Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Columbian's Adventure

Our friend Tom Heath recently wrote a nice profile of Columbia entrepreneur Matt Baker and his Terrapin Adventures in his "Value Added" column.

From WaPo:

Entrepreneur Matt Baker's outdoor Terrapin Adventures in Howard County has a 43-foot climbing tower, a 2-G-force giant swing and an adrenaline-pumping, 330-foot-long cable "zip line" that slings you along at 20 mph, 30 feet above the forest floor.

But Baker said the key to making his outdoor dream into a success will ultimately depend on the personalities of his guides and not on the $250,000 worth of wooden poles and steel cables he has planted near the Little Patuxent River.

"The guides make the difference," said Baker, 52. "You can always be trumped by someone who has something taller, faster and maybe a more beautiful location. But if you have engaging staff and are creating memories, that's going to be something that they can't trump you with."

I never tire of hearing business people talk about their special something. As with Disneyland and its expertise at moving people through lines, the secret is not always obvious.

Baker is still trying to reach his ambitious revenue targets. But the challenge has not dimmed his enthusiasm. The former medical consultant from Columbia has had the entrepreneurial bug since the days when he was drafting white papers on solar energy for the Carter administration. His bug-eyed dreams have included a "Moon Over Baltimore" gondola ride near Baltimore's Inner Harbor, which proved too costly.

"I had been looking for something entrepreneurial for quite awhile now," said the soft-spoken Baker, whose love of outdoors stretches back to riding his Raleigh three-speed through the Massachusetts woods. "I wanted to do something that made my heart sing."

He decided on adventure tours following a 2004 family trip to Costa Rica, which is mecca for the zip-line crowd. Zip lines are the Swiss Family Robinson version of a roller coaster. Instead of riding in a car on a circuitous track, you strap yourself to a pulley and speed across a cable strung high up between trees.

Internet searches led him across North America, where he learned the technical aspects of the business, including the feasibility of building a park, how to get financing and insurance, where to locate it and how to find an audience.

"If I was going to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars, I wanted to make sure it was the right business, the right investment," he said. "Part of the entrepreneurial thing is, 'If not now, when?' "

His epiphany about employees came in a fact-finding visit to Whistler, British Columbia. There were two zip-line companies eight miles apart.

"I went to one where I am going 60 miles an hour on a 2,000-foot zip and it's hundreds of feet in the air, eyes watering, heart pounding. The guides were technically proficient, but they weren't engaging."

The next day, Baker went to the oldest zip line in North America. The second zip line was older and slower, but the chatty guides and their store of knowledge made it more fun.

"It was almost an eco-tour, where they talked about the trees, the river, the seasons, birds," said Baker. "It was more of a memory for me."
Defining the dream

Digging into his savings, Baker spent the next three years traveling around the United States and mid-Atlantic, working with state and local governments, parks and land agencies, developers and financiers on places to locate his enterprise. He visited Deep Creek Lake and Wisp Resort in Western Maryland; Steamboat Springs, Colo.; Texas; and an old golf resort in Pennsylvania. He even talked to the National Zoo in the District.

He tweaked his proposal, revising the park size and scope. Most adventure tours cater to "team-building" corporate business, built around climbing wooden structures and balancing on ropes. Baker figured by adding the sexy zip lines, he could also go after the weekend warrior and thrill-seeker niche.

He settled on some parkland abutting Savage Mill, an old Howard County textile mill that was turned into a mix of retail, office and restaurants on the banks of Little Patuxent. He even paid a Maryland landowner $25,000 to preserve some trees that would offset the ones Baker was cutting down at Savage Mill.

The business would require around $500,000 in capital, including $250,000 to build the park and outfit it with a dozen kayaks, 14 bikes, 70 helmets, a Honda sport-utility vehicle and two trailers. Baker used savings to fund half of the capital investment, while he borrowed the rest from a local bank and from the Jim Rouse Entrepreneurial Fund, a nonprofit that provides funding for Howard County start-ups.
Running the numbers

Baker found a construction company online that specialized in building zip-line adventure tours, and Terrapin opened for business in April. His business plan called for $1 million in revenue the first year, but he will achieve about half of that. The hoped-for 13 to 14 percent return on capital is on hold -- as is Baker's salary -- until the company is profitable.

Baker said his payroll (full-time guides make more than $20,000 a year each), rent and debt is running about $50,000 a month. That wasn't bad during the summer, when he was grossing $80,000 a month, but revenues have dropped with the change in seasons.

"It took awhile for awareness in the marketplace to find out about me," he said. After burning through two marketers, Baker took it upon himself. He had 150,000 brochures made for about 5 cents each, peddling them to tourism bureaus, businesses and concierges throughout the region. He gives speeches to business and hotel groups, and bought signs on Interstate 95 for $800 a year.

Microsoft, Marriott International, Hyatt and Oracle have sent management groups to "team-build" at Terrapin Adventures. Groups make up the majority of his business, and Baker is trying to further expand into birthdays and bachelor/bachelorette parties.

Baker charges $80 per person for the full-blown, four-hour Terrapin Challenge, but customers can select a la carte adventures such as the giant swing at $10 per person or the zip line for $15 each.

As for the all-important guides, Baker interviews them personally. Most of them he finds on Craigslist.

"I am looking for people with engaging personalities, who . . . really want to be here."

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