Tom Marchant: making a million from the travel-bug

Ex-City analyst Tom Marchant started his travel company with £20,000 savings. After honourable mentions in glosssy magazines, the company's now turning over £7.5m.

If your idea of a perfect holiday is trekking in a remote part of the Himalayas, or drinking in one of Bogota's hippest bars, Tom Marchant, 30, is the man to go to. His company, Black Tomato, specialises in taking travellers off the beaten track.

Marchant was no travelling novice when he started out; he'd done everything from working on fishing trawlers in the South China Sea to getting into mobile-phone advertisements on Korean TV. His experiences would prove handy later: "If someone said I want to go to Buenos Aires, we'd been there and knew about it and could ring our contact in Buenos Aires and find out what activities they could get up to."

The son of a technology entrepreneur, Marchant grew up in Birmingham. After taking a degree in geography at Newcastle University, he got a job in the City as a business analyst, before hitting on an idea with two friends for a travel company that designed everything around an experience rather than a destination. "So rather than saying, I want to go to South Africa, you say I want to do this, where's good for that? We were one of the first people to do it."

With £20,000 in savings, Marchant, along with friends James Merrett and Matt Smith, set up the firm from Marchant's bedroom in Putney, London, in November 2005. "I was 26. None of us had family responsibilities. We were at that age when you can take a punt."

They quickly twigged that their target audience would be influenced more by editorial than advertisements. So they courted a PR company to get them into newspapers and magazines. One friend helped them get a mention in GQ. "A quote about us guys being 'the online quenchers of wanderlust' from GQ is worth its weight in gold. You can put it in your marketing materials. It just gives you a stamp of credibility."

Cond Nast Traveller soon picked up on what the three were up to and did a photo shoot entitled, 'The ones to watch'. "It just built from there. Our whole focus was building our profile, then getting people to our website and letting that speak for itself." At Blacktomato.co.uk, people could choose holidays by need, whether that was "to get lost" or seek "some bustle", or by price. At the end of the first year they'd won The Guardian, Observer and Guardian Unlimited best travel website award and were turning over £1.5m.

The firm moved to an office block in Putney Bridge within the first year, and just over 18 months ago to Shoreditch in east London, where it now employs 35 people and turned over £7.5m last year. Now the challenge is "getting your head around the fact that you're a multi-million pound business. When you're small you can work off fairly basic platforms. When you're bigger, everything from tracking to the site to larger financial transactions puts more pressure on the business."

Still, the firm has 1,000 bookings a month and rising sales in a downturn. How? "For a lot of our customers travel defines them. It's their life. So they may have put off the plans to build a new extension last year, but travel is one of the last things they'll give up. It's part of their DNA."

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