If you’ve planned a vacation, you know that it can be time-consuming to search for the best things to see and do during your stay. Melissa Biggs Bradley, the founder of Indagare, created the solution she wanted for herself. Indagare is a members-only travel agency for luxury travelers — with customized itineraries and unlocked access to destinations, activities and upgrades.
“In 2007, I launched Indagare as a member-based travel site with curated content and community reviews and as soon as we went live, our members began asking us to plan their trips,” says Bradley, “Once we began helping people plan their trips, we realized a virtuous cycle emerged with our content inspiring customers and customers referring friends to help grow our community. The germ of the idea was always to help people create better trips, but our current business model is certainly different than what I had originally expected.”
Elana Lyn Gross: What inspired you to start Indagare? What was your career path?
Melissa Biggs Bradley: I have worked as a journalist for more than 20 years, starting out as a researcher for European Travel & Life magazine and then serving as the travel editor of Town & Country and launching Town & Country Travel magazine. After covering travel for more than a dozen years at Town & Country, I felt that print publications were not delivering the best tools for travelers to plan memorable trips. I personally wanted access to something online that included expert reviews but also crowdsourcing from passionate travelers.
Gross: What advice do you have for other women who hope to start their own businesses?
Bradley: Know yourself, your bandwidth and your timing and surround yourself with strong partners, that can include your family but also colleagues and mentors that bring a skill to the table that is not directly in your wheelhouse.
I feel very fortunate that I had many years of working before I had children as well as years with a very supportive spouse and extended family. I had flexibility in my career when I needed it most with young children and now when my business needs a lot of attention, my children are no longer at home. When you are starting a business, you really do have to do everything yourself—at least some of the time—and you are on call all of the time. You and your family have to be okay with that sacrifice, so choose your timing wisely.
Gross: What are the most important characteristics someone needs to have to be successful in your role?
Bradley: It sounds trite to say that you have to love your work and believe in what you are doing, but building a business is really all consuming and much harder than most people anticipate. Making people feel comfortable enough on their travels to try new things and revel in a sense of discovery or bond with their loved ones in special circumstances really thrills me.
My own travels have proved to me the value of being flexible and so has growing my business. Very often you have to be willing to take a different path and follow the opportunity. You also have to be eager to learn from others, to listen thoughtfully to others’ perspectives and concerns and be willing to change to address them. I actively seek out negative member feedback because mistakes are opportunities for improvement. One of our clients once told me, ‘I don’t believe in perfection but if you focus on constant improvement, then you may attain excellence.’ I agree and encourage my team to embrace the same attitude.
You also have to be willing to transform yourself to become the leader that the company needs you to be at different stages of growth and even at different times of the day. When we were small that meant doing a little of everything but as we grew, and we now have more than 80 employees, we needed to hire functional experts such as vice presidents of marketing and people and culture. I still love creating content. After all, I began as a journalist. However, I recognize it is more important for me to have a strong content team than to be the one producing it.
Gross: What’s the biggest lesson you learned at work and how did you learn it?
Bradley: The biggest lesson was the value of culture. We learned this the hard way because originally I thought that filling our ranks with high-performers would be the key to success. But what I learned is that a high-performer can also poison your culture with a toxic attitude. Getting rid of a person who didn’t share our company values took me too long. To recover from the damage, we outlined how we would work together to rebuild trust, including a renewed commitment to interdepartmental communication, and also made a key hire in the people and culture team to help us further develop our culture and hiring practices. It was a painful lesson but incredibly valuable as I truly believe that with the right culture, you can do anything.
Additionally, I had to how important it is as a leader to focus on the important work not the urgent. It is easy to get mired by everyday crises, but a strong team needs someone who looks beyond the momentary issues and points steadily to milestones and together celebrates reaching them.
Gross: What is one thing that you wish you had known when you were starting out your career?
Bradley: I wish I had known that a plan is less important than a strategy. I worried a lot about following the next steps and trying to understand exactly where my path was headed. What I have come to believe is that progress is more important than knowing the destination. So, for instance, as long as you are building skills, expertise and relationships, you can figure out how to use them and you don’t have to have a master plan.
Since I began my career, the media landscape and the travel industry have been massively disrupted. There was no way to predict either of these, but I feel fortunate that I invested time in learning from experts along the way and that I didn’t get too attached to one outcome. If I had, I would never have been able to create a company to take advantage of the space created by these disruptions.
Gross: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
Bradley: I have received the same advice from different people at crucial moments in my life, which boils down to, “What do you have to lose?” When I first came up with the idea for Indagare, my husband told me to stop being frustrated by the gap in the market and the opportunity that I saw and pushed me to put together a business plan and see if I could raise investment.
When I did receive funding, he told me that my first hire should be someone who had all of the skills that I didn’t to create a complimentary set of talents. I knew just the person as she had worked as my number two at Town & Country Travel, but I said that I couldn’t ask her to leave a corporate position to come to a startup. “Why not?” he said. When I asked her to lunch, she told me, “Yes, I want to join you,” before I had even shared the concept. She was my first hire and is our COO today.
So many of the key evolutions in our business model occurred because someone reminded me of the same advice I had been given by my parents as a child, “Try it. What do you have to lose?” Seems odd that I should keep needing to get that advice but I am so glad that I do.
Gross: What is your business advice for other young professional women?
Bradley: When you are young, I think it is great to go wide and deep and to focus on picking up skills, expertise and a network of mentors. I wrote freelance articles while I had my first editorial jobs so I could learn writing and editing skills from as many people as possible. It didn’t matter what the topic was — I just wanted experience, so I wrote on film, food, design, arts and politics. Those skills landed me the travel editor job at Town & Country, which then became my area of expertise.
I also think that if you can work in a large corporate culture where management and systems are in place you can benefit from training, resources and infrastructure. But it is ideal if you can also spend time in a startup culture, where you will likely get to learn about a lot of departments. You can learn about which culture suits you and whether you will thrive with a lot of supervision or if you prefer a place that allows for a lot of independence. Matching your temperament with environment is as important as finding a place where you can learn and grow. Ultimately, no one will manage your career for you. You have to do it yourself.You should constantly set up goals of growth and learning and if they are not met, figure out where you can grow in a new opportunity.
Elana Lyn Gross is a freelance journalist and founder of the personal and professional development website, Elana Lyn. She has interviewed
more than 250 businesswomen for her Career Profile series.