Andres Zuleta

Founder of Boutique Explorer

Andres Zuleta is the ​Founder of Boutique Explorer, a company that plans unique and beautiful travel experiences in Mexico, Colombia, and beyond. Boutique Explorer plans private custom trips with a culinary and cultural focus. Their unique itineraries are perfect for unpretentious travelers who seek off-the-beaten-path experiences, love food, and appreciate local style — with just the right amount of luxury. Recognized as a top travel specialist by Condé Nast Traveler, Andres has spent years living in Japan and enjoyed long-term stays in locations including Medellin, Oaxaca, Chiang Mai, Havana, and Lisbon.​ ​​He regularly shares his travel expertise with high-profile publications and podcasts.​

Where did the idea for Boutique Explorer come from?

Boutique Explorer offers private luxury trips around the world. We work primarily with couples and families (but also solo travelers and small groups of friends) to plan completely customized trips to countries in North and South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia.

Our trips tend to have a cultural and culinary focus, but since each itinerary is completely customized (based on traveler interests and priorities), every single trip is unique. This year so far we have planned trips for clients to Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Spain, Greece, Italy, Peru, Ecuador, Portugal, and Scandinavia among others.

The idea for Boutique Explorer came about organically thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. I’ve run a company called Boutique Japan since 2013, but because of Covid-19 we were inspired to pivot. I had personal and professional experience planning trips to other countries (in addition to Japan), and so did some of my employees. Plus, thanks to our collective decades of experience in the travel industry, we already had a wide-ranging network of trusted contacts in a number of countries around the world.

We had no idea how the Covid-19 situation would evolve, and Japan ended up being one of the last countries in the world to reopen to tourists. So we are very fortunate that we spent so much of our time during the pandemic developing Boutique Explorer. It’s been a huge focus for us over the past couple of years.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I get up around 6:30 a.m. when my baby wakes up. I feed her and make coffee. We go for a walk and I listen to a podcast. Then I start my work day.

I work all morning, as this is when I tend to be sharpest. I usually settle in with some light tasks and emails before transitioning to deeper work. I begin most days with a short list of top priorities, so I try to tackle these as early in the work day as possible. If I have any meetings, I aim to schedule them for late morning (at the earliest) or early afternoon to ensure I have as much morning focus time as possible.

In the afternoon, I’m generally less productive by nature, so I’ll mix things up with work and family time. On most days, I get another burst of focus in the early evening before dinner, so I often devote some time to work before signing off for the day. I also make it a practice to whittle down my to-do list for the following day, so that I can easily jump into impactful tasks and projects tomorrow. At night I just relax.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Feed new ideas while they’re fresh. Write them down, mention them to others, and begin brainstorming. Not all ideas are necessarily meant to come to fruition, but when a new idea comes up for me, I’ll write down everything that comes to mind (in my Notes app). If I’m particularly excited about it, or want some early feedback, I text a couple of friends to hear their off-the-cuff remarks.

I get many of my best ideas at night, but usually resist the temptation to open my computer. So new ideas often live in my mind and the Notes app until I’ve had a chance to devote more time to them. If I’m especially excited about one, I’ll let myself procrastinate on more mundane tasks to spend some of my valuable morning time developing the idea further. Some ideas take longer to germinate, but in general I find that momentum is essential when it comes to bringing ideas to life.

What’s one trend that excites you?

I love seeing more and more people working remote jobs. I first went fully remote in 2013 and have never looked back. Even though I enjoy being around others, and meet up with my employees as often as possible, it’s hard to beat the flexibility of being able to work from anywhere.

I have some friends who work in more conventional jobs, and they got their first taste of remote work during the pandemic. Most of them loved it, and it’s been disappointing to see many companies revert to their pre-pandemic ways. Obviously, remote work is not for everyone or every type of job, but I’m still very excited by the overall trend.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

It fortunately feels easy to stay productive, as I love the process of working on and constantly developing the business. Since I know my most productive hours tend to be in the morning, I follow my natural rhythm and do my best to prioritize deep work in the mornings (this being said, it can take a little while for the coffee to kick in, so I often begin with a few easy tasks or emails).

At the end of each day, I always go through my tasks and priorities for the following day, so that when I start tomorrow I already know what to prioritize.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Take a day off! Nowadays, I have a great work-life balance (most of the time), but in my early days the idea of taking even one day off felt almost sacrilegious. Everything felt so urgent back then, and I still recall the first time I made myself take a weekend off. Eventually, I realized that while there’s value in working hard, it’s just as crucial to devote time to resting and recharging. It’s obvious in hindsight, but my younger business self simply didn’t have the discipline to disconnect.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Travel agents have made a total comeback.

To be fair, most people I know in the travel industry would probably agree with me on this. But most non-industry people I meet are still surprised to learn that I operate a successful, high-end travel company. Nowadays, it’s easier than ever to book travel online, so you could be forgiven for wondering why anyone would consult a travel professional.

It comes down to the fact that some people prefer to work with a human being, as opposed to spending hours online doing research and making bookings.

