Thomas James Kelly

Thoughts on the chaos of digital marketing and research and NYC bike lanes . . . . .

Completed House - On Time - Ready To Rent

The house was finished about 1 year after breaking ground.  Danielle was pregnant, very pregnant, at the time so she actually never saw the final house as messed up as that sounds.  I drive out 1 weekend in late November and finished the furnishing and decorating as well as oversaw delivery of the appliances.  It worked out great because November is the start of the high rental season.  As we had already decided to move back to New York after our daughter was born, putting the house on a rental program was critical.  

For $250,000 all in for a brand new custom built house - the place turned out exactly how I had wanted it.  

A Different Type of Frame

There's as much siesmic activity in Puerto Rico as there is in California - if not more.  In order to make the house stronger and more earthquake proof we used concrete on the outside and inside of the walls, and the inside is built with a steel reinforced construction foam panel.  

These came on a boat from Panama and enabled us to shave a couple of weeks off the build time.  

Foundation, Frame, Septic

There's no city sewers in Rincon, so you have to build a septic system.  We had a long hill and a large valley, plenty of room to put a septic tank.  The builders created a zipline to shuttle the building supplies down the steep hill.  

One of the challenges of building in a hillside is the need to create a solid foundation literally drilled into the rock of the slope behind it.  

The Building Begins

We worked with a local builder in Rincon who had relocated from Florida many years ago.  He was fair and reasonable and easy to communicate with.  We knew we wanted a simple layout - an open floor plan upstairs with a wide staircase leading downstairs to 2 bedrooms.  2 beds / 2 baths and a killer view of a jungle valley and the sea.  We were on the way to doing this all for $150,000, plus the land.  We overpaid for the land - $115,000 for a plot that we should have paid about $87,000 - $90,000 for - this was my first lesson and should be a lesson for you.  Never, ever bid more than 50% of the asking price for any land or house in Puerto Rico.  Maybe, if it fits your plan, go up to 70% of ask.  

The plans were drafted - the ground was broke.   

Buying Land in Western Puerto Rico

We saw plots of land which ranged from flat to hillside, sea-level to 300 feet, 1/4 acre to over an acre and which ranged in price from $75,000 to $199,000.  

If we were going to rent the property out we knew it would have to have a view.  Beachfront wasn't super critical given most people who visit Rincon rent cars - and we also didn't want to deal with the flood insurance issues - or the substantially higher price tags.  

Desecheo Island is several miles off the coast of Rincon and it provides an beautiful backdrop over the Mona Straight - the body of water between Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic where the southern Atlantic Ocean meets the Caribbean Sea.  You can surf, fish, snorkel, scuba dive and watch migrating whales here - it's gorgeous.  

We found our hillside plot of land in Barrio Pueblo (the part of Rincon closest to the town) up a hill from the main road.   

Now all we needed was an architect, engineer and a builder.  Oh yeah - some more money.  

Rincon - Buy or Build?

After the rooster noise debacle at Suites at 413 we looked at 5 or 6 other properties, all of which had 1 - 3 guest apartments we could use to supplement our income.  One of the properties was at Horned Dorset Primavera, an exclusive set of villas outside Rincon to the South where celebrities were common.   

We began to realize that this was an experiment.  We were intent on creating a sustainable existence in Puerto Rico and Rincon seemed the best fit - while keeping our life in San Juan and continuing to bust our butts for our NY digital media companies.  However, the last thing we wanted was another mortgage tied to a property in Rincon - and we also wanted to keep the project small and manageable.  We soon decided that we should buy land.  This route would afford us total say as to what the house looked like but also enabled us to proceed at a speed which never out-paced our money.      

Should we invest in Rincon?

The days after our first trip to Rincon the romance of the place set in.  It was only 2 hours from San Juan but it felt like it was a different island.  It was quiet and clean and not overly developed.  There were elements of mainland US like a small natural food store and a couple of cafes - after all, we were from Brooklyn - we needed some civilization!  

Even though we had bought a small condo in Brooklyn 6 months before we moved down to Puerto Rico (it was before we knew we were coming), we had some money left over in the bank.  Our next trip to Rincon was partly to surf and also party to explore possible investments - a small casita we could use on weekends, or a large one we could turn into a rental property.  Land?  Who knew - but I did begin to see the investment idea begin to take shape - and possibly provide us with the longer term income we might need should we decide to stay here permanently.  

