For us, at the very beginning it was less about ‘business hacks’ and more ‘seriously hard grind’. But where should you be grinding? Where should your focus be? What do you really need to do to make this work?
Back in 2007, my wife and I were teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) in our native Melbourne, Australia. ESL had served us well since finishing our Arts Degrees in 2001. We’d travelled the world for most of those 6 years and taught ESL in most places we went.
The memories were great and it had given us the opportunity to do what we loved most – travel… but we’d had enough of teaching.
It wasn’t our future.There was no passion. We were done with the classroom.
We wanted a new challenge, something exciting, something that gave us a chance to do what we loved every day. I still remember hatching the plan over a bottle of wine…it went something like:
‘But seriously, what the #**# are we going to do with our lives? I’m kind of freaking out a bit because we’re nearly 30 and we..have… not… got… a clue. Pretty soon we’re going to need to start acting like adults.’
A couple of wines later and we’d hatched a plan – day tours! It seemed like the perfect fit. We loved meeting people, we loved everything that our home state of Victoria had to offer an international and domestic visitor. We loved food and wine, great restaurants and bars, wildlife and the outdoors, sporting events, adventure…the list goes on – oh and we really couldn’t handle the thought of a classroom or an office as the setting for the next chapter in our lives.
So…we hit the phones. We called up 10 or 15 tour operators around Australia. We got the owners on the phone and we asked them for some help, advice and insights. We wanted to know about the realities of becoming a tour operator. The dialogue went something like this: “We’ve heard great things about you – you’ve got a wonderful reputation in the industry and we love X, Y and Z about you tours/your business. Could you spare 5 minutes for a quick chat as we are seriously thinking about starting our own business and would appreciate any advice you could offer us”.
It’s incredible how helpful people will be if you give their ego a little stroke and put a bit of research in before the call.
We gained some fascinating insights into the high and lows, pros and cons of operating day tours and after all of those conversations, we still thought we would throw our hat in the ring. One of those conversations led us to a guy that had started a company back in 1997 – Melbourne Private Tours- and had run it as a hobby ever since. He was looking to sell. The numbers were tiny (around 35k in revenue the previous year and 20k the year before that from memory) and the asking price was pretty comparable to what it would cost us to start our own business from scratch. We bought it.
We were up and running a few weeks later – off the back of a few bucks we had scraped together. The website was passable, our business cards looked cheap, our brochure uninspiring and our one and only touring vehicle was a 1997 model Toyota Tarago (purchased separately). Hardly the luxe end-to-end touring experience we had visualised.
We had no business experience, no tourism industry experience and no useful contacts or networks.
We were flying blind and we had no idea.
Between the two of us, we were tour guides, bookkeepers, marketers, reservations, sales and operations. We were responsible for business development, design, vehicle maintenance, office management and everything else in between.
We were still teaching on the side as much as we could to keep the cash coming in which meant of course that our progress was being stalled whilst we were trying to pay the bills.
We had no idea who our customer was and we had no understanding of the intricacies and preferences of international and domestic tourism markets.
We just hoped our customers would find their way to us…whoever they were and like the look of our tours.
We had appalling IT skills (we still do), and didn’t know what a spreadsheet was, let alone how to use one.
In that first year we did $65k in revenue and made a profit of $20k before tax. Two of us…working 60 hours a week.
That first year nearly broke us.
I was essentially the service and the product and every part of the business relied solely on Suze and I. We had no systems, no processes, no business plan and no strategic plan for the future. If I wasn’t running tours myself, then we didn’t have a business.
It was literally ‘work your ass off, keep hustling and see what tomorrow brings.’
But then things started change. Here’s what happened after that first year:
And here a few things that we did in that first year to lay the foundation for future success:
So that’s how we did it. That’s how we turned an idea, a passion into a serious tour company – and life and business soon got a lot easier!