People frequently ask me how I came to be such an unconventional thinker and unusual serial entrepreneur. While I was always creative I was not always socially adventurous. In many ways, I was likely destined for a life of corporate drudgery like many people find themselves in. This collection of stories from my life is an attempt to provide others with insight into how I became self-employed in the world of hostels.
I was a tinkerer at an early age. With a friend, we would ride our bikes behind the stores and dumpster dive. I was always dismayed at the good things people threw away sometimes in perfectly good working order. Other times it was only necessary to clean or make minor repairs to the items. We sometimes sold the items we found. I was baffled why people would throw away something that another person would pay for.
As a child, my dad always provided ways for me to earn money rather than an entitlement (aka allowance). By the time I was in High School I had already worked for Century 21, Amway, McDonalds (lied about my age) and had contract work for my Dad. Of course, I also had the obligatory newspaper routes. I started my first business in high school. I found a “drop ship” stereo company that thought my idea of selling car stereos to high school students was a great idea. I remember the town clerk having to check if it was okay for a minor to register a business name. I proudly displayed my “Rhythm on the Road Car Stereo” business license in my 1972 Camero [PICTURE OF CAR] which was also my showroom.
I have always had a curious fascination for the world. I used to love road trip vacations with my parents but I always wanted to go further. I was told international travel was expensive and beyond the financial reach of most people. Still I used to spin the globe, stop it with a finger, and wonder what it was like in far off lands. Was it day or night? What language was being spoken? What would be the talk of the town at the moment? As soon as I was able, I joined the Navy since it was the only way I knew how to travel internationally without being rich.
AMERICAN DIPLOMACY - OUR PLACE IN THE WORLD
While in the Navy I was of course exposed to the debauchery sailors are known for. However, I wanted more out of my travels. At each port, the executive officer would give the liberty brief and state where we could and couldn’t go once ashore. The inbounds area would always be filled with shopping, nightclubs and brothels. As a result, I would routinely sneak out of bounds to see things of interest. Once in Korea I overheard an American talking to a Korean at a park. They were both dressed in suits and I assumed the American was a diplomat (although he could have just as easily been a businessman) and speaking with respectful reverence to each other. I saw a stark contrast in the way this person spoke and behaved compared to the rude behavior most locals experienced from some of the sailors and marines on our ships. Once I heard a sailor from another ship yelling at a local as he was trying to buy shoes, “Speak English to me Damn It, I’m an American!” Then something tragic happened while or ships were there. A marine picked up a prostitute and threw her to the ground killing her. This had a profound effect on me, not so much because of the sad event that had occurred but because of the way my naval peers reacted to it. I heard comments like, “Well if you are a prostitute those are the risks you take.” From this moment, I began to distance myself from the ugly American stereotype.
Later in the Philippines, I decided I wanted to experience what it was really like to live in another country. I told the Navy I was going to a local resort called “White Rock” but instead did something entirely different. Despite the warnings of the New Peoples Army kidnapping Americans, I put my faith in humanity. I asked a new local friend named Maricel to be my guide to anyplace she recommended. I paid her way and she took me to various villages where her relatives lived. Instead of feeling threatened by the fear of Communist terrorists, I felt enthralled with a sense of adventure. As we traveled by crowded wooden buses throughout Luzon island to tiny villages where her family lived, my manner was humble and soft spoken. As a result, I was not treated as an American but as a fellow human being. I began to see something I had never seen or felt before in my home country - community. Although the Filipinos we visited had next to nothing by American standards, they were friendly, cooperative and loving toward one another and toward me. My Americanized ways began to feel even more foreign to me.
Still in the Navy we cruised to Townsville Australia. A friend Dave and I went scuba diving on Magnetic Island with two beautiful and friendly Swedish women. At the end of our diving day we missed the ferry to the mainland. It was then the Swedish women introduced us to the concept of a hostel. “A hospital?” we asked. “No a hostel!” As it turned out, the place where we rented our scuba equipment was a hostel. Soon after that, as Dave as I settled in for a beer, I had my mind blown by the possibilities of travel. Backpackers began streaming to the hostel picnic tables with their round the world travel tales with little to no money. My veins pulsed with excitement. These backpackers were proof that I could travel the world on the extreme budget of a backpacker. Hostels would make my dreams of world travel possible.
Over the next 8 months or so, I become enthralled by the freedom of adventure that these international backpackers exhibited and I began spending my free moments reading books such as Europe Through the Back Door by Rick Steves and Work Your Way Around the World by Susan Griffith. I had planned to sell all my things of value (tools, cameras, etc) to fund my trip, however my car was broken into and I lost everything. After selling my car I only had $1600 to my name. Still I was determined. I got one way air courier flight to London and just like that I was off. At first, my financial situation in Europe was a little scary. It became apparent that if I wanted to stay in Europe I would need to find work and fast and frequently as possible. Hostels turned out to be great little employment agencies for me. I volunteered to clean or do odd jobs at every hostel. Sometimes work was available to me, and sometimes it wasn’t. However, hostel receptionists frequently thought of me when the odd job was available. Sometimes a job would last only for a few hours and sometimes it would be a week but it was always interesting and afforded me a sense of freedom to roam from place to place that was fantastic.
