What does it really take to build an island resort, a dream come true in the tropics, a place where work and fun and family all blend seamlessly? Hint: Note the machetes.
BUSINESS TOOLS: First on the to-do list for Jay Viola (left) and Jim Kimball: Clear the jungle. By Hand.
THE HOME FRONT: Stefanie Viola (left) and Reneé Kimball funded the enterprise from Texas.
WORTH IT: Three of Tranquilo Bay's six cabanas. Air conditioning included; caimans mostly excluded
From: firstname.lastname@example.org To: email@example.com Date: December 15, 1999
I'm getting pretty good at hacking through the jungle. I found out quickly that the two most important pieces of equipment are rubber boots and a machete. The last two days have been very nice. Thank god the rain broke, and we have been searching hard. I went to the southeast side of Bastimentos and chopped my way from the Caribbean side all the way across the isthmus to the bay side. The jungle in there is beautiful.
Each day I learn something new that I shouldn't touch. Spines, hooks, prickers, sap, trees full of bugs, termites, ants -- all the routine jungle stuff. This is a real education.
From: firstname.lastname@example.org To: email@example.com Date: December 3, 2000
I want you home so bad I can taste it. I don't want to decorate the Christmas tree or for that matter find a tree on my own. Last year was very difficult. This year at least we will be together for Christmas day. But Christmas is about the whole month of December and everything that leads up to Christmas day. This is the second year in a row that we are missing all of that together.
I can't wait to be with you full-time again. It is getting difficult to fall back on what we have built when I don't get to see you. I need you and everything about you. I can't do another year of this.
The binder is black and unadorned. Inside, a title page reads: "JLK & RHK Communications (Love Letters)." The 167 pages of e-mails that follow recount tales of ailing dogs and three-toed sloths, migraine headaches and a foot sliced open by an anchor, stress management by yoga and stress management by beers quaffed at tumbledown seaside bars. Mostly, the e-mails recount the love and longing of Renée and Jim Kimball. When the Kimballs' two children are old enough to read, they will have this story, of how their parents endured years of separation and hope-flattening ordeals to build a home and a business in back of the back of beyond.
The Kimballs and their partners, Jay and Stefanie Viola, are founders of Tranquilo Bay, an eco-adventure lodge on the island of Bastimentos in Panama. The resort is lovely -- Somerset Maugham meets Martha Stewart, with creamy stucco buildings, concrete paths bordered by delicate tea lights, and ubiquitous ceiling fans thwocking away at the damp, lazy air. The surrounding jungle graciously permits this man-made intrusion, contributing lushly flowering bushes and a perpetual concert of birdsong that brings to mind bicycle horns and falsetto gargling. Heavy raindrops slalom down drooping palm fronds and plunk, plunk, plunk onto shady wooden porches. Guests hike, fish, snorkel, swim, and sail to adjacent islands, where they can visit an Indian village or a tiny chocolate factory run by a couple of expats.
As a business, Tranquilo Bay is strictly small papayas. The founders have invested $900,000, and the revenue projection for this year -- their third of operation -- is just $350,000. Nightly rates start at about $240 per person, and occupancy varies from less than 30 percent in the wet season to 100 percent in the Panamanian summer (winter in the United States). They don't expect to crack a million before 2012, when their six guest cabanas will be supplemented with a second set of six.
That's OK. Tranquilo Bay exists to make its owners happy rather than rich. Yet the sacrifice, ingenuity, and resilience that went into building this modest enterprise make all but the most ambitious start-ups sound easy.
Tranquilo Bay's founders, all of them Texans, made the same mistakes as many other first-time sojourners in foreign lands. They bulked up on facts about corporate taxes, minimum-wage requirements, and property and materials costs, all of which are mostly favorable in Panama. But they neglected the nuances of culture, the "we're not in Houston anymore" factor. And there was no formal apparatus, no easy on-ramp for foreign investors, to help them.
The founders also failed to recognize the sheer physical difficulty of their undertaking. That miscalculation dashed their plans to contract out most of the work and finish in two years. Instead it took five years to build Tranquilo Bay, with Jim Kimball and Jay Viola acting as their own architects, engineers, and the most manual of laborers. Endless delays weighed mightily on their spouses, who roomed together back home and worked -- with growing loneliness and frustration -- to fund the vision.
The launching of any business overseas is the kind of adventure entrepreneurs dream about. The launch of Tranquilo Bay, with its complement of alligators, boa constrictors, and natives in dugout canoes, is the kind of adventure kids read about in their backyard tents with a flashlight. That the resort not only exists but also attracts plaudits from customers and travel journalists is testimony to the founders' resourcefulness and determination. But eager imitators be forewarned: It's a jungle out there.
From their courtship days, Jim Kimball assured Renée that life with him would not be ordinary. The two met, in 1990, at the University of Texas, where Kimball was studying economics and sociology. His dream was to open a fishing lodge in an exotic locale. He wanted to wake up every morning in someplace beautiful. Renée, a marketing major, had been camping exactly once. But she loved the idea of nesting with Jim in paradise, a vision that grew more enticing once she completed law school and started working 15-hour days. In 1992, the couple befriended Jay Viola, a graduate of Texas A&M and a childhood friend of Jim Kimball's cousin. Viola, too, had been dreaming the fishing-lodge dream, and the three joined forces. They planned to work hard and live cheaply until they had accrued enough to light out for the territories.
Leigh Buchanan is an editor at large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture. @LeighEBuchanan
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