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Adventures in Alohaland – Caveat Emptor! (Buyer Beware)

I fell in love with Hawaii in 1999. It was a shamanism seminar that took me to the Big Island of Hawaii for the first time that year. While the transit landing on Oahu, Hawaii’s most populated (but not biggest) island was not impressive – the sounds and humid scents of a typical tropical place – after a 45 minute flight to the biggest island of the Hawaiian Islands (but not the most populated), I was in for a tour de force. There was no stale humidity here, but a raw sense of power and energy. This was after all the home of Pele, the Goddess of the Volcano! Still very much active, the volcano of the Big Island of Hawaii pours fresh lava into the Pacific Ocean and the Big Island gets bigger daily. Perhaps I glimpsed a hint of this energy, of this land-in-the-making, at the Kona airport landing. The whole place felt like it was oozing with Mana, local for power.

 

The airport itself was very lovable. This wasn’t your typical sealed, air conditioned, locked up terminal building – everything was out in the open. Built on a part of the island that never got any rain, the gates were small huts, and the terminal was just fresh crisp air. Within the next seven days of the seminar, we discovered different parts of the island, from the Kapu sites (local for sacred), to the valleys, beaches, and mountains. One of the amazing things about this place is that three fourths of the world’s climates are all simultaneously experienced, based on what part of the island you are on. I heard stories of high school teenagers riding to the top of the Mauna Kea observatory, packing the back of their trucks with fresh snow; then driving down to the beach before the snow melted, and playing snowball and swimming all at the same time. If there was a paradise on Earth, this surely was it!

 

I came back twice to the Big Island that year, explored the lush valleys of Pololu and Waipio, full of majestic waterfalls, tropical rivers leading to the ocean through the heart of the valleys, and of course, climates that changed just by hiking up and down for forty five minutes. It was the time of my life. Pele herself was nothing short of majestic! While the Crater Rim drive at the Volcano National Park has since been abridged multiple times, I was fortunate enough in 1999 to be able to drive deep into the heart of the volcano, and touch the ground where it was physically hot to the touch – this was raw power and energy, the Earth, being born, and reborn. True majesty!

 

I was also very impressed with the locals. We were graced with the presence of some native Hawaiian’s during our seminar, very fierce and kind warriors who honored us with an Awa ceremony at the end of our retreat. I particularly recall Hale Makua – I am usually quite shy with strangers, but I could not resist the urge to hug this elderly man who radiated peace and love. Another warrior approached me and touched his forehead to mine and took a deep breath within; I was later to find out that this was a native form of greeting between warriors. I felt so graced by all these experiences. The natural beauty of the land, the wisdom of the locals, the closing Awa ceremony, it all provided inspiration for years to come. While I turned back empty handed from the seminar itself (no experiences of altered states of consciousness), I was enriched nonetheless by these memories, which I knew I would cherish for a lifetime.

 

And cherish them I did! That is why, in 2010, I choose Hawaii as the location of the new North American offices for InstallAware. One of the perks of owning a business is that you get to choose where to run it from. One of the perks of running a software business is that you can run it from anywhere on the planet where a high speed Internet connection is available. I combined both perks with my fond memories of Hawaii, and I knew where I wanted to be. In hopes that it would be easier to find and retain talent, and setup the necessary infrastructure, I chose to set up the business on Oahu, instead of the Big Island. After all, Honolulu, the capital of the Aloha State, is a bustling metropolis – home to a million people. This, I felt, would be the best of both worlds – the conveniences of big city living, as well as instant access to paradise.

 

I will mention certain companies and individuals by name in the spirit of “caveat emptor” – I would caution all my readers to steer away from them at all costs. These people have built a track record of unaccountability, and sustained underperformance in their dealings with InstallAware. Surely I too am to blame, for having retained their services and counsel despite obvious incompetence. Unlike what happened with Viresh Bhatia, which is a decidedly grey area I covered extensively in my previous posting, what we have here is a lot more black and white. InstallAware’s adventure in paradise was anything but paradise.

 

The first individual I want to write about is Carl McCarthy, a lawyer from New York. In fairness, Carl has nothing to do with Hawaii, but he did introduce me to the key people in Honolulu who did everything they could to run InstallAware into the ground. I first met Carl during negotiations to sell the InstallAware business in 2010. I thought that having a professional lawyer by my side would ease the negotiations and strengthen my hand. Unfortunately, it had the exact opposite effect. Every negotiation Carl went into, he came back weaker out of. He also had the annoying trait of being convinced by the side he did not represent against the benefit of the side he did represent.

 

The sale negotiations broke down, but I retained the counsel of Carl in forming InstallAware’s Honolulu operations. I went out of my way to be nice to him – for example, he flew to Honolulu first class on InstallAware, had accommodations covered by InstallAware, in addition to being paid for his time spent there on InstallAware’s behalf. Despite all these gestures of good faith, Carl never really understood InstallAware’s business, and was quick to dispense harmful advice and connections at the same time.

