Up & Away: Paul von Bergen, owner of Billabong Retreat
A retail business gone bust and an unhealthy relationship with money led Paul von Bergen to rebuild his life through yoga, and to open a yoga retreat. But is living the dream all it’s cracked up to be?
As early as age 12, British national Paul von Bergen says his view towards money was warped. “I remember having a conversation with my brother back then. We didn’t even care if we died at age 30 so long as we died a millionaire with a Ferrari,” he says.
From the moment he entered the workforce, Paul dedicated himself to making as much money as possible, “with no conscience about what my effort contributed to the world,” he says (he once worked in marketing for a cigarette company).
Now, at age 42, the former marketing consultant has a different perspective. There’s more balance.
“I’ve got no problems with making money – but it’s about doing it in the right way with the right business.”
That business is Billabong Retreat, an eco yoga retreat set on 12 acres of bushland outside of Sydney, which opened in 2011. Paul built the retreat himself and also lives on the grounds with his wife, Tory and their three young children. The retreat sits beside a natural billabong, and every week customers arrive to escape their busy lives, practise yoga and learn the art of relaxation.
"The good thing about having a job you hate is you can blame it."
It’s a very different version of the future to the one Paul imagined when he was a boy. The change in direction came in his mid-30s when a retail business he started “went belly up”, and he lost all his money. His mother’s death from alcohol-related illness was the final catalyst for change.
“I decided – right, life’s too short. Let’s do it.” Paul booked a trip to Thailand “to find [himself] and work out what to do next”. What he found was yoga and meditation.
Paul became interested in the idea of building a retreat after visiting various wellness centres in Thailand. Over there he met Tory, and when they returned to Australia they continued visiting and running retreats at already-established venues. After a number of years they decided to take the plunge and build their own.
The couple bought their idyllic block of land in mid-2008. Then came the challenge of literally building their dream.
Money was a tight, but fortunately a friend helped Paul land some contract events consulting, which turned into a four-day-a-week job working from home.
“I got lucky by the skin of my teeth,” says Paul.
But it still wasn’t easy. Building the retreat himself helped to keep costs down, but their money situation meant every expenditure had to be cross-examined. They sourced materials off eBay and even off the side of the road.
Two-and-half years later the retreat opened, and it has since seen around 3000 guests come through its doors.
If there’s one thing Paul has learnt from the process of building and running his own business, it’s that “you always seem to kind of just survive.”
“Every time you think you’re not going to, something comes up that just keeps you going. [As a business owner] it’s a real test to trust in the universe that it will provide,” he says.
The benefits of yoga to business
Practising yoga has had huge benefits for Paul in running his business, from the physical (he credits yoga with giving him the strength to build) to the mental.
“The philosophy of trying to stay in the present moment … to be aware of one’s habitual thoughts and patterns, to use awareness of one’s breath to minimise anxiety and stress – all of those yogic techniques are really beneficial to business owners,” he says.
Another helpful aspect of yogic philosophy is the idea that you don’t necessarily have to know how to do something to start it.
“I think one of the problems with entrepreneurs is that they think they have to have everything completely mapped out before they start, which can be very stressful,” says Paul. “[Yoga teaches that] you can set an intention of where you want to be, and take little steps in that direction. You don’t have to worry about how it’s all going to pan out, but just do a little step at a time.”
One point at which yoga and business can clash is when it comes to the commercial perspective. Whether it’s to do with business relationships or attracting and retaining customers, Paul says getting the balance right between being hard-nosed commercial and being compassionate for the people that you work with is a challenge.
For those who have a gentle approach to doing business, ensuring your expectations of business partners are clear will help you avoid being let down.
Paul learnt this the hard way.
“It’s ambiguity that causes all the problems,” he says. “I believe in the one-pager over a long-winded lawyer’s contract. For any agreement, you should be able to write it on one page, with bullet points.”
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Pricing and marketing
Finding the right price point to attract and retain customers is proving a challenge. To start with, Paul has been relying on discounts, offers and daily deals to get customers through the door until word-of-mouth spreads.
“I think it is hard to get the pricing strategy right in the beginning,” he says. “You don’t want to be losing customers because of price when building a new business. It’s better to have your fixed costs covered or partly covered than not covered at all. Cash flow is king.”
“You can’t count on those daily deals customers to come back, but it buys time for you to build up other customers.”
Paul is confident the need for discounting will gradually diminish, especially since the retreat was featured on Channel 7’s Sydney Weekender program.
“I don’t know how they found us – they just found us,” he says of the exposure. “Isn’t this always the case – you try to fight for publicity, and the one that’s really going to be big just falls into your lap.
“There’s something about the power of TV. It’s always good having a little article here or a little article there or even a bit of advertising, but it never really seems to do very much. But you get 10-15 minutes of prime-time TV with a few hundred-thousand people watching and really immersing themselves in the story, then it’s really quite priceless.”
If Paul has one other marketing tip, it’s to invest in search engine optimisation (SEO).
“Google is the main gateway for people finding us,” he says. “People are sometimes happier to spend their money on a magazine ad because they can see what they’re getting and they know it’s going to happen, and they’re more nervous about paying someone [for SEO] because they think – what are we going to get for it? But I think trust in it. Trust the advice you get back from them.”
“We do some AdWords, but I don’t find them good value for money, really. We get the clicks, but not the bookings.”
Living the dream
The idea of running a yoga retreat is very romantic. So does the reality live up to the dream?
“It is an awesome business and we’re really lucky,” says Paul. “It’s just on our doorstep and … we’ve got the best customers we could ask for,” he says. But as with any business, there are difficulties. For Paul and Tory, it’s the lack of separation between business and home life, and being in a constant customer service role with a 24/7 business. To help with this, Paul’s moved his office from their house to the retreat, and they’re hiring another staff member to assist with admin.
As for the bigger-picture dream, Paul has an interesting insight.
“The problem with living the dream is that you’ve got no more excuse as to why you’re not totally happy and totally blissed out. The good thing about having a job you hate is you can blame it.
“When you’ve got this business you really love – it means you have to confront your own mental health. If you are still having ups and downs, then you have to be aware of that.”
While enlightenment is eluding him, Paul is thankful that he has yoga and meditation to turn to. “Yoga and meditation teach you how to manage pressure without telling you to stress,” he says. “And the more I teach yoga, the more my own yoga improves and the more I learn how to do that.”
Ideally Paul would like to get Billabong Retreat to a point where it can run itself so he can focus more on business development. Getting to that point would be a marker of success in the business. As for reaching success in life – by his new definition, sans Ferrari and millions – he’s found it already.
“I define success as … knowing that I lived my life true to myself, true to what I wanted to do, hopefully in a caring manner, and that my life had a positive role on society. It’s certainly not just money anymore.”
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