Mosaic of China Season 02 Episode 11 – The Solar Entrepreneur (Alex SHOER, Seeder Energy)
Alex Shoer tells the story of the "Solarcoaster" – the dramatic ups and downs of the solar industry in China. And in this open and honest discussion, we also learn about the nature of business regulation in China.
AS: May 31 2018 came, and that's a day that will live in infamy for the solar industry.
OF: Welcome to Mosaic of China, a podcast about people who are making their mark in China. I'm your host, Oscar Fuchs.
Today's episode features another China entrepreneur, and you may be listening and thinking "Like, really? Do I have to listen to another dude's success story?" And I'm the same, quite honestly. But for me, coming from a background where for most of my business career, I basically just needed a laptop and a phone, I'm always impressed with people with complex and audacious business ideas, and Alex is one of those people.
Alex is the second person referred for Season 2 who has subsequently found themselves locked out of China. For the other example of this, please check out Episode 4 of the Season with the Peruvian healer, Katherine Wong. Just like Katherine, since Alex's life and business still keeps him tethered to China, I decided that he still qualifies for inclusion in the Mosaic, and we did our conversation remotely. What I forgot to do during our interview was to play him the recording of the person who referred him to the show, so here is the voice of the ultramarathon athlete Greg Nance from Episode 23 of Season 01.
[Start of Audio Clip]
Greg NANCE: I recommend Alex Shoer, and Alex is the Founder and CEO of a company called Seeder, which is helping factories and manufacturers in China use green energy and solar power.
[End of Audio Clip]
I've included an update recording with Greg at the end of today's episode, so stick around until the end for that. And before you finally get to hear my chat with Alex, I should mention that the episode is being released on March 16th, which coincides with Alex's birthday. So, happy birthday Alex.
OF: Well, thank you, Alex. I'm here with Alex Shoer. And, Alex, you are currently in Sausalito in Northern California, right?
AS: That is correct.
OF: Well, thank you so much. And tell me, what is your usual job title, because things are so unusual now. But what box should we put you in right now?
AS: Well, I don't like to put in boxes. So I'll give myself options, how about that? Yeah. My career role is Director of Strategy at WeWork, so I'm actually helping to reimagine the workplace. But I'm also the Co-Founder of Seeder Clean Energy, which is a renewable energy consulting and advisory company based in Shanghai. So we have two hats, two boxes to put me in today.
OF: Wow. And that sounds pretty bifurcated. It kind of is a metaphor of your life.
AS: Yeah, you could say that. I think that's the right word, 'bifurcated'. And Coronavirus, this whole COVID-19 situation, has also kind of shown me that. Whatever box you're in is not really a box at all. It just becomes a, you know, a starting point.
OF: Yeah, well said. Well, talking of starting points, what is the object that you have, which in some way typifies your life in China?
AS: Yes, so my object is actually a hammock. It is a portable travel hammock. And it is something that I have never left home without. You know, it weighs seven grammes… excuse me seven ounces, seven grammes would be incredibly light. I've slept in train stations, airports, fields, parks, it basically allows me to feel like wherever I am, I have a home. Which is kind of a nice feeling when you're someone who travels as much as I do. It's also incredibly useful for someone who travels on aeroplanes a lot, because flights now they don't give you blankets. And these long flights where they blast air conditioning, I actually sometimes use it as a blanket. And I'm a big napper, so anytime I can, I take my afternoon 20 minute to 30 minute nap. And this gives me the confidence to do that. So whether I'm going to an office or whatever it is, really I can go and sneak out and find a little park or an area to hang up my hammock.
OF: Oh, very nice. OK, and so in that thing, it unfurls and it becomes a big hammock, right?
AS: Yup, it packs down to the size of a fist and unfurls into a luxurious, what feels like a queen size bed. I've even seen research that's shown that you actually sleep deeper in a hammock because it somehow mimics the feeling of being in a womb. And so I love my hammock. And it really does go with me, even day to day to the office and things like that.
OF: Which is a funny segue, actually, because I could talk about how there is a culture in China where people are encouraged to take a little nap during the middle of the day, right?
AS: That is a great point. Yeah, obviously I think it was one of the most shocking things about going into the work world, or into an office, is seeing heads down at 1pm across the whole office. And in some of the most uncomfortable positions I've ever seen. I definitely did not acquire that skill, which I heard was something most of them had learned in school.
