Have you ever watched your employee browse the internet on sites that they shouldn’t or waste time or not do a good job and you never said anything? Well, you’re probably a bad manager and that’s OK.
I invited him to talk about how he built a profitable company AND how he made himself into a solid manager when the business grew to be much bigger than just one guy’s hobby.
Andrew: Coming up, have you ever watched someone who works for you maybe browse the internet on sites that they shouldn’t be or waste time or not do good job and said to yourself I should say something but I can’t and kept procrastinating? Well, you’re probably a bad manager and that’s OK. You’re going to hear in this interview what you can do to avoid mistakes like that and become a good manager. Also, why did today’s guest has scotch in his office? We’re about to get really open on this interview and I want you to pay attention for that section because it’s going to be important to you.
Finally, for those of you who are just getting started and saying I don’t care about management. I don’t have that responsibility yet, well I want you to hear how today’s guest got his first customers. We’re going to hear what didn’t work for him and what did work for him about getting his very first customer. All that and so much more coming up so stay tuned.
Three messages before we get started. First, do you need a single phone number that comes with multiple extensions so anyone that works at your company can be reached no matter where they are? Go to Grasshopper.com. It’s the virtual phone system that entrepreneurs love.
Next, does anyone you know need a beautiful online store that actually increases sales but is easy to set up and manage? Send them to shopify.com, the platform that top online stores are running on right now.
Finally, do you need a lawyer who actually understands the start up world that you and I live in? Go to walkerCorporateLaw.com. I’ve known Scott Edward Walker for years so tell him you’re a friend of mine and he’ll take good care of you. Here’s the program.
Andrew: Hey there, freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com, home the ambitious upstart. Over 750 interviews with proven entrepreneurs, by the way and I’m looking forward to getting up to 800+. And in this interview I want to find out about how a backpacker went on to create a profitable travel company using just a few thousand dollars of his own money?
Brian Morgan is the CEO of AdventureLife, an adventure travel company. I invited him to talk about how he built that company, and how he made himself into a solid manager in business after he had a rough time getting going with his management responsibilities. I think it’s an area of this interview that many people in this audience, if they’re not facing right now, will eventually face when they start hiring people and the business goes from a one man operation to hopefully a bigger and bigger businesses. Brian’s company did. Brian, welcome and thanks for being so open.
Brian: Great. Thank you very much, Andrew. I’m excited to be here.
Andrew: So first question. What size revenues are you guys doing now?
Brian: Well, revenues is, we have very solid revenues. I’m comfortable saying we have little over $10 million in revenues but more important than revenues is the number of passengers we provide services for every year and at current provide services for over 3,000 passengers every year.
Andrew: Wow. 2,000 passengers and how is this different…
Brian: Three thousand.
Andrew: Three thousand.
Brian: Three thousand, yes.
Andrew: Did someone just in the background say that out? No, you’re in a room by yourself. So how exactly does this work for someone who is not familiar with AdventureLife.
Brian: Well, basically we organize an adventure travel, nature and culture programs throughout, mostly they are South and Central America but also increasingly all over the world. And we provide the ability to visit places in ways that you simply can’t do through your traditional travel agents and travel sources like Orbitz or Expedia or things like that. We actually get people on the ground, we get them dirty sometimes. We get them interacting with local populations and really we get people experiences. That’s really what we’re providing, our experiences. Not really travel arrangements.
Andrew: So this is definitely for someone who is not, not for the kind of person who’s going to be upset that the Sheraton is not going to have both CNN and Fox News. It’s for someone who really wants to immerse themselves in an adventure.
Brian: Exactly. And I just, as a side note to that, we stay in hotels and small ecologist and wilderness resorts that are truly first class but not first class in the sense of having all the cable channels. I mean, the food is fantastic and the services are great, but you’re cut off from the grid. You’re not going to be getting your e-mail while you’re at one of our trips.
Andrew: So really big success story here, and we’re going to get into it just how you started with very little, both in little experience and little money and how you built it up. But along the way we’re going to find out about one of the challenges that got you to keep, did you keep Scotch in your office at one point?
Brian: Yeah, at one point, I don’t anymore.
Andrew: What was that challenge? What was going on at that point? Tease that so the audience knows what’s coming up in the interview.
Brian: Okay. Well, in the beginning it was so much fun creating the company. That was the creative part, the part that had me so excited. But at one point I turned around and I had all these employees with all these issues and I was no longer having time to work on the creative elements of things and work on creating these fantastic trips and travel opportunities. I was spending time trying to manage all these people that I was working with now. And there were there personal, you know there’s personal issues to deal with and work issues and professional issues to deal with when you’re in a small company. And I was completely unprepared for the stresses and even just how to do that and do that well. And when things would have, when I would be having a rough day, sometimes I would have a drink to kind of calm my nerves and move on. So, it’s not necessarily a proud point I have in the company but I am proud of moving through it and find that it’s one of the most crucial elements to growing your business behind a job and into an actual business.
Andrew: And you became so good at it that you could take someone who maybe wasn’t performing right and know how to express to them what you were looking for from, what your expectation was for this person, get that person to turn around as we’ll find out later on, and become a great performer who’s with you for years. And ideally that’s what a manager does. Just brings out the best in people. And we entrepreneurs don’t feel comfortable doing it. We fell comfortable working, feel comfortable avoiding problems like this, you know we didn’t get into business to become managers. We came into business, we started businesses to create something great.
Brian: And I think what you said about we want to avoid it sometimes, that was one of the things I was dealing with. Was I preferred to avoid the problems rather then address the problems and move forward through the problems, so.
Andrew: I’m looking forward to that because I know how open you are about that situation. Frankly you just proved it right now. And also because more importantly you found a way to get over it, and I want to learn from your experiences how the rest of us can get over it and become good managers too. But let’s hear your story of how you became the entrepreneur that Inc. Magazine featured. I think you were in the cover of Inc. Magazine. Outside Magazine I think said that you were one of the best, that your company at AdventureLife is one of the best places to work. How did you build up to that? Why don’t we start with, where did the idea come from?
