As news continues to break that Snapchat defied the odds and raised over $1.8 billion in funding, many people have been reminded of the money to be made in technology and other entrepreneurial start-ups.
Yet, some become preoccupied with the perks of being a lone ranger. From working independently at home to freedom of thought, the benefits of going it alone can be enticing.
Entrepreneurs, like all business leaders, must have a plan to ensure they stay focused on the idea and goals they set.
Knowing your customer
The first question all good entrepreneurs must ask themselves is what’s the problem to be solved. Founder of Alltopstartups.com and Entrepreneur contributor Thomas Oppong pointed out that consumers currently face a ‘paradox of choice’ and thus, an entrepreneur must focus on building a must-have [product], not a nice to have the product’.
The next step is to create a good or service that offers something above and beyond what is currently available. One only has to look at the way Google reinvented search, or how Netflix solved on-demand media streaming to see that resolving customer pain points is a successful strategy.
This will become your value proposition and drive why you do what you do. Can you offer a product with a zero-carbon footprint? Can you add more features, while making it smaller? These are the questions you will have to answer.
However, before you can attend any of this you need to understand your customer. Analysing the size of the targeted market or the number of potential customers is a good place to start, but entrepreneurs should not stop here.
Take the success of Skullcandy, which makes earphones and other accessories, for instance. In a Forbes article, investor Alan Hall said that founder Rick Alden knew his customers down to a tee.
‘He knows what they wear from their toes to the tops of their heads. He knows they are or want to be, cool and accepted by their peers. He knows what they watch and where they shop. He knows what apps they have on their cellphones and iPads,’ Hall argued.
Among the major lessons never taught in business school is that your enterprise will only be as strong as you are. So it’s important to evaluate who you really are. Knowing your own strengths and weaknesses can offer a starting point to understand why you want to be an entrepreneur.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a millennial who is looking to build your own destiny or a baby boomer who is financially secure but continues to seek success. Your background, age and other characteristics will impact how you can approach the venture.
You need to make an effort to understand who you are, as working to your strengths and compensating for your weaknesses can be a beneficial strategy. It’s also essential to play to your passions.
‘The happiest and most successful people I know don’t just love what they do, they’re obsessed with solving an important problem, something that matters to them,’ Dropbox co-founder Drew Houston said during the 2013 MIT commencement address. ‘They remind me of a dog chasing a tennis ball: Their eyes go a little crazy, the leash snaps and they go bounding off, ploughing through whatever gets in the way.’
No matter who you are or where you come from, knowing yourself and your customer base is essential to starting a business. It’s not just about having a good idea or product, you have to be passionate about it and so do your customers.
Last year, three cryptocurrency enthusiasts bought a cruise ship. They named it the Satoshi, and dreamed of starting a floating libertarian utopia. It didn’t work out.
In the evening of 7 December 2010, in a hushed San Francisco auditorium, former Google engineer Patri Friedman sketched out the future of humanity. The event was hosted by the Thiel Foundation, established four years earlier by the arch-libertarian PayPal founder Peter Thiel to “defend and promote freedom in all its dimensions”. From behind a large lectern, Friedman – grandson of Milton Friedman, one of the most influential free-market economists of the last century – laid out his plan.
He wanted to transform how and where we live, to abandon life on land and all our decrepit assumptions about the nature of society. He wanted, quite simply, to start a new city in the middle of the ocean.
Friedman called it seasteading: “Homesteading the high seas,” a phrase borrowed from Wayne Gramlich, a software engineer with whom he’d founded the Seasteading Institute in 2008, helped by a $500,000 donation from Thiel. In a four-minute vision-dump, Friedman explained his rationale.
Why, he asked, in one of the most advanced countries in the world, were they still using systems of government from 1787? (“If you drove a car from 1787, it would be a horse,” he pointed out.) Government, he believed, needed an upgrade, like a software update for a phone. “Let’s think of government as an industry, where countries are firms and citizens are customers!” he declared.
The difficulty in starting a new form of government, said Friedman, was simply a lack of space. All the land on Earth was taken. What they needed was a new frontier, and that frontier was the ocean. “Let a thousand nations bloom on the high seas,” he proclaimed, with Maoish zeal.
He wanted seasteading experiments to start as soon as possible. Within three to six years, he imagined ships being repurposed as floating medical clinics. Within 10 years, he predicted, small communities would be permanently based on platforms out at sea. In a few decades, he hoped there would be floating cities “with millions of people pioneering different ways of living together”.
Politics would be rewritten. The beauty of seasteading was that it offered its inhabitants total freedom and choice. In 2017, Friedman and the “seavangelist” Joe Quirk wrote a book, Seasteading, in which they described how a seasteading community could constantly rearrange itself according to the choices of those who owned the individual floating units.
(Quirk now runs the Seasteading Institute; Friedman remains chair of the board.) “Democracy,” the two men wrote, “would be upgraded to a system whereby the smallest minorities, including the individual, could vote with their houses.”
In the decade following Friedman’s talk, a variety of attempts to realize his seasteading vision were all thwarted. “Seavilization,” to use his phrase, remained a fantasy. Then, in October 2020, it seemed his dream might finally come true, when three seasteading enthusiasts bought a 245-metre-long cruise ship called the Pacific Dawn. Grant Romundt, Rüdiger Koch and Chad Elwartowski planned to sail the ship to Panama, where they were based, and park it permanently off the coastline as the centrepiece of a new society trading only in cryptocurrencies.
