Book review: Careercation and the search for entrepreneurial happiness

Burned out from the experience of starting and running two entrepreneurial ventures, David Niu decided he need to recharge. He coined a new word to describe the journey that he, his wife and his 10-month-old would be taking: a ‘careercation.’ During the trip, he interviewed 30 entrepreneurs to gain more insight into his own experience and to try to understand what he wanted to do next.

The result of this is a marvelous book, Careercation: Trading Briefcase for Suitcase to Find Entrepreneurial Happiness. Niu found something rather intuitive: companies do better when the boss is happy. Knowledge@Wharton interviewed him about the experience.

David, what is a “careercation”?

“Careercation” is a bit of a play on words: career plus vacation…. I did not want to wait until I was 67 and a half years old and getting Social Security and having a lot of time on my hands, but not a lot of help, [to travel]. I thought, instead of taking the traditional route that society expects of me, I am going to break out my retirement throughout my career and take longer vacations to really recharge and refresh and get different perspectives instead of saving it for my old age.?

You decided to go on your first careercation very recently. Where did you go, and what was it that you hoped to accomplish?

Yes, I went in 2012. My wife, my then 10-month old daughter and I sold everything we owned. We stuck the rest of our belongings in storage, and we bought one-way tickets to New Zealand. We ended up going to Australia, Korea, China, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Taiwan and then back to the United States. 

Before my trip, I had two basic goals for my careercation. One was to create some amazing shared family memories with my young family. I had just gotten married and had a baby daughter in really quick succession…. They say that kids grow so quickly, so I really wanted to enjoy that part and make some great memories. 

The second part was … I had created two companies prior to the careercation. In the second one, I was feeling really, really burnt out. Wherever we went, I wanted to interview CEOs and entrepreneurs about best practices when it came to running their business, but in particular around leadership, culture and managing people. Those were the goals that I had in mind – to create some amazing shared family memories, recharge and figure out what my next steps were going to be. 

You ultimately spoke to 30 entrepreneurs. What themes arose in those conversations?

Yes. It was funny. When I was talking to entrepreneurs, I would talk about best practices. When it came to culture and managing people, one theme that really popped out – regardless of size, regardless of location and regardless of industry – was that managing people is hard. I started out in some countries with Western management philosophies, such as New Zealand and Australia, so I was really interested to go to Korea and China to see if they had that same type of challenge. And they did…. 

The second corollary that I found was that the companies that had the best culture [were those where] the CEO or the entrepreneur who I was interviewing was the happiest. The ones that were complaining the most usually had a really poor culture and had a lot of difficulties that they wanted to work on. So it was really interesting to me to see how they were interrelated. Not only did it make sense to me intrinsically that with a great culture, you have better retention – you also have happier people and more productive people – but, ultimately, it also makes the CEO or the manager happier to go into work when they are seeing people who are happy. 

In the book, you note that one of the biggest pain points for the leaders of these organisations is the performance review. What did you see there?

Yes. Everyone seemed to have a different way of doing performance reviews…. When most people started a company, they had usually [worked at another company before that], and they would just borrow whatever performance reviews that they had from their prior company. It would be a Word document or Excel file. When people do these performance reviews once a year, it is really hard for them to gauge how people are feeling throughout the year. At the end of the day, people’s emotions change all the time. Their performance changes all the time. The company’s performance changes, too. It was just really lacking in terms of being able to get more of an ongoing sense of how people were doing not only performance-wise, but also how they were fitting within the culture of the company. 

Those conversations led you on a journey that has continued since you returned from your careercation, including the launch of your organisation. Can you tell us about that?

Yes. At the end of every interview, I would close with one question: Can you tell me one pain point you have when it comes to managing people that if I took away you would gladly pay for? Different people would give me different answers, and I would make mental sticky notes as I was interviewing these entrepreneurs. Only when I got sufficiently far away, in both time and distance, could I do something revolutionary. Call it listening. No cell phones, no emails, no text messages. [I could ask myself] what are these people telling me? Are there any trends? And there were. 

Regardless of where these people were located, one of the most haunting feelings is when a key employee gives two weeks’ notice out of the blue. Usually people [ask], “Why did I not see that coming? Where are you going? Can I save you? Do I want to save you?” Then the other shoe drops, which is: “Oh my gosh, I have to backfill this really critical role, and I hope that this person is an isolated incident, and there is not more of a cultural issue going on….” That became the inspiration for TINYpulse, my current company. What we do is we help companies like Hubspot and LivingSocial get a pulse on how happy, frustrated and burnt-out their employees are at work, so that the managers get a pulse of what is going on before they get two-week notices coming at them. 

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