Making Something From Nothing: Gianluca Boncompagni of Guana Equipment On How To Go From Idea To Launch
An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
Always reinvest in the company. This is a good story, but when we started, we were bootstrapping and both of us working on other projects or jobs as we developed the company. Therefore, we didn’t take a penny out for two years. This allowed us to pump back all the profits into it to buy more stock, develop more products so on and so forth. It helped us A LOT.
As a part of our series called “Making Something From Nothing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gianluca Boncompagni.
Gianluca is an entrepreneur and travel enthusiast, that has been able to successfully run his businesses, Guana Equipment and Off Road Tents, whilst living in four different countries. After working in a banana farm in Australia, a construction site in New Zealand, he turned 25 and decided alongside his business partner Karsten Koberg, that there was a growing interest for the overlanding industry. Together they founded Guana Equipment & Off Road Tents whilst living in separate continents. Both are now established brands selling in over 4 countries. Their team has grown to 9 people, all working remotely, but sharing a passion for what they do and believe in: adventure.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I’m Costa Rican, born and raised in San Jose, which is the capital city. I come from a family of 4 siblings, two brothers and two sisters. Both my parents educated us to be ambitious, put a lot of effort into anything we do, and try to be the best version of ourselves.
Ever since I’ve been a kid I’ve had the great chance of traveling, whether that was in Costa Rica or abroad. Thanks to my family I was able to get to know many places, have many experiences and try to learn the best I could from them.
I grew up camping, doing lots of hikes and outdoors trips, and as I grew, I become more and more curious about what was out there: the world.
And so, when I turned 19, I left home to go and study abroad, and what was supposed to be around 4 years of university, became 10 years of travels, adventures and lessons in different places with different people. All of a sudden, I went from Italy, where I had done a degree in journalism, to Australia where I worked carrying bananas up north in Queensland. I worked in construction in New Zealand, and for the UN in Cambodia. Different opportunities came up and I tried to take them. This lead me and my business partner to take a leap and start our own business.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
It’s funny because this is not exactly a quote I got from a book or somebody famous, but rather from a person I admire a lot. I once heard him say: “I’d go back and do everything all over again”. He was of course referring to his life.
It has been extremely relevant to my life because it taught me that even if we can make mistakes, mess things up, go through rough, rough patches in life, we can learn from it all. The truth is that after I heard what he said, I realized life wasn’t about regretting the bad decisions made, or letting problems drag you down, but rather about learning, growing, and trying to be your best self every single day.
I’ve been working very hard ever since to make my life a better one in all its different aspects: work, health, personal relationships, mental health and even entertainment.
To me it has been about introspective and learning when I made a mistake or took a bad turn, why something negative happened and how I can turn that negative episode into something positive. Once I manage to turn whatever problem I had around, grow from it and be in a better spot or a better version of myself, I can look back at it and say: “I’d do it all over again, because if I hadn’t gone through that, I wouldn’t be a better version of myself today”.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
It’s hard to pick a book or novel because many have had a great impact. Amongst my favorite you have “La Ciudad Y Los Perros” by Mario Vargas Llosa, “On The Road” by Jack Kerouac and “A Farewell To Arms” by Ernest Hemingway. I think the latter has had perhaps one of the biggest impacts on me, as it left me thinking how everything in life comes to an end.
I guess the biggest lesson I took from the novel was to enjoy the good things, as much as I can, when I have them. Also, learn to understand that all good and bad things come to an end, and then life goes on. I then take those thoughts or “lessons” to try and apply them to my life. Enjoy and live life at the fullest, whether that’s at work, love, or a hobby, but when things come to an end, learn from them, and keep going.
As to movies, “Inception” from Christopher Nolan is one of my favorites. I guess what resonates the most is how Cobb, the main character, has such a hard time letting go and moving on, but at the same time how hard he tries to keep the memory of his dead wife alive. In the end, my take from it was that he managed to let go when he realized he had “grown old together” with her in the limbo, and that was enough. Sometimes, we live or see things and don’t realize how good they are or what we have accomplished. Later, when we look back, we realize how far we’ve been able to go, and what seemed tough or bad might have been good. It taught me a lesson of being present, observing myself and my surroundings, try to understand every moment of my life, live it, cherish it, and learn to move on.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. Can you share a few ideas from your experience about how to overcome this challenge?