In homage to Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonym of bitcoin’s mysterious inventor (or inventors), they renamed the ship the MS Satoshi. They hoped it would become home to people just like them: digital nomads, startup founders and early bitcoin adopters.
Their vision was utopian, if your idea of utopia is a floating crypto-community in the Caribbean Sea. No longer was seasteading a futuristic ideal; it was, said Romundt, “an actual ship”. The Satoshi also offered a chance to marry two movements, of crypto-devotees and seasteaders, united by their desire for freedom – from convention, regulation, tax.
Freedom from the state in all its forms. But converting a cruise ship into a new society proved more challenging than envisaged. The high seas, while appearing borderless and free, are, in fact, some of the most tightly regulated places on Earth. The cruise ship industry in particular is bound by intricate rules. As Romundt put it: “We were like, ‘This is just so hard.’”
As with many stories about techno-libertarian fantasies, the tale of the Satoshi begins in an all-male, quasi-frat house in San Francisco in the late 90s. Romundt – a softly spoken Canadian with the optimistic, healthy glow of someone who combines entrepreneurial success with water sports – was living with a bunch of software engineers, all of whom shared an intense dedication to personal improvement.
“I was a huge Tony Robbins fan,” Romundt told me in one of several Zoom calls from his office in Panama. (Robbins’ themes of individual freedom, self-mastery and the accrual of significant wealth are evident from the titles of his books from that time: Unlimited Power; Lessons in Mastery; Unleash the Power Within; The Power to Shape Your Destiny, and, next level, Awaken the Giant Within.)
After his San Francisco stint, Romundt, the son of a hairdresser, created ScissorBoy in 2009, a popular online TV series on hairdressing, and then ScheduleBox, a website which offered a digital receptionist service for hairstylists to book in their clients. (Always digitally inclined, he had, according to his website, the world’s “most advanced mobile paperless office in 1995”.) “I used to work 17 hours a day, so I didn’t have a lot of freedom,” he told me. He did, however, make enough money to semi-retire in 2016 and then spent “no more than five hours a month” running his business.
The giant fully awakened, he moved back to Canada, where he lived on a houseboat on Lake Ontario and went kayaking in the mornings as the sun came up. Enraptured by his lifestyle, Romundt wondered why everyone wasn’t living this way. On a flight one day, he saw a man wearing a T-shirt with “Stop arguing. Start seasteading” printed on it. Romundt was curious, they got talking, and the man turned out to be Joe Quirk, who was by this time running the Seasteading Institute.
So far, the Seasteading Institute had experienced variable, or zero, success with its projects. Early ideas for a “Baystead” and “Coaststead” off the coast of San Francisco and a “Clubstead”, a resort off the coast of California, never made the leap to reality. An attempt to create a floating island prototype in French Polynesia in 2017 met with fairly fierce resistance from the people of French Polynesia and collapsed a year later when the government pulled out of the scheme.
After meeting Quirk, Romundt decided he wanted to try again. Quirk introduced him to two other aspiring seasteaders, the passionately libertarian American Elwartowski and the bitcoin-wealthy German engineer Koch. Together, the trio founded a company, Ocean Builders. Using their own money, they funded the first attempt at a single residential seastead, in the form of a floating white octagonal box 12 nautical miles off the coast of Thailand.
Elwartowski and his girlfriend, Nadia Summergirl, lived there for two months in early 2018, until the Thai government discovered the seastead’s existence and declared it a threat to the country’s independence, possibly punishable by life imprisonment or death. Elwartowski and Summergirl had to flee the country before the Thai navy dispatched three ships to dismantle the floating box.
The seasteading movement did not die there. In 2019, Romundt, Koch and Elwartowski moved their company to Panama, where they had found a government willing to back their next project: the SeaPod. These would be individual floating homes held 3 metres above the water by a single column and a tripod-shaped base beneath the ocean.
The man responsible for their design, Koen Olthuis, is a Dutch “aquatect”, an architect specialising in water-based schemes. In rendered drawings, the SeaPods look fantastical, like a giant’s white helmet emerging monstrously from the waves. Inside, every surface is curved, as if you were living within the smooth, colourless confines of a peppermint.
Romundt compared the SeaPods to the architecture in The Jetsons, the 60s cartoon where the characters lived in glassy orbs in the sky. “It’s like that,” he told me, “but on water.” The team built a factory from scratch in Linton Bay, a marina on the north coast of Panama, hired a team of about 30 engineers and mechanics, and, in early 2020, began building the first SeaPod prototype.
Progress was slow. Even once they had a successful prototype, Romundt predicted the factory would only make two SeaPods a month. They’d had the idea before of buying a cruise ship – a quick way of scaling up the community – but the cost had always been prohibitive.
By autumn 2020, though, the situation had changed. Like many parts of the travel industry, the cruise ship business was collapsing because of the pandemic: multiple cruise lines were going into administration, empty ships filling up ports like abandoned cars in a scrubby field, or being sent to the scrapyard. Cruise ships, the Ocean Builders trio realised, would be going cheap.
Sure enough, they found a bargain. In October 2020, Romundt, Koch and Elwartowski bought the ex-P&O cruise ship Pacific Dawn for a reported $9.5m. (Built in 1991 for $280m, the ship could have sold pre-pandemic for more than $100m, one industry insider told me.) They instructed Olthuis to draw up the plans, placing the ship at the heart of a floating community surrounded by SeaPods.
