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A little innovation can go a long way

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At the heart of business success is innovation. And the great business performers think outside the square.

John Anderson started tourism business Contiki in London at age 23 in 1962 with just £25. So how did he do it? And what lessons did he learn along the way during the 28 years he owned the business?

“I had come over [from New Zealand] to see Europe, so I had to find a way to see it,” says Anderson. “I just had this idea – I thought if I got a group of other young people together and we shared all the costs, we could probably do it quite reasonably … I eventually managed to get 11 people together and the 12 of us set off around Europe.”

Unlikely origins

Anderson’s book, Only Two Seats Left, is named after an advertisement he put on the wall of the Overseas Visitors Club: ’12-week tour; 15 countries; cost: £100; only two seats left’. This was despite the fact there were more than two seats available.

“Make something hard for people to get, they want it more. My first passenger almost pleaded with me to book her, and I said you’ll fit in perfectly with all the others,” he laughs.  

All the passengers were Australians and New Zealanders and Anderson created the itinerary. Anderson told his passengers he had seen Europe before, but he had only been to Paris.

“So we set off and after the first day I told them the truth – I actually hadn’t been around the rest of Europe. But we were such a great group and things were quite well organised. And I didn’t know at the time I had a business on my hands.

The first tour filled quickly, so he decided to take the bus around Europe again.

“The first year I took this bus around twice, and I ended up at the end of the year having seen Europe, and owning the mini bus and all the gear,” he says. 

Turning an idea into a business

The business was originally called Tiki tours. Tiki is a good luck charm in New Zealand – “And I was going to need all I could get”. But as they were running tours of the continent, they added in c-o-n to make Contiki.

Anderson says it was in the second year of operation he realised he had a product people wanted.

“In those days everybody was coming over in their droves on the boats and they were all looking for a way to see Europe and suddenly I realised I had a product that people would buy,” he explains. “In that third year I realised I really had a business.”

Business lessons

Though Anderson had no business experience, he says, “It’s all about having attitude - believing that you’ve got an idea and making it happen.” He explains that he was a born entrepreneur. When he was saving for the trip to London, he had a business selling plants to a local store.

“Entrepreneurs – they’ve got this very positive attitude,” he says. “We never have a negative thought. Often that’s dangerous because you can run away with things, but I always had that creative ability. I’m a great ideas person. Any company’s got to have somebody with a flag out the front, but you’ve got to have good people coming behind you to make it all happen.”

He says the success of any company starts at the top.

“If you’ve got strong leadership, then it follows down the ranks,” he says. “And I’ve just had some very good people around me.”

The worst decision he made in the business was to build resorts, says Anderson.

“I learnt that you’re better sticking to what you know best and be the best at it whereas I got into something that was very capital intensive [and] right out of my league.  

Anderson explains that when it came to marketing, word-of-mouth advertising was crucial.

“If somebody has a good experience, they’ll tell others.”

He also explains that quality is important.

“Whenever we promoted [Contiki], we also promoted it in a very quality way – quality brochures. Everything was the very best, although in the early days it was the cheapest and the quickest way, but now everything is about quality.”

He says his best decisions were having the ability to pick the right leaders to take the company to the next level.  

Innovation is crucial too.

“You’ve got to constantly innovate,” he says. “People say if it works, don’t fix it. I always say you’ve got to be feeling the pulse of the market, and [ask] what are they wanting?”

Watch John Anderson explain Contiki’s business journey.

Published on: Friday, October 15, 2010

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