Transcript of Interview with Bruce Poon Tip
Dan: Welcome to another episode of Shoulders of Titans, this is Dan Lok and today I have the privilege of bringing you a world renowned business visionary, a global leader in social entrepreneurship and a New York Times Bestselling author, Bruce welcome to the show!
Bruce: Great, thanks for having me.
Dan: Now Bruce maybe tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into what you do today.
Bruce: Well I mean I was born in the Caribbean, in Trinidad; I moved to Canada at a very, very young age if you want me to go that far back and grew up in Calgary in Alberta and you know I was fascinated by the world being an immigrant in Canada, growing up an immigrant in Canada. And I started a travel company with the idea of changing the way people looked at travel and redefining people’s holiday time way back 25 years ago in 1990 when I was young and you know 25 years later we’re the world’s largest small group adventure holiday company in the world and we’re a global company with offices in twenty countries. And yeah, a leader in our space but also quite influential I guess on the social enterprise side of the travel industry.
Dan: Now as entrepreneurs we sometimes joke about that – oh if this doesn’t work, we can always work at McDonald’s. I know you were actually working at McDonald’s and were fired from McDonald’s – share that story with us.
Bruce: Yeah, I mean McDonald’s and Denny’s actually. This was all within a period of two weeks. It’s the first time – you know I started three companies before I turned 16 and the first time I decided to get a job was – well the second job I had was McDonald’s, Denny’s being the first one – I got fired from both of those jobs, McDonald’s even had a shorter career because I got fired during the training program. And it was – you know I was – I guess I was quite a precocious kid, I questioned a lot of things, I questioned why people did everything even back then and I had you know bad experiences, I had experiences with the trainer I was being trained by, we got into a confrontation and I got fired on the spot.
Dan: Wow. Now, I’m curious – so you started three businesses before you turned 16 – were your parents entrepreneurial?
Bruce: My father is an entrepreneur. He always had his own business but he’s the worst entrepreneur ever because you know I would always say that my influence is really my mother; my mom being strong, independent and you know really kind of held the family values and held everything together for us that really kind of shaped my vision of business. My father was an entrepreneur but he wasn’t a very successful one. And so you know we’ve often talked about that that most of my inspiration comes from my mother even though my father was somewhat self employed.
Dan: So your father was kind of like a reverse role model.
Bruce: Yeah, well he was a very traditional entrepreneur owning very small scale, local businesses and you know he got into a bit of real estate at an early and lucky time in Calgary and did reasonably well considering they moved here with 7 children so there was a lot of – it was quite a big move for us and quite taxing on the family and very difficult times for us but you know he kept the family together and I would say that we didn’t have much growing up and you know but how I learned what business was about was more about the values of our family, about staying together, about helping each other out, about the idea of the importance of community and that’s how I really kind of defined my social enterprise kind of thoughts later.
Dan: Now back then 25 years ago, Bruce, I mean the world social enterprise it wasn’t even – people didn’t even use that word. When you first came up with the idea of adventures, what inspired you to come up with that idea?
Bruce: Well it was a natural progression for us. We started the foundation work that we do and started kind of redefining how we wanted to start our business in about 1996. And you’re right – there was no one thinking about social innovation or social entrepreneurship or any of that kind of – you know the idea of triple bottom line business was emerging in our space of travel, ecotourism was kind of a buzzword that kind of gave you a kind of gave you a kind of sustainable slant but we didn’t relate to any of those names or buzzwords but it was very natural for us to be involved in that because we were running these local, you know, community based, community immersion and cultural immersion type holidays and it was natural for us to have a relationship with local people and make sure local people were successful as we became successful. As our company grew over the years, it was important for us to have that mutual relationship to keep our experiences authentic on the ground and that meant you know local people becoming successful as we grew to become successful.
Dan: So at the time, what was your vision – did you ever envision you would build this big company or were you just kind of one step at a time – you just take the baby steps?
Bruce: Well there’s two answers to that, first of all when you come from you know where I came from you know growing up in Alberta and then moving to Toronto with $800 in your pocket and you know the idea to change the world, you’re only given so much vision from where you come from right and I certainly didn’t have the capacity to say that I wanted to you know become what we have become. I knew I wanted to start a business, I was motivated to control my own destiny and fulfill my destiny – all those things. But I wasn’t necessarily really focused on – I didn’t have the vision, I wasn’t given the tools growing up or where I came from to actually think as big as you know what we’ve become. So, I mean you know I wish I could say that we did. And then the other thing that I have to mention is that the world changed so dramatically from 1990, right? I mean, if anything what I’m very successful at is being responsive to change because you know we started in 1990 before the fax machine was even common.
