Jet setting around the world is unlikely to win you any prizes from environmental groups. Emissions emitted from air travel have been the target of intense media debate. So in the midst of all this talk of holidaymakers ruining the planet, Justin Francis spotted the opportunity for an eco-friendly travel company.
In 2001 he set up responsibletravel.com, an online travel company offering eco holiday ideas. The company itself does not run the tours. Instead, it lists the available green choices and puts the customer in direct contact with the tour operators, who then pay a commission for any business passed through to them.
“We were the first to use the term ‘responsible travel’,” says Francis. “And now governments and journalists around the world are using the term.”
The business is now one of the fastest growing travel agencies in the UK according to The Times, and is currently turning over £20m a year, doubling sales in the last 12 months. The company started 2006 with six members of staff – there are now 16.
Francis says he couldn’t afford to pay his staff in the early days, so he compensated them with shares in the company – something he was advised not to do. “One of your main skills as an entrepreneur should be recruiting good people. If you have to give them part of the company like I did then so be it.”
The business was funded with an initial £5000. “I started by putting some of my own savings in,” says Francis. “The idea was to show people I was serious about what I was doing because we came after the dot com crash so nobody wanted to invest.”
With his initial personal investment, Francis made enough of a mark to get Body Shop founder Anita Roddick on board and, coupled with some funding from a venture capital firm, the company raised another £40,000. Francis had worked as head of worldwide marketing at The Body Shop so was in a strong position to attract Roddick to the business. He was keen to be seen as an ethical entrepreneur himself.
“It’s a lot easier these days to start a social enterprise,” says Francis. “I’m sure that’s because the world’s favourite colour is now green, but when we started we didn’t have that strong backdrop to start our business.”
So how does Francis equate running a travel company with being an ethical entrepreneur? “However careful you are when picking your destination – choosing an eco lodge, a hotel with solar panels etc – you still have to fly to get there. We were the first travel agent in the UK to say ‘look, you just have to fly less’. Our aim is to be to travel what organic is to food.
And what advice does Francis have for any budding ethical entrepreneurs out there? “Wear your values on your sleeve. Don’t be shy about them because if you’re an ethical entrepreneur that’s your greatest asset.”
Justin Francis spoke exclusively to startups.co.uk after appearing at a British Library panel discussion on Ethical Entrepreneurs. For information on any future events at the British Library’s Business and IP centre visit www.bl.uk/bipc