I first encountered Tom Smallwood (aka the Armchair Mountaineer) on Twitter. He was running an outdoor writing competition which caught my eye. Some good things do come from distractions on Twitter… because I won it!
Since then I’ve been following Tom’s journey in the world of blogging, entrepreneurship and – of course – the outdoors. This interview has a big section on mental health and wellbeing, plus gives sage advice to people on the verge of creating a start-up.
Over to Tom…
What do you do?
I am an entrepreneur and a lover of the outdoors. At the moment I run two companies and write a blog about the outdoors – which focuses on the benefits derived from time spent in nature.
How did you end up here?
When I was young the outdoors, mountains, nature meant everything to me. I spent part of my childhood in Italy, growing up in the shadow of the Alps and this had a very profound effect on me. Subsequently I tried to get out as often as possible, my holidays were about finding a way to the mountains. Then for a number of years this passion took a back seat as my work took me to a few different countries in Europe and I suppose I devoted more time to a “career”. I really enjoyed it. I started a company. Then I sold part of that company. I became the CEO of a larger company and then I fell out of love with my working life, leading to a prolonged period of stress and ultimately burnout.
In 2016 I decided to make some changes in my life. I made a conscious decision to spend more time on things that make me happy and this led me back into the welcoming embrace of nature.
As part of this process of re-focusing I resigned from my job, decided to take some time off and I started a blog – The Armchair Mountaineer. I had never done anything like it and I had no idea if it would be a full-time job, a part time job, a hobby or simply a creative outlet. In the end it has, at times, been all of those things. I hope also it has been an inspiration to some people to spend more time outside and to ensure they balance their lives as best they can.
What was the motivation behind your blog?
Initially, with no knowledge of the outdoor industry, I figured my blog could become a stream of income. I have a good grasp of how the internet works and how to monetise websites, but that rapidly became a secondary consideration as it simply became a focus for my passion for nature and the benefits of it on my mental wellbeing.
Of course, within a couple of months of sitting at home, I was diving into a whole bunch of other entrepreneurial projects (I am not really good at not working) and I think The Armchair Mountaineer was really a way for my subconscious to ensure I focused more of my life on things that make me happy. And, if that meant inventing a blog and telling myself it would one day be a job, then so be it.
Does that sound strange? It probably does, but my blog creates a sort of accountability that helps me to spend time outdoors, something which makes me a happier and healthier person. Why I need that driving force is a mystery but I do know that my blog and my outdoor activities have created a sort of cycle of happiness which drives itself on. One feeds the other.
It has been a wonderful creative experience for me and I have also learnt a huge amount from doing it, from practical skills like making and editing videos to more personal qualities about myself. It has boosted my confidence, which despite my outward appearance, is something I have often struggled with.
What advice do you have for someone trying to balance their work and personal life with spending more time in the outdoors?
This is an area about which I am very passionate. There are often no easy answers in a society in which we create a huge amount of pressure and expectation for ourselves and often struggle to find time to genuinely relax in a “connected” world.
I am very fortunate, I work from home and I can easily step outside my house, walk around my local Wildlife Trusts nature reserve and recharge my batteries. For others I understand it is not so simple. I heard not so long ago about some “walking meetings” that are happening outside the office. It sounds like a great idea that every business should adopt. Outside of working hours there is a surprising amount of time which can be devoted to doing something wild even if it is just a microadventure.
For me fitting the outdoors into my life remains a challenge for various reasons, family and work included. Involving my daughter in initiatives like the Wildlife Trusts 30 Days Wild or taking her out wild camping has been great ways to ensure I get my fix. And (I hope) it helps to enthuse the next generation with the benefits of spending time immersed in the natural world.
I have also made a point trying to reduce my workload by delegating more and relinquishing control. Apart from being good practice in the workplace it also enables me to wander down to the river and spend a couple of hours paddling in my packraft. Thinking time is very valuable. Yet it is so difficult within the realms of an office or when subjected to the distractions and traps of the digital world, so my time outdoors can be of great benefit to my work.
I have a wonderfully understanding wife who doesn’t share my passion for the outdoors but who does recognise my need for it, so I can go away for a weekend, spend nights out. Naturally she has her own passions and I think, again, it is just a question of balance and respect within a relationship.
To a certain extent we are able to work remotely and we like to travel a lot as a family. Wherever we are we, try to balance my desire to go off the beaten track with the needs of the rest of the family. It has actually been a great experience for all of us to share different types of travel and adventures… and, whisper it, “Mummy” has actually agreed to spend a night under the stars this Spring.
“Should I quit my job to launch my startup?”
Yes, but don’t imagine it’s simple. If you can, save some money so you don’t have so much pressure when you go it alone. My advice is to try stuff first. Start working on something in your spare time, do your research, ask others for their opinion and never be too dogmatic.
There is no right way of doing things so do not be afraid to change or to react to things. I have been involved in several projects which have failed to get off the ground in the last three years. One business which is now gaining some traction was not a brilliant idea I had. Rather it is the evolution of something that was not working into something that can work.
I am convinced of the fact that many people fail because they don’t stick at something long enough. This rings true in business as in any walk of life. I think, personally, it is easier to keep going and enjoy something, if it is not all-consuming.
There seem to be two types of business prophets these days; those that tell you, you need to work and hustle 16 hours a day and those that teach how you can be successful by doing less, not more. But there is no blueprint to success in any walk of life, so I would say aim for a healthy balance.
More from Tom
To see more from Tom, you should check out his websites. If you’re interested more in the outdoors, then have a read of the personal blog. If you’re curious about Tom’s businesses and entrepreneurial side, click the on work blog.