Lonely Planet co-founder Tony Wheeler on building a global brand

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Lonely Planet co-founder Tony Wheeler takes the My Business Q&A, offering some insight into how he grew the Lonely Planet brand and sold one hundred million books in the process.
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CAPTION: Lonely Planet co-founder Tony Wheeler on top of the Nyiragongo Volcano in the Congo DRC in 2011.

Travelling across Asia on the ‘hippie trail’ of the 1970s led Tony Wheeler to the creation of the Lonely Planet series of travel publications, which have since become the bible for any serious international travellers. After selling more than a hundred million books – on top of launching websites, digital publications, smart phone Apps, a photo library and TV productions – Wheeler completed the sale of the Lonely Planet brand to BBC Worldwide a year ago.

My Business: What are your most effective work habits?

Tony Wheeler: Being a totally useless, no-attention-span scatter brain. Somebody inevitably picked up everything I was doing really badly and did it far better than I would have done.

MB: The most important person in my business is ... because ...

TW: At one end of the operation it was the researcher/authors – the people who went out there, to often wild and wonderful places, and did the hard yards on the ground. Their mad enthusiasm was what made it work. And at the other end, the people in the warehouse and delivery operations who made sure the right things ended up on the right shelves. I can’t believe how many times we were complimented for delivering efficiently and effectively, as if our competitors weren’t.

MB: Best business decision you’ve ever made?

TW: To concentrate on the things other people weren’t doing, even if it didn’t seem to make economic sense. Holes in the market are always worth filling, and very often it can be surprising how big those holes can be. Plus, small holes can turn into big ones, and if you’re already occupying the space, anybody else is going to find it difficult to squeeze in.

MB: How do you delight customers?

TW: Involve them. Now days, crowd sourcing, wisdom of the masses – all that group involvement stuff – are hot topics, but we did it from the very start. If people loved what you were doing so much that they want to help make it better, you must be on to something.

MB: Best tip for managing people?

TW: Let them run amok. Locking teenagers into a room with computers and saying “go for it, create it”, was what got us into the internet very early on.

MB: What’s more important in business: passion or preparation? Why?

TW: Passion, absolutely. Well, it worked for me. Look, if you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, how is anybody else going to love it? And if it falls on its face, at least you had fun.

MB: I drive a  ... because ....

TW: In Australia, a Toyota Prius – because it’s the most interesting car on the road and I like interesting cars. I’ll probably move on to an all-electric car next. Plus, a Lotus – because it’s fun to drive. When I’m living in London I don’t have a car at all, because in London you’d be crazy to own a car. When I need wheels I use the car share operation Zipcar; it works amazingly well.

MB: If someone gave you $100,000 and said “Invest this in your business by the end of the week – or lose it” what would you do?

TW: Once upon a time I’d have gone straight out and done another book, grabbed the right writer and sent him or her off to some totally crazy country which, for assorted reasons, nobody had ever covered before.

MB: The Internet is a massively disruptive force. What’s your reaction to disruption? –

TW: It’s great if you’re the disruptor; terrible if you’re the disruptee. Interestingly, you can be the first and, if you hang around long enough, morph into the latter.

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