PHUKET: A woman stands at the edge of one of the enormous limestone cliffs of Etretat, the salty Dutch air whipping her blond hair across her face. She’s been in the banking industry for 10 years – and it’s come to this: make a down payment on a house back in the UK and pay the mortgage for years to come, or roll up her financial nest-egg and take the plunge.
Stephanie Holland jumped – splashing into Phuket as a new dive instructor, a new solo business owner and a single woman in the dodgy red-taped, under-the-table business world of Thailand.
“I saw a little dive shop up for sale for about the same deposit as my supposed deposit for a house and I went hmmm… I could go be sensible, or go be rather stupid,” Stephanie of Ocean Geo Diving and Tours admits, after having successfully weathered her second low season in Phuket.
“I had rose tinted spectacles on when I went out to do this… I just saw potential, my feet were not as firm on the ground as they should have been. I love the coffee shop though,” she says.
Right, Stephanie landed in Phuket, got the keys to a struggling dive shop, and decided to open a cafe on the side.
“The premise: you have a dive center and a class room, and you have somewhere to come chill out with a great deck at the front. I could just see it being a nice comfy area, and the two businesses would just bounce off of each other.”
Despite the optimism, giving up an established career in the banking industry, giving up a well grounded, happy life in Amsterdam and trading it all in for a dream flung far to the east was not a snap decision.
“Did I want to turn my hobby and my passion, something I do maybe twice a year, but on fantastic levels – the best diving you can get – into an every day job, and potentially hate it?
Did I want to move to an Asian country as a single woman trying to run a business solo?” she asked herself. “I certainly wanted the challenge.”
It was a debate – a six-month debate.
“I got access to the PADI Pro site when I became an instructor and I never really thought until then that the dream could become a reality,” she said.
However, the dream swept in like a flash flood. There was no handover phase, Stephanie, relying on good advice from those who cared, such as Rene Balot of Sea Fun Divers, scrambled to learn the ropes.
“I literally got the keys. I didn’t know who my phone provider was; I didn’t know how to pay the electricity; I didn’t know if I was going to get the internet cut off; I didn’t know which bills had been paid, I didn’t know where the insurance policy was – so every aspect you can think of was kind of a learning curve, which made the first three months a bit of a blur,” Stephanie recalls.
Such overwhelming odds seem to be even more heavily weighted for tragedy then the Greek would allow. But tenacity is now bearing fruit, she admits.
“The first year financially was pretty much break even, which for me, was ‘okay, I can do better, but that’s actually not too bad.”
This year, Stephanie’s bench mark is getting return customers. Both customers loyal to Ocean Geo Diving and Tours before she took over, new customers and previous colleagues from a lifetime ago.
With Phuket an international hub en route to Singapore, Hong Kong and Sydney – the major business centers in Asia – those of the corporate world that Stephanie managed to escape are becoming regular customers.
“I’ve gone from earning a decent salary in the banking industry to spending about 200 baht on myself a day to eat and sleep and that’s about it. So that’s been a big shift mentally,” she said.
“However, I properly dropped myself in the deep end and swam.”
— Isaac Stone Simonelli
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