No business finds success without overcoming a hurdle or two.
Just take North Bay Brewery as an example. In 2010, craft beer enthusiasts James Holt, Robert Watkins, and Ron Holt created a brewery-tour company that quickly grew into a thriving venture. But when it came to scaling their operations, they found it challenging to sustain the same level of success.
So if you're ever stuck in a rut or facing a problem that you're not quite sure how to solve, just remember — the best small businesses have been in this exact scenario. Perseverance and creative problem-solving are key. The following stories from North Bay Brewery Tours, wildlife tour operator Point Reyes Safaris, and food experience merchant Chow SF showcase why.
1. The struggles of scaling
"When we started, Rob, Ronnie, and I were able to be on every single outing that our bus made," says James of North Bay Brewery Tours. "Since we were utilizing our personal experience and contacts in the beer industry, we knew that having one of us on board would make for an educational and fun tour."
But as the popularity of the business continued to grow, James, Robert, and Ron found themselves in a dilemma: they needed to grow the company and hire more employees, while also maintaining the same level of quality and experience they'd been personally providing.
"Our headache grew when it first became a reality that logistically, we would need to teach others to become rockstar tour guides," says Holt. But they worried: "How do you teach someone to know the people we know, share the knowledge and jokes and stories we want our customers to hear, and keep groups entertained, served, and safe?"
Their solution: scaling slowly. The team started by hiring friends and acquaintances in the industry. Over time, the company created a training and on-boarding process to help new team members learn quickly. And it paid off. "They all found a unique voice and perspective," says Holt. "Every tour is a truly unique and different experience, and the number of return customers we see is a testament to that," says James.
Focus on empowering your employees. Give them some freedom to take the reigns and let their personalities shine. Hire a passionate and dedicated team, and give them a chance to lead. To preserve the quality of your experiences and brand as you scale up, consider creating the following tools:
- A training manual and on-boarding process for new hires.
- A one-pager about the history of your business and how it all began to get new hires up to speed. (They should be prepared in case a customer asks.)
- A "cheat sheet" with fun facts for new tour guides to share.
- A customer feedback survey that new guides can use to guide their learning processes.
2. The ability to embrace unpredictable conditions without stressing
Wildlife photographer and tour operator Daniel Dietrich has spent years perfecting his wildlife tour — understanding animal patterns related to hunting, grazing, and sleeping. "Wildlife is unpredictable," says Dietrich, owner of Point Reyes Safaris. "There is no schedule. So there is always that nervousness before each safari. I think I will always have that nervousness."
Even though he "does his homework," he's still nervous about each and every tour. But Dietrich explains that the best solution for this nervousness is confidence in his passion, capabilities, and work. He has spent years of his life getting to know the wildlife in Point Reyes Park and remains committed to nature — he will never use bait, lures, calls, or any other method of manipulating an animal.
"I've put in an incredible amount of time understanding the wildlife my clients hope will see," says Dietrich. "And so far, so great."
There will always be unpredictability for outdoor businesses. Be prepared by taking these steps:
- Have customers sign waivers, and let them know if there's a chance that a tour will be canceled.
- Create a back-up plan (if possible).
- Establishing a network of partners and fellow tour operators. In case bad weather or conditions force you to cancel, you can offer your customers a referral to another opportunity.
3. Acquiring customers and making sure every empty seat is filled
When Andrew Friedland and his team launched Chow SF, an upscale cooking class in San Francisco, he thought it would be easy to fill classes of 40+ people. But despite investing heavily in promotional programs when Chow SF launched in early 2015, customers weren't coming.
"Based on all my previous experiences and my team's market intelligence, I was confident that there was pent-up demand for upscale chocolate and cheese-making classes," says Andrew. "We have a value proposition that no other cooking course can offer in that we work with chefs who are renowned in their fields."
Instead of giving up in frustration, Andrew and his team decided to streamline their customer acquisition process. Rather than making multiple direct sales, the team is now finding opportunities to drive more sign-ups from fewer sales. In addition to featuring his classes on ZOZI's consumer platform, the company drives sales through private groups and corporate team-building events.
"In starting a company from scratch and with limited resources, it's very challenging to get the word out and drive demand," says Andrew. "We have to be as smart about our sales as possible."
If you're struggling with customer acquisition, here are a few tactics you can try:
- Partner with a local tourism board.
- Target companies or groups rather than individual consumers.
If you have something to worry about, you're on the right path. All successful businesses face challenges — and these moments will only make you stronger. Rely on the experiences of others to learn as you go. Focus on learning and implementing solutions. So long as you're growing, you'll be successful.