A version of this article previously appeared on Forbes.
According to Tige Young, Founder and CEO of Tui Tai Expeditions, entrepreneurs should de-emphasize ROI and focus on a more accurate measure of wealth, Return On Life.
I became acquainted with Tige, when I was researching examples of exemplary online customer service. In the resulting article, I describe Tige's deft handling of online trolls via the deft use of social media. My subsequent correspondence with Tige led me and my 13-year-old son to Fiji, where we experienced the Tui Tai firsthand.
As luck would have it, a large group cancelled their reservation at the last minute. As such, my son and I had the boat essentially to ourselves. Fortuitously, Tige's children were on school holiday, so he and his family joined us for several days.
As I got to know Tige, I became intrigued with his story. How did an American software engineer come to own an adventure travel company cited by National Geographic as, "one of the best adventure travel companies on earth?"
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According to Tige, it all started when he fell in love with a woman from Fiji. In Tige's words,“(It) started off falling in love with a girl who happened to be from Fiji. So we were dating, living together, (and) we were both in tech. We both lived in the city (San Francisco), she was in event marketing and I was a software engineer. But we both kind of shared a passion for being outdoors, going snowboarding, hiking, mountain biking, everything.
So she organized a trip down to Fiji with me and a whole bunch of friends. And we came down and just had this kind of epiphany type trip. We all learned to scuba dive and then we chartered this boat called the Tui Tai, which at the time was just sort of a day cruise boat. And we went exploring through all these islands and, it just blew everyone's minds, you know, it was just like, 'Man, this is possible?'How beautiful these islands are, they're undeveloped. The people are amazing. You know, the scuba diving, the surfing, everything. Just, 'Wow.'”
You can watch/listen to my twenty-minute discussion with Tige below:
Unlike most people who take an epic vacation and then resign themselves to working like a maniac for another year to earn two more weeks off, Tige could not shake the enchantment of his Fijian experience. According to Tige,“(We went) back to Silicon Valley, back to the tech world, and grinding away, grinding away. Going up and down 280 and 101 everyday and sitting in traffic and thinking about this Fiji trip, and a little bit later we go for a family reunion and then we get married, we had our wedding in Fiji.
By that time, Fiji was just really grabbing us... and we came to that point where family planning and thinking about having kids and thinking about life and how long can we continue with this lifestyle in Silicon Valley? You know, you like the job and it's good money, but where are the life experiences? A lot of times we're tied up and can't even get out for a weekend because there's a deadline due or a release date.
(It came down to) what really matters in life, you know? If I can't go to a kid's soccer game because I've gotta come into work all weekend and things like that, it just doesn't, it doesn't sound right. So we both kind of had that shift and that moment where Fiji's there. We have these connections there. We can start something. We've got this incredible idea that really matches up taking the Tui Tai and making this amazing expedition adventure cruise product. And being able to have a lifestyle were we own a business, something we enjoy, but also a lifestyle where there's more higher quality of life, more time with family, a bit more slowed down, not so much of the running on the treadmill type of thing.”
Return On Life
Mark Douglas, Co-Founder and CEO of SteelHouse
While on board the Tui Tai, Tige shared with me his desire to maximize his return on life, rather than solely focus on his financial return. I would have been less impressed with this approach if he were running an unprofessional, second-rate company. However, his comments resonated, because his unconventional philosophy has clearly not impacted his ability to deliver his customers a world-class adventure experience.
I asked Tige to define Return On Life, “Any good investor looks at return on investment, which is generally just dollars. Return On Life is (the pursuit of) experiences... that really last. You have one life, one chance to do things. And as you get older and look back, what are the things you're gonna remember that were like, 'Boy, that was a great decision, I'm really glad I did that.'
Business accomplishments are great..., but they're really not the only ones (that matter). Sometimes it's just spending a few extra minutes with family or grandmother or child... simple things. Others can be more amazing, like your trip on the Tui Tai... spending time together in an amazing place. Those are all life experiences, and those are what count on the ROL meter.”
