Tamara Lohan proudly doesn’t hire from the publishing industry for her global travel guide business, Mr & Mrs Smith.
It’s a rule she and her co-founder, husband James Lohan, came up with after their travel guide and booking service idea was rejected by the industry one too many times back in 2003.
Knowing the industry missed a significant opportunity to get involved in a business that now employs 100 people globally, they’ve since worked to avoid a world they associate with the word ‘no’ – although they’ll make exceptions for writers.
“We were just sick of them [the publishers] saying no and being unable to see our vision for it,” Tamara tells Women’s Agenda while visiting her Australian office. “They said we’d never make any money out of it. But we realised that they were just set in their own world and couldn’t see our idea.”
That vision was for a hardcopy book featuring original photography and a selection of the UK’s best boutique hotels, all reviewed anonymously. Presenting a detailed plan for the book, Tamara says numerous publishers tore apart everything from the stock they wanted to use to the fact they planned to include a membership card and hire their own photographer.
You’d think you’d be deterred when the very industry you’re trying to crack says what you’re pitching is a terrible idea.
But the Lohans simply sought to shut them out and find an alternative way. They raised money from family and friends and chased one of the last remaining independent book distributors in the UK.
“It was quite hairy. In the UK, all the publishers own the book distribution. We didn’t realise this. We thought, naively, that we’d ring up bookstores and say ‘we have this book, how many do you want?’ But it doesn’t work like that.
“We tracked down the last remaining independent travel book distributor in the UK and basically begged. It was our only hope. After much persuasion, and a few little lies, we worked with them.”
They sold 20,000 books in the first three months and attracted media coverage from some of the UK’s largest publications including The Guardian and the Sunday Times.
And their success in 2013 shows just how powerful ignoring the naysayers can be.
With offices in London, New York and Melbourne, the Lohans now control an influential travel guide and boutique hotel booking service, offering a handpicked network of 900 hotels still reviewed anonymously. Their website www.mrandmrssmith.com went live in 2005 and generates almost $70 million in bookings a year. They’ve just kicked off a major deal with British Airways to promote Mr & Mrs Smith reviewed hotels on the airline’s ticketing site.
For somebody who never thought that much about being an entrepreneur, Tamara Lohan’s made an excellent life of it in one of those fields many of us can only dream about: travel. Although she’s had an eclectic career doing everything from marketing an energy drink in South America to running her mother’s dating business, she tells me she wasn’t looking for a business idea when they came up with the plan for that first travel book.
Rather, the pair decided something needed to be done to source the UK’s best boutique and luxury hotels after experiencing a “disastrous” weekend away while still dating ten years ago.
Both running their own businesses in London at the time and with few opportunities to get away on long trips, Tamara fatefully left it to James to decide where they’d stay for some rest and recreation one long weekend. “He failed! Ok, we always failed to really find the kind of places we wanted to go. We just couldn’t find places where we wanted to stay,” she says. They valued their long weekends. And when the hotel was off, so was the downtime.
Tamara puts the growth of their company down to one word, persistence. They persisted when others said no, persisted again in taking the business online and scaling it up with advances in technology, and have persisted ever since in expanding it across the globe.
“We took money from friends and family in the beginning, but we didn’t know if it was going to work. We had sleepless nights that we’d lose their money. Now we employ 100 people, the business is a lot more stable,” she says.
Now with two kids, a three and a six-year-old, the pair don’t travel as much as they once did but still take the opportunity to visit their global offices when they can. Their full-time nanny doesn’t say ‘no’ when asked to come along to help.