March 22 was our 15th anniversary. People on our trips often ask how the company got started so this seems like an appropriate occasion to tell the story more broadly.
Choosing March 22 as our starting date is a little arbitrary, but it was the date that Woodswomen officially closed its doors. Woodswomen was a Minnesota-based non-profit, the very first company that offered trips exclusively for women.
Guiding outdoor trips had a been a lifelong dream for me. In 1987 I moved to Minnesota to work at the Minnesota Department of Health and it was there I found Woodswomen (this being pre-Internet days). They offered exactly the kinds of trips I had always hoped to guide so I enrolled in their leadership course as a way of exploring that longtime fantasy. It was only then that I discovered that Woodswomen needed women who could guide trips occasionally throughout the year, a perfect fit with my fulltime job. Anne Flueckiger, Deb Malmon, Brenda Porter, and I all guided there in the 1990s. We learned our guiding philosophy from Denise Mitten, the Executive Director of Woodswomen, and we honed our passion for supporting women as they gained new skills and knowledge, new perspectives, and new friends.
As it started to become apparent in the late 90s that Woodswomen was having financial troubles, I started volunteering in the office in various capacities. I discovered that I enjoyed that end of it, too. When Woodswomen finally closed its doors in 1999, I was ready to make the leap and try starting my own company. I was incredibly fortunate to be able to build on the knowledge and experience I had gained, to employ Woodswomen guides I already knew (Anne, Deb and Brenda), to buy the Woodswomen mailing list, and to adopt many of the trip itineraries. Although our trip calendar has radically changed in 15 years, it was a solid foundation.
Except I knew nothing about running a business, having been in academia or government my whole life. Marketing? Sure, that means going to the grocery store for the week's groceries. Sales? Love 'em, what a great way to save money! Accounting? It can't be that much more than balancing a checkbook.
In a word, I was totally clueless. Fortunately those were all just the details and I had learned everything I needed to know about business from rock climbing. The three most important lessons I continually thought about were:
- When you're standing at the bottom of a climb looking up and you think you want to attempt it - but you're really not sure you will get to the top - the only true failure is to give up before you give it a try. If you try and fail, at the least you will have learned something.
- You don't have to have figured out the entire route before you start. If you make that first move, the second one often becomes apparent. And then the third, the fourth etc.
- You need to trust your belayer, the person who is holding onto the rope that will catch you if you fall. If you don't trust her/him, you shouldn't be climbing with them. I would trust all of our guides with my life, absolutely.
The only reason we survived those first three years is that I was still getting a halftime paycheck from the Minnesota Department of Health. In retrospect, that slow start was beneficial in the long run. Because marketing, sales, and accounting may be details, but they're pretty essential if you want a tiny company to survive and you don't have the capital to hire people who actually know what they're doing. Not to mention public relations, legal matters, permitting, and logistics.
But we did survive. Starting and growing this company has been the biggest adventure of my life, and everything an adventure should be: challenging, thrilling, scary, rewarding, a chance to try new things and learn new skills, learn from mistakes, and learn about myself in the process.
You might also assume that the best part of owning or guiding for a company like this is the incredible places you get to go and things you get to do. And those are wonderful, yes. But really, it's about the people you get to meet.
- Our guides: Deb, Anne, and Brenda still guide with AGC. Jan started in 2001 when she took a rock climbing class in Joshua Tree and afterwards told me that we needed a basecamp manager for the trip and she would be perfect (she was). A few years later she was guiding a backpacking trip and noticed that the owner of the hostel where they were staying seemed very interested in what she was doing - that was Leigh, who joined us the next year. Deb came back from guiding a kayaking trip in the Caribbean and told me I needed to recruit the local guide who actually lived in New York state; Anne Brewer joined us the next year. Deb is also responsible for Stephanie Lingwood who was on a Boundary Waters trip and ready to try leading someone other than Girl Scouts. Katie found us on her own and at the age of 26, I was sure she would never keep guiding with us. I'm so glad to be wrong: watching her get married, finish a PhD and have a baby has been wonderful. And Lisa was a friend of a guide who just happened to call at the right time with the right experience. I am so fortunate that they have all chosen to make Adventures in Good Company part of their lives.
- Our partners around the world: Sometimes I 've found them, sometimes they've found us. My favorite story is meeting Giuliana. We started chatting while we were sitting in the departure lounge at Newark, both headed for Geneva. It turned out she owned a small company in Italy that did hiking and biking trips and gave me her contact information. A year later when we were planning our first trip to Italy, I emailed her. She has been organizing our Italy trips ever since and in the process has become a good friend.
- Our participants: Guiding has given all of us the opportunity to meet some of the most interesting, amazing, and courageous women you could ever hope to know. It takes alot of courage to sign up for the first trip, especially when you come alone. And it also takes a leap of faith - that you'll be safe, looked after, and supported in meeting your goals.