Through our conversation we speak about how he approaches sustainable tourism, building his company, and how he looks to balance profit making (in the tourism industry) against social impact.
I never studied entrepreneurship, or even written a proper business plan. I just do what I am passionate about.
About the Entrepreneurs For Good Series
Through this series, we speak with Asia based entrepreneurs whose mission it is to bring solutions to the environmental, social, and economic challenges that are faced within the region to learn more about their vision, the opportunities they see, and challenges that they have had to overcome.
It is a series that we hope will not only engage and inspire you, but catalyze you and your organizations into action. To identify a challenge that is tangible, and build a business model (profit or non) that brings a solution to the market.
Driven by the belief that change begins with a single step, Richard Brubaker has spent the last 15 years in Asia working to engage, inspire, and equip those around him to take their first step. Acting as a catalyst to driving sustainability, Brubaker works with government, corporate, academic and non-profit stakeholders to bring together knowledge, teams, and tools that develop and execute their business case for sustainability.
Full Interview Transcript
RICH: So, Michael, thank you very much for the time you’ve taken with us today. Busy afternoon. Do me a favor and tell me a little bit about yourself and what you are doing here in Bangkok.
MICHAEL: Well, my name is Michael. I am half Thai half German. I am from Germany, I’ve been here 15 years and I’m running a small travel company called Bangkok Vanguards. Basically I am trying to balance entrepreneur and being a tour guide showing people the inside of Bangkok.
RICH: How are you adding social entrepreneurship, social elements into your tours?
MICHAEL: For me, first and foremost what inspires me, outside. They physical rims of the city. Alleys and things we originally perceive as of the human stories behind it because it’s human who make/create culture who make the places. Due to my relationships with people they have inspired me, which I have learned a lot. I want to convey those stories to the visitors to better understand the city from a human perspective.
RICH: How do you do that? You’ve got foreigners likely coming in and there’re just in shock and awe at everything that’s been happening here, but then you take them down these quiet little alleys. What do you hope they take away from here?
MICHAEL: I’m hoping that they see Bangkok not as just a polluted, hot, busy city. A lot of people they have this _____ (1:31) against big cities, but taking inspiring stories into account on how people attempting to improve the quality of life of themselves and their community. It gets them to reflect about their own way of life back home and to compare. I think from that people we learn a great deal and get a better understanding of what makes human life in cities.
WHY DO THIS?
RICH: How did you come up with it to begin with? Most travel agents are just trying to make more money. Sounds like you’re, you’ve had to take spend a lot more time developing that story, developing that pattern. So why are you doing this?
MICHAEL: Because I speak Thai. I have access to the people because I like to talk to people, I am interested in people, and I have the ability to build relationships. So there are people that truly inspire me and make me think I am better understand why the things are the way they are. Sometimes that makes me think then, how could that be with all the resources that we have that still that people that do great work doing don’t get any exposure or support. That was the trigger for me to get more exposure to these people.
HOPES AND DREAMS
RICH: What is it about the city that is attracting people? What are their hopes and dreams here?
MICHAEL: I think for regular people that I met or that I know is basically they have children, so the children go to school. They have the social structures and everyone is collaborating in that kind circumstance. This has evolved over years. I think in the countryside it is even hard in terms of economic opportunity so Bangkok is still the hub. There is a chance to may definitely make more money than being a farmer outside in the countryside.
I think that there hopes and dreams often like their off spring for them to have them a better future, to have a better education. Go day by day and maybe not thinking to deep about the negativity but making the best of what you got and being happy with what you have.
RICH: What is it that when you take a group in and you show them this, what is theire natural reaction to some of this stuff? What is your goal of exposing people to this?
MICHAEL: I think their reactions to it…a lot of people come to this they are repeated travelers and they love Thailand. They love the people. the love the heritage the cultural aspects. So I often tell them that a lot for things that we experience in our tours is limited edition because of the development is going on. Then sometimes we question development. What does development actually mean? Does it mean copying models like Singapore and applying that to Bangkok, which is in a very different context. By seeing and meeting the people, they feel that they want to do something.