Doing Well By Doing Good, Fiji Style
Tige's story of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who creates a renowned business in Fiji is pretty epic on its face. However, I was even more impressed when I learned about the philanthropic assistance that he has incorporated into the Tui Tai's itinerary. Passengers visit authentic, remote Fijian villages, and make connections with the locals by sharing with them school and medical supplies. The experience is not a Disneyesque Hawaiian luau. In contrast, it is a real-world encounter with people who are quite happy to live the life of their ancestors, despite lacking most of the material possessions we take for granted.
Tige's passengers have provided a variety of aid over the years, including building a library for a rural school. In another instance, a doctor who happened to be on board the Tui Tai resolved a blood clot that had kept a new mom bedridden for the previous five months. The remedy was simply a dosage of ibuprofen.
In another instance, Tige and his wife adopted a gifted 14-year old girl who was stifled at her one room rural school. She moved into their household, which allowed her to complete her studies at the more resource rich High School on Savu Savu. She then went on to earn a scholarship to the University of the South Pacific.
I was curious if the Tui Tai's mission always included this philanthropic component. “I'm not sure if it was there right from the beginning, but it evolved and became a part rather quickly, and it goes back to ROL, Return On Life. Meaning that giving back is really something where you... get as much as giving to the people. Just the look in their eye, knowing when you're helping someone out.
Probably one of the first ones early on was a cyclone hit Fiji and we were relatively unharmed but a couple of islands got hit very hard. Had guests who were scheduled on board...so we made the kind of spontaneous move of let's just not stick to our normal itinerary. Let's make a change, we're going to go visit these people. And for everyone on board it became a great experience. That's one of the things I really liked about Fiji... there's this constant opportunity to be spontaneous. You can take advantage of these really amazing, life changing experiences.”
Every startup is difficult, but founding a company in a remote locale results in additional, unique challenges. With this in mind, I asked Tige if there were any culture clashes which western entrepreneurs might learn from.“One of our early trips and we were struggling, we had this real kind of ambitious goal of activities everyday, we're snorkeling, diving, and then we've got a big trip to the waterfalls. And we want to take a packed lunch there... but the chef was struggling getting everything. He was getting really frustrated and I was still a little bit of Silicon Valley, I wanted everything going (on time).
So, (I tell the cook),'We're going to make it really simple. Lunch has got to be ready on time. We're just going to make sandwiches, okay? Yeah, so peanut butter and jelly, egg salad, tuna sandwich, okay, just sandwiches. Got it?'Yeah? Okay, great.
(The) next day... I stay behind on the boat, take a bite (of one of the sandwiches) it's got peanut butter and jelly, tuna fish, and egg salad, all in the same sandwich. There goes the truck, and there goes all the guests to the waterfalls.
So they all laughed, they all thought it was hilarious and ended up being one of the trip highlights. Every meal after that was sort of like, what kind of crazy recipe are we gonna get tomorrow?”
May Your Memories Live Up To Your Dreams
I concluded our talk by asking Tige if he had any advice for someone considering a life based on ROL, but doesn't have the courage to take the first step."(Being an entrepreneur) can be a really good thing for ROL. Owning your own business... if it's done correctly, can give you more freedom. More time to spend on things that you want, whereas just working for someone else..., you're sort of locked in. But the flip side is you can go the entrepreneur route and just become a workaholic and sort of (get) married to the business and that's all you do. And you forget about the things that really matter... the life experiences you want to have looking back when you get older.
A really good quote that... a local captain... lives by is, 'May your memories live up to your dreams.' That's what the return on life philosophy is all about... filling up the memory chests of great experiences."
If you are inspired by Tige's pursuit of happiness on his own terms, I strongly recommend that you check out Live Your Legend, which routinely cites the epic lives of people who are not afraid to create memories that live up to their dreams. By my humble estimation, the congruence of dreams and memories is the best gauge of Return On Life, which is ultimately the truest measure of your wealth.
Follow my startup-oriented Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse. I promise I will never Tweet about drinking too much Kava or that killer burrito I just ate.