AS: But you know, to be able to sleep with your head on a desk anywhere, that was certainly a fascinating part.
OF: Well, from napping, it's hard to move on to the next topic, because you are someone who is extremely active. Tell me about what you were up to in Shanghai these few years. Like, how long have you actually been in China?
AS: So I moved to China, October 2011. You know, China was not really in the plan for me. It was a six-week trip that got extremely, extremely extended. Within a few weeks, I had actually met someone who would become my business partner in the future - and his name's Johnny Browaeys, he's a Belgian national, we had exchanged ideas - and so together, we ended up… Honestly within a series of weeks, we had a business plan. And we were ready, we already started doing projects. So by my fourth or fifth week in China, we had secured interest from a hotel in Yunnan for us to come and do an assessment of their hotel, to see what environmental technologies and solutions they could implement to reduce their energy costs, be more sustainable, and essentially, to engage the local community. You know, so after that, and having that all happen so quickly, I was like, it was a no brainer. It's like "I'm cancelling my return flight. I'm sticking around. We're gonna see how this plays out". So that's the first part of this journey.
OF: Oh, wow. Well, let's fast forward, then, to what you have until recently been doing in China. You mentioned that you have now done some work with WeWork but what I'm more interested in is your own company. So tell me about where that story ended up for you in China?
AS: Yeah, so Seeder Clean Energy became the first company in China to offer rooftop solar financing for commercial and industrial buildings.
OF: Wait a minute, so it's 'rooftop solar financing', explain what that means.
AS: Yeah, so rooftop solar financing, what that means is, it's essentially a mechanism or a way to pay for solar panels on a rooftop of a building - so usually a factory or an office building - without having to put up any money upfront. So usually, that's a power purchase agreement model, which means essentially a third party investor pays for all the solar panels on the roof, and the owner of that building then basically gets a savings or discount on their electricity from day one. So that owner of the building doesn't pay anything, they only get savings, and the investor of that project gets to sell the electricity to the building.
OF: Yeah, interesting. So when you first thought of doing this in China, had they already heard about this model elsewhere, and they were open to it? Or was there a period of education?
AS: Total education. They had heard about, like a leasing model, where you kind of rent the solar panels. But never this model where you don't have to pay anything upfront. And so it did take a lot of education. And all of our early customers, frankly, were Western companies. So we actually had to go to Hong Kong and found a Hong Kong/Singapore fund that had experience in other markets doing this. From there, it took us about 18 months to really figure out all the nuances with the State Grid, with how to do the Special Purpose Vehicles - which are the entities - and all of the paperwork attached to it. But once we did, it was kind of a big breakthrough for us, and for the market. And very quickly, this whole space took off. So we were like "We're onto something. And it's China. And we have the right secret sauce. And we have this untapped opportunity in the market, first to market." So much urgency that I think it became too much, right, where you end up starting to make sometimes poor decisions, or sometimes putting too much pressure on yourself or other people, because it's just like this fear of seeing everyone else who's been in that position and then not capitalising on it, not executing properly, or just getting passed by the competition. Because originally, we were the first to market, so it was actually pretty easy. By 2016, there were already several players popping up, big Chinese companies, as well as a few foreign players. So you have the big panel manufacturers, who are actually selling their own product in a way, and then you have these big engineering companies that have tonnes of resources.
AS: And for them, they had just infinitely more human power and capital. So then it really became our whole differentiator. And that was trust, credibility and quality. And then we obviously added services onto that, right. We added verification, we added on-site advisories, we go on to the site, do the assessment. So we, kind of again, then built our own niche within the niche. So then there was no one else who was doing this - we call it 'advisory services' for renewable energy - because what everyone wanted was the holy grail of being the engineering company who got the big contract to build it, or the financing company who put the money in, because that's a good moneymaker too. And so we ended up serving both sides.
OF: What's fascinating me about your story is how adaptable you were. Is that something which you advise others to do? Or do you think that you wished you had stuck with your original niche?
AS: Great question. You need to be adaptable, but if you're just adapting to your environment, you're always going to be in flux. You're always going to be going up and down, and up and down, wherever the world is pushing you. And I think, looking back, I got a little bit pulled into that, as opposed to taking a pause, doing a little extra homework, a little extra planning. Literally every six months, our business model changed, or evolved at least.
