This past May, our travel company Gemini Connect achieved its biggest milestone yet: pooling together all of our profits and buying a brand new Subaru Impreza in cash. It was a moment that was two and half years in the making and a success story in itself as it not only allowed our company to prosper, but also help transform a small family-owned business in Central America to triple its sales. How on Earth did we end up doing business in a tiny town in Belize, and what skills could we possibly have to offer? Read on to find out!
How It All Started
Today, we have collectively visited Belize three times. Our first trip to Belize took place in 2012, and we ventured from Caye Caulker (one of the islands), all the way inland to San Ignacio and Tikal. In 2014, our second return trip occurred, consisting of a trip to San Pedro island, San Ignacio, and a fishing village of Placencia. But we weren't always this familiar with Belize.
"Wanna do business in Belize?" It's not very often someone utters those words to you, but in June 2012, that was the million-dollar question Martin was posing for me. He had just returned from a vacation in Belize that was initially spurred by a Groupon voucher, and he came bearing not only a great tan and vacation photos, but a business prospect on hand. While visiting the mountainous town of San Ignacio, he happened to go on a horseback riding tour with Santiago Juan, a charismatic Belizean who had just returned to his home country after spending his youth traveling the world. He was taking the reins at his family business, a lodge known as Nabitunich Stone Cottages and Hanna Stables horseback riding outfit, both located on a 400-acre spread of organic farming land located just a few miles away from the main tourist attraction in town, Xunantunich Mayan ruins. Both businesses were active in the 1980s and 1990s, but had been shut down when Santiago's parents decided to retire. Santiago was now on a mission to revive the operations for tourists, beginning with offering horseback rides, and eventually re-opening the cottages to guests.
How would Martin and I get involved? By offering our technology-based services of web design and development, and online marketing to help increase awareness of Santiago's newly revived business, and thus increase sales as well.
Lesson 1: Choose good business partners.
Since the bread and butter of the business we were selling relied so much on the in-person experience, it was crucial that everything about that service was topnotch off the bat. During subsequent trips to Belize when we attempted to replicate this model with other sub-par small businesses, we became even more appreciative than before of Santiago's hospitable yet highly entrepreneurial personality that it turns out is very hard to find. With Santiago's business, this wasn't a problem, given his extremely high rating on Trip Advisor, one of the biggest lead generation platforms for us today. There's a reason why pretty much every guest review written about Hanna Stables and Nabitunich is rave-worthy, and that reason is Santiago.
Lesson 2: Other countries have different standards when it comes to doing business.
You'd have thought I learned this in my international business courses in college, but it's entirely different to learn this lesson in real life. Given that Belize is located in Central America, accepts US dollars, and even has English as its official language, there have been expected twists and turns while doing business in Belize, some for better, and others for worse. Our first big surprise came in the form of the state of online business in Belize. We were relieved to find out that pretty much every tourist establishment in Belize does indeed have a website, and not too surprised to learn that every single website was a couple years behind in design and technology. This lack of technology was how we quickly identified the problem we were out to solve.
Here in the United States, particularly in Seattle, we've become accustomed to instant gratification. When booking a trip, for instance, we expect to know within seconds if there's availability at a lodge or on a tour, and book and possibly even pay for that service online without a third-party intermediary. These same luxuries of instant feedback and confirmation are largely non-existent outside of the USA, particularly in Belize, where the booking process for a prospective guest goes something like this:
Step 1: Fill out a guest inquiry form.
Step 2: Submit it online.
Step 3: Vendor on the other end receives the booking request and must manually check calendars and confirm availability (or lack thereof).
Step 4: Vendor confirms availability and quotes a rate to the guest.
Step 5: Guest receives rate and either accepts, counter-offers, or asks more questions.
There are many problems with this older model, such as waiting a long time for availability to be confirmed, and then having to make sense of email strings and unrelated forms to properly piece together and organize the guests' final itinerary. Our main mission was to address these inefficiencies and help bring online booking best practices to Belize. We did so using the techniques described in the next section.
