Tips From The Top: One On One With Melissa Biggs Bradley

I spoke to Melissa Biggs Bradley, the travel guru who launched Town & Country Travel magazine and the travel portal Indagare, about her journey and her best advice

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share 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?

Melissa: The most controversial response to a story that I have written or been quoted in was in response to my jet-lag advice. Years ago when I was on the longest flight (Singapore to New York), I asked a stewardess for her tips and she said that she never eats—or eats very little—on planes because your digestion is slowed down at high altitude. I have followed her advice ever since and found that it helps enormously (I have a whole regimen). When I mentioned this in a Bloomberg interview last year, I received vicious responses from people who clearly couldn’t imagine forsaking the entertainment of eating on a plane. It really surprised me.

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

Melissa: I started out as a journalist and worked in that world for more than 20 years, first as a researcher for European Travel & Life magazine, then as a freelancer before becoming the travel editor of Town & Country, and ultimately launched the Town & Country Travel magazine. After covering travel for more than a dozen years at Town & Country, I felt that the internet offered a new way to deliver tools so travelers could plan memorable trips. I continuously found myself wanting access to some resource online that included expert reviews but also crowdsourced information from passionate, educated travelers. I craved the personal touch of first-hand knowledge, whether it was from an industry expert or a community of my peers.

When I first came up with the idea for Indagare, my husband told me to stop being frustrated by the gap in the market and pushed me to embrace the opportunity that I saw, put together a business plan and see if I could raise investment. A lot of people thought I was crazy to leave what seemed like the world’s most glamorous job running a travel magazine and to try to start my own company with an unproven idea and no business experience.

As far as growth, I have learned countless lessons along the way — several of which came from different setbacks and challenges. For example, I originally I thought that filling our ranks with high-performers would be the key to success. I did not yet fully appreciate the importance of company culture and consistent values.

What I learned instead, is that culture comes first: regardless of how well an employee performs, protecting and fostering culture is the most important thing you can do. I had to learn how and why to let go of an employee who was not aligned with Indagare’s broader mission. I pivoted to instead investing in strong people and a culture-focused team that has since further developed our hiring practices, built trust and improved interdepartmental communication.

But this investment strengthened my resolve to build a tight-knit community and to develop a company that had clear communication pathways.

I truly believe that with the right culture, you can do anything.

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?

Melissa: In my experience, the best leaders are those who understand group dynamics. They can read others—audiences, teams and partners—and determine motivations and synergies. They know themselves, their bandwidth and their timing. So much of building a brand and a culture is about the people around you, and the best leaders surround themselves with strong partners and mentors that bring new skills to the table. The best leaders are also constant learners. They are always seeking to hear from others and learn what they don’t know. That being said, they are decisive so they know the value of listening to their constituents but they will then make a decision and inspire others to take action. They are also open about their mistakes and learning from them. Essentially, they are not only unafraid to accept challenges and support along the journey, but they welcome them.

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

Melissa: Love your work and believe in what you are doing. My life has been enriched by travel, and I genuinely believe that seeing new places–can be a nearby neighborhood; doesn’t have to be far-away—can shift your perspective and give you new insight. I get to hear proof of the positive power of travel every day and that keeps me going because building a business is really all-consuming and some days can be extremely challenging. Most people see only the glamour but any business that is your own involves enormous sacrifice and responsibility. Working for someone else is definitely easier because you can be “off”; when it Is your business, there is no such thing as time off.

Be eager to learn from others, to listen thoughtfully to others’ perspectives and concerns and be willing to change to address them. I actively seek out negative client feedback because I see mistakes as opportunities for improvement. One of our clients once told me, ‘I don’t believe in perfection, but if you focus on constant improvement, then you may attain excellence.’

Be willing to transform yourself to become the leader that the company needs you to be at different stages of growth and even at different times of the day. When Indagare was small that meant everyone was responsible for doing a little bit of everything — whatever was needed as we grew. Now that have more than 80 employees and Indagare is at a different age and stage, we needed to hire functional experts like our VP of Marketing and VP of People and Culture. An example, because I was a full-time journalist for decades, I feel comfortable writing, but it is more important for me to develop a content team that understands our point of view and voice than for me to write now.

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

Melissa: I have received the same advice from different people at crucial moments in my life, which boils down to, “Go for it. What do you have to lose?”

When I finally received funding and was just setting out to build Indagare, my husband told me that my first hire should be someone who had all of the skills that I didn’t to create a complementary set of talents.

I knew just the person, as she had been my number two at Town & Country Travel, but I said that I couldn’t ask her to leave a corporate position to come to a startup. “Why not?” he said. When I asked her to lunch, she told me, “Yes, I want to join you,” before I had even shared the concept. My husband told me I had nothing to lose by asking her, and I am grateful every day that she wanted to take the risk to join me as she was my first hire and is our COO today. I could never have built Indagare without her.

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

Melissa: I am a big believer in Karma and that every positive action sets in motion others and that we should bring our best selves to every situation big and small. That starts with being aware of all those you interact with from the person you pass in the hall or the driver of your taxi to thinking about where you can add value in a wider world. I have had great mentors throughout my career and try to be very available and open about career advice. Most of my team—and many of our past employees—never envisioned creating a career of their passion for travel and now they cannot imagine working in any other field. Outside of work, I am on the board of Reach the World, an incredible non-profit that brings the power of travel into classrooms through videoconferencing, so children who might never be exposed to distant cultures can learn about life in faraway places and how varied the world is. I am also involved with the Center for Responsible Tourism or CREST. With travel more widely available, we all need to think carefully about how to preserve natural and historical wonders as well as neighborhoods that are threatened by over tourism. CREST is a policy-oriented research organization dedicated to increasing the positive global impact of tourism.

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?

Melissa: Both my parents were voracious readers and I have loved reading from as long as I can remember. When I was younger that meant I got to travel through time and all over the world by reading classics. These days I tend to read a lot of books on psychology, trends and business. My fellow business leaders are also avid readers so we have an informal book club as well as occasional all-staff workshops inspired by books that are relevant to the business. One of the newer additions to our executive team recently told me that our constant enthusiasm for books and ideas has inspired her to read more in her first year at Indagare than she did in the past five years.

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