AS: And I think that was really hard for me, and the company, to keep up with. Because it's like "OK, this is now working well, let's go after this". But then six months later, it's like "Oh actually, that doesn't really work that well anymore. Let's go after this thing" which, luckily, we kept finding new things. And that, again, comes back to my greatest probably strength, which is this adaptability. But the complement is this due diligence and research.
OF: Wow, just listening to that, it does make me exhausted. Like, you would have had to have had a lot of energy. Each time, almost starting again, right?
AS: Yeah, I mean, luckily it didn't feel like we were starting over, because we really did have the same mission, same momentum, same team. But it was definitely exhausting. I mean, I think I'm still in recovery mode from that.
OF: There is a word that describes the industry at that time, right?
AS: Yes, exactly. And that is the 'Solarcoaster', that is the ups, the downs. The market had its own rollercoaster, of going from very expensive panels, to very cheap; no cash and financing, to lots of it… That was just the market. And then within that, we were on our own, amplified journey. It was like the exponential version of that. But ultimately, May 31 2018 came, and that's a day that will live in infamy for the solar industry.
OF: Right. What happened on that day?
AS: The government stopped the subsidy for solar overnight. Due to a number of factors - that no one knows exactly why - any project that had not yet received grid connection would not receive the subsidy. And so a lot of these projects were no longer economically viable without the subsidy. One of our clients was supposed to get their project grid connected on May 30. The state grid called us saying we need to reschedule until June 1. And then on May 31, that night, they announced this decree. June 1, I woke up, saw this. We were toast, and that project basically did not get the subsidy because of that one delay by the state grid, where they called and delayed by two days. I heard many, many other stories of projects that were in construction, and then could no longer be completed, so there were lawsuits on both sides. Anyway, it was just really kind of a whole bloodbath for the market and solar at that time. We were a month or two away from an acquisition, that would have been a perfect partner. And after this whole situation, they essentially said "We're no longer expanding in China". So that was the biggest, that was the dagger in my heart, because I'd put a lot of hope and work towards that. On top of our business really being put on the back burner. That was the first time I felt tired. I had been running on adrenaline for two or three years where I was just going. And that was the first time I was like… "Ach". You know, I think I pretty much got burnt out. I don't know what the official diagnosis was, you know, what officially 'burning out' feels like, but I'm pretty sure that was it. After the initial shock and exhaustion, I kind of just settled into the "You know, what can you do?" And I'm just happy we were in the right position to be at this critical juncture. And we're still here. Seeder is still going strong. It's a very unique space to be in, the services side of renewable energy in China. And you know, we're happy to keep going at it, and wait for the next big boom in the energy market. And I think my bet is that's going to be batteries and storage. That's going to be the most exciting thing coming up in the next couple of years.
OF: Well I like your attitude, I think it is healthy, because you know, a lot of people's egos get crushed. It's good to see how you are able to own that situation and, you know, be vulnerable with what your story is. It's not something I see with many white male entrepreneurs.
AS: Yeah, it takes a lot of looking in the mirror before you are able to start to see the reality, I guess.
OF: Nice. What does that experience tell us about how China regulates?
AS: Great question. One is, they learned that they can create a market from willing it into existence. Where essentially they start by subsidising the suppliers who are manufacturing it, then they subsidise the buyers with the demand side, and then essentially, they move into this market-driven support for it. When they do subsidies in the future, they probably will also not be so generous up-front, because it was a very generous subsidy for four years or so. And in that period, I think they should have just acted sooner.
OF: And let's switch to you. So here we are, we're talking about your experiences in solar, did you always have the dream to be in clean energy?
AS: So actually, that dream kind of started after some of my travels in university when I travelled to Tanzania, South Africa, Peru, a number of developing countries. Originally, I got really interested in poverty alleviation through microfinance. You can provide someone a small loan, but that loan is not going to fix the toxic soil that they're growing their crops in, or the air pollution they're breathing, or other environmental factors which are leading to their poverty. So I really started seeing environment as a bigger factor, I was like "OK, how can I combine business and environment in the most impactful way". And really, that was the hypothesis, clean energy - and ultimately, solar - became the medium. Now zooming out a little bit, it's actually really interesting to see how clean energy very much ties in with cities. And it very much ties in now with transportation/mobility, right? Now that we're going to electric vehicles, that's going to be a fascinating connection point between clean energy and reducing coal, and has now moved into cities and the way we live, and ultimately how we get around. It's going to be fascinating to me to see how that plays out. And ultimately, having a source of clean energy is what it all comes back to. If you can't power these cities or these environments in a clean way, you're going to have problems. And if electricity is cheap, then that means that lower-income people can access more things, from transportation, to obviously internet and electricity at home, but also to food even. You know, things like that, you don't realise how much of the cost of your food is the cost of energy.
