Japanophiles Andres Zuleta and Christina Soto have achieved a lifestyle that many of us dream about. Founders of a successful travel business, Boutique Japan, the pair regularly base themselves in urban and remote regions of Japan as they craft bespoke trips to the country for their clientele.
We met with Andres to learn more about his wayfaring lifestyle, what it's like to start a business with your significant other, and the practicalities of running a business from the road.
Do you derive a sense of freedom from running a location-independent business?
Yes, there is a freedom, and the funny thing is I wanted the freedom long before I knew how I was going to achieve it. When I was working other jobs, I started to get this burning feeling that I needed to just go travel the world. I started to learn about what people call lifestyle design. I heard about people doing the traveling while working thing, and starting companies, and I just thought: “I would really love to do that.” It’s so fascinating that we live in an age where it’s possible for the first time. The fact that we could set this up and run things virtually, from anywhere, was one of the reasons this path emerged. Making it happen was a challenge, but it’s worked out really well.
Tell us about where you grew up. Did your parents pass any lessons on that help you today as an entrepreneur?
I was born in Washington D.C., and my parents are both Colombian. I was the first one born in the United States. Neither of my parents were entrepreneurs, but they were both independent thinkers. They were the first from their families to just up and move overseas; they had adventurous spirits. And while they weren’t entrepreneurs, neither of them liked mainstream work, which I think gave me some kind of a resistance to having a regular job.
Growing up, I never really knew what to do. I wasn’t one of the kids that mowed the lawn and had a lawn mowing empire. I had nothing like that. But I think what I got from my parents, especially my mom who encouraged me to launch Boutique Japan all the way, was support. Whereas I noticed a lot of my entrepreneurial friends got a lot of resistance from others.
It truly helps to have the support of your loved ones, and it’s interesting that Christina, your business partner, is also your life partner. What is it like to build a business with your significant other?
Christina and I met as roommates. One thing led to another, and we moved out and became partners. Long story short, at one point Christina got very sick and had cancer for about a year and a half. We went through the whole ordeal, and it was a wake up call that we needed to live out our dreams now and not at some deferred time in the future. It just seemed like a no-brainer to start the business together.
Our skills are complementary, too. I had the Japan and travel expertise. Christina had a background in customer happiness. These days we call her the Product Visionary, because she has great style and understands the aesthetic of our clientele even better than I do. Having different perspectives helped us build the business, but they also brought up challenges. There were times when we would fight about a blog topic, or I would try to train her on some really minute aspect of the travel industry that, frankly, she just didn’t really need or want to know. There were other times where we’d find ourselves talking about work over dinner, and we realized we needed to strike a better balance between work and our personal lives. It was a long learning process, but we’re in a really good place now.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Initially I rebelled against the nine to five for quite a while. When we left our jobs and started Boutique Japan, the first thing we did was sell all our stuff in California and move to Japan. We spent three months getting rid of everything, and we didn’t even keep a storage space, we just decided to sell everything. Part of the appeal (of doing that) was that we could work anytime, from anywhere. And yet that wore off after a few months; we decided that we should have some kind of routine, because it’s better for us. These days, instead of a standard eight hour stretch, we tend to work really well in two to three hour spurts. But we do tend to do it on a Monday through Friday, nine-to-five schedule. We still rebel with our schedule, but we realized it made sense to match the hours that our customers were working, and build our own sense of freedom within that. It’s ironic that things kind of reverted to what my day might have been before, just with a lot of freedom built in.
Was there an ‘aha’ moment that helped you decide to turn the idea for Boutique Japan into a business?
It was definitely a progression. Like so many entrepreneurs, I was a wantrapreneur for a couple of years before finally finding the idea that stuck. I had several other business ideas before this one that never took off. For me, the progression was: I don’t like working for other people, personally, so what are my other options? And the obvious answer was: I should probably start my own company, but how do I do that? So I read a ton. I would listen to podcasts and read books and blogs. But it still took forever.
I spent months producing my first product idea, which was some Japanese language flash cards. I was talking to factories in China. I was working with interpreters and translators and designers. I poured hundreds of dollars and months of effort into it, and nothing ever came of it. Now we just give the cards away for free to our clients, which is cool, but I never sold a single one. My second business idea was helping hotels in other countries with their English websites. And again, I made a website, I put up a PayPal button, started cold calling and emailing hotels in Peru and all over the place. And nothing came of it. No sales. Nothing. Arriving at the decision to launch Boutique Japan was a struggle. It was a trudge. It was definitely not overnight.
I finally got to the point where I had been trying for over a year and a half. Nothing had stuck. But I was still frustrated, and I still absolutely knew that being an entrepreneur was what I wanted. So on April 1st 2013, I gave myself a personal deadline. I told myself: “In six months I am quitting my job. I have no idea what I am going to do. But I just know that I can think of something.”