I thought that revolutionized my life I mean I thought the fax machine was the greatest thing to business to ever happen because it allowed me to kind of message immediate messages around the world. But then of course e-mail and then the internet was just another revelation and then in the last ten years the social revolution with the transparency of social media and the connections that people have with brands today and we have such an emotional brand, our social relationship with our customers took us again to the next level. So the world changed and we’ve been very responsive to change over the last 25 years and that’s really always been our success.
Dan: Now Bruce in the beginning when you didn’t really have a whole lot of money, you were just getting started – how did you get the initial capital? What did you do to get a little bit of funding?
How To Gain Initial Capital
Bruce: Well jeez I did all kinds of things. I used my college credit cards, I had a little bit of money, at one point I had a friend who’s parents bought him a car to go to university and he put a lien on his car to lend me the money, I borrowed money from friends, I remember my sister – I mean there was just so many people along the way that had to help, it really took a village but I mean everyone but banks which is ironic because banks couldn’t understand what I wanted to do; The business plan didn’t make sense to them, they certainly weren’t willing to invest in an idea or the passion I had for the concept and you know nothing existed like us before so I couldn’t give live examples so banking funding was not an option. So I started very, very small. I mean I started very small like you know started from my garage apartment in Toronto and I started small and moved to my first office and just, you know, grew one step at a time.
Dan: And how did you get the first initial group kind of a customer’s or the raving fans?
Bruce: For me it was guerilla marketing I mean I hit the streets. I mean I was selling something so new and something that people never heard of before – you have to remember that. I mean I couldn’t just put an ad in a newspaper that said ‘tours to Thailand’ for instance because people have a view of what a tour to Thailand is and it starts with an air conditioned coach bus and a Best Western hotel. And I’m selling something so different; taking you on local transport and trains and elephant back riding and you know all these different ideas so I had to get in front of people. So I used to you know walk the streets and put signs up on lamp posts because I was doing talks at various schools or universities.
A co-op here in Canada was one of my early kind of fans who let me speak in their stores – every Wednesday night I had a standing invitation to just stand in the middle of their store and invite people. They put chairs out and I’d stand and tell everyone about this new, revolutionary style of travel. And you know I’d be right in the middle of the shoe department; there was no formal place for me, I would just talk to anyone who would listen and eventually people would start having home parties and invite me to come and talk about it and try to sell to individual groups of friends to try and get together and that’s how it started.
Dan: Wow and now fast forward today. What is this largest group you’ve spoken to?
Bruce: Largest group oh jeez I mean I speak all over the place now; I mean I just spoke at – I was a visiting distinguished professor this week in Providence at Johnson and Wales University so it was like 1,000 people and it was online too because they have four other campuses in the US. I mean it’s all the time – I’ve spoken at conferences with thousands of people.
Dan: That’s so incredible from where you were to where you are today. It goes to show like – with entrepreneurs what if sometimes Bruce that they think well you know I don’t have enough resources, I don’t have enough capital – but you were so resourceful – how did you overcome maybe some of those doubts or mental challenges that is whatever holding most entrepreneurs back?
Bruce: You know I always say that youth is wasted on the young – that’s a famous saying. You know I was young and I was just very passionate. I mean I think that you have to love what you do and you have to be passionate about what you’re doing. Entrepreneurs always hear that but they truly don’t believe how much that compensates for the realities of trying to get through problems or obstacles. When you love or are passionate about it, it’s also a driving force to being successful because people buy things from enthusiastic people, right? People want to be part of something that you’re excited about.
So if you’re trying to be an entrepreneur for the wrong reasons because you just want to make money or you just want to sell widgets of some kind you know to make a fast buck, it’s much more difficult because people don’t buy things unless they’re motivated to and it’s contagious and engaging when someone’s passionate about what they do. So I mean I never thought for a minute – there was some dark days that I would think back on now and I would think, how did I get through that when I was dodging landlords and you know doing all kinds of things to get by with my business? You know I bounced paychecks once you know of all the few people that worked for me at the time and you know there wasn’t a single moment that I didn’t think what I was doing was exactly what I was meant to do so I was just so passionate about it and obstacles were just things in my way to get to where I needed to go. And so it was all about problem solving all the time. And you become a very good problem solver if you love what you do.
Dan: Now Bruce I’m curious, were you also getting feedback from your customers and clients that even though you were starting small, that yeah they were telling you how much they loved the trip, how much they loved the experience – were you also maybe getting validation from them?