“We had a kind of funny idea,” Olthuis told me. In his scheme, the Satoshi would connect, via two looping tunnels on the water, to human-made floating platforms designated for agriculture, manufacturing and parkland. From the air, the whole community would form the shape of the bitcoin B.
The scheme had the support of the Panama government. In fact, the Ministry of Tourism hoped that a new ocean community would be a draw for visitors. In a page-long statement, the ministry told me how a floating development fitted in with its Sustainable Tourism Masterplan 2020-2025, by highlighting the country’s biodiversity and “the blue heritage of Panama”. It didn’t seem to mind the idea of a load of crypto-investors floating off their coastline, not paying any tax.
“Out of adversity comes opportunity, so they say,” wrote Elwartowski, on 10 October 2020, introducing Viva Vivas, the new company that he had created to run the Satoshi. Its name was adapted from the Latin phrase, “vive ut vivas”, meaning “live so that you may live”.
Ten days later, he announced the venture on Reddit: “So, I am buying a cruise ship and naming it MS Satoshi … AMA.” The responses were quick (“Need an apprentice aviation mechanic?” “I know how to use a yo-yo! Any room for me??”) and included the inevitable sceptics. (“Anyone remember the good old days of the Fyre festival?”) But plenty took the proposition seriously and wanted to go over the small print. (“Where is power coming from? Gas? Internet? Food? Water? Toiletries? What taxes will she be subject to?”)
Elwartowski answered every question with grave attention to detail. There would be generators at first, followed quickly by solar power. This would be an eco-friendly crypto-ship. High-speed wireless internet would come from land; utilities would be included in the fees at first, but would be metered when the systems were upgraded: “You don’t want to have pay for someone else’s mining rig in their cabin,” he wrote, referring to the resource-intensive computational process that introduces new crypto “coins” into the system.
As for tax, you would not pay any on earnings made from ventures based in territory beyond Panama. You would be free to make, or mine, as much money as you liked. It would be a remote worker’s regulatory paradise.
But as the Reddit Q&A continued, Elwartowski’s meticulous responses revealed some of the more knotty practicalities of life on board. It turned out that the only cooking facilities would be in the restaurant. For safety reasons, no one was allowed to have a microwave in their rooms – though some cabins had mini-fridges, noted Elwartowski, determinedly sidestepping the point.
He offered residents a 20% discount at the restaurant and mentioned that some interested cruisers had already talked about renting part of the restaurant kitchen so they could make their own food. “We want entrepreneurs to come up with solutions and try them out,” he wrote, in a valiant attempt to convert a fairly fundamental stumbling block into wild startup energy. “This is your place to try new things.” Not all the Redditors were convinced. “No microwave but mining rig. Incoherent scam.”
Marketing of the Satoshi soon began in earnest. Her 777 cabins were to be auctioned off between 5 and 28 November, while the ship was crossing the Atlantic towards Panama. Viva Vivas listed the options, including cabins with no windows ($570 a month), an ocean view ($629), or a balcony ($719). Ocean Builders held a series of live video calls for potential customers which attracted 200 people at a time, Olthuis told me, with Romundt, an expert steward of the multilateral video call, at the helm.
On the Viva Vivas website, a Frequently Asked Questions page covered the basics of the cabin auction process, fees and logistics. Specially trained staff would be hired to keep the ship Covid-free and through a partnership with a platform called coinpayments.net, multiple cryptocurrencies would be supported for payment, including bitcoin, ethereum, digibyte, bitcoin cash, litecoin, dai, dash, ethereum classic, trueUSD, USD coin, tether, bitcoin SV, electroneum, cloak, doge, eureka coin, xem and monero.
The final entry on the FAQ page, regarding the possibility of having pets on board, gave a bracing insight into the tension between the idea of freedom and the reality of hundreds of people closely cohabiting on a cruise ship. The answer linked to a separate document, containing a 14-point list of conditions including one that declared no animal should exceed 20lbs in weight, and any barking or loud noises could not last for longer than 10 minutes.
If a pet repeatedly disturbed the peace – more than three times a month or five times in a year – it would no longer be allowed to live on board. “Any pet related conflict,” instructed point 13, “shall be resolved in accordance with Section V (F) of the Satoshi Purchase Agreement or Section IV (F) of the Satoshi Master Lease, where applicable.” Dogs would only be permitted in balcony cabins, and it was advised that owners buy a specific brand of “porch potty”, a basket of fake grass where your pet could relieve itself. (Pet waste thrown overboard would result in a $200 fine.)
One Reddit respondent – maxcoiner on Reddit, Luke Parker in real life – was as close to the target market of the Satoshi as it was possible to imagine. A longtime follower of the seasteading movement, he was also such an early and successful bitcoin adopter that he and his wife were able to retire early thanks to their investments. The Satoshi was the most plausible idea for a seastead he’d ever heard. “I did not buy a room during the Satoshi’s sale window,” he told me over email, “but it was hard to keep my hand off that button.”
A variety of considerations held him back. “The wife,” as he put it, had her doubts. He wasn’t sure about the “ginormous leap down in luxury” from living in deep residential comfort on land in the US midwest to living in a very small cabin on board a 30-year-old cruise ship. He was worried, too, by the limited facilities – “No kitchen of my own? Tiny bathrooms? Tiny everything?” Also, the constant rocking of the ship on the water: “I just can’t stomach that life around the clock.” He preferred the idea of the SeaPods. If Parker was going to live on a boat, he concluded, he’d prefer to buy his own luxury catamaran.
