Richard Sinclair is the founder of SNO and Innovating for Growth: Scale-ups graduate. His company specialises in helping customers find the perfect ski/snowboarding holiday packages online, suiting their specific needs, and at the best prices available. Having started the company in 2006 after accidentally noticing a gap in the market, SNO has gone on to become the fastest growing ski travel business in the UK.
In 2014, Richard saw that there was an opportunity to scale up and decided to apply for the Innovating for Growth programme. The three-month course proved to be the catalyst for SNO to grow, and Richard credits the programme for giving him the focus and the tools to execute his vision. With over £10,000 worth of bespoke business advice, Innovating for Growth is perfect for small to medium sized enterprises hoping to grow. To find out more about the Scale-ups programme click here.
SNO is very much your second career, how did your twelve years at the BBC influence your entrepreneurial journey?
Deeply. As a former BBC executive producer, making factual TV for prime time, I can pinpoint three key periods with “Auntie” which pointed me down this road. I got my customer focus from early days at consumer champion Watchdog, indulged my love of science and technology at Tomorrow’s World and slaked my thirst for travel while running the Holiday programme.
These programmes, and the talented and passionate people I worked with, definitely fed into my desire to build an online travel business, but it was a documentary series where I spent a month filming a race to the North Pole, which taught me the real power of perseverance… and just how much further we can push ourselves, beyond the limits that we have imagined. This experience uncovered the tenacity needed to build a business from scratch. Crucially, it taught me that the most fun and fulfilment is to be had by tackling the hardest challenges with the most talented and driven teams.
Having started as a “creative”, directing and producing telly, I later found (having climbed the greasy pole to become quite senior) that I really loved the business and finance side of running a large department in the BBC and particularly the building and leading of talented teams of people, as we all worked towards a common goal.
Having successfully completed the Innovating for Growth programme, would you say it has benefited your business, and would you recommend the programme to your peers?
Innovating for Growth was the lens which helped focus our plans. When you’re starting out and focused on getting traction, the very specific coaching in discrete areas such as product development, branding and marketing helps to crystalise your often amorphous BHAGs (big-hairy-audacious-goals) into more practical and immediately actionable insights… which allow you to continually execute.
One of the key markers of success in an entrepreneur is to “execute” again and again, all day, all week, month in and month out. Innovating for Growth gives you the tools to keep delivering on your vision.
I would recommend this programme to any entrepreneur, but especially those less experienced in leading and growing a business, as it gives you the know-how and tools in a short space of time, which are usually garnered through a lifetime of trial and error.
The travel industry seems a world away from the media. What was the specific event that started SNO?
SNO came about accidentally, as a by-product of naively thinking I could “just build a website” to rent out my flat in Chamonix in the French Alps, when not using it. We ended up creating the world’s first ski resort guide which worked on all phones “The whole ski resort in your pocket!” (back when mobile web was new and hard to do across all devices).
Cutting a long story short, we toured the alps (in a vintage Airstream) and quickly realised that the “business” was in selling holidays business-to-consumer, not selling advertising business-to-business to all the locals in the guide. That was our big pivot and sno.mobi the mobile guide became sno.co.uk the online travel agent.
We also got to know many of the remarkable people who make your visits to the mountains so special and decided we wanted to support them and their communities. To this day we advertise all local ski schools, rental, transfer drivers, bars, restaurants, etc. free of charge on SNO, so they can benefit from our huge web traffic too. We’re also working on a Platform/Marketplace technology project which we believe can change the travel industry globally, and give all those literally millions of micropreneurs, in resorts and destinations around the world, access to the big travel distribution channels that they could never reach themselves – it’s a classic “tech disintermediation” idea whose time has come.
You started SNO selling ski holidays, so what made you want to move beyond that quite large travel niche?
It’s true that skiing and snowboarding is a passion for us at SNO, but it’s just one facet of the bigger love of all types of travel. In addition, the biggest motivation to grown beyond ski holidays is the very seasonal nature of the industry. Each autumn we hire new talent to work in reservations and every winter there are always some “keepers” who we love working with and want to bring into the family as SNO grows. As you can imagine, it’s heartbreaking to have to “crew-down” each spring when there’s not enough work for a big team over the summer, so we set about fixing that.
Any great business is really about the people – even a technology business like ours – so we’re growing into beach holidays and then cruises, to keep creating jobs for the talent we’re lucky enough to work with.
The UK is the world’s 5th biggest economy, but your sights are set higher. What are your plans for global expansion?
We’re a UK technology and travel business, but we’ve been plotting ways to map our success here into other territories. It makes sense to start in the same language, so we’re building SNO in America and a US-centric version of SNO.co.uk for that market. We’re rebuilding our entire technology stack to accommodate multi-domain, multi-region delivery with multi-languages. The content management system and even the product descriptions need a version for each country, as English-speaking Americans search for “ski vacations” rather than “ski holidays” and ski chalets tend to be called ski lodges over there. And, of course, we also need to re-engineer our systems to accommodate multi-currency and find novel ways to turn UK-departing packages into trips that depart from the USA instead.
The key to the successful globalisation of any business is “localisation”. Not just language, domain, currency and marketing, but even the technology of being a big, fast and reliable website around the world. It means we have to get our heads around technologies like CDN (content delivery networks) so that content for e.g. New York is not being served from thousands of miles away in York(shire).
As they say “if it was easy, everyone would be doing it”...
You mentioned a big technology project designed to disrupt the global travel industry. I think you need to tell us more.
I can’t go into details, as we’re still working on the technology and are speaking to parties interested in funding this as a separate business.
The project has been dubbed “Etsy for Travel” and “Amazon for Travel” but it’s much bigger than that.
I’ve been to the North Pole, driven an F1 car and managed a few Ironman races but I can honestly say that, (apart from having two amazing children), this is the most exciting thing I’ve worked on in my life.
You’ve bootstrapped SNO to $5m revenue as an online travel agent, so why are you considering investment in the Travel Marketplace?
We did bootstrap SNO, but it took five years just to get this far, and I’m determined to work on the Travel Marketplace project at a much faster pace. It can scale enormously and very quickly with the right team – we already have a positive relationship with thousands of travel entrepreneurs in resorts worldwide, and the technology is not rocket science, so it’s all going to be in the execution. We’ll use investment mainly to fill existing roles at SNO, so I can bring my core team into this project full time.
We’re working on the details of the project now and will raise £500k seed, so interested investors should drop me a line!
Are you an ambitious business owner looking to scale up, like SNO? Innovating for Growth is a free three-month programme to help you turn your growth idea into a reality.
The programme is fully-funded by the European Regional Development Fund and the British Library.