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Tips From The Top: One On One With Lee Thompson

I spoke to Lee Thompson, co-founder of Flash Pack, about his journey and best advice

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

Lee: One thing people are surprised by is that I actually left school at 16 and didn’t go to university. I was always incredibly ambitious, but I didn’t take a traditional path to education. There tends to be quite a lot of pressure to follow the same route as all your friends or your parents, but this isn’t always for everyone. My path has driven me to do the best that I possibly can and I constantly strive to prove that I made the right decision for me. I believe that everyone should choose the path they feel is best suited to them, whatever that might be. 

Adam: ​How did you get here? ​What experiences, failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?

Lee: I got my first job as a photographer at a local newspaper aged 17 and decided I would take every single opportunity that was offered to me, say yes to everything and learn as much as I could, as quickly as I could. I started getting opportunities to travel on commissions, and this became an education in itself. As a photographer, I traveled to over 100 countries and reported on some of the biggest and most important global news stories for international media. This also gave me the chance to see parts of the world and countries that most travelers don’t ever experience. It was such an adrenaline rush, and the plane window seat became my happy place.  

When I met Radha, my wife and co-founder of Flash Pack, in 2012, we immediately connected over a shared love of travel, photography and business. She told me her idea for a travel company that specialized in high-end adventures for solo travelers in their 30s and 40s. It resonated with me on a personal level, and Flash Pack was born. 

As with any new business, the first couple of years were incredibly hard and with no experience in the travel industry, Radha and I had to learn fast. Mistakes were a big part of that and as a business today, we celebrate failure in the same way as success. The great thing about starting a business with your partner is that you can support each other through the failures and celebrate the successes together. We’re fortunate enough to have had a lot of successes to celebrate, but these have been borne out of the lessons we learned. 

Adam: What is the story behind your viral selfie? What advice do you have for others on getting their product on their content to go viral?

Lee: For the first year, we really struggled to get Flash Pack off the ground. We decided to take some time out and went to Egypt, where we had ‘the conversation’ – should we continue with Flash Pack, or call it quits. We decided to give it one last shot. When we got back to the UK, I saw on the news that a lightning storm had damaged the Christ the Redeemer Statue in Rio, and that repairs were being done – I’d never even realized it was hollow. 

With all eyes on Brazil for the World Cup, I saw it as the perfect opportunity. With our last bit of cash, I flew to Brazil and persuaded the archdiocese and Brazil tourism board to allow me to climb to the top and take some vertigo-inducing photos.

With the assistance of two high-wire workmen, (and armed with GoPro cameras) I entered through scaffolding mounted on the feet and crawled up the flights of stairs. As I popped my head out of the hole in Jesus’ crown, I was in total and utter awe. The view quite literally took my breath away. I grabbed a few snaps before making the journey back down. 

We released the image on social media two weeks before the World Cup, directing viewers back to the Flash Pack website for the full story, video footage and unreleased images. Within 24 hours the story had gone viral online. It was trending on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The campaign generated over 1.2 million visits to our website within two days, and we made our first sales. 

My advice to anyone looking to make something go viral would be to focus on the story you want to tell through that image, rather than just trying to capture something epic. Timing also plays a big part, and if you can create something that taps into a wider cultural conversation, you have a much better chance of generating buzz. 

Adam: More broadly, what are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?

Lee:

  • Prepare to upskill yourself in everything: When we first started Flash Pack we couldn’t afford to hire any staff so we had to be the sales team, finance team, marketing team and every other team we needed. Many of these are things neither of us had ever done, so we had to upskill quickly ourselves to keep everything afloat.
  • Think about everything as a story: With a journalistic background, this is something I did have experience in. From the adventures we create to the images on our website, it’s important to carefully consider the story you want to tell a potential customer. Where are you taking them? Who will they meet? How will they feel? Looking at things in this way will really help whatever you’re selling. 
  • Self-fund your growth as much as possible before you look to raise any money: Flash Pack is predominantly self-funded through efficient cashflow, which has allowed us to grow quickly. Being self-funded has also meant that we’ve been able to take risks and experiment with our own money – something we’d have felt less comfortable doing with someone else’s money at such an early stage. 

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Lee: Aside from vital leadership qualities like passion, creativity, empathy and vision, as a founder you need to learn to let go and trust your team. It’s definitely not easy, but you need a really clear idea of your personal strengths and weaknesses, and then hire a great team around you to fill in the gaps. 

Adam: How can entrepreneurs grow and scale their businesses? 

Lee: By solving a genuine problem. The idea for Flash Pack was borne out of personal experiences – Radha and I were in our 30s and wanted to travel, but all our friends were busy. We realized we couldn’t be the only people in that situation, and there was no-one offering a solution. When you offer a solution to a real problem, you can build a powerful narrative around it and start telling that through your marketing activity, which will help drive growth. Scale then comes from building the right team and finding the right partners to grow with. 

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Lee: “Don’t focus on being cool, focus on being valuable to your customer”. We’ve built a business specifically around the needs of our customer and we obsess over adding value to their lives – whether it’s the content on our social media channels, the articles we publish to our blog or the trips themselves. We’ve always stayed focused on a core demographic of people which allows us to get to know them really well – from their dreams and ambitions to the things that really drive them. This means we can focus our business on delivering genuine value to them all. 

Adam: What should everyone understand about traveling solo? What should everyone understand about solo travelers?

Lee: The biggest misconception about solo travel and solo travelers is that it’s all backpacking and hostels. Solo travel is continuing to grow as a trend, and that’s not just because more people in their late teens and early 20s are traveling. It’s because people are starting to realize the power and benefits of traveling solo, whatever their age and relationship status. You don’t have to sacrifice comfort and luxury to get off the beaten path and experience a destination away from the crowds.

Adam: ​What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?

Lee: One great way to pay it forward when you’re traveling is to talk to other travelers and share your recommendations. From authentic restaurants and once in a lifetime experiences, to warnings and safety tips. These recommendations get passed on from traveler to traveler and can really change people’s experiences of a country, and help keep other solo travelers safe. 

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