Episode 1: Finding Your Passion

Marisa Meisters, WorldwideXplorer

Marisa Meisters, Soloprenuer Success Story

Welcome to Episode 1 of our new solopreneur success series. We're joined by travel expert Marisa Meisters, who made the leap to full-time solopreneurship in 2014.

Marisa shares how she moved from a career in IT to follow her true passion: exotic travel. After starting part-time, Marisa eventually realized that if she wanted to grow her business, she would have to quit her full-time job and devote herself to her company.

Solopreneur success topics we cover in this episode include:

  • Finding your passion
  • Getting the support you need
  • Unexpected benefits of being a solopreneur

Learn more about Marisa and her company at:

Phone: +1-678-243-0080
Skype: WorldwideXplorer
Twitter: @WorldwideXplore

Transcript: Solopreneur Success Stories - Episode 1

Finding Your Passion

-So Marissa thank you for joining us.

-Thank you!

-Well I’m excited about your business and I know we started working together a while back so I’ve had the opportunity to watch you grow and I’m looking forward to sharing that story with our listeners. Why don’t we start by having you tell our listeners a little about your business-what you do and how you got started and how you got inspired.

-Sure! Well my business is called WorldwideXplorer and what we do is we run tours in certain parts of the world. We don’t go everywhere, but for instance we have a big presence in Africa with seven countries that we go to on wildlife sight seeing tours. We also do a couple of countries in South America including Peru, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, and recently we added Europe with the country of Latvia. What began the interest of starting a business like this was about four and a half years ago or so, my husband and I went on our very first safari tour and it took us a couple of years to really plan, decide where we wanted to go, and arrange all of the details. So in the end when we wound up booking the tour, we went through one of the major tour operators out there. We were really surprised when we got to our destination and found that the first thing we noticed was we had landed in the middle of a tiny little airport in Africa and we had trouble finding our tour guide. We expected that at least they would have a brochure or a plaque saying the name of the company that we had booked through or a little plaque with our names on it. We saw neither.

That’s not a good way to start is it?

-No, and the tour guides that were there to pick up people- none of them had heard of the company that we had paid. We literally had to dig out our itinerary and go line by line with the tour guides before we finally found the correct one and wound up on the right tour.

-That’s not exactly a great way to start out your experience. That’s got to be pretty scary being in a foreign country and not knowing where your guide is or what you’re supposed to do.

-Exactly. Welcome-oops! So that was quite an experience and another thing we noticed when we were on that tour is that there was a lot of need. For instance, when we went to Victoria Falls and saw a lot of people had their own small fans set up where they were selling items that they made themselves, one of the gentlemen saw a pen in my husband’s pocket. He said, “Sir, if you give me your pen I’ll give you any one item from my store because I can’t afford to buy pens for my children for school.” And that just broke our hearts. We have so many pens here in this country. There were tons around the house that we could’ve brought along or purchase from any of the stores around here and we could’ve gladly brought those and distributed them. So we thought why can’t we figure out a way to kind of combine these concepts working with the local people rather than outsourcing all of this? That way they make a bigger profit- some of these bigger companies where they just outsource layer upon layer. Why don’t we do something to help people where we decide to stop at either village or a school, find out what kind of supplies they need, and ask our travelers to bring along some of those items and of course contribute some through the WorldwideXplorer site itself. So those are really the things that got us started with the idea of starting the company in the first place.

-That’s really cool so it started with a pen and a trip! As you’re telling that story I actually have a pile of pens on my kitchen counter because that drawer was overflowing and I thought, “I just need to throw some of these out”. I didn’t think about how much they could be appreciated in a different country.

-Absolutely! Yeah we’re always collecting pens and or little things like that. For instance at the beginning of the school year when they’ve got all sorts of other supplies on sale like notebooks and that kind of stuff we’re always stocking up for one of our next trips so that we’ve got supplies like that on hand all the time.

