They had no choice. Heavy machinery couldn't be transported to the island. Before Kimball and Viola could build anything, they had to clear nearly eight acres by machete.
Help arrived in a dugout canoe. One day, in June 2000, an Indian appeared, floating off their dock. He called out, "Trabajo?" -- which even Kimball and Viola recognized as the word for work.
The partners hired six Indians from the Ngoble-Bugle tribe to help clear land and brought on more as the project progressed. The Ngoble-Bugle live in thatched huts lashed together from materials found in the jungle; they needed extensive training and supervision in the American-style construction Kimball and Viola planned. Complicating matters, the Indians spoke a tribal dialect; Spanish was their second language, and they used it awkwardly. The Texans were even less fluent. (They are now more than passable in Spanish.) Communication occurred chiefly through hand gestures or through vocabulary invented on the spot.
All materials arrived at the island by boat and had to be hauled up a staircase-steep hill to the work site. "We would move sand onto a boat in Bocas with wheelbarrows and shovels, bring it out here, and unload it with wheelbarrows and shovels," says Kimball. "We'd put the sand in a cart and a hook on the cart and use a pulley. Two guys would have a yoke, and they'd run down the hill, which would pull the cart up the hill. On days when we used 50 yards of sand, it took 21 workers 11 hours."
When it rained, which was often, the wheelbarrows sank into the mud and became unusable. "It's the same problem they ran into building the canal," says Viola.
At the end of each exhausting day, Kimball and Viola sat for three hours in the rancho, unwilling to tip the insects to their presence by lighting a Coleman lamp. In the dark, they discussed tasks and materials for the next day and ranged wide over the state of the world and the laws of the universe. When questions arose -- for example, how many satellites are in orbit? -- they would consult a copy of the 2000 New York Times Almanac, gone soft and splayed through constant use. In 2004 someone gave them a fresh edition of another almanac, but they had grown so accustomed to the Times's format that they tossed it in favor of the old one.
Given the remoteness of their location, Kimball and Viola knew they couldn't expect to find the same skills and service levels in Bocas as in Houston. But after speaking with architects and contractors on early trips to Panama, they judged what was on offer to be sufficient. So they moved down intending to cede most of the project to experts. "Back in Houston, we would look at an apartment complex, and it would go up in six months," says Kimball. "We thought we'd knock this out."
As perhaps they could have, had they built in the local style. But they wanted to build with steel, to avoid the ravages of termites and make upkeep simple. Their surprise upon discovering that no one in Bocas had a lick of experience with large steel projects is itself surprising, because the rudimentary buildings thrown up along the town's dirt roads strongly suggest an undemanding approach to shelter. Unable to find an architect in Bocas who could do the job, Kimball and Viola used their Sunday Internet sessions to research steel construction, and they hung out at construction sites during their visits home. In the end, they designed all of Tranquilo Bay's buildings themselves, then taught a Bocas architect to render them into AutoCAD so they could get government approval.
The partners used the same approach -- Web research and questioning experts in the United States -- to design Tranquilo Bay's electrical, septic, and water systems. With advice and parts from a Motorola (NYSE:MOT) dealer, they erected a 150-foot communications tower for Internet access, shimmying up the structure as it grew.
Recruiting manual labor was almost as hard. The project was big and difficult, and most people live in Bocas for the waves, not the work. Men hired in town would show up, work a day or two, then disappear. The Texans tried out 13 people before they found someone competent to lay cement. One expat they hired to paint exteriors turned up on his first day drunk and soaked from tumbling into the sea. No one had any experience in welding or laying tile -- including the founders. True to form, Kimball and Viola would research those tasks on the Internet one day and train workers to do them the next.
Five and a half years after Kimball and Viola laid the first piece of dock, Tranquilo Bay opened for business. Now foreign entrepreneurs visit the resort and take from it their own ideas of what is possible. And the founders -- babes in the rain forest for so long -- have become informal consultants. "We are now a licensed construction company," says Kimball. "We learned the hard way how things work. We could have a whole business just helping other expats start businesses."
From: email@example.com To: firstname.lastname@example.org Date: April 24, 2000
I have dreams about you and the distance in between us. I had a weird dream where we were using a cell phone to transport us around Houston and the GTE phone couldn't get us to where we needed to go because it kept losing its signal. We were floating up in the air like one of those video games I can't watch.
It takes only a few hours in the company of Jim and Renée Kimball to see that they are each other's lives. They knew it would be difficult to be apart, but someone had to keep the money coming and handle supply shipments and other arrangements from the States. As for Stefanie Viola, she didn't meet Jay until the project was under way, but she waved goodbye to her husband just two weeks after their marriage, in January 2000. The wives began sharing a $300-a-month house to reduce expenses. Jim and Jay took turns coming home, and occasionally their wives traveled to the island. Separations lasted six weeks, then eight weeks, then three months.
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
Five steps to opening an office in China
The Top 10 Export Markets
Which nations saw the biggest gains in export activity in 2007? A look at the top markets.
America's Biggest Customers
Which nations across the globe are our top trading partners? A look at 2007 U.S. export data.