I guess if an idea comes to mind, chase it. Do something about it and get going. It will never be a waste of time to chase a dream or an idea, because even if it doesn’t turn out to be “gold”, it’ll leave a lesson or many important skills.
That doesn’t mean you have to be blind or foolish, or not understand when to put an idea to rest, but it does mean that if you procrastinate, or never take a step forward, nothing will ever happen.
Another great advice is to share that idea with a close circle of friends, family or colleagues that you trust and respect, and try to get good and honest feedback. The idea is not to share it with a group of “yay-sayers”, but with people that can criticize it, give you feedback and help you understand if it holds some value.
This will help you get new takes and angles on it that you may have not thought of, as well as working on learning how to sell your idea. If you can sell it to friends and family, then it’s likely you can be able to sell it to more people.
Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?
Here’s where you’ll need to work hard. Do the research. When we started Off Road Tents we researched a lot. That meant going online and searching for hours and days at the potential competitors, other brands and companies or retailers that were in the industry.
We read countless articles, blogs, watched videos, went on forums to read what people thought and said about the industry and the products, so on and so forth.
We live in an age where Internet gives us almost unlimited access to unlimited information. It’s right there just a few clicks away. My advice is to take time to read and research as much as possible, and start weighing pros and cons, and trying to see where your idea fits in the grand scheme of things.
You may think of a product that’s already been invented, that doesn’t mean you can’t compete. For example, we knew there were already other retailers selling the same products we do, or other brands making tents. What did we do? Well, we ran the classic SWOT analysis, and mapped out the competition and saw where we could compete.
For Guana Equipment we designed a product that had a chance to compete by differentiating a few features and targeting customers that were perhaps overlooked.
The fact that someone else already had your idea or a similar one, it doesn’t mean you can’t make. On the contrary, you can grab that idea that has already been out there, and do something better. Take advantage of it, they already did the hard work of breaking ground, now you can have a head start and improve it.
For the benefit of our readers, can you outline the steps one has to go through, from when they think of the idea, until it finally lands in a customer’s hands? In particular, we’d love to hear about how to file a patent, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer to distribute it.
The first stage is research. After the idea, we started, a said before, reading as much as we could, watching videos and just learning as much as we could.
Then, we started testing. For example, my business partner got a tent and started using it to better understand them.
Once you are confident you have done your homework and understand what you want and who you are targeting, it’s time to actually make the product.
I personally started looking for manufacturers in Alibaba. I started emailing quite a few, sending pictures, sketches, and telling them what we wanted and needed. We narrowed them down to a few, I personally flew to China, went to all the factories, met all of them and took a good look at how they worked and their quality control. I was there for two weeks and met with the one we chose, twice.
We ordered a demo, and that was shipped to my partner, he then used it and tested it as roughly and badly as he could to make sure it was good. It turned out it was, so we rolled the dice.
Nowadays, we keep the same strategy: before we bring anything out to the market, we order demos, and test them thoroughly. Once we are convinced, we make more, if we are not, we suggest changes, order more demos and see how it goes.
It’s about your customers enjoying your product or idea, they are the ones that need to have a good experience. Therefore, test, test and test.
I personally once made the mistake of making backpacks without testing them enough or asking for enough feedback. Th4 result was a bad quality product that many didn’t like. Lesson? Get feedback, test a lot, and have others test your products.
It might never be perfect, and improvements can happen with future models or versions, but try to make sure what you’re putting out there is the best possible at the time.
Plus, do make sure you know who you are working with, and keep strict quality control processes, even if that means flying out to wherever you are manufacturing and making sure the quality control is good.
Then comes the hard part: pitching your idea to retailers.
Fortunately, inn this day and age, with social media and the internet you can advertise your own products. Believe in your brand and become the first ambassador and happy customer. Make sure you are proud of what you are selling and be your first fan.
