Just before her son entered kindergarten about four months ago, Irene decided to think about what she could do to get back into the workforce. She wanted to save the world so she started to look into the different kind of problems that she could help solve.
Why entrepreneurship? Why did you choose to go into eco-tourism?
I wanted to go into business for myself so I could be flexible with my life. Going into business for myself gave me the freedom to raise my child and still earn a living. I started to look for different ideas around the green space.
After some initial research in the green industries. I saw which hot markets were out there and a few were very appealing to me. The green industry in general seemed to be hot enough that consumers were interested in supporting it, but they didn’t know how to help. It also appealed to my interests and value system.
I looked into different ideas. While talking to a friend of mine, I was able to narrow down what I wanted to do. She asked me if I could do anything, what would I do. Well, I’ve always wanted to travel since I was a kid. I asked myself “How can I get paid for traveling the world?” so I started to think about how to incorporate the concept of green travel into a business.
I looked into green tourism and realized that there are various different types of tourism. For example, nature-tourism is not the same as eco-tourism.
I realized very quickly that not only was there confusion around the green travel industry, there wasn’t a good place where one could go through the entire process (research, reservation and community sharing). I wanted to develop a platform where consumers could educate themselves about eco-tourism, choose relevant tours, make reservations and share their travel experiences.
I thought that there was someone else who had thought about this problem and come up with a solution, but realized that no one had. There wasn’t an easy way to do it, and no one was making it any easier. In addition to no one focusing on the importance of third-party certifications, no one was focusing on families and moms. Eco-tourism as a whole was being ignored as an educational tool in this country.
I decided if [a solution was] not out there, I would put it out there.
If you had the chance to start your career over again, what would you do differently?
My experience thus far – academically, professionally, personally – has prepared me for this. I wouldn’t change a thing.
I used my experience in research to examine the eco-tourism industry and source my operators. I was familiar with technology, so that helped in the building of the site. I used my experience at eBay to create good customer service.
What it came down to was a combination of my confidence and the current economic downturn, which forced me to go out on my own. I think my life experiences gave me all the necessary skills to start my business.
How did you come up with a name like Greenloons?
I did some research on migratory birds. A loon is an ancient migratory bird. It has an extremely light foot print on land. There is also a somewhat pejorative side of the name “loon.” I thought “Why not flip it.” Let’s just call ourselves “greenloons.”
After creating Greenloons, how has it changed how you’ve operated as an entrepreneur or as a business woman?
I developed the business case and plan early on. I have my core skill set. I examined where my talents are versus what I needed to build the site.
When I came up with the idea, I realized that I wouldn’t be the right person to code the site. I had to choose a company that could grow with me.
I went with a small company that I believed in and knew wouldn’t outsource the work to someone else. I could work alongside the team as we figured out how things were going to be.
I trusted another company to build the site and I used mentors heavily. I used the Northern Virginia Technology Council (NVTC) to get mentors. They have a low fee for small business technology start-ups. They also have an entrepreneurship center which I was able to utilize. I was able to talk to people who had worked with social media and marketing, which was extremely helpful.
In addition to that, I used virtual office technologies. For a relatively small amount of money, I was able to stand up as a professional organization. Where I am right now, I could accommodate at least 500 reservations a month.
What kinds of software do you use?
I use Joomla to power my site. I don’t have a “virtual office” technology per se as much as use their services.
You’ve done a lot of “connecting” to make this site possible. Do you work with a middleman or do you find these providers/vendors/operators at the different locations yourself? How have you developed your network overall?
On the tour side, I did a lot of research. It was one thing to come up with the idea, and another thing to find the information.
I researched the different certifications that these operators needed to have to be “green.” Some certifications are just labels that people pay for. Other certifications require the operators to take specific actions.
I approached the tour providers and told them that they were missing a market out there for moms and kids. Those tour operators responded positively. I created contract agreements with all of them.
I created a partnership with an international non-profit dedicated to forest conservation (the name has been removed due to a MOU). They aren’t the accreditation body, but they are mentors that help the tour operators get certified on the ground.
I exchanged my list of certified tour operators with the non-profit. I saw the potential of Greenloons to create an even playing field between the small and large operators, if they go through the certification process.
