Andres Zuleta is the founder of Boutique Japan, a modern-day travel company that offers personalized itineraries and unique travel experiences.
Andres created his business in 2013, fusing his love of Japan with his knowledge and experience of the travel industry.
Boutique Japan has managed to consistently exceed expectations in crafting unforgettable travel experiences for a select number of lucky travelers each year.
In this short time, Boutique Japan has grown from a one-man operation to a distributed team of seven (and growing).
Here’s how Andres Zuleta got started.
What do you sell?
We sell bespoke, designed-from-scratch, itineraries for travel throughout Japan for travelers who are seeking highly unique travel experiences.
When did you start this business?
Where did the business idea come from?
A combination of two loves: travel & Japan.
Also, the confluence of three things:
- my skill set in travel logistics and in-depth Japan expertise
- passion for the focus of my business
- a great market
I knew from my previous experience in the travel industry that my business model would work, provided I executed properly.
Did you have a written business plan?
Not exactly, but perhaps a simple version of an “essentials-only” business plan.
I did take the time to think hard about overhead and sales projections, market research, and how to stand out. I planned for customer acquisition through content marketing. I also planned what I wanted the company culture to be — real, with a practical mission and principles.
But it wasn't a business plan in a strict sense.
What business structure did you start with and why? (LLC, partnership, etc.)
I set it up as an LLC before officially beginning customer acquisition efforts, especially because for our business we need certain licenses, insurance and the like.
What would you do differently if you were starting today?
I would have decided to hire wonderful people sooner. That would have involved mapping out future roles, but mainly a mindset change.
Now I think that amazing people and building an amazing team are the keys to our growth and success.
When I started, I didn't think that way. I was intimidated about the idea of hiring since I didn't have experience hiring or managing people.
Secondly, I would have formed the LLC with a more generic name than Boutique Japan. This would have saved some time and effort. Even if your business name is specific, you can still have a generic, multi-purpose LLC name. I didn't realize this before.
Customers and Revenue
What was your financial runway when you started?
We had personal savings of roughly $20,000-$25,000 dedicated to living expenses and overhead. We estimated this would get us through about six months, thus we aimed to start finding customers within about three months, to be on the safe side.
How long until you became profitable?
We were basically profitable within six months. Though we weren't making much, we were making enough to survive and, more importantly, keep going.
How did you get your first customers?
We used content marketing, with a focus on blogging.
We set out to attract travellers and potential clients to our website by writing and publishing epic, authoritative posts on topics of great interest to our potential travellers such as cuisine, culture, and travel logistics.
It worked, and we started getting inquiries thanks to organic SEO via Google and Bing.
How has your customer acquisition evolved?
Surprisingly, it hasn't evolved much, and we still focus on putting out great content that we hope is extremely useful and interesting.
Nowadays we also have repeat travelers and referrals, too.
Name two or three tools you and your business can’t run without:
Google Drive, Asana, Confluence, GrooveHQ, Slack.
What one tool have you discovered that has changed your business, and why?
GrooveHQ, a helpdesk software that is similar to HelpScout. Both are good.
It allows us to collaboratively help our travelers/clients, and keeps our communications with travelers in one easy place, as opposed to “siloed” and apart in each person's email account.
Email marketing software?
Growing your business
What was the first position you hired?
Current team size?
Including part-time team members, we are currently seven (and growing).
Do you use coaches, mentors, or a mastermind group? If so, how did you find them?
I had a fantastic business coach for several weeks in 2015, which helped me start to form a viable “HR roadmap” and was thus really essential in our evolution!
I am also in a weekly mastermind group with two awesome friends and fellow entrepreneurs (including you!), which has been going strong for three years and has been an invaluable source of inspiration and support.
What books would you credit with helping you start, grow or scale your business or mindset?
Good to Great, by Jim Collins – the best business book I have ever read.
Before I had any sort of entrepreneurial mindset, reading The 4-Hour Workweek, by Tim Ferriss was hugely inspirational, although it may be a bit outdated at this point (maybe not).
What is the best piece of business advice you ever received?
Start now. Life is short.
You could die or get sick tomorrow, or your circumstances could drastically change.
The keys to success: amazing people and amazing content
With this peek into the origin story of Boutique Japan, it is clear that the power of content marketing is alive and well. Without it, there would be no way for Andres’ customers to find him and discover what he has to offer.
The other lesson Andres can relay, learned through experience, is that putting off hiring excellent people when you need them is only going to slow down your progress.
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