Bruce: Yeah I mean that also went in ebbs and flows because we started at a certain time when people didn’t know much about travel. I mean people traveled very differently in 1990, right? I mean they didn’t have access to the internet. People can’t even think about what life would be like – if you wanted to read about a destination, you had to go to a library and it’s a very different world. So you know we’ve evolved with time and so have our customers but our customers have definitely been the motivation. But our customers also were very, you know up until the late 90s, early 2000, our customers also started getting very territorial as we started to grow because at one point we were this best kept secret and everyone loved that we stayed small and cool and you know something for really more of a hardcore serious traveler but as we started becoming more mainstream, and selling through kind of traditional travel agents and different wholesalers and you know our initial audience had to adapt and it was very important for us to be able to keep that audience happy as well. So it shaped us in many ways to what we’ve become today.
Dan: Maybe for our listeners who don’t understand G Adventures – tell us a little bit about the company and what you do differently from every other travel agencies out there.
How G Adventures is Different
Bruce: I mean at the heart of what we do is we’re a small group adventure company so we have 700 different itineraries in over 100 countries around the world. Like adventure holiday type experiences so we run I think close to 18,000 departures a year. We have over 150,000 passengers and so we’ve grown so we now have over 2,000 employees and we have operations in over 100 countries where we run tours and we’re fully global. So we have people from 160 countries who book trips with us every year so we don’t have any one dominant country, even our home country here which is Canada is only like 10% of our business so we’ve managed to create a brand that exports travel and in order to do that, like why someone in Germany would book an African safari with a Canadian company is the magic we create here because we’ve created a brand that means something to people and that kind of wraps up our whole social enterprise; we have a foundation and we build community projects around the world that interact with tourism and the experiences of our customers. And really it’s become quite big now – we’re working with government agencies and we actually work with countries now that our consulting arm of our foundation to kind of consult on sustainable development and tourism. So, we’ve become sort of a market leader in that space and we continue to grow; I mean we’ve had double digit growth for 25 years and I always say we’re a 25 year old startup.
Dan: That’s amazing. So Bruce I’m curious from a business perspective, how do you run this global company – how do you structure your business? Like you touched on you have the consulting division, you have a lot of different communities, like how do you structure your business in a way that it runs efficiently and effectively?
How to Structure a Business
Bruce: Well you know that’s an ever-changing canvas as well in terms of as you grow I mean every 2-3 years when you grow at the pace that we do, you have to continue to restructure. I mean up until a year ago I had 17 global VPs that kind of – VPs, MDs and GMs – that kind of ran the global business that all reported to me. I had 17 reports for a few years. And now I’ve done a restructuring because I now have more senior people in a smaller group of 7 which is my global lead team and then I have core which is my core steering committee that runs the whole business and yeah so but that’s evolved over time and we also you know have a director level and then we have the next generation group so we have a funnel so people become successful as the company grows and it also builds all of our future leaders in house. So there’s a lot of work that goes on with being a fast growing company, especially at our size and the structure is important. We have physical offices in 20 countries but we have head offices in 4 countries; London, Toronto, Boston and Melbourne, Australia which basically run the head offices and the other 24 offices of the 28 are operational that run tours so it’s a big operation now.
Dan: Yeah, it’s huge. So, Bruce have you thought of – I know you’re a private company – have you ever thought of taking the company public or like what are your thoughts?
Bruce: I have, I mean it’s a thought that kind of goes through my mind a lot – it’s funny I was asked to speak at a breakfast at the Toronto stock exchange – they have these breakfasts for people and they asked me to come and speak and when I went there, it was standing room only and I realized that people thought I was going to announce we were going public at the breakfast. I have thought about that idea; you know we have so much organic growth left in us that you know valuation wise and we’re growing – I have full control of the business, I don’t have a board, I don’t have mass amounts of debt you know it’s – we’re in a very great space to be extremely responsive, quick to market, very nimble as an organization and right now it’s really critical for us when we have so much organic growth left in us.
You know people go public when they need capital to grow. And certainly if I had $500 million tomorrow I could think of ways in which to expedite our growth but we’ve always been quite an organic process and we have all the growth that we can handle. We’re never kind of out there beating the bushes for growth, I mean we have so many opportunities so right now we’re very comfortable with where we are but I have said that I always – I quite like the idea of going public one day possibly because I just think it’d be fun. I think we’d be very – we would be able to redefine public company life too. I think we’d be a very good company in that environment because we have a track record of results and I think that we could do some amazing things that again could have an impact in a good way on business.
Dan: And I know that you turned down a huge acquisition offer to someone to buy all of your company and you actually turned it down – was that $100 million?
