Aure’s Podcast #2: How Yass Barona Built an International Tourism Agency as an (Immigrant) Student

  • Post category:Interviews & Podcast
  • Post last modified:August 11, 2022
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Yasser Barona, founder of Viva’s Tour and data engineer.

Welcome to Aure’s Podcast.

In this episode, I interview Yass Barona, a Venezuelan entrepreneur and the CEO/Founder of Viva’s Tour, a European tour organizer based in Brussels.

You can listen to the interview directly in the article, listen to it on any platform you want, or on YouTube.

Or you can read the edited version below.

Enjoy!


Welcome to the second episode of Aure’s Notes podcast. Today, we’re welcoming Yass. Yass has built a tourism company in Europe, based in Brussels. Hey Yass!

Hey.

Can you introduce yourself, your background, and how you ended up in Brussels?

I am Yasser, everybody calls me Yass. I am from Venezuela originally. I grew up there and lived my entire life there, I tried to study there, I did a first semester of electrical engineering. But then Venezuela is quite of a complicated country, there were no opportunities.

Which year was it?

2009. So I first moved to Buenos Aires in Argentina because I have family there. When I was in Argentina, I was trying different things.

I call it my hippie period because I tried to study music, I did some theater, learned how to play the guitar and I thought that it was going to be my career.

Then I began to work in sales in a fashion store and I was doing well. I saved enough money to quit my job and travel around Europe.

And I met a Belgian girl that convinced me to move to Brussels and that’s how I ended up here.

And then in Brussels, you had to find something to do.

Yes, it was difficult because I couldn’t find anything. The first plan was to learn the language, French. So I started an integration course. You study French five days a week for 4-5 hours a day. In the meantime, I needed to make a living. It was impossible, I couldn’t find a job anywhere.

The only gig I was able to find was to wash dishes in the student bar at the university. I had a friend there who was able to hook me one night here and there, but it was not enough.

That’s when I decided to work as a tour guide since my only personal asset was that I spoke English and Spanish.

And I thought I’d make a good tour guide.

So I went to some tourism agencies to see if they wanted to hire me. They all rejected me because I had no experience.

How did the tour guide idea come up?

Before coming to Belgium, I traveled around Europe and South America, and I saw a lot of these people because I joined a lot of these tours as well.

I thought it was a cool job the same way you see someone being a bartender or a DJ.

When I came to Belgium, I saw there were not enough people providing these services so I thought maybe I could find a job there.

Since I spoke English and Spanish, I thought it’d be easy since the only thing you need is to be outgoing, charismatic, and speak whatever language is needed.

So, what happened after all of these companies rejected you?

I decided to create my own service. I can’t say that I wanted to build a company because that wouldn’t be true.

I just wanted to find my own people, and in the beginning, I thought I just needed 5-7 people a day and that was enough, that was my biggest market. With that, I could make enough to pay rent which was the most urgent thing, and after that, anything would just be amazing.

But actually, doing that was not difficult.

My marketing idea was to pass by some hostels every single day after my French course in the morning and I would tell the receptionist “tell anyone that wants to do a tour that in 10-15 min, I will start one in the main square”.

I didn’t know how good I would be because I had never done it before. So I didn’t know what amount to charge either, so I told people to just give me a tip.

It was also a system I had seen while traveling.

There were three hostels specifically where I was passing by. If people were waiting, I would take them to the main square.

Initially, I didn’t have anyone for two weeks.

For two weeks?!

Yeah, at least. I think I got my first client thanks to the pity the receptionists felt for me. So one day, I got my first clients, a couple.

We did the tour, they gave me some tips, and I felt I made €100 000! It felt really good, it was an amazing moment.

Then they went back to the hostel and talked to the receptionist, and the next day there were three people, then four, then five, then six, then I was walking every day with groups of fifteen people which was much more than I thought initially.

Did you stick to your hostel strategy or did you diversify your channels?

No, I did the hostel thing for a long time. Two years. The first year, I was following my French course so it worked well.

I would finish my classes in the morning, I would go out, pass by the hostel, pick up some people, and do the tours.

