The Blueprint: Gus Balbontin

It isn’t every day you get to speak to someone like Gus Balbontin – the former executive director at Lonely Planetand someone who has experienced the globe, cracked the corporate world open like an Easter egg yet doesn’t walk around like he owns every place he walks into. We bonded first over our mutual love of Orcas. Gus grew up moments away from one of the most impressive Orca ecosystems in the world. This Blueprint is special to any budding and unsure entrepreneur. It’s a guide for adventurers who can’t justify the thought of travelling, for those who dare to dream with their eyes open, who constantly have that nagging voice inside their head telling them a million reasons why they shouldn’t. Or why they aren’t good enough. This Blueprint is worth every word. Every part is great. From one hour interviewing Gus I haven’t managed to get close to fitting everything in. Because of Gus’s insight into life, education, travel and business are so deep, so strong, it’s impossible to take everything in on a first meeting and one editorial on our site. So for now, enjoy what I could document for all those who dream with their eyes open.

Ok, so give me some insight into a traveller’s upbringing. My parents had a little house on the beach in a place called Las Grutas (in Argentina’s northern Patagonia). The first few years of my life I spent there and up until I was a teenager we would spend part of our summers there. It was empty, barren, raw…Patagonia at its best. When I was around 5-6 years old I remember I would walk down to the beach alone, with my little net and a hook, catch some bait fish, crabs, octopus and bring back my catch so mum would cook it with some rice. It was so peaceful. If I wasn’t fishing, I was chasing lizards in the desert, watching Orcas from the shore and catching scorpions and Redbacks.

Right, so whilst other children are watching Playschool you were providing for your family with hooks and nets? Haha, yes exactly, I was born a hunter-gatherer! At around 8 years of age, my dad took me for my first real dive. “Come, I’m going to show you the reef.” He waited till the tide was up and we swam a couple of hundred metres out to check the reef. I remember dad had to put a couple of pairs of socks on me because the fins were too big. I was hooked. I only then had the realisation that the very reef I would walk around on low tide was still there at high tide! Ha! As a little kid, the reef disappeared underwater and that was that. It never occurred to me that all the life I was seeing in ponds and dry rock beds actually lived underwater half of their lives! I saw the fish, the crabs, the octopus, all in their element, all vibrantly alive.

“I remember dad pushing me down trying to get me closer to the bottom of the reef to take a closer look “hold your breath I’ll push you!” I think this is when I decided I wanted to be like Jacques Cousteau who was my childhood hero.”

So it dawned on you then that you needed more? Yep. I grew up in a small Patagonian town where life was fairly pre-defined for you, not dissimilar to small towns in Australia I guess. You do what everyone does. You go study at some uni, come back, get married, have kids, build a house…you follow the predetermined path. I always wanted something different and I was lucky that with a bit of effort and support I managed to score a scholarship and landed in Australia to finish high school!

Tell me about your hitchhiking experiences. What did they teach you? Well, after spending a year in Australia I went back to Argentina and it took my mind back to humble beginnings. There wasn’t much money, the peso wasn’t strong, and it was very difficult to travel, but I believed that travel was a state of mind; once an adventurer, always an adventurer. And because of that, I believed nothing could stop me. I had a friend that was doing the same and he showed me the ropes.

“The art of hitchhiking isn’t so straight forward, you don’t just stick your thumb up and expect someone to pick you up, you need to understand the mechanics of how people judge people and what would make someone make a split second decision to allow you to share their personal space for the next few hours.”

So it’s more like psychology? Correct. With truckies, the trick is always to try to catch them at the petrol stations before they leave on their trip, you plant the seed the night before and ask them “how are you going? Where are you going tomorrow?” You know, you go around where the diner or restaurant might be or you bump into them where the change rooms are, strike a conversation, tell them that you are also on the move and that you are great at keeping company, pouring tea (in Argentina for example and parts of Uruguay, Brazil, and Paraguay there is this tea called MATE that everyone drinks). The next morning you have to wait until they wake up and have a coffee and something to eat, they then go around checking their tyres, and between the tyre checking and them leaving is when you ask. Because if you catch them too early they are in a bad mood. When you are tired, you have just woken up and your body is still sore, so they don’t feel like talking to anyone. So you have to time these things very well. In a car you have to always check where someone is going, I think I told you this but you end up saying no to rides more than you say yes. So the key question is where are you going, not can you please take me?

“It’s all about where they are going to drop you off, if you get dropped off in the wrong place, you can spend days and days and you won’t get out, the ability to reach hitchhiking-flow is key, ha!”

Tell me about your time at Lonely Planet. Amazing, all of it, the highs and the lows. I started as a designer, cartographer in the early 2000s to eventually become an executive director. I moved around the business a lot. I was always asking questions, I was always thinking “why do we do this the way we do it? Surely there’s a better way!” One of the first puzzles I tackled was the “colour pages” of the books. These are the pages where you put travel photos in the guidebook. I remember wondering why there were so many sizes and combinations at so many different prices. The question was in my mind: what is the ultimate ratio of a number of images and size to make the book awesome for travellers but cheap for the Lonely Planet to produce?

So it sounds like you were very proactive. Yeah, probably seen by many as a pain in the arse! I ended up creating a simple algorithm in excel and I saved the company money, designers would use it and make better photographic budget decisions. I ended up moving around the business and helping out in various departments…looking for efficiencies and better ways of working. My curiosity would always lead the way and that gave me a really good backing to understand the front end and back end of the business. That coupled with my courage to always call things out and my resilience to keep at it gave me a good base.

