Lesson 8: Minding your dad's businessMay 14
As he concludes his journey across the country learning from OG Gen-X and Boomer entrepreneurs, Alexis admits he’s never talked business with the man he credits for getting him started. Alexis heads to Baltimore, Maryland, to sit down with his father—and CEO of Infinity Global Travel—Chris Ohanian. The two take a trip down memory lane and leave us with some timeless wisdom to hand off to the next generation of entrepreneurs.
Alexis Ohanian is the co-founder and managing partner of Initialized Capital and a co-founder of Reddit.
this is business schooled,
a podcast by synchrony.
We're here to help people and businesses grow into their future.
I'm Alexis Ohanian,
co founder and managing partner of Initialized Capital,
and before that,
I co founded.
people tend to think that all the innovation is happening by founders under 40.
But while we millennials are grabbing all the headlines,
baby boomers and Gen Xers have been busy building twice a cz many businesses.
So I'm traveling the country to meet thes o G entrepreneurs and soak up some essential business and life lessons.
you learn a few things,
This is business school.
Over the course of the past seven episodes, I've traveled the country to meet these brilliant minds. But there is one baby boomer entrepreneur I have not talked with yet one who I probably should have talked with a long time ago. Back when I was starting my first business when I was just a kid. His name is Chris. So Hannon, and if the last name sounds familiar, that's because he's my dad. I'm sitting down with him today to talk about some things that we have never talked about before. it's time to get schooled. All right. Well, I'm here with my father, Theo G. Of Ogi. Entrepreneurs in my life.
Chris is the founder and CEO of Infinity Global Travel. Yes. Travel Agency 2018. Still going strong? Absolutely. Congrats down. Thank you. Tell me a little bit about the business.
Infinity, Global travel. I like to say the small travel agency with the big name and we service a variety of corporate and leisure vacation clients Very traditional, you know, with the backdrop of competing with the big online travel agencies. But we've got a niche that works very well for us. Very service oriented. How long's businessmen go for its? Ah, we just recently celebrated our 20th anniversary.
20th anniversary? Yes. Wow. And you started this in the middle of the dot com boom. Clearly, this is still a part of the travel business that has strong demand because for business travelers on probably like a select type of leisure travelers day, they don't have the time or the interest to go through all the searching
themselves, the time that it takes or the expertise or they just perhaps just can't be bothered and prefer turning it over to someone like myself to handle all that. My new show, all the details
and I even still, I mean obviously love. I love searching for flights on the Internet, but, ah, there are still routes where I mean going Armenia for 24 hours and flying in the air. Von. It's not the simplest proposition. And there's a lot of airlines that fly there that I've never seen before that I'm a little skeptical of. And and you actually just helped us out back last April and we're trying to get there,
right? Yes, I recall
that. And and there is this. Ah, there's a comfort that comes with being able to trust someone who just knows better. Um, but you know, when I come calling for help on a flight to some part of you, kind of laugh to yourself and say, Ha ha ha. See you still need me. No, that's not not
the case, and and you know there's clients like that that we don't hear from necessarily ah lot. But then there's occasions when they're in need, and it's always a feel good because say what you will about the changes in my industry people like myself and I'm going on. It was 40 years of experience. Now there's acquired knowledge and in a CZ well, a CE staying abreast of ongoing changes in any business, there's always ongoing changes. So having the history plus, you know the experiences you have from taking care of other clients reading stuff in the trades, getting e mails from vendors, etcetera.
So 40 years I've been doing this
been addressed 38. But yes,
we'll round up, so I am. But now majority of that time, more than half the time you spend as an entrepreneur. True. So? So for the first couple of decades, though, when when you're working for the man? Yes. Was your dream to be
in travel, Not not initially
know. How'd you get the
job? Uh, when I got out of college, I didn't necessarily have a lot of clear direction of what I wanted to dio. I got a job as a draftsman in a naval architecture firm in Lower Manhattan, the financial district. I did that for two years and knows it incredibly bored. I'm gonna realize while this this is not a future for me. And so I took it upon myself to write an introductory letter, and I I attached ah, news clipping from a newspaper in Albany that, Ah, Mom and I had been written about about our travel experiences
with a newspaper in Albany. Wrote about your travel experiences.
