Pirates of the Pacific – Expats in Ecuador

Pirates of the Pacific – Mark Cowtan

This is the first, in what will be a series of interviews with expats in Ecuador, under the banner of “Pirates of the Pacific”. Each will feature a new story of a long journey to reach the shores of Ecuador. We want to always inform and occasionally entertain, with an emphasis on no holds barred candor. We want real people, with real stories – the good, the bad, the ugly. We want to get to know them personally and experience Ecuador through the eyes of our fellow Pirates.

The raw nature of these interviews forced a difficult decision upon me. The series would read better and be more journalistically entertaining, written in narrative format. However, the raw energy and candor could be lost in translation. I have instead chosen the more cumbersome, but infinitely more real, Q&A approach to the Pirate’s tale. The first to walk the plank is Mr. Mark Cowtan.

HGQ: Let’s start with the basics. How long have you now lived in Ecuador?
MC: Just a little over one year.

HGQ: Where in Ecuador do you now live?
MC: Our family selected the Capaes Subdivision, poised at the entryway to the Punta Blanca southern coastal region of Ecuador.

HGQ: Can you tell us a little bit about where you are from, originally, and about your family?
MC: I was born in the UK, in a river town called Henley-on-Thames, about 30 miles west of London. However, spent part of my early childhood in both Portugal and Cyprus. The latter is where my mother’s side of the family is originally from. I then moved to the USA at age 30, before ultimately relocating to Ecuador. Lived in California, the Silicon Valley region.

My wife is Nellie and my daughter is Mia, 7 years old. Nellie is a graphic artist, with a keen interest in being involved on a volunteer basis with issues of autism and promoting public awareness of what seems to be an increasingly more prevalent condition.

HGQ: How did you meet your wife?
MC: Met her in San Francisco. Her brother was a friend and he made the introduction, after I mentioned a desire to meet someone that could teach me Spanish. My wife is Peruvian, which makes it interesting that she pushed for us to select Ecuador over Peru, when it came time to expatriate. Anyway, I never mentioned to her that almost immediately after my birth, my parents relocated to Portugal, just outside of Lisbon. So, my first language was actually Portuguese. It helped facilitate learning Spanish somewhat.

HGQ: Tell us a little bit more about your career background, Mark?
MC: Been in the high-tech career field my whole working life, first as a programmer and then in sales/marketing. Before leaving for the USA, I focused on Asian markets, selling networking technology primarily to Banks and Airlines. Put on a whole lot of air miles.

HGQ: What made you leave the UK and head to the USA?
MC: Split from my girlfriend, burnt out on the previous job, and just plain too much time on the road and in the air. I was recruited by a USA based headhunting firm. Left me a bit flattered. Figured I would go to the U.S. for a year or so. Ended up staying 20 years.

HGQ: Did you work at that same company, for the whole 20 years Stateside?
MC: No, eventually started my own tech business, focused on real estate marketing software. Micro focused a bit much and invested heavily as the broader market was shrinking. Plain and simple, I was late to market and did not have enough sales focus. Failed to see the macro market trends sufficiently well. Ran out of sufficient capital, long before running out of ideas.

HGQ: Was it that business experience that drove you to Ecuador?
MC: Not exactly. It was so much more than that. By the end, not even primarily that. By 2010, I just looked around me and realized that the whole USA lifestyle wasn’t working for me anymore. The real estate crash, stock market crash, bleeding money in house values, losses in pension funds, and all the while costs just kept rising. Honestly, it got to the point where it was ridiculous. My $200,000 income was barely enough to make ends meet, which is just, if you think of it, absurd. It wasn’t like I was living a lavish lifestyle. The Silicon Valley area is admittedly expensive, but we were just trying to live a middle-class life. I figured there has to be another way to live my life. I was working, working, working, relying on quarterly bonuses just to balance my checkbook. It was no life.