Like yesterday I had guests, they came to us and I have a tour with them today as well. They went to a primary school that is accessible only from the rail tracks, so there are cargo trains going through. They have about 200 children kindergarten age and we brought new laptop. The teachers didn’t even have a proper laptop functioning. That because through that exposure. Sometimes not on the tour but on sometimes what we communicate on line and people talk about it and they want to see it by themselves instead of going to a big organization. They saying Michael, _____(4:48) so there is something tangible and they talk to the director, they talk to the teacher, they learn about the education system and the challenges and the disparity between the haves and have-nots.
MONEY VS SOCIAL IMPACT
RICH: Some people say, “Oh, you’re taking advantage of them because you’re making money and then you cant’ effectively help the people that you are engaging in at the local level.” Where do you fall there? You have to manage the business, but also do the best job you can to really generate social engagement. What is the balance for you?
MICHAEL: For me, I have to look at myself and think ok. I’m still struggling with it as an individual person. I consider myself on one side when I’m out there I am a tour guide and on the other hand I’m heading an organization. At the moment, I have to look at it from the perspective of a tour guide. I try to bring in the theme of sustainability. That encompasses a lot of topics, communities, economic development and so on.
If you look at the long term strategy I have to think in terms of organization structure to make it scalable. To achieve that I need to have financial resources in order to hire a team. So we have to look at the business aspect that will empower us to create the structures and to execute on a more sustained and long-term social impact strategy.
BUILDING THE ORGANIZATION
RICH: Let’s talk about building your organization. I was just at your office. It’s a small office. What do you, what are you trying to do organizationally so you can have a bigger impact going forward. Is it hiring more people? What are the challenges you face in building up your organization?
MICHAEL: In terms of the challenge working in tourism. If you want to do good things as a head of an organization, you can be as into this as you want. The people with the guest are the tour guides. You need to have the right guide to facility the experience, but they need to feel also passionate about the things that you represent as an organization as well. That is one of the challenges. Having licensed guys, the language ability, plus their awareness and passion to do something about it. Recruitment, manpower, that is our current challenge.
RICH: Is it really a recruitment problem or is it a cash flow problem?
MICHAEL: No, for now a recruitment problem.
RICH: So you have the money, you can’t find the people.
MICHAEL: Most of the time we have to work as freelancers. Because the tour guide if there is not enough jobs, then you pay them and they will be sitting in the office doing nothing.
RICH: Do those tour guides have to care about the communities as much as you do? Like you need them to do you work so…
MICHAEL: I don’t think as…I can’t expect to care as much as me, but there should be a certain baseline which they have empathy with people and are curious to feel connected and want to learn more about these issues. That is I think the bottom line. From there as they grow with us, I hope of course that we can get them more involved and get them a better understanding of what the challenges are in Bangkok.
CATALYZING INDUSTRY CHANGE
RICH: What would you do differently or you wish that the traditional tourism industry did better when it comes to bridging the economy with these issues?
MICHAEL: As an industry as a whole, probably that we put the discussion into the public or political decision makers that we don’t see our heritage that is from the people. Not just only from the religious side, the government side, the state or the king, but from the people themselves. That they are not a liability but an asset to the city. I think that if we as entrepreneurs in the tourism industry recognize the importance and the value of those…that heritage maybe some decision makers will say its not, it’s also a long term benefit for Bangkok finically and economically.
RICH: Right now the world is full of millennials who want to do more social good. You have hipsters who love yoga pants and avocado, like you have an entire market shifting towards better stuff right now. How is this benefitting you? What are you seeing from your side right now? Are there more people interested in these tours? Not just yours, but in general. Is there more people interested in this space right now?