-That’s great. So that was about four and half years ago and you’re doing pretty well I would say taking that idea and turning it into a business in that amount of time- some people spend years thinking about what they want to do. Did you travel much before that? Did you think, “Wow this is a great trip and I would love to turn this into my career?”

-Sure, good question. Well I’ve loved traveling for as long as I can remember and my husband loves traveling too so I had always kind of gone down that path in the back of my mind. I had gotten a master’s degree in International Hospitality Management but never really put it to use. I had a couple of resumes out there when I was first starting out- one in the hospitality field and another in the IT direction. And good or bad, it’s the IT resume that got picked up first and that’s the path down which I headed for a long time. I always had the passion for traveling but I never really had that “aha!” moment until we were on that trip and I could actually put my passion to work for me.

-So how long were you in IT? That’s a big jump to go from IT to travel even though you had that basic education.

-Right, right. I was in IT for a little over ten years actually.

-So what made you think after ten years in IT that this is the time and this is really what I want to do and the change I want to make?

-Well the thing is I had found over the years when I was working for these different IT companies that after a while I was no longer really enjoying the job. And I started to think “OK there was something wrong with this company. And OK there was something wrong with that company.” And then I started doing a little soul-searching and thinking “Well is it really something wrong with those companies? Or is it really that I wasn’t a match for these types of positions? “ And so after years and years of doing something that wasn’t really my passion, I was so happy to finally find a direction that just made sense and felt right. I had never had that before.

-That’s great. Was that something you realized on the trip or something that you started thinking about when you came back?

-It’s something that I had actually started thinking about for a few years before that even but I just never really knew. OK if I don’t do IT, what am I going to do? Nothing had really leaped out at me as being clear or obvious, so that trip really helped to crystallize it.

-Did you tell your husband when you were on the trip that you were thinking of wanting to make a change? That’s kind of a sticky topic to bring up. So how did you approach it?

-Well the interesting thing is he actually came up with the idea. He said, “you know, looking at the way this company is doing things, don’t you think you and I could do it better?” And I said, “Wow you’re right!” So he was actually the one who came up with the idea, though of course with his schedule being so immensely busy there’s no way he could really do anything to put it into action. But just all I needed was that seed of the idea and that’s really what started it. We talked with the other people that were on tour with us too. They also thought it was a fabulous idea.

-That’s wonderful so you kind of conducted the market research right then and there.

-Right! Exactly, exactly.

-That’s smart and wonderful to have support from the beginning. That’s something a lot of people tend to worry about like I know I want to make this change but I don’t know if my friends and family will think I’m crazy or will support me. But you had that support right from the beginning so that’s wonderful.

-Yeah at least partially. He loves the idea of starting the business on the side, but it did take a little push and pull and convincing to finally decide that this is what I’m going to do full time. I’ve only been at it full-time for about the last year now. Prior to that I was doing the IT job full-time, and then what I could on the side for my company. But you know I realized that if I really want to have a chance to make it work, then go for it. I have to put all my effort into it. I can’t be doing something else 40+ hours a week and then hope to make my other business successful. The two just weren’t compatible like that. So it took some convincing, but we finally came to the agreement that yes let’s go for it and see what happens.

-Did you start out thinking that you would just do it as a sideline and over time realized that you wanted to go full time? Or were you thinking full-time from the beginning?

-I was thinking full-time from the beginning.

-So you were doing things early on to be able to make the move and quit the day-job?

-Yes exactly because like I said: I wasn’t very happy with my day-job in the first place. And again, nothing wrong with the company, just it was not the right fit work-wise for what I really needed to be doing but that was when I really decided and figured out what it is I was meant to do.

-So how long did it take you from the time you started-you said you’d been on your own for about a year- so about two and a half to three years before you kind of made the leap?

-Right exactly, exactly.

-And what kinds of things were you doing during that time? How were you preparing yourself knowing that that’s where you wanted to get eventually?