Brian: Well, I certainly never thought I would work in travel. After graduate school I decided I wanted to have one more, I’d lived overseas once before during college, I’d lived in Russia. And after graduate school I decided I wanted to have that experience one more time and I should go do it before I settled down into a career. So I went to Ecuador, stayed there for six months learning Spanish and doing some work there, and then I moved onto Peru. And while I was in Peru I became friends with a guide on the Inca Trail. And I didn’t quite understand how the tourism industry worked but I came friends with him and thought for a while that I might become an interpreter on the Inca Trail helping guide people on that spectacular trek.
Eventually I decided I couldn’t make that work, I couldn’t continue paying my bills even though I was staying in a place that cost a dollar sixty seven a night. I decided I couldn’t make that work so I came back to Montana. And while I was in Montana I knew I wanted to live here because I had family here and I was born and raised here, but I didn’t want just any job, I wanted a more exciting job. And I thought back to this experience, this friend I had met who was a guide, and thought, wow, so people paid him to show them around, I could probably do that. So that was kind of the genesis of the idea.
Andrew: All right, and so now that you’ve got this idea that you want to do this you first went and got a job so that you could sustain yourself for a little bit, right, while you were coming up with this idea. You were only in your job for a few months, right?
Brian: Yes, yes. And actually initially before I got that job I organized, I created one trip and put it on a little tri-fold brochure and put it up into coffee shops and sporting good stores and on campuses in a couple of different towns in Montana. And spent, and that was time when color photocopies cost a dollar a side. That’s a lot of money for me. I made a couple hundred – well, maybe 100 both sides copies and put them up in different places, and not a single person called me.
Brian: Because I didn’t really know what I was doing.
Andrew: Why? Now, looking back on that, what wasn’t right about that?
Brian: Basically, I didn’t understand that people need more time to plan a trip than a few months. That was one thing I didn’t understand.
Brian: So I had thought everybody was sort of footloose and free like I was, and that you just decided to go do something one day and went and did it. I didn’t realize that people really think about and dream about taking their vacations and traveling to far off places. They spend a year planning. They spend sometimes five years or half their lives thinking and planning this thing. I didn’t realize that. So, that was one problem. I also didn’t realize that my market couldn’t be Montana, because Montana is a gorgeous place to live and there are fantastic people here. But there’s not a lot of us.
Andrew: I see.
Brian: So I knew I needed to get out beyond Montana. I was very fortunate, this was the end of 1998, first of ’99, and the internet was still in its infancy stages. So, I eventually put a website up. It was a terrible website, but people from all over the country started contacting me and asking for things. So, I did a couple things wrong. I thought people could just plan something ahead, just plan right away and buy a trip. I also thought that my market, Montana, was big enough to find people to do this, and that was incorrect. Then I also didn’t realize that I needed to look like I was bigger than I really was.
Andrew: How do you do that?
Brian: On my second iteration, rather than plan one trip that was happening in just a few months’ time, I planned three different itineraries, and had them departing six to seven months from the launch of the brochure. Then had them departing again six months later, so it was more of a semi-annual thing.
Andrew: I see.
Brian: It had more continuity.
Andrew: I see. If somebody called up – if you got orders for all three, would you be able to do it? Or would you have told people who called up for two of them, “Hey, those two are sold out and the other one is the one that’s really for sale, is what’s available”?
Brian: Right. That would have been awesome to have them fill up.
Andrew: No, I mean pretend that they filled up. Or did you think that you really could handle three different trips?
Brian: I was planning on being the guide on those trips as well at that time. They were designed to be back to back. So, they went two weeks and then a day break, and then two weeks and a day break.
Andrew: I see.
Brian: In practicality, I barely managed to handle that, because I did have all of them depart. But it was not something I could sustain. So, that was when I changed my business model from me being the guide to me finding subcontractors and hiring other guides who could actually lead my trips.
Andrew: At first you looked for [x-pads], Americans who were in these countries that you were sending tourists into. How did that work out and why did you pick them?
Brian: Well, that was the model I had seen while I was over there. So, I had become good friends with this local Peruvian who was [the Inca] trail guide. I had seen how he would be the local guide to these groups of foreigners, of Americans, Canadians, and Europeans, and that that group would have a tour leader. What I noticed was on the Inca trail trip that he was being part of, he did all the work and all the interpretation and people just fell in love with him.
So, I thought, “Well, I can’t really find a way to pay tour leaders who are full-time jobs when I don’t have trips going all the time. Maybe I could hire local people as needed for trips.” So, I started doing this, and then what I’ve seen over the last 15 years in the business is a change where almost everybody does this now. It’s more and more rare to see foreign tour leaders throughout Latin America, because the locals are so good.
Andrew: Because the locals know their country. They know the plans.
Andrew: They know the area so much better.
Brian: Their grandfather has a farm around the corner and they feel passionate for their country and they can communicate that passion to visitors, so visitors love it.
Andrew: I also read in my research that [x-pads] didn’t stick around in the countries long enough for you to build a long-term relationship with them. Was that an issue too?
Brian: Well, typically the model would be somebody would graduate from college and go down and work as a tour leader for one, two, or three years. So, it was more of just a post-college type thing, where our guides have now been professional guides. This is their career, and some of them have been with us since the very beginning, since the very first year. So, it is a very different model, and one that works much better for us.
Andrew: So, already I’m seeing that reality is different expectations. Expectations were, “I love to travel. I need a way to pay the rent…”
Andrew: “…to pay all the expenses while I travel. So, I’m going to get into travel.” Instead of being a guy who travels, instead of being the guy who’s out on the ground, you were in front of your computer thinking about a website…
Andrew: …brochure, on the phone. You were sending other people to do travel. How does that feel to you at that point?
Brian: In the beginning it was all exciting, because I was learning all these new things. I mean, even learning QuickBooks, which is what we still do our accounting on was exciting in a way. Everything was exciting and I was okay doing that. So, it sort of surprised me to find myself sitting here all day long, working in front of the computer and not out traveling, especially after a few years of it. But it was also so invigorating and there were such heavy days of building and learning and creating.
Andrew: Today we know you as the successful entrepreneur with all these accolades. I saw you again in Ink Magazine, as I was telling you, great piece on you in Ink Magazine.
Brian: Thank you.
Andrew: Incredible metrics for a guy like me who loves numbers, incredible metrics that show how well you’re doing. But back then, you were working out of an attic, is that right?
Brian: Oh, yeah.
Andrew: What was that like?
