Every once in awhile, it’s nice to look back through the history of entrepreneurship and realize that many of today’s economic concepts are still the same. After all, we’re all humans and tend to be motivated by the same things. When it comes to economic freedom, perhaps today’s politicians and expat entrepreneurs ought to look to Marco Polo and his family. Marco Polo is perhaps the most famous explorer and trader of all time. From any early age, he was well-educated in the best schools to learn the ways of the world. He spoke four languages. He became well-versed in ship management and an expert in foreign currencies. Just as my own parents encouraged me at a young age to look to the world for a better place to go if necessary, Marco Polo owed much of his entrepreneurial wanderlust to his family. Before his birth, Marco’s father Niccolo and uncle Maffeo has established trading posts in Constantinople, the Crimea, and Mongolia. As far as legend goes, they met personally with Kublai Khan. But for years, their home base was in the epic city of Constantinople. In those days, Constantinople offered its own form of what’s called “extraterritoriality”: the process of being exempted from local laws through a diplomatic arrangement. The Polos’ Republic of Venice had played a key role as a Crusader in the Fourth Crusades that established the Latin Empire. As such, Venice carved out its own part of the Byzantine capital. Venetians were able to live in there nearly tax-free, and with special political advantages. By 1260, however, the Polos saw the writing on the wall for Constantinople. The Byzantine empire wasn’t exactly the most stable in those days. Once the Polo brothers decided political chaos was on the way, they liquidated their assets, converted the money into jewels, and packed their bags for greener pastures in the Crimea (now part of Ukraine).
Their foresightedness proved to be correct. Within a year, the emperor of the Empire of Nicaea took Constantinople by force and burned the Venetian quarter to the ground. Those who couldn’t escape were blinded. Many of the rest perished in the mad dash to escape on overloaded refugee boats. The escape hatches weren’t big enough once things really hit the fan. Upon returning to Venice, the Polo brothers retrieved a now seventeen-year old Marco Polo and began their storied twenty-four year journey around the world. Much of this time was spent in China. Marco Polo curried favor among Kublai Khan as a great storyteller who could regale the leader with stories of how trade in the rest of the world worked. In 1291, the three Polos returned to Venice to find it was at war with the neighboring sea republic of Genoa. Marco Polo was jailed and told his life story from a prison cell. Marco Polo’s story is an engaging tale which offers numerous lessons for economic policy and global entrepreneurship even today. While today’s world is more connected than ever, and the 15,000 miles the Polos traveled in two and a half decades can now be flown in a single day, there are still amazing opportunities that can not be had by sitting at home on the living room couch. In my own travels to dozens of countries, I’ve seen firsthand how foreign entrepreneurs have improved upon business processes or offer goods and services not available abroad. Marco Polo gained status as an expert on world trade and for his understanding of business and culture around the world. Understanding how business works in the rest of the world is the key to prospering at home, and to finding prosperity as a global entrepreneur. Moreover, the Polo family story shows that no matter how many centuries pass, capital will still go where it is treated best. Points on a map become fungible when money and freedom are on the line. Niccolo and Maffeo Polo didn’t want to risk their fortune in Constantinople once they realized their lives and livelihoods would be attacked by invaders. Despite living in a quadrant of the city controlled by Venice, their loyalties were not to their homeland government but to their own freedom. They didn’t choose to stay and fight – a fight they would have lost – they packed their bags and went to the next best place to continue their trading empire. The ideas of banking offshore and offshore corporations are nothing new; they’ve been around for as long as humans had access to other civilizations that shared their economic vision. We can look to explorers like the Polos for examples of how we should treat our own capital and our own businesses today. When the world is your oyster, there will always be a safe haven to go to. By staying vigilant and studying world trends, you and your business can prosper no matter what’s happening at “home”.