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Leadership Lessons from the Tropics

Think your entrepreneurial dreams are out of reach? Learn how even starting a dive shop in Tonga is possible. Part 1 of a series.

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As Jimmy Buffett would say, "Have you ever dreamed of escaping from your dull existence to a new life on a tropical island?" My guess is many of you have had that thought once or twice. Well, back in 1991, I did just that. Only once I was there, I didn't relax; I became an entrepreneur.

I originally headed to the Kingdom of Tonga, located in the South Pacific, on my honeymoon. The warm waters, blue skies and lush vegetation in Tonga create the perfect tropical paradise. It's a playground for scuba divers, enthusiasts and sport fishermen. So the two-week honeymoon was intended for sailing and and forgetting that I was the director of marketing in a hospital where I was always stressed.

Sailing around the idyllic islands with warm winds and diving in 200-foot visibility was a true piece of heaven. One day, after diving, we joined a group of salty dogs sitting in the sand bar discussing life. Thomas, the manager of Moorings Yacht Charter Company, where we rented our floating home, then asked: "If you could do what you really wanted to do in life what would it be?"

After being put on the spot, I told him that I'd always wanted to have a scuba diving shop in the tropics, where it's warm. "Well why don't you do that here and do it now?" was his response. I mumbled something back about being the next in line for VP of marketing. "Oh I get it," he said. "You are just one of those people that talk about your dreams and never make them come true." After telling him that wasn't the case, he offered his support and all of his sailing clients without charging a percentage if I brought my "American professionalism" to Tonga and set up a scuba diving business.

The next day, over a cup of dark Tongan coffee, I told my husband that I seriously wanted to start the business and asked what he thought. After thinking about it for a moment, he responded, "Why not? It sounds like fun; let's do it."

Taking the Plunge
Preparing to run a business in a third-world country that was also a kingdom was a bit daunting. So we set about doing everything we needed to do before making the final commitment to move to a place we know nothing about.

Considering I've been scuba diving since I was 12 years old and leading dives in California, Mexico and Hawaii, getting my instructor license was natural. But then there was my new husband, Mark. His ego was bigger than the ocean, and he wanted to learn it all quicker and faster than anyone. He had just learned to dive a month before taking the sailing trip to Tonga, so he needed a bit more work.

The long version of our preparation is in my book, Waking Up in Tonga, but here's the "tourist version," as we call it. After the honeymoon, it took a year and a half to get everything in order. During that time, I learned many lessons and collected some entertaining stories about dealing with the government of Tonga, buying equipment, acquiring the needed funds, and selling or giving away everything we owned.

We packed up our life in a 20x20 container, and I moved to Tonga first. I met the container in Nuku'alofa, the capital of Tonga, cleared customs, almost went to jail, and moved into a house with flying cockroaches and no inside bathroom. The toilet was outside in the jungle. I laid the cement slabs for the dive shop and compressor room myself and got the business built, the boat delivered and diving customers within six weeks--all before my husband arrived.

I learned many lessons during my six-year journey in Tonga, some of which I plan to share with you during my next several columns. The lesson I want to share with you this month is one that I learned early on.

When our ideas are fueled by passion it's easy to put the cart before the horse, as my father used to tell me. When we own our own business, we often don't have anyone to answer to or use as a sounding board for important business decisions. That's why always doing your research is so important--a lesson I learned in the very beginning of the customs process.

Before moving, I had no idea that the Kingdom of Tonga doesn't allow guns in the country. In fact, the police officers don't even carry them. I, however, grew up in a family of hunters and peace officers who taught their little sister to shoot. So I naturally took my gun to Tonga, which is how I almost ended up in jail, a story that I will cover in more detail next month.

For now, remember that your entrepreneurial dreams are possible, but that you always need research and hard work to accompany your passion.

Patty Vogan is's "Leadership" columnist and owner of Victory Coaching, an executive coaching company for business and personal success, and a chairman for the largest CEO organization in the world, TEC International.

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