Bruce: Oh gosh $100 million would’ve been years ago – I’ve been offered over $250-300 million since then. In my book Looptail I tell the story about how in 2007-08 I was offered $100 million. We’re twice the size as we were back then; three times the size maybe actually.
Dan: So why did you turn it down?
Bruce: I get offers everyday I mean honestly I get 3-4 offers a week; it’s constant here. It’s actually almost a full time job responding to people wanting to buy or acquire or get involved with us on a financial level.
Dan: Wow. So why did you turn it down?
Bruce: Many reasons – I mean what I do is very organic, Dan, I mean it sounds very esoteric especially – you’re more of a harder nosed business guy – I know you and my belief in many ways is I often wonder what’s for sale I mean I’m kind of running this company but there’s a lot of people that are involved in making it successful and there’s a lot of people – it’s more of a movement, we’re trying to change the way that people look at holidays, trying to change the way you know have a positive impact when we can – not only on just the world but on the travel industry as we believe that travel can be a force for good and create wealth distribution and do a lot of things that the world needs.
And travel can be a vehicle so we have this romantic view and I don’t know that it would be followed if we sold to – and I don’t think the company would be successful. I think it’s the magic ingredient that makes us successful. I don’t think it’s easily replicated and I often think like what is for sale? I mean I’m kind of fulfilling a higher purpose in my own mind and I don’t know that it would be as successful by selling it and I would – you know there’s a lot of people that rely on me to make the best decisions everyday and right now – I mean I never say never of course but right now, that’s not the best decision for us because there’s so much – we have so much road left in us on the horizon right now.
Dan: And you’re having so much fun on this journey! And this is interesting because you are not the CEO of the company – you actually gave that title away and what you have is Chief Experience Officer – talk to us a little bit about that.
Chief Experience Officers
Bruce: Well, this went back to 2007 I guess or 2008 when I wanted to make a shift to the company about the importance of the customer because you know customer service – and I want to have the best customer service, not only that we’re capable of but I always say I want the best customer service on the planet – I want to redefine – you know customers are everything, it’s what makes us successful – and so you know when you’re a leader of a multinational company that’s you know – I have multinational problems but I have medium company budget, right? So I have people in 100 countries, different cultures, I have Africans, Latin Americans, I have Asians that are all you know delivering on a very aggressive brand promise and my leadership you know kind of is always challenged. And at that time I wanted to change the whole company mentality about the customer being the most important thing. So I decided that anyone who had a customer related job – I mean most of us in the company – if you’re working marketing or you’re working in you know finance or software, whatever you’re working within the company, you don’t have access to the customer.
So I decided that anyone who was dealing with customers would become the most important people within the organization and then because they are dealing with our life blood and so I wanted to give them the most important title in the company and in the business world the most important title is CEO. So I wanted to make that change and originally people thought it was gimmicky and people rolled their eyes when I kind of announced it but it really made a significant change in the company when I made anyone who deals with customers a CEO which is your chief experience officer. You are responsible for creating our customer’s experience and I wanted to create that shift within our organization. I wanted to be able to pivot from where we were to something extraordinary and I thought the best way to do it is to sacrifice my own title and give that to the most important people that are in the company and that’s people who deal with our customers. And then I never used the title ever since so now I’m just founder – which causes confusion sometimes for people but generally that was you know the mindset when I took that decision.
Dan: You kind of flipped the traditional organization upside down. That’s amazing. And also I know that you don’t actually have an HR department but a talent agency and a culture club. Talk to us about that – that’s also fascinating.
Bruce: Well, I mean I fired our HR department in 2008 and I just decided that HR didn’t resemble what I wanted and how to manage people within the organization. As we were kind of growing, I had someone in HR kind of growing with the business but as I was kind of looking for someone to take us to that next level of people management, I realized that you know I didn’t believe the concepts of traditional HR and I just didn’t want it. I mean I think that HR is set to you know put rules and systems in place to avoid companies making mistakes as they get larger or as they get bigger and I just didn’t want that to be a mandate within any business that I was part of. I want our company to create more freedom and less restrictions as get bigger. My biggest challenge as an entrepreneur is being nimble and staying as nimble as possible as we get bigger and I think HR is contrary to that philosophy.
Dan: And so for the talent agency and culture club – like how does that work?
Bruce: Ah well we basically took all the elements of HR which is our company culture and managing people – so we created the talent agency, which is just managing the people in a way that they’re actually the talent that makes this company so successful – it has a different philosophy. We took all that admin stuff out, we put that in a different area and then we want them to be focused on managing our people, attracting the best people, retaining the best people, recruiting the best people in a way that looks at people as the talent that makes this company successful. And then company culture so we formed the culture club which is going to be a company that full time develops, supports, and promotes our unique and you know successful company culture. So those two departments were formed to replace HR.
