Editor’s Note: Entrepreneur’s “20 Questions” series features both established and up-and-coming entrepreneurs and asks them a number of questions about what makes them tick, their everyday success strategies and advice for aspiring founders.
When Bruce Poon Tip was 22 years old, he founded his travel company G Adventures on two maxed out credit cards. The avid globetrotter wanted to create experiences for travelers that would combine backpacking and mainstream travel while introducing people to local communities, not just tourist attractions.
But several years in, the company was about to go out of business. It was a trip to Tibet in 1997, his 100th country, that Poon Tip had taken to clear his head that changed his thinking about how he should run his business entirely.
“Up until that point, I was taught that business was unemotional, [that it]was black and white,” says Poon Tip. “Then I walked into this country where they were guided by their you know their hearts and their spirituality. And it was a complete different operating system for me.”
Now, after more than two decades in business, that mission and emotion-driven philosophy has powered the company to grow from Poon Tip’s apartment in Toronto to 23 offices all over the world that offer more than 650 tours on all seven continents to 150,000 travellers a year.
In 2003, Poon Tip founded a nonprofit called Planeterra, which has a mission of raising funds to help aid underserved communities all over the globe. He is also the author of the New York Times bestseller Looptail: How One Company Changed the World by Reinventing Business , which was the first business book to get the stamp of approval from the Dalai Lama.
We caught up with Poon Tip to ask him 20 Questions and find out what makes him tick.
1. How do you start your day?
I start my day with exercise; it’s very important to my routine. I do it to clear my head, to organize my thoughts and to set my priorities for the day. I love hot yoga, but I do mix it up.
2. How do you end your day?
I usually end my day with the news and with calls, either speaking to our Australia office or our offices in Europe or the UK. I want to catch that group at the start of their day and see if there’s any kind of questions or things that will hold them up. I want to be available so I can sleep easy, knowing nobody’s waiting on something for me.
3. What’s a book that changed your mind and why?
The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama. It was an inspirational book to me, because it was a turning point in my understanding that business isn’t black and white.
I was brought up being taught that business is unemotional, but the book taught me that business can be compassionate and social. That’s a common thing to talk about now, but this was is in the late ‘90s.
4. What’s a book you always recommend and why?
The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell and Good to Great by Jim Collins are two great ones. Good to Great is a good study about not settling and striving for greatness. The Tipping Point is important in terms of understanding how to be a customer-first organization.
5. What’s a strategy to keep focused?
Yoga, which I do for my morning routine. Starting my day with that activity keeps me very focused. Also, realizing that what you say no to is equally important as what you say yes to as an entrepreneur. If you achieve any amount of success as an entrepreneur, things come flying at you. Opportunities are everywhere, and it’s so easy to become unfocused chasing opportunities, because they’re a dime a dozen.
6. When you were a kid what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I had three companies before I turned 15, won a gold medal in entrepreneurship in my province in Canada at the age of 14. I had my first business at 11.
7. What did you learn from the worst boss you ever had?
The only jobs I had other than my own businesses were to pay rent. On the weekends, I worked behind a deli counter. My boss was an awful person. He was horrible to the employees, but he was always good to the customers. I learned whatever happens behind the scenes, you can still be successful if you are razor focused on the customer. He was always focused on doing right on the customer. I learned the importance of putting the customer first.
At the time, I didn’t have employees, but I certainly knew when I did, I knew I wouldn’t want them to feel how I did.
8. Who has influenced you most when it comes to how you approach your work?
My folks. My parents are immigrants. They sacrificed to give their kids the gift of opportunity. They moved to North America with seven children.
Also, the philosophy of the Dalai Lama of creating happiness has guided the whole principles of my business, how happiness drives human behavior, excellence and performance. The Dalai Lama believes that our only purpose in life is to achieve happiness. And if you want to create a purpose-driven business model, that’s a pretty powerful statement.
