Fred Perrotta is one of those people. He struck me, immediately, as super bright, extremely motivated, a creative thinker and a problem solver.
And that was before I knew that he’d quit Google to graciously solve my biggest problem: packing. By the end of the weekend I was inspired by his entrepreneurial spirit, he’d helped me forward on my big project, and I knew what my husband was getting for Christmas: a Tortuga backpack. Actually, I think we need six.
To me, Fred is the poster child for a travel success story: a guy who took the big leap, found his place in the world, developed a passion to give back, and is building his life around making that world a better place. Can I introduce you?
Tell us your story: Who are you? What do you do? Where’ve you been?
I’m Fred Perrotta, the co-founder of Tortuga Backpacks. I’ve lived in, worked in, or traveled to about 15 countries since my first international trip less than six years ago.
My mission is to help people take amazing trips. I do that by making urban travel backpacks and by sharing everything I know about packing and gear.
I believe so strongly in this mission and company that I quit my job at Google, the #1-ranked place to work, to work on Tortuga Backpacks.
What’s the one thing you learned from travel you could never have learned in a classroom?
Travel taught me that I don’t know anything (and that’s a good thing). Travel is humbling. You learn that everything you assumed as fact isn’t necessarily true. You don’t know how people live. You don’t know what’s best for them. You don’t know anything.
Traveling gives you perspective on life and the world. You’re forced to learn constantly. The more you travel and experience, the further out you push your comfort zone.
What enabled you?
Desperation, opportunity, peer pressure. Having a friend to travel with made the decision and subsequent trip much easier. Cheap flights helped, too.
Being naive can be helpful. I hadn’t backpacked before, so I didn’t know what to be worried about. Sometimes a lack of preparation or research can be a strength.
After my first trip, I was hooked. The fear had been crushed by the excitement. I was ready for more and haven’t looked back since.
What was your biggest obstacle to overcome?
My biggest obstacle in starting Tortuga Backpacks was a lack of experience. I had never developed a product before. I didn’t know how to sew. I didn’t know how to run a company.
I learned that it didn’t matter.
The only way past the obstacle was to keep going, keep pushing. As long as you don’t quit, you’ll figure it out. Try something. If it doesn’t work, try something else. Trial and error is fine as long as you limit your downside. I’ve learned everything through trial and error. I didn’t quit. I hung around.
Now, Tortuga is reaping the rewards of our perseverance.
Did you meet anyone on the road who changed your life?
Meeting people from all over the world and all walks of life has been inspiring. That’s true of people I’ve met while traveling and people I’ve connected with because of travel.
Finding your “tribe” in life is a great way to surround yourself with inspiring people who will help you reach your goals. If I hung out with a bunch of lazy pessimists, my life, health, and business would be worse off.
Connecting over a mutual love of travel has helped me meet amazing people on the road and back at home. The travel community is open, warm, and optimistic about life. No one person has changed my life, but the travel community has given me a mission and sense of purpose that I didn’t have before my first trip.
Your business, Tortuga Backpacks, was borne out of your experience on the road. Tell us about that.
Tortuga Backpacks was borne out of my first real experience on the road. My co-founder, Jeremy, and I took a backpacking trip to Eastern Europe in 2009. As the economy fell off the cliff, flight prices dropped. I flew from SFO (San Francisco) to FRA (Frankfurt) for $520. At that price, how could we not go?
As an obsessive nerd, I did a ton of pre-trip research trying to find the right backpack. I researched ‘what to carry’ much more than ‘what to do.’ I scoured the internet. I went to the REI and North Face stores multiple times. I couldn’t find the right bag. Neither could Jeremy.
I eventually bought a classic tall, cylindrical backpacker bag. I quickly discovered that it was for hiking, not traveling. The bag was huge, disorganized, and a mess to pack and unpack. Every time I needed a piece of clothing, I was unpacking half of my stuff and making a mess of the hostel dorm room.
There had to be a better way!
We discussed the shortcomings of our bags quite a bit on the trip. We made wish lists for the perfect urban travel backpack. When we got home, we quizzed our friends. No one had a bag they loved.
We couldn’t find the perfect travel backpack. So we made it.
Was there something about your adventure that changed your course as you came home?
I always wanted to be an entrepreneur. Before starting Tortuga, I hadn’t done anything to achieve that goal. Not having the perfect idea was just an excuse. No idea is perfect. Building a business is all about execution and customers, not the idea.
What hooked me about the idea for Tortuga was not the solution. The problem was what hooked me. I experienced it first-hand. I knew it could be solved. Looking around at other travelers, I saw that everyone else had the same problem.
Traveling made me more open to the possibilities of building a solution rather than focusing on all of the reasons that it wouldn’t work.
As soon as we got back from the trip, I bought a domain name. That was an easy first step that I knew how to do. I just kept moving. Luckily, I was naive enough not to know about all of the roadblocks we would later face in creating a product. By the time we reached those hurdles, we were too committed to quit. We had to figure out how to get past them.
What, in your opinion is the single greatest factor that keeps people from traveling?
Fear. The same thing that keeps people from doing everything else they want to do.
Most people don’t say fear. They cite specific problems like money or time, but fear is at the root of it. They don’t dedicate their money or time to traveling because they’re scared. It’s understandable. Travel is daunting. Where should I go? What do I do? What do I eat? How will I communicate?
The fear of challenging oneself holds people back from traveling. Staying home in familiar surroundings might be boring, but at least it’s easy. People too often choose what’s familiar and easy.
This fear is largely unfounded. Sure, you won’t do everything perfectly. You’ll screw up. You’ll get lost. You’ll butcher the language. It’s okay. You’ll still learn and grow infinitely more than you would in your old, familiar surroundings.
This project is about giving every young person the freedom to travel, tell us how we can do that.
Show that it’s possible. My first trip outside of North America was the one I just described. I was 24.
I’m from a small rust belt town in Western Pennsylvania. There, “travel” meant a one-week summer vacation by car to a beach somewhere between New Jersey and North Carolina. I grew up with no concept of international travel, much less any idea how to do it.
Young people need to know that travel is possible for anyone. Help them connect with peers who have traveled. Let them hear from adults who have traveled from a young age or who got a late start (like me). Demystify travel and show them the tools to do it. They will be smart enough and excited enough to take it from there.
Has travel inspired your life and career? We’d love to hear from you.
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