Dan: Wonderful. We’re definitely going to talk a little bit more culture, dive into culture as well. So we’re going to take a quick break and we’ll be right back.
Welcome back and we are talking with the founder of G Adventures. So Bruce talk to us a little bit more about culture because from what I’m hearing from you, your management philosophy is quite similar to let’s say Zappos – delivering happiness or even the way you run your company reminds me of like Richard Branson of Virgin – so talk about how you got some of these ideas or how you built your company culture.
Bruce: Well I know both those guys – I know Tony very well and Richard and so you know you do take ideas I mean the best ideas are stolen – famous Steve Jobs quote. But you know you do have influences all over – I think one of the most incredible company cultures are the most amazing companies right now that is setting new standards is Netflix – I mean the stuff they’re doing right now with their talent management is revolutionary. And you know even Jack Welch, one of the greatest leaders of our generation or our time – how he led GE all those years to such results – I think he’s one of the greatest leaders ever even though I don’t relate to GE as a company, I can take a lot of those philosophies and ideas and shape them into my own world. I mean, I don’t share you know – Tony Hsieh – I don’t share a lot of his views on business, but we do have common links on how we run business. The social enterprise side of my business doesn’t relate to what he does in any way and I relate more to you know I relate more to compassionate leaders and different types of leaders whether it’s Nelson Mandela or Ghandi or the Dalai Lama like these kind of spiritual leaders I can understand a little bit more to influence business that he could not relate to.
I certainly understand innovation and the way Richard Branson does things. You know, you always just have to find your way. You know Apple and Steve Jobs – I had a chance to speak at Apple a few times – like you take all of these influences and you make your own that’s relevant to your business. I don’t think there’s any one kind of vision or one kind of you know company or person that I share complete vision with but elements that you know match the values that I want to bring to my business, you know, give it its own kind of unique, you know, way to deliver your product in a unique way and engage your customers to something greater than just your product. But I mean all those you mentioned, they’re great leaders, have different products, have different access to different you know streams of capital or the way in which they do their business but ultimately they deliver a more connected product and they engage people beyond just Virgin Airlines or beyond just selling shoes for Tony.
Dan: And now Netflix of course they’re doing their own productions and creating their own shows and things like that – it’s an amazing company.
Bruce: You know with their employees they stopped giving holiday time? You have no set holiday time anymore at Netflix – you take as much holiday as you feel you deserve. That’s their new policy.
Dan: That’s amazing. That’s very innovative.
Bruce: As they get bigger, they’re creating more freedom for their employees. Opposite of you know traditional HR which puts rules and regulations and systems in place to take away people’s freedoms as you get bigger so company’s avoid making mistakes and you end up managing you know your bottom 10% – the problem employees usually take up most of the management time of any kind of HR department and you forget to manage your stars that are really making your business successful. You know, going back to HR there for a bit but I mean those are the successful ingredients that make company cultures and you know thinking revolutionary about business models is what makes companies you know successful in a global way.
Dan: And of course what makes G Adventure so successful is your entirely new kind of approach to management. I’m curious Bruce what are some of your core management philosophies?
Bruce: Oh I mean I have quite a few. For one thing, being connected – I need management teams that are connected. That connectedness is important and it’s something that’s lacking in banking and you know insurance companies and things where it’s more of a competitive environment. I mean the idea that people can connect on a human and spiritual level is critical to that kind of tribal leadership model. And that’s you know really important. And you know one of the other things for my people is know who you’re working for. Know what your own personal motivation and purpose is – and be just very honest about it. If your motivation is money, that’s great. I mean just know that you want to make a certain amount of money and find out how you can fit that within the values of how you want to live your life. If your motivation is helping others or if your motivation is challenging and wanting to be challenged intellectually or if your motivation is just having fun or working with great people or innovation – whatever it is that really excites you, find that passion and find the right environment that can deliver that experience for you and you know because then you’ll be passionate and you’ll have that fifth gear and you’ll never work a day in your life.
Dan: That’s amazing. And so of course, what about purpose? Because in your book you mention a little bit about it’s important to find a purpose as an entrepreneur.
Bruce: I mean for a leader, yes. You know when I’m leading thousands of people it’s important that we know what our purpose is to guide our decisions, to guide everyone’s decisions within the company. What drives our success and how that is defined by our values, our mission – whatever it is you want – it’s got to be a clear message and it comes from the top down. So all of those things become you know – purpose becomes a very important part of it; why are you here? And why are you doing what you do? Whether you’re in the mail room or whether you’re a VP at the highest level, you know why do you do everything that you do everyday? You know do you feel that you’re a part of something greater than yourself?