-I guess it didn’t take that much preparation from my side, it really took more convincing for my husband to buy into it. And convincing him with some examples of what I could be better doing with my time to devote to the company versus what I have to be doing full time at the job and then come home and be a full-time mom after my child gets home from school so we had all those kind of constraints and I finally was able to convince him that I need to be able to do things-obviously our daughter comes first-but, I really need to be able to devote those forty hours a week instead to running this business and here area the different things I could be doing to prepare and just to do a better job with it than I have time to do right now. Because I always have lists of things that keep on growing and my lists would grow and grow and grow and maybe I’d knock off one or two items a week but I was adding more items than I was ever able to knock off so it got to the point where that list was out of control.

-Too much lists to do everything at once so it’s almost like you’re pitching to an investor it sounds like. What’s your business case for quitting your regular job?

-Business case for quitting my regular job is I just really needed to give it a fair shot. Really needed to see what happened. It’s one of those things-if you don’t follow your passion you’re going to live with regret and he agreed with that too eventually. That we’ve got to give it our all and see what happens. There isn’t really any one perfect time to make that leap. Maybe for a few rare cases where that side business just takes on from its own momentum, but that’s just a few people. You can’t expect that to happen in most cases.

-I think you’re right and a lot of people go out as a solopreneur if they’ve been laid off or they start a sideline business, and like you said-it takes off and so there’s not doubt whether they want to pursue that. But I think in your case it’s a little bit different because you were trying to make it work, but you couldn’t do everything. So that was really brave of you to say, “Ok I’m going to commit to this and make it happen.”

-Yeah, thank you!

-So tell me a little bit about through that process, the challenges you faced. You said time management can be a challenge early on but what kind of challenges have you faced since then?

-I guess the biggest challenge right now (thankfully time management isn’t that big of an issue) but when you’re a small business just basically growing the business, getting the word out there, letting people know about who you are. Because when you’re small and you don’t really have a budget for advertising you’ve got to find other creative ways of getting the word out there and figuring out how to do it. There is no success manual for how to do it alone. It’s different when you’re in a corporate job because they tell you exactly what to do and you know what your responsibility and your role is and you know that it’s always going to be there. That isn’t true when you’re going about it solo like this.

-So how do you go about finding customers?

-We are on the web a lot. We use social media and are very active on Facebook and Twitter and we are starting to use Google plus and LinkdIn a little more too so we do that. Plus I’m also involved in quite a lot of networking in the local area. The first and best thing I did was join the chamber of commerce. Through that I’ve met some interesting and wonderful people and they’ve actually given me ideas on social networking groups to do. Because really a big part of it is getting out there, meeting people, and building that trust. You don’t build trust with somebody the very first time you meet him or her. And you can’t just expect that suddenly you’re going to make a sale for a big-ticket item the first time you meet somebody. You really have to get to know them, trust them, and see where you guys see eye-to-eye. It’s not a straightforward and easy process but it’s definitely worth going through because it builds a huge network of trust and there’s nothing more important than building that trust.

-That’s a great point. I’m sure your tours are not inexpensive. Do you work just locally or do you have people from all over the country or all over the world that do tours with you?

-I’ve had people from all over the world contact me and I’ve had people from all over the United States who have booked tours. So if they’re local they have booked with me but people come from a lot of different places. And yes not all of our tours are totally cheap, but on the other hand, not all of them are going to break the budget either. So we’ve got a large span of things but it takes time to kind of build that knowledge and let people know who you are because clearly it’s going to go on the Internet and they’re going to find the big fish first. They’ve got to dig a little deeper to find some of these other niche places such as what I’m doing where we can really customize something that a lot of those big guys can’t do.

-And as a solopreneur business, like you said, you don’t have the resources that some of those big companies do so how do you build that trust? Say you’re in Atlanta, and the customer is in Seattle and they want to book a tour, how do you build up that trust and help them stay confident to send the kind of money that is required to book a tour?

