Story of a failed side project: Bloody Good Tours


A high proportion of new businesses fail each year. Despite this project probably not making it into the statistics, I thought I would take the time to document how the latest website I’ve been working on has not become a successful business.

For context, between myself and Greg (who worked on this too) we expended around 140 man hours, and £184.17.

Below is the story of what could have been.

It started with a pun

Cycling along Embankment, I stopped at a traffic light behind a car from a company called Downton Taxis. In the space of here and the next set of traffic lights, a connection had been made.

Downton Taxis. Downton Abbey. Downton Cabs. Downton Cabbies.

In fact, I wrote about here.

Downton Cabbey

Downton Cabbey

Anyway, despite having only a peripheral awareness of the show, Downton Abbey, I’d read enough to know that Americans loved the show, and also shared a similar enthusiasm towards the quaintness of London black cabs.

Making a tour

The next thing was then the viability of creating a Downton Cabbey tour. Cursory investigation taught me that hardly any of the show is set in London so visiting locations in the big city was off the agenda.

Further, the customer would inevitably expect a high degree of Downton Abbey reference as part of the tour. Not something I could provide, nor teach drivers to. Despite friends’ protests, spending a weekend going the through the first few seasons didn’t seem the optimal use of time/ resource.

The world of taxi tours

It did however introduce me to the market of London taxi tours. And their latent inefficiencies. At a high level, there are two sides to the business: delivering tours, and getting customers. Taxi drivers are excellent at the former, but need help with the latter. A quick search of the offerings revealed a deficiency in basic web design, let alone competency in the complex arenas of SEO and Digital Marketing.

Taxi Tour Websites

Taxi Tour Websites

This can be our pitch

Speaking with good friend, Greg Drach, we were keen to work on an idea as part of the NEF course. In order to apply our efforts best, we agreed that the eventual idea must meet a few basic criteria:

– Earns revenue from Day One

– Didn’t require significant financial outlay

– Could fit around our working schedule

– Allowed us to develop new skills, ready for future ventures.

An important omission from the tick list was not that it needed to change the world. Sure, that would be a bonus, but from our conversation last September, we were both of the opinion that getting relevant experience was more important to us.

Building a business in the taxi tour market seemed to tick the boxes, and so at the end of one of our UCL workshops, we agreed to get working on an idea in this area.

Now then, a name

This stumped us.

Early attempts were descriptive – but pretty uninspiring. In the first practice pitch session held by The Two Stu’s, we stood up and presented “London Black Cab Tours.

Presenting London Black Cab Tours

Presenting London Black Cab Tours

This invited a volley of questions: Is it just cabs? Are they always black?

But interestingly, the best feedback was “aren’t you constraining yourself by just being London?”. An investor’s next question is where do you go once you’ve “done” London, and we couldn’t go abroad with a company so tied to a particular vehicle in a particular city.

Our original outlook was “we want to keep it small” however this was an unattractive proposition should we ever want investment. An interesting consideration both us learned in the process of going through the pitching process.

This led us to take a more overarching approach to what our business would be. No longer just one type of tour in one city, instead something that would permit us to expand into new areas.

We wanted something that was memorable, worthy of telling a friend, and that spoke to our target market.

Ironically names such as “Memorable Tours” and “Unforgettable Tours” are incredibly unmemorable, and very easy to forget

A new approach was needed

When it comes to solving problems such as these, approaching from another perspective can often be fruitful. On a rainy Saturday afternoon, I took the line of thinking: What Britishisms do Americans (i.e. our target market) find funny? A quick Google search yielded this blog and two obvious candidates emerged. “Splendid Tours” didn’t match a cab driver’s persona, and so with that, we decided on Bloody Good Tours. Finding that the domain was available for £5.99 sealed the deal.

Pitching, and making a website

After consulting the well of startup knowledge that is the NEFers Past & Present Facebook group, Shopify was settled on as the platform to build our site off. We spent a day populating the site with pictures and descriptions, and divided out tasks amongst our shared Evernote.

