In 2014, frustrated by the lack of options for travellers in their 30s and 40s, Lee Thompson and his partner, Radha Vyas, took matters into their own hands. Flash Pack Travel – now worth over £13 million ($17 million) – was born. But it wasn’t success at first flight; in the early days, with just £15,000 ($20,000) to their name and no sign of growth, Flash Pack was in danger of being more of a flash in the pan. Then a trip to Rio de Janeiro, and an intervention from ‘on high’, turned the company’s fortunes around...
RSNG The catalyst for Flash Pack’s success was a selfie you took on top of Christ the Redeemer in Rio – what’s the story behind that?
LEE THOMPSON, CO-FOUNDER ‘Launching a travel business without any reviews was an extremely difficult task. We knew we had a great concept but, with no funding, we needed a big idea to spread the word about us. One day in 2014 we were reading an article about workers fixing the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio that was damaged from lightning. We realised it would be possible to climb inside the statue, so I decided to fly out to Rio to convince the Archdiocese to give me access.’
‘Rio was getting a lot of bad publicity at the time due to the amount of money they were pumping into the upcoming FIFA World Cup, and I convinced the Archdiocese that I could turn that around. Remarkably, he agreed and blessed me at the foot of the statue before I made my way up. I popped out of Christ’s crown and took a selfie from the top, capitalising on the two biggest trends of 2014: selfies and the World Cup. We released the photo to the media two weeks before kickoff and the “First Ever Selfie with Jesus” became an instant viral success.’
‘This resulted in 1.4 million hits to Flash Pack in two days and 100 million views of the image in nearly every country in the world. It generated a huge amount of buzz and excitement around the brand, sparking immediate sales and consistent monthly revenue from then on in. We started to appear on page one of Google for keywords without spending any money, and we finally had proof of concept.’
RSNG Would you encourage others to have similar faith in any ‘light bulb’ moments they might have?
LT 'I’ve been making spontaneous decisions like this for most of my life and I honestly believe it’s the key to my success. I always hear people telling me their great ideas but they hardly ever act on them. You just have to believe in yourself and give it absolutely everything. The second I saw the photo of the workman on Christ the Redeemer statue, I knew in my gut that I would be able to persuade the right people to let me up to the top. I knew that this picture would go viral and launch Flash Pack.'
RSNG What motivated you to start a travel company?
LT ‘Flash Pack began in 2014, after my partner and co-founder Radha Vyas spotted a gap in the market. She was single and in her 30s at the time, and desperate for an adventurous holiday. All her friends were busy getting married or having kids, so she booked on a group tour, but she was surrounded by people much younger than her whom she had nothing in common with. The only other group companies out there at the time catered to senior travellers on slower itineraries, which wouldn’t have been right either.’
‘I was in exactly the same position as Radha: single in my 30s and spending weekends on stag do’s or weddings, but never doing the kind of adventure travel that I really craved. A group tour never came on my radar, but when I met Radha on Match.com and she told me about her idea to set up a travel company, I immediately understood the niche and jumped on the idea. Four years on, we are now married and business is booming!’
RSNG Have you always had a passion for travel?
LT ‘While all my friends were taking gap years, I got stuck straight onto a career path. It meant that I’d hardly travelled anywhere until the age of 25, when my freelance photography career started taking off. As a photojournalist on national and international titles, I then clocked up nearly 100 countries in the space of seven years, covering breaking news stories and features in some of the world’s most remote regions.’
‘I covered everything from war zones in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt and Gaza to major sporting events in Brazil, Russia and South Africa. Some of the stories I covered were really sad but the experience as a whole gave me an appetite for local, off-radar travel which I now look to infuse into Flash Pack trips.’
‘Every time we brainstorm a new trip I come up with something else to add to my bucket list!’
RSNG Is there a danger that the stresses of running a big company will dampen that passion?
LT ‘Running one of the UK’s fastest-growing startups can be extremely stressful but the answer to feeling less fraught is to take regular holidays. Ironically, I was so busy launching Flash Pack that I didn’t take time off for three years after setting it up. Now I try and take at least three breaks each year: one relaxed beach/ wellness holiday, one off-the-beaten-track adventure and a weekend city escape. So yes, I have my hands full but, if anything, running an adventure travel company has fueled my passion for travel. Every time we brainstorm a new trip, I come up with something else to add to my bucket list!’
RSNG How important has social media been to the business’s success? Would you even have attempted this venture 15 or 20 years ago?
LT ‘Timing is always the most important factor of starting any business and I feel so lucky that we have been able to ride a massive social media wave. Social media has been absolutely key to our success. We’ve been able to target a niche audience globally and create great quality content that can be seen by the right audience.’
‘In the early days we were able to grow Flash Pack by driving organic traffic on Facebook – now you need to throw considerable money at it. Social media gets a lot of bad rap these days but at Flash Pack, we see it at its best: not only as a means to build brand awareness, but also in the kind of wanderlust and inspiration we encounter every day in photos shared by our audience.’
RSNG What was the state of the business before that pivotal selfie was taken?
LT ‘It was really painful. Radha and I were both running the business while working full-time, which was hugely stressful. We had a website, and a handful of customers, but never enough to get a group together to successfully run a trip. We’d just had the dreaded ‘shall we give
up’ conversation. We needed a big idea to get the business off the ground.’
RSNG Did the hard times at the beginning make you more driven and determined to make the business a success?
LT ‘Now we are a team of 30 and we are about to open an office overseas. Every day we are challenged and we have lots of issues to solve. But compared to that first year of pain, they are such nice problems to have! It’s difficult to explain to our team what we went through but I sometimes show them the hundreds of credit cards we maxed out and talk about stories of how we began. It feels like we’re more resilient and reactive as a result. The shaky start also means that Radha and I are more determined than ever to make Flash Pack the biggest solo travel company in the world – it’s one big adventure, and it gets better every day.’
‘If you are ready to launch a business then you need to be all in – it will be your life’
RSNG In the space of four years you’ve overseen the transition from a £15,000 ($20,000) startup to a £13 million ($17 million) business – looks like a steep learning curve?
LT ‘It’s been a very steep learning curve and we’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way. The travel industry is heavily regulated and if we knew what we know now, we may have not set up Flash Pack in the first place! Lots of problems come with scale too, so we’ve had to build technology to stay ahead of the curve, which takes time. The steep curve has given us an outsider’s advantage, though, because we were able to be tenacious and take risks while learning on the job.’
RSNG What advice would you give to anyone looking to emulate your startup success?
LT ‘You need to be passionate and 100% dedicated to what it is that you want to start up as a business. If you are ready to launch a business then you need to be all in, as it will be your life. Surround yourself with positive people who encourage you and shake off the naysayers who tell you it will never work.’
WHAT NEXT? Watch Flash Pack co-founder Radha Vyas discuss the merits of solo travelling.