Burnt Out? Sell it All and Embark on a Careercation

By David Niu, Wharton alumnus, serial entrepreneur and author of Careercation

book cover

“You’re CRAZY!”

I was getting used to hearing that when I told family and friends that I was selling everything I owned and buying one way tickets to New Zealand to travel around the world with my wife and 10-month-old daughter.

After being a serial entrepreneur for over a decade (I took a leave of absence from Wharton in 2000 to start my first startup with a classmate), I was flat burnt out.
We’ve all been burnt out before. For many, that’s one of the reasons they came to Wharton in the first place: to recharge and find more professional happiness. For me, not only had I been starting and building companies continuously since Wharton, but I had also just gotten married and had a baby daughter.

Even though many thought I was crazy, I decided to take the plunge and board that Air New Zealand jet. I admit to a lot of anxiety, since it’s not the same to travel the world with a young family as it is to hopscotch around China as a college student. But once that door closed, anxiety started to switch to excitement.

I called my journey to find happiness my careercation (career + vacation). I didn’t want to wait until my 60s, when my wealth may have increased, but my health would have decreased—and regrets piled up. I decided that I wanted to chunk my “retirements” throughout my life.

I had two goals during my careercation. First, of course, I wanted to create some amazing shared family memories. Second, I wanted to interview entrepreneurs whenever we went. I wanted to learn about their best practices when it came to leadership, culture, and managing people. In addition, since I rub shoulder mainly with technology entrepreneurs, I wanted to diversify my interviewees, and I ended interviewing folks like a winemaker in New Zealand, a fruit trader in China, and a financial services consultant in Korea. The following are a couple of lessons I uncovered along the way:

Work Lesson Learned: Live the Culture
In Sydney, one of my favorite interviews was with Andrea Culligan, founder of Harteffect.  She admitted that a couple years ago, her company culture sucked a and people didn’t get energy from coming to work. If you’re the leader of a team, and your culture sucks—just look in the mirror.

So she committed to taking the hard steps to turn around her culture. A culture is organic and can improve or decline over time, depending on how much leadership invests in it. Together with her team, she created the following new cultural values:

1. Explore the unfamiliar
2. Let there be laughter
3. Cultivate creativity
4. Think community; live green
5. Earn & establish respect
6. Do it with passion; say it with truth
7. Chase knowledge; share brilliance

Andrea then shared with me that a leader has to be willing to hire and fire based on these values. If not, they are just nice-to-have cultural points, but not real underlying values. At Harteffect, they now even role-play their values. For example, they’ll bring up real and hypothetical situations and then ask, “Given this situation, what do our cultural values dictate we do?” I thought this was awesome, because it brought these values to life. When a company’s values are so ingrained, everyone makes consistent decisions—a crucial point, since the leader can’t always be around.

Life Lesson Learned: To Grow, Push Yourself
When we were in New Zealand, we were planning where we’d go after Australia. Our logical choice was Japan, since we know people there and my wife can speak a little Japanese. But the nuclear disaster really deterred my wife. Then we brought up Korea. We both really wanted to visit and love the cuisine. However, we didn’t know anyone there, nor did we speak the language. So I started backtracking. But my wife said, “David I know we’re both nervous, but that’s EXACTLY reason why we should go.” It shook me. She was absolutely right.

We can’t grow unless we push ourselves. I immediately bought the tickets to Seoul. It ended up being our unanimous favorite destination during our careercation. Yes honey – you were right!

And Today?
We’re back in Seattle, and we do daydream of our next careercation. I ended up collecting over 200+ best practices focused on leadership and culture from 30+ entrepreneurs whose businesses are collectively worth $2 billion. They inspired me to write a book, Careercation: Trading Briefcase for Suitcase to Find Entrepreneurial Happiness. These entrepreneurs were so gracious with their time and willingness to talk to a stranger that I don’t feel right charging for the book, so instead I’m releasing it free online, one region at a time at www.TINYpulse.com/book.

Without my careercation, there’s no way I would have been inspired to start my third and current startup, TINYhr and our offering, TINYpulse. I’m humbled that we now help hundreds of companies like Amazon, HubSpot, and National Australia Bank improve their culture and make their employees happier.

David Niu photoBio: David is a serial entrepreneur and angel investor. He dropped out of the Wharton MBA program to start his first company, NetConversions, which survived the “dot bomb crash” and was sold to aQuantive. He then formed BuddyTV, which raised $10 million in venture financing. Today, David is “all in” pursuing his passion with TINYhr and their products – TINYpulse and CLIENTpulse. When not delighting his customers, he can be found running in one of Seattle’s many green spaces.