OF: Yeah, and this is the beauty of this project. Because I get to interview people who see the world through their particular lens. And it's quite clear that you see the world through the lens of energy.
AS: Yeah, I guess so. I didn't think of it like that, but now the more you say it, yeah I think I agree.
OF: Well, thank you, Alex. I really appreciated hearing about the 'Solarcoaster' and the next rollercoaster is around the corner, I'm sure. On to Part 2.
OF: You have told me, and you've shown me in your story, that you are persistent. So you're being very patient with hanging on here as we go into the next part of the interview.
AS: Happy to, this is fun.
OF: Question 1, what is your favourite China related fact?
AS: So my favourite China-related fact is actually something I learned when I went to 大理 [Dàlǐ] in 云南 [Yúnnán] Province, one of the most beautiful cities I've been to. I went there, and I took this overnight train from 昆明 [Kūnmíng] to 大理 [Dàlǐ], it was a 12 hour journey. I mean, it was… we were going up mountains, and down mountains, and stopping, and changing tracks. It felt like the most intense train ride I've ever been on. And then I get there, and they're like "Oh, you took the train?" I'm like "Yeah". "Like, why didn't you just take the bus?" I'm like "Oh OK, isn't the train faster?" They're like "No, the bus takes three hours, and you can be here in no time". I think it's still… I think this train still exists. But apparently, the bus is much easier. And the people who were arranging our trip didn't tell us this. And so anyway, one of the most fascinating things is how the train can take twelve hours, but the bus can take three. And apparently they say that's one of 17 wonders of 云南 [Yúnnán] Province. I don't know what the other ones are. But that's what one of the local people said. "Oh, you've discovered one of the mysteries of 云南 [Yúnnán] Province". There's 17. That's all I remember, is a local person telling us.
OF: Do you have a favourite word or phrase in Chinese?
AS: It's actually a really simple one, but for me summarises very nicely China, which is 一步一步来 [yībù yībù lái]. You know, 'one step at a time', basically one step one step. I just… It answers so many questions. And if I had known that from the beginning, it would have probably been a lot easier.
OF: Honestly speaking, when I think about your story, I think you did the right thing. You had to ride that wave, right?
AS: Thank you for saying that, I don't think it was a mistake. But I certainly think you know, looking back you always know how to make it a little bit easier.
OF: So do you think nowadays you are more 一步一步来 [yībù yībù lái]?
AS: I'm definitely more 一步一步来 [yībù yībù lái]. But you know, that's only by experience, not by nature. My nature is definitely the other way around, right. Just trial by fire, test it, and see how it works. And, you know, I never did well learning by reading, you know, I had to learn by doing. So that's why I love audio actually, and why I love podcasts. It's so much easier for me to retain the information, as opposed to reading it for some reason.
OF: No, I'm the same. I'm very bad at reading these days. What is your favourite destination within China?
AS: Actually, one of the most incredible places I've still been is this village of 喜洲 [Xǐzhōu], China, which is near 大理 [Dàlǐ] in 云南 [Yúnnán] Province, a very small village. And it's actually the place that I did my first project, at this place called the Linden Centre, which is an amazing historical resort. And it's just one of the places I fell in love with. And there's a lot of history, a lot of amazing food, they have this thing called the 喜洲粑粑 [Xǐzhōu bābā] which is this… It's like a pizza, almost, but like in a 煎饼 [jiānbing] flavour. I don't know how to describe it, but it's amazing.
OF: Everyone loves 云南 [Yúnnán]. OK, well here's a funny question that I usually ask people who are in China, but for you this is a sad reality. If you left China, what would you miss the most, and what would you miss the least? So what do you miss the most? And what do you miss the least?
