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Management Bruce Poon Tip: How you know you’re ready to be an entrepreneur

Bruce Poon Tip, 51, is the founder of the travel company and social enterprise G Adventures and its non-profit partner Planeterra Foundation, both based in Toronto.

Bruce Poon Tip, founder of small group adventure travel company G Adventures, poses for a portrait at the G Adventures head office in Toronto, on Jan. 7, 2019.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

I was dying to turn 12 so I could get a paper route – the ultimate way to make money in the early ’80s – my first business. Other motivated 11-year-olds couldn’t qualify for routes so I applied for four, subcontracting them. When kids are motivated like that now it’s considered heroic; then it was weird and nerdy. I was breeding rabbits at 13. My parents asked, “Why do you work, why not play hockey like your brothers, do after-school programs?” Businesses were my after-school programs.

I got fired from Denny’s, too embarrassed to tell my parents. I pretended I was going to work, then got a job at McDonald’s, fired during training. That was a catalyst because I was devastated, at 16 thinking, “I’ve got blemishes on my resume, no one’s going to hire me.”

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I thought the natural thing was to take business [courses]; it was going to be my enlightening moment surrounded by people like me. I quickly realized people in business school in 1986 didn’t think like me. I was an odd thinker, constantly the opposing opinion in class. No one called me an entrepreneur until dot-com billionaires became popular.

I was born in Trinidad & Tobago; our family moved to Calgary when I was 3 years old. I loved travel and music. I moved to Toronto at 22, in 1989 with $800. Was going to start a record label then decided to follow my travel passion. I founded the company in 1990, struggling, living on top of the office, missing employees’ paycheques. I got an offer to sell the company for $1-million. That was a lot – I could have just walked off. In 2008, I got a $100-million offer. I always went into things thinking there was no option to fail, even though I hit dark moments.

Sometimes people don’t understand, when you're an entrepreneur you’re passionate. People ask, “How do I know if I’m ready?” You know. If you feel you don’t have the wherewithal or a high tolerance for risk, don’t. People say it’s been easy for me: The truth is, I didn’t always think everything was going to be okay. My parents didn’t – they had seven children, six “normal.”

We have almost 2,500 employees, almost $600-million sales, offices in 28 countries. We’re market leaders; the world’s largest small-group travel company. Our first tour connecting with a social cause was in 1996, in conservation. We had a hard time working with non-profit because they were cautious, adverse to risk – everything we weren’t, so in 2003 we started Planeterra, community and social development projects intersecting with tourism partnering with local groups, currently 70 projects.

There’s no greater way in this world for poverty alleviation than to educate women. I get criticism that we don’t fund climate change projects. We create projects that protect the environment and empower local communities; we pick the best strategies because we’re bringing in people paying us thousands of dollars for vacations. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in other good causes. They’re just not my causes.

My favourite place is my last. I love everywhere. I’m attracted to remote spaces, Mongolia, Galapagos Islands; places where I’m more removed, unwired. If you asked 10 years ago, Marrakesh markets and Cusco [Peru]; the hustle, bustle and energy of towns and cities. Younger millennials are travelling for the right reasons, with meaning motivated by experiences. They don’t want to party on buses with tons of teenagers. Boomers are trying to knock things off their bucket list.

Love what you do. It doesn’t have to be some unifying idea that’s going to change the world. You’re finding your place in the universe and not everyone’s place is to redefine industries. To my younger self I’d say, “Don’t worry, everything’s going to be all right.”

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What’s made us successful is how we’ve become the global leader – an international brand exporting tourism to a global market – being Canadian. Someone in Germany just booked an African safari. That’s most extraordinary, our brand a purpose- and culture-driven business model on the global stage. Canada is only 9 per cent of our business.

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