In 2012, Radha Vyas and Lee Thompson went on a first date that created more than just sparks — it sparked the creation of Flash Pack, a London-based travel company specializing in adventure trips for solo travelers.
On the night they met, the couple formed the idea for the company — which is based on flash packing, the trend of professionals going on a trip with a backpacking-inspired vibe and comfortable accommodations. Within a year, the couple had bought a house and set up a business that was recently valued at $13 million.
We caught up with this entrepreneurial duo to find out how they have created one of the fastest growing startups in the UK and how they manage to juggle work and marriage.
Laura Begley Bloom: Tell me about that magical first date.
Lee Thompson: We met on Match.com but coincidentally only lived two streets away from each other. I guess the algorithms matched us on our mutual love of business, travel and food. We spent the entire evening trading travel stories. I had particularly interesting stories, given my photojournalism background. After the fourth glass of red, Radha revealed she had a travel-related business idea but was reluctant to divulge much more. One more glass of wine convinced Radha to tell me the gap she had identified for an aspirational travel brand speaking to single people in their thirties and forties. I instantly saw the opportunity and the rest is history.
Begley Bloom: Where did you get the idea for the company?
Radha Vyas: I had been looking for the perfect business opportunity for years when I stumbled across the idea from a genuine need to connect with like-minded people at the same life stage. I was single, in my thirties, stressed at work and wanted to get away and have some fun and adventure. All my friends were busy getting married, having kids or busy with their own respective careers. I had traveled solo most of my life but really craved good company. A friend suggested I look at joining a group tour and this is the first time I had heard of this concept of group travel. I had always traveled alone or with friends. When I researched the market, I realized it was predominantly catering to young budget backpackers or the luxury, retired market. I was somewhere in between. I wanted a dynamic adventure with people my own age and a boutique hotel. There was no brand out there that appealed to me. I did end up going on a group tour to Cambodia and found myself with a group of people 10 years younger than me. The tour didn’t cater to my specific needs or interests.
Begley Bloom: What were you doing beforehand? Did you quit other jobs to do this?
Thompson: Radha had built a fundraising consultancy business, raising money from high-net worth individuals for the non-for profit sector. She speaks four languages and had lived and worked in France, Spain and Chile before ending up in London. I was a photojournalist working for the UK National newspapers. I covered everything from the Libyan civil war to the Egyptian revolution and the Japanese tsunami.
Begley Bloom: How much is the company worth? How much did you start with?
Vyas: Based on a recent valuation, our business is worth $13 million. We have been growing 300-400% every year since 2014, and we are well on track to achieve $22 million this year. We started with £15,000 ($19,652), just enough to build a website and wrap some adwords around it. The first six months of business were extremely painful and the learning curve was steep. We learned everything we could about our target market and worked every day toward acquiring our early adopters, but we were making very little progress. Trying to convince people to trust a company that had no online reviews and didn’t even rank on page one of Google was hard. We were running out of cash and ready to give in when we had a viral marketing idea. It was our last chance to get a lot of eyeballs on our business and see if there was any product-market fit.
Begley Bloom: What was your viral marketing idea?
Thompson: One day in 2014 we were reading an article about workers fixing the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio that was damaged from lightning. We realized it was possible to climb inside the statue, so I decided to fly out to Rio to convince the Archdiocese to give me access. Rio was getting a lot of bad publicity at the time due to the amount of money they were pumping into the upcoming FIFA World Cup and I convinced the Archdiocese that I could turn that around. Remarkably, he agreed and blessed me at the foot of the statue before giving me access. I popped out of Christ’s crown and took a selfie from the top, capitalizing on the two biggest trends of 2014: selfies and the World Cup.
We released the photo to the media two weeks before kickoff: The “First-Ever Selfie with Jesus” became an instant viral success. We gave the image away for free to every journalist in the world in exchange for a backlink to our website. We held video footage back to encourage people to visit our site. This resulted in 1.4 million hits to flashpack.com in two days, lot of buzz and excitement around the brand and immediate sales and consistent monthly revenue from then on. We were starting to appear on page one of Google for keywords without spending any money and we finally had proof of concept.
Begley Bloom: Flash Pack is one of the fastest growing startups in the UK — what do you think makes it so successful?
