How an agonising business trip got me banned from the US
Venturing overseas to negotiate deals can be part and parcel of being an entrepreneur, until you become so sick that you’re unable to eat or walk, let alone drum up business.
This is the situation Jason Ballo found himself in. But, like any good entrepreneur, he managed to think on his feet.
Ballo is the founder of Ballo Furniture, a Sydney-based home furnishings company offering modern contemporary furniture.
Ballo started his first business at the age of 21, in Dubai no less. After covering all the costs that come with starting up, Ballo discovered he had few funds left to furnish his new apartment.
“All I wanted was to have a few groovy items and throw some cool parties, but it was not meant to be,” he says.
“I bought a bed from Ikea but the slats of this bed kept shifting during my sleep, and I kept falling through and waking up underneath the bed.”
After putting up with the bed for more than a year, Ballo decided to find out why it wasn’t possible to purchase affordable furniture that was comfortable but “still very cool”.
It was this decision that set in motion the idea for Ballo Furniture, back in 2010.
“I decided to make a trip to New York to arrange a few meetings with some groovy furniture companies, and arrange exclusivity on items that I thought would work in Oz,” Ballo says.
“The night before I arranged to leave, I started feeling sick in my stomach – enough to keep me up the entire night. I decided to get on the plane anyway.”
But the pain didn’t go away. In fact, it got much, much worse. After suffering through two agonising flights, totaling more than 18 hours, Ballo finally arrived in New York.
“Still in tremendous amounts of pain, I decided to achieve what I came to achieve. I would walk to meetings hunched over because I could not stand up straight,” he says.
“I would be constantly chewing gum because I could not consume any food or drink.”
After five days, Ballo finally decided to see a colon specialist, who advised him to get to the nearest hospital as soon as possible.
“I checked in to a hospital at around 5pm and they began to run tests. They found a blockage in my small intestine and they kept me in overnight,” Ballo says.
“The next day at around midday, a man walked into my room and introduced himself as a man from the accounts department. He asked, ‘Are you Jason Ballo?’ I said yes.”
“He then asked me, ‘Do you have insurance?’ I replied no, and asked him could he please tell me what the amount is. He replied ‘$18,000’.”
What Ballo did next was an act of near-insanity. Once he was alone, he left his room, made his way to the lobby, exited through the front doors, hailed a cab and went straight to his hotel.
After changing his flight and enduring another 30 hours of excruciating pain, Ballo finally touched down in Sydney, where his parents were waiting for him.
They promptly rushed him to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, where he underwent an operation. He spent three weeks in hospital and months in recovery, and lost a total of 15 kilograms.
“Having skipped the bill – an issue still being resolved by my then travel insurance company – I am not allowed to return back to the States,” Ballo says.
However, Ballo insists his business is better off as a result of this nightmarish experience.
“Going to New York was basically to do deals with furniture retailers and wholesalers,” he says.
“Everything was going to go ahead but then I left – and I still can’t go back to the US – so while I was in hospital I thought, what will I do now?”
“I went to China with a bunch of designs in basic concept form, and went to an array of meetings.”
Rather than sell furniture on behalf of other companies, Ballo has been able to design his own furniture range. While he continues to operate as a sole trader, he has big plans for the business.
“I have a new website about to be launched and passed proof-of-concept with amazing early market acceptance,” he says.
“The most important thing I learnt is to back yourself in everything you do, and believe that you can achieve things even though they may seem out of reach.”