Getting to Know Casa Rana

Concerto in Hotel Saint Angel. Four hours earlier we were winding our way over the mountains to PV. Mexico has always been a land of contrasts for us.

Taking the fast lane to the a new life. We drove to Puerto Vallarta on August 9, 2010 to move Karen and Lilly into Casa Rana.  It was the second of our moving trips and the Iron Duke, our 1996 136,000 mile Jeep, was stuffed to the gills this time as well.  We covered 1500 miles and were in PV by 4:00PM on day three.  We threw our stuff in Casa Rana as fast as we could and two hours later we were at a mini-concert in PV’s most exclusive hotel, three blocks down the street.   Later we had dinner at my favorite restaurant, Barcelona, four blocks in the other direction from our house.  We swayed our way back to Casa Rana that night, feeling that we were in the middle of  everything.  The next morning we found out  that “everything” included a far away rooster, a way-too-close barking dog, and a neighborhood that liked to get up early on Sunday mornings.  After an all day shopping trip the next day to the Walmart, CostCo, and the Sariana market, I was on the plane back to Los Angeles and my girls were starting their lives in Puerto Vallarta.  If the first couple of days were any view to the future, something told me that KR’s life in PV would be anything but leisurely.

The following pictures are the “before” pictures, showing Casa Rana as it was when we bought it and immediately upon moving in.  It’s going to change pretty rapidly.

Five easy blocks to the beach, its five tough blocks going up to Casa Rana

My motto: "Happy wife, happy life." KR in front of Casa Rana. This view is of Calle Corona, toward the beach.

Looking north on Calle Miramar. Casa Rana is on the left. This street is one of only two ways to get to the house.

KR and Lilly go for their first walk together around the neighborhood.  This is looking south on Calle Miramar.

KR and Lilly go for their first walk around the neighborhood

Looking at the dining room and kitchen from the living room

Living room

The living room, with a view onto Calle Corona

KR marks her territory with two horses in the window

The kitchen. Previous owner was into minimalist design

FW's office

The Propellant Group's Mexican branch office

In the center of the house is an open courtyard. When it rains, one needs an umbrella to get to the spare bedroom and office

Looking up the stairs towards FW's office. Above the office is a sun deck

Master bedroom.  Guest bedroom is similar, except it opens into the courtyard

Master bedroom. Guest bedroom is similar, but opens onto the courtyard.

Lilly after her first walk to the neighborhood Starbucks

Figuring Out How to Make Work Conform to My Life(style) and Not the Other Way Around

One of the most important challenges in trying to reorder the priorities of one’s life is figuring out how to reconfigure how you make a living.  The question is not so much changing what you do, but changing how you deliver it and to whom.  For many people, I suppose, this isn’t an option.  An electrician needs to go where the electricity needs to be.  A secretary needs an office.  A bus driver needs a bus.  But for many, reconfiguring delivery is doable.  Herein lies a case history.

Getting Back in the Saddle: Your Basic 7-7 Job

Demoing Snap during its introduction in New York. I'm the guy on the right:)

My trek from the normal really began in early 2005 when I reentered the “normal” world, becoming the COO of, a next generation search engine and advertising platform owned by Idealab.    Snap was my first “job” in quite some time.  For the ten years prior, I had been an entrepreneur in one fashion or another.

For the next 2 1/2 years I went into Snap’s office for 12 hours a day and usually part of the weekends.   The work was great fun and challenging as we were building something difficult and potentially important.   After a while, though, I began asking myself, why am I doing this? It wasn’t the long hours of hard work that bothered me as I’ve always been a workaholic, nor was it the nature of the work.  Rather, it was the lack of flexibility in doing the work.  My daily agenda was set by my boss or the umpteen meetings that I took every day.  I found it difficult, if not impossible, to pursue the things that I really cared about.  I just didn’t have the time or energy to do what I wanted after I came home in the evenings.