AS: Yeah. What I miss the most is the people, and the feeling of community. But within that, I miss the random conversation with strangers about the simplest and most mundane things. You know, in the U.S., everyone asks "How are you?" But they don't actually want to know. In China, they want to know, they're like "Tell me everything. Where are you from? What colour hair does your mother have?" You know they wanna go more and more. And I just miss that, the simple conversations that you have with strangers.
OF: Cute. And it says something about the natural curiosity, and the the lack of boundaries in China in general. Which you could say is very open, and you could say is very trespassing on your privacy. It's somewhere in between, right?
OF: And what about the things that you would miss the least, or do miss the least?
AS: Yeah, it's very simple. It's air pollution. I really, really, really disliked it. And I just… It was the mental weight that I felt. You know, I remember one time I went to Beijing and came back with bronchitis, and I saw that the AQI was over 900 one time. So yeah. And in the U.S., the good news is, when I wake up, I actually just get to check the weather instead of just checking the air.
OF: Right. Is there anything that still surprises you about life in China?
AS: I think it comes back to how a city - and I'll speak more about Shanghai in this case - how a city of almost 30 million people can feel like a village, or even a college campus at times. I know it's oftentimes the expat bubble, or even the international Chinese community. But something about the neighbourhoods of Shanghai, and the districts of Shanghai, and how contained they feel, how little you really need to leave your neighbourhood. You have health care, you have food, you have social activities, you have exercise, you have friends, you have parks, and this walkability. I just, I miss that so much.
OF: Yeah, that's really well said, and it comes up a lot. Where is your favourite place to go out, to eat or drink or just hang out?
AS: So the place I frequent the most is actually 功德林 [Gōngdélín], "Godly" vegetarian restaurant. It's not the coolest hang out in town. But I actually have grown to love it. I got to know all of the staff who work there.
OF: It's a chain, right? There's more than one of those places.
AS: Yeah, it is a chain. I know there's at least three in Shanghai. It has an old historic lineage of being one of the first Buddhist-style restaurants. So the one I go to is on 五原路 [Wǔyuánlù] and 武康路 [Wǔkānglù]. And they have a really nice big back patio as well. So you actually get like this kind of alfresco dining if you want. And they have cheap beers, so you can go have beers at a Buddhist restaurant.
OF: I've seen these places across town, and I've never gone in. So I'm going to check this out.
AS: There you go. I hope you enjoy it. It's a little diamond in the rough.
OF: Next one, what is the best or worst purchase you made in China?
AS: The worst was this tent. You know, I like to do outdoor stuff and camping. So I bought this tent on Taobao ,which I thought was like - you know, reading the descriptions and reviews - it looks glorious and glamorous. It was one of those pop-up tents. And I ordered it for a festival. I'm ready to go, I've got my tent, of course I didn't really check it before I went, I just got it and took the plastic off, and brought it. And then of course I pop it up, and it's for, like, a five year old. So the thing was like… Literally, for three days I slept with, like, half my body in a tent and my legs hanging out. And I was so lucky because it didn't rain that week.
OF: What is your favourite WeChat sticker?
AS: So my favourite WeChat sticker is 'mind explosion', is the best way I can describe it. And it's the scientist with the mind exploding. It can change the dynamic of a conversation very quickly.
OF: There's something about this one. I think I was late to the game on this, I received it maybe half a year ago. So I don't know how long it's been around before then, but I have been using this one a lot since then.
AS: Yeah, very functional.
OF: What is your go-to song at KTV?
AS: So I always like to surprise and terrify people with my rapping. Because I come from Atlanta, so I usually usually rap to one of my favourite Atlanta rappers. Usually it's Outkast or Ludacris. 'So Fresh, So Clean' is probably my favourite of the Outkast songs. And then I usually do a little freestyle in there., so I kind of make up my own words at some point. So I take my liberties when it comes to KTV.
OF: Oh. That sounds like you put quite a lot of effort into it.
AS: Well, I do, but I have to make up for all my friends and colleagues who are singing beautiful, delicate Chinese songs, in harmony, in the right pitch, trained. And since I can't really do those Chinese songs very well, this is how I build my my 关系 [guānxì] in other ways.
OF: Yes, that's a great over-compensation, I love it.
AS: It is indeed.
OF: And finally, what other China-related media or sources of information do you rely on?
