Keith and his wife always had the dream of living in another country. In order to make it happen they invented their own expat gig. Listen as Keith share his passion for living abroad in Provence, France as well as a little about his book documenting the experience: One Sip at a Time.
Alan: Welcome back I'm visiting here today with Keith van Sickle. Keith welcome to today's show.
Keith: Thanks for having me.
Alan: So Keith you've had a remarkable journey through life so far- former CFO, book author, entrepreneur... for the listeners here can you give your background of some of the- let's start from your schooling.
Keith: Sure, so I'm a local boy grew up in Alameda. Did my engineering degree locally also, went to Stanford, and have spent all of my career in high-tech, all of my career in Silicon Valley companies. I've been in manufacturing, marketing, customer service, most of my careers was in finance, I was a startup CFO which was fun. But probably the most interesting thing I did was when I had the opportunity 20 years ago to move to Switzerland. So I had a five year expat assignment. My wife and I moved to Switzerland and it changed our lives. It was exciting professionally but more than that, we lived in the center of Europe. We were able to travel all the time, we've always liked to travel, I spent a term in England as a student at Stanford I before I went back to graduate school I backpacked around the world for six months we've always liked to travel but even more than that it was the opportunity to live in another country and learn how it's different from here.
Alan: Few people get the opportunity to step out of the boundaries of this country and see what it's like so you what drove you to finally say, you know what we're gonna do this because obviously you had choices as a Stanford grad and your experience you could've just stayed locally, but what really was inspiring you to go to the other country.
Keith: It was a chance to really live somewhere else and see how people live differently. We knew it would be hard because we didn't speak the language. We were in the French-speaking part of the country- we didn't speak French and I have to say the first year was hard because you're stupid every day. You don't know how to go to the store. It took me a week to figure out how to buy auto insurance because it's different. We'd been there about six months and my wife turned to me with a forlorn look on her face and said, you know I used to be competent and it's very humbling but at the same time you see that people live differently in a way that sounds funny until you go through it. So the Swiss, even though there are a remarkably hard-working society with an extremely successful economy, they take their lunch breaks. My wife was eating a sandwich at her desk once and a colleague admonished her, said that's not healthy you have to take a proper lunch. They take all of their 4 weeks of vacation and everything shuts down on the weekend. All the stores closed at midday on Saturday and Saturday afternoon and Sunday are really a day of rest. You have to stop working so you read a book or you hike or you have a long family lunch or dinner and it was hard to get used to that at first but we realized they've got something good going on maybe we can learn some of this and it's nice to live that way and an experience in a way you can't understand unless you've actually been in it.
Alan: So five years end, you're in Switzerland, you come back and I guess you started in the Bay Area you relocated back to the Bay Area?
Keith: Came back to Bay Area, joined a startup, it kept me busy for a while. My wife took a job that had a lot of travel, kept her busy for a while, but we always had a dream of wanting to do this again, to live in another country, we kind of looked around for another expat assignment but they're very rare, they're hard to find we were very fortunate to have had one. So that that didn't work so eventually we decided to invent our own expat gig.
Alan: Now that's very creative.
Keith: So we thought well, if we do consulting we can moderate our work so that we could work a lot part of the year and be abroad a part of the year so we each quit our jobs which I have to say it was pretty scary and we built our consulting practice and we decided we will go to France. We liked France. We'd begun to learn a little bit of French, we liked the country we like the food, we liked the environment and we'd go for three months- which is how long you can stay without a special visa. And we'll see first time we did it ten years ago, was can this work? Can we actually live in another country? Can we learn the language? Can we make friends, can we find enough to do because we're doing some work from a distance but not much and happily the first experiment went well. We've gone back every year since, we made a lot of mistakes at the beginning and I got to say it's pretty hard to learn a foreign language in your 50's, but we did.
Alan: So, I'm just curious, you're a startup CFO out here locally, you're going to France, different country, different culture, what was the foundation of your consulting or your advisory services when you did this quote expat company?
Keith: I'd spent a lot part of my career in finance, I've been a CFO for startup from the very early days and so I am a consultancy CFO for started companies in the valley.
Alan: Any difference though and doing business in Europe versus the US?
