Lonely Planet’s Tony Wheeler on Travel with Purpose

Maureen and Tony Wheeler, co-founders of Lonely Planet. (Photo courtesy of subject)

Maureen and Tony Wheeler, co-founders of Lonely Planet. (Photo courtesy of subject)

When Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler crossed over into Malaysia in the early 1970s, his passport was stamped with a unique tag: “SHIT.” It stood for “Suspected Hippie in Transit.”

Wheeler and his wife, Maureen, set off from London, shortly after he finished business school, on a global trip. From London to Afghanistan, they traveled by car, which they sold in Afghanistan for a $5 profit. From there, they hitch-hiked their way to Australia.

“We had 27 cents left. We were a little tight on cash,” jokes Wheeler.

That’s when Maureen and Tony co-wrote their first book: Across Asia on the Cheap. It was a collection of stories, advice, and tips based off their hitchhiking days. Since then, Lonely Planet has sold over 80 million books. It’s the largest travel publisher in the world. Six years ago, the Wheelers sold the company to the BBC for 130 million GBP.

tony wheeler car

Read the full story at Forbes.com.




Backpacks as a stepping stone: get back-to-school basics


Standing in line at Target during back-to-school week, I was astonished to see how much stuff kids need to learn.  At the check out, a mother in front of me, joked with her teenage son, “You better be Einstein after all this.”  They both broke out in laughter– a good respite given the length of the queues that evening.

Having traveled widely, and seen classrooms of all sizes and conditions, it really is striking how much we spend annually on school supplies.  While I may be in favor of a simpler classroom, and less frills, that’s unlikely to happen.  The back-to-school industry amounts to nearly $20 billion.

So what about families who just cannot afford to splurge every August on stationery?  How do they ensure that their kids don’t feel like the odd ball out?

Local civic organizations such as Rotary have been providing free backpacks with school supplies to children of low-income families for years now.  Every fall, they assemble the basics and hand them out a week before school starts.  In Moorpark, this year, the local club handed out about 100 backpacks –  half of which were designated for the Boys and Girls Club school kids.

Such local efforts are always welcome. But they can be hard to scale without sufficient funds.  One company is reshaping back-to-school for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.  Fitmark, a fitness bag brand, started by Mark Samuel in the Bay Area, is partnering with the youth organization to hand out backpacks in communities of need.

The company launched in 2012, after raising $500,000 in funding.  Samuel, though, has aspirations of making Fitmark into a Nike or Jansport-esque brand.  Fitmark, he says, has the power to scale exponentially and turn into a $100 million brand.  Reportedly, the company has already sold  250,000 bags worldwide and is now expanding further in to the European market.

The bags range from $75 to $175 and have already found their way into major sports clubs across the country.  Manufactured mostly in China, with some custom bags produced in the US, they’re designed for fitness folks – yoga practitioners, gym lovers, and outdoorsy individuals.  Samuel started the company because he says, he didn’t see any other brand honing in on fitness bags.  “Most big brands see bags as an accessory.”  Fitmark’s bags come with perks: meal containers, anti-microbial material, insulated pockets, laundry bags, shoe pouches.

For every $100 Fitmark nets through bag sales, it will donate a bag to a Boys and Girls Club.  The project started in Oakland, Fitmark’s backyard.  But it’s grown to target America’s more troubled cities: Philadelphia, Detroit, and South Central LA.

The Detroit Boys and Girls Club coordinator saw kids coming to school with their books and gear in plastic bags.  One homeless mother-son duo were particularly thankful to get a bag, given their limited means, he says.  The success of the program in Detroit has inspired the club to come up with more incentivized programs: kids who perform well, illustrating progress in their studies and extracurriculars, can get a sports bag or a backpack also.

By the end of 2014, Fitmark will have donated 2,000 bags to underprivileged youth.  Why Boys and Girls Club, in particular?  “It was a natural fit.  I wanted to do something for kids specifically,” Samuel says.

The Boys and Girls Club reaches 4 million young people; there are over 4,000 chartered clubs and 1,4000 in schools.  The organization started in 1860 in Connecticut, designed just for boys.  But in 1990, it was re-branded as the Boys and Girls Club of America.

“There’s a lot more to this than the bags.  As a kid, sports gave me confidence, discipline.  I want other kids to be able to have that easily.”

