Jon Pepper, 28 years old, is originally from the UK, and has always had an entrepreneurial streak in him (he started his first online business at just 15 years old!). He traveled a bit after university, spending time in Africa, Korea and several dream-driven returns to Vietnam.
Jon has run a few businesses in Vietnam. The first was a dorm for expats, perhaps the first in the city way back in the early 2000s. The hotel broke even but was unable to turn a profit. He walked away from this after a year to travel more, and later came back to Vietnam to setup his current business, which is Tigit Motorbikes.
Jon is loquacious, candid, and humble in this interview about his business and lifestyle, which has him set to be a millionaire in less than two years. So get cozy and enjoy Jon’s musings about his journey to being the Grand Poobah of Tigit Motorbikes, right here!
How long have you been living/working on the road, and where have you traveled to?
Straight after university I was pushed out the door by the parents to go and discover the world. That was eight years ago now, and I have never been back to the UK apart from the occasional holiday to visit the family.
Zimbabwe to Kenya was the plan, not a standard place for a young uni graduate to land for the first time, but my entire life the parents have encouraged pushing boundaries.
I am (or was) an introverted computer nerd and my big downfall was social skills. Where better to improve at establishing some authority than a place like Africa where no one is going to help you without some confident pushing! Eat or get eaten is the way out there, you are very much on your own.
After Africa I wandered back to Vietnam following the Top gear Vietnam special. I didn’t motorbike the country, I just did the standard bus route. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit I was the cliched millennial backpacker and spending my parents’ money on beer. Luckily my spirit to change the world in some small way emerged and I didn’t waste much time on this path.
I came back to Ho Chi Minh and set up PP backpackers which was the first dorm room hostel in Ho Chi Minh of its kind. The hostel was a success on being full and busy, but I didn’t get a good deal on the rent meaning the hostel wasn’t making money. Revenue is important but always manage your costs when you are first starting out. Perhaps I should have spent more time negotiating or found a location more suited to higher margins.
Once PP Backpackers was over, I went to Australia from Vietnam and realized quickly I didn’t like the “touristy” element of Australia. I found myself wanting to leave within two weeks.
At this point I had been on the road for around two years, and was in a position of feeling guilty about blowing the parents money; it was time to make my own.
I wanted to go back to Vietnam but decided to checkout China first as I understood quite early on that if you wanted to really make it in Asia you needed to deal with China. Its reputation as the production hub of the world and a swelling middle class seemed like the perfect place to make my fortune. However when I arrived I felt like a tiny fish in an enormous pond, and it was no place for me.
Family issues got in the way and I ended up back in the UK and was faced with finding a “real job”.
Searching the UK job market made me realize the UK wasn’t the place for me either, so I looked to South Korea for a teaching job, mostly still in search of fixing my social skills, whilst getting paid to do so! I should mention that developing myself as a person is always part and parcel of any business venture I enter into. Life is too short just to chase money and it’s really important for most to do the same.
I gave Korea a good go, but it was not the job for me, and I found myself dreaming about Vietnam every day. Friends said at the time, “let Vietnam remain the sweet dream in the past; if you return you’ll ruin what is now the memory of your youth.”
I took this advice seriously which delayed my return for a while. However I was miserable in Korea, and eventually after a one year slog I threw in the towel and went back to Vietnam to see if that dream was actually a reality.
After a few bumps in the road on my second return, it seems that dream is still alive and well as I have become one of the few who have actually “made it” as an expat entrepreneur.
Please describe what you do for income.
I run Tigit Motorbikes full time which is now the largest motorbike rental company in Vietnam. Our offices are split across three major cities (Ho Chi Minh, Danang and Hanoi) and over 350 motorbikes on the road at any given time.
Vietnam is a country of no rules and no regulations. You do what you want, when you want and how you want. This current economic situation is a big money making opportunity and I am an aggressive businessmen maximizing every minute of it with what I have. (Nora’s Note: I heard similar musings when I spoke to some expat entrepreneurs in Hoi An. See also: Expat Life in Hoi An).
Things can change here in a heartbeat and I’m always conscious of this. As a result I am pursuing as many different avenues as I can to keep positive cash flow if the motorbike rentals falls apart. I’m referring to the local business practice of eating away at the success of the market leader and trying to replicate their success by cutting corners and investing next to nothing to steal your business.
These days, in order to combat this emerging risk, I am trying to use my established name to gain interest from bigger more stable entrepreneurs than myself. My theory is that, providing enough people know who I am and what I can bring to the table, then if my own projects fail I can at least get a high paying job elsewhere!