Brian: Well, not when I was in Ink Magazine.
Andrew: Right, this is in the beginning you were in an attic.
Andrew: Today you’re in a much bigger place.
Brian: Right. Yeah. I needed cheap rent so I worked where I lived. I rented a house, a 1940′s-style house that had an attic. It had a pull-down ladder to get into the attic. So, I walked up into the attic and I bought a bed from Goodwill, a mattress, and put the bed on one side of the attic, and put a little popup table on the other side with my laptop and a printer. I could only stand up in the center of the attic, because then the roof sloped down.
Brian: So, I had about a three-foot wide area along the spine of the attic that I could actually stand up fully in. But none of that really mattered to me then. Because I was so excited to be doing something on my own and seeing people, and having people call me and seeing demand for the information that I had and the services I was creating that none of that really mattered. I was having a fun time and I was living with a bunch of graduate students and college kids, or recent graduates, and we were all sort of discovering our own selves and what we wanted to be doing. So, for me it was a great time.
Andrew: Yeah, I see that from Jeremy’s notes on his pre-interview conversation with you. You told him, “Most entrepreneurs think I’m just the one-man shop. Things are really tough now. Later on it’s going to be so good when I hire all these people.” Then I’m looking at my notes that he gave me on your conversation, and you say later on when you transitioned to be a manager that’s when you kept the scotch in your desk because you were stressed with personnel issues and it was tough.
The earlier period, and still looking at the notes, “I used to work 70 to 80 hours a week, first few years, hardly making any money and living and working in an attic. But it was exciting. It was exciting.”
Andrew: I mean, we think that we need to get to this next stage because everything is going to be great. But we forget how cool, how fun it is in those early periods when you’re just inventing your future.
Andrew: Speaking of those earlier periods of inventing your future, how did you get your first customer? Walking around with brochures didn’t do it. Where did the first customer come from?
Brian: The first customer, I created a website on my own using Microsoft Publisher, I think. It was terrible. I mean, it had big gaps in it where the text would disappear for like three or four clicks down the page. I didn’t know what I was doing. So, at this job I had for a couple months, one of the women I worked with, her husband was studying computer science at the University and had created a website for themselves.
She said, “Hey, I bet he’d create a website for you, and he can probably even get some credit or something at the University for doing it.” So, I said, “Great.” He made a website for me, a very simple website. I didn’t have a lot of pictures for the website either, in fact, because I didn’t take a camera. I might have had a camera with me, but it wasn’t a focus for me when I was first traveling. I was really focused on meeting people, and learning the language and experiencing things.
So, here I was needing pictures, and I remember I took some pictures for a friend’s website who later down the road he’s like “Hey, that’s my picture.” I said I know, thank you. [??] on your website. I was like, of course.
But you know, that’s basically I had a, it was a woman from Canada who called me and she booked a trip for herself and her three grandkids to go to Ecuador for two weeks and on my website, in the brochures I said, “Oh, and I can also arrange Galapagos trips” and she said, “Great. We would also like to do Galapagos.” And I said, “Oh, my God. Perfect. Let me get that to you shortly.” So I went to the library, I went to Barnes & Noble. I started reading everything I could about Galapagos and I made a brochure for Galapagos and I mailed it to her and she said ‘Great. We’ll do that too’. And that was the beginning.
Andrew: Did she just find you online by searching for someone who could give her this kind of trip? Did I get that right?
Brian: That’s it exactly.
Andrew: Unbelievable. And your design? You talked about what the first site looked like. Lot of blank space because of the software you created it in and your inexperience creating websites. The brochure that you sent, was it 8×5, 8 1/2x 11, trifold brochure with clipart from Microsoft Word.
Brian: That was the very first one. Part of the second one I also used Microsoft Word. It was a little bit bigger but it was also so rudimentary. It wasn’t digital printing. It was printed into an old local printer from my hometown of 10,000 people and I printed 4 individual black plates, if you will. Black sheets of paper and he ran them through and the printing was so bad that the letters were kind of fuzzy in places. Because the overlay didn’t quite fit. That was the beginning and I was doing it all myself. I didn’t even have a logo that first year. It was just the name Adventure Life with like a silly looking font.
Andrew: So what I’m wondering with that is how did you feel comfortable releasing that? How did you feel comfortable knowing what the people who you admire are producing, creating something that doesn’t live up to that? Something that has clip art, that has fuzzy letters, that’s just a piece of paper?
Andrew: That’s a challenge for us as entrepreneurs.
Brian: Yes. You know, it was still given the time, it was the best I could do and I was proud of it.
Andrew: Because you didn’t know any better or because it was yours?
Brian: I think a little bit of both. The internet was still fairly new so the competition out there wasn’t so much I guess. I mean, today if you designed a website on your own without too much knowledge, it would be better than the first one I made because things have gotten better.
So it was just the absolute best I could do and I was just proud of it and I knew I had no budget. I had basically a few thousand dollars in savings. So you cut corners where you can and you do the best you can and I think the worst thing that could happen is if you wind up getting sort of paralysis where you don’t move forward because you think it’s not good enough, well you got to start somewhere. And so I just started somewhere.
Andrew: I [??] myself that where I doubt myself, actually I doubt my first creation a lot. I was thinking ‘Well, this doesn’t look as good as my competitors. What if my friends see this and say this is what he’s building’, all that stuff. But when that chatter disappears is when I’m most passionate about what I’m doing. At that point, it doesn’t really matter because I’m so carried away, it’s like a kid with crayons who’s really carried away at that point is not thinking who is going to love this. Is that the same thing for you?
Brian: That’s exactly what happened. I mean, I was excited for every piece I made of. I was like “Look at this”. When the first brochure showed up, the second iterations of the brochure it was a little bit longer but still fuzzy lettering. When they showed up at my door in a box, I was so excited so I didn’t really think it look very good. At that time I thought it looked great.
Andrew: So today you have 18 full time employees and a full time General Manager, I see here in my notes. How did you work your way up to that? Who was the first full time person who you hired and how did you develop to a place where you had so many people around you that you had to become a good manager?
