My name is Ryan Connolly. I’m a 32 year old Scotsman currently running an adventure tour company in Iceland called Hidden Iceland.
We are currently number 1 in Iceland for Private tours and multi-day activities on TripAdvisor and run multiple sold out tours every day of the year. This is after only 2 years of operations and bootstrapping our way through the first year.
I focus on the marketing side, whereas the two other co-founders, Dagný Björg Stefánsdóttir (Icelandic) and Scott Drummond (Australian) focus more on the day to day operations and sales. Therefore I will focus this piece on marketing in the most part. Although this is a story for the travel market I would hasten to point out that none of the advice I give cannot be translated into most other industries. If Instagram doesn’t work for you, maybe LinkedIn will. You see the point.
General Advice – Trust is everything
My first piece of advice before I delve into my side of things is, if you are starting a company with other people you must trust them 100%. And when I say 100%, I mean 100%.
Trust them not to hide things from you, mistakes and victories alike. Trust them not to walk away when times are tough. Trust them to give you crap when you mess up. Trust them to acknowledge when you’ve done well. Trust that they might be better at some things than you. And trust that they realise your value in the business too. Without all that, the hard times will be really strained. And the good times will be bittersweet.
I have this trusting relationship with Scott and Dagny. And it has got us through some difficult times. Our arguments are constructive, our criticism is relevant and our skill sets counter the others weaknesses. All in all, we make a good team in the most part.
Ok, now that my love letter is done, on to the marketing side. The term bootstrapping gets flung around a lot in the startup community a lot. It means making your business a success without investors or much startup capital. This describes Hidden Iceland’s beginnings perfectly. We scraped together whatever extra cash we had and called in every favour we could just so we could afford the equipment to run our first tour. We worked without a salary and picked up the odd job wherever we could just to pay off loans and rent. It was a scary time. This left little money for marketing. Sorry, no money for marketing. So it was up to all 3 of us to get our names out there.
This article is dedicated to the free or low cost ways to find customers that got us off the ground without spending any money.
Up front cost – zero (though can erode profits significantly)
I was out of the country for the first few months, working for a startup accelerator, so this section was very much Scott and Dagny’s domain. In our case there are a plethora of Icelandic Travel Agencies and hotels that re-sell products. Sadly, there are even more tour operators campaigning for each of these agencies to sell on their behalf.
What we did to get the ball rolling here is to offer competitive commission on each tour we ran and invite any and all staff members on our trips for free to experience them. This is not as straight forward as it seems, as many other companies have the same idea. Scott and Dagny would walk into each hotel and agency on a weekly basis with a smile and some leaflets and tirelessly talk about our company. Eventually we started to see bookings come in from this effort.
Although this is a great way to get sales without upfront marketing spend be aware it does erode your profit margin more than many other forms. If you have a finite product like ours keep in mind these commission heavy sales could be taking up spots for direct sales in the future. These days we see the re-sellers as a way to compliment direct sales.
2. Reviews & Word of Mouth
Upfront cost – zero (though you need customers first to get the ball rolling)
So you may think this one is slightly more valuable to the travel industry but I wouldn’t really agree. People buy from people. If that’s from a friends referral, fantastic. If it’s from an online review, also great. We treat every single customer like they are friends and family. The guides we hire are brought on specifically for their personalities as much as their experience for this reason. There were many, many (did I say many) trips that we ran at a loss in the first year because we wholeheartedly believed that each customer had the potential to either do a lovely review for us or even better, refer us to a friend. Turns out we were right. A large proportion of our customer base is now referrals from either TripAdvisor or previous customers.
Every single industry, in one form or another has a review system in place. If you don’t know what yours is then get researching because I guarantee whether you are selling dog toys, freelancing as a web developer or running a travel company there is some sort of platform for people to comment.
Upfront cost – zero (but lots of time needed to do right)
This one can be done before operations start. It is laborious. It is annoying. It’s maybe the least fun thing you will do in the company. But having a flashy and functional website is great, but if google can’t find you then you are doomed. Quick tips:
1. Register the business with Google.
2. Research key phrases and key words that are relevant to your product and pepper your website with them (as long as it doesn’t affect the content negatively).
3. Alt tag every single image with your company name and product and description.
4. Write relevant blog posts at least once a month and update old posts as much as possible. 1700 words per post is the suggested length, with lots of images in between. Make sure that each post links to many other parts of your website and other websites outwith yours.
