My first million: how the Lonely Planet took over the world

When Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler and his new wife set off on their travels in 1972, they were unknowningly taking their first steps to a publishing phenomenon.


"I had just finished my MBA at London Business School and we wanted to get travel out of our systems before we settled down into real jobs'," says Wheeler. He didn't know it yet, but he never would take on that real' job. By the time they got to Australia, they found that people were fascinated by their trip and wanted to know more. So, sitting down at their kitchen table, they hand-collated, trimmed and stapled a book on their experiences, publishing it themselves. The result was Across Asia on the Cheap. It was to be the first Lonely Planet guidebook. An instant local bestseller, 8,000 copies were bought in three months in Australia and New Zealand.

Spurred on by this initial success, the Wheelers then embarked on another trip in 1974 in South-East Asia, this time lasting 18 months. The result was their second book, South-East Asia on a Shoestring, typed and laid out by Maureen and Tony in a Singapore hotel room. It was to become one of the most popular guidebooks ever published. "From 1975, the business started being a business," says Wheeler.

In 1976, Nepal and Trekking in the Himalayas was published, followed by several guides in 1977, including Australia (now in its 13th edition), Europe and New Zealand. However, it was in 1981 that their big break came, when, with a staff of ten, they published their Lonely Planet guide to India.

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An instant bestseller, it's now in its 11th edition and has sold over a million copies. But as Wheeler points out, Lonely Planet was by no means an overnight success. The business grew quite slowly and at first didn't bring in any money. In the early years, both Wheeler and his wife wrote in their spare time and held down other jobs to keep them going. "It was really hand-to-mouth stuff and a weekend and evening operation," he says. "We loved what we were doing though. You don't set out in business just to make millions. That's putting the cart before the horse. Part of the reason that people are successful in what they're doing is that they are doing things that they love."

This attitude would prove an advantage later on. Without resorting to outside financial assistance, they remain the majority shareholders of Lonely Planet. Not bad, when one considers that it's now the largest independent producer of travel media in the world, with revenues of over A$100m and sales of more than 60 million books to date. With everything from a TV production company to a website that has been voted best travel site for six consecutive years at the Webby Awards, the business is going from strength to strength.

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.