Brian: The first person I hired was the sister of somebody that I kept running into at the local Kinko’s, the old copy shop, and he said, “Hey, my sister just came back from Peru. She’s looking for a job.” I thought oh great. Somebody knows about Peru. I hired her. The process I went through with all of this was I would basically think to myself what is that I do that somebody else might be able to do. That’s how I’ve [inaudible] at every step along the way is I would think to myself what is that I do that I could sort of write instructions and somebody else could do.
The first position was a sales position and the second position was because I was doing all the sales and I wasn’t doing a very good job of it. Actually going even further back maybe the first person that I didn’t hire, but she volunteered for me was my mother. While I was away leading trips, she actually answered the telephone and she would say, “Hello Adventure Life.” My sister will never forget how when she was shopping for wedding dresses my mom would answer the phone. She said, “Mother, this is my moment.”
Andrew: You were saying that to yourself? What is it that I do that I can pass on to someone else with a system. I can systemize it and then give it to someone else. I wouldn’t have thought that sales would be the first thing that comes to mind. How are you able to systemize sales well enough to pass it on to someone else?
Brian: Well, I think my mother had been a realtor for most of her life and during that four months that she had answered the phone, she had booked more trips than I had in that first year. I seen that maybe sales wasn’t an area that I was great at. I thought well maybe I can hire for this thing because this is an area that I’m weak in. Maybe I will hire for that area and that’s kind of how I – you’re right hiring for sales is very challenging. It’s one of the challenges we face even today, but it was still one of my weakest areas so I thought I’d hire for one of my weakest areas.
Andrew: I see. You didn’t have a clear system there, but you also didn’t have – well first of all is that true? You didn’t have a clear system for that job before you passed it on?
Brian: Well, I wrote down this is what you do. You answer and you check emails and you get back to people on this and you send out catalogs and it was fairly rudimentary, but that is kind of how. It had some system, but I mean the manual might have been three pages long.
Andrew: For sales?
Brian: For sales.
Andrew: You know what though? I’ve got to say Brian that’s more than most new entrepreneurs give their first hires. Most entrepreneurs give their first hires a begging plea to take on something that they just don’t want to do anymore.
Andrew: But you gave them at least three pages and you said this is the way things are done. How did you improve on that?
Brian: Well as we grew – how did I improve on that? Well, I guess the next hire I did was for operations – somebody who actually provided all the services on the trip, communicating with the customer after they booked the trip, and communicating with the suppliers overseas. The description of what needed to be done just got that much larger and that much more sophisticated. I think I would also ask if I remember correctly as I hired an additional salesperson I would say to the existing salesperson listen I need you to expand on this document that I’ve created already. I need you to put down all the extra things that (perhaps) somebody needs to learn and know. That’s been a system that we’ve done throughout our growth period is when we’re going to add a new person we will ask an existing person please update the operations manual of how we do (inaudible).
Andrew: How did you and I’m going to give the Skype – let me give Skype Chat just a moment here to catch . . .
Andrew: . . . because it looks . . .
Brian: (So) you’ll know how it’s done.
Andrew: . . . a little bit out of sync. There we go, it’s catching up now.
Andrew: Where did you learn to do that? That’s something that took me years to figure out that I need to do.
Brian: I don’t know. I mean I’m a very detail-oriented person to begin with I think and maybe I’m controlling, I don’t know, where I feel like I needed to provide the guidelines for how to do something. I don’t really know where I learned it. It’s just something that I felt needed to be done any way. Maybe it was because I wanted to feel that I could confidently turn my attention to other things that the company was demanding that I felt like I needed to provide some directions beyond just hey go do that.
Andrew: I see.
Brian: I’m not really sure where I learned that.
Andrew: But man is that a useful thing to do. First of all to give a new hire a clear set of instructions on what to do. And second even think about saying to them, this isn’t the final document. You are going to update it and we’re going to keep updating it as a company.
Brian: Yup, yeah. And we still do that today. Everybody does that today.
Andrew: Wow. All right. And so you kept hiring and kept hiring. At what point did you feel like, I’m not, this isn’t something I’m exceptionally good at, this isn’t my forte?
Brian: Maybe, getting into like year five, six or seven, somewhere in that, probably around the year six, and I had, I had gone from. Basically I had, all of a sudden I was finding myself not very productive. Not productive in the ways that I had been productive in the early years. I was no longer finding time to create new programs, new trips and going to new destinations. Even though I knew I wanted to get into those places. And what I was spending my time on was becoming kind of a cheerleader in the office and trying to find ways to motivate employees and then really spending way too much time agonizing on how to deal with an employee that wasn’t meeting my expectations. And rather then face, I didn’t really know how to face those disappointments and to face those issues, and so I think I spent way too much time worrying about them, thinking about them, and really getting really disappointed in what my job had become.
Andrew: When you were thinking about them, what were you thinking about? Were you the kind of person who read a lot of management books? Were you the kind of person who kept strategizing this? Or were you the kind of person on the other hand who when you were spending time thinking about it you were worried? You would think, oh I’ve got to deal with this person tomorrow. Oh I can’t sit at my office for five minutes because someone’s going to interrupt me with a problem that makes no sense.
Brian: Probably a little mix of the latter two there. Where I would strategize about it a lot, in other words, I would think in my head how’s the best way to handle this, how’s the best way to handle this? And then I would worry that oh I’ve got to handle this tomorrow. I don’t want to go in, I don’t want to deal…
Andrew: Don’t want to even go into your own company.
Brian: Yeah, there were definitely times like that.
Andrew: There was a time that you were even thinking of bailing out on the business because of this, right? By the way, what’s that drink? That looks like an interesting drink.
Brian: That’s just chai tea.
Andrew: Okay. With the tea leaves in? It feels like there’s something on the bottom, that’s why I asked.
Brian: Oh, sure.
Andrew: Okay. So there’s a time when you were thinking of bailing.
Brian: Yeah, there was. And it happened definitely right around year seven. A couple of things had come into play there. One was when I got into my company I had an uncle say you should build a company with the idea that you’re going to sell it in seven or eight years. So I was constantly, that was part of the whole creating a methodology when I hired new people as well. I knew I needed to create methods and systems if I wanted to get to that point where I could sell the company. But then beyond that I got so disappointed in what my daily life had become and so anxiety filled with sometimes dealing with employee discipline issues or maybe just mixed expectation issues, I didn’t know how to communicate those things that I didn’t want to stay there anymore. I thought I need to get out. I need to get out and find something else to do.