AS: So I'm very impressed with how The South China Morning Post has stepped up their reporting, and I feel like they've really done a nice job of reaching the international audience. So I do tend to get my China news from South China Morning Post, SCMP. But I also really do still enjoy Shanghai Daily just to get my little daily dose of what's going on locally. It is really helpful to understand the perspective on the ground, let's say, especially about the international events happening. And there is one website, it's actually a non-profit, they translate every Chinese government announcement. Chinaenergyportal.org is the domain. And it's actually a really, really useful tool.
OF: Oh, good. Well, I'll give them a shout out. Perfect. Thank you so much, Alex.
AS: Thank you, this has been really amazing. Hopefully, my journey has been a little bit informative.
OF: No I appreciate it. I think having a basis of, at least, where you are passionate, is I think the main thing. And it's obvious that you are passionate about what you do in energy.
AS: Thank you.
OF: Well, the final question I would ask you is, out of everyone you know in China, who should I interview for the next season of Mosaic of China?
AS: My suggestion and recommendation is going to be Francesca Valsecchi. She's an amazing, just rock star. I mean, she is the epitome of an environmental warrior. She's very much focused on using design research to essentially reimagine our ecosystems and consumption and community development. She's an Associate Professor at 同济 [Tóngjì] University, and she's also super active in Dragon Burn. She's one of the main organisers, which is the Burning Man of China. So be ready for that.
OF: Awesome. I can't wait. Thanks so much, Alex.
AS: Thank you.
OF: The update from Alex is that he's still managing his business from outside China, so let's see where he ends up in 2021. I know where his apartment is in Shanghai, because I walk past it every day. So here's wishing you good luck Alex.
If you think his 'solarcoaster' story was dramatic, you should also hear the full story about how he ended up living on a boat in Sausalito, via New Zealand, New York and Lake Tahoe. To hear our full interview, please subscribe to the PREMIUM version on patreon.com/mosaicofchina, and here are some clips to help convince you…
AS: In Shanghai there are 3,000 students, they're setting up a satellite campus at WeWork for those students.
AS: The immigration agents were asking me "Did you just come in from China?" And I said "Yeah". And they were like "Right this way, separate line".
AS: And literally, you go to sleep and you wake up the next day, and your industry is essentially on hold.
AS: The complexity of it was just too high, contracts weren't as enforceable as they might be now.
AS: They did it really well. They crushed Germany. By 2016, they were nothing.
AS: I was just blown away by the audaciousness of some of the problems they were trying to solve.
[End of Audio Clips]
Recent travellers to 云南 [Yúnnán] Province might be scratching their heads about Alex's favourite China-related fact that the train from 昆明 [Kūnmíng] to 大理 [Dàlǐ] takes 12 hours. Actually since Alex did this trip, they have made built a high-speed train link. Of course. This reminds me of Episode 05 in the Season with the drag queen Cocosanti, who answered that same question by saying she didn't have a favourite China-related fact, because those 'facts' keep changing. And Alex's answer is a great example of this.
Please check out Facebook, WeChat or the website mosaicofchina.com to see the visuals for today's episode, which include Alex's object, the travel hammock; his favourite 'mind explosion' WeChat sticker, and lots of photos that he kindly shared with me from his time at Seeder Clean Energy.
Mosaic of China is me, Oscar Fuchs, with artwork by Denny Newell. As promised in the intro, there now follows a catch-up chat with Greg Nance from Episode 23 of Season 01, who is also stuck outside of China right now. Something went wrong at the beginning of our remote recording, but it fixes itself pretty quickly, and sounds normal again directly after he says the phrase "3,000 days sober". Thanks for listening up till now, and see you next time.
OF: Hello, Greg.
Greg Nance: Hello, Oscar, I am so excited to see you, man. So on March 16 2020, I was celebrating 3,000 days sober. And with that sobriety milestone, was planning to publicly announce "I'm doing this run across America, 3,000 miles to honour the 3,000 days. Here's this documentary we're trying to make."
