In an effort to merge her experience in the financial markets with her passion for globetrotting, Heidi Brown founded Options Away, confident that the next big thing in travel will be options on airfare. Heidi earned a degree in Economics from the University of Toronto before beginning her career trading global currencies.
Read on to see how Heidi was able to launch a successful travel business.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your entrepreneurial journey.
I was born and raised in Canada. I bounced back and forth between Toronto and a northern lake house, which I am eternally thankful for. I think this lifestyle truly shaped my personality. I love cities and all things urban, but also have a constant desire to be surrounded by nature and seek adventure.
From the time I was very young, I wanted to work for a large corporation, wear tailored suits, and climb up the ranks. That’s all I knew. Digital startups did not yet exist, and most entrepreneurial ventures required huge initial capital. I often think about what great companies I could have built or worked for had I had the technological opportunities available today.
My entrepreneurial calling didn’t hit until I decided to have children. It was very important to me to stay-at-home for the first few years. Once they got to kindergarten age, I was ready to launch, having researched my market and created a business plan while they slept.
What did you do before launching Options Away?
After graduating with an Economics degree and not ready to join the academics ranks, I wrestled with the common dilemma of consulting or banking. I was not by any means an accomplished math scholar, but the world of finance appealed to my basic 20-something instincts … travel and money.
Early in my career, I moved to Europe and joined a trading desk. Low-cost air carriers came on the scene and changed the nature of spontaneous travel. Flights were suddenly inexpensive, and I was able to fly all around Europe. When I was contemplating starting a business, people would always advise me to “do what I love.” In my case, that was getting back to a time in my life when travel was more flexible and accessible. I thought the best course of action was to merge what I knew, options, with what I loved, travel, and that’s how Options Away was born.
How does Options Away Work?
Options Away is the world’s only online travel agency that allows customers to hold their flights for days or even weeks while they finalize their travel plans.
Options Away leverages the concepts and technologies of the financial markets and applies them to the travel industry. We provide a revolutionary approach to travel planning – customers pay a small fee upfront knowing that if the price of the flight increases, they will never have to pay more than the locked-in fare.
Best of all, we notify our customers if the price of their fare decreases, so they win either way. Our team is made up of passionate professionals from the financial and travel industries who have joined forces to offer an unprecedented level of flexibility in booking travel combined with a commitment to outstanding customer service.
How are you currently growing your business?
We launched our consumer-facing website and mobile app over a year ago in an effort to prove out our models as well as gather data on customer demand and behavior. The travel industry is extremely consolidated and competing with the big established brands was never our intention. Instead, we have created a full B2B solution whereby online travel agencies can offer options on flights as a differentiating feature. We have been successful in solidifying some major strategic partnerships, and the hope is that they will propel our brand for us.
You’ve received some great press exposure on national media outlets — how were you able to do this?
I would attribute my PR success to research and tenacity. Gaining media exposure is time-consuming. Having no previous experience in Public Relations, I approached it much the same as I do everything else; gather data, organize data, analyze data, and proceed. I suggest going for the low-hanging fruit first.
In my case, I targeted local Chicago news outlets and organizations covering start-ups. Once I got some initial coverage, I would forward my press links on to larger publications to create a sense of urgency. I try to be persistent without being spammy, although this is a fine and often-crossed line. Once I saw a New York Times journalist at a conference. I followed him into a session, sat behind him and Tweeted. “Turn around.” He published a flattering article the following week, and I was able to scratch something off of my bucket list.
What advice do you have for other women who want to start their own travel business?
That’s a really tough question because I didn’t set out to start a travel business. My expertise comes from the options side. I was naïve and thought that everyone would love my idea and that airlines would jump at the chance to work together. This was in 2012, the year that the four largest US airlines merged into two. They thought our company was novel but had no bandwidth to allocate resources to a start-up. We had to pivot and become a travel agency in order to sell flights.
My advice would be to have a strategic plan that stretches well beyond a typical 18-month template. The travel industry is highly competitive and dominated by a few major players. Figure out a way that your product or service can help differentiate the behemoths. Do that right, and you set your self up for big partnership deals and even eventual acquisition.
On those “don’t feel like it days,” what motivates you to keep going?
Primarily what motivates me to keep swimming against the current is the fact that I am a sore loser. My stubborn streak has been helpful in my career to date, but this trait can be detrimental if not checked. Sometimes it’s better to quit and accept failure, and cherish the lessons learned along the way, although this is easier said than done. Additionally, I want my kids to experience some struggle and setbacks, even if it is vicariously through me. Life in 2014 is good for many American children, and I want my two to acquire a good dose of grit. And lastly, no matter how bad my entrepreneurial day is going, the thought of returning to a corporate lifestyle makes me shudder.
Tell us about your most exotic vacation locale.
I feel extremely lucky when I look back to all of the fabulous places I have visited. A favorite would have to be Rocktail Bay in South Africa, situated in northern Zululand close to the Mozambique border. It is a beautiful and secluded stretch of coastline that has recently been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There is one luxury lodge and nothing else for miles around. The chef masterfully prepared sea creatures we had fetched ourselves from the ocean. Access to the resort is by 6-wheel drive jeep or zodiac only, and we had to have a “shark guard” accompany our dive trips. Incredible.
Thanks to Heidi Brown for sharing her story!
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