Motorcycle sales to Vietnam’s largest bike hire company
It’s been a while since we featured an inspiring expat story on the blog, so it’s with pleasure I introduce English expat Jon Pepper who moved to Vietnam in 2011. He tells us how he went from broke backpacker to running one of the country’s premier motorcycle hire companies Tigit Motorbikes – and becoming a dad!
Big things can come for those who are determined to give it a try and bring something new and needed to the market. But the challenges of balancing family needs, and establishing a secure future does not change, no matter where you are in the world. I hope you will also find his story as inspiring as I did.
This post is part of our series Expat Entrepreneurs – come and here more stories on how our expat mums and dads have turned their overseas experience into successful businesses that service a community need
OG: So Jon, how did you find yourself living in Vietnam?
JP: I was an introverted geek who spent my time running an online game server business. After university, my parents literally shoved me out the door and told me to go and experience the real world.
A good starting point to hit the real world was to visit family in Zimbabwe and from there begin a real backpacking experience across Africa. I instantly loved it, and I travelled cheap, hard and dirty. This was the life for me. I found myself travelling from Zimbabwe to Kenya solo and with no real plan.
Imagine the biggest computer geek in the world backpacking across Africa pretending to have no money, that was me…. it dramatically changed me as a person!
I later went to Australia due to cheap flights after Australia got hit by a bunch of severe floods. I wanted to see the disaster, it was all over the news. Australia was not the place for me and I realized I do not like the “developed world”.
So I looked for a country that was randomly on the way home to England. Vietnam looked suitably planted in the middle of Aus and the UK to break up the long flight. So off I went. Vietnam was instant love, this was the place for me and I knew it.
OG: What motivated you to start Tigit Motorbikes?
JP: When I was 15 years old my mum said to me “Jon you will either be a millionaire by the time you are 30, or end up in jail”. Entrepreneurship is in my blood, and Tigit Motorbikes is not my first business. There have been many successes, failures and hard lessons along the way.
In relation to Tigit, I was at a time of desperation. My travel bank balance had fallen to around $700 and once this dried up I was going to be heading home to get a “real job”. I was in entrepreneur mode to avoid the dreaded “real job” and was scouring any opportunity that I could get going.
I had fallen in love with Vietnam by this point and I would do anything that I could to stay. I had made friends with the mechanic from an established motorbike rental company. We started buying and selling bikes together, using his mechanic skills and my innocent young foreigner face to sell.
The boss of the company considered hiring me, but after some deliberation rejected my offer. Today I take solace in knowing I am now one of their biggest competitors and am chipping away at their market one step at a time.
As I learnt more about motorbikes within Vietnam, I started to discover how dangerous and dishonest this market was. The situation brought about a new goal in my working life: to provide safe and reliable motorbike rentals in Vietnam.
Vietnamese rental shops are a dishonest disgrace. Tigit Motorbikes has made big inroads into providing a stable, consistent platform for renting a motorbike in Vietnam. Transparency and honesty are what has led Tigit to grow from nothing to a million-dollar business in just a few years.
OG: What advice do you give to aspiring expat entrepreneurs with families?
JP: One of the biggest mistakes entrepreneurs make is pretending to be something they are not. “CEO of XXXX”, using words like “we will” and pretending to be large corporations. Today people are looking to spend their money on real people. This is the power of social media.
We can now gain a following on sites such as YouTube, Instagram and Facebook as a person rather than a global business from our bedroom. We can also be solo experts in a given field providing the detailed truth. This form of authentic engagement with the online world can be equally satisfying and profitable.
Be a family person, allow this to come across on your social media and website platforms. Don’t be afraid to be the bold expert one-man band on a crusade to fix the world with your product or service. And if you fail, you can always use that in your branding on social media too!
Aim to gain the love of 10% of your audience. This means being straight and true. Be edgy and controversial, this will get you that 10% love which will eventually lead to sales. Never aim to please everybody. Pleasing everybody will gain the love of nobody.
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OG: What are the main challenges in running Tigit?
JP: Family and workload balance is a big issue. I met my wife in Vietnam and we just had a beautiful daughter. As I want the very best for them, being successful has already brought up the thought of expensive international schools and purchasing the most expensive safety products and foods for my family.
If that were not enough pressure on our cash flow, there are big holidays to see the family back home. The climb from the bottom to the top has been a quick one. It will seem selfish, but falling back down again would cripple both myself and my family. I feel as though I have made tremendous strides to securing a stable future for my family in a very comfortable environment, but the anxiety that I could lose it at any moment drives me to work harder and harder every month.
Vietnam is a volatile country where things can change in a heartbeat. Tigit is thriving in an industry that can be killed with one government change of law. It is hugely important for me to find a way to diversify and bring in new forms of revenue outside of Tigit Motorbikes. Being a success once may be lucky, but doing it twice is being a real entrepreneur.
I find it difficult to balance spending time with my family vs being responsible and finding more stable forms of income for my family. I feel guilt whenever I am not dreaming up new ideas of making money. This creates a life of self-inflicted pressure.
My parents would probably love to hear this as it means they have done their job. (I hope they are not reading). I will say this: If I am not with my family I feel selfish. If I am not working on stabilizing our income by being at work then I feel irresponsible. It’s a paradox I think most entrepreneurs suffer from. Well, at least the ones in a high-risk high reward environment.
Want more on expat lifestyle in Vietnam? Meet Aussie expat mum Terri in Ho Chi Minh City
OG: There must be some positives as an entrepreneur in Vietnam, what are they?
JP: You can do what you want, how you want and when you want. There are no rules here, and if you think there are rules… then you are doing it wrong. Back home you would need licences, papers and massive upfront capital just to get going.
In Vietnam, it is possible to set up on the side of the road with nothing (this is not an exaggeration). Once the business is established the authorities will start asking questions. But they give you a long leash before they start imposing regulations and approach you for “coffee money”.
Vietnam is an incredibly relaxed country and you can focus on creating your business and not worrying about bureaucracy and papers. Aside from that, being in Vietnam is the life of a king. You don’t need much money to live the dream out here!
OG: What’s next for your expat business?
JP: Tigit Motorbikes is diversifying into guided motorbike tours and the import of motorcycle related safety products and accessories. The mission of providing safe and reliable motorbike rentals has not changed.
I want to create a truly safe experience for renting motorbikes in Vietnam. I am also interested in renting cars, as these are starting to roll into Vietnam at an alarming rate. Tigit is positioned perfectly to be the first real car rental company in the country.
There are dreams of expansion into Cambodia and Laos. Anything is possible!
It was a pleasure to speak with Jon, a man with big dreams and big possibilities with a beautiful new family in Vietnam. Knowing that there are safe options for bike rental now in Vietnam is incredibly reassuring, one day I am sure my own kids will be the ones taking off on backpacking adventures around South East Asia!
Know an expat whose story has really inspired you? We’d love to interview them too! Get in touch with email@example.com to share your inspirational stories