On 29 November, Elwartowski published another post on the Viva Vivas website, announcing the official opening of the Satoshi in January 2021. “This will be a new experience for all of us so we must manage your expectations,” he warned. The novelty was too much for Parker. “It takes a rare kind of person indeed to move your life on to a deserted cruise ship in Central America with so little information up front,” he told me. If Parker, part of that highly select, freedom-seeking, system-abandoning, overlapping community of seasteaders and bitcoiners, wasn’t going to buy, it was hard to imagine who would. As he put it: “This may have been the smallest sales demographic in history.”
Over 30 years of service, the Satoshi herself had seen enough of the world to know every permutation of life at sea – apart, perhaps from what it might be like to be a permanent home to 2,000 crypto-investors. Built in 1991 in the Fincantieri shipyard in Trieste, Italy, she is one of only two cruise ships designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano. (The other, the Crown Princess, was sent to the scrapyard last year, a Covid casualty.) Her first incarnation was as the Regal Princess (owned by Princess Cruises), after which she became the Pacific Dawn (P&O Australia).
Throughout her life, she has been admired for her distinctive features: a domed roof rising above the navigation bridge, water slides that curl round her funnel and a stern whose elegantly rounded form is in marked contrast to the blunt, sawn-off rears of some giant cruise liners. Those who prefer an understated cruising experience also appreciate her discreet size: compared to the largest cruise ship in the world, The Symphony of the Seas (18 decks, 23 swimming pools) she is a modest vessel (11 decks, two swimming pools).
For many years, the Pacific Dawn cruised the south Pacific, enjoying a serene phase of life, interrupted only by an onboard swine flu outbreak in 2009 and the time she lost power and came within 70 metres of crashing into the Gateway Bridge on the Brisbane River. In 2011, a devoted Facebook group was established by fans. “Dawnie was the party ship,” remembered one. “I fell in love with my wife all over again,” added another, crediting the ship for his romantic renewal. Then, in 2020, it briefly looked as though Dawnie was set to join her sister on the scrapyard, after her sale to British cruise company, Cruise and Maritime Voyages, collapsed in the pandemic. Her fans were grief-stricken, weeping emojis piling up on the Facebook group. (“Well 2020 just became even shittier,” said Kathie.) When it was revealed that the ship had been rescued by Ocean Builders, there was a wave of relief, if a little mystification at her new name. “She’ll always be Dawn to me.”
On 29 October 2020, Dawn began her journey to Panama, sailing from Limassol, Cyprus to Piraeus, Greece. A week later, she was handed over to her new owners Ocean Builders and officially became the Satoshi. Koch flew over from Panama to cross the Atlantic aboard their new purchase. The team hired a management company, Columbia Cruise Services, to run the ship and provide a minimum crew of about 40 people, mostly Ukrainian, including a cook, engineers and cleaning staff. A seasoned British cruise captain, Peter Harris, arrived to take charge. “We didn’t know anything about running a cruise,” Romundt told me, “so it was like, we didn’t want to have to figure all this stuff out.”
As soon as Capt Harris joined the ship and met Koch on board, he realised there would be challenges ahead. “I was thinking a week into the job, I can see I’m going to be resigning,” Harris told me, immaculate in a striped shirt on a video call from his home in Kent. Koch, he said, was admirable in his ambition, and a likable, law-abiding man, but he was naive about how shipping worked and had an abhorrence of rules. “He didn’t understand the industry,” said Harris, who has the frank, upbeat air of a born leader for whom hierarchy is a kind of creed. “He just thought he could treat it like his own yacht.”
To sail anywhere, Harris explained, a ship requires certificates of seaworthiness. These expired on the day the deal with P&O was completed. Usually, a new buyer would ensure they lasted a couple of months to cover any onward journey, but no one on the Ocean Builders side had checked. By the time Columbia Cruise Services came on board and informed the team of the situation, the contracts had all been signed. Before the Satoshi could cross the Atlantic, the team were obliged to sail the ship to Gibraltar and have her removed from the water, a process known as dry-docking, to perform essential repairs and renew the certificates.
The Atlantic crossing began on 3 December. Harris – who didn’t resign, grateful for the four-month contract mid-pandemic – found it oddly lovely. With only 40 or so people on board, rather than the usual 2,000-odd, the atmosphere was relaxed, if a little surreal. Among other things, P&O had left about 5,000 bottles of wine and 2,000 bottles of spirits on board. Harris asked Koch if he wanted to charge the crew for drinks, but Koch, generous by nature, said no. “Obviously, we restricted them to three drinks a day,” said Harris. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have had a crew.”
As the crossing continued, questions about how the project would actually work once the Satoshi arrived in Panama grew more pressing. According to Harris, Elwartowski thought he could convince the Panamanian authorities to let the ship anchor permanently in its waters and de-register as a ship, becoming a floating residence instead, so as to avoid some of the more exacting requirements of maritime law. But while Panama was happy to have the ship moored off its coast, it specified that the ship had to remain officially designated as a ship. Which led to another difficulty: the discharge of sewage. Though the ship had an advanced wastewater management system, which could turn sewage into drinking-quality water, they were not permitted to discharge this wastewater into Panamanian waters, and so would have had to sail 12 miles out every 20 days or so to empty tanks into international waters.
