For many employees, hybrid working is now the new normal. However, the concept has stoked controversy: while Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon has insisted that staff return to the office full-time, Salesforce boss Marc Benioff is reported to have said that “office mandates are never going to work”.
But Vishen Lakhiani, CEO and founder of digital education company Mindvalley, takes pride in approaching the issue differently. He had invested in a Kuala Lumpur office space inspired by the coloured glass of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, complete with hypnotherapy rooms and nap pods, and which was named one of Inc. magazine’s “most beautiful” offices in 2019. Even so, his staff were unwilling to return post-pandemic.
“I thought that office was a true gift to my employees. I was wrong. After the pandemic, 70% of my employees said they did not want to return to the office,” he says. Instead, they prefer to work at home because it makes childcare easier, or lets them exercise at different times, Lakhiani adds.
For Mindvalley, there are no office mandates. Many of the company’s staff, including executive teams in London and Silicon Valley, now work from home. Mindvalley has taken the hit and is “tearing down” the Kuala Lumpur office and “selling parts of it at a massive loss”, Lakhiani says. How does he feel about that? “It’s part of life. It happens,” he says.
Teams now use what he calls “rapid communication loops”, relying on WhatsApp voice notes and messaging via Slack to make quick decisions and avoid emails and meetings. Lakhiani has organised the business so that information is easily available. “Algorithms help derive information from our databases, so any information you need is at your fingertips,” he says.
A change of focus
Lakhiani founded Mindvalley in the early 2000s as a website selling meditation recordings on CD. Over the years, it has morphed into an online education and live events company offering entrepreneurs and company executives personal development courses with names such as ‘Ultimate Leadership’ and ‘Scale Your Business to $1 Million’. Tutors include bestselling author Nir Eyal and hypnotherapist Marisa Peer. Mindvalley itself is now worth a reported $100m.
Lakhiani is no stranger to navigating workplace difficulties. A computer scientist by training, he worked in Silicon Valley before founding Mindvalley in New York. But when his US visa wasn’t extended, he had to leave for his native Malaysia.
He set about trying to attract people to work for him in Kuala Lumpur, a tough ask given the brain drain facing the country at that time. It was a challenge he says he overcame by turning the company into a transformational brand.
“Transformational brands are companies like Nike. When you put on a Nike shoe, you’re not just putting on a shoe, you feel like an athlete,” he explains. “When you are part of Mindvalley, you feel like someone who is on a quest to become the best person you can be,” he says. Lakhiani made the company attractive by focusing on a fun culture, flexible hours and team-building trips to exotic locations.
But building that brand hasn’t always been easy. Lakhiani spoke to Raconteur after his presentation on “collective forgiveness” to the Global Citizen Forum, a conference held in the United Arab Emirates in November 2022. He believes that forgiving yourself and others can help you move on from past failures. For instance, when a former CFO was found to be stealing from Mindvalley, Lakhiani tried to find ways to forgive him, he told the audience. He says he learnt a lot from that experience.
“Every time something happens like that, which can really shake you as an entrepreneur, I try to understand what I can learn from this,” he says. “In that case, I screwed up. I didn’t have tight enough security within our accounting department. And so I do have to accept some responsibility,” he says.
Another blow came in 2011 when Lakhiani’s former business partner wanted to sell his shares. Lakhiani offered to buy him out, but unable to set a price, they agreed that the partner would take all of the company’s profit for the following three years. This meant it was “a struggle to survive”, Lakhiani wrote on his website.
Making work work
People work for the company from anywhere in the world, and that poses one of Lakhiani’s biggest challenges. “The issue here is time zones, right? So when you have someone in Silicon Valley, working with team members in Malaysia… it means that sometimes someone is going to have to take a call at 11pm at night, someone’s going to have to take a call at 6am in the morning. And so we try to be very open about this in our hiring,” he says.
Another big issue is a lack of skills in computational thinking, a way of working that engineers use to solve problems. “We try to ensure that everybody who’s joining the company needs to basically know how to use tools like [coding platform] Airtable and can create their own databases and algorithms for their job,” Lakhiani explains. “There is a gap in finding these people because university systems have not caught up,” he adds. Currently, Mindvalley trains people to use such platforms.
And when it comes to higher education, Lakhiani doesn’t hold back. “Universities are going to become obsolete. I’m convinced of this,” he says. He imagines a world where people spend 20 to 30 minutes a day on “lifelong learning”, with a focus on “personal transformation”, including creative and leadership skills. While he concedes that specialist expertise will still need to be taught, he says that the principles of personal growth can improve the application of that knowledge.
He looks to other CEOs for his own development, hiring the likes of former Chipotle CEO Monty Moran to teach a course named ‘The Transformational Leader’. “The teachers I want to learn from, I sign them as authors and I bring them onto the platform and then I study their programmes,” he says.
And he’s a big advocate of shorter working weeks, especially for entrepreneurs. “You must build your company so that you only have to work 21 hours a week,” he says, adding that he aims to work seven hours a day, Tuesday to Thursday. “Here’s what happens: you create operational efficiency and then that [means] I’m actually able to free up my mind to look at new opportunities,” he says.
This approach led to the launch last year of Mindvalley Certifications, which trains people in a variety of roles, from business coach to personal trainer. Courses cost upwards of $2,000, and Lakhiani claims the division brought in $12m in revenue over 12 months.
What is Lakhiani’s advice to businesses navigating a changing working world and the Great Resignation? “You need to create companies that actually allow human beings to become the best human beings they can be,” he says.
“Forget all the rules. Are your people going to be better working from home? Let them. Are your people going to be healthier if they do not have to prescribe to a nine-to-five but can choose their own hours? Let them.”