That Time I Got Kicked Out of a Palace

Many people set out on an entrepreneurial journey because they think it is the easiest and fastest way to get rich. They are usually disappointed rather quickly, and it is not uncommon to hear such wantrepreneurs say “I never thought it would be this hard!”

Others decide to take the step onto this challenging path because they have identified a problem they want to solve, or that they even feel demands to be solved, like they couldn’t think of themselves not solving it. These “on fire” entrepreneurs tend to be extremely passionate, fueled by the now obvious need for somebody to step into the gap and provide the world with a solution to a problem it may not have even known it had. The problem becomes the entrepreneur’s enemy — something they want to see obliterated and vanquished so that nobody else must suffer from it. They assume everybody will feel this way the minute they become aware of the problem.

Unfortunately few journeys truly begin this way.

“Problem, what problem?” is an all too common response from the masses — and even your family and friends — when you announce for all to hear that you have arrived to save the day.

The cold water keeps coming — “Oh, yeah, I guess that’s not really the best way it could be done. But changing is too difficult. Nobody will actually change. There are too many people invested in the current system.”

For those dedicated to reality and are not oblivious to such feedback, their Messiah Complex quickly turns into Old Testament Prophet Complex, and they go around giving speeches that border on madness to their audiences, pronouncing imminent doom if the world doesn’t wake up and accept that there is indeed a problem. And of course, buy their solution to it.

Each of my entrepreneurial adventures has begun with this cycle, but in the first two cases, I wasn’t able to progress farther than that internally. The problem represented evil made manifest, and all who opposed the solution became the enemies.

In August 2011, just over three years after moving to Chile, I was reaching my breaking point with one of my own personal problems — I had no genuine support network with whom I felt I could identify, who could help me along this difficult road. There were of course a thousand online groups and forums for entrepreneurs, and in spite of my cat-like dislike of socializing, I have never had a problem forging new friendships.

But that wasn’t enough — the problem was deeper. Friends who could intellectually grasp the struggle I was going through weren’t what I was looking for. I wanted to find people who wanted to struggle with me, people who saw the same holes in the world and wanted to fix them together.

The problem that was preoccupying my mind at the time was the flawed and increasingly broken system of education — high tuition, lack of individualized focus on the students, the rigidity of the disciplines, the lack of genuine preparation for “real life,” the stultifying effects of political correctness on academic freedom, the publishing cartels, and on and on.

This was also the beginning of the EdTech rage, when every entrepreneur was saying we just need to appify learning and all of the problems will be solved. Technology will eliminate the entire need for humans in the educational process, we were being told.

But this didn’t sit well with me. I think technology can solve a lot of the problems related to education and can reduce costs and improve access like nothing else, but the real challenges in education boil down to the intrinsic motivation of the individual learner, and not only their “why” in the Simon Sinek sense, but their daily motivation to get out of bed and do what needs to be done. I might be alone, but even being driven by my vision for the future, I wake up every day and struggle with myself to do the difficult tasks that I’d rather put off or wait for somebody else to do.

The same was true when I was studying, and the same remains true for me today, though by the age of 33 I feel like I have managed to make a little bit of progress over the years.

To solve the problems in education, I knew we would need technology and everything it could offer, but we would also need an institution organized for its members to help each other along this path, not only in learning but also in applying. If we were going to go outside of the traditional degree and accreditation system, we would not be able to merely rest on having supplied a superior education, we would need to help them develop alternative career options.

So my life as an entrepreneur, and my first-hand knowledge of all its struggles and challenges, combined with my vision for an alternative to traditional education culminated in the founding of Exosphere in March 2012 and I was fueled by my anger at an unjust system. I was in peak Messiah Complex. I was going to raise $25 million to build the perfect campus for an alternative university community, fully equipped with everything a young scientist could dream of, with none of the constraints of academia holding them back from pursuing their deepest curiosities and passions.

To my surprise, the whole world did not immediately embrace my critique of the educational system, much less my proposed solution. Countless phone calls seeking support, collaboration, and investment ended with that ever-painful phrase “well, I wish you all the luck in the world.”

If you are not aware, this is code for “I think you are a raving lunatic and have less than a 0% chance of success — please don’t bother calling me again, I probably won’t answer.”

“Wait, but, but…”

My stubbornness transformed the Messiah Complex quickly into Old Testament Prophet Complex, and I went around telling anybody who would listen that we were on the verge of a social apocalypse if we didn’t reform soon. Most contrarian technologists/investors/futurists are either selling an apocalypse or a utopia right around the corner, and as a generally skeptical person, I was usually on the side of the apocalypse — this time was no exception.

Six or seven months later, having made no material progress, I was becoming even more frustrated with the situation, and with myself. I decided that if I didn’t figure out how to do something small — an MVP of some sort — I was going to lose the little bit of support I had managed to accumulate from people who were sympathetic to my analysis of the problem but saw my solution as being “too big too early.”

