William was the first Ecuadorian I came in touch with. I rented a room in his apartment in the first two weeks of my stay in Ecuador. In addition to being a great host, he is also a successful entrepreneur.
I thought William got his entrepreneurial spirit from his family as his parents had a store selling toys and clothes. But it wasn’t so simple. Seeing his parents struggle with their business every day as a kid put him off him as much as it inspired him. He seriously considered the more conventional path of making a career as an employee. But eventually, his curiosity overcame his fears. Today he leads a successful online enterprise, seguroparaviaje.com. The company is growing steadily despite the fierce competition in online travel insurance.
I spoke to William at his company’s headquarters in Quito about
- values and principles in business,
- failing as an entrepreneur,
- hiring people,
- doing business in Ecuador,
- the pitfalls of starting a business and more.
Last time I saw you, you were reading the 10 commandments.
Yes, I’m religious but I’m also realistic. I don’t judge other people. If other people don’t believe in God or the 10 commandments it doesn’t matter to me, but the people around me, my family and friends, we believe that we have to follow those commandments. You have to believe in something because it helps a lot to handle new things and problems in life. And life is a mystery anyway…
Do you apply this more in your personal life or also in business?
Also in business. I try to follow my principles and live by my values. I try to teach my employees a little bit of ethics. I talk to them and I also try to teach them by showing a good example. I guess you do better business if you have principles.
Tell me about how you started out. What was your first job?
My first job was in an internet cafe. Before that, I helped my parents in their store but that doesn’t count. My first job was in an internet cafe, which is where I really got to know the high tech world and the Internet.
Was that when you started thinking about becoming an entrepreneur and taking some steps in that direction?
Yes, I was always thinking of becoming an entrepreneur and I tried many times.
5 or 6, which is not that many if you think about it. Others I guess make 10 or more attempts but I only made 5 or 6. My first try was when I was working in the Internet cafe. I tried to be a wholesaler of coffee beans. So I started doing that. I bought sacks, a lot of coffee beans, filled the sacks and started selling them.
All by yourself?
I did that for like 5 months all by myself but I had many problems with my providers. They didn’t send me what they said they would. Sometimes they would send a certain quality, other times something completely different and I had to travel to those cities and tiny towns to see my providers and didn’t have enough time to do it. So I had a lot of trouble with my customers because they had different quality for coffee and etcetera etcetera so I quit that business.
But you didn’t lose too much I guess?
No, I lost like, at that time it was 2 or 300 hundred dollars and I was left with like 50 pounds of coffee so I could drink it for the next 2 or 3 years.
That’s a perfect learning experience. So what would you say was your biggest failure as an entrepreneur?
I don’t know if it’s a failure but I guess, when I started seguroparaviaje.com I didn’t have any knowledge about travel insurance or even insurance. At university I had a class of insurance but that was way too little. I should have looked for a person who knew exactly the insurance industry. We tried to do it by ourselves. I guess we could have grown faster if I had found the right person. A coach, a mentor or something. But doing it this way made me a bit tougher I think. And also taught me to accept failures and mistakes. And to accept myself as I am and focus on exploring my strengths.
What are your strengths?
I have eclectic knowledge. I like to read anything. I collect information. Others think about me as a person that has the power to connect with people.
And that’s something very important for your business I guess?
Yes, because if you want to sell something you have to connect with the customers and you also want to influence your staff. You have to connect with them to understand them. Also I’m a very passionate person. I guess to start a business you have to be passionate. Believe in it, love it and enjoy it. You have to enjoy it.
What kind of a leader are you?
I’m trying to be a leader that develops the strengths of the people around him. I try to let them do what they think is best and I also ask them about my decisions and their decisions why they did it that way… I have a strong character so it’s a little bit hard to do it that way sometimes. I try not to tell people what to do… I have a loud voice so sometimes people think I’m yelling but I’m just talkin… That happens quite often but I try to develop the strengths of the people that are around me.
Do you have a special recruitment process or is it just interviews?
To hire a person on the basis of an interview is very difficult. I have been doing this for twelve years and I really don’t know how to do it. I guess the best way to find the right person is to be very alert at all times. Any place you go, maybe a waitress or maybe the bellboy or maybe the person doing the cleaning or housekeeping at your hotel is the right person. You have to be alert about the people that are around you and their behaviors in their actual job. So the best way to hire a person is to see them on the job. That’s the only way. You can talk to their employers. You can do background checks. And that’s good and you have to do it, maybe even a home visit. Do everything. But nothing is going to give you the experience of seeing them in action doing their jobs. The best people working for me are those that I saw working in other places and I hired them. Also, if you have a good person working for you, ask them if they have friends who need a job. Because if you hire their friend, they will be extra committed. You wouldn’t want to embarrass a friend who referred you by doing a lousy job, right?