Sounds full on. Not enough! Early in my Lonely Planet years, I had a few hustles on the side, an import export company that I tried to get off the ground and failed, I had a juice bar in Buenos Aires that ran for a couple of years that also went nowhere! And I was also studying a master’s degree to top it off! That was a really rich period of my career learning lots of things in business and how the mechanics of these different industries work. I had to do a lot of self-discovery. I had wonderful mentors who guided me and taught me a lot. I had a decent logical brain, but I wasn’t very good with my political and emotional game and that’s when I first discovered that.

“What you are capable of achieving on your own is dwarfed compared to what you are capable of achieving with many.”

How important is it to function well in a team environment? Critical. Your visions, strategies, goals are as good as your ability to deliver them, and you can’t deliver them without people. So all of it comes down to people. Many challenges arise when you try to gather a group of humans that have no family connection to achieve a goal together. Don’t forget we have only started gathering in large numbers to achieve things together in the last few thousand years…before groups were fairly small with family at their core. Leading a random group of humans to achieve things without turning on each other and against the odds is incredibly challenging and equally rewarding when you succeed.

You bounced around the business a lot, where did you end up? I wanted to be on the front end of the business, I wanted to be as close to the customer as possible. I didn’t want to be working in HR or finance, I wanted to be out there, pushing the boundaries. As I was finishing my Masters degree Lonely Planet was creating an innovation group through a couple of really amazing people, as smart as anything, and they took me under their wing and I started working with great companies like Google and Nokia, trying to peek into the future, focusing on what we were going to do next.

“Media, in broad terms books, magazines, newspapers, TV, radio, etc suffered huge disruption from the late 90s onwards.”

When the digital revolution hit, it hit hard! And arguably in books, we had experienced a fairly stable 500 years! No one in the industry was ready. When Napster comes along they set the tone, they make us realise that listening to music on CDs was actually a pain! So Immediately you wonder, ‘will our product be disrupted in the same way?’ every business was like: what the f***??

How do you remember this time at Lonely Planet? Lonely planet had this peculiarity that it wasn’t quite a novel that has everlasting value or a newspaper that carries only a day of value. Lonely Planet was a travel company with content that had a bit more longevity than a newspaper but not quite as long as a novel. So a lot of the content that was being published in print form by travel companies was better served in digital form because it needed — ‘claps his hands together’ — a more dynamic approach. Digital access to this content gave travellers the information they needed quicker. All of us in the industry of travel publishing forgot that our job was to help the traveller travel.

“Our job wasn’t to sell books. But all businesses suffer this conundrum, do something long enough and you forget the problem you should really be fixing…”

My business problem or the customer’s? Remember they are not the same thing. Travellers don’t wake up in the morning and go ‘I can’t wait to buy a book’. Or ” I can’t wait to search online for flights.” They wake up and say: “I want to go to Greece” and the book, the website or an app may be one of these mechanisms by which, they fulfil that need. Many new and better ways emerge all the time, the key is to focus on the customer problem, not on your own business problem.

Do you plan your life? Do you set goals? When you sit down and write a plan (remember you always have to make sure you do more than you plan, otherwise sh*t don’t get done!). Where was I?… When you sit down and put some thoughts down make sure you always put luck in there. You are always going to need it. We never give enough credit to luck. You have to get lucky, a lot of people I know got lucky and in many ways I got lucky. I know you have to be there to take advantage of it, but you can’t underestimate the role luck plays, make sure you plan it! My wife and I and now slowly the kids as they get older set every year goals for ourselves. We only really revisit them once or twice…but normally at the start of the year, during car trips or plane rides we set our goals: destinations we want to visit, things we want to learn, fitness we want to maintain, the food we want to cook, anything goes. It’s a good exercise but don’t get too serious about it.

What’s the summary, what are the key lessons from 20 years of disruption in media Careful with momentum, it’s amazing when it comes to efficiencies but horrible for reinvention. Once momentum builds up it’s hard to change. Like I mentioned before, fix the customer problem, always. Avoid at all costs laying concrete down. What I mean by this is every time you put a new piece of software in place, you establish a new process, you write a new job description, you are laying concrete. You will need to change and get rid of this because things are changing fast. So avoid concrete, lay tracks, follow them, change, repeat. Invest in diverse, curious, courageous and resilient people, they will help you figure out the future. Remember, you ARE traffic, not STUCK in traffic…you are always part of the problem and the solution.

What about balance? I’ll be honest I have learnt the lesson the hard way. I don’t regret a single moment, but in hindsight, I reckon I was very young in a large demanding position travelling worldwide seeing very little of my very young family. Not the life that was in my plans! And certainly not balanced!

So did you find at that point that you were actually deviating from being you? I was travelling which is one of my goals in life but most of it for business. I couldn’t go surfing, I wasn’t fit, I didn’t have much of a chance to read books to my kids! It wasn’t a healthy balance. I only dropped out of corporate life a few years ago, and the first thing I picked up was going back to surfing every week, CrossFit, taking my kids to school and picking them up. Simple things.

I have always said to people, don’t let anyone define your success. You and only you can define your success metric. If it’s two cars, a big house, and thousands of likes on Instagram, F*****g go for it!

And love the sh*t out of it. But if your life success means a couple of mopeds, three kids, a house on the beach and a veggie garden and that’s all you F*****g want, then do that. No-one can judge you for it because that’s your expectation of success measured only by you, with your metric. You can find inspiration in others, you can let yourself be influenced by others, but you always have to define it, no family or friends, no TV, no social media, no nothing. And remember, you are totally allowed to redefine this every day. It F*****g changes every day! Don’t panic, adapt and roll with it!

For more on Gus head over to his website here. Or follow him on Instagram and Twitter @gusbalbontin.