MY FIRST REAL HOSTEL JOB
In Scotland, I ended up working for the Caledonian Forestry Commission with a Canadian woman named Tracy who I’d met at the Inverness Student Hotel. Together we planted trees in a remote area while sharing camping accommodations at night. We took turns walking to the nearest town for food, cooked our meals over the fire and had cold water showers. We were paid very little for this work but I was happy since I had everything I needed. Tracy and I would routinely take a bus to Inverness once a week to take a hot shower and sleeping in a proper bed. Over time the staff got to know my friendly face and invited me to work at the hostel. This was the job I was waiting for. Food, accommodation and £2.65/hour plus an amazing ever changing atmosphere of friendly international backpackers.
If you have read this far, I should say there’s something I haven’t mentioned in the previous stories. I was painfully shy and always felt socially awkward and I knew it. It had always been a personal mission of mine to get over my inhibitions. Hostels helped me overcome this in two ways. First of all, people in hostels are for the most part VERY social and friendly. Hostels are the easiest place in the world to meet new friends. Second, the community in a hostel is constantly changing. As a shy person, I tended to be afraid of saying or doing something that I would be embarrassed of or chastised for. Since the community in a hostel is constantly changing I was able to “try myself on for size” and when I did I found people were not repulsed by my true nature, my true sense of humor. They were attracted to it! I highly recommend hostels for all shy people.
LEARNING THE HOSTEL BUSINESS
Eventually I met the owner of the Inverness Student Hotel who offered me a job at his other hostel in Edinburgh called High Street Hostel. At the time, Peter MacMillan was a young ambitious entrepreneur making his way in the hostel industry. He was also a talented carpenter. Peter was very only with me about his business and let me travel back and forth between Edinburgh and Inverness. I learned a lot from Peter.
YOUTH ACCOMMODATION CENTRES INTERNATIONAL
Scotland and Peter’s hostel became my base for further European adventures. I still worked along the way but I was learning new techniques for extending my travel budget. One strategy was researching for a travel guidebook. I found a book called Youth Accommodation Centres International on a hostel book exchange shelf. It was a self-published directory of hostels from Malta. I wrote to the publisher and asked if I could be a field researcher for his book. He sent me a letter attesting to this fact. Now I was able to call hostels in advance and tell them I was a “guidebook researcher”. This enabled me to stay for free at many hostels. Although, the book only listed hostel name, address and phone number I took notes about each hostels facilities, amenities and atmosphere. What I learned is a hostels facilities and amenities was no indication of it’s atmosphere. Some hostels had a vibrant social atmosphere and others were devoid of “soul”. I studied what attributes (both operational and architectural) were correlated with a hostel’s community vibe. I would later apply this to my own hostel.
BACK TO THE USA
In Europe I experienced humanity in a way I had not experienced during my upbringing in the US. When I made the decision to come back to my home country I was bound and determined to either find or create community in the US. I wanted to experience the life I had in Europe and make a living doing it. My first stop was Manhatten. I was totally broke when I arrived from Europe and again needed a job. My electronics training landed me a job at FireQuench. I serviced and maintained life safety systems in a variety of building types. I attended fire department inspections and learned the systems and procedures necessary to keep occupants in a building safe.
GOING WEST TO SAN FRANCISCO - STARTING A HOSTEL
I decided the community and like-minded people I was looking for was most likely to exist in San Francisco. I asked my girlfriend, who I met in Scotland, if she wanted to go to San Francisco with me to start a hostel. She had just graduated and said, “sure, I don’t have anything better to do!” Together we took somebody else’s car, by way of a Driveway, and drove to San Francisco. Within about a year, a proposals to many landlord and lots of trips to various city departments I managed to start our small hostel. Here I was able to test my various theories about creating a genuine and social community of international travelers. After 20 years, I’ve learned that what people say they want and what people REALLY want can be very different things. We operate from the premise that most people are inherently shy and need and appreciate a little help to be social with others. Our hostel is very unlike other hostels but it has a intensely social community that has a loyal and enthusiast following.
Back in 1992, I was already involved in on the internet. I was intrigued with the possibility of people of the world communicating with each other and sharing what they know. Because knew and was passionate about hostels I decided to write Frequently Asked Questions about Hostelling which was hosted on rec-travel libraries by Brian Lucas on Gopher servers at the University of Manitoba. At the bottom of the FAQ was my email address and I encouraged people to write me if they had further questions. I found the questions I received were along the lines of “do you know any other hostels in __________?” I learned that while their were about 11 hosteling organizations in the world, and each of these organizations published book directories of hostels - they only listed hostels belonging to THEIR organization. I felt this was a problem. I decided their needed to be a database of ALL hostels. So I used my knowledge of computers and created “The Internet Guide to Hostelling”.
20 YEARS - A REVIVAL OF THE SHARING ECONOMY
After 20 years in business, I’m thrilled that technology is providing new ways to provide people with the community they crave. Now it’s now called collaborative consumption or the sharing economy but to me it still feels like the roots and inspiration that formed the modern day hosteling movement. My passion is now finding ways to use technology to create community, or in the words of Meetup.com founder, they “use computers to get people away from them.”