Yeah, I see how that makes sense. Was it easy for you to find partners?
It’s easy at the beginning because you have your friends. An important thing is to have complementary skills. Not only that, but your characters should be complimentary as well. I’m lucky, I have good friends like that.
Lets talk about doing business in Ecuador. What is it like here and in Latin America in general? Your company is not restricted to Ecuador right?
Yes. In Ecuador it’s a little bit hard only about employees. Because the employment laws are a little hard on companies. So you have to pay them a lot if you fire them and even share with them your profits.That’s not so bad if employees are very competitive but if you have other countries as Colombia next to them and Peru where maybe they’re a little bit more competitive and less like protection, companies would prefer to go to those countries. In Ecuador most basic services are very cheap. So I guess people my have not have the right perception of the real value of these things.
Is there enough buying power here? In Hungary one of the greatest obstacles of starting a business is that people have very little disposable income.
Ecuador is a tiny country so it’s good to start a company and to see how it goes. And then you have to expand in other countries. If you want to start a company in Latin America and don’t have a lot of money, Ecuador is a good place to start.
Lets talk about the company that you are running right now: seguroparaviaje.com. How many employees do you have altogether?
Close to 20.
When did you actually start the company? How long has it been running
Was it a slow and gradual process or did you grow exponentially?
We started selling travel insurance in the traditional way through travel agencies so we had to hire sales persons to visit travel agencies and then we found that we sold a lot but and had huge overhead costs and very little profits, almost none at all. So even though our revenue was increasing, our profits were not so we had to do something. We started selling online 3 or 4 years ago and that’s when it took off.
So is the majority of your revenue coming from Latin America?
All of it basically. Its 22 percent from Venezuela, 20 percent from Colombia, 20 percent from Ecuador, and then about 10-12 percent from Mexico, 10 percent from Peru etc.
How about Spain and Europe.
Like 1 percent. Latin America is our real target market. Now we’re expanding in Brazil in the coming months. We had some failures in Brazil. We tried two times and we failed.
Because we didn’t choose the right person to be the local manager. Now we are making sure and hiring two people just in case one of them doesn’t work out.
When you started selling on the internet it was important for you to have a good website right? Did you hire an external company or did you hire web developers in house? This is a major dilemma for a lot of entrepreneurs…
At the beginning we did it ourselves. When we saw it was working we hired a professional to take care of the website. At the moment we have 6 programmers employed. It’s good to hire a person in-house to build up the knowledge internally. But it’s very expensive, which is why now my team of developers and designers work for other companies as well. It’s very expensive to have your own team, but also very useful so we just have to find ways to make it cheaper.
What would be your advice to people, to entrepreneurs who are just starting out or maybe even just looking for an idea. How do you know if an idea is good or not?
I guess people don’t like to share their ideas because they think that somebody is going to steal their ideas. My suggestion is to talk about their ideas and talk to anyone. Even people they don’t know.
You’re basically saying get as much feedback as possible.
That’s right. If you talk about your idea to a lot of people, you are going to make it happen. Even if you don’t get 100% of the company… maybe you only get 10%. It’s better to have 10% of a $10 million company than to have 100% of a company that’s worth nothing.
That’s very good advice. I used to be this person that would keep his ideas a secret because somebody might steal them. But an idea in itself is worthless.
Yes because many people have the same idea but very few know how to do it. And if you share your idea with others maybe they can help you to make it happen. They might want to invest, become a partner or something. Another suggestion is to prepare yourself to fail and make mistakes and have the power and the strength to stand up and continue. There is no one way to do something. There are many ways. You have to try many times in different ways and you’ll succeed.
What would be your advice to people who have a company started up but they are in the phase of product development? Let’s say it’s a tech company and they are working on a website or an app.
Sometimes people who develop technology, they develop the technology that they think is useful. Maybe sometimes it’s not what people need and if you are not in touch with the market and you are just developing maybe you are making a mistake because you are doing something so perfect that when it’s completed no one is gonna buy it because they don’t need it.
This is basically the essence of the lean method… you have to push your product out to the market as early as possible and get real world feedback, correct?
Yes, if your product is not ready to be presented, share samples or something, just make it possible for customers to interact with it somehow and get their feedback.
I think that’s very useful advice because a lot of people make the mistake of trying to make perfect products and just work away for months, maybe years and then maybe no one will actually want it right?
Okay, my last question: are you happy?
I’m happy most of the time. I think a lot though… If you are a person who works very hard sometimes you feel alone, but I try to be spiritual and I think with the help of God I can be in quiet and find peace. And I laugh all the time…
Thank you very much for inviting me to your headquarters and sharing all this with me.
You are welcome.
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