I started to think about taking back control.  Could I make a living in a more flexible manner?  What I was good at and who would be interested in it?.  My answer boiled down to the same thing: I’m good at building things:  teams, groups, companies, products.  I like the process of creating and getting people working together.

Couldn’t I do this in a way that gave me more control and freedom?  I didn’t know, but I was willing to find out.

Taking Back Control

In the Spring of 2007 I resigned from Snap and in September of that year co-founded The Propellant Group with two other C-level entrepreneurs.  Our mission was simple: help early stage companies grow and succeed.   From the very beginning, we built TPG to be flexible, low-cost and high-impact:

  • Simplification to the extreme:  TPG has three elements:  Clients, Partners and our Work.  That’s it. Everything else either gets in the way or takes money away from profits.   We didn’t really need much accounting or legal support either.  From revenue, we subtracted a few costs, set aside a little money for future expenses, and divided the rest by three and made out three checks.
  • No offices: We decided early on that TPG would operate out of our individual houses.  No formal offices which means… no personal lease commitment, no extra overhead, no furniture, no maintenance, no…. ANYTHING!  We thought this would be a big problem for clients.  It wasn’t, our clients seemed to embrace the idea that quality doesn’t necessarily only come from big and structured.  Especially for our clients.
  • No infrastructure:  We had a bank account and that was it.  No stationery, no copy machine, and no administrative assistants.   No hard lines and no faxes.  We each had a cell phone, access to the Internet, and business cards.

This took a little getting use to, even for three guys who had  built companies from scratch.  We had to jettison our belief that self-worth and potential impact were tied to nice offices and a recognized name.  We had to go down the stairs, or across the hall, or sit at the dining room table and do the work even if we were in our jammies.  We needed to feel confident in meeting prospective clients at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf and not let it bother us.  This isn’t for everyone. Over the past three years, TPG has gone through a number of partners partly because the unstructured nature of the business was uncomfortable.

My work regimen changed over night.  The first thing one notices is that the 2 hours each day lost in commuting is re-found.  So, immediately my 12 hour day is down to 10.  Next is time lost in frivolous meetings and around-the-office meandering and stuff:  probably another four hours.  Now we’re down to six hours without a noticeable impact on productivity.  And that folks is the payoff:  work 1/2 the time, accomplish the same output, and gain a life-changing amount of control in your life.

For Adults Only

There are significant downsides to my configuration, as one might expect.  Downside #1:  there are no viable excuses for not getting something done.  The dog ate the homework doesn’t cut it.  Sometimes you just have to put your head down and get it done, no matter what else is going on.  Downside #2:  There are always lots of other things going on:)  Distractions can be well…. distracting.  Downside #3:  You have to get use to working anywhere, and I mean anywhere.  Boat, plane, motorcycle, Starbucks, on the side of the road, at the kitchen table, at the client’s office, at a restaurant, or wherever.   This is where most people get confused:  this isn’t a vacation, its a different way of organizing one’s life.  And work is and will be the engine that drives it.

The Cost and Value of Flexibility

Here’s the bottom line audit of this move:  my income has gone down about 45%, the amount of time I devote to work has gone down about about 50%, and the amount of flexibility in my life is up 1000%.   As a result, the last three years have been some of the happiest of my life.  I wouldn’t (and won’t) change a thing.

How Far Can “It” Be Pushed?

My quest is to be able to make a living while  “on the road” for long periods of time.   So, here’s what I’m going to try:  (1) Continue to live in Los Angeles (in Steve and Rita’s basement just as long as they will put up with me) as a my homebase;  (2) Work while we take a motorcycle trip through South America; and (3) Work from Los Angeles and our Mexican headquarters in Puerto Vallarta upon return.  Repeat sequence as often as possible.

Will this work?  I have no idea.  I’ll keep you posted.

Transition to a Working Nomad…

Last of the Mohigans? Office at the Idealab, an incubator of tech company startups. Snap was housed in this office.

First world headquarters of The Propellant Group -- our house in Hollywood.