9. What’s a trip that changed you?
Crossing into the border in Tibet on March 14th, 1997. It was the day before my birthday, and I was crossing into my 100th country. That trip changed me, because it was the first time I went to a country where people were guided by spiritual decisions.
At the time my company was on the verge of going out of business. So, I went on that trip to kind of clear my mind and come back. My initial thought was that I was going to come back and wind down my business, but the trip inspired me to come back and completely rethink how I looked at business.
10. What inspires you?
Unsuspecting people that have the capacity to lead in some way — and leading doesn’t necessarily mean changing an industry.
11. What was your first business idea and what did you do with it?
When I was a kid, you had to be 12 in order to have a paper route, but I wanted a paper route when I was 10. By the time I was 12, realized that it would be better to get multiple routes in different areas in the city with different, competing newspapers. I contracted the paper routes out to 11- and 10-year-olds to deliver the papers, and I split the profits with them. It went on until I got caught — it was a couple of years. It was a little newspaper empire.
12. What was an early job that taught you something important or useful?
After I started my first two businesses, I got a job at Denny’s. I got fired after two weeks. I also got a job at McDonald’s and was fired during the training program. I strongly believe that was the catalyst to why I became such a committed entrepreneur. Up until that point, the only time I’d been successful was when I’d do things myself — when I had my own company. When I tried to work for someone else, it just didn’t work out, because I was always trying to do things differently and questioning everyone. I was a pain in the ass.
13. What’s the best advice you ever took?
Love what you do, and you’ll never work a day in your life. The other one is that our only purpose in life is to achieve happiness. When we realize our happiness is directly related to creating happiness for others you can define what you want to do and how you want to live.
14. What’s the worst piece of advice you ever got?
The amount of times people have told me I can’t do something. Today, people from 160 countries purchase with us every year. But back when I wanted to first export tourism, everyone at the time said we couldn’t do it, that someone from Germany wouldn’t book an African safari with a North American company.
If you’re trying to innovate or what you’re doing is very unique, there’s so many people who will say you can’t do it. No one ever thought we would become as large as we have. We’re still growing. We’ve had 25 years of double digit growth.
15. What’s a productivity tip you swear by?
It’s going to sound nerdy, but not mixing technology. When you have that seamless integration — between phone, laptop and all the software in between — it’s such an efficient existence. If you break the chain at any point, you can still do what you do but the seamlessness and efficiency is lost.
16. Is there an app or tool you use in a surprising way to get things done or stay on track?
Because I travel a lot, I’m all about Babel the translator app. You can even take photos of signs and menus, and it translates them.
Also, Evernote is the one that keeps me on track in terms of my notes and thoughts.
17. What does work-life balance mean to you?
I don’t think it exists. I don’t think you can separate between home and work. I think that’s a horrible way to live. I think it’s really important that everything lives in the same space. I need to be influenced by what I do outside of work to do my best work, and so those things need to blend together.
If you feel that those things can’t live in the same place, I think you should change one of them so they can.
18. How do you prevent burnout?
For me, I travel. I take breaks to clear my mind. I go to remote places to understand new cultures and see and appreciate beautiful things. Whether it’s art, food, music, experiencing them will allow you to do beautiful things in your work.
19. When you’re faced with a creativity block, what’s your strategy to get innovating?
To truly innovate you have to draw from a place you don’t know. You have to find new things that inspire you. Try new things, take up new hobbies. I do it all the time.
One year I decided I was going to do all new sports for an entire year. I had never played tennis, I went rock climbing, I did squash for the first time and golfed. I started taking painting classes last year; I had never done that in my life. I love it.
20. What are you learning now? Why is that important?
I’m trying to learn something that I’m calling inspired leadership. As a leader it’s easy to lead people when they’re all in the same room with you, but I have thousands of employees around the world now and more than 50 percent of them I might never meet in their entire careers with me — and that’s a completely different type of leadership. I want them to wake up every day, love the brand and work harder than they ever have. I want them to achieve that potential. I want them to love what they do.
I realized that the future success of the company is going to be whether I can lead this way.
The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.