Making a Business of Travel
If launching a bike tour company in Europe didn't already demonstrate that Wolf Schroen, BBA '98, has a passion for travel, then his recently completed round-the-world flight in a tiny airplane certainly does. On Nov. 2, 2013, after covering 20 countries in 76 days, Schroen and his co-pilot achieved what, for Schroen, began as a boyhood dream.
Below, Schroen, who is the owner of Fat Tire Bike Tours in Berlin, explains how from launching a company to circumnavigating the globe, there are always creative ways to overcome obstacles and achieve your goals.
What drew you to study at McCombs?
The most appealing aspect of McCombs for me was the Engineering Route to Business degree plan [now Science and Technology Management]. This seemed like the perfect combination of engineering and business. The degree set us apart from others and helped develop crucial analytical skills. It was also great for recruiting because we stood out from the crowd and had some unique talking points.
What were your most memorable classes at McCombs?
I really enjoyed the capstone classes. The most memorable of which was Orem Brigham's strategy class. We came up with a mock company and each week were thrown curve balls by Prof. Brigham through which the company had to grow or adapt. We wrote a business plan, came up with mock financials, and thought we were doing everything right. Next thing you know, Prof. Brigham tells us our manufacturing plant was hit by a tornado. Did we remember to allot for insurance expense? Nope. Lesson learned. It was great fun! I also really enjoyed the upper level marketing and management classes where case studies became the focus. Each lecture you'd get consolidated insight to hone through real world examples what you'd learned theoretically in the lower level classes.
Describe your career path after graduation. How did your experiences at McCombs help prepare you for what followed?
Right after graduation, I went to work for Trilogy, an Austin-based software company. At the time in 1998, there weren't all that many small software or high-tech companies in Austin willing to take undergrads. The dot-com buzz was full throttle and I relished those years. We were motivated, the people were sharp, and the sky was the limit. Still, I found I was becoming good at something I didn't care for all too much. I pushed pause, decided to travel, and found myself living in Germany in a fun job as a tour guide. After a couple of years and one massive first flop at entrepreneurship, I started my second company conducting cycle tours in Berlin. I started more than 10 years ago with 20 bikes and big dreams. Now we have a great team of more than 50 folks, 600 bikes, multiple locations in Berlin and Munich, and [a new location] opening this March in Rome. It's been a fantastic ride.
McCombs was the perfect setup for this. Accounting, marketing, MIS, and management... all of the skills acquired while in Engineering Route to Business were put to the test in both getting the company off the ground and growing it. While at UT I also received a degree in German, so setting up a company in Germany was a great amalgamation of the two degrees. I wouldn't have changed a thing about either program.
Tell us about the first company you launched that ended up being a flop. What did you learn from the experience?
The first company was called Wolfpack Tours. After working as a tour guide in Munich for a couple years, I'd met so many tourists and they all seemed to have the same questions: what should we do elsewhere in Europe, in Munich/Prague/Rome/Paris, etc. I had a good feeling for what I thought was fun and what I thought they'd enjoy, so I put together a 27-day bus tour incorporating a "typical" post-graduation route and included fun sights to see in each of the cities. I was so confident it was a great product, but my misaligned marketing, coupled with the 9/11 psychological fallout and the pending Iraq War, didn't help matters. I didn't sell many seats and ended up heavily in debt. Still, it was a fantastic learning experience. The most important lesson: No matter how passionate you are about an idea, the numbers don't lie. Take a step back and make a non-emotional, non-committal analysis.
What motivated you to fly around the world?
The idea of flying around the world in my own small plane is a combination of always liking a challenge and chasing a boyhood dream. I started flight lessons in high school, convinced like so many other boys that I wanted to become an airline pilot. While my career desires changed, the hobby stuck with me. Travel has always been something I cherish, and I'm a firm believer that money is best spent on experiences. Combining aviation and travel seemed then like a perfect fit. I remember for our 30th birthdays a couple buddies (one also an ERB Alum, Suresh Vasan, BBA '98) and I climbed Kilimanjaro. Already then I was saying that I wanted to fly around the world at some stage.
I also get a kick out of planning. Designing and executing an undertaking like flying around the world is the ultimate planning adventure. There are so many details, so many nuances. You plan for months in advance, but then each day also presents its own planning challenges with weather, wind, flight routes, landing permissions, etc.
What was the biggest challenge on your trip? How did you overcome that challenge?
Fuel. Fuel planning was the biggest constraint. Avgas, which my piston-engine plane requires, is readily available in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. Every Cessna or Piper you see buzzing around in general aviation is using Avgas. Outside of these areas, though, it's not a common sight. In some of the places we visited, the people we ran across at the airport had never seen a plane as small as mine, and we were often asked if this was the smallest plane in the world. So we had to plan carefully. This blatantly came in to play twice: crossing the Pacific from the last of the Aleutian Islands off Alaska (Attu, uninhabited) to Japan and again from Indonesia to Papua New Guinea. In Papua, New Guinea, we landed with, let's just say, minimum fuel. We simply weren't able to find any more on the route and couldn't fly further with what we had left in the tanks. To get even that far we already had to pay $40 per gallon at the only airport in that portion of Indonesia with Avgas. We were told a particular desolate coastal strip in Papua, New Guinea, would have Avgas so that's where we went. No surprise, but they only had jet fuel. We stayed optimistic, got on the phone, worked with some people, and eventually tracked down some Avgas barrels from a Christian missionary group at an inland airport a couple flight hours away. My co-pilot got in another plane with a collapsible fuel tank, filled it up, and flew back with it while I took care of the logistics. We were thinking way out of the box, and had to. We didn't want to stress... we knew this was likely to happen at some point and in the end relished the challenge. The beer at the end of that day never tasted so refreshing.
Now that you've tackled one of your lifelong goals, what's next?
Well, on a personal level my girlfriend is in San Francisco, so after more than a dozen years abroad, I'm excited about moving back to the U.S. This brings with it not just cultural changes, but also challenges on how to run my company from afar. As a small example on the former, I may own tons of bikes and an airplane, but I don't own a car. No need to in Berlin! Something tells me that may not be the case in the U.S. On the latter, although our team is great and excited to step up, at the end of the day we're a people business. Will today's technology really allow me to run a people business from nine time zones away? We'll have to see. It's going to be a great and challenging year!
For more on Schroen's flight, read The Alcalde story on his adventure.