In less than a week I’m heading to Orlando, Florida for the Arival Conference. It’s the largest conference in the world dedicated to the tours & activities industry.
And if you work in this business, it’s a fantastic opportunity to be inspired by leading voices, catch up on the latest trends and, well, have a few glasses of wine with friends who run or work in other tour companies.
(The conference is taking place at the Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center, which, for a kid from New Zealand, looks out of this world. There appears to be a jungle in the lobby. I suggest you Google image it.)
Anyway, there’s another reason I’m going.
Conference organizer Douglas Quinby asked me to come and speak about the twists and turns of growing Devour Tours from a small food tour company in Madrid to a not-quite-so-small food tour company with tours across Europe.
Preparing my presentation was a fascinating opportunity to look back over the last 7 years and think about the lessons that I (and my co-founding partners Lauren and Alejandro) have learned throughout this incredible journey of starting a company from scratch.
Here are five of those lessons.
Lesson 1: Core values are your most powerful tool
Lots of companies have core values.
You see them on websites and hiring pages all the time. But it’s so easy for core values to simply become something fluffy and feel-good that you roll out in interviews, but never use in the day to day of the company.
A few years ago we surveyed everyone who works with Devour to figure out what everyone thought our core values were (because like it or not, you already have core values in your company!). It was a fascinating process, and the five we decided on were:
- Be curious; keep learning
- Make the right choice
- Go above and beyond
- Live with passion and purpose
- Get involved
And I’ve learned over the last few years these core values—if harnessed—are such a powerful tool:
- They help you know who to hire—all our interviews have questions that inquire about the candidate’s curiosity.
- They help you figure out ways to compensate your team—each team member has an amount of money that they can spend each year on professional development and learning.
- They help you celebrate—we have Culture Awards every year at our annual Team Summit where we nominate each other to see who will win the award for each core value.
- They help you in a tough spot—several times we’ve debated what the “right choice” is in a difficult situation and let that guide our decision.
So figure out your core values. Enshrine them. And find practical ways to use them on a daily basis.
Lesson 2: Figure out what makes you unique (it’ll take time)
There are no shortcuts for this one. It will take time to tease out what truly makes your company tick.
Why is it important? Because nobody gets excited about giving money to a company that doesn’t have a unique take on the world.
And you want your customers to be excited when they come into contact with you.
Lauren and I gave tours for the first three years after starting Devour, and I realize looking back that it was during this time that we figured out what Devour needed to stand for and represent.
Guiding our guests ourselves day and night for such a long period helped us to truly understand the challenges they were facing when they landed in Madrid and didn’t know where to eat or, even more importantly, understand how to eat in the capital.
And so it was during these early years that we realized that it was vitally important to us that every Devour tour had—in addition to great food—incredible, deep information. The guests we were meeting every day on tour were intelligent, curious people—and we decided we wanted to fill their minds, as well as their bellies.
Nowadays the belief that our tours must fill both bellies and minds guides us when we’re designing tours, and training guides.
I think if we’d only given tours for a few months, we wouldn’t have had the time to really develop this important part of Devour’s DNA.
Lesson 3: Learn how to run a company
This may seem obvious, but it’s a biggie.
Most people who start a company don’t actually know how to run a company (they’re two very different skills).
I started as a tour guide passionate about showing people coming to Madrid the food and culture of my adopted city.
Times have changed.
Nowadays my focus is on leading other team members, recruiting, training and strategy for the future. And while I have some innate traits that help me do those things, I have had to learn so many skills over the last five years to enable me to run and grow the company.
The sooner you can start learning about running a company, the better. I suggest reading The E-Myth Revisited, listening to podcasts about entrepreneurship while you’re cooking dinner or at the gym and—if you have the budget—consider business coaching.
The challenges you face in growing your company will feel unique, but they’re not. And there are so many people you can learn from who have been through it all before.
Lesson 4: Learn to trust your team
When you first start a business you do everything.
At the start, Lauren and I designed the tours, gave the tours, answered the phone and emails, wrote blog posts, did the social media.
Over time, as your company grows, of course you hire people to help you. But given this thing is your baby, it can be very hard to let go and learn to trust others with your baby.
Obviously you have to hire and train well, but if you do that, then you should soon learn that the people on your team actually can do all those things like you—and ultimately better than you.
This realization, when it happens, is both liberating and a little bit scary. But embrace it!
I recall at our inaugural team summit in Seville at the start of this year, a number of team members gave presentations summing up the previous year in their departments, and looking forward to the year ahead. And it was incredible to experience the intelligence, passion and dedication in the room.
It reinforced for me that while at the beginning of a company’s journey you have to be the one shoveling coal into the fire to keep it burning, if you truly want to realize your company’s potential, you have to relinquish some control and trust the people you’ve brought on to grow it with you.
You’ll be happier, and so will they.
Lesson 5: Your company will evolve…and that’s okay
When Lauren and I started Devour in 2012, it had a different name.
It was called Madrid Food Tour (check out the original logo below!).
So, obviously we didn’t give tours in Barcelona, Paris or Lisbon back then. But after giving tours in Madrid for a couple of years, in 2014, we decided to expand to Barcelona. It was a massive step for us, but we pulled it off.
And we changed our name to Devour Spain. This was our first big evolution.
Subsequently, we opened in Seville and San Sebastian, as well as four more locations in Spain where we no longer offer tours (Granada, Santiago de Compostela, Valencia and Malaga).
All along we’d thought that our superpower was being experts on Spain. But soon our guests were asking if we were going to expand to Paris, Lisbon, Rome…and it was a little confusing, because we were the Spain experts.
But then it dawned on us.
Yes, we were Spain experts. But we were more than that. Over the years we’d also learned how to create and run fantastic food tours that highlighted local cuisine and culture in a way that was unique to Devour.
And we were passionate about collaborating with like-minded local experts in other countries to showcase their local cuisine and culture and share it with our guests.
Suddenly it clicked, and we evolved again. This time into Devour Tours, a company which offers tours across Europe.
Across all these iterations, two important things stayed constant: our mission (connecting curious travellers with local food in a way that helps culture thrive) and our values.
What does the future hold? Who knows.
But I’ve learned to expect evolution.
Bonus lesson: Document the journey
One more. Document the journey of starting and growing your company.
In preparing my presentation for Arival, I went back through the Photos app on my computer to reconstruct the past, and figure out what happened when.
In the hustle and bustle of growing a company you forget when things happened. You get your timelines all mixed up. You mentally expand some periods, and compact others. And then, one day, someone will ask you to write a blog or give a speech about the journey of growing your company, and you’ll realize you can’t accurately piece together the past.
So take photos and videos—you’ll need them one day!
Keep an eye out for James’s presentation at Arival 2019, and be sure to follow him on LinkedIn for more of his great insights into the food tourism industry!
Enchanted by the country’s exhilarating culture and cuisine, Devour Tours cofounder and COO James has written about Spain for international publications, including the Guardian and the UK Sunday Times. He hosts a popular YouTube channel about Spain, and has appeared on the BBC and British Channel 4. A wine lover, he is WSET Level 3 certified.