Feedback was sought, and duly actioned as we also spoke with drivers who would be happy to work with us, and went in search of our ideal online customer.

On 9th May we pitched, receiving helpful feedback – and ultimately achieving our goal of taking a concept through to a position where we had to defend it to a room of smart people. This was fantastic fun.

Iterations/ Elusive first customers

There were some glaring improvements for us to make, which we duly did, with the very generous help of our mentor Sally – who was kind enough to put us in contact with some knowledgeable people that she worked with – we made improvements to our site. Greg and I really appreciate the advice we were given, and will no doubt use it in future ventures.

One of the important things was to get a decent logo. We had this, and a font and other graphics for ~£30 from Fiverr

The key missing ingredient throughout though was the absence of paying customers. In an effort to drum up custom, we spent a Friday evening outside the British Museum attempting to woo tourists, but to no avail.

Outside British Museum

Outside British Museum

Tourists are hardwired to be suspicious of anybody on the street attempting to take money from them, and despite our best efforts, and dressing up like waiters from an expensive restaurant, we still couldn’t nail it.

Second thoughts

After the unsuccessful Friday, the natural next questions were: how can we improve? And when should we try again?

It was the second question that led us to evaluate where BGT sat in our personal priorities, with no appealing time jumping out from our calendars. Work/ socialising/ relaxing took the lead over a sunny afternoon outside a London attraction trying to initiate conversation with resistant passers-by. This is the essence of one of the lessons I’ve learned this year about only really pursuing things that you want to do

No Google Advertising..

One glaring omission from the marketing budget is any money spent on Adwords.

Though the main value proposition for BGT was that customers could get a seamless online experience, we never actually spent money on paid advertising. At the time, it felt like we would be tipping money down the drain. Or that the effort to do it ‘properly’ was beyond our capacity.

Either way, we didn’t. And on reflection, this might be have been a mistake.

 

Still an opportunity

In the pitch, we mentioned a few medium/ long term trends that play in favour of a business like this succeeding. Tourists are increasingly wanting more personalised tours that connect them with ‘locals’, which can be achieved in a trip with a real-life London cabbie.

Further, the rise of Uber demonstrates how other services can win at the taxi’s primary function of getting people from A to B. Where black cabs have an advantage though is in its cultural symbolism. Tourists flock to take pictures of black cabs, but certainly don’t get as weak around the knees at the sight of a Prius.

If there is a shift towards Uber for the transportation of people around a city, then there will be a flood of taxi drivers with vehicles and the knowledge in need of additional revenue streams. If demand for taxi tours can be established, as well as a scalable process for training drivers to deliver wow factor tours – then the constraint becomes the supply of drivers.

A company like this would get snapped up by Hailo, as a way to appease their drivers no longer getting as much ‘transportation’ work through their app.

 

Lessons learned

At this stage, it seems appropriate to draw out the 3 main lessons from trying to start a business in your spare time

1. Don’t spend unnecessary money (though perhaps we have been too prudent)

2. Improve an inefficiency, rather than trying to force a behaviour change

3. The project should be what you do in your spare time anyway

This will allow you to reduce the barriers to actually getting stuff done on your business, and also protects you from floundering away thousands of pounds every time that you have an idea.

 

Dormant

Bloody Good Tours has gone dormant, because right now the benefits are not outweighing the costs of trying to get the business going. That said, the equation is always in flux, and should circumstances change, we would both be happy to take the foundations we’ve laid, and make something out of it.

If you, or someone you know, has an interest in startups in the travel industry, then we can look at revitalising the project, so please be in touch. Experimenting with online advertising seems like low-hanging fruit right?

Equally if after reading this piece you would like to talk about your own venture, then feel free to reach out via the contact page, I’ll happily share my thoughts.

Thanks for reading.