, first-hand, his diligence; the 20 hour days, life on the road staying in travel lodges, the monthly scramble to meet payroll. Everything. It was the complete antithesis of what you expect start-up life to be.
Throughout these 8 years, George didn’t draw a salary for 6 of those years. Although he was a majority shareholder, he essentially worked for free. That’s 6. S-i-X years.
He wore the scars to prove it, also. He had the beat-up car, the family strife, the poor diet — the whole nine yards.
If there was ever a man who deserved an exit, it was George. I gave of my time freely to help him because he was such a good bloke, and worth backing, and I wanted to help as much as I could to help alleviate his own hard times.
And, here’s the thing. He had made it, had picked up the couple of million he so richly deserved. He shared his learnings with me over lunch; he was contented, yes, having brought financial security to his life.
But, was he elated? No.
Was he resting on his laurels? No.
He shared with me that the greatest change in his life was in his sleep. When his head hit the pillow, he wasn’t haunted by the same worries of paying for his staff or providing for his family.
However, his worries had changed. With more money, he opined, comes different problems. There is an expectation associated with having a degree of wealth; buying land, buying a fancy car, upgrading the house, paying for private tuition for the kids and fancy holidays.
His life had not changed in that regard. It had just got a little different, he reckoned, as he succumbed to the pressures that wealth brought.
Had he stopped working? No. As part of the acquisition, he had been fitted with a pair of bespoke golden handcuffs. He had to stay in the business in order to realise the rest of his acquisition earnings. Working as hard as ever, it seems.
At this point, he told me a story, which I have paraphrased away from his local dialectic:
A boat was docked in a tiny Mexican fishing village.
A tourist complimented the local fishermen on the quality of their fish and… asked how long it took to catch them.
“Not very long” they answered in unison.
“Why didn’t you stay out longer and catch more?”
The fishermen explained that their small catches were sufficient to meet their needs and those of their families.
“But what do you do with the rest of your time?”
“We sleep late, fish a little, play with our children, and take siestas with our wives. In the evenings, we go into the village to see our friends, have a few drinks, play the guitar, and sing a few songs. We have a full life.”
The tourist interrupted, “I have an MBA from Harvard and I can help you! You should start by fishing longer every day. You can then sell the extra fish you catch. With the extra revenue, you can buy a bigger boat.”
“And after that?”
“With the extra money the larger boat will bring, you can buy a second one and a third one and so on until you have an entire fleet of trawlers. Instead of selling your fish to a middle man, you can then negotiate directly with the processing plants and maybe even open your own plant. You can then leave this little village and move to Mexico City, Los Angeles, or even New York City!!! From there you can direct your huge new enterprise.”
“How long would that take?”
“Twenty, perhaps twenty-five years.” replied the tourist.
“And after that?”
“Afterwards? Well my friend, that’s when it gets really interesting,” answered the tourist, laughing. “When your business gets really big, you can start buying and selling stocks and make millions!”
“Millions? Really? And after that?” asked the fishermen.
“After that you’ll be able to retire, live in a tiny village near the coast, sleep late, play with your children, catch a few fish, take a siesta with your wife and spend your evenings drinking and enjoying your friends.”
“With all due respect sir, but that’s exactly what we are doing now. So what’s the point wasting twenty-five years?” asked the Mexicans.
The lesson, according to George?
Wind the clock back 15 years to when he was a recent graduate. He worked in a field he loved and was extremely good at it. He had all the money he needed, and had a rich and enjoyable lifestyle.
Even with his riches, now, he still craves that lifestyle.
Enjoy what you have, while you have it.
Enjoy each day. It might be your last.