Sean P. Finelli is the CEO of The Tour Guy, a new brand that has evolved from the suite of brands including The Roman Guy and The Paris Guy. Finelli left a Wall Street career behind in 2008 to trace his cultural roots back to Italy. Since then, Finelli has created a travel tech company that helps travelers see the best of Italy and Paris without the crowds.
How did the concept for The Roman Guy come about?
There was no “moment of genius” for the company. We try to use common sense; people want to buy exclusive experiences for a decent price. I watched the movie Contact when I was a teenager. Sci-Fi is always so creative. There was a mention of Occam’s Razor. It basically says that the explanation with the least amount of variables (the most simple) is most often the correct one.
Since that point, I have applied that style of thought to my way of doing business. Simple solutions and simple explanations. That is where I got my simple name, “The Roman Guy”. It is also our method of developing activities. Try to simplify how things are explained, as a majority of our customers are not art history majors, but business professionals. They are obviously all smart, but they most likely don’t know when the Baroque period was.
I also apply that to our digital marketing. SEO is this big mystery to so many people, but we simplify it into steps. Google’s mission is to “Organize the world’s information and make it easily accessible and useful.” If we organize our website(s) well, then Google will be happy with us. After that, we organize our off-site content as well.
How was the first year in business?
2008 was when I started off as a tour guide on my own. I was working on the street in front of the Colosseum asking people to take tours with me. Sometimes, I asked for money; other times for tips. It was hard. I had to sleep at a train station for a few nights in 2009. I was moving between apartments and got screwed on my deposit. It took me a bit to rebound before a friend took me in.
When I tell the story to my wife, she always gets sad for me. I was basically begging people to take tours with me and living on nothing. My memories of that year were positive though. I remember being really happy and having fun. I stayed smart and capitalized on opportunities to make money. I had to swallow my ego more than one time. I had a boss that threatened to hit me in front of a group of fifty people. He was a lot bigger than me too. Some colleagues and I just laughed about it afterwards like it was normal. I had to go back to work the next day for him because I didn’t have any money and we both pretended it didn’t happen. Some people would get really offended and take it personally, but that type of stuff only slows you down – too much ego. I don’t hate the guy today either. I am most proud that things like that happened to me. I prefer the rough and rocky road to success. It makes you stronger and nobody can tell me I haven’t earned my seat at the table.
2012 is when my business partner came along. He motivated us to take risks, and in the beginning, they were all in our favor. I was the finance guy and he was the salesman. We were, and still are, yin and yang, but our confidence and commitment to jumping into the deep end meshed well. When data pointed to a project working, we pulled the trigger and owned it.
What was your marketing strategy?
We provide relevant and actionable content that is useful to our end-users. Basically, we explain everything we can possibly explain to prepare them to go to Italy and then we mention our tours. It stems from my achem’s razor idea. Every time someone says we should have a “best selfie social media campaign,” I flip out. Keep it simple. Give people things they need for free and they’ll reciprocate. Reciprocity works.
How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
When I was on my own, I managed to attract rich clients. I think people saw how hard I worked and appreciated it. I would meet groups at their hotels at 7:00 AM and leave them at 9:00 PM, seven days a week. Americans especially like a hard worker. There were definitely droughts in my first couple of years, and I considered leaving Italy and going home to New Jersey, but then I would receive an email from a whale…and boom! I’m back.
In 2012, my business partner came along and we worked hard, but had fun. It was the best year to be honest. Since 2013, we’ve doubled in revenue every year. Our yearly goal is to look back at 12 months ago and laugh at where we were. How small our office was. The amount of employees we were getting by with. We have always looked back and laugh until now, but that could change any day. I am always afraid of a down month and I have a back pocket full of plans to course-correct. I am always waiting for adversity when it isn’t present.
How do you define success?
I honestly don’t think I am enlightened enough to give a good answer, for the incredibly-driven success, conveniently, evolves over time. That is what keeps us driven. To reach success means there is a finish line you could step over, but there isn’t. Success is always out of reach. Six years ago, I would have said success will be when we move our office out of my basement. Four years ago, I would say success will be when we have offices in multiple countries. After that, maybe buying a house. After that, owning the offices instead of renting. Now, success for me will be when I can make a profound and positive effect on the world and the people in it. Provide opportunity for other driven people who were born into less-fortunate conditions. If I reach that point, something else will come up.
