What experience does Koel Thomae, founder of $170 million yogurt company Noosa, credit with her entrepreneurial success? Is it an MBA? A stint as an up-and-coming leader at another dynamic company? The mentorship of some investor or incubator?
Nope. In the video above, Thomae cites her adventures traveling the world in her 20s for her later massive success as an entrepreneur. Is she crazy to do so?
Not according to a host of studies, as well as the testimonies of many fellow founders who followed a similar winding, globetrotting path to startup life. Travel, a chorus of voices say, is actually great, if unorthodox, preparation for entrepreneurship. Here's why:
1. You learn to be comfortable with risk.
"Traveling, I got to do a lot of different things, and it made me more, I think, ambitious and less fearful of the unknown," Thomae tells Inc.com in the video above. "Starting a business, can it be scarier than sleeping in a hammock under a palapa right next to the jungle by myself? Not really."
Travel, in other words, is inherently at least a little scary. Overcoming those natural fears will exercise your bravery muscles, and you'll certainly be asking those muscles to do some heavy lifting when you embark on your uncertainty-filled life as an entrepreneur.
2. Complexity becomes second nature.
A 2010 study by professors from Insead, the Kellogg School of Management, and Tel Aviv University found that people who have spent extended time abroad tend to be better, more creative problem solvers.
Why? Because living in another culture while still retaining your own forces you to see the world from multiple perspectives and acknowledge there are many ways to look at any given situation. This comfort with complexity often translates into greater business success -- whether as an employee or as an entrepreneur.
3. You get good at dealing with change.
Just as spending time abroad makes you attuned to the many shades of gray with which people view the world, it also seriously exercises another set of mental muscles that are key to startup success -- the ability to deal comfortably with change.
Expats are bombarded with changes daily, both small and major. Everything from how you order a coffee or pay for parking to how you forge relationships and win trust is usually different. If you're going to thrive, you get nimble quickly. Given the uncertainties of running a young company, being nimble and comfortable with constant change is a great characteristic for a founder to have.
4. Distance breeds creativity.
Great ideas usually come from unexpected connections and initially unproductive flights of curiosity, and it's sometimes hard to pursue those possibilities when you're knee-deep in day-to-day concerns. Just ask Voice Dream founder Winston Chen, who came up with the idea for his company while taking a yearlong sabbatical on an island in the Arctic.
It was the distance from his home base of Boston and its high-pressure startup scene, as well as the freedom to pursue what interested him rather than what seemed most objectively sensible that enabled Chen to create a profitable, full-time business he's truly passionate about.
5. You gain valuable knowledge about the world.
When I interviewed Karoli Hindriks, founder of Jobbatical, a site that helps professionals find gigs working for startups abroad, about why American marketers and techies were so interested in these gigs, she had this to say: "I love Airbnb not only because it is often cheaper than hotels, but because you're experiencing a culture. This is something we're doing with Jobbatical, too. You're joining a team, so both sides will have a broader angle on the world."
Spending time really immersed in a new culture, in other words, isn't just good for essential but nebulous soft skills like creativity and EQ. It's also a great way to gain hard intel on how other cultures do business, what's different about overseas markets, and how to sell to those from a different background than your own. This knowledge will almost certainly make you a better businessperson.
Thanks to tools like Jobbatical and other services aimed at making spending a stint abroad more financially and logistically manageable, leaving home for months or years might be more doable than you imagine.