Saturday, June 4, 2011

The monster that’s eating my weekend

Monster

I think I’m pretty clear about what is expected from the inburgering.  There is a “Living in the Netherlands” course that needs to be completed in the next week, followed by a language course.  The culture class is completely on-line, and covers topics from insurance and rental agreements to police reports and banking.

There appear to be 34 modules in the set: each starts with a near-incomprehensible film, followed by a 20-question pre-test.  Pass the pre-test with 17 or more right, move to the next module.  Miss it, and there are sub-lessons to teach the detail, and a post test.  Either track includes an appendix offering a quick bit of grammar instruction: miserable exercises whose goal is to drag words into the correct order.

A lot of work for a week, so I logged in last night and got down to business.

Six hours later, I had finished four modules.

The modules themselves are at a fairly difficult language level: I am learning the vocabulary, but the points can be fairly arcane (when to speak to the Housing Authority; where to find the Domestic Violence agency).  I feel like it’s likely worthwhile, both for vocabulary, for (merciless) language immersion, and for patching up my (wholly-practical) knowledge of how to conduct daily life in the Netherlands.

Insurance

I’m coming to realize that this is an enormous undertaking.  By slowing down on the pre-test to check vocabulary, I can pass, but that is still 3/4 hour per module (and leaves me rocky on the details of the topic).  Going any deeper takes much longer.  I need to get ten modules done this weekend if I‘m to have any chance of being done by Thursday.

Monster 2

Still, this is important and I will commit to the program (didn’t Jason Bourne say the same thing?).  But it dos mean that the “regular work” of driving the businesses forward will happen outside of class and homework.  Lately, that’s been between 8 and midnight.

Not a good sign.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Cheap travel between Holland and England

I have to get to the UK periodically from Maastricht and, as the summer travel season approaches, the fares are shuffling.  So, the best deals may not be the usual alternatives, and I’m finding that a little digging can save a lot.

Here are the methods I’m following; I’d be interested in other ideas?

   Note: I have not been solicited nor compensated for this essay: it contains my own research and opinions.

EurostarTrain: The Eurostar runs from Brussels Midi to London St. Pancras for around £90 one way, leaving every couple of hours and arriving in two hours later.

However, if I go from any Dutch Station directly up to Cambridge, the price inexplicably drops to £67.   This is all inclusive: from any Dutch station through London and onward, saving both the 25 euro fare to Brussels and the £34 fare up from London, plus there are no added fees if you use a debit card to pay. I can’t explain it, but I could only find it on the Eurostar website, not through RailEurope or eRail.

Here’s the fine print – it’s also nice that you can use the Dutch ticket up to a day in advance, giving time to enjoy Brussels.

Train

Ferry:  Day ferries to Dover leave from Dunkirk or Calais and take an hour and a half to cross.  I like Norfolkline and P&O (less fond of SeaFrance): all are comfortable alternatives to flying (in good weather), and new boats, better food, and free WiFi are coming online (ah, competition).  Fares are 30 euro one-way, including two people and a car and are best booked at least 3 days in advance.

Prices were 66% less when booking Dover-Calais-Dover than Calais-Dover-Calais on the same day last time I purchased.  Buying multi-trip ticket books can also drop the price dramatically, and a coupon search will occasionally turn up a code for 10% off.  The lines allow some flexibility if you miss the boat, the car travel from Maatricht to the French docks takes 4 hours, and another 2 up to Stansted (the Dartford Crossing on the M25 Orbital is a killer either way), so this is a day trip, with about 100 euro in gas.

I’ve never used it, but there are also  “Rail and Sail” discount packages that use Stena lines overnight ferries between Hoek van Holland to Harwich, connecting to NS and National Rail trains at either end.

DSC04107Flights: I usually make the trip by air, an hour’s flight with either Ryanair (from Eindhoven) or EasyJet (from Amsterdam). There is talk that a Maastricht service may start; I haven’t been able to find the rumored cheap alternatives from Koln or Brussels. Skyscanner is a good one-stop spot for comparing fares and has nice tools for seeing ‘by country’ at a glance and ‘by day’ for a month. One-way fares are generally around £40 if I book at least a week ahead and don’t check a bag, so total fare is about £70 with train / bus connections to the airport.

So, at the moment, the train is looking both fast and cheap.  Can anyone else do better?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

First of the month

Cash Flows…means paying the bills, distributing the revenue, and dreaming of the day that success arrives and those first two jobs wither away.

As an expat entrepreneur, paying and collecting is a multinational affair.  My business and personal life have footprints in three countries (NL, UK, US), so there are six payment pathways that have to be maintained, along with strict separation of business and personal flows (above from a lecture I give on organizing expat businesses).  The complexity is a result of trying to collect and pay locally, minimizing cross-border currency flows to avoid  bank and exchange charges.