So I submitted an intro letter, a random mailing to 50 travel agencies in Manhattan, and I got one lady who was genuinely interested. I interviewed hired
me. But why? Why did you send this letter to 50 travel agencies looking like I like travels? I would like being a travel
agent. Yes, And back then, most cases, one went to a quote unquote travel school for perhaps six months, 12 months toe learn howto use a nog official airline guide and all these other techniques to schedule book. And what I was looking for was someone to directly hire and train me in being a travel agent.
Why do you think she took a chance on you to train you and go through all the trouble?
In order to book an airplane ticket before the internet you had to have connected with an agent who would look up airplane schedules in what could only be described as a phone book. They would then get on the phone with airline agents, validate each leg of your flight, create a booking, and eventually hand-write you a ticket. It was very tedious and time-consuming.
You know, who knows? You know, personalities click at interviews, and basically she was a two person operation. Luckily, she had the patients to train me. This was before computers were involved pretty much in agencies. So you're on the phone. You were taking notes. And these Ohh is the official airline. Guys look like New York City phone books of fine tissue paper with airline schedules for North America and one addition
for the world. So someone wanted a book, a flight from New York to London. You'd have to get out the phone book, so to speak, and flip
through the pages and make notes and call each carrier to confirm and then hand right airline tickets.
Wait so you could just hand right? You could handle it if you wanted to go to Vegas. You gotta hand write yourself a take it. Well, you're one of the reasons why it would be like
Here you go. You had these airline plates that you would validate the ticket on. It was tedious. It was time consuming. No doubt the whole process was time consuming. The phone work, the writing that
I mean, that sounds terrible. It was about Yes. OK. And so was there some part of me that thought if you were a travel agent, you just get to travel all the time or
I knew that I'd always loved traveling, So try to find a job that you enjoy doing. His people often
say. And I remember those Familiarization trips. Yes, I am. Trans trips. Yes. And they seemed really cool because I was a little kid. And, like I went on a couple, I think there was a boat. One done? Uh,
yes, we took, um, kind of taken the ship we went on. It was a three day down the Nassau. They had the actual Disney character. Hang on Mickey and Brush. And And you were 45 perhaps that age and so was outstanding. We hardly saw you during we saw your meal time. And then you
were gone. Sounds like the perfect vacation there used to be. A lot of that is for
years. Yeah, and those have kind of gone by the wayside. The industry's changed a lot, and so
be it. So the industry was was things were probably going well. And then at some point, what is it that you got looking at public school options in Brooklyn and you start thinking about what queens and then queen are thinking about eventually moving here outside
of Baltimore. Correct? This was the fall of 86. We packed up a moving truck. I had no job waiting down here. We moved into an apartment and and then I just started going through the classifieds and getting interviews lined up.
Did you have that article from the Albany newspaper that you're attaching too? You're probably not at that point. And then you got a gig. It was downtown
Baltimore, wasn't. And during this time, I was, Ah, the lead agent on this corporate account. VAP, go there. A manufacturer, industrial cooling equipment, refrigeration. I was the lead agent on this account for years, and you develop a report relationship. Then I changed agencies. They followed me past president of company. Approached me about this thought of going into business for myself and open an agency within their corporate headquarters building Esso going out and being an entrepreneur. Starting moment. Business was not something that I had sought
out it. They d risked it a good bit to just decided right there. Mein kleine of yours. You know this revenue
there was ah foundation of business.
in the fortunate thing,
because I've never been one to make decisions of that magnitude quickly,
and he gave me about 34 weeks.
We met late December,
just before Christmas,
and we agreed I could wait till after the Super Bowl to give him.
My answer is yes or no.
It's a month or so,
and I went back home on and spoke to Mom on.
Her attitude was always like,
Chris, what have you got to lose? If it doesn't work, you go get another job. Is a travel agent doing corporate trial? Which was when it and so I accepted and went with it.
That's great. And these were also different times because back then you could make money as a travel agent on a commission because the airlines, when I would, would actually pay you a percentage of the ticket.