Being able to concentrate has its challenges. This is Little Big Sur.

Who says an office needs walls? This is my office at Little Big Sur.

TPG has thousands of branch offices worldwide. My vote for best company on earth is Starbucks. Now with free Wi-Fi. It doesn't get any better than this.

Having clients that worry about the product, not the package is a good thing. Here's my "office" in a conference room at United States Artists

Working at the kitchen table in a house in Fiambala, Argentina. The kitchen also served as dining room, living room and den:)

Basement Beauty. Current offce in the basement of Steve and Rita's. I've spent a lot of good times on the keyboards right here.

In Which We Try to Take Advantage of a Real Estate Tsunami

When we began going to PV in 2006, it was in the midst of a building boom hard to describe.   For years PV had been a relatively small tourist town best known for fishing, good beaches and lively nightlife.  Nestled against the mountains, it was never going to be as big or commercial as Cancun or Acapulco. Then us Baby Boomers must have found it and the go-go days began, with new hotels, condos and shopping centers springing up all along the Banderas Bay.   Every trip down brought new arrivals:  Walmart, CostCo, Home Depot, Office Max, a high end shopping center, more super mercados and FIVE Starbucks.     Finding a new finished condo was nearly impossible, so people began putting down pre-construction deposits on planned paradises.

We flew to PV on our anniversary in 2006 on a whim and a prayer of finding some place on the beach we could eventually call home. That thought was quickly killed as prices for anything with “beach” in it were $500K and up – and I mean up!  Spending a couple of million was not unusual. There were lots of villas in the high seven and low eights.   We were shocked and depressed until we stumbled on Little Big Sur (or what would eventually become LBS) in the jungle south of PV.  We had found our beach place at something we could afford.  Granted, it wasn’t exactly a house since it had no walls, but that’s another story.  None the less, we made PV our home away from home.

None of us knew it, but PV (and Mexico) was about to be hit by a Perfect Storm of economic disaster.  First up was the tsunami from the US housing market earthquake.  Pre-construction deposits stopped, construction was slowed on most of the developments, and “Se Vende” signs sprung up everywhere.   Then the H1N1 virus scare pretty much stopped all tourist traffic (and was probably the nail in the Mexicana Airlines’ coffin).  Finally, Americans and Mexicans read daily newspaper stories on the escalating Narco Wars.  Add all this up and you get restaurants that are half empty, condos that are half built, streets that you can cross without fear of being run-over, and shops closing for the off-season never to return.

The mood amongst Vallartans was never grim, however, as Puerto Vallarta is and always will be a party town. But the exuberance that once flowed through everything was gone.  Vallartan’s were quietly holding their breadths, hoping that it would all blow over – and soon!

Into this Perfect Economic Storm, Karen and I came looking to buy a place.  I admit that I was pretty exuberant having been on the other end of the stick  just weeks prior.  This was our opportunity to find our perfect place at a price we could afford and I was pretty obnoxious in expressing this goal.

As usual, KR and I approached buying real estate from different perspectives.  I was open for a bigger house in a borderline neighborhood, so I could store all our vehicles.  I wanted to build a Man Cave.   I was also in no hurry and definitely in the Manana frame of mind about buying a place.  I felt that the market was going south, not north, any time soon.

Karen wasn’t into fixing a place up, didn’t really care about a garage, wanted to be in central PV so we could be close to the action, and definitely wanted to find a place yesterday so she could start making a new nest.   Our negotiated Want List included a pool, view, at least two bedrooms, a garage and a price less than $350K.

Karen flew down to PV in mid-May to begin looking.  First thing she did was one of our best moves — we hired Harriet Murray as our Real Estate Agent and How-to-Live-in-Puerto Vallarta Expert.  Harriet not only knows real estate but she’s worked with enough Gringos-in-a-Strange-Land to be a walking encyclopedia of how to make The Move.