Keith: Well I when I'm working in Europe I'm working for euros companies. Was at your question or was-
Alan: That's good, so it basically you're your advisor to US companies onsite in France.
Alan: Keith, I need to take a quick break, I'm visiting here today with Keith van Sickle and we'll be right back after these messages.
Alan: Welcome back I'm visiting here today with Keith van Sickle and Keith's been a former CFO for start-up companies- a lot of good experience. We've been talking about going abroad though and you did not once but twice and you know we talked about lifestyle of Europe and fast food doesn't seem to be part of the equation, why do you think that is?
Keith: You know France in particular, they appreciate the small things in life. You can spend a remarkable amount of time with French people talking about food and wine and how you prepared the fish and where did you get your vegetables and it's just- it's not just the food but a meal is the center of family life. It is the center of life with friends so it's not just the food but it's spending time at the table. I've had six-hour lunches and they just go by in a flash, not because it's the food but because it's how you are part of a community, how you're part of a family, how you share experiences together, it's a beautiful thing what they do, and in France in particular work is not the be-all and end-all. So I'll admit the French maybe could work a little bit harder their economy might be a little bit better, but what work isn't the only thing and food is one of the things that they spend time on because it's a way to bring people together.
Alan: So after the second expat assignment which eventually you came back to the US and what are some of the things that you've ventured into after that.
Keith: Well so I continue to go back to France every year. So it's a three month in France, nine month in California life. And it's nice because it allows us to enjoy each, they're two very different places- each of which we love a lot and so in California I continue to do my consulting work. So I continue to work with startups. You know every few years the companies my clients turn over because either they've grown to the point where they need somebody full-time, I help them hire a full-time CFO and they continue on with their success or being the Silicon Valley they die. Others go away and so my client base tends to turn over every few years for one reason or the other.
Alan: I'm just curious, a company coming to you saying we need to CFO, what size do you typically work with are very early seed stage, are they series A? Is there a point where you say hey I don't want to get that deep into this growth?
Keith: They're usually at the point so they're usually an A or later stage, so they're big enough that they need CFO kind of help but they're not so big that they need it full-time. So I'll work on your business planning or board prep or fundraising or working with lines of credit with financial institutions etc. and that might be a quarter time, eventually as they get bigger they need more of that kind of help to the point where they need somebody full-time. So if they're really small there's not much to do it's you know six engineers in a in a cap and they're inventing their little product. When they get bigger they need somebody who can give them enough time that they should go with somebody full-time.
Alan: So what advice would you have for somebody wanting to live abroad?
Keith: Boy if they want to live abroad full-time, you need a reason to be there, to get a visa, so it probably means a job, if it's somebody who's retired and wants to move abroad, you can still get visas it's different. My own advice is to either go to an English-speaking country, or learn the language. There are a lot of people where we are in Provence who are for example British expats or American expats who never learned the language and just hang around with each other and that can be a pleasant life it's a nice part of the world the food is good the weather is nice but I think you miss a lot if you don't speak enough of the language to meet people, understand where you're living, appreciate what's going on, read the newspaper, watch television. When we were in Switzerland we never really learned the language and so that was a missed opportunity we only met people who spoke English. We never really got under the covers of Swiss society and in France we feel like we have a much deeper appreciation for the country and how different it is and how people are different than we would if we only spoke with other English speakers. So the language is hard but it's fundamental.
Alan: Thank you I'm visiting here today with Keith van Sickle, he's a early startup CFO consultant and also he's a book author so I need to take a quick break Keith and right after these messages I want to get into the new book that you eat you recently released. We'll be right back after these messages.
Alan: Welcome back I'm visiting here today with Keith van Sickle. Keith's a former CFO, consultant and also a book author and recently Keith you released a book called, One Sip At A Time, Learning to Live in Provence. And I want to spend some time in this segment talking about inspiration behind this book, first of all that the title, One Sip At A Time, very catchy.