And to be honest, I was making a living just very few months after I started.

I think the lightbulb moment was one day when, no matter what I did, I had some people coming with me from the hostel because the hostel told the travelers that I was going to pass by, and that they could just wait for me.

But then you also had people that were waiting for me at the meeting point because I had created a website, a very basic WordPress website, and then I had created flyers.

And one day I arrived at the meeting point, it was summer 2015, and I was carrying a little sign with me that said “free walking tours”.

And suddenly, there was a mass of people that came toward me.

Probably 70 people.

Did these people know you? Or were they intrigued because they saw you at that moment?

No, since I started passing by every day, the hostels started promoting me more actively. They knew I was providing a nice service, people were happy. The tour became an extra service of the hostel, so they could say something like “we have breakfast, free water, and there is a guy that comes by every day to give you a walking tour of the city”.

So, they were telling their customers “you can wait for the guide, or go to the meeting point.”

But also, there were no touristic activities happening in Brussels in the afternoon.

They were tours, but all of them were in the morning. There was nothing to do in the afternoon.

And I think, my theory is that the tourism office picked up the fact I was passing by every afternoon. So then they’d tell people about me.

And I think that’s how I started to get more and more people at the meeting point.

In 2015, that’s when a lot of people showed up, and I realized “maybe I can do something with this”.

And how many years was it after you had done your first tour?

I started in December 2013, and I worked on my own until March 2015 when I had the idea to create a proper company.

Ok, so you had this big group of people coming to you and then you think you need to scale.

Yeah exactly. My strategy was that I could not multiply myself, so I began to look for people like me, that wanted to make money, are charismatic, spoke languages.

I started looking for people that wanted to work with me, and then I would give them a commission on the people I was sending them.

If 70 people came, I’d take 35 and send the rest to the others and they would pay me a commission for every person I sent them.

Since it’s a tour that worked on tips, they’d pay me based on the tips, and whatever was on top of the commission was for them.

And that was the business model.

So they were buying tourists off you?

Yes.

So you started hiring, and then what happened?

I started with my first team, we were like three, four.

Where did you find these people?

Facebook. I posted on groups on Facebook, expats, travelers, students, I said it was an activity where you need to be charismatic, easygoing, and actually, I didn’t have an office, so I was meeting them in cafes.

I always played the role from the beginning that I was trying to build something, provide a service, etc.

But in reality, it was just me. In the beginning, we were just like friends. We were literally just young guys, friends, hanging out with tourists, we would finish the tours and ask the tourists “ok, what do you want to do, party, drink?”

But then at some point, it started growing and growing, and that’s when I decided to become more organized.

But in the beginning I was just looking for people that wanted to make extra money and have fun while doing it.

Did these people have experience?

No. I never asked for experience. It’s always better, but I never asked because I had no experience when I started, so it would be hypocritical to ask for it.

I had no experience, and I was a great tour guide, probably one of the best tour guides in the center of Brussels.

I think there is enough proof of that. And I never had experience before that.

The only thing that I had was the will to work, the energy and the charisma.

And that was the only thing I was looking in people. You know, you meet them in a cafe, and that’s something you can feel instantly. You know when they’re fun, charismatic, energetic, always smiling.

I would invite them to join my tours so they could learn this quickly. And then they would make their own way. They ended up becoming excellent tour guides, some of them, way better than me.

So they learned coming to your tours and then started doing their own tours as well?

Yeah, exactly.

So at that point, did you already have a company or not really?

No, I didn’t have a company. The moment when I established it was 2016, and I think at that point, we’re getting massive, I mean, we were getting huge crowds of people.

We couldn’t handle it, the team was overworked, they were telling me “Yass, there are too many people, we can’t keep on working at this rhythm.”

And then I said “ok, I’ll find a way”. So I took one of the tour guides to help me in the management to help me organize.

Because before that, we would go, see who showed up, and that was it. We had no schedule, there was no organization at all.

And that’s when we decided to organize things better. We had an amazing summer in 2015 and it wasn’t slowing down.

You normally have the summer season, then October, November, it tends to slow down, but it was not slowing down.

