Brian Vierra is the founder of Phat Tire Ventures – an adventure trip operator in Vietnam specializing in mountain biking, white water rafting, trekking, rock climbing and canyoning.
Human Asia caught up with Brian recently.
Tell us more about Phat Tire Ventures.
Brian: Phat Tire Ventures (PTV) was founded in 2001 in Dalat Vietnam. The company was initially a small group adventure tour operator. We started with a limited product portfolio, mostly trekking, and added on more equipment intensive trips like rock climbing, canyoning, mountain biking and most recently white water rafting. The company has grown over the years to two offices and the area that we operate in now covers the entire country. We employ about 30 staff, with about 15 of them being full time guides.
We are a ‘nuts and bolts’ operator and handle all of the elements of an adventure trip ourselves. From the equipment needed to the guides to the programming. We are not a destination management company, or marketing entity that uses other operators to run its trips. We are the real deal.
Who are your typical customers?
Brian: When the company first started, almost all of our clients were foreign tourists travelling through the country, or expats on vacation that were based in HCMC or Hanoi. Over the years, as Vietnam has developed and become more affluent, the number of locals that go on our trips has risen dramatically. The country has moved from a subsistence level, where any kind of physical activity was considered work, to one where people have more disposable income, time and interest in adventure.
What about safety? How do you set safety standards and recruit qualified guides?
Brian: Safety is the most important aspect of what we do. We focus on preventive measures, to avoid accidents and injuries, and because of this we have established an impressive track record and reputation over our 17-year history.
All of our guides are first aid certified and go through an intensive program through the Wilderness Medicine Institute. Our rock climbing and abseiling guides are Abseil Level 2 certified and our White Water Rafting guides are SWIFT certified. Our equipment is professionally sourced and meets all of the most stringent international standards for safety and performance. We have full time bike mechanics in both offices and a full time equipment manager to ensure that everything we use is safe and retired at the appropriate time.
How has the journey been so far and what is PTV’s main competitive advantage?
Brian: PTV’s main competitive advantage is that we are obsessively focused on the operation of the trips. Everything else flows from this. Without great trips and happy customers, we are lost. We have built the business on this philosophy, with everything else coming after in the list of priorities. Some companies focus intensively on marketing or sales. We let the reputation of our trips and the quality of our guides do most of the marketing and sales for us.
Brian, please tell us more about yourself.
Brian: I am the Venture Catalyst for EDCO, an economic development organization in Central Oregon, and works closely with early stage companies to connect them with capital, advisors, mentors and other resources. I am also an active angel investor, both individually and through such professionally managed funds as Oregon Angel Fund and Cascade Angels. I advise and sit on the boards of several startups.
Previously, I founded Embers Asia which was sold to Exo Travel in 2007. In 2001 I started one of the first Adventure Sports Outfitters in Vietnam, which I am still involved with today. I developed my penchant for adventure, and risk, as a Peace Corps volunteer in Tanzania from 1993 to 1995. I received my undergraduate degree from Whitman College and my Masters in International Management from Portland State.
Tell us more about your pursuit as an angel investor.
Brian: PTV has actually never taken on any debt, or equity investment. It was completely funded through the operations of the company, aside from an initial $30,000 investment at the very beginning. I really didn’t become an angel investor until many years after PTV had become successful.
Looking back, what has been your moment of greatest euphoria?
Brian: My moment of greatest euphoria were when my two daughters, now 14 and 12, were born. The second was actually born in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam in 2005.
You are doing a lot of things, but what is your biggest goal?
Brian: My biggest goal is to raise successful daughters. I also hope to continue to identify exciting, early stage companies to invest in and help to achieve greatness.
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What advice and experiences can you share with other aspiring entrepreneurs?
Brian: 1. Clearly state the problem your business is going to solve.
Before you even go into what your company does, know what problem you’re addressing and why your business is coming into existence right now. I’ve gone through a couple of companies where it doesn’t look like there’s a problem to solve. You have to hit people at their pain points. That’s one of the success factors.
2. Illustrate your points with something other than text.
Every once in a while I’ll see a slide that is 10 different bullet points. No one is going to read all that. I like to see pictures, graphs and charts that illustrate the problem your business is trying to solve and your solution. Investors want it to be easy to move forward. If it’s a struggle and they need to make a huge effort to understand what you do, you decrease the odds of them becoming involved.
3. Assume in your revenue projections that you’ve already received funding.
I’ve seen two kind of projections, one that shows what happens if they get the funding. And another where the founders assume they won’t get any funding and then project what their numbers are going to look like. The latter fizzles because it reveals no ambition. If you’re asking for $500,000 or $1 million, I want to know what you’re going to do with it and what that will look like.
4. Focus, focus, focus.
Entrepreneurs have big ideas. Usually lots of them. But they often forget that this is the first time an investor is being exposed to their idea, and they speed right past it.
You can’t immediately jump into your other streams of revenue and other partnerships and how you can do this thing or that. Slow down. Go back to what is the first business idea and how big can that get. Once you set the hook, you want to reel those fish in, instead of trying to bait them with even more hooks.
You can visit Phat Tire Ventures at http://www.ptv-vietnam.com/
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