Wheeler’s guide to business and entrepreneurship
When Tony Wheeler and his wife Maureen arrived in Australia in 1973, they’d just finished travelling through Asia and people were asking where they’d been, how they got there and how much it cost.
Despite arriving here with just 27 cents in their pockets and an old camera, the Wheelers saw a business opportunity and grabbed it. The pair turned their diaries into a guide book, delivering practical travel information and background on the culture and history of the countries they’d travelled through.
Over 8,000 copies of the Across Asia on the Cheap guide sold in just three months, and the Wheelers were soon able to afford to travel again and write another guide – and Lonely Planet was born.
After selling millions of guides over 30 years and creating one of the world’s most recognisable travel brands, the Wheelers sold Lonely Planet to the BBC and are now on the hunt for their next project.
In this interview, Tony Wheeler tells Dynamic Business why Lonely Planet’s husband and wife team worked so well and offers some advice for other entrepreneurs.
Q: Do you consider yourself an entrepreneur?
Yeah, there’s no question that it was a very entrepreneurial business. It was something that hadn’t been done before. I’m very proud that we’re a company that introduced places to people. Their knowledge is driven by what they’ve read in our book. The fact that if you want a book about some place, the one you find comes from Australia—I’m very proud of that.
Q: How did you get your company to a point where you felt able to let go?
In a way, it’s because we hadn’t succession planned. We never saw it as a family dynasty to be handed on to the next generation. But we also didn’t want to carry on until we dropped dead in the office. We decided there was going to be a change and it was just a matter of when. There were a lot of people with their hands up to buy if we ever sold. But I’ve always been impressed by the BBC.
Q: How did you maintain quality across the Lonely Planet brand?
If you get it wrong, people tell you. It’s a really good sign if your customers feel that kind of involvement with you. They take it personally when it isn’t as good as it should be. And I’m a fierce critic. I always use our books when I travel.
Q: How did you manage working alongside your wife?
We didn’t step on each other’s toes too much. I was the creative side of the business; I had an aptitude, eye and enthusiasm for it. Maureen’s always been much more down to earth. If someone had to be fired, she fired them because I couldn’t stand doing it. At the beginning, all of our ‘board meetings’ were held in the middle of the night when one of us couldn’t sleep. We’d wake the other one up to say ‘we’ve got to discuss this right now’!
Q: Any advice for entrepreneurs?
Do something you love. If you love it and you don’t make money out of it, it doesn’t matter because you’re enjoying it. Other people will realise you love what you do, and it’s catching. You get a buzz out of that, you think whatever they’re producing or selling or doing must be good because they’re so keen about it! I love enthusiastic people.
Q: So what is your future path?
Three things: I’m going to keep doing what I’m already doing, writing and contributing to magazines and papers. We’ll carry on with (charity work at) The Lonely Planet Foundation and contributions to the Wheeler Centre, which promote literacy and literature. I’m involved with the London Business School on an academic level, my wife is working on an opera project with Opera Australia, and I still travel about four months a year. So there’s no shortage of things to keep me out of trouble. Or in trouble. But I’m open to suggestions!