Andrew: And sell this business or just leave and who cares because you were so burned out?
Brian: You know, there were definitely days when I thought, I just need to get out. But I wasn’t going to be so foolish as to just shut her down or something. But I definitely thought heavily about selling it and had entertained a couple of prospective buyers, and it had definitely been something that had come, that I…
Andrew: Why didn’t you sell back then?
Brian: A couple of things. One was I, nobody, getting the value out of it I thought I could get. I couldn’t quite get, I could get within about 15 percent of what I thought it was worth, but maybe I was too proud to even dip that 15 percent, to offer less than that.
Andrew: So you could get within 15 percent of what you thought. Do I?
Brian: Yeah, 15 to 20 percent, yeah. But I was like, if they’re not going to give me the full amount then I don’t want it yet. So a pride issue I suppose. And then at one point I thought to myself, what am I going to do? And that also I think in the back of my mind kept me from moving on. And in the end I’m really glad I didn’t get rid of the company because eventually I tackled these issues and I feel like I got to be a lot better manager and I learned some skills that I truly needed to learn. The other things I did in my business I think I had learned in college or maybe I was just had some natural talent for. But managing people I was not naturally good at. And that required me to really adapt and to learn about myself and learn about the best ways to handle various situations with employees.
Andrew: Learn about yourself how?
Brian: Well, learn what you’re good at and what you’re not good at. Learn what bothers you and so for example, I used to, if something had happened, if somebody had done something in my office that was a problem, maybe they had, maybe a lot of attitude. We have a great office these days but you have people sometimes who get down and maybe they stay down. And that can drag down the whole office when it’s a small company. And rather than just address that and say, hey, you need to come to work with a positive attitude or not come into work that day, I didn’t know how to deal with that and I would think to myself well maybe I can make them happier in some way. Or maybe I saw them browsing the internet one day and then rather then being like, of course an employee would sort of like quickly move away from that and make it look like they were working, rather then just address it and say, hey that’s unacceptable. You need to not do that. Nobody else is doing that, we’re working hard to grow this business. I didn’t know how to deal with that.
Andrew: What would you do back then? If you saw someone just browse the web, I wouldn’t know what to do.
Brian: Yeah, I didn’t know what to do. At first I thought to myself, oh that was just a probably a coincidence, they’re not on it that much. Because, you know, at first you don’t have a rule for any, as long as nobody’s abusing something you don’t make a rule about it. It’s only after you see someone abusing something that you’re like, oh I guess I need to have a rule for that. So at first I would see that, I had one person in particular I would see that and I’d be like, oh that’s just coincidence. And then I’d see it again and I thought, huh, okay I saw that again. And then I would see it again and I would think, well now it’s more then coincidence. But I didn’t address it right away. Instead what I did is I made a rule. And I had a memo go out.
Andrew: Instead of talking to this one person you made a rule for the whole company to kind of back door talk to this one person.
Brian: Exactly, exactly. So I made a memo saying, this is what our expectations are. Well, that doesn’t really work.
Andrew: why not?
Brian: Because it’s not a problem for nine out of your ten employees, it’s a problem for that one. And you’re not, that person isn’t really feeling it’s being addressed to her I believe. So time would go on and I would have, okay I would address it in a formal meeting and then I would address it again and document it and then it seemed to get better. And then at one point it just got really bad again and I just didn’t know how to quite address these things. And now I’ve come to a point, eventually what happened is I learned, hey, when I see something I need to identify it’s a problem now and not make turned into a personal issue. Because I also felt there was some sort of, you know, here I was trying so hard to be a really good employer and to do such a great job for our customers and here this person is basically constantly kind of cheating me in a way. Because I didn’t have any money.
This is all, I made no more than anybody else in the company and so here why is everybody else working so hard and you’re not? And finally I got to the point where I’m much better at simply walking up to people and saying, hey that’s not appropriate. And just that step has made a big difference. I guess you asked again what is it about, what did I learn about myself? And I learned that although I may not like conflict and I may not, I’m better off addressing something immediately as soon as I think it and feel it, then trying to think of a less confrontational way to deal with it.
Andrew: Why? Why does doing it now instead of thinking of a less confrontational way, why is that better? I would think that spending some time thinking of a less confrontational way or spending some time thinking about the strategy might actually be a good thing. So I might feel justified in doing that. Why isn’t that better?
Brian: I feel that you’re not, I’m not, for me I feel that I’m not, it’s, I wind up getting anxious about it so then I don’t like my job because so anxiety is introduced into my world. Rather then thinking about moving the business forward and thinking about how great things, maybe just feeling good about how things are going. I wind up spending all my time strategizing about this issue. In terms of an actual management point of view, I believe it’s better because… it’s no longer turned into a bigger deal than it should be.
Not for you, not for myself, nor for the employee. They recognize, hey this is unacceptable and he’s told me and I’ve been informed and everything seems to get fixed much quicker. The line of communication is so much more open and clear. So for me it’s worked out better in lots of different ways.
Andrew: How else?
Brian: Well I mean, I don’t have the anxiety.
Brian: And also I feel that the results are a lot better. Something we talked about earlier which I find one of my best learning experiences. Was at one point I thought, you really can’t change a persons attitude.
I had an employee who had been with me for a long time, and she was great, but over the course of 6 months or more, her attitude really soured. She would come in and you would say “good morning” and this person would sort of grunt at various people in the office.
It really got to the point where people were kind of avoiding interaction with her, because they knew she wasn’t [??] something wasn’t right and it wasn’t making her feel good. We tried moving her to the far end of the office at one point so she would have less interaction, and doing some of these round about things.
I had decided that we can’t fix this. You’re not going to change this person’s attitude. A couple of my senior employees who I was turning into my management team said “listen we think this is a great person, we think that this can be addressed” and I thought well, I don’t think so. But, I’m trying to learn to be a better manager and to respect the decision making judgment of other people in my office so I will give it a try. We will work together to see if we can change the attitude. I said, I was frank, I said “I don’t think we can change it.” But, we’d try.
We addressed it with this person in a very direct way, and said listen this is the problem. Basically when you come in it doesn’t really matter how you’re feeling we need you to smile, and to be positive in the office, and to have positive interactions with people in the office. And to go out of your way as a senior person here to have those positive interactions as an appropriate leader. I was shocked and very much corrected because I saw this person change almost overnight.
