How I Finally Stepped Out of the 'Struggling Entrepreneur' Role

Last Updated May 16, 2011 8:02 PM EDT

By Georgette Blau, President, On Location Tours, New York, N.Y.
In 1999 I launched On Location Tours, a company that provides tours of sites from movies and famous shows like "Gossip Girl" and "The Sopranos." In the beginning, I did everything myself. I took reservations, gave tours, and handled marketing. I worked 80 hours a week.

The role was overwhelming, but I enjoyed it. I was good at working in the field, and I had gotten comfortable in my role. I hadn't gone to business school, so the idea of stepping away from the day-to-day work to take on a more managerial role was a little daunting.

Then in 2004, an HBO special about the making of the show "Sex and the City" featured my tour company. Our phones started ringing off the hook. I knew that it was my chance to grow the company to a new level, but I couldn't do that if I was still manning the phones and giving tours. It was time to grow into my role as president -- and to grow my company from a tiny startup to the largest movie- and TV-tour company in the world.

Hitting my limit
Even before our company got the HBO exposure, I had reached a limit to how much I could handle on my own. In 2001, I outsourced all reservations that came in through our office to a local firm. I was working out of a very small office and didn't have the space to hire more staff or the time to train them.

The firm simply takes a small cut of each reservation it makes, so if we have an off year, it doesn't cut into our overhead. The firm also keeps customer review logs, which we use to improve our tours. Outsourcing reservations cut down on my hours, but I still found myself coming in on weekends to put out fires and fill in on tours.

Getting off the bus
I knew that I couldn't be a tour guide forever, but because I was nervous about giving up control over that aspect of my business, I only hired two guides when I needed five. After our HBO appearance hiring more guides became an absolute necessity.

I was extremely choosy, however: Candidates have to be hard working and intelligent. Plus, every guide must be an actor with experience on the sets. That meant I had to turn a lot of applicants away. I only hire, on average, one out of every 100 candidates.

Once I had hired five new tour guides -- which took me three weeks of conducting interviews all day, every day -- I told myself I would never give another tour again. It wasn't just about freeing up time; it was about how I perceived my own role at the company. I had graduated from a struggling entrepreneur who had to work weekends to the president of an established company. I could afford to hire staff to pick up the slack and put out fires. Now, if an employee comes to me asking if I can cover a shift, I tell her she's got to find someone else.

Focusing on big picture issues
Now that I am not covering employees' shifts or fielding phone calls, I have time to focus on the type of work more befitting a president: expanding the company and solving big picture operational issues. We recently expanded from New York City to Washington, D.C. and Boston. We have plans to add Miami in the near future.

When I am not at work expanding the company, I am finding ways to improve it. For example, I recently convinced the transportation company we work with to not only buy new buses -- the old ones were poorly maintained and dirty -- but to wrap our company's logo around the outside of the buses. I called the owner and told him that since we pay him over half million dollars a year, we expected nothing less.

Growing into my new role
The company now has seven full-time and 40 part-time employees. From 2003 to 2008, our revenue grew from $500,000 to over $3 million, and it's continuing to grow. I've had to totally step away from day-to-day operational duties. The transition wasn't easy, but I've settled into my new managerial role and I'm loving it.

Georgette Blau started her company out of her small apartment on the Upper East Side in Manhattan after discovering she lived next to the apartment building where "The Jeffersons" was filmed.
-- As told to Harper Willis

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