MICHAEL: From what I heard, I suppose yes. That people are…if they consume that they want to be more responsible consumers and they are more conscious of what they consume. The same goes for when they travel. So they may be direct or indirectly some positive contributions which lead back again to social impact. What are we actually creating other than educating people.
Talking to people on the tour, I notice that there is awareness and there is a wiliness to actually go beyond. They stay in touch afterwards. They send us a telex talk and say hey, guess what they do in San Francisco? When it comes to ___(10:05) maybe you should take a look at this. We stay connected with a lot of our travelers who have become our advocates or supporters of what we do and believe in that type of building, community is something great.
SETTING UP IN BANGKOK
RICH: What…If you were talking to an entrepreneur an aspiring entrepreneur who wanted to set up a shop in Bangkok, what are a few tips you would give them about how to set up and fund their business model?
MICHAEL: Ha! Whoa. First of all, whatever you start whatever you do you have to really ask yourself is that something that you feel that is your, yourself. Is it in line with our values, in line with what you are passionate about because it is…everyone wants to be self employed and the notion of freedom and all that. It inspires people and it’s happy, but it is a marathon.
Not even talking about the products side and everything, but generally just starting out and then being in the water and then learning by doing. I never studied entrepreneurship. I have never read a proper business plan, I just do what I am passionate about. But the knowledge is out there so we can tap in to our networks of our friends who have bigger friends that can help us to take one hurdle at a time. But, if you are not passionate or do not believe in what you do, then you know even a medium size hurdle can lead to throwing in the towel.
RICH: I was having a conversation about that if you are not passionate about the issue, then you’re never going to start a business on it. Even if you start a business, you’re never really going to fulfill the mission of that business. You’re going lose passion over time. How do you remain passionate about this issue? What is it that gets you up every morning? What do you love to see?
MICHAEL: What I love to see is like to create more experiences that have more impact. I see myself still at the very, very, very beginning for things. Right now I have stabilized our enterprise. We have bookings coming in. We are building a following of support. I’m having a strong core team now. We haven’t even tapped fulfilling into the potential of what we do.
With all the networks and everyone that is here in the city of Bangkok, there is so many potential synergies I want to go one at a time. I think I don’t have enough years of my life and the day doesn’t have enough hours to pursue all this. That keeps me going.
TELLING THE STORY WELL
RICH: How do take that to other forms? How do you make sure that when you tell a story that it has real impact? Is there a way to do that through like humans of Bangkok mindset?
MICHAEL: I see it as a research and learning process. That content that I research and that I learn in the process I pass it on to either the travelers or I pass it onto my guides now to get them trained in these aspects. Then the third to raise awareness online. It can be through social media, through blogs, but then as always the time limitation because that’s kind of generalist work that we are doing. You need to actually put a really heavy focus on it. You can’t really do it as a side.
If you run out being a guide, then running the company, then a blogger. You need a team that really believes in what you do. So that is going to be my job connecting creative storytellers, photographers, or videographers to the work that we do. Then creating content and educators inspires and then when people get exposures to each of the story, there is something they can also experience here in Bangkok.
A STORY OF IMPACT
RICH: Tell me a story of a tour that you gave or a person that you met that you hold on to yourself and just like wow, that had a real impact on you.
MICHAEL: Whoa, which one! Maybe the Bye Bye China Town Tour. The Bye Bye China Town Tour is basically a walk through the one of the oldest, largest and most successful China Towns worldwide. I got to know a group of activist that are fighting for the conservation of their neighborhoods, which is located on the new MRT lines, new subway lines. Seeing what they do, listening to them and seeing the struggles and then realizing this uphill battles, which is so symptomatic for how society is structured.
Something that is still like very much a part of you know the experience that I run. The story that I want to create very soon as well. These people that are proactive citizens they’re so many out there and I want to track them all down. Basically. I think that’s connecting resources to these people.
For more interviews from the “Entrepreneurs for Good” series, check out the playlist here.
Stay tuned for more clips and full interviews in the coming weeks.