If you believe in it, people will start noticing you and your product. Then, at the beginning you’ll have to advertise it yourself, as well as reaching out to retailers.
The best way is calling them getting appointments and going to show the product in person. Then, go to fairs, expos, and such to showcase them. Retailers and customers tend to go to those events and if your product is good, it can either sell or get a retailer to notice you.
Put yourself and your product out there as much as you can!
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started Leading My Company” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Look for guidance. It took us too long to look for a mentor or someone to guide us. We had taken many different courses in marketing, product design, management and such, but we needed mentorship. Fortunately, after a few years, through sheer luck we found one that actually was invested and wanted to help us. Ever since, all of his suggestions have helped our business enormously. To give you a silly example, we had a team of 5 people at the beginning of 2020, and we were still using WhatsApp to communicate. It was frustrating, stressful and inefficient, and then he suggested Slack. And just like that, in the blink of an eye, communication was smoother and our lives were better! Look for a mentor, even if it means paying for coaching.
- Always reinvest in the company. This is a good story, but when we started, we were bootstrapping and both of us working on other projects or jobs as we developed the company. Therefore, we didn’t take a penny out for two years. This allowed us to pump back all the profits into it to buy more stock, develop more products so on and so forth. It helped us A LOT.
- Networking and shows. For 3 years we didn’t attend any expo or industry event. Mistake. Then, we went to our first expo and it was a huge success. Hundreds of people started reaching out after that, it got us exposure. On top of that we met other owners and colleagues in the industry which allowed us to share ideas, watch them, learn from them and improve our products and connections. Plus, thanks to the events we got to position our brand with new retailers. This wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t gone.
- As you grow, you will need a team and a capable team. There was a point when it was only Karsten (my business partner) and me. We had grown quite a bit and we needed help. We knew it, but didn’t know how to hire someone, so we just kept pushing back the task and overworking ourselves. Finally, we went for it, watched a few videos online on how to properly conduct a hiring process and we started building a team. A few of our hires have been amazing. Others, not at all. And, we have learnt to let them go quickly, before the employees can either cause trouble to the company or wear you out. They are supposed to be a team that helps you grow, so you must evaluate as quickly as you can if they’ll be an asset or not.
- Things aren’t always going to go the right way. Learn to adapt. I wish I knew this since day one. You think once you reach a certain level, things will run smoothly. Well, not exactly. Things can change and quickly. For example, our profit margin was related to the cost of shipping from Asia to America. Costs tripled this year, and that changed our whole year. We realized with such costs, our cashflow was being affected. We could raise prices a little bit, sure, but we needed to rethink. What now? Well, adapt. Ride the crisis, get some money from an investor or a loan, and cut back on areas where you know you can. We cut back in marketing costs, went stronger on SEO and outreach to retailers, and communities of people in our industry. We saved money, but still managed to get exposure and traffic. And, we are still getting as many units done as we need to, just with a lower margin for the time being. It’s been a lesson, be prepared, be open minded and learn to adapt quickly.
Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
The first step would be to the as much research as you can to understand where will this product fit in the market, what are the potential competitors, challenges, and positive things it can bring to the world.
Then, work on your mindset: patience and resilience. It’s going to be a tiring, yet exciting journey. It’ll mean a lot of work, frustration, challenges and doubts, so be ready. Learn to be patient as nothing is made from one day to another, and learn to get back up when you get thrown to the ground by the challenges.
If you think you have what it takes, you’ve done the research, the next step is to build a demo as soon as you can. You need to be able to collect feedback, so get a demo done, and don’t go crazy spending way too much on it at the beginning. Remember, you will want feedback to improve, no product is perfect the first time you make it.
Invest more into it later, when it’s ready. At the beginning, it’ll take some time, perhaps more than a demo to get it right. Therefore, invest your budget wisely, and take the project as a research and development one.
Give the demo to friends, family and even strangers. Run a survey online through Facebook, or offer to send a few demos out to strangers in exchange of feedback. Get as more data or information as you can. Even advertise it, put some ads out there to see how random people react.
Then, once you’ve collected all that, time to go for it. Don’t waste time.