Such obstacles made the ship an off-putting proposition for insurers. No one would agree to cover them. “They wouldn’t even tell us why we weren’t insurable, they just kept saying no,” Romundt said. “It’s kind of hard to remedy something if you don’t know what the problem is.” Of the several insurance experts I asked about this, none were willing to comment on the case, citing a lack of expertise, presumably because no one had ever tried to insure a cruise ship turned floating crypto-community before. Harris, however, had his theories: that a risk-averse insurance industry was wary of both a bitcoin business and a ship that would presumably be mostly populated by quick-to-litigate Americans.
After trying multiple insurers and brokers, Romundt began to realise that the cruise ship industry was, as he put it, “plagued by over-regulation”. (Along with airlines and nuclear power, according to Harris, it’s in “the top three”.) The Ocean Builders’ great freedom project, whose intrinsic purpose was to offer an escape from oppressive rules and bureaucracy, was being hobbled by oppressive rules and bureaucracy. As Elwartowski would reflect a few months later on Reddit: “A cruise ship is not very good for people who want to be free.”
To Romundt, the whole cruise ship business began to seem like an impenetrable old boys’ network. He estimated that, given six months, they could have hired a crack marine legal team and navigated a way through the loopholes. But by mid-December, the Satoshi was already halfway across the Atlantic, burning through gallons of diesel, with a 40-person crew they’d have to keep on board even when she was stationary in Panama because a cruise ship requires constant maintenance. A ship can cost, even when docked, up to $1m a month to run. “Because, you know,” said Romundt, “it’s huge.”
Fuel alone was costing the Ocean Builders trio about $12,000 a day. According to Harris, Koch wanted to try to make the ship more fuel-efficient by installing a smaller engine, which he thought he could do while the ship was at anchor. “We were like, how are you going to cut a hole in the ship’s side big enough to get the engine out, which is below water level, and not sink the ship?” Harris shook his head, his memories of Koch clearly fond, if perplexed. “I was forever saying, ‘No, Rudi you can’t do this; no, Rudi you can’t do that.’”
Before the Satoshi hove into view of the white sands of a Panama beach, Romundt, Koch and Elwartowski had to make a call. They couldn’t afford to keep the ship moored and empty for months on end while they tried to solve the insurance problem, a problem they weren’t even sure they’d be able to solve. They were insured to sail her, and they could go on sailing her, but they didn’t want to run a travel company. They wanted to run a floating society of like-minded freedom-lovers arranged in the shape of the bitcoin B. It wasn’t even clear that there were enough people who wanted to do that. Koch admitted to Harris that the cabins weren’t selling.
“It was almost like a fantasy, James Bond-ish,” said one cruise industry insider. “But to their credit they believed in it.”The dream was over, they realised, before it had even begun. The project was dead, except it wasn’t quite, as they still owned the ship, which was still steaming across the Atlantic with Koch, Harris and the crew on board. The Satoshi, already thousands of miles into a 5,500-nautical-mile voyage, had travelled too far to be turned around mid-ocean, so on she sailed. They’d have to sell her, the Ocean Builders realised, but who was going to be crazy enough to buy a cruise ship in the middle of a pandemic? Only a company who wanted to tear her apart. On 18 December, while she was still at sea, the team announced the sale of the Satoshi to a scrapyard in Alang, India. The Satoshi was once again destined for dismemberment.
On 19 December, Elwartowski announced on the Viva Vivas website that the Satoshi’s journey was coming to an end. “We have lost this round. The New Normal, Great Reset gains another victim,” he wrote, looping in the collapse of the Satoshi with a popular Covid conspiracy theory that the pandemic and its response had been stage-managed by a global elite. (Over subsequent months, Elwartowski’s activity on Reddit would include other Covid themes, including suspicion of government vaccination programmes.) Romundt emailed their list of potential customers to let them know the ship’s fate. Deposits for cabins would be refunded.
The Satoshi arrived in Balboa, Panama on 22 December. On Christmas Eve, she anchored off the coast of Colon. There, Romundt joined Koch and the crew on the ship. Elwartowski, meanwhile, stayed in Panama City. “He didn’t want to get on board,” said Romundt. Koch spoke to Joe Quirk one evening on the phone while he was sitting in the ship’s cafe drinking a bottle of wine, feeling regretful that the onboard hospital he’d planned to open to medical entrepreneurs would never come to life. Even so, Koch was “utterly unbowed”, reported Quirk in a Seasteading Institute blog post entitled How the Grinch Stole the Cruise Ship.
Romundt, a man more driven by the practical issues at hand than the romantic symbolism of his endeavours, realised that, though the entire plan had fallen apart, he was still the part-owner of a massive cruise ship. He decided to spend Christmas on board, along with the crew. Master key in hand, he wandered around the Satoshi, making sure to enter every room that said Do Not Enter. He toured the engine room, and sat on the sun deck.
He worked, because he can’t help working, even at Christmas, but he also went on all the water slides, alone. (Harris told me he’d turned them on specially for Christmas Day.) Though Romundt doesn’t usually drink, he had a glass of wine and called all his friends saying, “I’m on my own cruise ship for Christmas!” He had the kind of good time it is perhaps only possible to have when you have just made an unbelievably expensive mistake born of a desire to invent an entirely new way of living and involving the purchase of a huge floating vessel. “I was king of the ship!” he said, still delighted.
Even scrapping the Satoshi proved to be a debacle. After a deal had been done with the Indian scrapyard, the Ocean Builders team realised that according to the Basel Convention, which covers the disposal of hazardous waste, they weren’t allowed to send the ship from a signatory country (Panama) to a non-signatory country (India). The contract with the scrapyard had to be cancelled.