Samuel is aspiring to grow the give-back program to more cities across the US.  “We can do this.  We can change this problem.  This is what drives us,” he says.

This originally appeared in the Ventura County Star.  (Photo credit: Fitmark).


Farm-To-Closet: New York’s Latest Fashion Startup Goes Old School


From farm-to-table we’ve moved to farm-to-closet.

One-year-old startup, Zady.com is rethinking the way clothes are produced, spending more time on the farm, less time in the shop.

“We want to make products where they are made most beautifully,” says Maxine Bedat, co-founder of Zady, referring to the latest addition to the online boutique- a hand-knit woolen sweater from Oregon.

It marks the beginning of a private label for the Zady brand, which to date has curated pieces from artisans and small businesses around the US and Europe.  It’s fair to say that Zady isn’t just selling you a piece of clothing, but a story – a growing trend in e-commerce businesses.

Read the full story at Forbes.com.

(Photo Credit: Zady)


Test Driving the Tesla

If you haven’t driven a Tesla yet, you should.

This month, the electric car company is partaking in a ping-pong match.  Five states (Texas, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, and California)  are vying for the next Tesla factory, where the manufacturer will produce lithium-ion batteries for its Tesla S model, and subsequently, 6,500 jobs for the local economy.

Everyone wants Tesla to succeed.

California is even offering to waive regulatory procedures, which in true government fashion can lag on for years, to ensure thatTesla’s new plant is up and running within the next two years.

Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of Tesla, is leaning towards Nevada.  But no official decision has been announced yet.

Musk has recently become the poster child of innovation.  Though based in Silicon Valley, he’s not dappling in just another tech startup.  He’s already sent rockets to outer space (for NASA), is experimenting with reusable rockets now (ones that land gently back on the Earth and can be launched again), and is developing a 35-minute, 760 mph ride from Los Angeles to San Francisco on the “hyperloop.”   Oh, he also created Paypal, the money transfer platform, which he sold to eBay for $1 billion.

He’s making science cool.  More so, he’s using technology for some serious problems, namely our havoc on the environment.

That’s why this week, when dear friend and Tesla owner, Curtis Kodama, offered me a chance to drive his car, I was thrilled.  Kodama is not a fan of speedy race cars; he drove a pickup truck and a sedan for decades, till he wore them down, before investing in the Tesla.  He wanted to experiment with a new, cleaner option.  And he’s thrilled with the results.

The Tesla S does 0 to 60 mph in less than 5 seconds.  It’s considered to be one of the safest cars (watch the video of it navigating an obstacle course in the snow).  It’s impeccably styled and beautifully quiet.  It can be driven for 240 miles on one charge, enough coverage for daily drives to work and school.

But, most of all, Kodama says, I was surprised by how it’s sold. “It’s like buying a computer.”  Tesla sells the car online. Its stores (in Santa Monica and Topanga Canyon) are merely for window shopping.

When I decided to buy the car, Kodama says, the Tesla rep just sat me down and walked me through the options online and even told me the ones that would have been a waste of money.

Money is not at the heart of the company.  Yes, Musk may be a rich man today.  But, his ambitions go beyond wealth.  He’s made the Tesla design public, available for other car manufactures to copy.  In fact, he wants them to.

He was recently on the Colbert show, where he rationalized this decision:  “If we’re all on a ship, and the ship is sinking, and we’re bailing out water, and we have a good design for a bucket, we should share that.  Because, well, we’re all sinking.“

That’s why he wants the next line of Tesla’s to be priced at $35,000, making it an affordable option for everyone.  But, Tesla’s next model, he says, will be more like the S, less like a hybrid – not boxy, unattractive, and golf-cart like.

Despite all the public love for Tesla, everyone isn’t a fan of electric cars.  Some Silicon Valley venture capitalists have been quick to point out that the batteries are not bio-degradable.  So, what will happen to the batteries at the end of the car’s life?  And yes, they’re plugged into a socket for charging, that uses “dirty” energy to power it.  Rather, these VC’s are rallying for (and putting money into) alternative fuel sources, such as fuels made from agricultural waste.

Musk, the inventor, is already working on a solution: solar-powered charging stations free for Tesla’s and other electric vehicles.  As for the batteries that’s yet to be determined.

