x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

The Adventure Capitalist

Conor Woodman tells Ben East about the ups and downs of trading his way around the developing world.

It's a familiar tale of career-burnout: a successful city boy ditches his lucrative career to "find himself" on a round-the-world pleasure-hunt. But Conor Woodman's trip was slightly different: he took US$50,000 (Dh184,000) of his payoff with him, and bought and sold goods as he travelled from country to country. Which is how he ended up in Kyrgystan, selling horses at a local market, and writing about it. He rolls his eyes at the memory.

"They call it horse trading for a reason," he laughs. "These people are really hard work: massive great hulks of men who take your hand in a handshake and absolutely do not let go until the deal for the horse is done. It can take ages, and it's brilliantly theatrical. Huge crowds gather around the two of you, and when you conclude the deal everyone cheers like they would a last-minute goal at a Cup Final. Not surprisingly, I lost $312 at that market - I'd taken on something that was way beyond me."

But these experiences are why Woodman's book of his travels, The Adventure Capitalist, is so much fun. In it, he sources coffee from a plantation in Zambia to sell later in South Africa. He buys wine from South Africa to export to China. And his mission? To start in Sudan, and end in Brazil five months later, having doubled his money to $100,000. "And to have a lot of fun along the way. That was really important," he adds. "I had worked in an office environment where everything was done over the phone and via e-mail and it was all very faceless, rushed and impersonal.

"In the end, that kind of life isn't enjoyable or stimulating. What I found on the trip is that if you take time to speak to the person you're there to see - even if it's about something unrelated - you actually get a better deal for yourself. You definitely enjoy and remember the experience and the thing that you're buying becomes worth more to you, because you remember the person you bought it from. 

"Making a living is about making money, but it's also about remembering to live. And this wasn't a business trip, it was my life." Woodman tells me how he first had the idea in Nepal, where he was helping a director friend make a film. He was amazed at the sight of yaks laden with furs and meats for barter at market being taken over the mountains into Tibet. It sparked off the thought that such ancient trading methods have been forgotten by the developed world. "I wanted to experience that simple, exciting way of doing business," he says.

He returned to his home in the UK with a plan - where Channel 4 commissioned a series of his journey that went out earlier this year. Around the World in 80 Trades wasn't strictly accurate as a title, but it was a pretty fair description of what he was trying to do. The Adventure Capitalist, which was published in September, is much more than a book tie-in for a television series, though: this is a well written, more enjoyable and much fuller tale of his life-changing five months.

"It very quickly became apparent that it would work better as a book, particularly when the scripts for the programme became more and more frustrating as you realised what you'd have to leave out," he admits. "You're also constrained by what you have on camera, of course. "Trading camels in Sudan was a really good example. If you read the book we had awful trouble: the paperwork hadn't been sorted out, which meant we had four days without a camera and missed this massive camel market in the south of the country. That's probably the real reason the trade didn't work out - we were under house arrest in Khartoum under suspicion of being spies. But trying to tell that story without pictures just doesn't work."

In the book, Woodman memorably portrays the administrative chaos of the East African state. But his failed camel trade was also his first trade. Did he feel worried that actually his plan might not work, that because his trip generally took in emerging nations, they'd be unused to dealing with westerners? "Oh yes. Sudan was a complete disaster, not just because of the country itself, but because they just didn't want me there, muscling in on their market. So I definitely did think 'is any of this going to work?'

"I'd built this impossible schedule for myself where there just wasn't the time to arrive, meet all the right people, weigh up different options and think about a trade or a deal carefully. Everything was the seat of my pants. And because the whole thing was set up like dominoes so that the visas would work, I was really worried. Thankfully, I was tipped off about a Zambian coffee plantation, took the product to South Africa, and we were away-"

Though he very nearly lost out on that trade, too (one coffee cup of the 15 tasted had, apparently, a marzipan hue) before a backup buyer came in at the last minute. But half the fun of reading the book is revelling in the dramatic tension of the deals, the feeling that all is lost before a sale is made at the last minute. Of course, such escapades make you wonder whether Woodman was actually all that bothered about losing money if the by-product was an entertaining story to tell.

"When it looked as if I was going to lose a fortune on jade - where me and the director looked at each other and said: 'My God, this is a disaster, but it'll make great television, a great chapter in the book,' I don't think that's being deceitful. If it was all just plain sailing, then it would make for a pretty boring process. I never actually courted disaster though, and to be honest I also did need some of the deals to work or it wouldn't have been a good book or TV series either."

He's right there. "Ex-city trader goes round world bartering with locals, and completely fails" would hardly have set publishers' pulses racing. His successes are as important as his failures. Woodman describes his best trade: "The bodyboards deal in Mexico was really satisfying," he recalls of a transaction that involved taking inflatable bodyboards to the surf beaches of central America. Tourists obviously were not going to heave bulky foam ones around on their travels, so it was a simple but effective idea.

"At that point I was getting more sophisticated in my thinking," he explains. "Buy cheap in China, get it branded, get it endorsed and then sell to a big chain. It was the one time where everything worked... apart from nearly drowning in the middle of it all." The Adventure Capitalist is certainly more than a business manual. Even when everything appears to be going right, Woodman almost grabs defeat from the jaws of victory.

"Well, I have a hands on, get stuck in attitude to life, and doing this trip amplified that even more. So in Mexico it seemed perfectly natural to accompany the guy who was going to endorse my boards. When we were on the beach, he stopped and said quite firmly: 'Are you sure you want to come out on this wave with me?' "Well, I just brushed it off. I'd surfed before. But I've got to say I've never experienced anything like that wave on the Zicatella beach. It's enormous, the world's biggest shore break - and absolutely terrifying. I got caught in this awful washing-machine effect in the waves. I was really, really scared: I thought I was a goner."

As Woodman sat in Acapulco later that day he counted out his profit and reappraised his trip. And, apart from nearly dying, certain fundamentals become clear to him and us: that business is all about contacts. When Woodman was buying his goods, most of the time he was able to get a cheaper price because he was acting as a kind of conduit: he promised to pass back the information about the future sale he hoped to make in the new market. Often, you sense that the information was more important than the product: Woodman was taking the risk that they would never be able to contemplate, finding a market on the other side of the world for them. Indeed, many of the links Woodman set up have flourished: there is now a UK distributor for the Bushman Sauce he found in South Africa, for example.

And if that's interesting for the few traders among us, what about those people whose only experience of business negotiations comes with buying a house? What can they get from The Adventure Capitalist? "I guess what I want people to think is that you can negotiate on that sofa with the sofa salesman, you just have to have the nerve to do it. If I can negotiate in languages I don't even speak, then that should encourage people. 

"But this is a book to enjoy more than anything else. Yes, there are some business tenets in there and I wanted to explain how I make money and what the logic was. Crucially, though, it was also fun. Apart from when I was locked in that handshake with the horse-trader-" The Adventure Capitalist (Pan) is out now. Around the World in 80 Trades (2 Entertain) is also available on DVD.