Most of our clients decide to work with us for one of three main reasons. One, they’ve worked with great travel companies in the past and already know they love this style of travel. Two, they don’t have the time or desire to arrange everything, and want to try working with an expert. Or, three, they’re splurging on a special occasion, such as a honeymoon or anniversary, and want to make extra sure everything is seamless.

So while it’s true that most people still book their own trips, I think we are witnessing a renewed interest in ‘new school’ travel consultancies like ours.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Hire slowly. Our hiring process requires quite a bit of patience, but we’ve found it works extremely well. Our turnover is extraordinarily low, and we consistently find outstanding people to join our team. Hiring for us involves dozens of small steps, starting with clearly defining the role and composing a clear and engaging job post, to thinking very carefully about the application flow.

The fact that our hiring process is drawn out automatically weeds out certain candidates. An important key is making sure we’re able to attract enough applicants, which means we always spend quite a bit of time marketing each position, as well. It’s a time-consuming but worthwhile and fulfilling process.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Email marketing. Luckily, when we started Boutique Explorer, we already had an audience, thanks to our success with our first company, Boutique Japan. However, it was not just as simple as marketing Boutique Explorer to that existing audience. For example, even though many people are interested in international travel in general, there are also others who follow us specifically because of their interest in Japan. So we’ve had to be thoughtful in our approach.

One thing that’s worked well for us is including ‘gentle’ pitches for Boutique Explorer embedded within Boutique Japan marketing communications. The key is to avoid a hard sell, and always ensure our Boutique Japan audience gets information that is of value to them (we learned this thanks to real feedback from our audience).

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I hesitate to call it a failure, since it was a learning experience, but my very first business completely failed to launch, as I was not able to attract any paying customers. It turned out that there were a few issues with my approach. For one, I had not done any real market research. Another was that I simply didn’t know as much about the industry as I’d thought. As a highly experienced traveler, I believed I could start a travel business, but my first attempt was, in a technical sense, a total failure.

I was discussing my challenges at the time with an acquaintance, and she suggested I change course and get a job working in travel to learn more about the industry. Thankfully, I took her advice and was fortunate to find a job at a travel company. I enjoyed the work so much that I stayed for several years, but eventually returned to my previous idea of launching a travel company. Only this time, I had years of experience under my belt, and a much more sophisticated understanding of the industry. This made all the difference, and made it easier to home in on an idea that had a much greater chance of succeeding.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Even though there are dozens, or perhaps hundreds, of software solutions for travel agencies, I’ve been finding that more and more boutique agencies like ours are not satisfied with the current offerings. Most either seem to be designed for larger corporate agencies, or for smaller day-tour operators (e.g., single-day walking tours, food tours, etc.). There are some that cater to companies like ours, that specialize in highly customized itineraries, but they’re generally not very robust in terms of broader functionality (for example, most lack CRMs or accounting capabilities). If I had the time and inclination, this is definitely an idea I would pursue.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

The best $100 I recently spent was hiring a private guide in Mexico City. Typically, I connect with private guides and local experts through referrals and networking, but in this case I’d heard great things about a particular guide and decided to book a private culinary tour with her on a whim. She turned out to be one of the most engaging and knowledgeable guides I’ve met anywhere on earth. We have since become friends, and naturally she is our first choice for clients seeking immersive culinary experiences in Mexico City.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

Even though I’ve had moments where I considered switching to Trello, I’d call myself a huge fan of the project management tool Asana. We use it extensively as a team, and I also use it for personal purposes, as well. It’s a great place to manage simple tasks and reminders, as well as more complex, collaborative projects.

Some people say if it’s not in their calendar, they won’t do it. I feel similarly about Asana: if it’s not in Asana, I probably won’t do it. I use it for one-off tasks, as well as recurring tasks and reminders. As a company, we use it for complex, multi-step checklists and to collaborate on longer-term projects.

It can be very easy for tasks to pile up, and having too many tasks makes me feel overwhelmed. So every day, I go through and cull my tasks for the next day. I’ll move some tasks to later in the week or even further out, see if some can be delegated, and when possible get rid of non-essential tasks altogether. This daily practice of whittling my task list down to the top priorities helps me stay productive and sane!

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

My favorite business book is ‘Good to Great’ by Jim Collins. It’s a fun and fascinating read, based on intensive academic research. The main subjects of the book are large multinational corporations, but there are countless lessons for small business owners and entrepreneurs. It’s the only business book I return to over and over, and I found it especially useful in the early days of the pandemic, when it felt particularly hard to make business plans given the extreme uncertainty at the time.

What is your favorite quote?

One of my favorite quotes is from Ernest Hemingway: ‘Worry a little bit every day and in a lifetime you will lose a couple of years. If something is wrong, fix it if you can. But train yourself not to worry: Worry never fixes anything.’

Key Learnings:

  • Travel agents have made a total comeback.
  • Feed new ideas while they’re fresh. Write them down, mention them to others, and begin brainstorming.
  • Take a day off! While there’s value in working hard, it’s just as crucial to devote time to resting and recharging.
  • Hire slowly.