Lesson 3: There's no need to reinvent the wheel (even as an entrepreneur)
This is one of Martin's favorite sayings, and it's one that we have applied to many aspects of our business. While our premise of developing an online booking system for Hanna Stables was (and still is) revolutionary in Belize, it's a problem that has been solved in many other parts of the world. We ideally planned to develop a custom booking platform from scratch, but quickly realized that this method would take us a significant amount of time. In the meantime, it was December - the beginning of busy season for tourism in Central America, and it was best that we adopt tried and true methods to create an immediate solution that Hanna Stables could begin benefitting from immediately. Those solutions came to us in the form of WordPress, WooCommerce, and PayPal, costing us a grand total of just $150 a year in web hosting. Our new and improved online booking process allows guests to find, book, reserve a room or tour, and receive a detailed itinerary and receipt all within a matter of minutes. It may sound basic to most, but this was and still is a revolutionary solution for a small business in Belize. This solution was engineered and implemented in less than a month, and we officially began collecting online reservations and payments in December 2012.
Another way we made use of other existing platforms was in deciding to take advantage of Nabitunich accommodations by listing them on Hostel World and Airbnb in early 2013. Being listed on these highly popular directories gave us visibility to a whole new market of potential guests, and Airbnb in particular has become a huge lead generator, even during our perceived low seasons.
Lesson 4: Some business problems are out of your control, but there's (almost) always a solution.
Even after we developed and implemented the online payment system, we quickly ran into a BIG problem. Our system was such that guests were paying the full balance of the tour or accommodations online, leaving Gemini Connect with thousands of dollars that we had to somehow wire transfer to Santiago's bank account in Belize. Online banking is but a dream for Belizeans, so direct deposits or web-based transfers weren't possible. Instead, we spent that first year going to Western Union to wire non-trivial sums of money to Belize, until they eventually grew suspicious and blocked us from doing so. Using traditional methods, there was no easy way to get Santiago's money. That's when we developed a rather simple solution: having guests pay an online deposit to secure their reservations, giving us peace of mind that they are committed to showing up, and also serving as a commission payment to Gemini Connect. The remaining balance was then collected in Belize once the service was rendered, eliminating the need for wire transfers. Simple, yet it solved a slew of problems for all parties.
Lesson 4: Know your value, but be flexible when it comes to having it fulfilled.
This point relates similarly to lesson 2 since it has to do with understanding cultural and economic differences in other countries. Martin and I highly value and price our services according to U.S. standards, but we had to seriously reconsider our rates when dealing with a country like Belize, where cost of living is such that many people can live comfortably off of a few thousand dollars per year. We never harbored illusions of being paid in cash hourly even part of what we'd normally charge, and instead worked with Santiago to develop the above-mentioned deposit system. It would be a series of small, gradual payments, but as we soon saw, it didn't take much to start getting sizable profits.
Lesson 5: You don't need a big operation to make a big difference
One of the biggest takeaways that we are continually mystified by was how seemingly simple yet highly effective our work in Belize has been, and all it took was a friendly in-person chance meeting and a few emails to initiate. Since then our 2-person team has been able to repeatedly sell out a resort in Central America. As we've pointed out, this doesn't mean doing business internationally is a cake walk, but it truly doesn't take much to begin solving and profiting from real business problems anywhere in the world as long as you have the motivation and skills.
Lesson 6: To scale an ambitious business you need real software
So far so good, this experience has been rewarding in many ways, but to truly become something beyond a part time business for 2 people, this venture has to scale.We've estimated that to afford to be dedicated full time to this endeavor which we love, we need 40 partners like Hanna Stables. This is of course impossible with the hastily put together solution which relies on third party product - it can only service a few clients at a time. For this we need a custom proprietary software tailored to our exact operation. The monetary reward is nice, but by far the most important thing we have gained so far is the opportunity to invent a scalable business model which can let our company grow indefinitely.
This in a nutshell is our success story of doing business in Belize. To get started core of the business strategy was rather simple, including the way it was initiated, although it certainly provided its own set of challenges, but not without great reward. Based on our first 2 years of operation we are now actively developing software to satisfy a much broader model which when finished will put our company on the travel industry map alongside the biggest players.
Below is a brief timeline summarizing our main business accomplishments:
Gemini Connect Business Timeline
- May 2012: Martin's first trip to Belize when he met Santiago/Hanna Stables.
- July 2012: Agreed upon a business deal with Hanna Stables.
- August 2012: The brand new Hanna Stables website debuts online.
- November 2012: Gemini Connect LLC is formed; we venture to Belize to capture multimedia footage for web.
- December 2012: Online booking reservation system and payments were introduced, along with a revamped website full of shiny new photos and content.
- February 2014: Online deposit payments are introduced, eliminating wire transfers.
- March 2014: Scalable business model invented and software development on it begun
- May 2015: Gemini Connect reinvests profits and buys a brand new company car in cash to foster a US West Coast expansion
- (Projected) January 2016 - Release of Gemini Connect's scalable software