And so I said “ok, beginning of 2016, we’re a proper company”.

But then the terrorist attacks happened, and that really screwed up my plan.

But it also gave me the motivation to start new cities. I was paranoid that I was going to lose what I had. Brussels was an empty city, so I started to open new cities and that’s when it became a company.

I had a manager, I told her she needed to take care of Brussels because I was going to go create tours in other cities.

So that tragic episode gave me the motivation to go and open new cities.

It’s very interesting because in the beginning, no one wanted to hire you so you built your own thing. And when the terrorist attacks happened, there were no more tourists so you went to look for other places. So these setbacks have made you stronger and bigger, right?

Yeah totally, and actually, I would be lying if I said that it all came out of encouragement or that I had a vision.

It came out of desperation.

I was desperate, I didn’t want to lose this thing. So I had no choice. I think the moments that I perform the best is when there is no other choice.

I had to find a way to make more tours because Brussels was gone. All the people that were coming to Belgium were skipping Brussels and went to Brugge, Antwerp, Ghent, so I started opening tours there.

We were the first tour ever opening up in Antwerp and when we went there, the tourist information was like “Oh finally, tour guides opening Antwerp!”

Same in Ghent. Not the same in Brugge because it has always been very touristic.

Still, we stepped in to build services there.

So we became really big in Belgium so the team got bigger.

I had already proper management, we hired more people, we got an office space thanks to a friend, things started looking more like a company.

And eventually, you are going to keep on expanding.

This is a funny story related to what we’ve just talked about.

In 2018, I got an existential moment when I decided that I wanted to build a software service, or a startup.

It happened because I had done a coding boot camp, and had this incredible idea to build an app to manage the company.

Wait, it’s a little bit weird. You’re there with this non-tech company, and you did a coding boot camp?

Initially, I needed to build something to manage my team. I needed a digital tool.

You needed software.

Yeah I needed software to scale. Or at least, to manage, to optimize. And then, I went to ask developers because I knew nothing about tech, and they were charging me stupid amounts of money for doing something which in my head was simple.

I just needed a calendar here, etc, I needed something simple, why was it so expensive?

So I thought again, I am going to build it myself. So I went to this boot camp and of course I wasn’t able to build it myself, but I understood how it could be built.

The thing that happened is that I built this software for me, and then I applied to a startup incubator in Paris and they liked the idea.

They liked the concept. Of course they liked the fact that I was someone that came from nothing and out of nowhere, I was building something like that.

Of course these incubators don’t only look at the product only, but also at the person behind it.

It was a great decision in terms of personal experience, but a bad decision in terms of business because I lost focus.

I was growing a non-tech touristic agency and then I was playing around with this software thing, so it was an idea that actually wore off after a few months, especially since I realized that it wasn’t going to work.

And then due to this lack of attention that I paid to the business for several months, the business started doing really bad.

That was already in 2018, the overhead was bigger because I had more people to pay, I had more tour guides, 16-18 that were counting on me to provide them with tourists to make a living, so I had responsibilities and I lost focus.

So the business started going bad and there was massive competition. When I told you that I was the only tour happening in the afternoon, I can tell you that suddenly there were five, six, seven companies providing this service.

When did these companies appear?

They started to appear after the terrorist attacks. When Brussels recovered from the terrorist attacks, after 2017, that’s when they started to appear.

And also, my own example showed that you didn’t need much to be good at providing these services. In some ways, you just needed a group of people, basic advertisement, and that’s it. You have your touristic company.

In the summer of 2017, they started showing up. And by the summer of 2018, the competition got brutal.

All of these companies were eating away your customers.

Indeed. And I was not working hard enough to increase the pie, at least for myself. So what was happening is that they were eating away my customers. And that’s already something I realized by the end of 2017. It’s when I thought “ok, wow, this is bad”.

And this point I realized that if we kept on going this way, it would be a matter of months before I lose my services.

And I would have to cut down the company if not shut it down completely. But luckily for me, this software tool that I built, this time and money I spent (I spent a lot of money), which is one of these entrepreneurial mistakes where you spend a lot of time building a product and you don’t even know if people are going to use it.