Correct? Correct. And, you know, we received commissions from cruise lines hotels. But the airline stream was critical because that peaked at 10% commission for most carriers, and then slowly they started diminishing the percentage to 987 on dhe. That revenue stream started to slowly dry up.
And this is this is the same time of these online travel agencies and and they're basically trying to cut out the middle. Yes, I could see. I mean, this is a cornerstone of revenue. Your you've come to expect. Yes, you've known it for a couple of decades is like, this is how the industry works Now, in the span of a few years, that is shifting drastically, right? A time when you're starting your own business. How does feel?
We had to start charging service fees, which was, you know, uncharted territory for travel agents.
So and I remember one story in particular which I hope you'll let me ask you. Yes. Ah, where you came home from? Work one in it. Because it was right after the first airline took commissions to zero. Okay. Can you send them a fax?
One day Chris Ohanian received a full-page fax, explaining that airlines were switching to a zero-fee commission. This was a final straw in already declining business, so Chris took a marker, wrote "FU" on it, and sent it back to the airline. However unwelcoming this change was, the business did not end there. Life is always changing and you have to adopt and make changes, so Chris did whatever it took to keep going.
I'll tell you what the story was.
Way had care is finally going to zero.
And that was like the final Ouch.
And one day I was at work,
and I am trying to think when this was maybe a couple years in perhaps around 2000 where we're getting to this point and I received a fax and it was this long,
drawn out full page statement about why they had to do this,
supposed to just just put it out.
They're just say what you're doing.
And so I took the fax on Guy took a black magic marker,
and I wrote in words f u on it,
and I faxed a bag away incredibly cilia,
and just upset.
The second part of that was that that fax was sitting on my desk,
and then one of the founders of Apple came in to book a trip,
and he's sitting and he looks at the facts with these big stroll,
these two words. And then he goes, Chris and I said, I know, I know. And I gave him the back story. And this is a gentleman, you know, 2025 years older than me, you know, very serious kind of conservative attitude. And he just said, Okay,
I get it.
And it was because I talked about it like somebody.
What about their business?
So I loved hearing that story is a kid,
and it also really for me,
it crystallized what I was doing for fun at the time,
building websites and,
spending time on the Internet.
It crystallized for me that this was a pretty transformative technology and that this thing I was doing for fun,
I think I could do professionally.
And I want to always make sure that,
I'm I don't want to ever Hopefully be on the receiving end of one of those faxes has a business person,
but one of the things that I really appreciated was that as an entrepreneur,
I never once heard you say like this is unfair even though I mean,
you could make the case that it was. But it wasn't about complaining about the circumstances. It was about adapting the business and moving forward. And I feel like there are lots of people and lots of industries that get paralyzed in trying to keep things the way they were is that they can preserve their business. And then there's the alternative, which is Look, the world is changing. We need to adapt, and this sucks. But that's what I signed up for, is an entrepreneur. That's what I That's why I got into businesses because like, that's what this is about, right? And, um and so I'm curious,
though it must have been hard. You were I mean, mom was working the time, but I assume a majority of the money that was like putting food on the table. Yeah, and it's coming from you in the long hours.
Yes, and, you know, and those first few years were challenging business. But, you know, it's well put what you had previously just said about the things that can occur in business that impact you and you need to rise above. You need to adapt, and you need to do your best and my business, you know, service over and over again is the key word. And if you do it well enough, then referrals that come by word of mouth will come your
Post 911 a significant number of travel agencies went out of business. People were not flying for a good year. Chris was lucky to have saved up enough cash in the bank to be able to ride through the bad times. It was a challenging time, but on the bright side, the survivors benefited from all the folks who left.
way. Were there moments, though, when you worried about keeping the business over?
