New Adventures and New Challenges 2019 - Richard Harpham

Date: Monday April 22, 2019 at 11:41am

In my world of adventure we often say that if you want to see how far you have come, turn around and look backwards to fuel future challenges. 2018 has seen me pass a 10,000 milestone of human powered adventures and expeditions including canoeing the Yukon, cycling and kayaking 2400 miles from London to Marrakech and kayaking from Niagara Falls to the Statue of Liberty, as well as many more. I feel like I have just got started.  I spoke to the editorial team and suggested an article sharing some of my experiences and insight into changing direction, career paths and reivention of life goals and vocation. For the avoidance of doubt this quote by Dominic Cadbury summarizes my career to date “There is no such thing as a career path. Its crazy paving and you have to lay it yourself.”

Many moons ago I took a train down to Lympstone as a young lad nurturing two dreams, 1 to be a Royal Marine and 2 to play rugby for Scotland. As I stepped onto the platform I cut a solitary figure, excited, nervous and inspired, all spinning in a whirlwind of thoughts. Three days later I had completed the Potential Officers Course (POC) with the debrief summarized with ‘come back’ after university. I had discovered new levels of exertion, fatigue and team work in an intensive 3 days of mental and physical challenges.  I also knew I was not at the exacting standards required of a Royal Marine Commando.  I went away and shortly afterwards fractured my right femur in a work accident. Some doors to dreams closed during the recouperation as new plans took shape.


I had taken a year out to re-take A level maths whilst working in a windsurfing and mountain bike shop called Endless Summer. A large pile of timber collapsed breaking my right femur. Some time after I arrived in Plymouth on crutches to begin a degree in Maritime Studies which I chose as it included scuba diving as part of the course and was located by the sea, what more do you look for in a degree course? I discovered that there was an option to obtain an HSE Part IV diving qualification in year 1 so embarked on the obligatory swim tests with one functioning leg.  Much to my surprise they allowed me onto it, based on my determination and bouncing technique, using the bottom to supplement my flakey tread water technique with only one functioning leg.

Three years later I had achieved a BSc Honours degree and a commercial diving ticket and was ready to take the world by storm, although my timing was poor as I entered the job market in a full blown recession.  One useful piece of advice from my late Dad was that CV’s and job applications were 3% hit rate statistically, so send 100 letters to stand 3 chances of an interview or better still a job. I posted 100 letters (back in the day) and got 3 interviews, McDonalds (where I had worked on and off for 5 years), the Child Support Agency and Alpheus Environmental, part of a water company. I had a foot on the rung of the ladder! 

For a decade I worked in corporate life in the water industry in environmental management and then facilities management, always wanting to make a difference and help grow our company. We often employed ex MoD personnel in maintenance positions and management roles. Following the adage of Sir Ranulph Fiennes (a patron of my Ski to the Edge Expedition) “We selected our team primarily around attitude and personal attributes as we knew with those elements covered, we could train and teach skills.” That said we did use competency as a recruitment methodology using the following life skills as a template: Communications, Teamwork, Leadership, Decision Making, Problem Solving, Creative Skills, Risk Management and Project Management. Alongside this during the recruitment process we aimed to evidence competency in these elements based on qualifications, experience and ‘know how’, a history of achievement.


These competences were mapped against job roles and organisational structure to ensure we recruited a balanced team with a blend of skills and behavioural styles.  As a top tip being able to map your professional career, interests and experience against these competences would help prepare for job applications and interviews. Being able to share examples of leadership, teamwork and so on sets you apart from other candidates.  Try and select examples that stand out.  My career progressed well and I became Operational Manager at 24, Director aged 27 and Managing Director at 31 all the time learning and expanding my transferable skills whilst someone else picked up the tab.