For now, I’m making pretty decent money with Tigit Motorbikes and trying to secure myself multiple avenues by investing in marketing and projects like adventure tours and motorbike accessories that I hope will bear fruit in the near future.
How many hours per week do you work on average?
I try and work 9-5 Monday to Saturday, because I feel guilty if I do not. Why should I take all the money if I am never at work? I think we manage around 1.5 months of holiday a year travelling back to the UK.
I have some great employees now, many of whom do most of the real work each day; I’m really just managing the systems I set in place. I am always thinking that I can’t justify becoming a rich man without at least trying to put in the hours. My Vietnamese wife disagrees though and I am in a constant battle of spending more family time versus being the present and active boss with my staff.
Most of the actual time is focused on establishing new channels of revenue for Tigit Motorbikes and some other marketing ventures I am invested in. I do very little of the day to day running of the business of Tigit. At heart, I am an IT geek and our automatic processes are my ultimate goal most of the time. With each improvement there is the chance of less actual work that needs to be done to maintain a growing business.
If I was more efficient with my time I could probably get away with just two hours a day in the office but I am also testing and refining things to try and make a better business so I put in a full day.
How much money do you make?
Tigit Motorbikes, based on the volume of sales we do and the revenue collected, grosses about a million in sales (USD) each year. I don’t know if I should admit this, but even with such healthy numbers flowing through our accounts, I have no accounting system and no accountant….and honestly I don’t care about money. This is the result of delivering a product that people are willing to pay a premium for. I never put money over the customer experience.
My reputation means much more than my bank balance. I’m not taking much out of the business each month. I plough everything I have straight back in and reinvest in new bikes and new marketing channels. I think this strategy is why I am growing fast enough that I don’t need to count pennies each month.
I admit the lack of accounting is a bit reckless and sometime in the very near future there will be a day of reckoning where I realize how much we are wasting. There might be some loss with staff or with customers but without a proper accounting system in place, it’s just pure speculation at this point.
Opportunities (and new inventory!) that I am passionate about and want to implement are coming in far quicker than our framework and systems can deal with. I am not prepared to wait for the systems to catch up, because tomorrow the laws may change and I may have nothing! I am happy to bleed money in a trade for rapid expansion.
I’ve thought about my income quite a bit lately as I am now a father and want the best for my daughter and estimated that If I were to stop reinvesting and economized the business better, I’d probably be able to say I will be a millionaire within the next two years. Hopefully that’s a fair way to reveal the actual numbers I am generating.
Do you make enough money to support your lifestyle?
I have a wife and now a four-month-old daughter. I think we are at the point where any money we spend on ourselves is almost an afterthought in our daily lives. The cost of living in Ho Chi Minh City, even in the expat luxury enclaves, is really a fraction of what Tigit Motorbikes is generating. We are not extravagant in any way. We just moved into a luxury flat here in District 2 which is our largest expense by far, but we have not really noticed the expenditure affecting our personal cash flow in anyway.
I am at the stage where I look at an expensive restaurant meal and think “the happiness I get out of this meal is going to be worth X amount in increasing my productivity” and therefore this expensive meal is actually profitable.
I’m probably going to get into a lot of trouble with your readers but I have even had thoughts like: fighting with my wife is worth “X” amount of money in my time being wasted, so I pick the family battles wisely!
Vietnam is a cheap country and neither myself or my wife care about “showing off money” and we are both naturally resourceful people. I still don’t even have my own motorbike, I just use our rentals for getting around; this is how little I care about my own personal belongings. I dress and look like a trash collector here in Vietnam, and my wife isn’t bothered much more than myself. Perhaps that’s why we are married!
What do you like most about your career and lifestyle?
As a naturally ambitious entrepreneur I don’t believe I will ever run out of ideas. Tigit Motorbikes was a good idea and it worked and now makes money as a cash cow.
Because of Tigit’s revenues I now have a healthy amount of projects that I need doing and I now have the resources to execute on them.
This is the dream of any good entrepreneur, to have the resources and flexibility to do anything that they want.
In terms of lifestyle: Vietnam is an easy country to live in when you know where to find things. Many expats claim this is the easiest country in the world to truly live like a king!
Most here would agree, you don’t even need much money to live the kings life.
What are some of the challenges you have with this career and lifestyle?