Additionally, as a family, we are very concerned about food, diet and sustainability issues. GMO free foods, clean water supply, healthy eating habits. We didn’t see the USA as a place friendly to any of that. So, basically, some economic issues, some lifestyle issues and some healthy living issues drove us to seek a healthier alternative. Ecuador quickly got on our radar screen. I wanted the California Pacific Coast lifestyle, without the California prices. I wanted to be by the beach. I wanted toes in sand. But I wanted all that with a level of financial sanity, reasonable pricing, and more health conscious living for my entire family. A place where I could indulge my hobbies, such as wind surfing. In California, I was lucky to engage in that activity 2-3 times per year, with my hectic schedule.

HGQ: Too busy working, right?
MC: Exactly, too busy working…too busy to enjoy my family…too busy to really feel alive!

HGQ: So, you saw those opportunities to improve your life in Ecuador?
MC: Yep, that was the seed that drove us to Ecuador.

HGQ: Did you consider anywhere else, besides Ecuador?
MC: Sure, we briefly considered Costa Rica. We looked at Puerto Rico. We were very analytical. Complete with a huge spreadsheet of attributes and a complex weighted algorithm and all that.

HGQ: Can’t help but laugh a bit. Do you know how close that comes to my reality, when I made my own decision?
MC: So, you had a similar spreadsheet?

HGQ: I did have a similar spreadsheet, 94 columns long to be exact. Weighted, economic, political, social and cultural factors. So, please tell me more?
MC: Well, analyzed the data thoroughly. Ecuador readily won out for a number of reasons.

HGQ: Tell me a little bit about those reasons, which drove Ecuador to the top of your list?
MC: First, the biodiversity. Second, the affordability factor. Third, the readily available beachfront real estate options. Fourth, plenty of access to sustainable fresh water in Ecuador, something which is important to our family. We are not survivalists or “preppers” as some are called, but we do believe the abundance of fresh water supplies is going to become increasingly important in the years to come. For example, if you look at countries like Peru, it is already starting to feel the impact of a diminishing water supply. Lima is basically built on a desert and even the North of Peru, replete with more water, is already depleting its aquifers. I don’t want to sound alarmist, but studying the situation as I have, it can be some pretty scary stuff, for those living in places where fresh water is scarce. Anyway, back to the positives, we felt Ecuador had gorgeous beaches, the whole Galapagos and Amazon basin experience. Still driven, I guess, by visions of riding atop a yacht along the Galapagos stretch. First, I have to acquire the elusive yacht [laughter]. I could go on. The reasons were almost endless. Ecuador just packs so much positive, into such a small geographic space.

HGQ: I know you recognize the value found in Ecuador and the natural riches, as well, but did economic considerations play any further role in your decision to select Ecuador, as it did in mine?
MC: Absolutely. Economic considerations were high on our list of advantages favoring Ecuador. We felt the political change in Ecuador, with the Correa Administration, was spurring economic growth and prosperity in the country. We saw a great deal of upside and initiatives seemingly aimed at creating a nascent middle class. A factor we deem critical to long-term economic growth. We believe it is South America’s turn in the world to rise as an economically prosperous region. We have seen the economic boom in Brazil. Chile has enjoyed a strong and steady economic evolution. Peru and Colombia, both, have enjoyed a good run, experiencing an economic renaissance of sorts. We just really felt like it was Ecuador’s turn next. It seemed poised for phenomenal economic growth, while still offering very reasonable valuations. It seemed the ideal economic opportunity, especially since I saw myself, once again, in the likely role of entrepreneur and business owner.

HGQ: Any cultural issues or factors that influenced your decision.
MC: Many. likely too many to mention. Maybe an example. There was a rally against GMO foods here in Ecuador. My family attended. Besides the usual activities, part of the rally was intended to mingle with the local Ecuadorean people and attempt to educate them on the whole GMO food issue. It was amazing to see how receptive and inquisitive they were to openly learn more. I don’t know that we successfully convinced anyone, of anything, but it was great to be a part of the exchange and rapport. It was refreshing. If I had taken the same message to the streets of San Francisco, no one would have given me the time of day. Too busy running off to Starbuck’s for the next cup of coffee, or whatever.

Overall, we sensed the people of Ecuador as warm, friendly, helpful and exceptionally open-minded to new concepts and ideas. For us, it was a startling contrast to life in the USA or the UK, for that matter. We also loved the emphasis placed on family and friends here in Ecuador. Reconnecting with my own family was a huge part of my decision to relocate to Ecuador. Being in a culture very supportive of that was great. That’s a good thing.