Yes, a significant challenge for us, as was true with most travel agencies, was post 9 11 We started seeing during that balance that year in tow to the closure of a lot of travel agencies. And because people were not flying for pie a good year, there was a tremendous drop. And so
it's funny. I actually remember flying out of principle because I felt like one. This was probably statistically the safest time to be getting on airplane. And two because I didn't want them to mess with my way of life. Yes, but I hear you like coming on the heels of the dot com explosion and then crash. Um, where most these agencies air, probably already
teetering. Right? I had a certain cushion of capital. Ah, within the business checking that was really fortunate. And then so we could coast and we coaster for about 12 to 18 months, probably, and lived off of that and just just tightened up everything that we were doing. You know, we rode through that, Thank goodness. And it could have been a real significant problem. You know, There was a lot of consolidation. Travel agents went home base to eliminate the overhead of a storefront, and people got out of the business. So when that occurs in an industry, the survivors convention, if it from the folks that just have had enough and
Start small and don't put yourself in a financial hole.
walk away from their business, Do you have advice for other risk adverse people who want to start a business? Probably a few of them listening to a podcast. Yes. Well,
you know, I was very fortunate because a daunting thing is overhead considerations of costs. Now, as I see, a lot of businesses can be home based dwelling based online or, you know, to start small where you don't put yourself in a hole financially early. You know, a lot of what I learned during these 20 years was through trial and error. I knew the travel business, but not how to run a small business, whether it's how to find the right accountant to service your needs and cetera. But, you know, you see, some businesses were people from the get go will have these large capital investments into what they're going to. D'oh. For me personally, that would be uncomfortable,
too much risk. And it's certainly there on the line. It's early.
Everybody does it a little differently. What is your comfort level? How many when you go to bed at night? Are you a tease? You don't want to be thinking about those things,
but we definitely see in early stage investing. We see the companies to get fat off of raising a lot of money early and then even the nature of the business like sort of the culture. The business reflects that And so it's a lot of money is spent on really nice offices and on other perks things that it wouldn't necessarily stop me from being successful. You can be successful and do those things, but when you start out that way, it also starts to set a culture in motion that is hard to wind back. That isn't around thriftiness. That isn't around focusing and obsessing on cost savings. And plenty of startups fall into that trap because they get a little bit of money through investment. You've kept this a small business.
much so, Yes, there ever been interested in, you know, Franchising, Inter scaling. You know, there's not 1000 employees I
know and I'm very, very comfortable. I mean, it's a two person operation myself in my one employee, Caroline, and and that that has felt very comfortable.
Relationships. Many of Chris's clients have been with his for a long time and keep coming back because it is worthwhile for them. If you do not have good relationships or stay proactive about issues, your client would not come back.
Is there one thing you do tribune particular to the success you've had? Yes, as an entrepreneur. And what is it especially in the face of all this competition?
Relationships. Many of Chris's clients have been with his for a long time and keep coming back because it is worthwhile for them. If you do not have good relationships or stay proactive about issues, your client would not come back.
There's one word. Relationships in business, you know, relationships become critical. We have a client base that comes back over and over again. Wolf. You didn't have good relationships if you didn't, you know, if you weren't proactive about issues or stay communicating all the time and whether it's a corporate client where, yes, there's more repetitive interaction or a leisure client that you may only, you know, do a trip for once a year. Relationships are so important in business. I wouldn't have my business today if it wasn't for the relationship that I had, where they'd know me well enough to say this was a worthwhile endeavor on their part.
Do you think that it's helpful that so much because so much commerce now happens on the Internet and because it is devoid of relationship? Do you think that actually makes it more valuable because it is more rare? Yeah,
you have these large O.
A's online travel agencies,
If you'd want to call him,
call who you know,
and I hear stories and I'll read things and someone has purchased some travel arrangements online.
And then things don't quite go the way they had hoped,
and they're looking for satisfaction for resolution,
and they're not always getting it.
they're making a purchase based on bottom line cost without a consideration of what kind of support they might get when things are not always going well when they're overseas.
And suddenly they need to make a change in arrangements because something's going on back home and they need to cut their plans short her.
And who are they going to speak with And how are they going to speak to that person? Um, and so, you know, relationships are huge on every level, and so, you know, you know, it's a point that you brought that's well taken that don't. No matter what your business is, if you don't maintain those good relationships Ah, you're gonna have a ah, weak foundation for your business.
um I don't think we talked.
We talk a little bit before I found it.
I feel like we talked about.
I knew you all were very supportive of my mobile menu.
