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Lonely Planet Successful Entrepreneurs

Updated on March 10, 2020
Anita Hasch profile image

Anita's main passion in life is reading and writing. She has an interest in many different genres.

A flourishing publishing company, ‘The Lonely Planet,’ was sold in 2007 to the BBC for 89 million pounds. Tony and Maureen Wheeler sold 75% of their company and retained 25% of the shares in the company. In 2011, they sold the remaining 25% as well, for 42 million pounds.

What makes this so amazing is that this company was started with a little 96 page booklet, ‘Across ASIA on the Cheap,’ now a collector’s item, which came out in 1973. It was written, laid out, and hand stapled on the kitchen table of their Sydney flat. This first edition is now worth a lot of money.

Nine months after leaving London the Wheelers arrived in Sydney, Australia, down to their last 97 cents. Their original plan was to find jobs for three or four months until they had earned enough to pay for plane tickets to return to the UK.

But in Sydney, many people hearing about their travels were eager to copy their journey. It was this demand for knowledge of their journey that motivated them to write a guidebook.

River and Mountains in Asia

First Printing Sold Out In 10 Days

The first printing of 1,500 copies sold out in ten days. Another, larger print run followed, then another. It was the right book at the right time. In the free spirited 1970s, young men and women were wandering all over the world in growing numbers. There was a tremendous demand for a good guidebook to the so called Hippie Trail, and the Wheelers’ compact volume was the first to meet the demand. In retrospect, this happy outcome should not have been a surprise. Navigating exotic cultural places on a limited budget was what they were good at.

Lonely Planet guidebooks, advertised as ‘travel survival kits,’ are distinguished by witty, meticulously detailed advice on everything from appreciating erotic Hindu art to giving money to beggars. Baffled by the difference in Western and Pakistani plumbing? How much should you tip in Nairobi? A Lonely Planet guide will tell you what you need to know. And the chapter under the heading ‘avoiding offence,’ was very helpful when dealing with different cultures.

Market In Nairobi

All They Planned To Do Was To Travel

The most popular Lonely Planet titles have sold hundreds of thousands of copies. In addition to a stable of contract authors, the company employs almost 150 full time staff, including editors, cartographers and designers, maintains offices in Melbourne, London, Paris and Oakland, California, and generates huge annual revenues. Yet Tony and Maureen had no intention of founding a publishing empire. All they wanted to do was travel.

Tony was born and bred in Bournemouth, in the South of England, and met Maureen on a London park bench in 1970. They got talking and were married a year later. Tony was offered a good job with Ford, Maureen went to work for a London wine importer. But in 1972, they decided to take a year off and travel across Asia, thereby getting the travel bug out of their system and settling down for good.

Baby Elephant Getting Fed In India

South East Asia On A Shoestring

They withdrew their life savings and bought a small second hand van. Then they took a boat across the Channel and just started driving east. Their route took them across Europe, the Balkans, Turkey and Iran. In Afghanistan they sold the van and continued by bus, train, boat and hitch hiking, meandering through Pakistan, Kashmir, India, Nepal, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.. Tony had travelled before but it was Maureen’s first experience of different countries and cultures. When she first saw Asia, she was amazed at the richness of so many different cultures.

They Decided To Do Another Trip

Encouraged by the success of their first publishing venture, Tony and Maureen decided to do a another trip, and write another guide book on their return. They bought a 250cc motorcycle and spent 12 months riding through Indonesia, Burma, Malaysia, Laos and Thailand. Their trip was published as ‘South East Asia on a Shoestring,’ which was published in 1975. It sold almost twice as many copies as ‘Across ASIA.’ Over the next few years, operating from Melbourne, Lonely Planet went on to publish guides to Nepal, Africa, New Zealand and New Guinea. But even though the books were selling, it was not enough to support the two of them.

First Edition Sold 100,000 Copies

Their breakthrough came in 1979 when the Wheeler's with more than a dozen books already published, decided to publish a book about India’s splendor and diverse culture. Despite enlisting the services of two other writers to help them, it turned out to be infinitely more daunting than they had imagined. The book ran to 700 pages, four times as long as our previous books, which meant it had to be priced four times as high as well. Nevertheless the India guide made a big splash. The first edition sold 100,000 copies, won the prestigious Thomas Cook Guidebook award and went on to sell half a million copies in more editions. It placed the Wheeler's on to a much higher level. Lonely Planet then expanded to television, with a 12 part series under its name on British TV’s Channel 4.

Not everyone believes all this is a good thing. Critics complain that off the beaten track travel guides ultimately destroy the very places they celebrate. The Wheelers remain convinced that their books do more good than harm. The money spent by travelers in the local economies of poor countries improves the standard of living, In Nepal, for example, it’s no coincidence that the regions with the most trekkers also have the best schools, more hospitals, and lower infant mortality.

Maureen acknowledges that the undeveloped world is changing fast and that change is inevitable. In remote Bhutanese hamlets, primitive homes have battery or solar powdered video cassette player.

Guides Banned From Several Countries

The Lonely Planet guides were banned from several countries after the Wheeler's reported frankly on repressive political regimes, They have donated a percentage of their revenues to aid projects in Southern Asia, Africa, India and Central America since 1986.

After they sold 75% shares to the BBC, they still published ebooks, phrasebooks, a range of gift, food and children’s titles, and a magazine. They also created a website to give travelers the tools to plan their next trip, with in depth information on destinations, ideas on what to see and do, as well as The Thorn Tree forum to connect with other travelers and travel guides.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Anita Hasch


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