Lonely Planet co-founder: ‘The first book was an accident’ | Guardian Small Business Network

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Tony and Maureen Wheeler co-founded Lonely Planet in 1973 after the couple travelled overland from London to Australia. The travel publisher, which has since printed more than 120 million books in 11 languages, sold a 75% stake in the business to BBC Worldwide in 2007. The Wheelers sold their remaining 25% stake in the company four years later.

How did the first Lonely Planet book come about?

We intended to go around the world in a year, live in Sydney for three months and come back to London. But even before we arrived [in Australia] we thought we’d make it a longer trip and spend three years away. We drove from London to Afghanistan in an old minivan and then made our way through Asia to Australia. While we were living in Sydney, we’d meet people [who’d ask about the trip] and they’d say what did you do, how did you do this, and we’d jot notes down for them. Back then the phrase “gap year” hadn’t been invented. There were people doing it, but the numbers [were much smaller] than today.

So the first book was an accident. We both had full-time jobs in Australia – I was managing market research for Bayer Pharmaceuticals and Maureen was a PA at a wine company – and worked on it during the evenings and weekends. Then I took a day off work and went to some bookshops and said, I’ve written this book, do you want to buy some copies? And they did. It was called Across Asia on the Cheap. It got a couple of good reviews, and it sold 1,500 copies in a week. That was just in Sydney, although we took it to Melbourne and further afield soon after.

How did it progress from there?

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People liked it. We had to reprint it twice. We went travelling and bumped into people using it. When we wrote the second one two years later [Southeast Asia on a Shoestring], that had even more of an immediate reaction.

The money we made from one book paid for the next one. We managed to grow the business bit by bit. They have a word for it now – bootstrapping. I always remember feeling very resentful about having to do things like pay an accountant. I thought, the money I’m paying them, I could be sending someone out to do another book. It wasn’t until the end of 1977 when suddenly there was money in the bank, [and we didn’t have to ask] every Friday, how are we going to pay for things?

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The India guide book in 1981 was a real breakthrough. With someone managing the office, we could get away for six months. Maureen and I, plus two writers, headed off with an advance of $1,000 each for expenses. The resulting book was three times as big, three times as high a price and it sold three times as many copies as previous titles. I’ve still got my heart in that book. It was a big project and we were really betting the whole shop on it.

How did you balance writing the books and running the business?

We got to the stage where the real problem was that we couldn’t be out there travelling and at home running the office. We got to 10 books and I had my name on five of them. If you did stay home and run the office, the books didn’t get written. So, a few years down the line, we got a friend who’d had his own publishing operation to come and manage the office for us.

People were enthusiastic about what we were doing and were willing to do it for nothing. They’d turn up at the office and say, I could write a book about this place because I’ve lived there. We had no idea if they could write or not, but we’d say “ok, do it”.

The travel space has become a lot more crowded in recent years – in print and online. How did the business cope with competition?

Competition is always a good thing. It keeps you on your toes. Brands get up and get their name out there now because of the instantaneous nature of the internet. [You can] jump from nothing to something with remarkable speed. But it takes a while to build a reputation.

What really pleases me is that Lonely Planet is still going very well. It hasn’t made a complete shift into the digital world, but then there’s a lot of the digital world that doesn’t make money. What I like most is, even though we think of it as an English guide, it’s international.

You and Maureen sold your stake in Lonely Planet in 2011. Was it hard to let it go?

I think it always is. But businesses are like babies; they grow up and they have to stand on their own two feet. Plus there was this move into the digital world [and] I love books more. I love paper more than the screen.

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It’s still amazing [to see people using Lonely Planet guides]. It’s been nearly 10 years that it hasn’t been mine but I’ll go through the rest of my life thinking it is. I use the books a lot and if I find something that’s worth adding, I definitely tell them about it. I’m very lucky that they still ask me to do things, such as writing forewords and afterwords for books, or appearing at events.

Given your experience of running a global company, what advice would you give other entrepreneurs?

You’ve always got to be looking for something new. We had two advantages in the early days. Because we were small, we were deliberately looking for things other people weren’t doing. When we did our first Thailand guide, it was a small destination. By the time our potential competitors woke up to [its appeal], it was too late for them.

What are you working on at the moment?

We’re involved with the Planet Wheeler Foundation, the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne and I’m on the board of the Global Heritage Fund, an archeology organisation. I’m also working on five books and I still travel a lot. Last year I went to three countries I hadn’t been to before – Sudan, Ukraine and Panama.

I’ve got several friends who’ve been to every country on Earth. I’d be disappointed if I didn’t go to see a couple of new countries every year, so I guess if I live long enough I might get to every country. I’m certain of one thing – there will always be travel.

Tony Wheeler is speaking at the British Library, Business and IP Centre on 27 February. Enter the code GUARDIANBUSINESS for 50% off the ticket price.

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