All was not completely lost, at least for the Satoshi herself. The cruise ship industry is a compact ecosystem. The grapevine did its thing. A ship broker heard about the plight of the Satoshi, realised it was precisely the kind of ship a new client of his was looking for, and did a quick deal.
The client was Ambassador Cruise Line, the first British cruise company to launch for 10 years. According to Ambassador’s ebullient, red-sweatered chair, Gordon Wilson, the company’s name is intended to reflect the highly optimistic idea that ambassadors, like cruise ships, take the best of their own culture with them wherever they go. The Satoshi would be the first ship in the company’s new fleet, which would offer cruises to the over-50s. Many of the new team at Ambassador had come over from Cruise and Maritime Voyages, who had nearly bought the Satoshi before it went bust in 2020.
As such, they knew the ship well, which sped up the sale. Wilson wouldn’t confirm the amount – “they thought it was a good price” – but the trade press reported that Ocean Builders sold her for $12m, more than they paid for her, though possibly not quite enough to cover the elaborate costs of running an empty cruise ship for three months.
On 23 February 2021, the Satoshi set sail from Panama, heading all the way back across the ocean she’d just crossed. She arrived in Bar, Montenegro on 27 March. Wilson went over to visit her, and, like Romundt, relished the experience of climbing aboard his new asset. Exploring the engine rooms of an empty cruise ship seemed to give these men a particular sensation: perhaps just the buzz of owning something so vast and powerful; a mechanical, proprietary thrill.
The Ocean Builders team, meanwhile, returned to their own private missions. Elwartowski was on sabbatical, Romundt told me. He did not want to talk to me for this story. Koch, who also declined to be interviewed, was building his own boat in Panama, and working with Romundt on the SeaPods. Over Zoom, Romundt gave me a tour of the SeaPod factory, and showed off the hulking sheets of fibreglass that would form the structure’s mould. “It feels like touching a UFO,” he said, stroking his invention.
Seeing the pod’s nascent form, I felt a boringly pragmatic urge to ask Romundt what happened if, once afloat, you needed to buy a pint of milk. My question seemed to miss the point, too wedded to old-fashioned notions of locality and human connection. The Pods had been designed to have a hatch in the roof, Romundt said. He was talking to some drone creators and imagined people flying to their pods independently, landing on the roof and entering through the hatch. Perhaps that’s how you’d get your milk.
At her new home in Montenegro, meanwhile, the Satoshi needed some sprucing up. For the fourth time in her three decades on the water, she had been renamed. “We thought Ambience a lovely name for a ship,” said Wilson, pronouncing it in the French style, Ambi-ence. “This is a very elegant ship,” he added, proudly. “She looks like a cruise liner; she does not look like a floating block of flats.”
When Ambience finally sets sail on her maiden voyage, from the industrial dock of Tilbury across the North Sea to Hamburg in April 2022, she will offer a more traditional experience to her passengers. “Back to what cruising is all about,” said Wilson. The atmosphere will be refined. There will be promenading on deck and plentiful opportunities for photography as the horizon swallows the evening sun. There will be cocktails at the bar, a five-course dinner and a glittery show. It is unlikely bitcoin will be accepted as currency. The water slides will be removed.
In an investment industry known for big egos, overconfident analysts and “activists” who routinely tell CEOs how to run their companies, investor Nancy Zevenbergen and her team of four portfolio managers differentiate themselves by simply listening.
Zevenbergen, 61, founder of $5.7 billion (assets) Zevenbergen Capital Investments, believes the crucial job of an investor in today’s economy is to uncover the next great entrepreneur or technological innovation early on. The style is about “optimism and a view toward what the future might be,” she says. According to Zevenbergen, her task is to be curious and “understand the ‘crazy’ visions of new leaders and become investors alongside them.” If she likes a company, her Seattle-based firm will load up and watch from the sidelines, tracking the business patiently and holding their shares so long as growth doesn’t stall. Rarely do they worry too much about valuation.
This humble approach to investing has yielded results that make Zevenbergen among the best investors in the world. She has stuck by mercurial Elon Musk and owned Tesla for about a decade; Tesla’s stock is up 730% this year, and is the top performing stock of the ten years. She discovered Ottawa, Canada-based ecommerce company Shopify and its founder CEO Tobi Lütke in late 2016 when it was trading below $50; it now trades for $1,170.
Last September, Zillow chief executive Rich Barton decided the real estate platform would begin buying homes, leading to complaints from skeptics who sent its shares cratering 20% to below $30. Zevenbergen’s team liked Barton’s experimentation and built a large position. Fifteen months later, Zillow now trades for $140.
With stock-picks like these, Zevenbergen’s Innovative Growth Fund (SCATX) and Genea Fund (ZVGNX) are up a staggering 126% and 154%, respectively, in 2020. Of over 1,000 peer funds tracked by Morningstar, the two mutual funds rank in the top percentile.
Zevenbergen created her firm from her living room in the late 1980s with just $500,000 in assets while she nursed a young child. Her flagship strategy has beaten the S&P 500 Index by around four percentage points annually since 1987, but 2020 was a watershed. Assets more than doubled soaring towards $6 billion, based on performance and inflows to her mutual funds.
