Ken Macken is a serial entrepreneur who had been running his own companies for nearly ten years. But after a workaholic lifestyle led him to burnout and a relationship breakdown in his mid-30s, he took some time out to travel.
An avid surfer and kiteboarder, Ken used his travel career break to seek out the best wind and wave spots around the world. The experience made him realise the need for durable surf luggage, and so after returning home to Australia he founded Mile High Luggage, which he now runs while living on the Sunshine Coast.
In this interview, Ken discusses the reasons behind his career break, what he learned from travelling, the inspiration for his new company, and how he has readjusted his work–life balance.
What was your life and career situation before you took a travel break?
My life was very different. I was working 12–16 hours a day 6–7 days a week in my own companies for almost a decade. I have always loved what I do, and have followed my passion in my career which has allowed me to live in different countries and meet some amazing people.
I love learning and applying what I learn. Continuously challenging myself and exploring new ideas with like-minded people.
Why did you decide to take a travel career break?
My life was work work work, and not many vacations or time with my partner, which resulted in me suffering from burnout in my mid 30s. This was an eye-opener for me, as my company and relationship all ended at the same time.
But instead of letting this get me down, I took the option to have some time to myself and travel. All I knew was that I wanted to go kiting somewhere where it was windy, and surfing where there were waves.
What arrangements did you make with your workplace before you left for the trip?
I was fortunate enough to have a little money, and my last company was wound down, so it was easy for me to make the decision to pursue travel. Initially I thought it would be for three months, which has turned into a passion of travel and exploring the world.
What inspired you to focus the trip on surfing and kiteboarding?
I have always loved being in the ocean, and I started to get into kiteboarding the year before I started my travels. I wanted to get better at it and I knew there was a community of people that followed the wind around the world, so I decided to do the same.
Substituting the corporate life to hop around the world’s best coastal adventure spots must have been a seismic change. How did it feel to be cut loose?
So, so good. Best decision ever! The ability to view the world and meet the people was amazing.
I had travelled a lot in my past life, but that was for conferences, meetings and seeing suppliers, which never allowed me to see much more than a hotel room or the odd bar. This new way of traveling allowed me to immerse myself in the culture and people of all these destinations.
Were there any difficult aspects of travelling long-term, and if so, how did you adapt?
You have to learn how to travel with the bare minimum, or it will cost you a fortune in luggage fees or transport costs. I downsized to a kite/surf bag (size of a golf bag), carry-on bag and a backpack. That was it. Not having all your regular things is a bit annoying at first, but you quickly realise you can make do without.
What did you learn from your travels that you would never have learned otherwise?
I learned that travelling alone with no agenda or timeline is such a fantastic way to enjoy your life. I have always travelled with someone or for some specific reason, which kept me on a rigid itinerary. Having the time to just relax and enjoy my own company was something I desperately needed to do.
What inspired you to set up a surf luggage company?
I was tired of opening up my soft kite/surf bag and finding my boards damaged. Cracks, dings and fractures all from the handling during transport. It didn’t matter how I packed it or how much foam padding I crammed into it, they would find a way to damage my gear.
This meant I would have to repair my boards before I could go on the water. Nothing worse than showing up at a destination with beautiful peeling waves and you can’t go out.
I spoke to hundreds of people and the majority of them experienced the same issue. Months of talking to potential customers, the airline industry and insurance companies gave me clarity on what was needed. So Mile High Luggage was conceived, and I developed a lightweight yet incredibly strong board case that would protect our precious sticks when we travel.
Why did you decide to embark on a completely new career direction after your travels?
I have always worked in manufacturing and had my own companies so I knew why, how and what to do to pursue and tackle this market. I was working within a niche of a niche of a market that I knew incredibly well that was underserved. This was a problem I was personally facing and nothing was going to change anytime soon unless I pushed this forward. So I did.
Living and working on Australia’s sunshine coast sounds like a dream, but are there any downsides to this lifestyle?
Noosa and the Sunshine Coast region is truly a magical place to live. We have beautiful beaches, warm water, peeling waves and wind all summer, which makes for a dreamy place to work from.
This does come with some downsides, as it is a small town with limited services available in the manufacturing industry. But, having a solid background in global manufacturing sourcing and a large network of people, and staff helping me in other continents, has helped me eliminate a lot of issues most others would face tackling a new company like this from a small coastal town.
I produce my bags in Australia from as many locally sourced components as possible. This allows us to ensure short lead times in production and also maintain extremely high quality control.
How do you balance managing your business with other things you enjoy in life?
My work is super important to me as it always has been, but I am no longer doing the 16-hour, seven-day weeks like I did in the past. I balance my time with going for a surf in the morning and/or a kite in the afternoon while trying to stick to an eight-hour work day (some days work requires me more).
This has helped me stay relaxed, focused and happy with my time I put not only into work but also myself, which then makes me more productive.
What advice would you give to other people considering taking time off work to travel?
Do it! You will not regret it. The only problem you will face is that you might not want to stop travelling. Don’t put it off. Pack your bag (preferably a Mile High Surfcase) and start your adventure.
Did you find Ken’s story inspiring? You can read more career break travel stories in our series of interviews. To start planning your own adventure, see our ultimate guide to taking a travel career break.