What is the key to success?
Philosophers and authors have tried to put a formula to this for centuries. Malcolm Gladwell attributes success even to things like when you were born. Rockefeller and Carnegie, the two richest people in history, were born four years from one another. There are another fifteen people on the top 100 richest of all-time list in that same decade. Coincidence?
I don’t consider myself successful yet. I have a long road to go, but if I became successful, I would attribute it to hard work and luck. Hard work is self-explanatory. Luck is because I was born in the right time period. Without the Internet, my business could have floundered, but I was born in the perfect period leading up to the Internet era. I capitalized on it and have the advantage of time over any new competitors.
Haim Saban says that luck presents itself to all men (people), but someone has to take the luck. What he didn’t say is that most people don’t take it. I think the key to success is taking the luck.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
The best way to get rich is to be poor. When I moved to Europe, I forced myself into poverty and it taught me to work hard. Once you are poor, you get poor PTSD. If you get out of poor, you’ll get poor PTSD. I have slept on the street before, and gotten into some tough situations that I don’t like to brag about, but I’ll never go back to that again.
What are some quotes that you live by?
“The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw
Application – We have rigid email and communication standards. All meetings end with a recap of meeting minutes and cascading messaging. Leaders must repeat what we have agreed upon and explain how they will explain it to their people. If someone was silently against a decision, it will come out here.
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” – George Bernard Shaw (I am dyslexic so this one really speaks to me.)
Application – Similar to the below about Dogma, we look to run our business in a way that compliments our strengths and hopefully eliminates our weaknesses.
“Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking.” – Steve Jobs
Application – Annually, I meet with execs and question different roles in the company. We question the existence of entire departments and methods of running our company. Why do we need sales? Why do we need marketing? The exercise is not to cut costs and fire people, but to understand if there are evolutions to running a business.
“This is an adventure.” – Steve Zissou
Application – Over-dramatize our current projects and be a leader. Get people amped-up about even the smallest project. Make it feel like every day is a race so everyone goes home sweating.
”When the shit gets weird, the weird go pro.” – Hunter S. Thompson
Application – Weird is the opposite of dogma. If you want to break dogma, you need to let people be as weird as they need to be.
What are some of your favorite books?
I am dyslexic so I can’t read much, but I listen to about three audiobooks a week. I went through over a 100 books in 2018 so it is tough to say which are my absolute favorites, but here it goes:
Radical Candor by Kim Scott
Zero to One by Peter Thiel
Just Listen by Mark Goulston
The Tipping Point, David and Goliath, and Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
Powerful by Patty McCord
The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle
The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
We had a big screw up on June 29, 2018. We oversold on some tours and didn’t realize it until the week before. We pushed hard to solve the problem, but ultimately there were many people displaced. We stopped everything and focused on the problem and how to solve it. We made a lot of people content, but there were many people that were unhappy.
That day, I called dozens of unhappy customers to apologize on my day off. Many of them had really tough remarks. To say it was the darkest day of my life was an understatement. We refunded tens of thousands of dollars to customers to try to make people happy. It was a very tough time, but I moved forward.
The next day, I got on a conference call with leaders of my company and apologized for not making the best path for them. I apologized for not keeping them focused on what is most important. We moved forward and sales rebounded. We’re a better company now and we won’t make that mistake again. We actually made a six-figure investment to guarantee that it won’t happen again.
For advice, I would have to say that entrepreneurs need to be extremely self-aware first. Know your strengths, and more importantly, your weaknesses. Focus on how you can help your customers, regardless of the cost. Set your company’s values as early as possible and stick with them. Read Patrick Lencioni’s The Advantage. Read at least a book a week and forget fiction. Arnold Schwarzenegger said famously, “When you are out there partying or horsing around, someone out there at the same time is working hard. Someone is getting smarter and someone is winning. Just remember that.”
This interview was conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.
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