HGQ: Well, let’s go in a different direction. You come form a heavy duty corporate executive background. Man on the go, zipping about the world at 32,000 feet. I am sure a constant rush of adrenaline pumping. You expatriate to Ecuador, what does that mean for your previous go-go lifestyle? Did you come here strictly to reset your clock to island time and relax, or as a relatively young guy, are you seeking new professional adventures?
MC: No, I absolutely want to stay busy. I like working. I want to leverage what I know and what I’ve learned in an exciting fledgling market environment, brimming with possibilities. Ecuador seems to be a place which still affords me the opportunity to succeed as a small businessman, without the excessive burden of taxation, regulation and cost of support services weighing me down. In the USA, today, to succeed as a small business, to even have a chance, you need to surround yourself with investors, seek additional funding leverage, and even then, you are reinvesting most of your profits for the first 3-5 years. Ecuador seems to afford more options. The ability to succeed with a smaller capital investment, where you can focus on operating your business, not on keeping investors and shareholders content. The USA has killed the small business model and it has been resurrected in Ecuador with a vibrant future ahead. Like turning the clock back to the USA, circa the 1950s, before big business, put small families out of business.

Here in Ecuador, as tourism grows, immigration expands and the small business model gathers momentum, I literally see genuine opportunity everywhere. New businesses are required, service model improvements are needed, new technologies are readily applicable to old business challenges. Everywhere you look, there is room for business growth, modification and improvements. It is an entrepreneur’s dream haven.

HGQ: Mark, I couldn’t agree more. Earlier you touched on just one explosive industry sector – tourism. I mean, just that sector, alone, has explosive potential everywhere you look. From a tourist perspective, Ecuador has something for everyone. The Amazon rainforest. The exotic Galapagos Islands. The majestic sierra region, with its classic colonial splendor. Of course, the miles and miles of sandy beaches, with warm waters and unspoiled settings. Ecuador offers it all. Even then, opportunity is around every corner of the tourism industry. We need world class resort hotels. Avant-garde boutique hotel properties. Spas. First rate tour companies. Chartered yachting companies. Eco-tourism adventures. The list is endless, as you suggest, just in that one sector alone. So, needless to say, that leads me to the next question. What sector excites you? Have you found any business niche that enthralls you, yet?
MC: There are two business ventures which excite me. One I have actually already launched. I have a website called Ecuador Beaches. It can be readily found on the web at http://ecuadorbeaches.org. It is geared, well, as the name implies, towards an in-depth review of the Ecuador beach scene. Our approach differs from most both in terms of scope, as we readily cover beaches from one extreme end of Ecuador to the other, and also by offering an almost real time, constantly refreshed data stream for those interested in the beach life. I guess you can say, I turned my passion into my business. I wanted the beach life for myself and felt I could find a positive and proactive way to share it with others.

HGQ: Mark, well that definitely sounds like fun. It is always great when someone gets to make their life’s passion, their career. I am lucky the same way, for 30 years and counting. Tell me, this whole real time beach update sounds fascinating and a little curious? What do you exactly mean? Can you elaborate on that any?
MC: Actually, it leads to my second major business interest. Currently, I have two webcams streaming live video images, from two popular beach hotspots in Ecuador. My goal is to enhance that coverage to literally every major beach market we cover, which is, frankly, most Ecuadorean beaches. Imagine the ability to sit back at home, whether that is Quito, Guayaquil, New York or Paris and be able to instantly tune in and see the actual live weather and ongoing fun beach activities, across all the gorgeous beach options. If you are already in Ecuador, it may help you decide exactly where you want to spend this weekend. If you are overseas and still waiting to expand your expat horizons, it may help you decide on a region or time of year, which may best fit your lifestyle. The possibilities are endless.