What drives people to perform outstanding and give their best every day? I mean I don’t see why more people don’t understand that because business is about performance; it’s about beating your competitors, it’s about being the best and the best team wins, always. And so there’s an aggressive side to my business even though I talk about happiness and all this spirituality side of things – you know we’re still a for profit business, we’re still profit driven, we’re still sharks when it comes to doing business. I still want to absolutely decimate my competition. But I just do it in a way that’s motivational for people because happy people and people that are driven by purpose will outperform people that are committed to strategy 9 times out of 10, you know? And so that’s just my philosophy and it’s worked for me.
Dan: So it sounds to me that you believe in finding motivated people than just motivating employees.
Bruce: Yeah I mean first of all people have to connect so when you’re recruiting people it becomes the most important part of creating a culture of winning. It’s the people that you bring on. Too many people look for people that can drive results. Results come when teams perform collectively so finding one person who is individually successful will not necessarily translate to a successfully performing team. So how you find your talent and how you engage talent and how you find people that can contribute to your company culture and not just participate in your company culture becomes critical so recruitment becomes everything. How you find people that you know that engage your company culture, that can connect to what your vision and your purpose is to help collectively drive a team to be successful. I mean in Looptail I talk about having brilliant jerks – I get brilliant jerks in my office everyday saying, if you hire me, I can bring you this revenue stream, these partners, these people, you know I can bring a ton of business your way because of my relationships – but if that person can’t fit within what we’ve built as a successful tank really of the business that’s running, it’s not worth it. There’s no price that’s worth disrupting our company culture and our people with somebody who’s driven by individual results.
Dan: So then how do you know – like what’s your hiring process like? How do you know that that person fits within the G Adventures culture?
Bruce: There’s no way to really know – I mean for us we have our own way, we have something called G Factor Interview which is kind of a culture fit. So whenever any kind of division head finds someone, they have to do what’s called G factor culture fit and that’s by three random people selected every day within the organization and the G factor interviews are done here in a ball pit and they put people out of their comfort zone and they see if they’ll fit within the organization. And those three people that are random people, they can be senior or very junior – new, old – it doesn’t matter, they’re randomly generated every day. They decide whether this person can fit into our culture and if they fail culture fit – you know culture fit probably fails 3-5 people every quarter now, they can’t be hired. They can’t take the job no matter how much their manager wants them to work here or how skilled or how qualified they are. If they can’t pass culture fit, they can’t be here.
Dan: Do you utilize any kind of personality system like the disc concept – do you use any of those kinds of things?
Bruce: No. We don’t. I have in the past but we haven’t in over a decade.
Dan: Makes sense. And since we’re talking about the book Looptail – why did you write that book and what inspired you to write that book?
Bruce Poon’s Books
Bruce: Another very interesting question Dan – you’ve got some doozies. You know originally I wanted to write it as a manual internally. I mean we have all these new people I mean we’re a 25 year old company – all these Johnny come lately’s today that are you know hot shots enjoying the fruits of a successful company you know – a company that gets lots of attention today – you know don’t realize where we came from. And I wanted to make sure that it was documented so I approached a book publisher and an agent about whether – and you know I didn’t think it would sell as well as it did you know I thought if I sold 5,000 copies would that work out, you’re successful, I’m successful – and then but then there was a bidding war to sign you know once the framework of what I wanted to write – it was very timely, obviously.
It was a bidding war with publishers; then there were these huge advance payments that came that put a lot of pressure on the book to be successful. I was super nervous, I mean I pulled out of the whole thing twice over the course because I’m not a writer – I just wanted to tell my story internally to make sure people know where we came from, to make sure it was documented – I could get hit by a bus any day and then it went crazy I mean the first week it went #4 on the NYT bestseller list and then it went international. You know I did 14 book tours that year and selling all over the place – places like India, Poland, Russia, Korea – it was an amazing year and amazing how people took and loved the book but ultimately that wasn’t my motivation to be a bestselling author; I mean that was the furthest thing from my mind – if you knew what type of student I was growing up – no one would ever suspect I would become a bestselling author.
Dan: Not just a bestselling author but a NYT bestselling author! Amazing. What about your second book – Do Big Small Things – what inspired you to write that book? It’s a fun book, lots of pictures and quotes so what inspired you to write that book?