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?
This is a great question. Personally, I have never hired a consultant. I’ve tried with two products, one failed, one has done well. The first one, which failed, was a badly executed process: little research, little feedback and not enough testing. With the second one, I learned my lesson, and we executed every process properly and thoroughly.
We did consult with friends and family that knew a bit more about certain things: product design, marketing, etc.
That said, I think before you hire someone, you should go through every step by yourself, doing all the work yourself. Only that way will you truly learn how to build something from the ground, how time consuming it can be and the effort behind it. If you eventually manage to put it out there, all the hours spent behind closed doors, will enable you to know your idea from head to toe and be the better salesman or woman for it.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
This is another great question. I’m all about bootstrapping if you are first starting out. In our case we bootstrapped, then we looked for capital 4 years later. That means, we started small, and gave all we could in our spare time. We only invested what we had, and used every penny wisely.
Later, when the business got bigger, we needed a larger investment for us to be able to have more stock, we looked for capital.
I think at the beginning, depending on how ambitious your idea is, you should start bootstrapping, that way you learn to know the importance of every single penny. It also lets you take all matters into your own hands; all decisions are yours.
Later, as you grow, and you need cashflow, you can look for capital, investors, loans, and inject that into the business to take it to another level.
However, if you have a great idea and to execute the operation you need a lot of money, the. Bootstrapping can take way too long for you to materialize what you want. Therefore, it depends on the size and ambition of your idea.
I’m not a big fan of taking someone else’s money until I’m sure I can pay them back, and that means that until we were sure our company was solid and have a good customer base, we didn’t ask for money to take it to another level, as we didn’t want to end up with a debt we couldn’t afford, or a new investor that could have a word in the decisions we made.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
We have been able to build a team of nine people. That means we are giving jobs to 9 people, and most of them in third world countries, which to me makes a big difference as we are somewhat helping other economies grow.
Then, we have also contributed with donations. We like to make a yearly donation, even if it’s not as considerable as other companies might give, to help local communities in Costa Rica. We try to give back a little bit, help the country be a better one.
Then, we have tried to share a few of our lessons or knowledge with other starting entrepreneurs. We have even shared our time and effort by working alongside them so they can grow and improve. We try to have a positive impact on them so they can see their ideas grow faster.
You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I don’t know how I would call the movement, or how to exactly narrow it down to something very specific: but mental health awareness.
Fortunately, I grew up in a family with lots of love and understanding parents and siblings. Our feelings, ideas, and thoughts were all listened to and given a chance. Sadly, that’s not the case for everyone. As I’ve grown older, I’ve seen many people struggle, whether that’s with depressions, substance abuse, or simply other challenges due to a lack of mental health awareness.
To me, it’s important that throughout your entire life you work on yourself, that means to listen to your feelings, understand your thoughts, reactions, emotions and such. If we were able to have something as simple as more conversations on mental health or emotions, if children had psychology courses at school or more counseling, it might create a world or societies that are much more aware.
Social media has brought people together, but at the same time it can create a fake idea of happiness that you need to have all the time. And I’m sure it’s taken a toll on many.
If we can work on teaching people to listen to themselves, work on themselves and understand their insecurities and strengths, we’d have a better world.
That applies for entrepreneurs or anyone with a job. If you are healthy mentally, or know when to seek help, you will have a much better performance. A clear mind leads to better decisions. We must not let people drown on their problems, help them, be kind and conscious, and always work on yourself, even when you are older.
Lend a hand to others, and lend a hand to your own mind.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Mark Cuban. I’ve always been a great fan of the Dallas Mavericks, and every now and then watch Shark Tank. To me it’s impressive the great balance he seems to have in life. Able to successfully run a sports franchise (although we need to get Luka a better supporting cast), be such a great business man, invest in small businesses and ideas, and have time to enjoy the games.
To me, balance and hard work are two of the most important things in life. It gives me the impression Mr. Cuban has been able to balance it all out. And, I’d like to get a few tips on how to do that!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
Making Something From Nothing: Gianluca Boncompagni of Guana Equipment On How To Go From Idea To… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.