BY NATASIA LANGFELDER
The sharing economy has given rise to a new generation of start-ups. Joining the fray is Nancy Blaine, a Brooklynite with a love of travel. Blaine is the founder of Local Expeditions- an “anti tour” company that will take you on tours of Brooklyn and Manhattan that will provide an authentic NYC experience. I spoke with Blaine about how she launched Local Expeditions, her vision for the future and how to turn an idea into a business.
What do you do and why?
I just started my own business after many years in publishing. It’s called Local Expeditions and is housed in the sharing economy. The business incorporates two things I am passionate about:
- The sharing economy which I think has great potential to be a new economic system based on fair wages for work well done. I know the economic model really comes out of the tech industry, but I also feel like it resonates from Occupy Wall Street. It’s a model that puts the lion’s share of wages directly into the hands of the—you name it—the driver, the homeowner and in the case of Local Expeditions, the local guide. My website offers a model for a ‘local expedition,’ but people sign up to create their own adventures based on who they are and what they know. Reviews of guides and reviews of customers regulate the business. I feel like it is an economic model that celebrates the best in us, instead of the worst. Capitalism is essentially based on profit. Any profit-based system will lend itself to greed. Certainly this can happen in the sharing economy too—we’ve seen it already—but the model I want to emulate is one where a job well done is rewarded by good reviews and most of the income for the expedition. That is how I envision the sharing economy and how I am modeling my business.
- Travel! I love to travel. One of the highlights of my publishing career was consistent travel and when I am in a city that I don’t know, I am not the kind of person who wants to go where the concierge tells me to go. I always try to find someone who grew up there or has lived there for a long time to tell me where to go. On the flip side, I am just passionate about New York and especially Brooklyn. I have been here for 32 years—20 in NYC and 12 in Brooklyn (what took me so long?). I am the kind of person who, when I see an out-of-towner, I ask them what they are up to and I offer as many suggestions as possible that are outside of Rockefeller Center, Times Square, the Empire State Building, and the Statue of Liberty. Don’t get me wrong. Everyone should see those places once – I have. But anyone who has lived here for a long time avoids those areas like the plague. My new favorite passion is taking the East River Ferry from 34th street to Dumbo and back. $4.00 plus $1.00 for a bike and the BEST vistas of the east side skyline and Brooklyn you can imagine. A great deal and an utterly pleasant ride.
What did you do before you started your company?
I was in college publishing for 26 years. It was a wonderful career. I was an acquisitions editor in many different disciplines over that time—anthropology, social work, criminal justice, history, English and engineering. I feel like I’ve had a lifetime of learning and that is one of the things I really love about my new business. Every day I am reading up on areas of the city, the origins of neighborhoods, their art, their architecture. It’s my own continuing education program.
What’s the single most important piece of advice you received when first starting your company? What would you tell a young entrepreneur in turn?
There were two pieces of advice that really pushed me to make the move. The first was from my accountant who encouraged me to talk to my boss about my idea and see if I could work part time while I launched the business. For some reason, I just assumed I would be told to leave automatically. In truth, since I was going into a different industry, my boss was incredibly supportive and also appreciated the overlap while he searched for a new editor. This gave me financial confidence and also allowed me to begin working on the launch instead of just trying to squeeze it into weekends when I was already exhausted from my job.
The second piece of advice was from a wise friend who knew me really, really well and asked “what is it that is stopping you from moving forward? What is your greatest fear?” When I described the 3:00 a.m. terror of walking away from a perfectly good career to start a business that no one is interested in and falling into a deep depression and then drinking all day and then losing my partner and sitting on my dog and killing her in a drunken stupor and losing my apartment and ending up in a refrigerator box in the park, she said to me, “I know you and that is not going to happen.”
I am a daily bicycle commuter. The advice I would give to a young entrepreneur is akin to the advice I would give to a city cyclist. You must be confident to proceed, but you cannot be over confident. If you are not confident you will falter and the faltering will cause you risk. If you are over confident, you are at an equal or perhaps greater risk of crashing. Be confident, but be aware of your own limitations and the outright randomness of life and others. The most intelligently cautious cyclist can still have a car door opened in their path. Deep breaths. Do the next right thing. Keep on keeping on. Assume the best in people. The car door would not have opened had they known you were there. And if they are in the 1% of people who actually opened that door on purpose—ride on past. Their own karma will catch up to them.