Bruce: Well you know we do a culture book here every year – my publishers found out we actually give away 40,000 copies of our culture book every year – that people want copies of that book all over the world and so when they found out we were like selling and giving away over 40,000 copies, they said is there something in there for like an actual book? And so as we approached our 25th anniversary, I guess a year before our 25th anniversary, we were looking for exciting projects so I approached our publishers and said you know we could do something that was very different if you could give us a lot of freedom and flexibility to kind of make something very different and you know very unique with the book and kind of capture our brand with a bit of stories, a bit of quotes and we made an adult activity book that inspires people to see the world and see the benefits of traveling. And so they agreed and it took us a year and we got a collective group of people to kind of put everything that our brand represents of inspiring people; different cultural stories, what unites cultures together – we also obviously put these adult activities to inspire why they travel, bucket lists, where they go, why they go, their purpose for wanting to travel and then also some really emotional and amazing travel stories.
People who are influenced and changed by travel. We put that all into a book that would also celebrate our 25 years and it’s been incredibly – it’s been so widely accepted. I mean it was #1 in Canada for three weeks when it first opened and it’s fallen off the charts but it’s picking up again all of the stores are putting them in their Christmas lists – it was in the Global Mail this morning as one of the Christmas list recommendations – books to buy for Christmas – so it’s quite exciting.
Dan: Yes it actually is a perfect, perfect Christmas gift. It’s amazing. So, Bruce – also talk to us maybe a little bit about social media – how does G Adventures utilize the social media? For our listeners it’s interesting, Bruce and I actually shared a stage and we met in the green room and he showed me one of the tweets you did about a plastic fruit and it got a lot of retweets and shares and we were just joking about it – other things don’t get as many shares but something like silly about a plastic fruit got a lot of shares – so maybe talk to us about how does G Adventures utilize the social media, leveraging this powerful tool?
Using Social Media for Business
Bruce: Well, social media is a fantastic tool for us to create forum and conversation because as I mentioned we sell such an emotional product to be able to create a two way conversation with our customers is a gift that you couldn’t have just seven or eight years ago. So for us social media is a very, very important way for us to give our brand a voice, give our brand a personality, and create a dialogue with our customers as well as our employees. I mean social media unites us all in a global kind of you know conversation collectively because our customers have access to all of our employees all over the world and when you go on a trip and you have a CEO with one of your groups, you all bond together and you kind of become part of the movement that we’re trying to create with the company.
The social media has become a very, very important part of that dialogue with our customers. And also a great way for people to share how much they love traveling with us. So 99% of our customers – we have 99% satisfaction with our customers which is almost 15-20% higher than the industry average. But we also have 76% of our customers come back as what we call ravers. That they are dying to tell people about their trip or dying to tell people about you know that they should travel with us and you know social media is a perfect vehicle to create an army of you know ambassadors for your brand – when you have something as emotional as buying adventure holidays from G Adventures, it’s one of those things that really changed and when you look at our kind of curve I mean we were growing quite quickly as a company but when you compare that from 2008 with the real kind of growth from social media, it’s – we’ve grown even faster, it’s expedited our kind of process because we’re able to engage our customers so much more immediately and quickly.
Dan: Bruce, do you focus on let’s say Facebook or Twitter or like how do you – like for our listener, how do you start that engagement – how do you engage your customers?
Bruce: Oh within our marketing department on a global basis, we engage in every way – I mean I’m not in the marketing department but obviously Facebook and Twitter and Instagram are huge but they go everything from you know Foursquare to Pinterest too – there’s all kinds of other ones that I don’t even know about. There’s another one that’s kind of a live kind of like video thing – Snapchat – there’s all kind of ways in which they engage I mean we have a global social media team that’s literally with representatives in every office with a live conversation that’s happening 24/7 representing our brand but you know so for me personally that’s a whole other story because I don’t have any social media except Twitter.
Dan: Yes, you focus on just Twitter. Yes.
Bruce: Because it’s so immediate and responsive and concise. I mean my problem is I’m extremely focused and my time is limited so Twitter is perfect for me. I find Facebook to be an enormous time suck for people to have that kind of time to have a Facebook life as well as their own life.
Dan: Well speaking of your personal time management, I want to ask a couple of questions before we go – how do you divide your time? How do you manage your time? What’s it like, like what’s your daily routine like?
Bruce: Well for me my family is a big part of my life so I want to make time for my wife and kids which is always very important every day obviously. My company is a big part – I have to keep a global schedule so I work in the morning kind of for Europe and I have to be available at you know 10-midnight most nights for Australia and Asia – I work shorter in the days you know. So I kind of maintain a schedule like that.