I can also confirm that despite not being particularly academic I completed two more degrees, which the company paid for. A Post Grad Diploma in Water and Environmental Management and a Masters in Business (MBA) from the University of Cranfield. In my experience qualifications gives you options and alternatives so grab them, particularly if someone else is paying. To conclude this life chapter, I ended up growing a subsidiary from an unprofitable £10.6 Million turnover to a profitable £24 million turnover in 14 months with over 350 staff working for me.

As often happens focus and objectives changed, I went from Top 30 in a FTSE 100 to unemployed following a restructure in 2001.  I never anticipated nor coped well with the sense of rejection. After 10 years in one company it was a huge shock to find myself on the outside.  I needed to clear my head so headed out for a walk to get some fresh air, space and thinking time.  I walked 96 miles on the West Highland Way in Scotland in four days on my own and decided to create a new venture for myself.  It was invigorating and life affirming although I did have to dodge a few midges, suffer plenty of liquid sunshine and had to half my pack weight at Crianlarich, turns out 4 books were a bit overkill.

Fast forward almost two decades later and my business card now reads ‘human powered adventurer and inspirational speaker’. My re-engineering has led me to be a professional outdoor instructor, writer of magazine articles and social entrepreneur working on projects that deliver social change.  Only in recent years has my path made sense in terms of being able to articulate to others ‘what I do’.  Of course, this is a standard question when we meet people and my answer was always tricky and complicated.  During the years in-between, I tackled a variety of different roles to earn money.  It is strange to think that for 10 years I was dressed in a suit and tie, and now I am rarely out of my shorts and flip flops.

Job descriptions and roles blurred but have included managing the Ghana Ski Team in the Vancouver Winter Olympics, TV presenter for Visit Britain Activities, magazine editor, interim sales manager, project manager, youth mentor, entrepreneur and various others.  A few lessons along the way that might be useful to share: 1) try and find ongoing part time work if you are starting your own company to maintain an income 2) network far and wide 3) develop your toolkit of transferable and marketable skills, before you need them. Returning to my opening thoughts with the New Year it is a positive process to pursue dreams setting targets and goals to achieve them. Goal setting is brilliant for maintaining self-esteem and focus when changing careers and direction.  These can be marginal goals too, getting little things in your life working better will naturally lead to the bigger things following suit. Marginal gains and a growth mindset are useful tools to help make changes.


After corporate life I was convinced if I harnessed my skills and experience for myself, I would be able to create something really special. After all, I had delivered almost £125 million of new contracts in my former world. I was aware that post the first boom new opportunities to grow an online community via the web ought to be something transformational. The possibilities with the world wide web were incredible. Imagine if you could create an online community where people could ‘friend’ each other, message, upload images and other content all linked to sport and leisure. Sound familiar? In fact, our idea was to transform sport with a social enterprise where you could share your love of sport, book activities and buy sporting equipment. We geared all of this to allow you to donate a commission to your sports club or charity., our Facebook for sport, was launched in 2003 after lots of market research and after we failed to get major investment, we ‘bootstrap funded’ it to get it off the ground. It was a daily battle to generate traction but we launched the online sporting community and online sports store. By 2008 we were growing fast with over 120 brands and 15,000 sports products online and over 5,000 items of content in the community section (working with England Rugby, the All Blacks, Olympians and adventurers and promoting grass roots sport).  It was incredible to watch our online business flourish receiving over 750,000 visitors in 6 months. Our rosy future hit a cliff edge with the credit crunch and banking crisis.  Our bank offered more money against the security of my house which I declined. Consequently, they withdrew our loan funding and we were insolvent. I learnt two interesting lessons from my time as a ‘would be Mark Zuckerberg’, don’t launch your business on Friday 13th and try not to change the world in one go!