Looking at real estate is different in PV. First off, there is no one source of all things for sale – an equivalent to the MLS—but rather several privately aggregated lists and the listings from the various real estate agents.  The best way of finding out about new places is to always be looking, talking with other agents/owners, going to events, and monitoring web sites.  New places were being discovered every day.  Between the three of us – Harriet, Karen and me – we looked at dozens and dozens of places either virtually or figuratively.   At the end of each day KR and I would have a Skype call comparing places and talking about  pros and cons.  My favorite metric for any house was “Days on the Market”.  It wasn’t unusual for this number to be way over 300 days – easily into the 700 day range.  Can you see the smile?

Once KR had a “short” list of possibilities, I flew down to PV to close the deal.

Moving to a new city is full of surprises, even if you think you know the place pretty well.  We thought we knew the town pretty well, beyond just being tourists, as we had spent a lot of time scouring the back streets looking for stoves, cement, beds, furniture, tools and the like.  We’d gotten around via buses, land and water taxis, and rental cars.  One of the reasons we had selected PV was we were comfortable there

Yet, we were to find out there is a big difference between visiting a place (even often) and living there.  In a little more than three days, Harriet drove us through more of PV than I’d seen in all the years coming down.  I got to know all the little neighborhoods, appreciate their quirks and nuances, and came to see even more of the non-tourist part of PV.   Verseilles, Conchas Chinas, El Centro, Amapas, Romantic Zone, Marina, the Hotel Zone, Las Gaviotas, the Marina, Gringo Gulch, and many more.

Some of these neighborhoods were mostly Gringos or other foreigners, some were mainly Mexican, and many were a combo.  Conchas Chinas, for example, is informally known as the Beverly Hills of PV.  Located in the hills immediately south of Old Town and along the coast, Conchas Chinas was quiet, secluded, and features condos and villas with breathtaking views of the Bay and the City.  Because of the downturn, we could afford to look in Conchas Chinas and it was very, very seductive.   One of the finalists in our search, “Casa Romantica #5” (all homes have names in PV), with stunning views, a gorgeous pool, a garage, outdoor grill, a beautiful kitchen and well…just about everything.

But like its namesake, CC was insulated from the rest of PV.   Reachable only by car because of the steep hills, the CC lifestyle meant days and evenings hang’n at home rather than an easy walk down the street.   Could we live the vacation lifestyle 24/7?

We learned that when someone describes a neighborhood as Mexican, it’s a code word for loud.   As in people, kids, chickens, cars, and music all at high volumes, at all times of the day and night.   It usually also  means dirt streets and unfinished houses (this sounds a lot worse than it is, these are often charming places, but just rough around the edges) and far from the beach.

We weren’t ready for “Full Mexican,” but were up for a mixed neighborhood of Gringos and Mexicans like El Centro.  As its name implies, El Centro is the center of PV and is one of the oldest parts of town.  We liked the El Cerro section quite a bit – in the hills above the main town.  It had cobble stone streets, a mix of Mexicans and foreigners, a few restaurants and hole-in-the-wall shops, and was close to everything.

KR (and I admit me too) fell in love with a converted 100 year-old adobe house named Casa Rana in  El Cerro.  It had been totally redone to make it a charming mini-hacienda with all the modern conveniences on the inside, yet it looked like a small, old adobe house on the outside.   At 2100 square feet, it was huge for all standards, with two bedrooms and an office.

Of course, there were significant downsides to Casa Rana.  No air conditioning, no pool, no view, no garage and it was was going to be loud.  It was on one of the main north/south routes through PV which meant there was traffic at all hours of the day.  This problem was made all the worse as this “main thoroughfare” was less than a car width wide, meaning it was impossible to keep tiles on the roof as trucks keep knocking them down.

Before we got on the plane back to LA, we’d made an offer on Casa Rana, had back and forth counters, and made an offer on Casa Romantica in between.   We finally made a deal on Casa Rana a few days after getting back.

Wow, I guess we’re really doing this…