- Sure that’s a wonderful question. And what I like to do is really talk to people and tell them about my company and what we do. A big part of what we do is different. We work with local people on the ground. Ninety nine percent of the vendors that we work with (not really vendors) but the local people that we work with we’ve met in person. We’ve seen how they operate on tour and so I feel comfortable sending people to these places because I know and trust the people that I’m sending them with. It’s not like you’re contacting one of these great big tour companies and they’re turning it over and outsourcing it to somebody else where you don’t know who your guide is going to be. You don’t know anything about their experience. I know about their experience. I know about their families. So I can tell you all that information. I’ve been to these places myself personally so it’s not like you’re calling toll-free number and talking to a travel agent who very likely hasn’t been to a number of these places. I have been there myself. I can vouch for it. And another thing too about being a small business here in the United States- so wouldn’t you feel more comfortable booking with a company here in the U.S.? I’m a solopreneur and I’ve got a lot to lose if the tour goes wrong or if something gets messed up for somebody they’ve got so much power over what they do in terms of writing a bad review about something that I’ve done that went wrong. You really want to make sure that you hit that sweet spot and that you’re not only pleasing and meeting expectations but that you’re exceeding them every time. So as a solopreneur there’s a lot more riding on my shoulders than on these great big companies where okay if they mess up once or twice then that’s ok they have thousands of other people that are going to book and not really care if there’s one bad review out there because there are thousands of other good ones. I’ve got a lot more at stake than a lot of those big companies do and any solopreneur does.

-You made some great points and I want to come back to the topic of resources. A couple of things that you said- you know we don’t have the resources of a big company but it sounds like you’re turning that into an advantage because you’ve got that very personal touch and you can speak from experience having been to some of these places that maybe other tour operators haven’t been to. So do you find that being a solopreneur kind of lets you differentiate your business in unique ways?

-Definitely. I mean how many companies can you call up and know that you’re speaking with the owner of the company himself or herself? That they’re going to bend over backwards to ensure that you get exactly what you want. I can do that. And my clients know that I can do that when they call the WorldwideXplorer phone number, they’re talking to me directly. Not anybody else, so they’re working directly with me. Like I said and like you said-I’ve got the personal experience. I can tell them everything about me and about the place. I can tell them what the weather’s going to be like, what to expect, if it’s a place that has hiking well what is the hike like from here to here? I can tell them because I’ve been there and I’ve done it personally and I know what to advise.

-That’s wonderful. And do you think that because you can provide that high level of trust that you’re winning customers who have had a bad experience with a large impersonal tour company?

-Definitely I think so. And that’s a really good point. I’m glad that there are people who are willing to trust me after they’ve had a less-personal experience and are wiling to give me a try because that’s where I can really shine and stand out from the bigger companies. I’m going to make sure that that kind of thing simply does not happen.

-That’s great. Getting back to the idea of reviews that’s somebody who had a bad experience and then a good experience who’s going to write you a great review for your company and so do you ask for reviews and kind of encourage that through conversations with your customers?

-Yes that’s something that I always encourage and I know not everyone is comfortable doing it and that’s fine too. I think especially with the travel industry you see so many reviews out there whether it’s for hotels, tours, or anything. The first thing people do when they’re looking for a new place to visit or whether they’re looking for a new restaurant in the city, they’re always looking for reviews. What did this person feel? How did they rate against the competition? What are people saying about them? So I think reviews in my industry are critical for gaining more business too. Especially when you’re small and people don’t necessarily know who you are, if they see that there are a fair number of reviews about your company, it definitely helps.

-Do you email people or ask them to go on yelp and ask them to write a review for you? How do you actually capture reviews for your company?