So, at the first of every month, revenue and earnings have to be redistributed through the accounts in order to pay the bills:

  • Check current balances and pending charges on each account.
  • Reconcile and forecast upcoming demands on each account.  Rent, taxes.and utilities are fairly constant, but  Visa charges are always a surprise. ABN has no on-line account access and always deduct in full, so I have to leave a cushion for it.
  • Flush money through the accounts with minimum international transfers: even SEPA charges ~30 euro overhead per transfer.
  • Pay all rents and bills.  I never carry more than 10% of your monthly income as monthly debt, and generally pay off everyone.
  • Update the business records and ledger book, then transfer receipts and instructions to my bookkeeper and accountant.

It takes about half a day each month, but I just accept the overhead.  I’m not as good at dogging receivables as I am doing diligence on payables, so stabilizing, collecting, and enhancing revenue is probably my biggest challenge (opportunity for improvement).

Fortunately, the jobs are increasingly there and the flux of deal flows is increasing, but monetizing that environment and invoicing aggressively remains a job in itself.  It’s a bit discouraging sometimes because it all still feels hand to mouth: there is about 10% excess each month which doesn’t leave a lot for rainy days, dinners out, or vacation.

That said, I do like building the new business: chasing cool  idea, working with great people, having strategic and business control, keeping what I win.  But, early on, it’s also a lean existence, and it can feel acute in two ways.

A lot of work that I put into the business doesn’t come back to me as cash.  It goes into “sweat equity” to build assets an networks, paid into  loans and expenses that come back as stock or tax credits, ploughed into new clients that can flip to paying customers.  It makes me much more conscious of costs, and whether they are investment or expenses, of how I productively spend my time and resources, and about creating value for myself and others with the things I do.

I rub elbows with a lot of successful folks in the course of fundraising and contracting, and do get hungry for the same opportunities and accessories that success has brought them.  I know that they worked hard for what they have: finding good ideas, years of diligent execution, finally closing a lucrative exit.  It reminds me to take small rewards, to play for the long game, and the importance of giving back some day.

I’m reading All the Devils Are Here, a wonderful history of the financial crisis and the events and personalities that created it.  I’m struck by the envy and resentment that permeates the Money Culture, the  animosity and jealousy between have’s and have-not’s in competitive organizations. 

It feels more characteristic of what I experienced in corporate life than of how my entrepreneurial life plays out now.  My relationships with suppliers, partners, and investors are synergistic and supportive: I respect their skills and resources and value the contributions that they are making to my efforts.  It’s not so competitive and I can’t imagine taking advantage of them the way characters in the book would.

Then there’s the issue of rewards.  You may think I have a list that includes a blue Porsche and a Tuscan Villa.  Sorry, my rueful list contains the things that are wearing out in life and that need to be replaced when, at the end of some month, I have a couple of thousand euros. Things like a watch to replace the one lost racing through Security at Schiphol last year, a new suit without the frayed collar that I currently sport, a smartphone to replace my falling-apart Nokia…

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Into my Dutch Classes

The universal answer to any of life’s problems is always and simply to take a class.

My inburgering was scheduled to begin “on or about June 1”, so I was happy to see a note from the folks at the local collage, letting me know that I was to report to orientation at 10:45 on May 31.  I pedaled over n the rain at 10:30 am, arriving with time to find the room.  It turned out that it wasn’t an issue, everyone was herded into the commons area where we were picked up by our  trajectbegeleider.

My group had three people: a lawyer from Indonesia with wonderful Dutch (she’s married to a local), a housewife from Angola who peaks French and a little Dutch, and (somewhere in between) me.  Our supervisor launched into rapid-fire nederlands, reviewing the terms of our contract clause by clause and reminding us that the Gemeente would receive regular reports on our attendance and progress.  We each offered a short description of ourselves, and I earned a bit of a frown for being on the Werk track instead of the Traject one.  I have no idea of the difference and have to straighten that out in the next week.

I had assumed that the two-hour orientation would be the end of things, but we were sent to a half-hour’s lunch before the afternoon classes. I checked the schedule more closely: we’d be expected four hours each day, every day, for two weeks of cultural training, with regular tests and evaluations that we would need to pass.  At the conclusion, we would start individualized language programs of similar intensity.  Yike.

I think that the college is a general vocational school for prospective residents: there were rooms for learning sewing, cooking, and carpentry along with the language labs and classrooms.  We paid 1 euro for a lunch of prison quality: dry coucous, overcooked veggies, a nugget of lamb.  Definitely a bag lunch from here on.

Then to another classroom, another set of introductions, followed by dialogs to drive home the rules.  We practiced role playing in which we called the school to explain why we couldn’t attend class that day.  “What reasons might you have for not attending class?” asked the instructor.  I assumed this was freeform, with points given for originality.  Te veel feest; te veel hoofdpijn.  The instructor icily informed me that parties resulting in headaches were *not* a good excuse, referring to a list of approved excuses which included hospitalization and childbirth.