It was maybe contrived to some extent, she probably didn’t feel anymore positive because she was now being told she had to come in and be positive. She had to come in and ask, especially junior people, she had to come in and say, “How is your day going today”, you know, things like that.
Now I see it as a true turn around, and she’s one of the most delightful people in the office and has really come into her own in this sense. So for me that was a great learning experience as a manager because… I took the risk to trust the judgment of other people in my office.
I was also proved that I was wrong. To boot, I got a great employee who had been with me a long time basically has now become an even better part of our team.
Andrew: This person who’s been with you now for eight years. Eight.
Brian: I think that’s right. Yeah.
Andrew: Well. So, I want to get at how you found. Not found yourself, but discovered your. Well here’s the thing, you tell Jeremy that there was a period in your life where you watched. You were so frustrated with management issues that you watched an entire four seasons of Heroes the TV Show.
Andrew: With the door closed, over a period of just a few months in your office. Right?
Andrew: That’s where you were. Then you actually took yourself out of the office. You moved to Los Angeles. To a whole other state and then you took up salsa dancing, kayak lessons, in the middle of the day.
Andrew: You spent months just doing this stuff. It feels like as I read that in the notes. I thought, there are a couple of benefits to that. First, you must be so overwhelmed with working just endlessly in the beginning in a tight environment, as fun as it is, it’s still very taxing.
Then you have even more responsibilities afterwards. You need a breath for yourself sometimes to really relax so that you can come back more energized. The second thing I thought is maybe something’s broke there, and so you were able to see what broke, and what you need to pay attention. Maybe, some things worked and you were able to see, ‘Hey, this part can survive on its own.’ Is that analysis right? What do you think? What did you get out of being away as long as you were.
Brian: I would say that the end result of what I got was I was able to step back and do new things. I was able to engage my mind in a completely different area than I had been engaged with for so long. Meeting new people and all the things that were going on there, allowed a couple things to happen. One, it allowed me to see the things that worked. I was able to see these people in my office, some of the senior people in my office, I was able to see them really take up the responsibility of running the office, of running the business, and do well at it without me there. That made me think, ‘Wow, I thought I could step, but I didn’t really believe it.
Now I have stepped away and look, some people have really stepped up and grow in themselves in their career.’ The other thing it allowed me to see is that I’m not very good running the day to day and I’ve gotten to a point where I don’t have to run the day to day. Having some distance allowed me to think bigger about the company. To start thinking about the strategic growth opportunities in the company, rather than the day to day issues that would come up. Being able to do that has really reengaged me in the company. First of all, taking a break is on of the best things we can do. You read about having good sleep patterns, that’s a break from your daily life, can help you be more creative and improve your analytical skills.
Taking a break like that of about a year and a half really allowed me some kind of rest or something. It allowed me to look at the business with fresh eyes and to really get excited about the growth opportunities in the business again. To really see my best role in the company is as the strategic visionary setting the long term goals and the direction of the company. That’s my best role. That’s a role that I’m respected at within the business and that’s a role that makes me happy. It doesn’t bring in all the stresses that stop me from doing all of that. It’s a good place to be.
Andrew: I see the benefit of it. I’m wondering how the company survived when you took that time away. I remember asking Derek Sivers[SP], a past entrepreneur that was on here, about how CD Baby ran. He said it actually ran better, was more profitable, and grew more when he stopped coming into the office. I asked him why and I think the answer was, basically, the systems that he put in place before hand. He had a company that was full of systems. It could run on it’s own and he wasn’t really needed there.
Andrew: What about you? Why was your company able to run so well? Most entrepreneurs are scared to take a single day off, let alone a week. In your case, eight months, not fully off, but eight months away. How did the business continue to do well?
Brian: I think what you just said is exactly it. The business is based on systems and methodology from the beginning. I had spent years trying to hire great people and to enable them to make more and more decisions. When I walked away I had a great infrastructure in place. I had great people. All I had to do was step back to watch them step up. To me, it was one of the most satisfying parts of my career, I would say. To watch the people that I had put in place, the systems that I had helped develop…To see those work, to see those people step up and see them really run with things has been incredibly satisfying.
Andrew: How were you able to find people who are so good that they could step up when you step back a little bit? What’s your method for finding good people?
Brian: We have an extensive interview process. That’s certainly part of it. We’ll hire people into certain positions that are fairly method based, where we have a lot of systems in place. From that, I’ve actually identified people who I feel can move into management positions and move them from there into the management positions. So I tried once hiring a manager, somebody into a management position straightaway, and that didn’t really work for me. For me actually hiring somebody into some other position and identifying their great qualities and moving them, promoting them into these other positions has worked better.
Andrew: I see. Is there some part of your interview process that’s unique that you can teach us that could help us hire good people too?
Brian: I would say, I don’t know about that because interviewing is such an art form. But one of my favorite questions that I learned from a super successful entrepreneur in Missoula who’s now retired was to simply ask the question, tell me about yourself. And then to not help them with that answer. To just sort of sit back and listen to what they have to say. And that listening is hard sometimes for an entrepreneur to do. Because, or hard for myself to do, because I like to talk. We have great ideas, we want to tell people about our ideas. And sometimes I think entrepreneurs are eternal optimists and we want to help people be the best they can. But to sit back and listen to what somebody has to say is actually more valuable to you as the person doing the hiring then for you to sort of jump in there and try to help them with their answers in any way.
Andrew: What are you looking for when you ask them to tell you about themselves?
Brian: I’m looking for somebody who has demonstrated, it depends upon the position to some extent, but I’m looking for essentially someone who first of all very positive about life. I do not hire people who have a real pessimistic view on life and their situation. So I’m looking for optimists. I’m looking for people who can put a story of themselves together into a fashion that engages me. So I don’t want them to drone on about things that really couldn’t interest anybody necessarily. So can they actually form their thoughts into a coherent structure that they can answer this wide open question? I would say, and then a third element that I’m always looking for is I want some demonstration that this person is a problem solver and a hard worker. And to me because I come from fairly modest backgrounds, that means somebody who has demonstrated that, hey, I didn’t do exactly as everybody else did. Or if I did I did it in my own way and made it happen for myself in some way, and I worked hard to do it. So that’s probably the three things I’m looking for.