-Sure, I mean I do ask them in person whether they would be willing to go on yelp or on something like TripAdvisor or some of the other travel-related websites. There are a lot of places. On Facebook, if someone would like to do a review on Facebook. There are a lot of different places where people can find and read those reviews so I think having a variety of reviews from more than one website is also helpful because a person that uses yelp may not be using Facebook to look for reviews and that person may not be using TripAdvisor but if you’ve got a good mix among the different review sites, then I think that can only help. And we’ve got some reviews that are just posted on our website too that people have sent via email.

-That’s a great idea! I love the idea of kind of covering all the fronts and having the reviews for your audiences where people will see them rather than trying to put them all in one place and telling people “if you want to read my reviews look on TripAdvisor.”

-Right. And not everyone will feel comfortable with every single place too. Some people don’t even have a yelp account so why would they want to register for that if that’s the only place that I’ve got people leaving their reviews? It just doesn’t make sense. You really have to be flexible and willing to use those different avenues as possibilities.

-So do you kind of say, “I would love it if you would do a review for me and leave it wherever you feel comfortable.” Or do you give people suggestions about where they could go and post?

-I give people suggestions about where they can go and post and I also tell them if they’re most comfortable just writing an email or if they just want to talk in person and then I can take notes and see if they agree with what I’ve written down in the notes then we can do it that way too. I’m very flexible in terms of how I’ll accept a review. If someone wants to do a video recording, or whatever it is, I’m comfortable with that.

-A lot of people for some reason are intimidated by asking people for reviews, but I think it’s so critical. You have to have that. It’s so important to get that kind of social proof from other people so I shake my head when someone says they don’t want to ask for reviews because it’s so important. I don’t’ know how you convince people to do that but it’s critical to growing a business.

-You can’t force somebody to write a review but the worst thing they can say is no, which is totally fine too. I’m OK with that and I respect that. But as long as we’re not pushing too hard for the review but just asking, “Do you mind leaving me a review? I’m glad you liked it so much.” And if they say no, I’m totally okay with that too. But definitely you have to at least ask because if you don’t ask you’re less likely to actually receive the review. Or you may get this wonderful glowing review out there and have no idea that it’s even out there, that you can refer to it so it’s great to know that you’ve got this review out there versus just guessing and leaving it at random.

-Maybe some of the reluctance comes from fear that they might get a negative review. Has that ever happened to you?

-So far so good. But certainly there are always things like that that could happen and if it does, instead of being afraid of it, the best thing someone can do is respond and address it personally and meaningfully. Because I’ve seen that too on some of the websites like TripAdvisor where people post a really negative review but if you’ve got well-trained staff to look at those, the staff can address the review and if they do it correctly in a really humble manner I think that actually garners more respect for the property versus seeing another one that gets a similarly bad review and they just totally ignore it or don’t even acknowledge it.

-I agree with you there. I think the way you recover from something like that shows so much about the character of the business. There was actually a story the other day in the paper here in Atlanta about a company that was spiteful. They were attacking customers who were giving bad reviews and they were posting fake reviews and that kind of thing because they weren’t happy about some of the reviews that they were getting. They actually had to shut the company down which is amazing. So I think it is much better to get the bad news if there is any to be had and like you said- deal with it and approach it proactively and solve the problem because that does show that you’re willing to help customers. But you can’t prevent bad things from happening every now and then. Say a flight is cancelled or something like that happens I think customers are interested in seeing how you deal with it.

-Absolutely! And it shows the human side of the company and that not everything can be perfect one hundred percent of the time and then you get people with different levels of expectations for instance someone who’s used to one hundred percent perfection and then they travel somewhere and they have different ideas about how to do things then they perceive that as being a lot less than perfection. You can’t please everybody all of the time but you do your absolute best to please them as best as you can and if there are any issues, welcome the feedback and the criticism because that’s the way that we grow and improve ourselves too.

-I think that’s really good advice. It sounds like you’re doing really really well which is wonderful. I’m happy to see your success. I’m curious has there been any time within the last couple of years that you’ve had an “aha!” moment like this is going to work and everything is going to be okay?