Till date, though, Tesla has clearly emerged as the best alternative vehicle to our gas guzzlers.   A quick ride around town is likely to get nay-sayers to think otherwise.  The car drives beautifully, is spacious, with an attractive dashboard that’s connected to your smartphone, displaying maps, stats, mileage and more on a large screen.

It certainly doesn’t feel like a compromise, in any way.  See for yourself.


Can Traditional Bhutan Survive Tourism?


Bhutan is commonly described as “heaven on earth.”

Heaven, though, has been getting a lot of visitors recently.

In 2013, Bhutan had nearly 120,000 visitors—the highest in its history, according to the Bhutan Tourism Council. Americans made up the largest foreign market with about 7,000 visitors, despite the daily $250 tariff (which includes basic food, accommodations, transport, and a guide). Visitors from India, Bhutan’s neighbor, however, still dominate in terms of annual visitors, largely because they’re excused from the tariff.

As a landlocked country with a mountainous terrain and a largely agricultural population, Bhutan is turning to tourism for revenue.  And rightly so: its historic Buddhist monasteries nestled atop cliffs at high altitude, with majestic views of the Himalayas in the distance, make for the ideal photo op.


The Himalayan kingdom started welcoming visitors nearly 40 years ago.  But, it’s really in the last decade that Bhutan has seen an influx of tourists, especially those from beyond Asia.  The country prizes its natural beauty: in fact, Bhutan’s constitution carries a clause stating that 60 percent of its land will always be kept as forest.

That’s been Bhutan’s selling point: its quiet, spiritual, and earthy nature make it a good place to disconnect from the frantic ways of modern life.  As tourists pour in from around the world, the newly-formed democracy is trying to balance growth and modernization with heritage. The question is: can it be done in a mindful way?

Sitting outside the Druk Hotel in Thimphu, one of the oldest hotels in the country, it appears as if modernization has already arrived.  Three young Bhutanese men are preparing for a street fair with a live concert. U2 and Coldplay ballads blast into the town square as the men test the audio system. An elderly gentleman, sitting on the steps, facing the sound stage isn’t entertained. He says he just wanted to rest quietly before resuming his walk up to the stupa, a Buddhist shrine dedicated to the 3rd King of Bhutan. Disgruntled, he gets up and walks away.

Nearby, a hole-in-the-wall barber is snipping away.  He’s from the Indian state of Bihar and is styling a young Bhutanese mane into the latest hair craze: a sort-of disheveled, layered look for men, globalized by South Korean pop stars. The world has clearly reached Bhutan, and the young members, at least, are enjoying it, often to the chagrin of the older generation.

The rise in tourism has also meant more jobs for the younger generations. Over 2,000 people graduate from university each year in Bhutan, and they yearn for professional work. The government is hoping tourism can keep them from migrating to nearby India or Thailand.  There are over 11,000 travel operators in the country, and the industry employs nearly 30,000 people. Plus, its easy for entrepreneurs to start their own businesses—all you need is a computer and an Internet connection.


For the full story, please go to Daily Beast.


Next “Sharing Economy” Step: Backhoes on Loan

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In some cities, the “sharing economy” is moving beyond cars — to tractors. MuniRent, a Michigan-based startup that wants to shake up the world of municipal procurement, was recently picked by Code for America’s accelerator program as one of the top five startups in the country working to improve government through technology.

Small and mid-sized cities struggle with acquiring, maintaining and paying for heavy equipment like trench diggers, street sweepers, tractors and backhoes. Rather than cities investing in such specialized equipment, MuniRent is developing an online marketplace for cities to rent bulky equipment from each other.

For the full story, please go to Nextcity.org.


Bite-Size Payments Go Global: Solar’s Next Challenge


d.light sells solar devices to over 60 countries.  They claim they’ve impacted 36 million lives with 6 million d.light units.  Hefty numbers.  But that’s not enough.  Now, they’re going for universal access to energy.

To give everyone light, interestingly, doesn’t mean just more lanterns and LEDs.  Rather, success lies in financing.  So, the solar company is developing financial products to help get light into the hands of its customers.

The standard model, a simple kerosene replacement, is priced at $30.  Anything that exceeds that price tag (d.light sells home systems that go up to $150) becomes too expensive for a low-income African and Indian consumer to pay upfront in cash.  That’s why pay-as-you-go, or paying in bite-size pieces, is the best solution for larger price tags.  This July, d.light said that it had sold 500,000 financed units globally.

For the full story, please go to Forbes.com.