I then found an eco-tourism conference. I needed to get out there and test my idea. There’s no better way to test a business concept than to go a conference and present the idea to people who are already excited about your industry.
I showed “slideware” to certain people that I knew were going to be there. For a small investment of creating marketing materials and screenshots, I had a great return. Before the conference I told myself if three companies said yes, then I would go through with the project and at the end of the conference, I had received validation of the idea.
Taking a chance and testing the idea in the industry let me know what to do next. The industry will tell you straight out what is and is not a good idea. For example, I thought I could approach the embassies (located in Washington, D.C.), to show them how eco-tourism certification can help their economies. I wanted to tell the ambassadors that if they want to play in the ever-changing travel and tourism space, they’d have to develop certification programs. At the conference, I was told that the plan of approaching the embassies would fall flat because there would be too much politics to deal with. I decided not to approach the embassies but instead let consumers lead the way.
You’re a mom and probably working from home. How do you manage your time?
It’s been very interesting. The site went live three and a half weeks ago. It’s been an adjustment. It’s now all about marketing. I have to do a lot of search engine positioning and getting the word out to reporters. I’m working on their time line which is different from school hours.
Most of my thinking work, such as writing and marketing, is done when my son is in school. For example, I try to do a lot of guest posts for like-minded websites. Sometimes some work overlaps with the school schedule and it goes after 3pm. It will work out.
Do you have a general idea for a five-year plan?
The ultimate vision I have for this company is to be the primary entry point for the tour operators and the primary connection point for the eco-tourism market in the United States. Whether people are interested in visiting a bush camp in Botswana or swimming near the Belize barrier reef, I want people to research and reserve through my site.
I want to be that gateway to get you there. It’s easier to get the larger operators online because they have feeds available that can be integrated. I want [Greenloons] to be the first site that comes to mind.
I am thinking of starting my own affiliate network. I am hoping to get a large enough that large market players in business such as Expedia and Travelocity are interested.
What has been your most satisfying moment in business?
The response thus far has been pretty good even though I’m not first in Google when people search for “eco-tourism.” Having the feeling that it’s the right thing to do and having acceptance of the business value of the service was pretty cool.
Who or what has been your greatest inspiration?
I went through cancer treatment, and that gave me a completely different view of life. That was ultimately the greatest inspiration.
Some people take that situation and it becomes a pity party. I took the experience to see what I could do to give back. I decided to take the rest of my life and do something to help and contribute in some small way to the world.
What is your favorite thing about being an entrepreneur?
What I have loved the most about this experience (and this may have something to do with my background in consulting) is organizing chaos. I have really enjoyed that there has been complete chaos in this industry and I took the steps to try to organize it.
If [Greenloons] gets big and can operate on its own, I am toying with the idea of starting another new company one day. The most fun part for me is organizing chaos and hopefully making it better.
If you were conducting this interview, what would you have asked?
All the questions you asked took me through my story. I think I snuck in the people who helped me. Other than that I think everything was covered.
What would you do if you were in my situation?
I am looking at your website right now. I don’t know what the direction is for potential advertising or if you ever want to go down that space. I am sure that companies like NVTC might be able to help. I’m sure that there are some partnership possibilities to add companies that are part of the NVTC.
I understand that you had to figure out the idea before you could put monetary resources in building it. However, for us, we have the skill sets to make it happen and our only capital investment is our time. Do you think I need a business plan?
I would have a business plan. Having a business plan forces you to organize things. For some people it may make them rethink the business idea. From me it was to really understand the market. “Can I grab a small percentage and make a comfortable living?” I had to ask myself.
I think it’s important for you to have one. Also, anyone who wants to help make your business a success whether it be with financial investment, marketing, etc. asks for a business plan.
Individuals like Irene who struggle through tough situations and come out a winner inspire me to work hard to spread their stories. Irene used her experience in business and technology to build her idea with the help of mentors. She is an example of the modern CEO who runs a digital enterprise from the comfort of her home.
She isn’t the first, and definitely not the last. Irene is just starting out in her venture but I already see that her dedication and passion for what she does will help her succeed. She survived cancer. She is a mom. She is a CEO.