Keith: Thank you. So yeah the background of the book- because we go abroad every year and because friends and family when we're gone will say, hey what are you doing, I eventually got tired of writing emails telling everybody what we're doing and started a travel blog. So every year I do a travel blog and I talk about what we're doing with an emphasis on funny stories here's something silly we did that you know if you have the right attitude it becomes a funny story. Here's observations on life in France. So light fun stories that my friends and family have enjoyed. And from time to time one would say you should turn this into a book and of course my response was, I'm not going to quit my day job thank you for the compliment but it's just a blog. But I eventually decided well let me check, I've got a friend who's a well-known author, you know we go back to college days, I said look George, what do you think of this blog is there any material there to create a book. And he surprised me by saying yeah I think there is. You know it would be a light fun book that would put a smile on your face and there's a place in the world for books like that. But two caveats, you're an unknown author and you're not going to find a publishing house that's going to give you a book contract. You're going to do this on your own, you're going to be self-published and two the average self-published book sells 250 copies. So if you go in with that attitude and you understand that's the deal, then you should do it, I think could be a fun project and I'll advise you from time to time if you need help. So I spent the next year taking these stories and wrapping them into a book and finding a book cover designer and figuring out how to publish on create space which is Amazon's platform and the book came out six months ago and I've since done a lot of time marketing the book because most authors don't want to market their book, but guess what, there's 75,000 new books a year and how are they going to find yours and so far I've sold several thousand books and I'm an Amazon bestseller and readers like it, the reviews are gratifying.
Alan: Excellent so the other the blessing of Amazon you can find the book, One Sip At A Time, online. So let's run through, what are some of the things, the points you touch on learning to live in
Provence. First of all that's a city in France?
Keith: So Provence when people sometimes talk about the South of France, they're usually talking about Provence which choose a region. So the biggest city is Marseille the big port city or Avignon, which was the center of the Catholic Church for a hundred years in the 13th century. So it's that area, it's famous for hilltop charming hilltop villages, lavender, the pink flamingos of the Camargue, lots of Roman history. This was one of the Centers of the Roman Empire in ancient France, so lots of ruins and Roman style events that take place. It's a very interesting area. We weren't sure when we got there whether we'd be able to spend again three months there and not be bored but there's lots to do and see and particularly with our French friends who we've made over time.
Alan: So a person reading the book, what should they expect to find is it a deep read, a quick read but you know how does it has it flow?
Keith: It's a light fun read, it'd be great for reading on an airplane or in an airport lounge or waiting for jury duty. It's not a heavy read at all, it's 60 short chapters, each a funny story which in total tell the story of our first few years there as we were learning to live in another country and some of the mistakes we made and some of the funny things that happened to us.
Alan: Let's hear it let's say a couple of those stories.
Keith: I was once rejected as a blood donor in France due to insufficient command of the French language. It turns out that when you donate blood in France you have to have a private interview of the doctor to make sure you haven't been participating in risky behaviors that might make the blood tainted and so it turns out that after we went back and forth a few minutes he finally closed my file wrote a note. I said, am I not going to be able to get blood he said no you need to learn better French we can't do the interview, but you can have orange juice and cookies if you'd like.
Alan: You remind me of the guy who stayed up all night studying for his blood test.
Alan: Only in France I guess you do have a real requirement.
Keith: We really do, so I failed that that blood test another time I we had just gotten there for one of our trips. We just picked up a rental car, I went to a parking lot, my wife was somewhere else, I got in the car you know I hit the button, lights flash, I got in the car and turned out I'd gotten in somebody else's car. They looked kind of a like. All I knew was as soon as I get in a lady was tapping on the window and yelling at me in French. I didn't know what she was saying cuz my French was kind of rusty and she yelled a few times and I'm trying to get out of the car and I finally realize she's saying, sir you are in my car. And I looked around and she had a pack of cigarettes and baby stuffs in the back and I'm like this is not my car. But I couldn't really explain myself because my French just froze up and so I got out and she's thinking who doesn't know their own car and who can't even speak back to me. Humiliating but you move on.
Alan: It's a good story though.
Keith: It's a good story exactly right. You have to have a sense of humor because you're going to do lots of dumb stuff and be incompetent and that's okay.
Alan: So what are some of the you know- in addition to the funny stories coming out what are some of the deeper memories that you had there and Provence?
