A couple years ago, if someone said I would own a tour business, much less be blogging about one, I would have never believed them. My husband has always been the one with the entrepreneurial spirit, while I was drawn to careers that “helped people.” After helping start a successful nonprofit my husband cringed at the thought of going back to a regular 9-to-5 job, and so started the search for his next venture. It took a few years to land on the right idea, but we are into our second year as owners of an electric bike tour and rental company, The Flying Bike in Asheville, North Carolina. While we are far from experts and are still learning day by day, we wanted to share some insights from our experience, before forgetting what it’s like to be newbies learning the ropes of a new venture.
1. Buy an existing tour business or replicate one
With 50% of small businesses going out of business in 5 years, the statistics are not on the side of an aspiring entrepreneur. One workaround to the start-up hurdle is to buy an existing profitable business. We happened upon our business on Craigslist of all places! Our business had a 5-year history and before the purchase, we knew we had a proven model with actual numbers, instead of just our hopeful predictions. We also inherited a good base of 5-star reviews. One of the best perks is while we were getting our head around how to run the business during our first summer, we already had immediate income coming in. Of course, with the benefits also come the drawbacks. We inherited some older equipment as well as a name that we didn’t love, but we saw these as great opportunities for improvement. Another option would be to check out what business models have worked in places with similar markets as your own, and bring the idea to where you live.
2. Start with your why
Let’s begin with the fact that starting and running a business — even a seasonal tour business — is really, really hard work. I never really understood the saying about working 80 hours to avoid working 40, until our family was living it. So why take the risk of unstable income and possible failure only to work more? Well, everyone has their reasons, so it’s very important to find yours. While my husband and I were anxious to jump into renaming the business right away, we luckily had the guidance of a wonderful business coach at Birds Eye Business Planning that helped us get our priorities straight. Our “business therapist” as we later joked, made us pull back the reins and take a deeper look into the values that drive us and our dreams for the business and our family. We created our core values, mission, and vision for the business first so that all our business decision making would be made with these larger goals in mind. I was surprised by the heart behind this method and being a purpose-driven company resonates with our personal beliefs and professional backgrounds. Not only does your mission help feed the soul and bring you clarity, it also helps you craft your story and ultimately become more successful. Your why is part of how you need to market your business and sell your tours. If you are an entrepreneur or in the business world and haven’t seen the acclaimed Simon Sinek TED talk, I encourage you to stop and watch it now.
3. Study up
Starting out we knew only a little about running a business and even less about the tour industry. One of the first things we did after buying the business was fill our Amazon cart with books. A couple of our favorites for general business insight have been Traction and Why Employees Are Always a Bad Idea. We’ve also taken advantage of our local business help centers, both at our community college and nonprofits. There are also amazing resources specific to the tour community. Kelsey Tonner’s Be a Better Guide website is full of reading material, podcasts, and courses to improve your tours and guiding skills. For marketing advice, I’d highly recommend reading Sell More Tours by TourismTiger’s own Matthew Newton and checking out the material at the Digital Tourism Show from the Tourism Marketing Agency or even taking an online media course through the JB Media Institute.
4. Build a support network
Luckily, the world is full of business owners willing to share their knowledge. One of the biggest impacts on our business was reaching out to these folks- both in the real world and the virtual one. We joined our local chamber of commerce and attended our visitor center’s networking events. Other places to find entrepreneurs and mentors are One Million Cups, Mastermind, your local neighborhood business associations, or the growing trend of co-working spaces. If you are a woman or minority-owned business there may be networking groups specific to you, such as FemCity, while SCORE specifically offers a mentoring program. Facebook is also full of groups willing to share feedback and ideas. Having other business owners in your circle of contacts is invaluable. They are a great resource for referrals and advice, as well as someone who can relate to the ups and downs of entrepreneurship.
5. Put your community first
Long before becoming tour business owners, we were members of the community. We love our town and intimately know Asheville and the hardships of some of those living here. We’ve made the commitment to become a Living Wage Certified Employer and to join our local business organization. We have made it a practice to donate to nonprofits and causes that we value, both in cash and in kind. We are also working to reduce our environmental impact as much as possible. So far that has consisted of eliminating plastic water bottles and opting for locally-sourced spring water in reusable stainless steel bottles. We have also reduced paper usage by working with an online waiver system. Our future goals include retrofitting our shop space with energy efficient lighting and water fixtures and charging our electric bikes with solar power. Giving back to our community also includes sharing aspects of Asheville’s unseen history. In our tours, we include facts and stories about some lesser-known heroes and share ways that guests can dig deeper into Asheville’s diverse history. Like most areas with an active tourism economy, Asheville is a beautiful place with an amazing community from which we benefit. It’s the least we can do to make a consistent practice of contributing to the community in positive ways.
6. Know your limits
The first few years of building your business is bound to be busy and overwhelming. We decided that there were going to be some important parts of the business that we would have to hire others to do. We were fortunate to find an amazing media crew to create our photos and videos, and the team at TourismTiger built us a beautiful, fast and mobile-friendly website that would have been impossible for us to accomplish on our own. Bookkeeping and payroll is another area that we didn’t want to tackle on our own, so we hired a professional. Of course, if these are skills you already possess, you can play to your strengths. But realistically, and especially if you plan to significantly grow your business, you should budget for help along the way.
7. Don’t quit your day job…yet
So I have a confession, while my husband is a full-time tour operator, in addition to working on the business, I have continued my career as a nurse part-time to help sustain the family. If you don’t have a partner who can keep their day job or other supplemental income, it’s important to secure funding or savings to help sustain you through your start-up phase until you can rely on paying yourself through the business. For small-business friendly lending, check out your local nonprofits, credit unions, and other organizations that work to support the efforts of entrepreneurs. Being in Asheville, we were lucky to obtain a loan from Mountain Bizworks, which specializes in lending and education for local small business. You don’t want to borrow more than you’re going to be able to pay back, so make sure you’ve crunched the numbers and recruit help on your business and financial plan if needed.
As a woman with a career of her own and a mother of two young children, I assumed I wouldn’t really get involved in whatever business path my husband took. Not only am I involved, but I am integral to the business and more passionate than I ever expected to be. I think the biggest takeaway that I’ve learned is that business is what you make it. We can serve our family, our community, and our world just as easily through business as our years in non-profit, teaching, or nursing, and also enjoy the journey.
So what do you think? What advice would you give to a new or aspiring business owner? A tour company? Please share your comments below!
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