Malaysian tech entrepreneur Vishen Lakhiani had always wanted to live in New York City and build a growing business at the heart of the bustling city.
But in 2004, after five years of living in Manhattan and four years studying electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan, he had to return home to Kuala Lumpur. “America is a hard place to get a visa,” he said.
Transitioning back was difficult. Malaysia didn’t have the same start-up tech culture as New York and he was lonely. He missed his colleagues, his friends and the life he had in America. “It was very different and much, much harder,” he said.
The resolution: To travel back as much as possible.
Today, 40-year-old Lakhiani is the co-founder and chief executive officer of Mindvalley, a $40m in revenue education technology business that creates apps, online academies and books related to health and personal growth. When he first made the 15,000-mile-move back to Malaysia, he visited New York every three months. Now it’s every six weeks and could become more frequent as his business grows stateside.
The long haul
Lakhiani finds the 25-hour flight is a respite from his busy days. It’s the only chunk of time that he can read a book or watch a movie. He also started flying business class two years ago. The extra $2,000 per ticket is worth it, he said, because he’s far more awake and relaxed when he lands.
“It’s like going to a spa,” he said about the long flight.
The 25-hour flight is a respite from his busy days.
He also feels energised when he lands in New York. The city still has that same unbridled energy it did when Lakhiani left 12 years ago, he said. While there’s certainly a different vibe in New York than there is Malaysia — it’s a “microcosm of the entire world,” Lakhiani said — it’s not as much of a culture shock to move between the countries as one might think.
When Lakhiani returned to Malaysia, there was barely a business community. The country itself was also far less developed. So he set out to create a mini-NYC in Kuala Lumpur. He hired Americans to come work in Malaysia by promising plenty of holiday time to explore Asia and an all-expenses-paid trip to Bali. Lakhiani also built a sprawling Silicon Valley-like office, the likes of which most Malaysians had never seen.
Lakhiani began trying to foster entrepreneurship by meeting regularly with local entrepreneurs. He held hackathons — events where software developers work together to create computer programs — invested in other businesses and did whatever he could to make Malaysia’s business culture more like America’s.
“Because I couldn’t just pick up and move I decided, rather than leave, let’s mould a little part of Malaysia into the world I want it to be,” Lakhiani said.
Malaysian [executives] aren’t nearly as vocal or as extroverted as Americans and class matters here.
He also had to get used to the Malaysian culture again. At home, people are much shyer and introverted, he said, making it harder to strike up a conversation. In New York, and America in general, he observed, everyone’s far more friendly and open.
General business culture is different, too. In Asia, the hierarchy is much more top down, where the manager or the CEO wields more power and acts like it, too. While that does exist in America, there are also many companies that are more collaborative and allow employees to have a say. That’s the kind of company Lakhiani wanted to build.
“My style is a lot more democratic,” he said.
In Malaysia, Lakhiani is mindful of the communication gap and class. “Malaysian [executives] aren’t nearly as vocal or as extroverted as Americans,” he said, “and class matters here.” Taxi drivers and waiters, for instance, won’t speak to someone as an equal, he said, but rather as someone “above them.”
Travelling to New York regularly isn’t without its challenges. Lakhiani typically stays for two weeks, which means he’s away from his wife and two young children, aged 8 and 2, for long stretches.
“That’s the hardest part,” he said.
He stays in touch via Facebook and Skype video conferences every two days.
That’s one positive change since Lakhiani first started travelling. Then, video conferencing was for boardrooms only.
Lakhiani also takes interesting videos of New York and uploads them to his son’s Facebook page. “I was in Times Square and a filmed a little video of the beauty of it and why I love it so much,” for instance, he said.
Tale of two cities
Splitting his time between Kuala Lumpur and New York also makes it a challenge to be away from the office. When he’s in Malaysia, as CEO, he’s in back-to-back meetings. In New York, where’s most of his time is now spent promoting his recent book The Code of the Extraordinary Mind, his schedule as an author is more relaxed.
I learned to question the traditional rules of the world I grew up in.
But the time difference means he’s awake when his staff is sleeping. He has a team that can make decisions when he’s not around, Lakhiani said, but he also makes extensive use of Slack, an instant-messaging-collaboration program that helps people talk to each other in real-time. If someone has a question for him, he can quickly fire back an answer.
No matter where he is, Lakhiani makes a point to get seven hours of sleep a night. When he’s home in Malaysia, he wakes up at 7:30 every day, has breakfast with his kids and takes them to the school bus stop. He arrives at the office at 10:00.
“I have about 17 meetings a day, and they’re about 25 minutes each,” he said. “It’s fast-paced.”
He leaves the office at 19:00 and then goes home for dinner and family time before another 90 minutes of work at night. Lakhiani goes to bed at half past midnight. “I’m religious about it,” he said, and then it’s back to the grind the next day.
I love the fact that I get to be in a different country every six weeks.
It’s a different story in New York, where he mostly goes with the flow. “I sometimes go to bed at 2:00, but then I have to wake up at 9:00,” Lakhiani said.
He always stays at the Citizen M hotel when he’s in town, which is located between two subway stations and has a lobby that doubles as a start-up-like co-working space. “It’s like a cool Silicon Valley office,” he said.
All of his experiences in New York has made his life easier in Malaysia, he said. The city has taught him three main things: “I learned to appreciate diversity and thrive in it, I learned to question the traditional rules of the world I grew up in and I learned to discard useless cultural and religious dogmas that held me back,” he said.
Despite the challenges of being constantly between two cities, he refuses to cut down on travel. “I wouldn’t do this if it wasn’t exciting and fun,” Lakhiani said. “I love the fact that I get to be in a different country every six weeks.”
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