How Rupert Taylor, founder & MD of Nonstop Snow, discovered the golden rule of growth.
We’re a specialist ski and snowboard company providing professional coaching to people taking career breaks or gap years, people wanting to become mountain patrollers or ski instructors, or just passionate skiers who want to transform their skills. Our clients join us for anything between one week and three months – the average trip is about six weeks.
I started the business in 2002 in a little town in western Canada called Fernie, which is where I’d gone fresh from university in 2001 with my snowboard and a work visa to live in the mountains and become an instructor. I absolutely loved the lifestyle but I also loved teaching and sharing my passion. So I decided to create a business that would allow me to stay in the industry and pass on my love for the sport.
It was touch and go to start with. We built a website quite quickly but generating bookings was really challenging. We were fast running out of cash but we decided to invest what little we had in a PR agency, which managed to generate quite a bit of coverage. After that we managed to get 40 people in our first year, which was double our initial expectation.
At the time, it was just me and my cousin Lisa. These days the company employs 20 people full-time. In the winter
that number grows to about 75. Our primary location is still western Canada but now we also operate in New Zealand and France. We take about 500 people away each year and we run two offices year-round, one in the UK and another in Canada. We also own a 43-bed hotel in Fernie called the Red Tree Lodge. We’ve had our ups and downs over the years but we’ve grown pretty steadily – about 5%-10% each year on average.
One of the big lessons I’ve learned is that it’s better to run a really great business that’s humming efficiently than expand too quickly into new areas. Just before the financial crash we bought a sailing school in Devon and rebranded it Nonstop Sail. We ran it for two and a half years, offering things like trans-Atlantic trips and circumnavigations of the British Isles. But we quickly learned that diversification isn’t necessarily a good thing. In fact, now I think of it as something of a dirty word.
It was a classic case of not understanding the market properly and making assumptions. With hindsight, we should have asked our clients what interested them and worked out what we could get them to book with us. We made a presumption that people who skied also wanted to sail – but there wasn’t a cross-over so we had to go after a completely new set of customers while we learned all the operational skills of running a different kind of business.
We should probably have called it a day a year earlier than we did but I suppose our emotions got the better of us. We didn’t want it to fail and felt an obligation to the staff and our customers. Pride and passion stopped us giving up when we probably should have.
Keeping close to my customers is very important to me. You’ve got to stay in tune with their requirements so you can adapt accordingly. We do this by using the usual feedback channels but nothing beats getting on the phone and talking to them. We’re lucky in that we get to speak to them in depth because of the sort of service we offer; it’s not unusual to be on the phone for an hour or more.
Technology is a great enabler for us. We work remotely, from multiple resort centres in Canada and from London and Bath in the UK so it’s important to be linked up and all using the same software. It’s good to be able to share files and coordinate our movements easily and our fortnightly team meetings are all held online.
Our staff in Canada are on the go all the time. They could be on top of a mountain, in a snow cave, on a bus driving clients to ice skate on a frozen lake, or in an airport. At any moment, they might have to be able to send emails or connect to a videoconference or access supplier details or find out if a client is allergic to something. And all this from quite remote environments. They used to have to carry around big binders of information, now they just need a mobile device.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing but looking back to when I started the business as a 22-year-old, I wish I’d been better at focusing on priorities and saying no so I could concentrate on core things. That’s a skill I’m still working on. I also wish I’d known better when to outsource or delegate. I was trying to save money by doing everything myself but that’s often not the best approach. I also wish I’d known how to relax more and not stress about the business. There are more important things in life.
Top tip: Grow, but don’t necessarily diversify. We all love change but our expansion into sailing was a costly lesson. Now I only want to grow by finding new products for our existing customers or finding new customers for our existing products. Also, it’s fine having gut feelings but you need to back them up when you’re expanding because the time and cost involved in creating new products is significant. You need to be certain you’re right.
The above interview is extracted from Microsoft’s eBook: “What I Wish I Knew: Five UK small-business owners share their success secrets”
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