Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

My 2015 Annual Review

As 2015 closes and 2016 starts, it’s time to draw together the lines of my last year and prepare some sketched out trajectories for the year to come.

Comparatively speaking, 2015 was one of the best years of my life.

This follows a series of great years from building my first successful personal business (2012) to a year and half of startup travels (2013-2014). I’ve rarely had a year of regrets in my life. Instead, I’ve structured my adult life around a string of personal and professional challenges.

2015 was not much different, except that my challenges came with a bigger opportunity and larger impact radius.

In order to close off each year and aim at the year to come, I decided I want to do my own Annual Review and share it publicly.

I will answer 3 questions in my 2015 Annual Review:

  • What went well this year?
  • What didn’t go so well this year?
  • What am I working toward?

What went well this year?

Here’s a few things that went well:

Bought a house: In October, I bought a countryside villa in Qingchengshan, about one hour from Chengdu. One of the worst aspects of being in China is the air, so instead of complaining, I found a solution: a house away from the worst of the city air and nested under a famous Taoist mountain. The house is still in the process of being fixed up. My weeks in the new house have already been some of the healthiest for me in years in China. I can run regularly and eat fresh foods.

Grew Techstars and Its Programs in Greater China: A huge amount of my time and energy went to growing Startup Weekend, Startup Next and affiliated partnerships and sponsorships. I’m happy to say we achieved all of our major objectives and some uncovered additional opportunities. Read “The Promise and the Progress” for a full report. I also hit my fundraising goals too.

Writing: I wanted to write and publish more in 2015. I set a goal of 15 posts by Dec 31. I published 19 posts by Oct 12. I wrote a lot about Startup Communities in China. This provided an occasion to externalize my thoughts about doing business in China. My favorite piece from this last year was “China’s Startup Scene, Circa 2015: Some Lessons Learned”.

Travel: I traveled extensively in China and took three trips back to the US in 2015. I visited Hong Kong several times as well as spent some time in Thailand, Korea and Taiwan. I consider myself a digital nomad, so it was an enjoyable year to combine work and travel. Compared to previous travel years, this year was special in that I nearly always was in the process of creating something in each city I encountered. I engaged with great people in a lot of different cities.

Grew My Network on Social Media and Connections: One of my most important takeways from 2014 to 2015 was the value of a strong network of people and connections. Never underestimate someone with a strong network, especially in China. Over the last year, I focused on meeting and getting more people into my personal network.

On LinkedIn, I went from 560 connections to over 1600 in 2015. On WeChat, I went from merely 300 “friends” to now over 1400. While Twitter is not one of my main tools, I managed to grow to 600 followers. Overall, I have more people to “leverage” and ask help from.

Reading: My goal was to read 40 books in 2015, and I ended up reading 47 books. I had a lot of favorites. For a full review, checkout “A Year in Reading: 2015” or “Recommended Books on Startups and Productivity for the Busy Entrepreneur”

Visiting family and friends: I was fortunate to visit my family in the US a couple times this last year, including in the summer and this fall.

What didn’t go so well this year?

Like everyone, there were plenty of failures and setbacks in the last year.

Lost Cities and Organizers to Copycats: I didn’t expect that copycats and broken community would have been such a problem when I started this year. I knew enough about China to know its challenges, but I didn’t expect to have so many of our volunteers take our model, connections, and, in some cases, our sponsors and run copycat events. This hurt our growth and momentum early in the year. It made me think a lot. It helped us refine our vision and strategy and made me much more transparent about the people we want to work with.

Failed to Improve My Chinese as Planned: I set a number of goals for improving my Chinese vocabulary, writing, and reading in 2015. This goal fell off quickly. My Chinese definitely improved this year due my regular speaking opportunities. But I didn’t really commit to the habit of regular study. I’ve set more realistic goals and time commitments for 2016.

Overwork and Burnout: There were times this past year where I didn’t pace myself well. I overworked and had periods of emotional and work burnout. I’m “programmed” to be a workaholic like most of my family. This is a strength. At the same time, I need to better say “no” to certain things in order to focus on my highest value opportunities. I also need to manage my time, so work has the right boundaries.

Didn’t Exercise Regularly: While I generally ate well and heathy, I didn’t get much exercise this past year. I walk regularly but wasn’t running or working out. I didn’t even make this an important objective in 2015. My strength and endurance didn’t improve.

Struggled Working with a Remote Team: I’m used to leading a team or my employees. This past year I was challenged to work with a remote team. At times, this went well. But overall, due to time considerations and general inability to see things from others’ perspectives, I wasn’t the best team player. As a company it was a tough year as well, which didn’t help. I made huge improvements in my region but didn’t broaden this out to the overall company.

What am I working toward?

Here are my key goals for 2016.

Working Out More / Running a 5K: It’s been years since I’ve run. In order to get more exercise and be healthy, I’m training to run my first official 5K. I hope to do a 10K too.

Meditate / Learn to Relax in the Now: I’ve trained myself to focus on my current tasks. This can lead to a lot of productivity. At the same time, I don’t have a strong appreciation of quiet time and my mind outside of work focus. I’ve had several friends report on the benefits of meditation. So for 2016, I want to meditate regularly and learn to train mindfulness.

Chart and Visualize My Career Development: I tend to work well on short campaigns and year-long quests, but I don’t have a strong sense of my future self. I hope to gain a stronger sense of my long-term vision of the Mark in 5 or 10 years in the future. I feel in my heart that this visualization will really help drive me towards a passionate and fulfilling existence.

Continue to Grow Entrepreneurship Programs in Asia: As many of my friends and colleagues know, I strongly believe in creating a strong ecosystem for startups and entrepreneurs in Asia. With Techstars and other partners, I will continue to develop our programs, networks and opportunities.

Reading Goal: 45 Books: I am strong believer in reading as one of the most beneficially human things we can do for ourselves. I want to read 45 books in 2016, including a few novels in French and at least one or two basic readers in Chinese.

Grow My Network: I still feel the limits of my personal network, so 2016 remains a year of meeting and spending time with great people. I want to be more targeted about how I engage with people this year and in what areas.

Writing Goal: 25 posts in 2016: I want to continue writing regularly and telling my story. I hope to eventually find a book somewhere amongst these threads. Beyond blogging on my site, I want to publish more in external sites and publications.

Become a Better Teammate and Leader: 2016 is a year where I hope to grow more as an emotionally engaged person. I have a strong tendency to intellectualize. This year I hope to cultivate my leadership on an emotional level as well as how to act as part of a remote team. I need to think more about how others think and feel, instead of only my own. This will make me more successful in working with a wider range of people.

Increase My Wealth: I want to increase my wealth this next year. This means following up on my career path and hitting my compensation objectives. I need to continue to maintain and grow my personal businesses too.

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