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In a few weeks I will be taking a train down to the South of Ireland, to Kerry, where I’ll be speaking at a fantastic conference called WASup. The last time I found myself down that part of the world was actually five years ago when I was working for a tech startup based in Tralee called Text Republic. I worked from home in Dublin for the most part, and this was my second trip down to the HQ. It would turn out that the trip there and back was basically the turning point that convinced me that I should (in fact must) try and set out on my own journey and see if I could make a living from my unique skills.

(To put things in even greater context, just two years prior to this I (thought I) wanted to be a management consultant and would have never dreamed of working in a startup!)

I think there were two parts to this recipe that made this trip so pivotal:
1. A long train ride through beautiful country
2. Two books that covered first the “how” and then the “why” of starting a small business.

The Train

Firstly, I truly believe that there is nothing as good as a scenic train ride to give your mind a bit of time off to think freely. This is something that we just don’t do enough.
One thing about being on a train is that the internet is usually either crap or non existent, or at some strange middle ground between the two. This provides a nice bit of (extremely rare) enforced disconnect-time from emails, tweets, Facebook posts and all the rest of it. The Dublin to Tralee train takes a good 4 hours from station to station and passes through some of the most scenic vistas you’re going to get on our little island. Staring out a window and daydreaming for 4 hours is a surprisingly worthwhile activity. I suggest you give it a go from time to time!

The Books

Trains also give ample time for reading, and as chance would have it my boss had lent me two books to read on the way back. He said he thought I’d like them… and I did! It turned out they’d be the beginning of the end for me in terms of being an employable person! (Once you’ve seen the light there’s no going back)

4 hrThe Four Hour Workweek
was the first book, a text that was all about designing a business, and a lifestyle in a more proactive manner as opposed to letting things happen by chance.

The straight talking author, Tim Ferriss, laid out a great cases for how to make better use of the short amount of time we have in each day, and pointed out the absurd things we seem to revere in modern society like being “busy”.

Slow down and remember this: Most things make no difference. Being busy is a form of laziness—lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.

More than anything I suppose the book posed tough questions that forced a bit of introspection. You quickly find yourself asking “Hmmm what DO I want to achieve through work”. Ferriss urges us to aim for greatness, and points out that it isn’t that hard to achieve… because most people don’t even try!

“Ninety-nine percent of people in the world are convinced they are incapable of achieving great things, so they aim for the mediocre.”

Small giantsSmall Giants

The second eye-opening book was Small Giants. In this book the story was told of multiple businesses who made the choice to remain small, even though in theory they could have scaled like mad and become behemoths. The books tagline says it all: “Companies who choose to be great instead of big”

The shared mantra amongst all of these companies was the pursuit of quality, doing things the right way and growing at an organic rate. Another huge component of the stories outlined was the desire to own the whole process from end to end, to be directly responsible for creating something whole, something quality. While not always commercially optimal, for some people the money comes second in importance. I think this appealed to me to a great extent.

In retrospect maybe it was this book that resonated with me the most out of the two. It reminded me of the stories I had head about my grandfather, also named Ed, who ran a small but successful garage in a town just down the road from me. He knew that as a mechanic he’d most likely never be a millionaire, but he also knew he could run a quality service and serve a community that needed and appreciated his skills. He led a very good life. I suppose in a way I have become a mechanic myself, I just fix presentations instead of cars.

To me Small Giants provided a beautiful antidote to the “scale or die” and “win at all costs” mentalities that you see in business at large. The case studies showed me that you could be profitable and have pride in the business all while staying small. Again, this sounded right up my alley.
A quote from the founder of Patagonia Clothing comes to mind when I think about this book:

“Profit is not the goal, because, as the Zen master would say, profits happen when you do everything else right”

5 Years Later

I read a part of each of those books on the return trip from Kerry five years ago, and in the next few days wolfed my way through them, a week or two later I sent my (relatively new) boss an email telling him that I’d have to pursue a different journey.
Five years later I am looking forward to making the trip back down to Tralee, it’s hard to believe it’s been that long. It’ll be another great journey I’m sure and let’s see if I can come up with another epiphany this time 🙂