GN: I was like, super fired up on that, you know. Mosaic of China was a big part of having the courage to tell the story. And our conversation, Oscar, I think was really the catalyst in so many ways. And I was so excited, like, finally to share this with my friends and with the world. And that was literally the first day of Washington State lockdown, where "No-one cares about the movie you're trying to make, dude". And that was the perfect little metaphor for 2020 for me, where none of my plans have come to fruition. And every one of us is dealing with unforeseen adversity and big obstacles, big setbacks. And really, for the first couple months, I felt pretty sorry for myself, you know "Oh, boohoo, I had all these plans". It really took me getting out of my own head for a second, realising "Look, I am so lucky". I have my health, I'm with my family, I'm still able to do my work remotely no problem, I live in a big forest, it's beautiful here. And I'm just trying to make the most of this wild moment that we have. Like, I'm never gonna spend this much time with mom and dad. And being able to see my little nieces at this age. So it's been an amazing year in a lot of ways. I'm trying to make the most of the good fortune, of the blessings I do have.
OF: Yes. And I follow you on social media, and I did see that you did make an announcement about that run across America that you will be doing. So you are now officially, out as a person managing addiction. How was that received by your friends and family who perhaps didn't know the full story?
GN: Yeah, it's… I really had these two parallel lives, parallel existences that I was living. And I was really, really nervous to embrace both sides. Because on one side, you're lauded as this entrepreneur, athlete. And the other is this thing that you're doing in secret, in darkness. And the days leading into that just felt like… I was waking up in the middle of night, I was not able to get to bed, just really nervous. And something amazing happens once you actually put it out there, once I shared. It's an amazing thing, where friends are calling you, texting you, messaging you. And you realise how many people that you really care about, are also dealing with that, and had no idea that you're dealing with it, and you had no idea that are. And I now feel… I've never felt better supported. And to anyone listening that is dealing with stuff, my encouragement is, be open, find that courage within yourself to share, because amazing things do happen. And starting on March 16 of 2020, I'm into an amazing new chapter of my life, in part by being out and sharing all this stuff. And it wasn't easy certainly to do that, but it's been beautiful.
OF: Wow. You owning that story was one of the things that we talked about. And it's just great to see you do that, having seen you go through that process in the last year. Maybe that's what explains that huge smile on your face today.
GN: Hey, it's part of it, man. And again, meeting you, and our conversations, every little milestone gives you a little bit more confidence and courage to own your truth.
GN: And so I'm grateful, man.
OF: Well, look, you were already on that road. And I know that you had a coach and a therapist who was helping you with that in the background. Keep smiling, Greg. And I'm thinking about our interview, and I remember the things that you said that you would miss the most, and miss the least, when you left China. And here you are, you have - at least for a year - left China. You were saying that you would miss the dynamism, the energy; you wouldn't miss the reckless 饿了么 [Èleme] drivers on the pavements. Tell me, what actually did you end up missing the most, and what did you end up missing the least?
GN: Yeah, so I have really, really missed the wonderful people that were in my life there. You just remember the great times you had. And there's this layer of stress that was in my life the entire time I was in Shanghai, running a company and the stresses of all that. But there's all these wonderful people that want nothing but the best for you. And you're sharing this incredibly enriching life-affirming experience in Shanghai. And that is I think the thing I missed the most. Crazy 饿了么 [Èleme] drivers, sleepless nights, 3am phone calls for timezone arbitrage, and the hamster-wheel of work… Those elements are things I don't, I certainly don't miss, I miss the least. And I think I'm a healthier, happier person in this phase of my life, in the moment. And I've really redeveloped some semblance of balance. Being close to family means a lot to me, having beautiful nature. Those little things, they ultimately make you who you are, and I feel really blessed to be where I am today.
OF: Well, it's funny that you are talking to me on the West Coast, because we are talking in parallel to the release of the episode that I recorded with your referral for Season 2, Alex Shoer.
GN: Oh fantastic.
OF: Yes. And he is also stuck in the West Coast of the U.S., in very similar circumstances, enjoying nature. Have you been in touch with Alex throughout this period?
GN: We have. So Alex is one of my counter-buddies. And it's been wonderful because he's a guy that… We moved to China within a few months of each other. We both rode the rollercoaster, the highest highs, lowest lows, everything in between. And now we're both pivoting and trying to reinvent what's ahead. And he's a really, really special guy, and he's someone that has wonderful insights. So I learn a lot from him every time.
OF: Wonderful. Well, that's a lovely connection. And it's of course great to continue to have a connection with you as well. Greg. Let's continue to keep in touch. I'm very proud that you are part of this project. Don't be a stranger, please.
GN: Heck yeah. Thank you, Oscar, Godspeed.