The only area I feel down, is that battle of family responsibility vs. business responsibilities. (Nora’s Note: Work-Life Balance is a prevalent issue around the world).
I want the best for my family which means creating more projects with a safer avenue of bringing in big money. For now, Tigit Motorbikes is not truly stable short or long term and I am hyper conscious of this. Our numbers fluctuate with the travel seasons and when visits are down we have more inventory in the garage. That gets me nervous and second-guessing my aggressive re-investment strategy.
I will send my daughter to an international school in Ho Chi Minh and the thought that in the future I might not have the same healthy business really gives me some anxiety.
I think if I can develop one more successful business independent of the Tigit brand and business model I will reduce my anxiety about my family’s future. They say, “create one successful business and maybe you got lucky, do it twice and you really are good!”
When I was 16 years old, my mum said to me “Jon, you will either be a millionaire or in jail by the time you are 30”.
She is on track with that statement. It could still go either way.
What is your vision for the future of your lifestyle on the road?
I would like houses all across Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The freedom to fly into one of my houses, have a fleet of motorbikes and friends waiting for me and to do some hardcore adventure off-road motorbike riding that seems like a really great dream which isn’t as crazy as it might seem. Another expat who is teaching or working a salary job for a smaller company might think it is, but if you keep the growth mindset and reinvest in yourself, most financial dreams are attainable. .
With the investment in my brand here and the family I have, I don’t see myself leaving Vietnam for good. Not in the near future anyway.
I am sure I will successfully create more businesses to support the life that I want for my family. Tigit Motorbikes is only four years old and I believe I have the skillset to rapidly expand into other markets as well.
Time will tell and I will either become a very rich man or a very broke one.
Vietnam is a rapidly developing country and changing all the time, this creates opportunity, but it also creates volatility and competition.
Within four years, Tigit has made aggressive and dangerous gambles which have shaped the current rental market in Vietnam today. I think it’s a fascinating side of business in general one company pushes the boundaries while the rest just follow. I had no idea about this, until I was the one doing it.
Any advice for the aspiring traveler about living and working on the road and managing finances?
If you are unsure what to do in Vietnam, you can always be a teacher!
I lived life with the impression that if I didn’t pass X/Y/Z exam that I would be a homeless person under a bridge or working at McDonalds. This anxiety put tremendous pressure on me and made me a reserved person both socially and financially. I never enjoyed the money I had, and even today I still don’t know how to.
When I travelled I learnt about being an expat teacher which is a modestly well-paid job with a comfortable lifestyle. Providing you are a native speaker, this should be your backup and you should be comfortable with it. (See also: 7 Ways to Earn Money Abroad – including Teaching English)
Nowadays there are so many online opportunities which were not so obvious when I first set off on my life adventure overseas. I kind of envy people setting out for the first time these days; it actually seems a lot less challenging than before.
Armed with this knowledge about how not to be a bum under a bridge, you can now be aggressive with your money and try your best! Go all in with everything you have. If you fail, then you have a story for those expat bars.
Don’t focus on doing it by the book, just do it. If it works, you will make money and you can fix the book later.
The amount of times I see questions on the internet about “how to set up a business” is mind-blowing. A small business should just be an extension of its owner. Often times people try to brand the business and exclude themselves from it. This is a bad strategy for most new entrepreneurs. Unless you have a really large marketing budget, the end result will appear generic and anonymous. Be real with your customers!
Tigit Motorbikes has me written all over it. This is worth a lot. In technical terms, there are even competitors paying for my brand name in google adwords. I find this quite gratifying.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
In today’s internet environment, don’t pretend to be an official or large company. It is very common to see “CEO of XXXX’, and “Talk to us” when you are nothing more than a person in a bedroom.
Don’t be afraid of being a one man band in a bedroom. Use your passion and your skillset to target the personal niche that big corporations can’t get.
In every market there is a need and requirement for a bedroom business with a personal touch. Make sure you are that business and don’t pretend to be anything that you are not.
It can be seen with many big companies, and we do it at Tigit, where we actually downplay our size. Tigit Motorbikes has my personality slammed all over it, a lot of it isn’t professional either. If you check out my motorbike blog articles, you’ll probably read something that is borderline bad taste. But I have people telling me they appreciate my candour.
Based roughly off a quote from Will Ferrell podcasts “Aim to get the love of 10% of your readers by being edgy and true. If you try and please everyone, you will not get love from anyone.”
People don’t want large corporations anymore. They want a personal touch, so give it to them!