Byron Bay TripADeal Founders Dressed for Success in Thongs and Boardies
DURING a boozy week in Bali six years ago best mates Norm Black and Richard Johnston came up with an idea that would turn them into multi-millionaires and change the face of Australia’s travel industry.
Little did they know that this plan, conceived in the lead-up to Richard’s 2010 wedding, would turn into TripADeal, Australia’s No. 1 travel deals site.
“Norm had had this nucleus of an idea, we tossed it back and forth between ourselves, and that was how TripADeal was born,” Richard, 45, said.But, like any great holiday, the road to this dazzling destination was long and winding.
Big business in Byron
The pair credit much of their success to starting their multimillion-dollar global business in a town better known for board shorts rather than boardrooms.
“We are not influenced by the traditional corporate culture of ‘this is how it is done’,” Norm said.
“You can’t help being influenced when you are based in the city.
“Our work attire is very casual. We went through a period where we had to enforce some rules, telling people that they needed to at least put some thongs on when they came to work.
“When the corporate world meets us and we are dressed casually, they suddenly lighten up and it is a lot more engaged as a result.”
The group employs 56 people in Byron, overtaking the local chicken processing factory as the biggest employer in town.
This growth has not been without its difficulties.
Norm said regional areas have the potential to become more popular for online businesses that are looking to relocate. But he said there needed to be improvements to internet connections and phone lines before it could work.
“When we were growing in the beginning we were missing something like 1000 calls a day because Telstra couldn’t get phone lines into the area,” Norm said.
“We were having to put satellites [dishes] on the roof just to get internet connection again.
“In these regional areas, we are so far behind. The internet connection in Byron is still ordinary.
“We have been forced to spend the capital to start our own system.”
Norm said if the NBN was in Byron Bay when they were starting out it would have saved them a massive amount of money.
“We spent so much on capital investment by having to go through these crazy ways to get an internet and phone connection,” he said.
“Byron Bay was not designed for big employers who are growing a company. It is designed for cottage industries.”
The pair met 20 years ago in Byron Bay. Both were in their twenties and both were starting retail businesses, which happened to be located next door to each other.
Norm had opened a retro clothing store after never starting the pathology degree he enrolled in at the University of Sydney.
He admits he signed up to be a lab rat because he felt the expectation to “pick something smart”.
Richard, meanwhile, was born and bred in Byron Bay and living the coastal dream by opening a surf shop.
“We turned the locks on our businesses the same day and the rest is history,” Richard said.
“I sold Norm a surfboard and then we started surfing together before or after work. He was the best man at my wedding in 2010.”
Despite those businesses winding up years later, they had formed a powerful bond.
Norm expanded his move into retail by selling US clothing in Japan. He spent almost three years travelling between Tokyo and LA every two weeks.
Around this time he met his wife Fiona while she was cycling through Byron Bay on a trip around the world. They are about to have their sixth child.
“Meeting her, she said: ‘This is an incredible spot in Byron, who is doing all the adventure activities here?’ ” Norm said of Fiona, who is from England.
“She was the driving force behind all that happened because she was a crazy, adventurous, motivated climber and mountain biker.”
Norm admits he loved starting businesses but was not so good at the follow through.
“It has been 25 years of wins, losses,” he said. “Along that 25-year degree in life that I have done, I have managed to learn something from every one of those wins and losses.”
During his 20s and 30s Richard worked on surf films and was a freelance writer for surfing magazines.
“Most of the things I did were travel and lifestyle-based and so I tried to gear my work towards that,” Richard said.
“I fell in love with the lawlessness of Mexico, doing road trips through dangerous places which as a man in my 40s I would never do. It was just such a contrast to home, where everything is so ordered. Travelling through Morocco, I loved the Atlas Mountains.
“I found I’d always be attracted to frontier countries where you could test your strength against the world.”
Down to business
They had both racked up the frequent flyer points — Richard travelling to about 40 countries and Norm 15.
During their trips through Asia, the Middle East and Europe they sat on countless half-empty tour buses and stayed in Balinese villas that were sometimes vacant for 48 weeks of the year.
With Richard’s marketing background and Norm’s passion for getting new projects off the ground, the pair started TripADeal in 2011.
The business links up bargain-hunting travellers with the travel industry, which has traditionally had trouble filling out the last few hotel rooms, plane seats and tour spots.
The deals they offer fill empty plane seats, tours and villas while giving travellers huge discounts. These are packaged trips, making it easy for travellers.
“Having a passion for travel is an advantage because we have a deep understanding of what drives people to travel and have one of those transformative experiences,” Richard said.
The pair started with Richard working in his laundry in Bali and Norm from an office in Byron Bay.
Richard admits there was an almost “blind optimism” to the business in the early years. Since then the business has gone from strength to strength. In 2016 they are expecting an annual revenue of $80 million.
They have had 350 per cent growth this year alone and will soon move their deals into the 1.2 billion-person Indian market.
Australian Federation of Travel Agents CEO Jayson Westbury said the Byron guys were taking on American giant Expedia and winning.
“We would say that they haven’t had steady growth, they have had phenomenal growth,” he said.
Mr Westbury said the company should be getting a medal from the government for getting this type of business up and running in Byron Bay, keeping the town vibrant and adding to the overall skill set.
“This is a demonstration of the sort of business that governments should be getting behind,” he said.