Daniel Fraser is the Calgary-born co-founder of Smiling Albino. In an interview with YouInc Columnist Tiffany Burns, Daniel reveals the challenges of starting a custom tour company based in a foreign country, dealing with the rumor that he’s a spy and the earnestness behind the name of his business.
I had a chance of a lifetime while at university in the U.S. to come to Bangkok and work under the Royal Family. It was a game-changer, and it turned an already exotic and diverse country into a place where I wanted to make real roots. Plus, Bangkok has the best street food on the planet by far.
After coming up with the idea for a travel company, how long was it before you hosted the first tour group?
Twelve months – and it was a terrifying experience, but we learned a lot.
There’s about a zillion tour operators worldwide. Why did you feel Smiling Albino could compete?
We never thought of ourselves as a travel company – plain and simple. We dove in to create unique experiences, deliver valuable adventure and have as much fun as we could. This resonates with our target market. Honestly, I don't think I learned anything about the actual travel industry until after nearly 6-7 years of doing this!
What were the challenges you went through as a Canadian entrepreneur in a foreign country?
Well, other than language, culture, obscure laws, regulatory issues prohibiting certain types of work, and virtually no start-up capital to legitimize ourselves with agencies that could have helped with those things, we faced similar struggles any entrepreneur would – just amplified.
What unexpected challenges did you face setting up shop in Thailand?
There were a few curve balls, like needing paid-up capital to even register a name or bank account, or visas and work permits and a full slate of salaried staff just to open the doors due to being westerners working in a protected industry in Thailand. As a start-up with no budget, we had to get very creative. Then of course things like 9/11 just as we got started, SARS, Bird Flu, the Tsunami in Thailand, a coup d’état, airport seizures and political unrest, a cataclysmic flood here last year and something about a global financial crisis. Who could have predicated half of that?
Also, just the phenomenal shock that what we sought to do really faced a lot of criticism and suspicion in the local industry: also amongst potential staff or team members we were looking to build relationships with. Smiling Albino was (is!) odd, and doesn't fit the traditional mold, so it was hard to get across locally exactly who we were and what we wanted. People thought we were spies, or simply fools who would fail. I see it as being spies of adventure who were foolish enough to risk this and win.
You were suspected of being a spy??
I think it was because we knew a lot about Thailand and were making efforts to penetrate deep circles and form a community. And we had the early royal connection. We did volunteer work, learned the language, blended in, rode bikes in obscure corners of the country with interesting pasts – it all may have lead to some curiosity and speculation that we couldn't really just be researching a travel company.
Is there a different approach to business in Thailand?
Certainly travel seems to be volume-based, mass-tourism which focuses on price and outsourcing. We never outsourced and weren't smart enough to be price-conscious from the start, so our approach was about value from day one. This is unique in the Southeast Asia travel industry, but it is changing. Another approach, per se, that could be perceived as different here is the concept of hierarchy and connections as primary drivers to business growth. We had neither, so we had to learn how to play that game - or pretend to - in order to start getting things done locally. Then we could reach out with a legitimate foundation to our client base, which is in North America.
Does your client base have a strong Canadian connection?
Absolutely – from day one. Our first-ever guests were from Calgary, and word-of-mouth took us around town, then the province and then with some great media support to Vancouver, Toronto and beyond. Today, nearly 60% of our business is Canadian, split roughly 75% direct and 25% commercial. Word of mouth is how we survived and grew, and how we will continue to grow.
How long did it take you to become profitable?
Roughly five years - although as entrepreneurs following a dream, we made far more concessions personally than what is perhaps normal for several more years, but 5-6 is a reasonable number.
Great name! I know Smiling Albino refers to the white elephants that the Thai people cherish, but is it a tongue-in-cheek reference to pale Canadian tourists?
Funny, until another reporter asked that, we'd never considered the connection. Others thought the two Canadians who moved to Asia to start a luxury adventure firm on a whim may have resembled albinos. I guess the name reflects the sweet myopia and naïveté that we started with.
Do you have any advice for would-be entrepreneurs?
Consulting and analyzing barriers may be helpful, but put aside 90% of the advice and 100% of the spreadsheets, budgets and back-up plans and just go out and do it. If you're reasonably smart and only partially crazy, just go out and get it done. That's all there is to it.
If I'd known the immense agony involved in bringing up this baby from the start, I never would have done it. If I'd known the immense joy and gratitude I'd feel for the experience, I would have never given it up. There is simply no spreadsheet to break down that alchemy.
by YouInc Columnist Tiffany Burns