The stress of meeting a deadline to get a banking licence or delaying the launch of a new product feature is nothing compared to losing a baby animal during birthing. Paul Rippon should know: he spent several years juggling work as a co-founder of challenger bank Monzo with running an alpaca farm alongside his wife, Debbie Rippon.
For a while, the two businesses complemented each other nicely; his teamwork and collaboration skills honed at Monzo transferred over to the alpaca business, while the farm offered some welcome perspective. “When you have all of the emotional and intellectual stress of something like Monzo, to be honest, going back home and moving a bale of hay or shovelling up some alpaca shit was very welcome indeed,” Rippon says.
But as both businesses grew, instead of balancing each other out, their separate demands began to pull Rippon in different directions. He initially tried to maintain equilibrium by reducing his hours at Monzo and working from home. But even when he was supposedly off-duty, the calls and Slack messages would continue, and he’d feel guilty every time he was away and an alpaca was unwell or Debbie needed his help. He had to pick one. He said goodbye to Monzo in November 2019, aged 48, and swapped his fintech co-founders for 300 alpacas (plus 30 goats, 13 chickens, eight sheep, five cats and two donkeys).
Rippon’s pivot from financial services to alpacas had its roots in the early 2000s, when he and Debbie watched a travel programme in which presenter Michael Palin visited an alpaca farm in South America. The pair became enamoured with the animals, which would peer into the lens as the camera followed Palin around. In 2006, when Paul was offered a job at Northern Rock in Newcastle, hundreds of miles from their Northamptonshire home, Debbie agreed to the move – on the condition she would get three alpacas.
A year later, the financial crisis hit, and Rippon worked on the nationalisation and restructuring of Northern Rock before leaving in 2011. In 2014, he was approached by Anne Boden to join her mission to build a new bank from scratch: Starling Bank. After a “difference of opinion” at Starling, Rippon was part of a group that left to form rival challenger bank Monzo under Tom Blomfield, then CEO.
While all this was happening, Debbie was building up the alpaca business, Barnacre Alpacas. It wasn’t always easy: Paul recalls a low point when he and Debbie sold their house and bought some land in Northumberland where they planned to build a farm. “In the meantime, we bought ourselves a little caravan, put it on the hill, and then we got introduced to the Northumberland winds,” he says. “The winds hit the caravan where we put all our prized possessions, it rolled down the hill and exploded.” They later moved to the Tyne Valley, where they are currently based.
Once Rippon had made his decision to leave Monzo and focus on the alpaca farm full-time, he knew he had to get the news out quickly before it spread of its own accord. After first texting some board members, he composed a Slack message – complete with emojis and gifs – informing everyone of his decision to step down.
He describes his priorities in his final months as “people, things and a party”. He arranged one-to-one chats with Monzo employees who often came to him for advice, and nominated people to take over all of the tasks he was usually responsible for, so there would be no gaps when he left. Finally, he organised a party: shuffleboard and pizza at a venue near Monzo’s Shoreditch headquarters.
Now, his workdays look somewhat different. Keeping the alpaca farm means feeding the animals, looking after the land and mucking out in winter – Rippon’s favourite job, as it means he gets to use his digger. The farm also runs walk-and-talk sessions and lets out holiday cottages for visitors (when permitted under coronavirus restrictions), as well as offering livery services to alpaca fans who don’t have the space or skill to keep them at home.
Rippon says that Barnacre Alpacas is profitable, but that the decisions he and Debbie make don’t always put money first. When an alpaca named Pablo (Rippon knows all 300 alpacas by name) fractured his leg, they paid for treatment where a more commercially-minded farmer may have had the animal put down.
Rippon’s advice for others looking to leave their city career for something new is to “hope it succeeds, but plan in case it doesn’t”. He suggests trialling an idea for a business on the side of a job, for example by setting up an Etsy shop or starting a YouTube channel, to test the waters before diving in. “I would say it’s not binary,” he says. “You don’t have to work or do your self-employed stuff.”
True to this mantra, Rippon has now started working with another new banking project. He joined Newcastle-based GBB, which aims to provide loans for property development, as non-executive chair in summer 2020. He planned to work one day a week with GBB but admits that he initially struggled to manage his time, spending too many hours away from farm business. Debbie took the opportunity to grow the herd: Barnacre’s newest resident is Ava the horse.
Vicki Turk is WIRED’s features editor. She tweets from @VickiTurk
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