Andrew: I’m trying to think of where to go next. I have a list of things that we didn’t talk about that I want to make sure to hit on. Maybe I can quickly.
Brian: Sure, sure. I would say one more thing about the employee thing. The positive attitude can’t be, in my opinion having a positive attitude cannot be stressed enough.
Andrew: How do you tell that someone has a positive attitude?
Brian: We watch it in lots of ways. I mean, when somebody walks through the door they may not be in the interview yet, they may just be greeting the receptionist. But I expect that, you know we ask the receptionist you know, how was this person? Because I want them to be engaging. You know they need to walk in, if they walk in and they’re like, hey I’m here for the interview. It doesn’t matter if they come into our office then and put on a great presentation. I want to know that from the moment they walk through the door that they carry that good attitude with them. And when you ask them wide open questions such as, tell me about yourself and maybe tell me about your past job. A lot of times you, you’ll be surprised, people will say very negative things. And that’s not who we want. We want people who are really delighted with life and delighted with those around them. Because that kind of energy spreads in the office and creates a great work environment for everybody. And the kind of negative energy spreads within the office too and becomes a struggle for everybody else in the office. So that’s actually one of the prime things that we look for.
Andrew: How systemized are you about the way that you find people? Do you have a list of structured questions that you ask every interviewee? Is there a checklist that includes going back to the receptionist and asking, how was this person? Or is it looser than that?
Brian: It’s moderately structured. There is, we have a set number of questions that we sort of landed, that we’ve landed on over the years. And we might, so it’s, I would say it’s maybe half scripted. And over the years it’s funny, we ask fewer and fewer questions from the scripted ones, but still maybe half of them are scripted. And then usually it’s informal enough that I’ll just ask the receptionist, well how was this person when they walked through the door, and I’ll make a note on the, on their interview.
Andrew: All right, so before I go into this list of things that I’ve got to follow up on and make sure to include in this interview I have to say to the audience that as always this is the time where I plug Mixergypremium.com and at Mixergy Premium you get courses taught by real entrepreneurs who tell you the one thing that they’re exceptional at and they tell you how to do it step by step the way that they do it at their companies.
And if you go to Mixergypremium.com as a premium member you get access to the courses. And as a follow up to this interview I suggest you check out the courses where we talk about systemizing. I was non-believer in systems until Derek Sievers came on here and you saw we had like an, many of you in the audience saw, we had like an hour and a half heart to heart talk about systems. Because I said, I’m an entrepreneur, I don’t need systems. I want people to be free and do what they want like I want to do what I want. And he basically turned me around and showed me the value of systems. I recorded courses that show actually how to build systems, because I knew I couldn’t put them together myself. And as a result, I’ll tell you Brian, the person in the audience, too. I’ve been away from here for, I’d say, ten days from the office. Disconnected from the Internet practically for a full week maybe more. Company still runs, orders are still coming through, everything is great.
Systems are perfect. We have a funnel that makes sure that you aren’t just a stranger to me. We made sure that we were vetted, that you really did have the background to come and do an interview here so that the audience knows they get quality guests. You saw we researched you, we did a pre- interview with you, we booked you, it all flowed in a way that made sure that we weren’t dropping the ball anywhere. And that’s one of the many systems that I’ve learned to put together thanks to Mixergy Premium, and I hope everyone who’s listening goes to Mixergypremium.com and at least checks it out and if not sign up and take those courses. They’ve made a huge impact on my life. Brian, what were you going to say as I told you about that? What did you think about this process?
Brian: Actually, I was really delighted with the process, Andrew. I’ve done a lot of interviews over the years and I have never had such a well vetted process. And I really appreciate it because I got to sit down with your producer, well over the telephone, and we were able to talk in an open free form about what was important to me that I thought that I should communicate to listeners about my entrepreneur experience and so that this whole process wasn’t just about sort of the excitement of me starting my company but actually about some of the problems and the things that maybe people aren’t, at first don’t think about, but maybe later realize that the systems are one of the key elements and that learning how to manage people is one of the other key elements. So I liked the whole process and kudos to you on creating the systems to do that, because that is a major element.
Andrew: Thank you. I mean, I would hate to have you on here and then just do another interview where we just regurgitate what’s already been out there and have something that’s not in touch with the audience, only to discover maybe months later, years later when you do an interview somewhere else or I read an article, that you had this whole thing in you that I should have tapped into.
Brian: Sure, sure.
Andrew: And I was so frustrated years ago when some interviews would do well and others, I’d have this great person on and it just didn’t work out. Why, why should it be up to chance? Got to find a way to keep getting better and better at it so that it’s not left up to chance. Okay, so here’s what I’ve got in my list. I didn’t talk to you about pricing but I thought that’s a topic that a lot of entrepreneurs are wrestling with. How did you come up with your pricing at first?
Brian: Oh, at first, I think, you know some of the story I think. At first I guessed. And the very first itineraries I put together I thought, well I spent five dollars a night for my hotels, most of them, when I was traveling as a backpacker. Gosh if I spend twenty dollars per night per person, that will get me a great place to say. And so the first, the results of that is one of those first itineraries that I ran, and the one that was the fullest, I actually lost money on.
Andrew: Why? Because it seems like those are pretty decent estimates. Five bucks is what it cost you, for twenty bucks you thought you’d get something great. Why wasn’t that enough for you to figure out your costs and then come up with a good (?).
Brian: Well, once we arrived I realized that the hotels weren’t going to be good enough. So I needed, because I had not done enough research on that because I was so busy getting everything else off the ground with the business. So I wound up simply upgrading everybody’s hotels regardless of how much money I was bringing in, to make certain that they had a great experience. So part of it was me understanding my customer, the expectations for my customers, and realizing that what I thought I was going to provide was not going to be good enough.
And then in terms of how we do pricing now over the many years now is it’s a mix of what is out there in the marketplace, because you can’t ignore the marketplace. And it’s also balancing that against what we need in order to pay for all of the infrastructure that we provide to customers when they book through us. So it’s a mix basically of the two things. And I do not, there’s certainly a, there can be a temptation to look only at the marketplace and see that somebody else is selling something for much less then you are and to want to chase that. And I would caution people about that because in the travel industry it’s a very, very competitive industry. And we’ve made the determination that we cannot go that route. What we need to do is we need to make certain that we provide true value added services that merit the cost that you will pay, that merit the prices that we charge rather than chasing the lowest price because I feel that’s a dead end for most businesses.
