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The Practical Traveller: A world of accidental entrepreneurs

In the last column of the series, the practical traveller writes about finding inspiration in the people he meets.

Chris Guillebeau, 34, is the author of The Art of Non-Conformity and The $100 Startup. He in on a five-year mission to visit every country in the world and is on number 190.

In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I met a tuk-tuk driver named Rhett. Tuk-tuks are the open-air taxis of South-east Asia, in which you can typically ride anywhere in the city for a dollar or two. Most tuk-tuk drivers in Cambodia make only US$2 to $5 (Dh7-Dh18) per day, but Rhett earns up to $50 (Dh185). He does this through a combination of hard work and careful strategy. The hard work comes by not sleeping or gambling the afternoon away as many of his colleagues do.

The strategy comes in understanding that he is better off by serving regular clients instead of roaming the streets looking for one-time fares. While I was in town visiting a friend, Rhett made it clear he was at my service, giving me his mobile number and telling me to call him “day or night”.

After his core business model of serving regulars was established, Rhett created “multiple streams of income” by adding a sign for a popular bakery on the back of his tuk-tuk. The bakery pays him a fixed amount each month, plus a small commission for any business he brings in.

He also regularly asks his customers for referrals and testimonials to increase his client base. If a customer needs help getting to a destination outside of Phnom Penh, Rhett will find a taxi or bus driver available for hire, first making sure he is honest, then following up with the customer after the trip to confirm that all is well.

He does all of this while speaking only limited English (“I practice every day but my tongue becomes tired,” he says) and without any formal education at all. Some of the extra money he earns goes to a savings fund, a safety net almost no other tuk-tuk driver has. His daughter is now in university, the first in the family to finish high school.

I’ve met people like Rhett all over the world. In many places, more people earn their living through the informal sector than in official jobs. In some ways, it’s always been like this. Since the early trade routes were established, Greek merchants have plied their wares on the road to Rome. Vendors have travelled the Silk Road, and Bedouin have followed the shifting sands.

What’s changed, however, is the speed and connection of the new model. These days, you can go online and instantly connect with a target market. From Ireland to India, people are opting out of traditional employment and taking matters into their own hands. In most cases, they don’t describe themselves as “entrepreneurs” – they’re just ordinary people who choose to follow a passion and create a business model out of it.

On my travels, I became fascinated by such stories. How did people do it? In most cases, few had any business training. Did they need special skills? Not usually – most were more focused on what excited them rather than by what they were trained in. How much money did it cost them to start? In most cases, less than $100 (Dh267).

I find these stories hopeful and inspiring. These accidental entrepreneurs may not have intended it, but they represent the future.

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