March 2016 was a pivotal point for me not just in terms of business, but in terms of being a human and as we know the two are inextricably linked.
I tell this story even though it makes me feel a little stupid or naive. I always feel insecure talking about this experience because it plainly admits just how wrong I was and how skewed my thinking was at the time. However I am grateful for this experience - maybe more than anything else I've experienced so far - as it completely changed the way we do business, and the way I live my life.
To give a little context I have two sons, 12 and 8 years old now. Both have been in Spanish immersion elementary schools here in Utah since Kindergarten. In that time not only have they been exposed to great and beneficial experiences that have enriched their young lives and will be wildly beneficial to them later in life, but as a family we too have had some really gratifying experiences. One such experience has been hosting foreign-exchange educators who have come to teach in local schools - I know you've all heard horror stories about that sort of thing but at the time of this writing this we have hosted three times and each experience has been unique and rewarding. (To learn more about the program we have participated in visit Amity.org. I'll probably write something about the experience one day, but let's save that for another post.)
Our first "intern" was Ana. Not to give away the ending but she is now my partner and right-hand in Barcelona, Spain. When Ana lived with our family she would often bear witness to my then-worse-than-now daily regimen which consisted of working 8am to 6pm for an advertising agency and building and running my company from 7pm to 2 or 3am. I would work that schedule day in and day out, often to her and my family's chagrin, but I'm happy to report that I don't have to slug it out quite to that that extreme anymore.
In those moments Ana would often share with me stories and experiences from her home in Barcelona (well, just outside Barcelona in the sea-side community of Castelldefels). She would talk about her friends, her family, the people, the weather, the sea, the food and all the many wonderful things that I would later come to love myself. One subject that came up over-and-over-again was the time they spent running around with friends, trips, parties (lots of parties, they're Spanish after all) and all the many things the would do together in groups.
Over time I began to appreciate that the bond they fostered with their circle of friends and families was something stronger and more intense than I had ever experienced among my own social groups. Don't get me wrong. I have had amazing friends, some I've known for more than 30 years (which makes me feel ancient), but even with that said I had a hard time understanding just quite the value the Spanish put on these relationships. This was especially foreign to me because I had become quite distant from my own friends and relatives in this time. Generally speaking, I would work so often that I very rarely made time for the people who are important to me. In retrospect, it doesn't give me warm fuzzies to think about who I'd become. I thought I was doing the right thing by my family simply trying to provide but I had lost sight of what was truly important - personal relationships.
Ana joined the company in June 2015 when she went back home to Spain and so began our quest for global domination. By March the following year a business opportunity had presented itself and - at long last - I was going to visit her mythical land myself for the first time. Armed with my iPhone, Duolingo and a fist-full of Euros I boarded my flight. I was greeted upon my arrival by Ana and her mother Pilar and instantly felt like part of the family. During the days that followed - meeting for the first time a steady stream of friends, family, and business prospects - I quickly began to understand the emotions Ana had been describing for the prior year-and-a-half and began to observe them firsthand. Without hesitation I was immediately brought into Ana's social and familial groups and accepted as one of their own - well, as accepted as one can be who didn't speak the language of said groups at the time.
As the time flew by - nearly three weeks in all - I had become closer and more tightly integrated socially and at the same time I was getting a taste of doing business in Spain for the first time. Of course our success on this maiden voyage was hindered greatly by my inability to communicate effectively and speaking through a proxy, Ana, was not ideal. Nonetheless I began to observe the pace of conversation, the way business people carried themselves and some of the formalities they enjoy. Some of these formalities seemed a little old-fashioned relative to my experience in the states, however I quickly developed a reverence for them. Largely they seemed to be devoid of the aggression and urgency I had commonly seen in American businesspeople. Additionally, they seemed to require a significantly deeper level of relationship than was necessary when doing business stateside. Of course business relationships here are made stronger in the same way - building bonds and rapport - but it is a prerequisite in Spain that you have a real relationship with your partners and to be honest, I love it.
This is the part of the story where I feel the most inadequate or naive. Simply put I was so wrapped up in the work I was doing and what I was trying to achieve that I quite literally didn't realize that there was another option - another way to live. It was quite the paradigm shift for me while I am sure that many "normal" people are scratching their heads right now trying to understand why this concept of fostering personal relationships was so novel to me.
Nonetheless, I came home after those three weeks profoundly changed - and to be perfectly frank - envious of the people I'd met in Spain. Of course there are no shortage of issues in their country in regard to economics, poverty, infrastructure, immigration, unemployment, etc., but still I found myself longing for the most basic aspect of Spanish culture, the relationships they enjoy everyday, in my own life.