Vyas: We have a well-defined global niche and a deep understanding of our market. We are solving a specific problem for a market who have high disposable income and lots of personal freedom. We have also been very lucky with our timing. The adventure travel market has enjoyed 69% year-over-year growth since 2009 and the number of single people are on the rise, too. Over 80% of people in Flash Pack’s community are single, so this rise in solo living plays directly to our market. We also have a brand with global appeal — 50% of our business in now in the USA and Canada and 10% is in Australia.
Solo travel is booming, too. Flash Pack adventures are a conduit to solo travel because most people join our trips alone and then get ideas and inspiration from other solo travelers in the group. It’s the first step towards actual solo travel and gives a flavor of what it’s like traveling without the comfort blanket of your friends or family.
Begley Bloom: What sets Flash Pack apart from other group travel companies?
Thompson: We are changing the face of group travel by meticulously curating both the adventure itself (to make sure it’s unique, meaningful and vibrant) and the group chemistry (to ensure everyone is at a similar life stage and broadly shares a similar spirit of adventure). If you ask Flashpackers what they love about our trips, the people they meet always ranks at the top. Travelers become really close fast and stay in touch long after the adventure has ended, so this like-minded link is key. [Our research shows that] 68% of Flashpackers never considered going on a group tour before finding Flash Pack. This is super exciting for us, as we are not simply stealing market share, we are opening up the market to a whole new group of people who are not buying from our competitors. We don’t really worry about what our competitors are doing. We also had no previous experience in the travel industry, which means we think very differently as a business.
Begley Bloom: What would you say the secret is behind your success?
Vyas: A strong relationship between us, which has kept us mentally resilient and allowed us to weather the many struggles of starting a venture. Hiring a strong team has enabled the explosive growth that we are enjoying today. We are also a cash-flow positive business, meaning we have managed to fund our own growth. We only raised a seed round in 2016 and haven’t had to raise again. To stay ahead of the curve, we have invested heavily in our technology.
Begley Bloom: How do you balance marriage and work?
Thompson: Well, we don’t balance our lives very well, in all honesty. We have regular date nights but ultimately spend the time talking about our baby, Flash Pack! We are totally obsessed with it. We used to feel embarrassed about that fact, but we have slowly realized that rather than spending life trying to find this mythical work-life balance, it’s better to focus on finding and doing work you love. For us, every day is like going to work with your best friend. The lows can be tough, but the highs are incredibly exciting and we can’t imagine sharing these with anyone else.
At work, we have very clearly defined roles. I build the brand and Radha builds the business. We have weekly management meetings where we are allowed to have an opinion on each other’s projects but each of us has ultimate veto over the decision. This helps us keep things professional at all times.
Begley Bloom: Any tips for someone who wants to start their own travel company?
Thompson: The travel industry is semi-regulated, which stifles innovation, so it can be tough to get started. Fortunately, zero industry experience, a bit of naivety and sheer stubbornness meant we didn’t allow this to stop us. The travel industry is saturated, but there is still lots of opportunity for innovative start-ups.
Begley Bloom: Do you go on Flash Pack trips? What are your favorite places?
Vyas: We travel a little less than we used to as Flash Pack trips are now shared amongst the team, but some of our favorite places are South Africa, Peru, Japan and Vietnam.
Here, 5 top tips from Lee Thompson on how to create a business from scratch:
- Understand your market thoroughly, know what makes them tick, what drives them, what their motivations and fears are and then create products around these needs.
- Be passionate about what you create. If you love and believe in your business it will get you through the tough times.
- Gain some traction before you quit your full-time job but as soon as you’ve got some evidence of product-market fit, fundraise to build your business quickly. We bootstrapped for way too long.
- Surround yourself with positive people who will encourage you. Starting a business can be a lonely experience, even if you have a co-founder. Join startup groups in your area and network with like-minded entrepreneurs at the same stage of business.
- If you believe in what you’re doing, don’t give up! Most businesses fail because they just give up hope when they don’t find the right distribution channel straight away. We faced a lot of rejection in the early days, which can knock your confidence. Find a way to build your resilience and look for evidence that you have a product that people want, despite the naysayers.