Riding the Entrepreneurial Wave

Article by:

Richard Walton
EO Cape Town
Richard Walton - EO Cape Town

I was six years into running my business, GVI, when I went to the bank for a loan. My wife and I were expecting our first baby, and whilst the business was doing well, it was a lot of work and not making enough money. The bank needed me to take out life insurance, so I went to the doctor for a health check. His diagnosis was clear: “If you continue on like this, you’ll be dead by the time you’re 50.” That one sentence changed my life.

Whilst my company was sending groups of young people on expeditions to remote locations around the world, I was stuck at my desk in the U.K. managing spreadsheets. I was overweight, stressed and scared about the future. I had set up GVI as an adventure whilst living on an island off the coast of Honduras. Now, I was living in a tiny house in suburbia, rarely exercising and drinking too much.

The birth of our first baby was the real catalyst. I wanted to be a good father. My wife understood that, for me, it wasn’t about going to the gym and changing my diet. I needed to do something drastic. She asked me what I’d always wanted to do. My answer? Surf. It wasn’t just that I saw surfing as an exhilarating form of exercise— it was the lifestyle it promised. People describe surfing as meditative; it encourages a more mindful existence, and for me, that meant a major shift in my mentality … which wasn’t likely to happen in England where I was trapped in bad habits.

So, with a 3-month-old baby, we sold our house and moved to Costa Rica. I surfed every day, ate only organic food and meditated. All the while, GVI doubled in size. There’s no doubt that moving to Costa Rica positively affected my leadership for the long term. It forced me to prioritise my physical and mental health, which is important for my clarity and enthusiasm; but truthfully, our business growth was mainly due to luck. The market developed, and so did we.

However, my business would have done a lot better if I had stayed in the U.K. Some companies can be run remotely, but nothing beats being in a room with people, brainstorming and building partnerships. Once or twice a year, my top management team flew to Costa Rica to discuss strategy, but it was never enough to build a true sense of togetherness. Some of my team eventually moved out to join us, lured by the beach-bum lifestyle, but they didn’t stay. For all the appearances of paradise, Costa Rica is a hard place to live. We had one major earthquake, frequent water shortages, weekly power cuts and tsunami warnings almost every month. We loved the adventure, but it was always a struggle.

And then the financial crisis hit. GVI plummeted by 50% overnight, and I was forced to let a lot of my team go. The industry has never fully recovered. For me, it was a big reality check. I realised I missed being at the pulse of business, and that if I had been at the U.K. office, I could have at least restored office morale. The decision to ultimately leave Costa Rica was personal as much as it was professional. The children (there were now four) were being home-schooled, and the nearest hospital was six hours away. It made sense for GVI, and it made sense for my family.

Cape Town, South Africa, was the compromise between England and Costa Rica. Our head office was already based there, and the business scene in Cape Town was booming. It had the relaxed pace of life that I loved about Costa Rica, but with all the comforts of England that were important for my family: good hospitals, schools and more opportunities to build friendships. Best of all, I still had the surf lifestyle (plus, a few extra sharks), and my management team was around me. The industry is still tough, but we’re growing, which would have been impossible if I were still operating out of Costa Rica.

Living in Costa Rica taught me the importance of exchanging ideas and the power of networking. Above all, I no longer suffer from regret. Most people long to pursue something different, but when you’re working—especially as an entrepreneur—it becomes more difficult to do. I’ll admit it was a huge risk sacrificing my career and financial stability for my health, family and personal benefit, but I did it for eight years, and it has given me a lot of peace. I think everyone should have a massive adventure in their lives. It doesn’t have to be a permanent change, but just enough to give you the satisfaction that you did what you wanted to do.

Richard Walton (pictured) is an EO Cape Town member and a co-founder of AVirtual, a virtual-assistant firm he started in 2015 after struggling to find a great virtual personal assistant to help him manage his busy life. Contact Richard at richard@avirtual.co.uk.

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