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Catching the Wave

Many of us dream of developing a business with genuinely global reach and a growing customer base; others dream of having a job that allows us to indulge our passion. Ticket to Ride looks set to do both, with an innovative travel idea that has seen the company grow rapidly.

Their concept - gap year surfing expeditions - has defined a new market in gap year travel: and made it their own. Two years from founding, and with help from mentors and the Enterprise Hub Network, Ticket to Ride has grown from just an idea to a thriving business looking to expand overseas. The original product aimed at pre-university students has been joined by two others, focusing on school-age and career-break travellers, and the company is already working on a fourth, to make surfing available to the older generation – real “silver surfers”. Will and Linley have also just been awarded the title “Young Entrepreneurs of the Year” at the 2008 South East Business Awards.

Common sense would seem to say that age (or the lack of it) would be a barrier to entry: lack of experience, of business skills, of contacts and capital are all reasons to put off that entrepreneurial life change until you have some solid commercial experience under your belt.

Not everyone thinks this way of course

School friends Will and Linley took a gap year between A levels and university together, and decided to spend it travelling and surfing.

"Will could already surf," explains Linley, "and I wanted to learn, so we decided to combine travelling with surfing. Following the trip we’d reached a pretty good standard of surfing, and had a great time. When we came back lots of people were interested in what we had done and we realised that a lot of people would have enjoyed that experience."

"When we saw the popularity of the gap year ski companies we thought ‘surely we can switch this into surfing?"

Degree of success

First there was the minor matter of earning a degree. Linley’s degree course in Economics required him to research starting a new business, and the idea behind Ticket to Ride wouldn’t leave him alone: eventually he wrote the business plan as his third-year thesis.

"Once we’d done the business plan, it seemed that this was actually a good business. We wanted to put our hearts into something and to be properly rewarded. Lots of people dismiss their jobs and we didn’t want to do that - we wanted to enjoy what we did."

They both graduated in 2005, and immediately set up Ticket to Ride. "We had the idea and thought why shouldn’t we do it?" says Will. "We knew we had very little business experience, but we thought we could get investment and good advisors to make up for that. Eventually we thought, if we don’t do it, then someone else will."

Help available

Fortunately for Linley and Will there was a lot of help available. Initially, the Business and Entrepreneurial Department at Birmingham University helped Linley with the development of the business plan, and that led to an introduction to the National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship’s Flying Start Rally in Reading and then to the Surrey Enterprise Hub.

“We’re really grateful to everyone at the Surrey Enterprise Hub,” explained Linley, "they’ve been really good at sourcing expert advice, helping us access early stage funding through a GRIST award, involving us in seminars and workshops and with networking. We have had a great impartial but experienced business mentor for a year through the Enterprise Hub mentoring programme and we’ve found that if you are really putting yourself into something you teach yourself quickly (because you have to). But if you have the right people around you giving you good advice you learn even faster.”

Obviously a big issue with a new business is where the funding comes from. Far from being an additional problem, Linley and Will chose to look at their lack of funding and experience as problems that could solve each other. “We were determined to get funding on a business basis,” explains Will. “So we knew we were always raising money on the back of the quality of the business idea alone. With that, we hoped to get access to business mentoring and development. Our non-executive Chairman came on side early in the life of the business, on just that basis. He’s been very supportive and helped us to develop the business, and avoid a lot of the pitfalls that we might have fallen into.”

Global development

For the future, the two are planning to build up the company’s operations globally, leaving them free to concentrate on taking the business into new countries. “We’re looking at going into Sri Lanka, we already run trips to Mozambique and we run school and university trips to Portugal,” explains Will. “It’s a repeat-business model too – once people have been once they often want to do it again. We’ve started thinking about what happens before and after gap years, so we have started school trips and career breaks. There’s also a growing market from grown-up gap years.”

Surf lessons

Will and Linley have picked up a lot of business experience in a short time, and they are happy to pass on some of the best lessons.

Will: “Let an idea come to you rather than go out and find it. Don’t flog an idea just because you want to work for yourself. If you have an idea you are passionate about then it’s easier to make it work, especially if you are new to it.”

Linley: “Do your research. The more people you talk to the more questions you’ll get asked, the more you’ll learn about how good or bad your idea is, and the bigger the network of people who might be able to help you grow.”

Will: “Admit to what you don’t know about and go and find advice or help to fill that gap in your knowledge.”

Linley: “Don’t discount an idea because you think you don’t have any money. There is money out there. There is help out there. And there is advice out there. You’ve just got to go and find it.”

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Waving not drowning

You might think that learning to surf is no preparation for starting a business, but Surrey Enterprise Hub Champion Nigel Biggs isn’t so sure. He believes that starting any business is like preparing to go out surfing. So, for any surfing (or non-surfing) entrepreneurs, here’s Nigel’s guide to making waves in business.

Choose your beach

or rather your market – just as you wouldn’t choose a beach with no waves or any hope of them, don’t choose a market which gives you little chance of success.

Get ready

Before you think about entering the water prepare: get your skills honed, buy your equipment and check you have and know what you are going to need.

Pick your moment...

Decide when you’re going to get in. Go too early and there won’t be any waves at all – you’ll get cold and tired waiting. Go too late and though the waves will be massive there will be lots of other people in the water. Deciding when to enter your market is as important as deciding which market to enter.

Then pick your wave...

But carefully – wait forever and you’ll never catch a wave, but pick the wrong one and it may give up half way to shore, leaving you to paddle back out while others catch more powerful waves. Every market will present you with opportunities, but you can’t take all of them, so think hard before you commit your time and resources.

Adapt and survive

You never know how big the waves will get – there is always an element of uncertainty in business, so prepare to adapt and you’ll be prepared to succeed.

Contact: Ally Charles


Published: 12th April 2008

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