Ex-City lawyer heads for the hills
Sofia de Meyer has gone from practising corporate law at Ashurst (which she enjoyed), to living in the Swiss Alps for eleven months of the year. She set up and runs Whitepod, which is a unique and “eco-chic” camp offering unprecedented accommodation in distinctive “pods”. There are a variety of mountain activities available for those not so keen on skiing. The concept has been so successful that it won the 2005 Responsible Tourism Awards for innovation and Whitepod is a member of the luxury camps and lodges of the world. We asked Sofia how she did it.
mtl: Wow, where do we begin. You’ve had quite a change! Can you start by telling us about your legal career?
Sofia: I studied law at Bristol and then trained at Ashurst. I qualified into their corporate department, where I worked for a further four years. My time there included six months in the Milan office and an 18 month secondment to a firm in Chicago. I really enjoyed my work and it taught me a lot about how to set up and manage a business, so I have no regrets about starting out as a lawyer.
mtl: So what changed for you at four years’ pqe?
Sofia: I realised that if I wanted to stay I would have to aim for the big profile deals in an attempt to make partnership. The alternative seemed to be to take what I had learnt as a lawyer and apply it elsewhere. I was young enough to take a risk and give something else a try (though in retrospect I think you can do it at any age) and I wanted to do something for myself. I knew that I could always go back if it didn’t work out.
From starting to question my career as a lawyer, to actually resigning, took eight months. I was so busy on deals that it became a vicious circle of wanting to try something else but never having time to peacefully think about my options.
In the end I took a long weekend off work, which I spent in the mountains, to think about the risk and emotional impact of leaving. I have always loved the outdoors and I knew that if I left law I wanted to do something that combined who I really was with what inspired me (and of course while doing something that had a viable business plan). I came back having decided to give it a go. I didn’t have a business plan at that stage - instead I was relying on gut instinct.
My intention was to do something related to eco-tourism in the Alps. I wanted to offer alternative activities to the mass tourism of the skiing industry, which has a huge impact on the environment and can be far from relaxing given the hordes of people on the slopes. Instead I wanted the focus to be on experiencing the peace of the mountains.
When I left work, I spent the first month doing my business plan and gave myself a further six months to do the research, find the funding and set up the concept. Initially I didn’t know that I would provide accommodation, but it became clear that to add to the sense of peace of the entire trip, people would have to be able to sleep where they were doing these activities.
mtl: How did you find setting up a business abroad?
Sofia: I have nothing to compare it with, but I found it very challenging, although I am Swiss myself so at least I could speak the language and I knew the area well.
Law, University of Bristol
LPC, College of Law, Store Street
Training contract, Ashurst
Assistant, corporate department, Ashurst
Left Ashurst to set up Whitepod
It was tough getting funding and I had to mortgage everything I had. I finally managed to get just about enough money in, but it was very tight. I had huge cash-flow problems to start with and the first year was crazy.
We became very successful very quickly in terms of reservations. I had five pods to begin with and one employee who did the cooking. I had to keep my fixed costs to a minimum, so I did everything else myself, from cleaning, to shoveling, refueling, hosting and taking reservations.
It was very helpful to do this though, as I understand exactly what I am delegating, what needs to be done on a day to day basis and how long it takes. I now employ six people and I run the business like a team. I also think I have more respect for my employees as, because I’ve done the work myself, I know how hard it is. I am in my third year of business now and can concentrate on the hospitality side of things, which is great.
As well as funding, the other hardest part of setting up was getting planning permission. The powers that be are used to dealing with chalets, not pods, and they found them difficult to get to grips with. It was hard to convince them of the merits, not so much because of a design issue, as much as trying to sell the concept as a whole. I didn’t foresee this problem because I was so passionate about the project. I still have no long-term guarantee of my right to be there and the uncertainty is far from ideal. It is hard work and tiring having to fight my corner. It helps that we have won prizes for eco-tourism, as this strengthens my case, and at least I have permission for the next few years.
mtl: It must have been fun designing the pods?
Sofia: We used an existing model originally but this year we have designed and manufactured our own which has been great for my imagination as I am discovering creativity that I didn’t know I had! When I left law I realised that there are people out there who “aren’t lawyers” and that they have a different way of doing things…
Most of my friends are lawyers and we are taught to think in a certain way, so it has been interesting to get involved with people who brainstorm from a different angle.
I have met a lot of interesting people along the way, who have had to take risks in their own businesses all the time - a lot of people live not knowing what will happen next. Law is a difficult road to take, but it is also planned and very low risk in comparison to running your own business.
mtl: Do you have any advice for our readers?
Sofia: If you have a strong voice telling you to go and try something else, then do it. Take a step back and question why you are doing law and whether it is really what you want to do. It isn’t as scary to leave as you think it will be and, if you have the will, you can do anything that you put your mind to. Nobody else will take the plunge for you. It is rare to have time in law to prepare a proper plan for your next move but that shouldn’t stop you.
mtl: Thank you Sofia. What are your plans for the future?
Sofia: I am discussing franchises at the moment, which is very exciting. I take the whole of May off every year to have a break as we are closed from the end of April until the beginning of June. I will visit London as I miss my friends, so I like to go back when I get the chance... I speak about eco-tourism at international conferences and will continue to do this too.
I have the buzz of being an entrepreneur now and couldn’t go back to law from that. If I left Whitepod, it would be to set up a new business. The major advantage is freedom. Not necessarily financial or physical freedom, but freedom of the mind which stems from being able to decide what you want to do and being able to apply your inspiration as you please. You can be creative, test things and change them, all of which make you feel alive. If you have an idea, then give it a go. Life is too short not to.
Whitepod has 8 pods which can sleep a total of 16 people, and an additional lounge pod for groups, which can sleep a further 8 people. You can stay for a weekend or longer and the average is currently about four nights. The nearest town is Villars and the nearest major city is Geneva. To visit the site for more information, please click here.
If you know any other ex-lawyers who have gone and done something interesting or unusual with their lives then please get in touch.
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