Andres Zuleta is the Founder of Boutique Explorer, a company that plans unique and beautiful travel experiences in Mexico, Colombia, and beyond. Boutique Explorer plans private custom trips with a culinary and cultural focus.
Their unique itineraries are perfect for unpretentious travelers who seek off-the-beaten-path experiences, love food, and appreciate local style — with just the right amount of luxury. Recognized as a top travel specialist by Condé Nast Traveler, Andres has spent years living in Japan and enjoyed long-term stays in locations including Medellin, Oaxaca, Chiang Mai, Havana, and Lisbon. He regularly shares his expertise on planning a memorable travel experience and more with high-profile publications and podcasts.
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Table of Contents
Thank you for joining us today. Please introduce yourself to our readers. They want to know you, some of the background story to bring some context to your interview.
Andres Zuleta: I am the founder of Boutique Explorer, which offers private luxury trips around the world. The idea came about organically thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. I’ve run a company called Boutique Japan since 2013, but because of COVID-19, we were inspired to pivot. I had personal and professional experience in planning trips to other countries (in addition to Japan), and so did some of my employees. Plus, thanks to our collective decades of experience in the travel industry, we already had a wide-ranging network of trusted contacts in a number of countries around the world.
We had no idea how the COVID-19 situation would evolve, and Japan ended up being one of the last countries in the world to reopen to tourists. So we are very fortunate that we spent so much of our time during the pandemic developing Boutique Explorer. It’s been a huge focus for us over the past couple of years.
You are a successful entrepreneur, so we’d like your viewpoint, do you believe entrepreneurs are born or made? Explain.
Andres Zuleta: I often say that I was a ‘reluctant entrepreneur.’ Growing up, I wasn’t entrepreneurial (I was more into sports and schoolwork!) and didn’t have an interest in business. Only as an adult did I discover that, even when I really enjoyed the work itself, I didn’t love working for other people. Once this became painfully obvious to me, I decided I had no choice but to pursue entrepreneurship… and haven’t looked back since!
If you were asked to describe yourself as an entrepreneur in a few words, what would you say?
Andres Zuleta: As an entrepreneur, I am meticulous yet creative, and do my best to listen to both my left and right brains. By nature, I tend to be quite practical and careful, but also have an energetic, spontaneous side that I think contributes just as much to my entrepreneurial style.
Tell us about what your company does and how did it change over the years?
Andres Zuleta: Boutique Explorer plans unique and beautiful travel experiences in Mexico, Colombia, and beyond. Boutique Explorer plans private custom trips with a culinary and cultural focus. Our unique itineraries are perfect for unpretentious travelers who seek off-the-beaten-path experiences, love food, and appreciate local style — with just the right amount of luxury.
We’re currently in the process of overhauling our brand and website, and I’m looking forward to seeing how things evolve over the next few months. During the next year, one of our top priorities will continue to be adding new destinations to our repertoire, which we do via first-hand research trips and strategic networking. In 3 years, I would not be surprised if Boutique Explorer is an even more significant part of our overall business than our original brand, Boutique Japan.
Thank you for all that. Now for the main focus of this interview. With close to 11.000 new businesses registered daily in the US, what must an entrepreneur assume when starting a business?
Andres Zuleta: Each success will give way to a new challenge. This is the beauty of entrepreneurship, and life in general (though sometimes it can feel frustrating, too). As a new business owner, if all goes well, you will hit a series of milestones, from closing your first sale or selling your first product, to achieving your first profitable year or hiring your first employee. And each time you do so, you’ll ‘level up’ to increasingly complex scenarios. So when it seems like you’ve got everything figured out, chances are you’ll encounter a new, interesting challenge to work on.
Did you make any wrong assumptions before starting a business that you ended up paying dearly for?
Andres Zuleta: Before starting a business, based on what I’d read online and in various books, I believed that the best way to begin is by hiring virtual assistants to keep costs as low as possible. To be fair, there are some wonderful virtual assistants out there, and it is also essential to be careful when it comes to costs. However, I soon learned that there is a huge amount of value in bringing on full-time employees. Hiring employees — as opposed to independent contractors — does take quite a bit more time and effort, and you often pay more, too (not to mention the paperwork!). But in my experience, committing to hiring long-term employees has proved invaluable.
If you could go back in time to when you first started your business, what advice would you give yourself and why? Explain.