The Suites at 413, above, (413 is "The Road To Happiness") was for sale when we visited it for over $500,000.  That's very expensive for Puerto Rico but it's a nice place and has 4 separate guest rooms and a dipping pool.  One smart move I actually made was to suggest to Danielle that we stay there for a Saturday/Sunday to see what it was like for more than a 30 minute realty visit.  Thank GOD we did!  

Roosters are prevalent in Puerto Rico - almost like the national animal, and their roots run deep in what was largely an agrarian culture up until 40 years ago.  Native Puerto Ricans breed them for eggs and meat and sometimes they fight them.  Interestingly, probably the most culturally cacaphonous thing in Puerto Rico is a small arena in Isla Verde, 5 minutes from the airport in San Juan with a large sign, "Cockfighting" across the front.  

After a nice day surfing and then wading in the small pool at Suites at 413 , we watched a few innings of a Mets game, had a drink then went to bed.  About 1:00AM I was woken up by roosters.  It's true, they don't just make that god awful sound at sunrise - it started at 1:00 and continued through the entire night.  There was a not very small rooster farm over the wall of the Suites property and down the hill - immediately below the bedroom in which we were sleeping.  If we were to invest in a Rincon property, Suites at 413 would not be it!  

Weekend trips in Puerto Rico

While I was still festering over how we could possible live in Puerto Rico . . .  forever , and develop a sustainable life there without relying on our NYC based salaries, we took some weekend trips to explore the island.  Don't get me wrong, I had every intention of fulfilling my responsibilities as an executive of my company and ensuring the PR office succeeded, it's also true that over-reliance on that pay level would make it difficult to stay in PR in perpetuity - our plan at that point.  

Of all the weekend trips we took to Luqillo, Fajardo, Ponce, El Junque rainforest, Dorado, Augadilla, Isabela and all over San Juan, the weekend which stuck with me the most was our trip to Rincon on the West Coast of the island.  The only town in all of Puerto RIco with not one stop light was quaint, quiet had some decent restaurants, had meadows with cows and had the best surfing on the Eastern part of the US and the Caribbean.  It was almost the same exact drive from San Juan as it was from NYC to the Hamptons, just in Spanish and without the Porsches.  

We had a dog at this point - Guinness - a cute, wiry mix of what we think may be Machester Terrier with . . .  Satan.  He's become a very good dog over the years but from the ASPCA in Guaynabo, he had some bad potty habits.  So, when we did weekend travel we had to make sure the hotel or guesthouse we stayed in allowed mongrels.        

Our newly adopted "Sato" on the beach in front of our condo in Isla Verde - Guinness.  

Our newly adopted "Sato" on the beach in front of our condo in Isla Verde - Guinness.  

A lot of people in Rincon rent our parts of their house or whole levels and it's usually more economical than staying at a hotel.  Though, there's 4 or 5 motels/inns which are clean and priced around $125 or so.  Everything is close to the beach, though you do need a car.  

A cat on the ledge of the Coconut Palms inn - Rincon

A cat on the ledge of the Coconut Palms inn - Rincon

The surfing here is world class and because of the point orientation of Rincon, you can have multiple direction winds and still have clean surf somewhere along this stretch of coast.  It's not the most user friendly place to surf as it's mostly sharp coral bottom and there can be strong currents, but it's warm and clear and pretty consistent.  

Sandy Beach / Antonio's waist high peelers

Sandy Beach / Antonio's waist high peelers

When You Live In Paradise, You . . . .

When you live in paradise and still work for a company where most of your colleagues are freezing their asses of 4 months out of the year, you tend to work WAY harder than you normally would.  You overcompensate.  

After our move to San Juan and opening of the Dynamic Logic / Safecount office there, it wasn't long before a small handful of colleagues of mine began complaining that their Project Managers were no longer on site with them in Chicago, San Francisco or even New York.  Yes, we had vetted this idea numerous times and, yes, they were already without them for extended periods of time after departures / resignations - so this was actually an improvement.  At least they had staff ready to work for them - remotely - and at a substantial savings to the company in real estate costs.  