Things picked up slightly from that: we are deep into learning when and how to visit the Gemeente when we move  or when our children are born.  Four hours of continuous and rapid Dutch is absolutely grueling, but I’m determined to get my head around it and to shine in the course.  I’m gingerly transferring skills from the classroom to the community (looking for an opportunity to point out De muis in de doos) and rearranging phone calls and meetings into the half-day that remains.

I will do my best.

   I will work hard.

      I will finish what I start.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Returning to find a few changes

DSC04671‘Dropping back into town for meetings and the start for my inburgering.  The rain followed me over from England; the apartment building is filled with hammering and sawing as the new restaurant races towards completion downstairs.  It’s not the only change that I’ve noticed though: Maastricht is full of surprises.

The Drug Shops are becoming ever more restrictive, just as I was finally determining that I should figure out how they work. Recent news articles report that the the government is proposing new restrictions eliminating access for visitors and restricting access by residents.  Shops failing to meet minimum membership requirements (perhaps 1500 members) would be forced to close.

Maastricht has already moved to require proof of residency, and I’ve never had time nor inclination to visit one before they disappear.  Lately, it’s been embarrassing to admit to visitors that I have no clue how the boats and shops work, and friends have offered to give me a quick tour.  It’s one more nail sealing off any eventual run for public office in the US, I suppose, but if there are no pictures and I don’t inhale…?

DSC04676The venerable Strippenkart is on it’s last month in Maastricht, due to be phased out by July 1 in favor of electronic OV cards.  I’ll miss them: along with setting up a chip-knip and showing style with haring, they were an early expat success as I climbed into Dutch life.  It took effort to figure out where to buy them, how to use them, the zone system, and discounts.  Now the newcomers will just wave plastic.

DSC04673And the Gemeente is deciding whether to allow a strip club and pole-dancing establishment to open four doors down from my apartment on Kesselskade.  The local bartenders and shopowners roll their eyes as we discuss it, saying that it’s not yet a done deal.  The street has been moving upscale over the last year, with lots of refurbished stores, new restaurants, live music, and, of course, the “Christmas on Kesselskade” winter festival.

On the one hand, it’s not someplace I’d go and I suppose I can take a live-and-let-live approach to the neighborhood.  After all, the brothel around the corner never makes any disturbances.  At the same time, I admit to wholly American stereotypes about the type of people who will be attracted to the place and the potential for more crime.  Besides, it’s going in within a couple of doors of a baby-clothes store – it all gets a bit surreal.

DSC04674And then there are some  things going on that I may never understand…

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Eduardo moments

EduardoI called my attorney in Seattle the other night; there were a lot of terms in our proposed association agreement that needed clarification.  We are creating a Limited Liability Corporation (LLC), a form of partnership with added legal protections for the members.  Like a corporation, an LLC shields the members from personal responsibility if the business fails, but allows members to harvest profits directly rather than indirectly through taxable dividends.

Like so many early-stage arrangements, I have three key questions:

  1. Are all members treated equally,
  2. What will I get if the firm collects $1 million, and
  3. How are my shares valued?

I said that I didn’t want any “Eduardo Moments”, referring to the pivotal scene in The Social Network where one founder finds that  his 34% of the company has been diluted to 0.03% (scene here).

The attorney laughed: she says that ever since the movie broke, the latter half has had a huge impact on entrepreneurial culture.  Everyone can assign associates to roles in the parable, and everyone is scared of ending up like Eduardo.

My defense: don’t sign what you haven’t read or don’t understand, don’t sign anything without your lawyer’s review (that means one that you personally select and pay for), and don’t be palmed off by assurances that the terms are “standard”.

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FB AlgorithmI also got to thinking about my other favorite Eduardo moment, where he outlines his “Ranking Algorithm” for facematch.com.   It was an odd formula, scrawled onto a window: it looked probabilistic, but more specific (there was a number 400 in there).  Fortunately, in our age of externalized memory, someone is online blogging the answers (and linking the scene)

First, the ranking algorithm, shown right, is real: it is the Elo Algorithm, Ranking Algorithmnamed after physicist and chess player Arpad Elo.    It’s used to rank chess players internationally, and has been generalized to ranking player’s skills in “winner-take-all” games from MahJongg to XBox.

Beyond the simple facts, the theory behind the formula is fascinating.  I’ve spent the evening reading a wonderful essay about ranking algorithms here, and the ideas behind it are very approachable.

Like the terms “Social Signal Processing” or “”Cultural Complexity”, the phrase “Ranking Algorithm” went viral with me: I went from “What is it?” to “How would I implement it?” in short order, then end up collecting and reading a few papers until I get it.  After that, it’s a generative metaphor, popping up in support of a project or a conversation.  It pulls my interest, then helps me make connections and inferences.

;Certainly a better “Eduardo Moment:” that sorting language in an LLC agreement.