Be wary of SEO companies who guarantee x additional visitors to your website because there are many out there with nefarious means which you will ultimately be penalised for if google finds out. Either do your own research yourself or find a trusted web designer who is capable of making your website SEO friendly.
4. Social Media
Upfront cost – zero (but requires daily input to work well)
I won’t delve into this too much either as ‘everyone is an expert’ on social media. We have 40k followers on instagram which creates some sales. Not as many as you’d think though. If you want a good following, whether it’s LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook, Medium, Pinterest etc then two things are needed.
1. Add content regularly and update when you can. Weekly at the very least.
2. Engage with the audience. This should be daily. This means replying to messages, sharing stories or commenting on other posts.
As laborious as you think this one is with not much initial payout just keep in mind how often you have your phone in your hand each and every day. This should be second nature to a lot of you.
N.B. You have a network of people already on your own personal social media accounts. My view is that if you are too embarrassed to share your business on there then you shouldn’t be running the company. Our first few customers came from facebook friend referrals simply from me saying I’m running a company, please help. Pride has no place in the startup community. The ball needs to start rolling somewhere.
5. Associations & Communities
Upfront cost – zero (depending on the community)
Going it alone and hoping ‘the product is so good it’ll sell itself’ is a ridiculous thought. And yet so many young entrepreneurs have this stuck in their heads for the longest time. Myself included in my younger years. The reality is you need to get out there and sell sell sell. I’ve done a lot of cold sales in my time. This isn’t some self-aggrandising statement. I have literally racked up well over 10,000 calls and emails to non-qualified contacts selling anything from printers to flat screen TVs to windows to microwaves. What did I learn? It’s horrible and basically useless for long term development.
Therefore you need to find a way get in front of audiences in a different way. Hidden Iceland are part of two associations relevant to our industry, Family Travel Association and Adventure Travel Trade Association. Being an active part of these communities has brought so many great opportunities, from online articles about us, writing opportunities, speaking opportunities and direct sales. All for the low cost of a membership fee.
I’m also personally involved with the Techstars community and have created a great list of advocates from previous jobs that I can ask for help with. All of these things add up, even if there is no immediate pay off. Find a community or association to be part of. Add value to the community without the immediate expectation of pay off (expert advice on your industry perhaps) and attend networking events run by them. You will be amazed how your relationships will develop over time in this way.
Upfront cost – zero (if you utilise your contacts well)
This final topic is quite dear to my heart as it played a big part in getting Hidden Iceland off the ground in the first few months. I started this section by writing, ‘we were very fortunate that’ but then I deleted it as I reflect on it more. Luck had nothing to do with it. In the first 6 months we had a few companies write articles about us that did three things for us:
1. The trust bestowed on the publication by its readers was quasi passed on to us. It strengthened our brand.
2. Having reputable companies write about us and link to our website boosts SEO massively. It strengthened our online presence. People could finally find us on google.
3. Direct sales. Depending on the article people would click directly through without ‘shopping around’ and purchase a product. The customers we were receiving from this were less price conscious and more likely to review us after. It strengthened our margin and reputation.
It’s easy enough to tell you to get lots of people writing about you but the reality is I’d be surprised if you don’t have at least one friend, or a friend of a friend, in the industry who would be willing to pass on your details or help. I contacted a few hundred friends in this pursuit. Many replied. One turned into an article.
If all else fails you can recruit a PR company for this stuff but please please please only choose PR companies that are deeply rooted in your industry. Otherwise it’s a big cost with potentially no payout.
There are a probably another 25 things we do on top of this that I could add to this list but to be fair everything I have listed above is a full time job in itself. Just remember that regardless whether you are the web designer, operations manager, customer facing staff member or marketing manager there are always ways to promote the company in some way.
I hope all of this helps!
We had the great pleasure of joining Ryan on two of their Iceland tours earlier this year in April 2019. It was our first trip to Iceland and we had the best time. Iceland is incredible. Ryan is a great guide looking out for our safety and comfort, ensuring we all had fun the whole time while providing a ton of knowledge about Iceland to boot.
To find out more about Hidden Iceland, or if you would like to join on a tour with them in Iceland click here.
Look out for Ryan’s #CareerAdventures story coming soon!
* We paid for our own trips to Iceland and tours with Hidden Iceland. We really did have a great time! 🙂