The Stolen Currency
The fundamental difference between a startup founder and a paycheck employee is their ability to discern between money and currency.
Shortly after I was born, the man whose face was on every single coin in my country died. He was the last Shah of Iran, dethroned by the 1979 revolution.
The timing wasn’t a coincidence. My father, an elite civil engineer, had built many roads, tunnels, dams and waterways for the previous 15 years of the monarch’s rule, marking the most prosperous period of the last few centuries of Iranian history. He was a millionaire in the upper class of the society. The revolutionaries, with the mission of “rooting out corruption”, arrested him, put him under his own tractor, and threatened to kill him without trial unless he signed his last dime away. I didn’t know the fallen king who died in foreign exile. But I knew a fallen father who lived in a domestic one.
My maternal grandfather was an orphan who worked up to becoming a rich land-owner. When my father asked him for help and warned him about the emerging kleptocracy, he took sides: “your favors and fortunes were disturbed, now you think everyone is a thief.” A few years later, they came for my grandfather and took thousands of acres of land that he had cultivated over the years. He died of a heart attack and left my grandmother a widow for the last three decades of her life.
From 1980 to 1988, the first eight years of my life, my country was at war with the opportunist Saddam Hussein of Iraq whose psychological-warfare bombing of my birth city’s power plants guaranteed that I started learning the alphabet under the light of a candle. I don’t remember once crying because of the war. The only time I cried in terror was when my mother, on her way to her job as a nuclear medicine technician, had to start wearing an ugly black scarf on her head. I cried my guts out as a 4 year-old, because somehow I knew her freedom, too, was being stolen.
In the early 80’s, she and my usually remote father (he rebuilt deserted areas) had scraped together enough money to partner up with my dad’s best friend and build a duplex house together. We lived on one side and they lived on the other. Life was just starting to look stable when my father’s mom died. She was a kind woman with many children; she still managed to leave a small piece of land for my dad who had just become a father. In that same year, Ayatollah Khomeini (the leader of the revolution) announced that because there were too many homeless “thanks to the previous kleptocratic regime”, no middle-class person is allowed to have more than one property. My father, who had just inherited this tiny land from her deceased mother, didn’t want to part with it for sentimental values. My mom was still in inheritance limbo. So he trusted his business partner’s wife, now our neighbor, with our share of the duplex. A few months later, she talked her husband into evicting us. We became the new homeless. And the house I grew up in, with all my childhood dreams, was stolen.
In the mid-80’s we moved to a rental closer to the mountains of Tehran, and I started first grade. Most of my classmates had lost their fathers in the war that claimed almost a million lives. One of the most pivotal moments of my life was the day I was walking up the mountain with a few other first-graders. An abandoned black cat showed up out of nowhere. We all loved how cute the cat was, and started chasing him. As he picked up pace, my classmates became more vicious in their chase, until they cornered the cat in a dead-end street, beat him to death with sticks, and put his decapitated head on a spike above their heads, laughing, running around town manically. The pale, shocked and distant expression of my face was that on the innocent dead cat's face. It has taken me decades to overcome that gut-wrenching shock (as I write this, the two cats that I consider my children are sleeping next to me). In retrospect, that was the day I discovered that I was different from the herd. I was not a taker.
We had a shopkeeper in the corner of our school: an old grumpy man who sold chips. The first time in my life that I understood money was when I took a treasured royal coin that my dad gave me to buy a bag of chips. There was no line, just twenty noisy kids chirping for his attention like a nest full of baby birds. The man looked at the coin I handed him, spat on it, and throw it back in my face: “This currency has no value.” I suddenly remembered what my mother always told me at home: “Never mention the Shah anywhere. It’s dangerous.” Maybe this man was angry at the face of the Shah on the coin. But what he said confused me: “no value” ?