But when I realized that no one was going to pay for it, I thought “well, I already have this product so we can use it ourselves.”

And indeed, it ended up becoming one of the best investments we ever did because this tool allowed me to start creating tours and services everywhere in Europe.

In the beginning, it was very rough because my strategy was quite crazy to be honest, for example, the first city I decided I was going to try was Luxembourg.

So I said, ok, for two months, every weekend, I am going to go to Luxembourg back and forth and I will do the tours myself.

I didn’t have any money to do marketing, so it was only me. I would go there until I was able to convince people to become the tour guide there, and we would manage them through the software that I had had made.

That’s what happened and for at least 1.5 month, every weekend, from Friday to Sunday, I would ride 7 hours on the train, back and forth to Luxembourg, and I would do the tours. So I would do 2.5 hours to Luxembourg by train, there were my office hours, then I would do the tours two times in the day, 10h30-16h00, and then 2.5 hours back on the train, which was again more office time.

Those were my weekends for at least 1.5 month. I remember when I shared that story with the two managers that were working for me at the time, one of them said that it was a crazy idea and it was not going to work.

That discouraged me a little, but I had to try.

The other told me “that’s a great idea, but I still don’t think you’re going to pull it off”.

And I don’t know, I had to try, so I did that, 1.5 month, we’re fully operating in Luxembourg. So I thought, well, I can do the same in other places.

So I started going to Frankfurt. I would stay in a hostel and do tours during the weekend and then it was funny because the tourists would come back in the hostel and they were like “ah you’re the tour guide!”

In order for me to convince guides, I needed to prove that we had a service.

You needed to prove the business would work.

And then that turned things around completely. By mid-2018, we were in Lisbon, Stockholm, Florence, Bologna, Luxembourg, Frankfurt.

It’s insane because you’re telling me in Brussels the competition was cut-throat, but then you’re expanding in all of these cities. Does it mean it was because there were no competition, or you got good very quickly very fast?

No, in these, I understood that the idea was to look for the blue ocean opportunity.

We looked at this city, and looked at what was not being done. To give you an example in Lisbon, if you walk in the city center, there would be 10 companies doing tours. But there was this beautiful neighborhood called Belem, it was completely empty. That’s where I opened the tour.

There was this small city called Sintra, no tour there. So I would go there, but I would only open tours that weren’t being done by anyone to take advantage from being the first mover.

So what you did with Antwerp, you did it again.

A lot of people thought of that. People asked how I would go to Lisbon, but I wasn’t providing tours there.

I was doing the out-of-the-track activities. And I was the only one doing this.

So we expanded to Frankfurt, Luxembourg, Lisbon, Florence, Palermo, Bologna, Stockholm, Oslo, Brussels, and the other major cities here. Lubljana, and I think I am not forgetting anything.

And that was the summer of 2018?

Summer 2019. And that was the best year we ever had. I was super proud. My team was incredibly motivated, we were hiring people of course. And it was definitely the best year I had. It was the year I worked the most, because I was in charge of opening all of those locations myself.

I did not send people. I was traveling, going from plane to plane, from city to city, non-stop, sometimes without sleeping, just going, because I knew that was my opportunity.

And we stopped opening more locations because at some point, I could not do it anymore. I was really exhausted.

We had plans to go into Paris or London and I said “I am sorry guys, let’s pull it off, let’s stop here. Let’s try to manage what we already got so we don’t bite more than we can chew. And then next year, 2020 it is going to be another great year to do more.”

And then…

And then we all know what happened.

So 2020 was the opposite. And to be honest, being now, after some time, that I can mention it, it’s not very not easy, but I can mention it without any problem.

I lost everything, pretty much, in 2020.

In terms of the business, what’s the most valuable thing for me that I lost was my team. Everyone that was working with me for years, the tour guides were people that were working with me for years and seeing that falling apart was a big shock.

I always say that I passed all of the episodes of grief.

In the beginning, I was completely in denial. “Guys no worry, it’s ok, one month will be back, it’ll be fine”. And then I was completely desperate “no it’s the end, we are going to die, it’s over”. And then I accepted it. It’s business, it’s life.

