Mark Hodson spent 12 years as a travel journalist for The Sunday Times before building a business online. In 2009 he co-founded 101 Holidays, a travel inspiration website, along with fellow writer David Wickers and Catherine Leech, who had worked in travel PR, destination marketing and as managing director of a luxury tour operator. They now have five niche travel websites – focused on honeymoons, family holidays, short breaks and USA holidays.
I fell in love with the internet from day one. I’d been writing about online travel since 1996 and had played around with a couple of personal websites, but I never seemed to find a travel site that was both inspiring and trustworthy to me. We thought it might be possible to take the expertise of newspaper journalists and create a commercially-viable format online that made their knowledge accessible. There was another, more personal, reason: it was increasingly clear to me that the newspaper industry was struggling with commissions drying up, freelance rates falling dramatically and many publications looking for writers that would work for free. The prospects for a freelance travel journalist didn’t look rosy.
In terms of the website itself, we had several aims: we wanted to use images as a way for users to explore the site, which we felt nobody had done before; and we wanted a fresh, uncluttered look, so we decided we wouldn’t allow any display ads on the site. Behind the scenes we created a unique revenue share scheme for our editors, who all work on a part-time basis for us, but receive a guaranteed monthly income and an annual bonus when we exceed our revenue targets (which we’ve done on a regular basis). At a time when other sites were creating models that paid writers in pennies, we were able to pay decent money to experienced journalists.
I think we’ve managed to minimise the damage from any mistakes we’ve made by being agile, transparent and ready to question every decision. If a strategy isn’t working we’re prepared to admit as much and abandon it right away. Where we did get it wrong for a while was in our pricing. As our traffic volumes grew sharply in years two and three we weren’t sufficiently bold in putting up our prices, and that became difficult to rectify. Some people think our rates are still too low today, but we tend to err on the side of caution.
Because it’s so easy to set up a website, it’s tempting to jump straight into an online business, but I would urge anyone thinking of doing this to spend a lot of time researching the market and thinking hard about where they can add value. Companies that got to the web in its early stages have a huge advantage over newcomers, so you need to be not just as good as your competitors, but better. Don’t just think about product – how you market yourself online is just as important. Also, think very carefully about who you go into business with, your exact roles and responsibilities, and whether your long term goals align. Going into business with a friend could be a bad idea for some, but find a good business partner with different but complementary experience and skills and you can soar.
Like a lot of people I know, I don’t really have a clear delineation between work and leisure, and I like it that way. I love my work and I get to travel fairly regularly, which is what ultimately inspires me. At the weekend I’ll deal with work emails because I don’t see the point of waiting until Monday, and I wouldn’t want to get to my desk on Monday morning and find 200 messages in my inbox. That said, at least once a year I spend a week abroad totally off grid with no communication with the outside world, and I find that incredibly exciting and relaxing.