-I guess here and there I feel that way and I have that overall belief that this is what I’m meant to do and where I’m meant to be and I see how much happier I am overall and that’s the big key right there. Maybe it’s not an overarching huge “aha!” but I just see the difference in my personality. I used to be a lot more cranky and a lot more irritable and even within a few months of leaving that full-time job and doing WorldwideXplorer full-time, my daughter noticed “Mommy you’re in such a better mood now. You don’t get into the same kind of aggravation that you used to. You don’t raise your voice like you used to. You really changed. I like this.” So that was the biggest moment right there when my own daughter observed it. That was just huge.

-That’s great. It’s a gift to yourself when it gets to your family as well and I can see. I had a similar experience when I went out on my own also and I think that you’re thinking of what the benefits are for you and what supports you but sometimes you don’t realize the people in your family that benefit from having you in their lives. So I think that’s really wonderful that you’re able to do that and that your daughter sees the difference.

-Thank you! I’m very glad that she sees the difference too and I’m only sorry that she saw a different side of me that I wouldn’t want to project or to have her see of me.

-And what an example for her to see that you’re following your passion and doing what you really want to do. I think that’s wonderful.

-Thank you.

-So tell me do you have any advice for someone who’s just starting out on this journey-someone who is looking to become a solopreneur or just quit their job and is ready to make things happen?

-The biggest piece of advice is that you don’t have to go it alone, because that’s what most people do is we think, “Okay we’re going to quit this job and do whatever research we can online.” Don’t be afraid to reach out to others who have been there. Even if you don’t know somebody who has been there, start joining some of these groups and finding networks out there. You will meet people. That’s why I’m so lucky I met you for example, because you were able to push me farther down the right path and help me realize here’s what I really want to do and you were able to help me come up with a plan based on what you knew because you have the experience. You’ve done that before. You’ve been there before. People should not be afraid to reach out. Save a little bit of your budget for doing something like that. It is one of the best investments you will make to work with someone who’s professional and knowledgeable and can really help you get the jump start that you need because after you register your business and get all of those papers, your next question is now what? When you’ve got someone you can rely on who’s been there and can help you see that right direction and right path it helps so much and not everybody knows someone like that. I think it’s great to reach out for that help when you need it. Don’t be afraid to do it. If you’re afraid to take action and ask for that help, then that’s where you’re setting yourself up for potential failure. You want to set yourself up for success. So start right in the first place and reach out to the right people.

-That’s great advice and thank you so much for those kind words too. So we’re almost out of time here and I do want to make sure that our listeners know how to reach you to find out more about your business or maybe they’re interested in a tour. What’s the best way for them to get in touch with you?

-They can either visit my website, which is customexotictours.com or they can call me at 678-243-0080.

-And the company is WorldwideXplorer.

-Right exactly. The name is a little bit funny to spell so that way we use the custom exotic tours website to make it easier.

-That sounds like a great website for us to go to. For our listeners out there: if you have any questions or comments for what you’ve heard from Marisa feel free to drop some notes in the comments and we’ll try to respond. I would also encourage everybody to visit solopreneur.school online to check out our latest posts. Follow us on Twitter at @soloprenuer.biz or on our Facebook page. Marisa you mentioned that you’re on Facebook. What’s your company’s Facebook page?

-It’s WorldwideXplorer. Just make sure you spell the word with only one E in between “Worldwide” and “Xplorer.”

-Can you spell that out for us?

-That’s WorldwideXplorer.

-Great that way we’ll be sure people can find you. Well thank you for joining us! This has been a great conversation. Especially all of your insights about referrals I think those are so important for soloprenuers so thank you for joining us and we’ll be with you next time.

-Thank you so much for having me. It was an honor to be one of your guests.

Joey is the founder and CEO of Claravon Group and the creator of Solopreneur School. A consultant, business coach, speaker and author, Joey draws on her expertise in strategy, branding and marketing to help entrepreneurs accelerate growth and improve profits.

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