 

Carl first introduced me to N&K CPA’s, a local accounting firm. I later found out that this firm has a reputation of overcharging out of state clients. InstallAware fit their demographic perfectly – trusting, out of state, and in love with the state of Hawaii. N&K CPA’s offered accounting and consulting services for InstallAware. They did overcharge us for these services. Entering a consulting engagement, I did expect to be overcharged – after all, you are in essence paying for the convenience of not having to do deal with things you’d rather not deal with! What I did not expect however was to have to double check and redo almost everything they did for InstallAware. For instance, the job ads N&K CPA’s put out for InstallAware were typo ridden, even after multiple revisions. It still blows my mind how this could ever come to be in this day and age of automatic spell checkers, but it happened – on multiple occasions. Some things InstallAware asked for, they just never delivered, despite billing us the hours. A lot of paperwork they were supposed to do for InstallAware, I ended up having to do manually. And the N&K CPA invoices were truly amazing. They invariably came with a “Christmas Sale”: a 40% discount that looked impressive and generous, concealing the fact that this discount was applied over an even larger markup.

 

I severed the relationship with N&K CPA’s when they attempted to charge InstallAware three times the prevailing rate for filing elementary tax returns (after the Christmas discount). Since the Honolulu office was essentially a Sales and Support office with no ownership of InstallAware IP, the company had barely generated any revenue. Yet their quote, even after their very generous discount, might as well have been for our worldwide HQ. I had to fire them and I retained another accounting firm at a fraction of the cost to get the filings done.

 

The second introduction Carl made was to Darius Seo, a business consultant. Darius was a native of Hawaii, although he had been living in New York for some time. I was initially wary of working with someone who had an aol.com business email address, but Darius put on all the moves. He invited us to cook outs at his parent’s beach front properties in Honolulu. It seemed it might be fortuitous to have a local connection in Honolulu working on InstallAware’s business plan. It was also amusing that his way of doing business development was to complain to his potential clients that he had to deal with them to earn their business – he literally complained to me, his potential client, about having to handle the business development at his company. I also found out he was bipolar, when Carl asked him how his condition was progressing after a few drinks during our cook out. At the end of the day, I think this is how he got the InstallAware “sympathy vote” and was actually engaged with rendering InstallAware’s business plan on paper.

 

I will never forget Darius because he spent an hour arguing with me about what InstallAware’s sales figures really were. He would not take my word for what they were and literally wasted one hour arguing irrationally until I connected to our online sales reporting system and shoved the numbers in his face. Only then did he admit that he had made a mistake entering the sales numbers I had sent him previously into his own custom spreadsheet program. In general, Darius would argue the exact opposite of any position I took on any matter. It’s not like Darius was tasked with inventing a business plan for InstallAware either – he was essentially going to put in formal writing the existing roadmap we had been executing at InstallAware for the past seven years. This he would not do, and I had to pull the plug on him as well when he obstinately refused to cooperate.

 

All these three parties would also keep inventing excuses to give each other more business under the most thinly veiled disguises. Darius would claim he needed the accountants to run over some numbers and Carl to make some calls on behalf of InstallAware, and so forth. It was the most expensive and wasteful feedback loop I ever witnessed. Again, if either of these parties had actually been able to deliver anything, anything at all – that might have been reason to believe that they actually had good intentions at heart. But from Carl’s efforts to sell InstallAware an “employee handbook” for $1,000 – something that can be Google’d for free – to Darius’s overreaching arrogance (he even spoke out against disabled parking spots when he couldn’t find a parking spot he liked), these people were truly no good to anyone.

 

To top it off, I actually experienced bits and pieces of reverse racism on Oahu. A lot of my Asian friends had touted how they love it in Hawaii because there is no racism there – well, there is no racism, but there is reverse racism. While I have white skin, I am not an American – I was in fact hailing from my native Turkey, halfway across the world (the exact 12 hour time difference between Hawaii and Turkey made timekeeping particularly easy when calling home). In ignorance of this fact, a lot of people just assumed I was Howli – local for “breathless”, a derogatory term in reference to the early Missionaries who came to the islands centuries ago, breathless in their tight collars, supposedly spreading enlightenment among “savages”.

 

Any Turk you meet will be happy to tell you all about the Great Turkish War of Independence, and how much sacrifice and fighting was necessary for independence, and what great cost is still paid on a daily basis by every single Turk. So I certainly feel for the locals and their desire for independence; but if you’re going to get colonized, you might as well be colonized by the biggest superpower on the planet. And hey, you can go anywhere on a US passport without having to suffer countless indignities trying to obtain travel visas! Sure beats travel on a Turkish passport.

 

Combined with lackluster performance from employees (who looked great on paper but were completely unqualified for the positions they had been hired for – compliments of N&K CPA’s), there was no reason to keep InstallAware in Hawaii any longer. It was a very sad decision, but I guess not all dreams are meant to come true in life. I do hope to revisit Hawaii some day in the future, as I still love the place, and I have made good friends there.

 

Right before leaving the islands, my friends took me to the Dole pineapple factory on Oahu, where they have a large fish pond. That pond is full of massive fish looking like goldfish inflated to ten times their usual size. They have almost translucent skin and thick veins running throughout the lengths of their obese bodies. A lot of tourists visiting the factory stopped by the pond and fed them generous servings of fish food. Another memory I will never forget of Hawaii are these fish. They were very fat, yet they would harass one another, even getting out of the water for short bursts in intense competition, trying to grab the fish food being dispensed from the coin operated food containers above. Their mouths were proportionately huge and made this pronounced vacuum sound, trying to suck in as much of the fish food as they could – jumping over one another, breathless out of the water, madly flapping from side to side, before running out of “air” and scrambling back in a mad frenzy, back over one another, desperate to submerge in the water from whence they came.

~Sinan

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