Zevenbergen is not the only woman fund manager who has crushed competition in 2020. Forbes found at least a half a dozen firms led by women-led funds that have blown away their peers and drawn in tens of billions of dollars in assets collectively since the start of January.
Cathie Wood, founder of Ark Investments, had the best year of anyone. In 2014, Wood, 65, created Ark with the idea of packaging stock-picking into tax-efficient exchange traded funds, and focusing exclusively on breakthrough innovations in genomics, robotics, financial technology, autonomous driving, digital services, and artificial intelligence.
Six years later, Ark manages nearly $44 billion in assets, up from just $300 million at the end of 2016. This year, Ark funds have pulled in over $10 billion in new assets, led by extraordinary returns. Her flagship Ark Innovation Fund (ARKK) has seen assets soar to $17 billion, fueled by a 154% gain in 2020 and a 46% average annual return over the past five years. Her $6 billion Ark Genomic revolution ETF is up even more this year. “I wanted individual investors to catch the wave,” says Wood of today’s enormous technological change. Her funds were designed for those “willing to step out and away from fixed income and into some of the most exciting stocks in history.”
Ark publishes its financial models, trading logs, and research to the investing public, and the firm’s analysts are happy to engage in discussion on Twitter, opening themselves to criticism and mockery. Wood’s $4,000 a share valuation of Tesla a year ago drew many scoffs on Wall Street. But her heady valuation was spot on. Short sellers have been burned by Tesla’s rise, while female investors like Zevenbergen and Wood have been patient bulls. On Friday, Tesla was added to the S&P 500 Index.
Female investing success in 2020 extends well beyond soaring growth stocks. Women-run funds are leading the way in everything from small cap stocks, to emerging market debt portfolios, dividend paying companies, and sustainable investments.
Amy Zhang, portfolio manager of the Alger Small Cap Focus Fund (AOFIX) and Mid Cap Focus Fund (AFOIX) was hired in 2015 to expand Alger’s presence in niche small and mid-cap stocks. When Zhang arrived at Alger, the Small Cap Focus Fund had just $16 million in assets. Now, after a 54% return in 2020 and a 30% annual average return over the past five years, Zhang’s Small Cap Focus Fund has $7.5 billion in assets.
Top holdings include refrigerated logistics upstart CryoPort and fast casual restaurant Wingstop. Her Mid Cap Focus Fund, launched in mid-2018, has attracted over $500 million in assets as it has soared by 84% in 2020, bolstered by casino operator Penn National Gaming and power equipment manufacturer Generac.
Long before sustainable investments became a prolific buzzword, Karina Funk, an MIT-educated engineer at Baltimore-based mutual fund giant Brown Advisory, was a pioneer in bringing sustainable investments mainstream. Funk, 48, a vegetarian who watches her carbon footprint by biking to work, launched the Brown Advisory Sustainable Growth Fund in June 2012, alongside David Powell, with a goal to back about 35 companies with products improving social and environmental sustainability, or efficient operating footprints.
Its focus on companies like Ball Corp. and American Tower has made it one of the best funds on the planet during down markets. Even in 2020, the fund has gained 38% despite its defensive posture, thanks to savvy picks like life sciences conglomerate Danaher and Etsy, which has empowered many small businesses during the pandemic. Funk can be a tough customer. She exited Facebook in the fall of 2018 due to data privacy concerns.
“Sustainability is a means, not an end in and of itself,” she told Forbesas part of a profile three years ago, when the fund’s assets were just $1.1 billion. “Our end goal is performance. We achieve that by finding fundamentally strong companies using sustainability strategies to get even better.” The fund’s assets have since soared to $4.6 billion.
Other female-led funds that have done well include Capital Group’s $128 billion American Funds New Perspective (ANWPX), led by a team of managers including Joanna Jonsson and Noriko Chen, and the $36 billion in assets JPMorgan Equity Income Fund (HLIEX), led by Clare Hart. The New Perspectives fund has beaten its benchmark by four percentage points annually over the past decade, while Hart’s Equity Income Fund has returned an annualized 11.65%, two percentage points annually above its benchmark, according to data from Morningstar.
Rebecca Irwin, Natasha Kuhikin and Kathleen McCarragher of the $1.3 billion in assets PGIM Jennison Focused Growth Fund (SPFAX) have returned 68% in 2020 and 25% over the past five years, ranking in the top decile of peer funds. At Alger, Ankur Crawford, co-manager of the Alger Spectra Fund (ASPIX) and Alger Capital Appreciation (ACCAX) has seen returns surpass 40% this year.
In fixed income, Tina Vandersteel of the $4.4 billion in assets GMO Emerging Country Debt Fund (GMCDX) has been able to outperform emerging market bond indices despite underweighting China and many Gulf-states due to her skepticism of the veracity of their economic data.
The bull market of 2020 is also creating new opportunities for female fund managers to shine. Two years ago, Julie Biel of Los Angeles-based Kayne Anderson Rudnick, was a rising star at the $30 billion (assets) firm and excited about the looming public offering of software company DocuSign. Known for investing in established businesses, Kayne had never participated in an IPO. Biel was late in her pregnancy as the IPO progressed and trying to win an allocation. She needed a doctor’s note to fly to the Bay Area to meet with DocuSign’s management. Kayne eventually won a large block of shares, quickly becoming one of its largest outside investors.
