Today we’re talking with Adventure Life Founder and CEO, Brian Morgan. After graduating from college with a degree in English Literature, Brian bumped around Russia and South America during the mid 1990’s before coming home to Missoula, Montana. Determined to make traveling a part of his career, he started offering tours and eventually grew his company to a multi-million travel company.
Keypoint Takeaways: Opting out of a traditional career
When Brian returned from Moscow, he started interviewing and got a handful of job offers, but turned them all down. He knew taking a traditional job would mean wandering the world to getting a car and mortgage that wouldn’t allow for freedom and flexibility. Instead he left for South America for nearly a year before deciding it was time to head home and try this job thing again.
Brian knew he wanted to somehow align his passion for travel with a traditional job. Initially he saw offering guided travel as a hobby that he could do on the side. But despite a few tumultuous years growing the business, it started to turn a profit and growing year after year. Adventure Life now has 20 employees and serves several thousand customers every year.
Competing in an rapidly changing industry
There are plenty of pros and cons to being a travel entrepreneur in an ever-changing industry. There’s plenty of autonomy and creativity with no set ways to do things. Initially Adventure Life offered pre-set tours and itineraries and transformed into a customized travel company. People signed up for the tours they wanted and Adventure Life took did the rest.
Today the company operates like a concierge service. Adventure Life helps people with ideas about what they want to do and experience from wildlife safaris, cultural focused trips and homestays. Venturing into Antarctica and the Arctic are also popular tours.
Adventure Life runs with their client’s suggestions and then recommends activities and ideas to help exceed the experience they’re looking for. To keep up with the changing hospitality landscape, the staff at Adventure Life also staff visits locations regularly for two weeks to check-out new accommodations, do hotel inspections and keep up relationships with guides and suppliers.
Recovering from a battered economy
Like the rest of the travel industry (and just about every industry), Adventure Life was hit hard during the recession and took a beating in 2008. Leading up to 2008, Brian focused their marketing efforts around pay-per-click advertising back when spending pennies could give you a big return on your investment. By February 2009, Brian stopped pay-per-click advertising cold as it soared upwards of $5 a click. Suddenly their marketing expenses skyrocketed with little return to show for it.
Instead, Adventure Life refocused its efforts on online marketing tactics with a longer shelf life like social media, building user generated content and expanding their PR campaigns. Brian admits you need a certain volume of followers on sites like Facebook to get interaction going, but sees hosting a blog and user generated photo albums dramatically enhances their marketing strategy. Now potential clients can see exactly what other travelers experienced and what their trip will look like.
Failures in finding those first 100 customers
Brian laughs when reflecting on fumbling through his first few months and years of business building. He had no idea what he was doing and put together a trifold brochure to put in coffee shops, university recreation centers and travel agencies. Not a single person called.
Realizing he needed a website, Brian put one together himself that turned out terrible. He managed to find someone to do it for free and customers started finding him online. Brian says it was fortunate he got started during the early days of the Internet when it was relatively easy to be found simply by putting up some content and sitting back.
Growing pains from creation to management
Brian loves the process of creating and developing his ideas. Yet he had no desire to do HR, and admits he had little aptitude for it. There were plenty of struggles and growing pains in transitioning from the initial start-up of his ideas to actually managing them. Brian spent four years struggling to learn more about himself, how to motivate employees and how to criticize and make changes with his team. Brian reflects that he failed a lot along the way and even read “HR for Dummies” and reached out to ask for help from those more experienced to stay afloat.
Teetering on the brink of failure
Adventure Life teetered on the brink of failure for three or four years. All Brian had was a laptop bought on a credit card, a few thousand dollars for hosting fees and his cell phone. He had no investors and focused on building the business. With little concept on whether or not Adventure Life could even make it, Brian lived in attics and in a family cabin and only paid himself enough to survive.
During the first year, Adventure Life was in the red. But the second year saw $1,500 and the third ramped up to $20,000. Brian realized the company was on track to make $40,000 by year four and kept going to grow it into a multi-million dollar company.
Brian’s favorite resources range from Russian literature, classics, business books and trashy novels to help clear his mind. Here’s a round-up of his latest favorites:
Disclaimer: As with any digital marketing campaign, your individual results may vary.