Bootstrapped businesses depend on the founder’s tenacity to cut costs, develop partnerships and get stuff for free.
Emma Durkin started Where the Wild Is after leaving her full-time job as head of marketing at a tour operator. She’s built the business on a shoestring budget by getting people to buy into its purpose.
Durkin gave us her tips for other businesses trying to launch without funding.
What does your business do?
We specialise in finding beautiful places to stay and authentic experiences in the Nordic countries. I spent over five years working for a UK tour operator as head of marketing. After dabbling in product development I found a passion for seeking out fantastic products and people.
I loved my job but all I could think of was trying to build my own brand with values geared towards the environment and respecting nature.
What’s it been like to set up and bootstrap the business?
Stressful, challenging and emotional at times. But I have never wanted to give up.
I was fortunate enough to have made contacts from my previous role. To bootstrap it I asked for everything for free or at a highly reduced rate. From print adverts and copywriting to flights and accommodation on research trips.
I haggled on prices until they were affordable. I had to get people and organisations to believe in the brand and to believe in me as a person.
What have you done with your existing network?
I’ve cashed in favours left, right and centre. Tugged on heartstrings and been like a dog with a bone. I am annoying, yet endearing. I always get what I want.
Don’t be afraid to ask for things for nothing – I wouldn’t have quit my job to start a business I thought would fail. I believe 110% in what I’m doing – people know I will work hard to make it a success and will offer any help they can. I also offer anything I can in return such as blog posts or social media.
Tell us about your recent trip to Norway?
I wanted to go to Norway but couldn’t afford it, so I asked the tourist board if they would pay for my flights (they did). I asked every accommodation individually if they would house me for a night or two and feed me (they all did). I was offered experiences and excursions and I asked the Northern Norway tourism board for a hire car (they gave me one).
I travelled with a professional photographer, so we offered an Instagram takeover for two tourism areas. We shared photographs relevant to each provider at the end of the trip.
I made sure I emailed every single person individually after the trip to say thank you. I took every person I met a gift from the UK and a handwritten card. Be grateful for any help you’re given and prove that the help was useful.
Can you give an example of onboarding a new partner?
I found out about a new electric catamaran called Brim Explorer that’s launching in Norway next summer by scanning Google Alerts. The co-founder’s name was in the article, so I found her on LinkedIn and started a conversation. We then had a Skype call and met for dinner as part of the Norway trip.
They brought an ocean conservation charity called Zing. We spent the whole evening chatting about saving the world – or at least the Arctic Ocean. We came up with the idea of getting tourists involved in beach-clean up operations and selling this through Where the Wild Is.
We have kept in touch. I’ve have asked for two tickets for its Maiden voyage in August and have pitched the idea to a journalist at the Telegraph. We now donate £10 per person from every booking to Zing Ocean Conservancy.
I wanted to work with the team at the Bristol-based digital agency 3Sixty because they are the UK’s leading travel-focused digital agency. My concern was the expense. But I shared my vision with them. In true startup style, we sorted out a partnership. They created a platform with functionality and templates optimised for startups with a license-based model. The result was a low upfront cost and a small monthly licensing fee. 3Sixty now has a white labelled startup solution and me on board as an advocate.
What support have you got from the startup ecosystem?
Being on the Origin programme has given me a big confidence boost. Having people who didn’t know me listen to my idea and think it was achievable was really encouraging.
They have provided me with an office, a desk, a chair, an internet connection and a phone line. As well as weekly mentoring sessions and access to an accountant to help with finance.
How can a for-profit business find its purpose?
It has to come from the heart. You have to be genuinely passionate about something and you have to understand the consumer groups that you are targeting.
You need to conduct research to understand what makes them tick. The research meant the brand and its values pivoted slightly and we were able to define a strong purpose.
At Where the Wild Is, we want to be able to promote and succeed in balancing tourism with environmental protection. We want people to experience the wild and be mindful of respecting nature and wildlife within the destinations we offer.
We demonstrate our commitment to sustainable tourism through the people and organisations we work with and donate to. As a tour operator, we show we really care about the destinations we are sending consumers to.