Biel also began to manage the firm’s KAR Small Mid- Sustainable Growth strategy around that time and made DocuSign the fund’s top holding. Its shares have risen 225% in 2020. This year, Biel’s fund has returned 42% through November. In December, Kayne decided to launch a mutual fund version, launching the strategy, called the Virtus KAR Small-Mid Cap Growth Fund (VIKSK), with Biel in charge.
Like Zevebergen and Wood, Biel is starting small and manages just $60 million. But the investment industry rewards performance above all, hinting at much larger things to come. Entering 2021, Biel’s portfolio is loaded with hidden gems like Ollie’s Bargain Outlet and MarketAxess that could grow for years to come. Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn. Send me a secure tip.
I’m a staff writer and associate editor at Forbes, where I cover finance and investing. My beat includes hedge funds, private equity, fintech, mutual funds, mergers, and banks. I’m a graduate of Middlebury College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and I’ve worked at TheStreet and Businessweek. Before becoming a financial scribe, I was a member of the fateful 2008 analyst class at Lehman Brothers. Email thoughts and tips to email@example.com. Follow me on Twitter at @antoinegara
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One of the rising tech sectors today is data aggregation with many millennials coming to the forefront of the industry to bundle information and convey it in a summary form.
Aggregating is all around us
To fully understand what data aggregation is, let’s look at this example: Data-collecting companies, like Facebook, gather intelligence such as likes or page-visits users consume. This information is carefully organized to promote ads or document what users see in their feeds. In business using behavior metrics such as the number of transactions, or average age of the consumer, helps the company focus on bestsellers.
Vasiliy Fomin is an excellent example of someone currently cashing in by way of running a data aggregator, bundling information from various sources into a single API, and allowing all types of businesses to power their offerings to consumers. He’s been able to build a thriving business earning millions in revenue by selling aggregated vehicle data, arrest record data, and more to a network of qualified resellers.
For entrepreneurs, research and development are essential in understanding the market behavior so as to provide the best services to their customers. Data aggregators embrace innovations, new ideas and critical questioning by syncing with the industry’s changing trends in various aspects like leading, hiring, retaining and technology.
Most of us have heard the phrase, “It takes money to make money.” It’s often necessary to invest in order to make more. This isn’t always an easy decision, but the question that many entrepreneurs ultimately have to ask themselves is, can you really expect customers to invest with you if you’re not willing to invest in yourself?
When you consider investing in professional development such as a coach, consultant, mentor or online course, making sure this is worth both the time and financial commitment is strategic. But if the statistics are anything to go by, this strategy can quickly turn into fear for many women in particular.
Research shows that 71% of all assets held by women are in cash, but that 68% of women lose sleep because of money worries. It’s time to stop letting the fear of not having enough stop you from investing to build your wealth.
These are my top three tips for making smart investments and minimizing money worries.
The first step is to write down your biggest goal for your business. What is it you really want to achieve? Is it to make six figures in fewer hours, or perhaps to build a big company that you will lead with lots of employees? Getting clear on this will protect you when you come across “shiny objects” — complex websites, funnels or branding that the sales world will try to convince you is absolutely necessary.
We usually succumb to these entreaties when we’re not focused on our end goal; when we procrastinate and look for quick fixes. Deciding what is just a shiny object or a really good investment starts with the question, “Will this investment help me achieve my goal faster?”
Only when it’s a yes should you consider the investment seriously.
Work out your boundaries
Next, you need to decide if the investment is in alignment with what you want to achieve and how you want to get there. Write down what you are and are not willing to do to hit your big goal in your business. For example, will the commitment of the investment mean you’ll have to work 50 hour weeks when you only want to work 10? If so, then it’s probably not a good fit.
It’s also a good idea to write down your values. Don’t let your feelings or mental blocks get in your way. Take your time so your fear doesn’t interfere. You might think that you don’t want to do sales calls. However, sales are a big part of a successful business. So, is it actually true that you don’t want to sell and thereby help other people, or could it be that you simply don’t want to feel like an old-fashioned salesman cold-selling by knocking on doors? If you were to feel good about selling, would selling be aligned? Most likely it’s a yes.
Essentially, if your boundaries and values are in line with the investment, you should move forward to the last step.
Assess the level of support
Investments are a vehicle for getting you from A to B, and it’s up to you to decide how you want to travel. Think of it like an airplane: You can go from London to Paris flying economy, Business or FirstClass.
If you know that your money is tight and you are willing to have less support on your journey, an online course could be the way. If you know that you are willing to find the funds to get fully supported and get to your goal easier and faster, bespoke one-on-one coaching could be an option. If you want to be around other high-achieving entrepreneurs to push yourself and achieve more, a mastermind could be a great investment.
This is when you need to ask yourself the question, “Is this investment providing the right level of support that I want?” If that’s a yes, you’re on the right track.
Overthinking is often a massive pitfall, making you say no to things you really want and ending in you missing out on great opportunities. Investing in something is supposed to make you feel nervous and excited at the same time, and will most likely be a true game-changer in your business.
When I started out, I had no savings at all, only debt. But I wanted to move fast, and my family couldn’t afford for me to not make money, so I found a way to make it happen.
I started with “smaller” investments — $500 or $2,000 — which felt just as scary as the six-figure investments I make now. Since then, I have learned from experience that if the investment is not a stretch, I’m not really taking a risk, so the likelihood of me building success momentum is small.
Today, women invest with me at all levels — from $ 1,000 to $ 100,000 — and I celebrate them all for making the commitment financially, mentally and emotionally. Investment is always a risk, and having the tools to help you decide if it’s one worth taking is essential.