I now didn’t have a job, nor did I have any money as I had lost my savings plus money from friends and family who has invested in Majorsporty.  It had been an incredible dream and we had given it everything in true entrepreneurial style; bloody minded and determined to the end.  Although a relief in the end, I searched for a new way to occupy my time. I set my self 5 kayaking challenges to raise some money for the Muscle Help Foundation and Marine Conservation Society charities called the Big 5 Kayak Challenge, which included kayaking the Channel, Lands End to the Isles of Scilly and 1000 miles sea kayaking from Vancouver to Alaska on the Inside Passage. During a month sea kayaking up to Alaska I sat on beach on Admiralty Island with bears in the woodland and Orca’s patrolling the water gazing into a roaring fire. I was hooked and it felt like an awakening to a new direction. 

In 2010 I managed the Ghana Ski Team to the Vancouver Winter Olympics which was an incredible roller coaster for me and my athlete Kwame Nkrumah Acheampong aka the Snow Leopard. Kwame learnt indoors in Milton Keynes, was from a country with no snow and we had no funding. Qualifying for the Olympics was his ‘Everest’ and delivering on this dream was an incredible adventure. I had met Kwame whilst running Majorsporty and was captured by his infectious energy and spirit.  It is hard to explain his impossible journey from first skiing aged 29 to qualifying 6 years later.  The Ghana Ski Team and the Snow Leopard become a global media sensation with a ‘Cool Runnings’ 2 vibes.

After the Olympics I wanted to give back and share inspiration after the incredible hospitality we had received from the Canadian people.  We founded Inspired Life CIC, a social enterprise to deliver inspirational programmes with positive role models such as Olympians and adventurers, goal setting and strength-based reflection. We worked with schools and community groups helping young people to develop self-esteem, emotional literacy and improved well-being. Since launching in 2010 we have won multiple awards including being a London 2012 Inspire Mark Project and have engaged over 33,000 young people with our programmes. Despite transformational results we have found it difficult to get sustainable funding with budgets increasingly tight in schools.  We began to increasingly find ourselves working in the outdoors delivering learning outside the classroom which linked to our Canoe Trail business.


So that brings us back up to date with my current day work, sharing adventure with others, from the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme to our adventure school programme where we develop hard and soft skills through to water sports tourism ( ). We hire, coach and run trips offering canoes, kayaks, SUP’s and bushcraft offering customers the chance for a ‘digital detox’, fun in the great outdoors and ‘re-wilding’.  Canoe Trail was voted Top 52 things to do in the world by Lonely Planet and this year the number 3 place to Stand Up Paddle Board by Red Bull Magazine. 

After experimenting with different consulting roles, managing a portfolio of projects I believe I have now found my calling or vocation. It doesn’t feel like work although don’t mistake this for a lack of effort on our part. I get to wear outdoor clothing rather than a suit, I earn a fraction of my previous corporate world salary, but I am 500% happier. A millionaire in flip flops if you will.  The irony is I tried give away Canoe Trail twice in the early days, some business guru I turned out to be.  Luckily my wife now runs the company providing a common-sense management approach and we get to share a love of the outdoors, something we are both passionate about. 

As New Year passes, we will look forward with new personal adventures, two canoe expeditions to Scotland and Canada with Canoe Trail’s customers, protecting our time and lifestyle so we have ‘time for us’ and downtime.  At Inspired Life we advised the programme participants to seek a balance of the following elements to achieve a balanced lifestyle and vocation:

  • Do something you love and are passionate about
  • Do something you are good at
  • Do something to earn you money
  • Do something that makes a difference

When delivering motivational talks my life lessons across my world of adventure, business and social change are structured around five key messages

  1. See the Possibility – the possibility of new challenges, new ideas, transformation starts ups, career change and so on. 
  2. Ask Big Questions – consider the bigger questions? What does success look like? What is me at my best?  
  3. Live your Values – embrace your values and embed them in your routines and habits. 
  4. Manage your Motivation – harness a ‘can do’ spirit, a ‘fear of failure’ and helping others to achieve more than your thought possible.  
  5. Pick Your Tribe – identify and nurture friends and colleagues who are there for the duration, in good times and bad.

In delivering Inspired Life we developed a mantra that “Your future is not defined by your past” – we want you to dream big and see the possibility for you.


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