Andrew: By the way when you said that you covered the difference in, you covered, you paid out of pocket for a better stay for your customer, you weren’t floating in money. I said I think in the intro that you founded a company with a few thousand bucks. We’re talking about like three thousand bucks, enough to buy brochures and a computer and that was it, right?
Brian: Yes, yeah. So I mean, I was basically eating on the company, that was it.
Andrew: Yeah I don’t want to give people the impression that, hey if there was a problem the guy had cash and he was going to buy his way out of it. I mean, this was scrappy days and to do that was painful, but we can see how important it was.
Brian: And for me it was, I want to provide great experiences for my passengers, for my guests. That’s my one and only, that’s why I founded the company was to share these great places with people and make certain that people came away loving their experiences in these places. So for me I knew I had, I couldn’t even think about the money loss or whatever, I had to just make certain that these first people who had trusted their time with me, who had trusted me to provide a great experience, that they had a great experience.
Andrew: There’s one other thing I was hoping you could tell which is the story of how you got your second sale. I spent a lot of time on the first sale, but the second sale came to you at a pretty interesting place.
Brian: Right. Well I think, that’s where sometimes the early days can be so much fun because they’re so different, so much more, there’s so much more variable then maybe the later days. I was out, I was living rent free in a cabin on a lake in Montana and I would go out for a hike in the middle of the day to try to get some exercise and I was out hiking on this mountainside and my cell phone rang. And it was a couple sisters who I had been working with for a while out of Chicago and they were, they finally said we’re ready to book.
I was on this mountain and the wind was really starting to blow so I was huddled against a tree because it was cold. I was fine as long as I was walking but all of a sudden I wasn’t walking anymore, I was standing still, talking on the telephone, thankful that I had cell phone reception way up there. And basically saying, great, you know, and finally when she said I want to hook I said oh, I need to call you back to get your credit card information because I’m up on a mountain right now. And they loved that actually. And those two sisters have traveled with me now four times. They were actually on my very first trip that I was the tour leader on, and then they’ve since traveled with me three other times. Not with me personally but with my company, so.
Andrew: We so want to pretend that we’re at the office in situations like that, but I could see how important it is to say I am, and then really say I’m on a mountaintop or wherever we are. I think that sometimes people will call me, customers who have issues with their accounts will call me, and they’ll be surprised that the call will come to my cell phone. And sometimes I’m in the middle of a run. I barely get called but if it comes in the middle of my run I’m taking it. And I let them know I’m in the middle of my run. At first I was a little awkward about doing that, but I discovered that it really makes the conversation so much better, so much more personal at that point.
Brian: Yeah, I agree, I agree. Being, I think being, no matter what stage you are in your business the more honest you are with your customers about who you are and about what you provide, and just letting them know hey, this is who I am. I’m here to help you in any way that I can. That’s the best combination.
Andrew: The final question we asked you: What question should we ask you in the interview? What did we miss in all of our research? And you told the story about…being in the Amazon. Do you remember the story you told them?
Brian: Is this where I swam across the river?
Andrew: It wasn’t just swimming across the river though. Do you remember what I’m talking about?
Brian: I think so. Well, there was an experience. In terms of what question [??]
Andrew: On your third trip, you were in an island on a river in the Amazon. When you get to the end, there’s no boat waiting for you. You’re standing there and the mosquitoes are terrible.
Brian: Yeah. I guess it shows that…it comes down to wanting to meet and exceed my customer’s expectations. And that’s an example of a time when I feel like I showed what kind of commitment I have to doing that. We were on this island, and this was my first big group where I lost money on because I upgraded various hotels. And the lodge didn’t have the boat waiting for us at the end of the thing, and there were mosquitoes all over the place and there was this big muddy river with the island in the middle of it. And I would never do this today…I didn’t want [my guests] to be uncomfortable or bitten by mosquitoes any longer than they had to be. I didn’t know when the boat would show up, but I decide to swim across this river. [laughs] And I got to the island and I was like, “Wow, that was a really tough swim!” And I looked over at the lodge on the other side of the island, and I thought to myself, “I don’t know if I want to do that [again]!” Thankfully, right about that time, the boat showed up and picked the passengers up, and picked me up. But, to me, that was evidence showing what kind of commitment I have to providing really fantastic trips and experiences for our guests.
Andrew: Now, one of the reasons why I wanted to include that story is because I know when things are tough for me, I sometimes compare myself to some of the people who have been on Mixergy. And I would think, if I were in your situation, “What am I doing here? I’m supposed to be an entrepreneur! But Drew Houston of Dropbox would never be swimming through this muck. Maybe I’m not the right kind of entrepreneur. Maybe I’m doing something bad. Maybe I’m being stupid.” And, especially after looking at our customer service emails, where people say, “I don’t relate to this situation”, I want to show the audience, and frankly myself too, sometimes entrepreneurs are in the muck. Sometimes they are just out there in the middle of nowhere, not even knowing how to get a boat. And it’s not abnormal to be in that situation, it’s just part of the process for some people.
Brian: I agree very much. Not everybody is going to start the Google or Drop Box, or whatever. We’re going to all have our own routes. And, I think, no matter who the entrepreneur is, at some point, they empty the garbages, because nobody else would. And that’s part of being an entrepreneur, I think, is being able to identify all of the issues and the intricacies and the complicated issues going on, and being able to address them in some matter or another – being able to solve those problems.
Andrew: Well, thank you for coming here and being open about the problems that you had to face and telling us how you solved them. I hope everyone in the audience at least goes to check out your website and see the business that we have been talking about here. You know, this is a visual interaction here, but not really that visual. It’s just two heads. To really understand what we’ve been talking about, I think it’s helpful to really go to the site and get a visual of it. So the site is: adventurelife.com. [??]
Brian: Thank you, thank you. It was great. Thank you.
Andrew: Thanks for doing this interview. I talked right over you as you were finishing up, but thank you for doing this interview.
Brian: Thanks, Andrew. Bye.