- Alex and Elise Coleman are the founders of Here & Now Travel, a boutique travel company.
- The company launched in 2019 and has been back up and running after pandemic lockdowns.
- Their advice to aspiring entrepreneurs is to save money before you even have an idea for a business.
Elise Coleman, 28, has always loved to travel. She completed a study-abroad program in Puerto Rico as a student at Texas A&M University, and in her first full-time job post-grad traveled to Argentina for a month-long training program.
These trips had a few things in common — both were well-organized, group-oriented, and encouraged interaction with the locals, and she told Insider they were some of the best trips of her life.
“It was a totally different experience than if I had just gone by myself or with one friend. I thought, ‘There should be options like this for young professionals,'” Elise said.
Elise and her husband, Alex, 29, took this idea and turned it into Here & Now Travel in May 2019. Here & Now offers adventurous group travel for groups of 10 to 14 people to eight international destinations, with plans to add more. Trips range from $979 for Latin American countries to $2,279 for Greece. The company partners with local guides in each of its locations, and trips are open to travelers of all ages, although the Colemans said the key demographic is 21 to 35.
In July 2021 — 16 months after launching and despite an unexpected halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic — both Elise and Alex quit their corporate jobs, sold all their belongings, and turned Here & Now from a side hustle into a full-time gig that allows them to live around the globe.
As of January 2022, Here & Now has 196 travelers signed up for the year, and Alex expects that they'll hit 300. Based on the six-figure sales numbers they saw in 2021 and the trips already planned for 2022, Here & Now's revenue is projected to grow by 137% this year.
Here's how they made the leap.
Starting with savings
Elise and Alex met in college and moved to Houston where they both worked corporate jobs — Alex in sales for Shell and Elise as an engineer for another oil and gas company in the area — for five and a half years. They didn't exactly plan on saving to start a company, but they made their finances a priority from their very first paychecks.
Early on in their relationship, they agreed it was a priority for both of them to pay down their student loans as quickly as they could. They both saved about 70% of their paychecks for four years straight, Elise said, and were able to pay off all of their debt 16 months into their marriage.
"By the time we thought of Here & Now, we were like, 'Okay we can do this,'" Elise said. "If we hadn't made the decision to save when we didn't know what we wanted to do, we couldn't have started this company. Save as much as you can before you even come up with the idea."
Alex, who's from the small town of Jasper, Texas, said he grew up traveling around his home state and Mexico but never went far. Once he and Elise were married, they traveled to Italy, and that's where he said his eyes were opened.
"It bit me. We did 10 days there, and that's when I went all-in on travel," Alex said.
With a savings cushion and a newly shared passion, Elise and Alex launched Here & Now and led nine trips from June 2019 to March 2020. They said they started by begging friends and friends of friends to take a chance on their service and sacrifice some vacation days, so the first travelers were almost all from Houston or Dallas.
Getting the company up and running — then pausing for the pandemic
Their initial investment into the company went toward trip scouting and marketing. They went to every destination prior to launching to check out accommodations, interview guides, and try activities. They hired professional photographers and videographers to come along and document the trips to show future travelers what to expect. This high-quality content drew in prospective travelers.
"We looked like a real company even though we were so new and had almost no reviews online," Alex said.
To find the guides, Alex said they started searching online for independent agencies and guides who owned their own businesses. Past the foundational requirements of being a licensed guide, background-checked, and having great references, Alex said they were looking for guides who were positive, upbeat, and had a similar interest in providing a unique experience.
"The guides are the most important part of the trip. They help bring the destination to life and highlight the portions of a place that would otherwise go unnoticed," Alex said.
Often, the first businesses they contacted didn't work out, but they said many people they spoke with offered up suggestions for other guides to contact.
They also invested in marketing through Facebook, Instagram, and Google Ads. Alex said they hired a digital-marketing agency to run the ads from the start because they didn't want to waste money on trying it out themselves, and although the management fee was an added expense early on, it's paid dividends. "Professional, online marketing fundamentally changed our business," Alex said.
Quitting their day jobs and going all-in on Here & Now was the goal from the start, but then the pandemic hit — while they were on a group trip in Tulum, Mexico — and trips for the rest of 2020 had to be canceled. Since they were still working their corporate jobs, Alex said they kept those jobs (and paychecks) through 2020 and worked from home.
Their work on Here & Now during quarantine included launching a customer portal that allows travelers to select a payment plan, developing a new website, adding three new destinations, and doing travel segments at local Houston news stations.
Restarting the business and hitting the road
When younger people began getting vaccinated in March 2021, Alex and Elise started planning trips again. They were able to run 13 trips during 2021 with a total of 163 travelers from 32 states, Alex said.
With business up and running again, Alex and Elise revisited the idea of quitting their corporate gigs. They weren't hoping to make more than their salaries as entrepreneurs — they just wanted Here & Now to be able to fully support them. "More important to us than making more money was the freedom of being able to run our own company, dictate our own time, and pick the projects that we want to work on," Alex said.
They used a concept known as the 4% rule in the FIRE community to decide when it was time to go all in. Elise said once their total net worth divided by 25 — 4% of their net worth — didn't exceed their cost of living per year, they were able to quit their jobs and go full-time on their business. It took them until July 2021 to get to that point.
They also decided to sell all of their belongings to lighten their loads while traveling. Alex said they spoke this into existence. "When you dream and talk about it enough like it's a reality, things start to happen and you start to act in such a way that it actually comes true. That's what happened," Alex said.
They joined Here & Now trips for the rest of the summer into the fall in Iceland, Costa Rica, and finally Mexico for Día de los Muertos before going off on their own. For the 2021 holiday season, they stayed in Airbnbs in Europe while scouting locations.
On scouting trips, Alex said the two questions they ask themselves are:
- Is there a different and authentic side of a destination that people would be interested to see?
- Can we significantly improve or ease the traveling process for a traveler? For instance, he said, it's not hard for someone in the US to visit London and navigate the city. But navigating Bogota, Colombia, the rainforest of Costa Rica, or the islands of Greece are all places where the burden of navigation can be taken off the traveler to allow them to fully enjoy the destination.
Elise said it's really nice not paying rent right now, although they plan to return to Texas next year to set up a home base near family.
Planning for expansion but staying authentic
Here & Now has no plans to become a massive tour operator and wants to stick with "really special, authentic local tours," Alex said.
The cofounders still outsource marketing to a small marketing agency, but Here & Now doesn't have any additional full-time employees. They want to stay boutique, keep overhead low, and never run more than 40 trips per year. Alex said this is important, as is keeping the travel groups small, because they don't want to trample the places they tour — for example, they use local transportation instead of charter buses.
But Alex and Elise plan to slowly roll back on joining every trip. Instead, they'll be scouting trips exclusively and hope to someday add Australia and Asia to the map.