Andres Zuleta: Take a day off! Nowadays, I have a great work-life balance (most of the time), but in my early days the idea of taking even one day off felt almost sacrilegious. Everything felt so urgent back then, and I still recall the first time I made myself take a weekend off. Eventually, I realized that while there’s value in working hard, it’s just as crucial to devote time to resting and recharging. It’s obvious in hindsight, but my younger business self simply didn’t have the discipline to disconnect.
What is the worst advice you received regarding running a business and what lesson would you like others to learn from your experience?
Andres Zuleta: I’ve thought long and hard about this, but can’t recall having received bad advice from anyone I trust (though there is plenty of poor advice out there on the internet). Some of the best advice I’ve ever received regarding running a business is to always keep your word and manage expectations. For example, if you say something will be ready next week, make sure it actually happens; if you’re not sure when it will be ready, do your best to be upfront from the start. It’s a simple but powerful practice.
In your opinion, how has COVID-19 changed what entrepreneurs should assume before starting a business? What hasn’t changed?
Andres Zuleta: In my opinion, COVID-19 has not really changed what entrepreneurs should assume before starting a business. However, it’s definitely highlighted something that’s always been true, pandemic or not: you should always assume that business conditions, and circumstances in general, can shift dramatically and without notice. Even when times are good and things seem stable, think about what could change and find ways to bake antifragility into your business.
What is a common myth about entrepreneurship that aspiring entrepreneurs and would-be business owners believe in? What advice would you give them?
Andres Zuleta: It’s all about growth. If you’re a funded startup, then you’re going to be under a huge amount of pressure to grow. Even for small businesses, some degree of growth is usually important, but growth for growth’s sake is definitely not everything.
Especially when you first start out, it’s easy to get distracted by ‘vanity metrics’ (revenue, number of employees, etc.), but it’s essential to discover what size company works best for you and your team. In my earlier days, there were times when I thought it would be best for us to keep growing and growing. But eventually it became clear to me that there are countless other benefits and advantages to intentionally remaining relatively small.
What traits, qualities, and assumptions do you believe are most important to have before starting a business?
Andres Zuleta: To be successful, an entrepreneur must have these three characteristics:
1. Humility. When I first tried to start a business, I learned after a couple of months that I simply didn’t know enough to make the business work. An acquaintance gave me some wonderful advice, which was to spend some time working in the industry to learn more. After doing so, I was able to return to my goal of entrepreneurship armed with much more valuable insight and experience. I’m thankful that I was able to recognize quickly that my initial idea was just not viable (as opposed to spending months or years trying to make a mediocre idea work).
2. Faith. If you’ve done your research and know your industry, you should have a pretty well-informed sense of whether your business idea will work or not. Of course, sometimes even the best ideas don’t work out for one reason or another. But if you’ve exercised sound judgment and are confident in your idea, then some degree of faith is essential. Especially at the beginning, setbacks and challenges are to be expected. Blind faith becomes stubbornness, so you also have to know when to change course, but having a deep-rooted confidence in your business is a must.
3. Organization. This one’s a bit boring, but key. You cannot develop a successful organization if you yourself are not organized. This doesn’t mean having a neat desk, and so-called ‘messy’ people are often the best entrepreneurs. But you do have to have your life organized, to make sure you’re doing what needs to be done, delegating properly, and ensuring things don’t fall through the cracks
How can aspiring leaders prepare themselves for the future challenges of entrepreneurship? Are there any books, websites, or even movies to learn from?
Andres Zuleta: My favorite business book is ‘Good to Great’ by Jim Collins. It’s a fun and fascinating read, based on intensive academic research. The main subjects of the book are large multinational corporations, but there are countless lessons for small business owners and entrepreneurs. It’s the only business book I return to over and over, and I found it especially useful in the early days of the pandemic, when it felt particularly hard to make business plans given the extreme uncertainty at the time.
You have shared quite a bit of your wisdom and our readers thank you for your generosity but would also love to know: If you could choose any job other than being an entrepreneur, what would it be?
Andres Zuleta: If I had a wonderful partner or employee to help me manage the day-to-day operations, I would love to open a small in-person storefront, such as a book shop or cafe, in my neighborhood.
Thank you so much for your time, I believe I speak for all of our readers when I say that this has been incredibly insightful. We do have one more question: If you could add anyone to Mount Rushmore, but not a politician, who would it be; why?
Andres Zuleta: An alternate Mount Rushmore featuring all of the members of The Beatles.
Jed Morley, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Andres Zuleta for taking the time to do this interview and share his knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Andres Zuleta or his company, you can do it through his – Instagram
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