My father explained to me that evening that somebody had stolen my money. “No, it’s right here!” I said. “No it isn’t,” he said, “the thieves now own the banks and money-printing machines. They don’t have to touch the money in your pocket. If they simply print more money without working for it, there will be more paper money but the same number of bags of chips. So even if you have money, the person printing the money can always pay more for the chips. It’s as if they stole your money without touching it.” Then he handed me a bill worth 100 times the coin I had. “This will buy you a bag of chips tomorrow, but don’t wait until the next day. They’re stealing your money as we speak."
The next morning I went up to the shopkeeper, among the other chirping children, proudly held up my money bill and said “a bag of chips please!” He took the bill out of my fingers while I waited patiently. The other children became louder and louder: “a pencil please!” “chips please!” “coke please!” … But my bag of chips never came. The bastard stole my money.
Seeing my predicament that night, my father said “OK, I can’t keep giving you money for nothing, or I might as well send you to work for the government. I will let you earn it instead.” How? I pleaded. And he showed me his dirty shoes: “Wax those”. At age 7, I learned to wax shoes for money. When I started, I charged what he told me to. But as soon as I learned that the price of chips in school were getting inflated, I’d raise my price. He’d smile: “A savvy businessman already?” I emulated the shopkeeper by putting up a sign on my wax stand at home, advertising Black polish, Brown polish, and other options for alternative prices. Business at home was excellent. I kept making money from my two customers, my parents, until the day I waxed my dad’s brown shoes black by mistake. I went bankrupt that day.
In 1987, the war was escalating out of control. A million were dead, their lives stolen. The international community, the very countries who were arming Saddam’s counter-revolutionary war, started forcing him to ask for a ceasefire with Iran. Khomeini, in his usual absolutist style, said “Absolutely no peace until we have the bloodthirsty aggressor’s head.” My father decided that the currency was going to become toilet paper immediately. He converted all the cash that he had earned after the revolution into gold coins. The next day Khomeini announced that he had changed his mind, and that he was going to “drink this glass of poison” (to sign the U.N. Security Council Resolution 598, ending combat operations between two countries within a year). My father recalls running down the street trying to sell the gold coins. The first exchange shop quoted one price. The exchange shop five minutes further down had a price 10% lower. The next one’s price was 25% lower. By the time he sold all the coins, he had retained a fraction of what his years of work were worth. The war and its chaotic rumors stole all his earnings after he had rebuilt his life from scratch.
He stopped working for money in 1987. He still worked on long term projects, but it seemed that he had changed permanently. I knew it when I accidentally learned that he was one of the benefactors in the rebuilding of the school I went to. “Benefactor?” I’d wonder, “but I thought everybody thinks we’re rich while we’re actually poor.” He explained to me later, “money is not the only currency that can buy power to help people.” I didn’t understand, but I was proud of him. (Thirty years later, I started a startup without money to help rebuild schools. More on that later.)
From then until 1997 when my family immigrated to Canada, my father’s only mission was to teach me mathematics. I hated it. “Why can’t I go out and play with other kids?” I’d ask. “Have you ever felt that you’re different?” he’d respond. “Maybe” I’d lie; I knew for a fact since the death of that black cat that I was different. “You are different, because you don’t think like others. Others kill ideas. You hang on to ideas: in drawings that have the promise of becoming buildings; in writings that have the first words to interesting stories; in pulling the truth from everyday lies.” He seemed to be pushing this father-son legacy thing. “But why do I have to re-learn at home, after already having gone to school?” I’d ask. “Because I’m teaching you the language of truth,” he said, “and truth is your only currency in a world of false appearances."
The kids I left out on the streets stayed there, stealing from each other, and starving. The price of a bag of chips went up a thousand times in my birth city, while incomes remained the same. For a sympathetic comparison, if the same level of inflation had happened in the U.S., a single Big Mac sandwich would cost $1,000.00 today. What my father taught me for survival in the adverse conditions of my birth city became a startup career recipe: Chasing money is the fastest way to becoming poor.
After 30 years, one day in Silicon Valley, I ran into the shopkeeper who stole my cash. This book is the story of how I beat that fox in his own game and took my money back.
Amin Ariana is a software entrepreneur in San Francisco.
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