I always joke, I could never go "full-Spaniard." Meaning as much as I am envious of their passion for relationships and their dedication to leisure I don't think my personality type would allow me to fully replicate it in my own life. But all things in moderation, right? That said, there is definitely room in my life to be a tad more Spanish. They live by the famous adage "work to live, don't live to work." It seems a little flippant but at its core I believe it to be correct - philosophically speaking anyway. Of course Sometimes we must put our heads down and work if we are to get anything accomplished, but in Spanish culture life comes first. Personal happiness and wellbeing are paramount and relationships are the key to that happiness.
I believe for anyone who has been down the same road as I - so invested in what they are doing that they only emerge one day to find themselves alone and withdrawn - there are some real lessons here.
First and foremost, relationships are the most satisfying and rewarding part of life. Good times with good company are the moments we remember, not that time we killed ourselves working overnight to meet a bogus self-imposed deadline. It's important to make time for others, but also the relationship you have with yourself is supremely important. Take care to be sure the work you are doing was begun with an end in mind so you know when it's safe to stop and smell the roses.
In our company we routinely try to break up projects and schedule them in such a way that we have adequate time for ideation and execution, we don't work weekends by and large and we take pride in the work we do. From the jump we consciously try to minimize the stress and anxiety that comes with poor planning. Of course from time-to-time - as anyone in the design/advertising business can attest - there is an occasional late night, but we do our best to avoid them.
Second and fundamental to a good relationship is loyalty - to your client, your partner, your family and to yourself. Give of yourself to be trustworthy and loyal, and expect it in return. So much of life these days is thoughtless and transactional. Apple and your iPhone have no real loyalty to you but that client who is there each month to support you does, and they are worthy of taking care of. Foster this in your relationships and reap the rewards.
We have been blessed by a number of long-time clients have been through us across the many iterations of our company over the years, but I have no doubt that is in large part due to our relationships, our loyalty to their companies and their willingness to reward us with the same.
Finally, don't hate me for using such a superfluous buzzword but work-life balance is important. Balance being the key word. 2018 was the first year that we merged the US and Spanish holiday calendar after two years of trying to fit our Spanish team's "square peg" into our "round hole." They take what seems like a lot of time off each year relative to what we are used to in the states. Lots of religious and regional holidays - not that the Spanish youth are particularly religious - but they make the most of these days as business and government simply cease operation. Where it makes sense we have offered many of those same breaks to our American team as there is simply no fighting against it in Spain. They won't be working those days and that is that.
To be perfectly transparent we don't take all the time they do stateside, and our Spanish team members work more than their fellow countrypeople do generally speaking. For example in July and August parts of Spain are simply closed. It's vacation! You will see signs in shop windows that read, "nos veremos en septiembre," or we will see you in September! Our team does not take the month off, but they will take a week here and there or a long weekend or two. Its cultural and its not worth fighting against. If you plan to do business in Spain its best just to go with the flow.
In speaking with a Spanish entrepreneur and artist Mario Figueiredo, of Hello Mario he advised me as a native barcelonés or Barcelonian in English, that he learned early on that fighting against culture was simply not going to work. His shop in the El Born district of Barcelona is an exciting blend of hand-crafted and unique small-batch products. In his first year he was open for business during those holiday months. He told me that even though he intrinsically knew those months would be slow he didn't anticipate just how slow. Literally not a sale. It was hard for his budding shop. However he quickly adapted his calendar. Now he shutters the business for the month of August along with the locals and instead of despair over slow sales he takes this time to plan the fall season. I guess the moral of the story is know thy audience.
Drawing to a close I realize that to some - and god bless you for sticking with me to here - this article is full of "no-shit," or "no-duh" moments. I confessed in the beginning that I am a little embarrassed or ashamed that it took me to the ripe old age of 35 (at the time) to shift my paradigm and realize that I am not actually the center of my own universe. I am not the star that others orbit around at the center, rather it's all the other people who surround me that I am blessed to orbit alongside that make up our universe and I work hard each day to continue fostering those relationships. Good communication, mutual respect, loyalty and hard work are at the core of our company and I do my best to espouse that ethic to those we partner with. Do your best to be a little more Spanish and do as the Spaniards do. Focus on those keys and you can't help but find success in business and more importantly happiness in life.
What do you think?
I would love to hear your thoughts and insights from this article. Additionally please share things you have learned that have made a significant impact to your life or business.