I talked to my team and said “look, I can try to rebuild this if you are with me”, but I understood that some of them had already decided to move on. And those that were hesitant were like “yeah, we have to start from scratch. We already worked really hard helping you build this…and then we need to start everything again?”

It felt like an exhausting task because the first time, it was exhausting. And doing it all over again, it was too much.

In the end, we went different ways. I kept my company, but I kept it more as a muse.

A side hustle.

A side hustle. So I packed it into that. I closed every single destination that was not bringing immediate profit.

Wait, let’s come back a bit. Your team is saying “sorry, we don’t want to rebuild it again”. And so, you don’t rebuild it, so you don’t even hire a new team. You transform the business, right?

Exactly, I transform it in a way that it can generate me the most money with the least effort possible.

I like that. What do you do then?

Actually, I thought in the beginning, I was completely lost. I thought “I am my business. Now that I don’t have my business, I am nothing”.

Because I don’t have a professional career, I never finished my studies. I can basically say “I am just this desperate guy that arrived here, now I can speak French, but that’s it”.

And then I thought “well, no, actually, I have experience, I learned a lot, and now I can start again. I can start afresh. And I can start something new.”

So I realized “if I have to build something again from scratch, what would I do?”

In this search, I stumbled onto this book called “Homo Deus” and it’s a book that talks about the future, how pretty much, AI and biotechnology is going to impact the future of humanity. And it looked to me like a revelation, I was astonished by the facts and concepts in that book.

And I decided to jump into data science and AI.

And that’s the way I went.

Wait, what happened to Viva? How did you turn it around?

First, there were some cities that went dead. I was thinking about how much efforts I needed to rebuild them.

I thought “ok, this is not doable at the moment.” Then out of the ghost cities we were operating in, “which city do I have the team that is the most self-sufficient, that requires the least amount of effort for me?”

The ones that were complicated, I shut them down.

Then among the self-sufficient ones, I looked for the ones that brought the most profit. These are the ones I kept, and I shut down the other ones.

And now I have a few destinations that are very profitable, self-sufficient, and that’s my side gig.

So you’re still bringing tourists to the guides, but only online?

Yes. I don’t do local marketing, I do everything online, and I don’t bring the same amount as before, but I am the only one managing, and partially managing. It pays off for the amount of time I put in.

So you went from a company that had like, 20 – 25 guides and three managers to being “part-time just you”?

Yes, mathematically, if you look at the numbers, it’s more profitable now than it has ever been before.

How much effort you put in, and how much net profit I get out.

But yeah, of course, in terms of growth revenue, it is very small compared to before. But it was a decision and this the thing because I do have to say that despite the fact that what I did with my business in the end, it all happened organically.

I never decided to be a tour guide. I never had the plan to grow a company in the tourism sector. It was never part of my plan.

I never planned to go beyond Brussels, beyond Belgium. I never, in my wildest dreams, thought that my services would be even in Luxembourg. Everything happened very organically.

Everything happened because it had to happen. Somehow, the terrorist attacks on one hand and the health crisis on the other forced it to happen.

Exactly. But at this moment, after that, if I had wanted to rebuild everything, of course, I could have done that.

I just needed to jump into it 100%. But to be honest, I also shared some of these feelings that my team shared. Start everything from scratch. All over again. Create a new team. Build new connections. Things that happened magically throughout the years, I had to make them happen.

And my question was, if I have to put that much effort into something new, would I do a touristic company?

No. I would probably go for something more scalable, something that doesn’t require the amount of luck I had, something I can control more. And that’s why I took the decision to keep it as it is now.

Ok, then you read Homo Deus and think “wow, data is awesome”.

Yes, I realized that’s the future. I first realized that actually, data is everywhere now. I came upon the concept that we are in the same period as the oil rush. That was probably early 50s, or 40s, I don’t have the history right, but I am working on it, I bought a book about the oil rush.

But I realized that data is everywhere. People, companies, some of them are already aware of the value that data has, but most of them don’t.

