Money & Me: 'When Covid-19 hit, the income I had lined up was suddenly taken away'

Futurist John Sanei says his former anxieties around money flared up when several clients cancelled events

John Sanei, author, at his residence in Dubai.
(Photo: Reem Mohammed/The National)

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John Sanei is a futurist, author and motivational speaker. A self-made millionaire in his twenties, he was bankrupt by the age of 31, before making his fortune back again. Mr Sanei, 44, is also Africa’s first faculty member at Singularity University in San Francisco, a lecturer at Duke Corporate Education in Johannesburg, and a partner associate at the Copenhagen Institute of Future Studies in Denmark and co-founder of Future Self Academy, a platform helping authors turn their non-fiction books into courses. He is a digital nomad who bases himself between Dubai, where he moved last year, London, Bali and Cape Town. The South African is single and lives in Dubai Marina.

How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money

There was a moment as a child when my mum couldn't buy my brother and me a yo-yo.  I remember making a decision I would never be poor again.

I grew up in Swaziland near South Africa and I come from a single-mum family. My mum was a secretary who earned very little money. Every month, we would never make it to the end of the month. She’d be in bed every night trying to calculate how to make ends meet and I’d be sitting on the other end of the bed watching my mum cry and become stressed because we didn’t have enough. So my upbringing shaped me to become anxious around the concept of money, angry that there wasn’t enough and hopeless that I couldn’t help her – because I was a kid and didn’t know how.

When did you start working?

There was a moment as a child when my mum couldn’t buy my brother and me a yo-yo. A single yo-yo between us. I remember making a decision I would never be poor again. When I was 13, I got a job in a grocery store packing bags at the tills, and I earned 3.20 South African rand (Dh0.65) an hour.

Did you have a negative attitude to money early on?

The lessons I learnt around money were terrible lessons – we didn’t have enough of it, I was frustrated that we were so constrained with what we could eat and do. My father wasn’t helping us, so my lessons around money were all of hopelessness, anxiousness, anger, frustration and pretty much every negative emotion you could apply.

How did you become a multimillionaire in your twenties?

When I made the conscious decision, my foot went flat on the accelerator. By the time I was 17, I opened up my first business, and by the time I was 25, I had a shoe distribution business, vending machines, restaurants and retail stores. I was flying high. At 27 or 28, I was living the life of my dreams, with multiple holidays, homes, cars, clothes and all the trappings that come from having been poor and imagining what you’d do with money when you’re rich. I fell into the trap of spending it quicker than I could make it because I couldn’t believe that I was there.

What caused you to go bankrupt?

At 31, I had no money and owed people lots of money. One of my restaurant partners sued me for future franchise fees. I'd signed a 10-year contract but closed at seven years, so they sued me for the remainder, a fictitious amount of 8 million rand. I couldn’t pay it because I didn’t have the money. At 31, not only did I have that hanging over my head, but I also couldn’t pay rent of 6,500 rand. I was depressed and really had nothing. My down point was being ashamed and embarrassed in front of all the people that I’d been successful before.

Did running away from poverty lead to bankruptcy?

I was always worried I’d be poor again, and we know that what you fear the most becomes true. But on a more literal level, I didn’t read all the contracts I was signing; I stretched myself too thin. And then there was the lack of acknowledgement from an alpha male, from a father figure growing up. I sought that from other people, trying to gain acceptance and approval from people around me, so I stretched myself more than necessary. Who needs six restaurants, two retail stores, 40 vending machines and a shoe distribution business? You could do very well and have a fantastic life with just one of those businesses.

John Sanei, author, at his residence in Dubai.
(Photo: Reem Mohammed/The National)

Mr Sanei has retreated to a family farm in South Africa to escape the pandemic. Reem Mohammed / The National 

How has Covid-19 affected your finances?

I was in a hotel room in Amsterdam when I received a row of emails postponing or cancelling conferences I’d been booked at. Eight talks were off the table, two conferences I was to speak at in South Africa were cancelled, a banking client told me I was not allowed to go into their offices. So my world changed; suddenly all the income I had lined up got taken away. I was in a space of anxiousness that I last felt when I was bankrupt at 30.

How did you react?

I realised I needed to pivot immediately. So I reached out to friends in cyberconferencing and signed up to a multi-user conference site, so I can talk and hundreds of people can listen, I’m starting to do more webinars – I’ve done four talks already and have another three booked up. I’ll also be doing one-on-one coaching.

At times like this, you want to make sure your diet is right, that you’re around the right people and that you’ve got the best health resources around you. I’m staying with family at a farm in South Africa. Whatever decisions you’re making now, make sure they’re not around money or career – they are not essentials and are not important. In extraordinary times you need to make extraordinary decisions.

How has your investment portfolio been affected?

I haven’t looked.

Where and how do you save?

I don’t save for the sake of saving. I buy what I need and then whatever else I make goes into my account or into shares. I don’t have a number, I just need very little. There’s a saying that the most wealthy person doesn’t have the most, but is the one who needs the least.

What inspired you to write books?

At 40, when I went through my divorce, I realised I wanted to be a speaker and author – which is really where my highest joy lies. The divorce and the pain that came with it catalysed me to find the best process of telling stories.

What do you spend on?

I live by luxurious minimalism. I have very few things but those are the best money can buy. I spend a fair amount of money on [renting] great apartments in great areas that are fully furnished so I can plug in and plug out. I don’t have a car so I don't have any transport or fixed payments. I have credit cards with bank accounts in two or three places around the world and I move around the world utilising this concept of luxurious minimalism. My number one luxury is flexibility and adaptability.

Do you use a financial adviser?

I have in the past and I have disability insurance and a hospital plan in case some emergency happens. Besides that, I like to invest in the New York Stock Exchange based on my own research because I am a futurist and I’m researching a stock anyway.

I invest in brands I believe will do well over a long period of time. I’ve put money into Beyond Meats because I love how they are creating a solution for the world. Other than that I make decisions around my own freedom. I’m an entrepreneur, I like to use my money to build my businesses.

What financial advice would you offer your younger self?

Relax, calm down, chill out, you don’t need all that acknowledgement. You don’t need to prove yourself. You are enough. Focus on one or two businesses, you don’t need any more.