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Going Global Canadian couple’s South American surf school caters to globally minded workers

Amy Schwartz and John Furness in Huanchaco, Peru.

Catherine Bernier/Handout

Four years ago, Amy Schwartz and John Furness traded a cold winter in Halifax for a sunny surf town in South America.

Ms. Schwartz took a four-month sabbatical from her posting as a senior policy analyst with the provincial government, while Mr. Furness worked remotely for his web-design company.

The avid surfers enjoyed their time in Huanchaco, Peru, so much that they started to wonder if other remote workers would, too. They’d found a dependable internet connection, good waves and a friendly, walkable town that offered off-the-beaten path experiences.

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The couple were also armed with experience in adventure tourism and business. Mr. Furness has run his own company for 20 years, while Ms. Schwartz has worked extensively in outdoor education, lived in Peru and speaks Spanish.

“We put all the pieces together and determined we had a business idea that might work well,” Mr. Furness says.

So in the spring of 2017, with Ms. Schwartz on maternity leave, the pair set their sights on building a business aimed at a niche market that marries travel and remote working.

Customers fly to Peru and Unleash Surf takes care of the rest, providing a private apartment, a co-work space, surf spots and lessons, plus local experiences and adventures, such as Spanish lessons, cooking classes and archeological site visits.

A co-working space arranged by Unleash Surf in Huanchaco, Peru.

Catherine Bernier/Handout

“You suddenly get this whole new lifestyle in a different place, but you’re guaranteed to get your work done,” says Ms. Schwartz, referring to the reliable internet connection and dedicated workspace.

The business caters to small groups; a maximum of eight people come at a time, staying for two weeks to three months.

The fact people stay in the same place sets Unleash Surf apart from other businesses in this emerging space. Companies such as Remote Year, Hacker Paradise and the Remote Experience offer similar work-travel experiences, but take people to multiple locations.

Unleash Surf welcomed its first customers last February, with Ms. Schwartz and Mr. Furness operating at half capacity for their first three months to ensure everything ran smoothly.

One of those early customers was Stefan Gehrig, owner and founder of King Kong Apparel, a business that makes gym bags and backpacks, primarily for the high-end fitness market.

“When I travel, I like to settle into a place … so this sounded absolutely perfect,” says Mr. Gehrig, a Melbourne, Australia-based entrepreneur.

Stefan Gehrig, owner and founder of King Kong Apparel, pursues his passion for surfing while getting work done, thanks to Unleash Surf.

Catherine Bernier/Handout

Mr. Gehrig planned to stay for two months, but extended his trip. He says he quickly felt plugged into the community in Huanchaco, thanks to introductions from Mr. Furness and Ms. Schwartz.

And in addition to improving his surfing, he also got a lot of work done.

“I had never used co-work spaces while travelling before. It was always hotel rooms, or Airbnb places, or working in cafés, which is really hard and not sustainable for more than a few weeks,” Mr. Gehrig says.

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Mr. Gehrig says Unleash Surf’s co-work space, with its fast internet connection, was ideal. “I think the biggest benefit is that you can really hit the ground running. I was able to start working in the shared office the morning after I arrived,” he says.

Finding good surf spots that also have strong internet is the biggest obstacle to expanding Unleash Surf to other locales, Ms. Schwartz says.

Another challenge the business faces is marketing. While the entrepreneurs promote Unleash as “a surf retreat for digital nomads,” that’s not yet a common search term, Mr. Furness says. “We have to go out and educate people that we do exist and tell them about us.”

The company provides local experiences and adventures to participants.

Catherine Bernier/Handout

Ms. Schwartz notes that education extends beyond potential customers. Applying for business loans, for example, was tricky because Unleash Surf’s unique concept “doesn’t categorize well.”

The pair have found success marketing on Facebook and Instagram, and doing interviews on blogs and podcasts related to surfing and remote working. For February, March and April of 2019, they expect to fill all 24 available spots and turn a profit.

Most of Unleash Surf’s current customers are from Europe, followed by Australia, Canada and the United States. “We think Europeans are more accustomed to the idea of working remotely, doing work a little bit differently,” Mr. Furness says.

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As they continue developing their business, the couple want to keep the Peru experience personalized. They’re eyeing adding another locale in Asia for the fall, rather than expanding the number of winter spots in South America. The entrepreneurs plan to continue to return to Halifax each summer, where they focus on marketing and business administration.

Unleash Surf is eyeing adding another locale in Asia for the fall, rather than expanding the number of winter spots in South America.

Catherine Bernier/Handout

Michael Halinski, an assistant professor at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University, says there’s growing demand for a business like Unleash Surf.

He points to a few converging factors: millennials are settling down later, and travelling more now. They’re also more likely to have jobs that can be worked remotely, such as careers in tech.

“I think with those two attributes there’s a bit of a synergy, and that’s why this niche environment exists,” Prof. Halinski says. “I think it certainly will be successful.”

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