I get excited about small businesses that are run with
passion so that’s what I recommend in my guidebooks.
Thanks to Rick Steves, there’s a collection of micro-mosaics that I got to see when I was in London. Thanks to him, I’ve stayed in some delightful little hotels in Europe. I’ve also instigated plenty of conversations with fellow travelers who happened to be carrying a Rick Steves guidebook.
I’ve been a Rick Steves fan since long before he was so well known so when he landed in my part of the world as part of his public television promotion, I was eager to spend an evening listening to him talk.
During the question period, I raised my hand and said, “You spend 100 days a year in Europe, you manage a staff of 60, and you have a wife and two kids. How do you get all that writing done?”
He looked thoughtful and said, “Well, you’ll notice that none of my guidebooks mention night life.” He went on to explain that even when he’s on the road, he spends four hours a night writing. In addition to the guidebooks that get updated annually, he also writes the scripts for his popular television series.
This is all impressive, but I’ve been studying his Europe Through The Back Door business and think there are also some great lessons to be learned from this entrepreneurial expert.
In the competitive field of travel writing, how has he managed to build his enterprise? There are some obvious and some not-so-obvious things that Rick Steves does right.
* Was willing to start small. You can learn the entire evolution of his business on his terrific Web site (www.ricksteves.com). Here’s how it started:
“Throughout the late 1970s I traveled lots and taught my European Travel Cheap class at the University of Washington’s Experimental College in Seattle. Realizing a teacher needs a textbook, I put the lectures on paper, compiled my favorite discoveries, and in 1980 wrote the first edition of Europe Through the Back Door.
“Through my travel classes, I sold all those first editions of Europe Through the Back Door. In 1981, I got a bit more professional with the second edition, taking out the personal poems and the lists of most dangerous airlines. The third edition, even though typeset now, still looked so simple and amateurish that reviewers and talk show hosts repeatedly mistook it for a pre-publication edition.
“Throughout the 1970s I was a piano teacher. By about 1982, my recital hall was becoming a travel lecture classroom, and I needed to choose Europe or music. I chose teaching travel over piano, let my students go, and began building Europe Through the Back Door. “
* Passionate. It’s hard to develop any level of mastery—or success—if we’re lukewarm. Not only does passion keep us growing, it’s also highly contagious, which is a terrific marketing tool.
It’s apparent that Rick Steves loves what he does. He says there was a moment when he knew that Europe was going to be his playground. “When I’m in Europe,” he wrote, “I’m breathing pure oxygen.”
That passion keeps him coming up with new recommendations and discoveries.
* Makes it look easy. My daughter said she was watching him one day and thought the reason he’s so successful is that he seems so ordinary and unsophisticated. “I think people watch him and think if he can do it , they can too.”
Like all good experts, he has the ability to give people confidence. His easy going style makes him a great teacher and his sense of humor adds to the fun.
* Understands multiple profit centers. Today ETBD is a business with plenty of diversity. In addition to the twenty-plus books that Rick has written, the company also has a booming tour business, as well as a mail order company that sells travel gear along with books, videos and DVDs. And, of course, there’s that television gig.
* Has a clearly articulated philosophy. Every issue of the free ETBD newsletter contains that philosophy which is carried out in all aspects of his business. There’s a particular kind of traveler that is his customer and they don’t waste time trying to attract folks who lack an independent spirit. His customers are folks who appreciate a Less is More approach.
* Creates a loyal customer base. One popular features of the Web site and newsletter is a section called Road Scholars which shares travel tips from fellow ETBD fans. They also have events for alumni of their tours to meet and swap travel tales. There’s a sense of personal involvement with the company.
If you’re in the business of packaging information of any kind, Rick Steves is a fellow entrepreneur that is worth learning about and worth learning from.
Want to see Rick at work? Here’s a short video of him updating his guidebooks.