So I began looking for a space where we could open a prototype of Exosphere and make it into a sort of “gym for the mind.” In October of 2012, I found an old renovated palace in downtown Santiago that I fell in love with, and decided that would be the place to get going. Again trying to make things just a little too perfect, another couple of months passed by without any movement.

In February, just a few days before Valentine’s, my partner of 5 ½ years, with whom I had moved to Chile, blindsided me and told me our relationship was over and I found myself living alone on a mountain with my dogs and completely isolated. This was the earthquake that rocked me out of my planning-oriented and reactive approach and I moved quickly into the palace and set to work with my business partner Antonio Manno to getting something viable up and running there.

We decided that a fast way to generate income would be to open the palace as a co-working space, and we hosted a big opening party, to announce to the world that we existed, and then just like happens with every Field of Dreams Fallacy startup, nobody came.

Iterating fast, we set out to host an intensive program for entrepreneurs as a way to jump-start the learning and problem-solving community we wanted to build, and the plans went into motion for the first Exosphere boot camp.

Just as we were launching our sales effort for the program, and rectifying our difficult situation, our paranoid and psychotic landlord began giving us problems. Still living in the palace until finding a new place to live and a venue for the boot camp was a challenge that pushed me almost past my breaking point. The situation deteriorated to the point where I even felt that I was in physical danger being there, and so we found an alternative venue for the program, knowing that there was little hope of salvaging the situation with the palace.

All the while I had to have the interview calls with applicants to the program while sitting in a freezing palace in the dead of the Southern Hemisphere winter. I then contracted strep throat and had a 102℉ fever after the electricity and hot water were cut off, and was spending my days making Skype calls from a cafe run by bohemian communists near Santiago’s Plaza Brasil.

Less than two weeks before the beginning of the boot camp, Antonio and I were rushing to find a place to live — something rather difficult to do in Chile if you don’t have a traditional job with proof of income — and after a harrowing tale of near-catastrophe, we found a house and could take possession of it within 48 hours. The next morning while I was at the communist cafe working, Antonio messaged me saying that the palace doors had new locks on them (illegally — no due process, no warning, nothing).

I spent the night on the couch of a friend and through the fortunate support of a friend of Antonio’s, we were able to get my dogs out of the palace the next day and we moved into the house.

The first boot camp was 12 weeks, and it was a lesson in business like no other. We over-paid our visiting faculty, cutting our margins to almost nothing, we had all kinds of unexpected drama, and we realized we had committed to a lot of very time intensive activities (like weekly, in-person mentoring of every participant from the staff). I personally mentored 7 participants for at least an hour each every week.

We started learning what worked, what didn’t, and what changes we needed to make in order to transform the program into what it was at least clear it had the possibility of becoming. Along the way, many (and increasingly more) of the people who have participated in our programs have decided to stick around and build things together too. I am eternally grateful to all of the people who participated in that first program for being patient with us, learning with us, and helping us with the constructive but often painful feedback they provided during and after the program. We could never have gotten to where we are today without them.

Fast forward to October 2015

We are in the midst of our 6th boot camp (the first ever exclusively for women!), with our 7th starting in January where we will be thinking about the multi-billion dollar opportunities for oceans-related startups.

Since February 2014, we have been based in the beautiful Reñaca Beach in Viña del Mar, and we have trotted the globe with our Exobase workshop, reaching hundreds of people throughout Latin America, the United States, and Europe. We conducted the world’s first ever Space Elevator Camp in a Castle in Hungary this past July, and we are hosting the first of its kind Artificial Intelligence Nexus at our headquarters in Chile in November.

We are now excited to be in the process of launching a new company, Exosphere Labs, a venture capital firm designed to invest in talent and research & development in emerging technology with a new model we have been crafting for the past two years through all of the lessons we have learned working with entrepreneurs and scientists from around the world.

If you had told me in August 2011 when I started thinking about the problem of education that my life would weave through all of the stories and experiences I have had since then, I either wouldn’t have believed you — or maybe I would have been terrified and packed my bags and hid in the Patagonia somewhere. Because that’s the thing about doing meaningful and different things with life: it’s an adventure into the unknown, and you have no way of knowing what it has in store for you until you start taking action, and keep taking action, even in the face of every imaginable obstacle and hardship.

These past almost four years have been the most rewarding of my life, and I succeeded in one thing at least, which is that I met the people who wanted to struggle with me in filling in the holes in the world, solving the problems facing ourselves and others, and supporting each other through the pain and suffering that inevitable accompanies such a journey. Without them, I know I would have quit a dozen times. And this is ultimately what we are trying to build here at Exosphere — a community that supports each other and holds each other up while Disturbing the Universe.

With all that we have learned the past few years, I am excited (if a bit scared) about all that we will learn in the years to come. Join us, and learn with us. The world has so much to offer and it is best experienced with people who’ve got your back.

The Hydra 2 group of participants with mentor Venkatesh Rao