What aspect of business ownership came as the biggest surprise to you?
So far, how much fun it is! It is so creative in a way I never imagined. It started with a simple vision, and then I had to spin out the vision into the practical, and then I had to look at the financial possibilities and then I had to consider the risks, the regulations, the barriers, and then I had to talk to others to get feedback, and then I had to decide which advice to take and which not to take. It is all-consuming in a way that I find really interesting.
What do you find most rewarding about owning your own business?
I confess–I like calling the shots. As an Acquisitions Editor I called a lot of shots, but there were some that I had to “check in” on. The “checking in” usually had to do with some kind of higher corporate goal—or worse yet—higher corporate fear—legal concerns, etc. My new business has a lot of legal and insurance concerns but I like weighing the risks and employing my own values to arrive at the ultimate decision.
Where do you see yourself / your company in five years? Hopes / dreams / plans?
I would like to see Local Expeditions grow nationally and internationally for these 3 reasons: 1) It offers something that people want; 2) It is reasonably priced and; 3) It has great customer service. I have heard many, many business theorems in my years in the corporate world, but these are the three simple features that strike me as a winning business plan.
For the customer:
- All expeditions are 2-3 hours long and led by a local who designed the jaunt
- All expeditions are $40
- All expeditions are 10 people maximum (to keep the experience intimate)
I also believe that it has a fair and sustainable business model for the guide:
- Local Expeditions website gets 15% of every tour ($6.00 per person)
- The guide offers customers a local libation of his or her choice in the amount of 10% ($4.00 per person)
- 5% of each expedition ($2.00 person) goes to a local non-profit of the guide’s choice (10 from which they can choose)
- The guide receives 70% of the proceeds ($28 per person x 10 = $280 per expedition)
Also, the guide gets to choose his or her own schedule on a weekly basis. This is a great opportunity for extra income or full-time income depending on how often the tour runs and fills up. I really hope to attract artists, actors, grad students, local historians, etc. as guides. I think it is a better way to make money than waiting tables and these people are natural storytellers!
What resources would you recommend to someone who is contemplating starting her own business?
So far, I have been able to fund this business on my own via a loan. I am really only launching now, so I have no idea whether I will need to seek further financial resources but I personally don’t like to be beholden to anyone. Banks, I don’t mind. Eventually I will seek a Board for advice but not for fundraising. I want the business to gain a profit from its own worth.
What would you say is the single most important key to sustaining a business long term?
This is a two pronged business: 1) Guides 2) Customers
In order to sustain a long term business we will need to be absolutely attentive to and respectful of both. Happy guides and happy customers = success.
Also, I want to keep it simple. I want to manage people’s expectations. They should always know what they will get from Local Expeditions and it should always be fun and simple—clear website navigation is critical. I am not a huge fan of offering a million different things. I want to do one thing well for a very long time. No upselling.
What obstacles did you face in establishing your company and how did you overcome them?
The biggest obstacles in any sharing economy business are municipal rules and regulations. New York City, in particular, is a highly regulated city and I am of the belief that it needs to update its Byzantine systems to meet the new economy. So far the biggest barriers I have come up against are maneuvering around and within the test for tour guides (i.e., what subway takes you from the Cloisters to the Rockaways?—who cares? Anyone can look at a map and this will never be part of a Local Expedition). Not all cities require this and it makes my model much more complicated than it needs to be. Also, receiving my PO Box key from the USPS was a nightmare. I am a fairly intelligent person and I had to return no fewer than three times to get my PO Box key. Why? Every time I needed a new piece of paper that had my address on it (apparently a passport and a NYC driver’s license was not sufficient). Come on people! I don’t believe this level of absurd regulation is either necessary or sustainable and I do believe that as younger generations come up and technology improves (does the USPS know about the world wide web?) these kinds of regulations will not be tolerated.
Persistence. Especially in this town of all towns. One must be persistent.
Want to take a tour? Visit the Local Expeditions website!