Nonetheless, there are some people who will complain about anything they can if they feel it provides them leverage for lower goals or higher salaries.  This was somewhat anticipated, but when you're in 80 degree, sunny weather most of the time and tremendously enjoying a new cultural experience with your slowly growing family, it becomes un-nerving.  8:30AM - 6:30PM quickly expanded to another 90 minutes online in the morning and then again at night.  That's a 13 hour day - plus usually a few hours on Sunday evening.  It was wonderful, frantic and anxiety ridden.  I was waiting for a call from my boss, the President of the company, saying they were going to close the office - even though there was no indication that would happen.  

Part of the talented original crew on the 4th floor of JWT San Juan 

After establishing a consistent level of training and the core staff I originally hired became better versed in digital media, we hit our stride and soon prided ourselves on quality of output.  The original team, and even the expanded team now (even though I'm gone) have been brilliant performers and are extremely devoted and growth minded executives - I couldn't have asked for a better group to work with.  

But something was still nagging me - I wondered if I could further insulate myself from any possible business variables.  If that call did eventually come, the call to come back to NY - or at least leave Puerto Rico, was there a way we could still live there without ties to my NY based company?  

Let's Move . . . Costa Rica? Puerto Rico?

Imagine, as adults, moving to, and living in, the West Indies.  The West Indies.  The region of the world you hear about in history class, sugar cane, pirates, rum, palm trees, white sand beaches, clear water - actually move there and maintain your careers tied to the New York digital media world?  

We used to live here:

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Now we lived here:  

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In 2008, after another surfing trip to Costa Rica with my then girlfriend (now wife) we found ourselves in the post-vacation zen at 37,000 feet heading back to New York, but asking ourselves, "we both work in the digital world, telecommuting is a possibility, there MUST be some way we can live in the tropics and still contribute in a meaningful way to our companies".  

At that time Dynamic Logic and Safecount were hiring Project Managers in San Francisco and New York, training them over 3 months, then losing them eventually to Facebook and other highly competitive online groups.  It was taking us 6 months to hire suitable backfills - that was not sustainable.  

At the same time I noticed that many of the hotel and tour related staff in Costa Rica (San Jose as well as Tamarindo) were college educated and very interested when I described what I did (online advertising research and data).  Why wouldn't we be able to cut down the 6 month hiring latency and save the cost of housing our project team in mid-town Manhattan or downtown San Francisco, and open an office in Costa Rica?  

The senior executive team at Dynamic Logic, Millward Brown and WPP all agreed to help and I found myself back down in Costa RIca meeting with government officials about office space and also with Schematic, a WPP owned digital agency in San Jose, the capital.  Weeks later, however, and after further conversations with the Schematic team and WPP real estate executives , it was determined that immigration issues and costs made Costa Rica less than optimal for a move.  "How about San Juan, Puerto Rico", I was asked.  

I had been to the island once in my life, for a 3 day weekend with a friend where we stayed at the Ritz Carlton, 5 minutes from the airport in San Juan.  The weather was perfect, the water clear and warm but, like many American vacationers, I didn't stray more than 2 blocks from the hotel - I just didn't need to in that three day period.  But now I knew a very important fact about the island - WPP had offices there for Mediafax, JWT and Mindshare - a research group and two ad agencies respectively.  After an initial scouting trip by myself in October, 2008, I began to fall in love with the place.  

It was only 3 hours from New York, Jet Blue had extra leg room seats for only $30 additional, nice 2 bedroom beachfront condos cost only $1,200 - $1,500/month, food was half the cost of New York food and the people, the people were genuinely warm and friendly.  I happen to believe that most people in New York are generally the same, but in Puerto Rico added a healthy dose of relaxed to the equation.    

Another scouting trip in early December, this time with Danielle, and we signed a lease on that beachfront apartment (pictured above).  It was during this trip that I interviewed 8 candidates for 4 original Project Manager positions with Safecount.  We left that weekend confident that the island was eminently livable and the digitally savvy technologists eminently employable.  

We celebrated New Years Eve, counting down at midnight en route to San Juan, thrilled to be facing a new experience in a sometimes 2nd world environment, tied to our 1st world careers.  We landed in San Juan on January 1st, 2009 with a few large suitcases and our 8 year old cat, Alice.  I don't generally fly American Airlines, but if you ever have to travel with animals who are too big to fly in the cabin, American goes OUT OF THEIR WAY to make it an easier experience for you and the pet.