And I think that’s the period in which we are living now. They are coming to realize how valuable data is and there is a lot of things going on. And that’s only talking about data science and data analysis, data engineering. Going a step forward, AI, machine-learning is also growing exponentially. And there are even more opportunities there to be explored.

And I saw a revelation, a fascination. The more I read about it, the more in love I was with the subject.

And that’s why I decided to do data.

Ok. And so you decide to learn data engineering.

Yeah. Actually, I went to a data science boot camp. Very intensive. 40+ hour week, full time.

40+ is mandatory, plus all of the hours you have to put in on the side.

You start learning the basics of programming, then, you go to data analysis, data engineering, and after that, you build up to more complex subject like data science and machine learning.

Now you’re going to start a new career as a data engineer.

Yes. I don’t know per se if I am going to stay, because there are so many things to do.

You can go from doing analysis, engineering, advisory, consulting, I don’t know.

That’s why I want to jump in. The first thing I realize is that the more I see, I know how much there is yet to learn.

So after this boot camp, I got the opportunity to work in a project for a very big company.

They’re inviting me as a data engineer in this project, and then if everything works well, I would like to work in that company.

I’ll be an employee for as long as I learn this subject and I figure out exactly what I want to do and definitely a most-likely, I will then see if there is an opportunity for me to do something on my own.

So you still want to be an entrepreneur. No 9-5 for you, or at least, not forever.

No. I think entrepreneurship gives you one of the most empowering feeling you can have. It’s not only like the overall, the end result, it’s the moment, the challenge by challenge you tackle that feels amazing.

I understand when you are an entrepreneur, sometimes you feel you can take over the world.

Something small like solving a problem for a client. You think “if I can do this, I can be the next Elon Musk.”

It’s completely farfetched and unrealistic, but the feeling you get, I don’t think you can get it as an employee. And once you taste that, you want to keep feeling that way.

And to be honest, also on the other side, at least in my experience, being an entrepreneur is hard.

It’s really hard. “Anyone can be an entrepreneur, but not everyone can be an entrepreneur”.

In theory, everyone could, but the reality is that…you need to build thicker skin, you need to learn how to deal with stress, because it’s rough. It’s difficult. But when you get out of the difficult moment, you will feel a bliss that’s difficult to find doing something else.

It’s been 10 years since you are in Brussels now, right?

Yes.

So, what’s the best piece of advice that you wish someone had told you, or that you have already received?

That’s a great question. If there is a piece of advice that I would have liked to receive, it would have been “just move faster”.

Because in my case, I always had to wait for the death threat moment in order for me to do great business moves, when I didn’t need to wait for that to happen.

I could have expanded faster, so I think in that sense, that would have been a good advice for me.

Of course, looking backward, I understand that everything happened for a reason, and everything happened at the right time, but I would have appreciated this advice.

Or “don’t wait to be in the bad to come up with a good solution. Try to anticipate that.”

And if there is some advice I would give someone is “just try”. Because the reality is that every single great jump or growth that happened in my business happened the moment I decided to try something different.

The moment everyone thought “ok, we’re a Brussels company” and I thought “what if we tried to go to another city?”

You know, just try, what’s the worst that can happen? The worst that can happen is we stay a Belgian company. But once you pass that barrier, it’s a mental barrier, once you pass that barrier, it becomes huh, you want me to open a tour where? Buenos Aires? I can do it.

Just try. If you have an idea, if you already have a business, if you hesitate about something, just try.

Make sure to know where the downside is, don’t bet the business on one idea, in my case, one of the reasons why I decided to go to Luxembourg, I decided to go myself, because the worst thing that could have happened is that I would lose my time.

I was not sacrificing anything from the business, but I would try these new ideas.

Make sure you sacrifice the least possible from whatever you already have, and go and try. And if you fail, you will bring back some lessons.

And you will know what doesn’t work, and this is very useful.

What an amazing piece of advice. Where can people find you?

Just go to vivastour.com and you can find different destinations.

And if you want to follow me in my new data science adventure, the best place is LinkedIn.

Thank you for this interview!

For more interviews, head to auresnotes.com.

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