However, to meet that aggressive goal of full coverage, I require webcams everywhere. One of the problems I recognized early on is the need to not only put up a webcam quickly at another new location, but you also need the proper local area InterNet speed to maximize the webcam images. For quality coverage, you need the ISP to do some things for you and well. So, especially in the more remote beach areas, I found the only real workable solution was to focus on a Wireless ISP network. The industry refers to them as WISPs. I am very familiar with wireless technologies and I have identified two good wireless options which can be rolled out not only to meet my market demand, but those of the local area populace along the Ecuadorean coast. I would like to partner with these WISP providers to help them bring product to market more efficiently. I really can’t say much more than that, as discussions are presently ongoing.

HGQ: Well, Mark, that not only seems to well match your executive experience, but seems an ideal way to deliver your service. We are living in an increasingly mobile world, where wireless technology enjoys more extensive market penetration and makes greater and greater advances, on a daily basis. This makes me curious, did you build your Ecuador Beaches website around the concept of the webcam experience, or was it something else?
MC: The answer is both yes and now. I mean, early on I recognized the unique nature of the real time webcam experience and the advantage it offers relative to other tourism related websites. However, it was more the proverbial icing on the cake. What I truly set out to do was create an information pipeline, based on my own experience, when I was first exploring Ecuador. I knew I wanted to be on the coast, toes in sand on the beach. Yet, no website could offer me an extensive preview of what that meant. The data was scattered and fragmented. Even for those regions where data existed, it was all over the place. There was not a single, central unified source, where I could readily and easily compare beaches and oceanfront living across Ecuador. I just thought building that wonderful place and adding the experience of real time video feeds would be helpful to folks that found themselves in my position.

HGQ: Mark, I am sure it will be extremely helpful. It is certainly comprehensive and the photography on your website is magnificent, let alone the webcam experience. So, where do you see your website side of the business evolving?
MC: Hector, my goal is to create a one stop objective preview for coastal communities. Unlike you, for example, I am not looking to provide real estate consulting services or any other service model. I just want to present clear, uniform data of coastal living, so that folks can review lifestyle options in a recognizable way across the board. You will have details about the size of the beach, the year round temperatures for the area, what featured local businesses can be found in the broader coastal community. Pretty much anything you will need to make an informed decision about whether this beach town is a good place for you to visit or live. We are the online supermarket for Ecuador beach communities, in the broader sense. To that end, I see local area service providers as natural partners in the course of providing an all-encompassing beach database for the public.

HGQ: You know, Mark, that is not only an excellent model, but a much needed one. If I am to be raw and candid as always, whether it is my service sector or any other, the tendency, quite unfortunately, is to color a particular locale from the reference point of the service provider’s business model. Sadly, most misunderstand the damage this can do. No point in luring an unsuspecting party to a locale that is not right for them, in exchange for the temporary gratification of a sliver of business. Long-term, the disgruntled client leaves the area, rightfully miffed at those that lured them there not based on objective fact, but subjective self-interest. Hopefully, your website can provide an objective place to analyze the carefree coastal lifestyle.

So, in closing this interview, can you tell me how you would describe your decision to relocate to Ecuador, both for you and your family? What has your experience been thus far?
MC: It actually has taken us a very long time to get settled. It is not all a walk in the park. To find the right house took time. To get our belongings imported into the country took time. We had to get our legal residence, enroll our daughter in school, after much research into scholastic options, and make all the improvements and renovations to our house. It’s a process. One made more difficult if you don’t speak Spanish. It is also a process that carries with it some notable financial cost, especially for those seeking to bring over their household goods. Don’t let anyone tell you that it doesn’t cost money to relocate somewhere across the globe, because it does. The move is not free,

However, that said, it is literally the best decision, as a family, that we have ever made. We couldn’t be happier here, in Ecuador. We’ve made more friends here in one year than in the prior 20 years of living in California. We have an excellent, wholesome environment in which to raise our daughter. It was the right decision for us, as a family.

HGQ: Well, Mark, thank you for this interview. You were very generous with your time. I wish you nothing but the best in your business ventures and enjoying your new Ecuadorean lifestyle. It has been a pleasure getting the chance to share your Pirates of the Pacific journey, with our readership. I truly appreciate your time and candor. Welcome aboard! We have only just set sail on our new adventure, together.