On a cold and foggy day in January 1962, 33-year-old Frane Selak was traveling by train from Sarajevo to Dubrovnik when the carriage he was in jumped the rails and plunged into the icy river below. With a broken arm, Frane escaped the sinking train and swam to the shore. Seventeen fellow passengers on the train died.
A year later Selak was on his first-ever flight when a malfunctioning door opened and the plane crashed. Selak was ejected through the open door shortly before the plane hit the ground. He landed in a haystack and suffered only minor injuries. All other passengers and crew on his flight lost their lives.
Over the next 20-some years a further series of unfathomable accidents befell Selak: he was a passenger in a bus that skidded and plunged into a river, he escaped an exploding car after a faulty fuel pump engulfed it in flames, yet another time he lost most of his hair when another of his cars caught fire and flames shot out from the air vents, he was hit by a city bus as a pedestrian, and finally one day he drove his car off of a cliff to escape a collision. He leapt out of the car seconds before the plunge, landed in a tree and watched as his tiny car exploded 300 feet below him.
Some of you might be familiar with the story of my company, Smiling Albino, and how a friend and I set out from Calgary in 1999 to set up a new kind of travel company in Thailand. Ironically, shortly after taking our entrepreneurial plunge, a law was passed partially barring foreigners from building the type of business we set out to build. Funnily we thought that this would be just one minor blip in an otherwise clear path to building our dream business. What most of you probably don’t know is how frequently we have faced major setbacks, how the storm became the norm, and how repeated events from day one impacted the travel industry in Thailand and thwarted our intentions at every turn.
Don’t focus on the storm, ignore the storm. Focus on your goals because the storm will always be there.
A short list of the issues that have come on an annual basis: Y2K fears slowed travel at our critical launch, then the attacks of September 11 decimated overseas travel, then the Bali nightclub bombing effectively scared people away from Asia, then SARS hit Thailand and slowed critical bookings we needed, then swine flu (H1N1) spread to do the same. Just when things picked up the Southeast Asian Tsunami of 2004 threw a tragic wrench into our growth, then European bookings increased until the London bombings slowed them down, and then came the bird flu epidemic in 2005. By 2006 we thought we’d seen it all and still struggled on a shoestring month to month, until Thailand’s military coup d’état in 2006 ensured an anything-but-normal year. Travelers stayed away, local costs rose, revenues sunk, and then the government’s state of emergency declarations seemed to all but seal the coffin on our little business. Within two years we had gained consistent business from the USA, as well as from Canada and the UK. This was until the global financial crisis in 2008 dramatically hampered travel, yet again. Then in December 2008 protest groups closed Bangkok’s international airports, effectively paralyzing leisure travel and again crushing our attempts to run a single peak season without drama. The next year was thwarted by the most severe flooding to hit Thailand since WWII, and sent our customers to places like Australia and Peru. From 2010 to 2013 Bangkok street protests became part of the landscape, and although tourists were completely safe from this, we faced an uphill battle convincing people not to cancel.
It remains to be seen what 2014 will bring, but there is sure to be something that will affect our operating environment and cause customers to question the wisdom of traveling to Southeast Asia.
Throughout all of this, we kept stubbornly pushing forward, bruises and all. And of course we faced “regular” entrepreneurial struggles at the same time; you know the struggles I’m referring to, like landing a big project the same week your star employee leaves. Or better yet, landing a mega project the same week as another mega project you’ve been hoping for, only to realize you’re unequipped to handle them both simultaneously. You laugh thinking that the gods are constantly working against you.
It is easy to become paralyzed by the constant storm of being an entrepreneur; we stop making decisions and just keep bailing water, thinking it will pass. It took me 10 years to understand that in many ways constant chaos is business. Despite this, you must make decisions that ensure you don’t stand still. Just making a decision to move forward and understanding the decision might not be correct is a lot of what it takes to be an entrepreneur. Don’t focus on the storm, ignore the storm. Focus on your goals because the storm will always be there.
Of course when you first decide to follow the entrepreneurial path you will find it difficult to foresee every obstacle that you will face. It was an enlightening moment when I embraced the fact that the only certainty I was going to find, was that there was always going to be something – or many things – that won’t go my way. In other words, the only certainty was uncertainty and the only thing to expect is the unexpected. Chaos is the pattern, learn to move forward with it.
In 2003, two days after his 74th birthday, Frane Selak won $1,000,000 dollars in the Croatian lottery with the first ticket he had purchased in 40 years.
The main difference between what we do as entrepreneurs and simply buying a “scratch-and-win” is that the odds are in our favor over time if we keep pushing forward. You can’t bank on luck, but what you can do is understand that forward momentum in the storm increases your odds for success.
When the daily grind gets you down, or when things don’t go the way that you thought that they would, remember Frane Selak and be stubborn against the storm. Every time you make a decision to move yourself forward, you build up the odds in your favour and get closer to the outcome you envisioned. And constantly getting closer to the goal is what many experts consider success.