I started to tell myself: “I have faith that in the next few weeks or couple of months, I will think of something that I will run with. It doesn’t have to be today, but it has to be pretty damn soon.” I needed to give myself a little bit of pressure, but not too much. And sure enough, a few weeks later the idea struck, and it felt right. I knew I was passionate about it. I knew I could do it well. The main challenges would be figuring out the proper licensing, insurance, and then getting customers to the website. I had confidence that if I could figure those things out, I would be able to make a go of it.
Do you have a philosophy on starting a successful business?
For us, there has to be an overlap of three things. The business idea has to be something that there was a market for. It has to be something that we were good at, or something we could be really good at, really quickly. And it has to be something that we love. And I think it needs to be in that order.
Japanese people are renowned for having a tireless work ethic. Do you adhere to a similar approach when working on your business?
My work ethic transformed while I was living in Japan, well before I started the business. But it wasn’t necessarily because of Japanese culture. It was more to do with a conversation I had with a friend. We were both studying for the same Japanese test. She was more advanced than I was, so she was studying for a higher level exam at the time. One day, after an hour of studying together in a cafe, I said: “Alright, cool! Let’s go to the bar.” And she replied: “Well, we’ve only studied for an hour.” When I asked how long she was going to study for, she said “I don’t know, two or three hours.” I was shocked.
This was early on during the time I spent living in Japan. I thought: maybe this is why she’s more advanced than I am. It inspired me to go really intense into the study, and originally I would go and study for 2-3 hours, but it got to the point where I would be studying for 4-6 hours in a single sitting. And sure enough, all of my friends started asking: “Wow, how did you learn so much Japanese?” And it was because I would go to the coffee shop and write Japanese characters for hours at a time. It was the experience that turned me into a harder worker.
How do you strike a healthy work/life balance?
Christina and I worked all the time when we were starting the business, because we were under pressure to make it sustainable. We had no other way of knowing how to do that, other than to just do everything we could to get people to the website. And once we had clients, we had to do everything we possibly could to make them have an amazing experience. After a few months, we started to see the actions that were having the biggest impact, and the ones that people didn’t really notice or care about too much. When we cut the latter out, we had more time in the day. Instead of just filling the extra time with more work, we started to have more of a sustainable work/life balance. We started using the time for breaks, rather than only investing it back into the business. We still work a lot, but we value the importance of vacation, resting, not looking at the computer, and not thinking about work.
What are your favorite aspects of Japanese culture?
I love the attention to detail and the passion for the little things. Attention to detail manifests itself in just about everything in Japan, from food preparation to the way people package things. It’s something we aim to give people as part of our service, and we’ve inherited it from spending so much time in Japan.
Also, the level of specialization in Japan is remarkable. For example, it’s not uncommon to come across a tiny bar where the owner is just obsessed with Jazz and has thousands of jazz records, and knows everything there is to know about Jazz. And he has this bar set up just so he can listen to jazz all day and hang out with other people who want to discuss really arcane albums and concerts. That kind of thing is so common. I love the level of ‘niching’. People just take something and run with it. They’re like “I’m going to be the best at [blank],” and I love that.
How do you spend your down time in Japan?
Part of spending time in Japan is just eating at as many different places as possible, and traveling to areas we’ve never been. We try to visit places where our clients would like to visit. But we also like to take a train and go somewhere we’ve never been, just for the sake of adventure. This past winter we did a cycling trip and a hiking trip in a remote part of Japan. One of my favourite things to do in Japan by far is to go to the mountains -- there are mountains everywhere -- stay at a ryokan, a traditional mountain inn, and immerse myself in an onsen (natural hot spring). It’s the most relaxing thing in the world.
What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken?
Our biggest risk was quitting our jobs before we had any clients or sales. We had a nest egg, but we also had a date in the future when the money was going to run out. In a sense, that was a huge risk because if it hadn’t worked out, we would have been left with nothing, since we sold everything we owned. If it failed, we would have had to start from scratch again. I can’t think of a bigger risk that we’ve taken.
What's the best thing about the level of independence you’ve created for yourselves?
I mean... everything. It’s like night and day. The freedom to work on the things that we determine. The freedom to work with the kind of clients we want to work with. The freedom to travel. And also, I feel like we have a lot more upside potential. There’s a lot more room for us to be able to make an impact in the world. At Boutique Japan, we’re helping people by helping them take their dream trips and helping the Japanese economy. But we can also start other businesses, and make more money to invest in social endeavors. Everything is so much better for us now.
Boutique Japan creates fully personalized trips for travelers to Japan, based on Andres and Christina’s in-depth expertise and experience with the country. Say hi via BoutiqueJapan.com, and follow their story on Instagram and Twitter.