When I’m home I exercise every day so I try to get to a gym and I do yoga and different things that I do to stay fit and stay nimble minded. And you know time to clean out my mind and think which I need time for and you know then I have a rotation schedule visiting my offices and I spend a lot of time I mean my individual profile has grown considerably especially since books have become more popular, I spend a lot of time also on the road whether it’s doing PR or you know book tours or whatever it is, speaking tours and stuff and so that’s a big part of how we get the word out about what I do. And you know I’m very lucky because I love what I do and I do think I’m on all the time but I’m not a workaholic like even though it might sound like it, I don’t work 24/7.
I certainly am switched on all the time but I have a lot of freedom and after 25 years I mean I hope so; I’ve created an environment which gives me enough freedom to work when I you know have to and there’s certain times within the organization when I have to have a fifth gear and give my all and at any time that could happen and you know this summer I didn’t travel at all. I got a great few months when I didn’t travel at all and it was fantastic and I had the freedom to just – I mean it’s not like I didn’t work but I got to stay home and not travel for a long time so and you know the other side of my job is just being very social which is not necessarily a natural thing for me. I’ve always been somewhat of a lone wolf and somewhat of an individual thinker and my life has now become managing, inspiring people within the organization; setting the vision, the direction and that takes a lot of managing of people, setting the gold standard of what you know is expected of people here.
You know we demand excellence from people that work here and that comes with a certain type of leadership that constantly challenges me because I never expected it to become what it has and 25 years later I can honestly say when I stop growing the company stops growing. So for me it’s growth every day.
Dan: How do you ensure your own personal growth? Do you read a lot of books? Of course you meet a lot of interesting entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs and learn from them as well – like what do you do for learning?
Always Keep Learning
Bruce: I do a lot. I mean I still take courses sometimes believe it or not. I’ve gone and taken some courses recently at places like MIT or wherever I can learn I do. I do read a lot of books, the books I read are either leadership books, business books, memoirs, those are things that inspire me the most. I do get a chance – I do have access to meeting some really phenomenal and interesting people lately too that inspire me, that I get to bounce ideas off of and talk about you know different challenges I have whether it’s personal or business wise. And you know the rest of it is just having an open heart and an open mind and being receptive to the idea of a life of growing, life long learning and that starts with you know continually self evaluating how you can get better; knowing your weaknesses – that’s one of the hardest things I think for entrepreneurs because entrepreneurs are notoriously self centered and you have to be somewhat egocentric to be a successful entrepreneur so that’s why it’s sometimes painful to consistently think about the holes in your game or how you can constantly get better but it’s so important to be able to grow, to know the areas in which you’re weak and find ways in which you can improve them or find people that can you know do the things that you’re not so good at doing.
Dan: OK, Bruce – one last question before you go. If you could time travel back to day 1 of your startup and have let’s say a 10 minute conversation with your former self, what lessons would you share with your former self to save yourself from the mistakes or all the headaches – what would you tell yourself?
What Advice Would You Have Given Yourself?
Bruce: Oh gosh that’s so deep – you’re going deep here for a podcast! I would tell myself to believe in my instincts, trust my gut, stay focused because you know when you’re an entrepreneur struggling nobody wants you know to hear from you and you have to struggle to get ears but when you’re successful it becomes much more difficult to stay on track and there’s so many more distractions so I would say stay focused and remember where you came from, trust your instincts and remember what your original goal was and what your original passion was and what your original concept was because there’s so many opportunities to divert from that.
And I think the last thing I would tell myself was, you know you’re not so strange. You know everything thought I was such a strange dude when I lived in a garage with $800 in my pocket, not take a job at Federal Express when they offered me a job and I just wanted to do my own thing. And you know my parents thought I joined a cult when I left to go to Toronto and everyone just kind of didn’t know what to do with me and I would look at my former self and say, you know what you’re going to be OK and you know, you’re an OK dude – just stick with your instincts, stick with your ability to believe in yourself and the unusual level of confidence that entrepreneurs have and you know stick to your gut because you know when you take high risks, it means high reward.
Dan: I love it, love it. Bruce, any final thoughts and how can someone if they want to learn a little bit more about G Adventures and if they want to get a copy of your books as well – what’s the best way to do that?
Bruce: Oh gosh there is – you can go to GAdventures.com for the trips and everything that we do, learn about our social enterprise – you can go to planeterra.org and look at our foundation work. You can go to looptail.com and look up what the book is and you can also go to dobigsmallthings – there’s a new website about my new book and you can go to any bookstores and you can get them online at Amazon or Border’s and any kind of online booksellers or just look socially online or find me on Twitter, @BrucePoonTip – I always love to hear from people.
Dan: Awesome. Bruce, thank you so much for inspiring us today with your just amazing story and some of your philosophies. I appreciate it. Thank you so much.
Bruce: Thank you. Thanks for having me!