Keith: Certainly time with our friends, I mean we have friends in France that are as good as our friends from the States. And you know one of the things the French that I admire that I think we can learn from them because they're very good at it, is that they're able to disagree strongly without taking it personally and without being disagreeable. So they can talk about things which are fundamental and emotional and they have strong feelings about, but be friends and yet in the States too often if we disagree with someone we take it personally or we think they're a bad person. Gee you support this political candidate, you're a bad person. We've seen that especially in the last election where families are torn because we just happen have different political opinions. But it becomes personal whereas in France I remember once when Edward Snowden was revealing secrets all the time and one of the secrets was that the US was spying on France and it was a huge story in France. We happen to have friends over that week-front page news every day. In the middle of dinner my wife says, so what does everybody think of Edward Snowden and it was a hot-hot-hot discussion and we didn't feel under attack we felt maybe some of the things that our government had done they disagreed with okay that's fine maybe we did - I don't know but everybody staked out their position it went on for a while but at the end it was okay, let's talk about something else and who's ready for dessert and it wasn't personal, they're brilliantly you know able to do that in a way we could learn from.
Alan: Keith this last segment there's something that we talked about off air about some little projects you've done in giving back and I'd like you to share for your listeners what those projects are and what you've learned in the process of giving back.
Keith: Sure so I put myself through college and received a lot of scholarship and financial aid assistance to do that for which I am very grateful, and so in 1987 my wife and I decided to start our own Scholarship Foundation to help students from my hometown of Alameda go to college. My parents were teachers in the public school system both of them, and so we named it after them in honor of their great accomplishments and we limit it to folks from the public high schools to again support public education in Alameda. And so every year we help a young boy or girl go to college, we've been doing it in May we granted our 30th annual scholarship, and in addition to the financial aid which is important, we also stay in touch with the students we meet with in throughout the year, we call or email because most of them are the first in their family to go to college, many of them are first-generation Americans and therefore may need help understanding how things work or just encouragement. Sometimes it's very important to have somebody in your corner cheering you on when you're in a tough spot. And it's been enormously gratifying to stay in touch with these students just - to see what they've done because some come from terribly difficult backgrounds. One of our current students spent part of her high school years in Alameda living in a campground because that's all her family could afford. And yet she was a top student, she was student body president and she created a little club in her school to collect school supplies for less advantaged kids and it's just remarkable, here's somebody who has nothing who is trying to help others and it's just when you meet students like that it's just inspiring.
Alan: You know yeah I imagine part of the difficulty of working with disadvantaged children which you cited was a great example, but I think it's a little it's not typically the case, some of these kids say they don't have the support of a good family infrastructure and encouragement from the house, how do you go about ensuring that if you're giving them a scholarship that you're not just handing in money and say hey good luck to you. How do you stay involved is there a process for accountability, I imagine as a CFO, you probably built in some measures of how making sure they succeed?
Keith: So the scholarship is not granted all at once, it's granted over four years so if they were to go off the rails we might well we would stop the scholarship. We don't have a strict academic test for them but we do stay in touch so we see how they're doing. We have the right to ask for transcripts if we'd like but really by staying in touch you can see what's going on. We don't want to be over involved in their lives you know if somebody says look I appreciate the money but I don't need to help. I'll talk to you once a year, but I don't I don't need any more than that, we respect that as well. Because some of the students are more self-sufficient than others. I don't think any of them really need us but we think in some cases we have helped. In fact we had one young lady, one of our early scholarship winners who was a single mom, who was going to college and working and raising a child and we really tried to buck her up as best we could when we met, with her but after a couple years she met a nice young man, got married, dropped out of school and moved away and this was before the internet so we lost touch with her, until about five years ago when she tracked us down we ended up having dinner together down in San Diego where she lives. It turned out she had gone back to school eventually, got her degree, has a great job, has a nice career and the thing she wanted to tell us was that we had made a big difference in her life because we had believed in her when not many people believed in her, so it was immensely gratifying.
Alan: Thank you for sharing that and I think that that's one of the things in life that we have our choices, and find more often than not than when we step out to do something of a good Samaritan character, no one's really requiring it, there's something that we gain although we weren't seeking for it. I appreciate you sharing that impact you made. Keith unfortunately we're out of time today, but for the listeners out there who would like to tune in and then see the complete interview with Keith we do post it on groco.com we'll have a full transcript plus more information if people are interested in living residing in Alameda on the scholarship program Keith does they can find it there. So Keith thanks again for being with us today.
Keith: Thanks for having me.