Which is gonna let people order food from their phones.
They wouldn't have to wait in line.
I remember Tony is going to do that.
I remember we were at strip Pa Za in Colombia,
and I told you I didn't want to go to law school when I wanted to start a company.
Do you remember this?
I'll never forget it. Okay. And so I I pitched you both on it. You kind of looked at me. You paused. And without missing a beat, Mom was like, Oh, yeah, that's wonderful. Yes, Yes, I see that. But then but then you chimed in supportively. Okay, But,
um, yeah, it was Ah, that was a pretty big leap, because, ah, you know, law school's a good, you know, fairly safe thing to get into. I wanted to be an immigration learn all this stuff, but decided I want to be an entrepreneur. Pitched you all on it. You're very supportive.
Mom was very encouraging. It blindly support. And And I and I pretty much felt the same way because at your age, 21 going 22 you know, is that same sort of thing. What do you have to lose? True, you're at a point life where you know, if you feel that desire, then you should go for it. And because you've got a window of time to recover or do something else. If that is not successful. You were a single young guy. Why not?
So lots of female entrepreneurs get asked how they balance family and work. And it's something I've now that I'm a dad and a pretty public dad. I've gotten asked a couple of times, and I like when I get us that I think I get asked it almost pointedly because people want to show that, like, we should be asking men this too. But how did you find entrepreneurship as, ah sort of balance thio family life? And how were you able to balance those things? And, uh, you know, obviously still working long hours a making time for football
on Sundays? Sure. You know, you probably just started high school when I launched it, and, uh and I knew going in, you know, that this would take a lot of my time. And so I did not take a day off for the first little more than two years. And I remember our first vacation was December of 2000 and we went to New Orleans for about four or five days between Christmas and New Year's, and it was great. And that was the reward for having really focused and kept my nose to the grindstone to get things up on going with
And I know for me,
it's the only life of known since college is that of an entrepreneur,
When it comes to being your own boss and having control over one schedule,
to see 1005.
few months after I graduate college,
I start read it.
Mom gets diagnosed with this terminal brain cancer.
And I know how valuable it was for me to be ableto,
come down from Boston, spend time as long as I my laptop, like I could basically still work. Um, but also for you. You know, Caroline really stepped up? Yes. The agency. And you were able to be there as an advocate for every single hospital trip. Every chemo, every surgery, everything. You were always there. Sure. That's I think,
one side of entrepreneurship. That is, hopefully for most people. Nothing they ever have to endure. But it is one of the I think one of the blessings of it. Um, can you talk about that dynamic?
Yes. Mom got diagnosed September 05 and I was able to devote many hours to, you know, taking mom to visits and hospitalizations, et cetera, et cetera. And that was something that I was extremely fortunate because otherwise, I don't quite know how I would have handled that period, but because I had my own business and I was, you know, an entrepreneur's You say I was fortunate that I could devote time and support her and be with her, um, throughout that and that's invaluable. That's something that you can't, you know, put a value on. But it's huge. Yeah, very much so.
We are both dads now. Yes, Um, and and your grandfather? Now, what advice do you have about balancing life and business? Yeah,
you know that that could be tricky. You know, from what I see, the people of your generation seem to be pretty aware of the benefits of not sacrificing the family relationships. And in its huge I'm thinking about that show Mad Men that was set in the sixties, where these men predominately woodwork,
you know, these long hours and and they weren't always working that
this is true and particularly that program and and not devote a lot of time to their families, which is not a good thing. And and so a relationship obviously, is a very important aspect of one's life. But then, when you have a child and or Children those years, you know Congar by pretty quickly you don't have a lot of time per se to build on those relationships on dhe. Then the Children grow up, and then they start their own lives. And
what is the most important piece of advice that you give me about Olympia?
as far as I can tell,
you're doing all the right things.
did spending the time together whether it's,
cooking breakfast on a Sunday morning.
And I used to enjoy those weekend breakfast.
It was a tradition.
and it's kind of a stereotype,
but it's great. I love it. The dead doing breakfast on the weekends, you know, and whatever it is, you know, it's just time spent together, you know, playing, talking, reading, et cetera, et cetera. And and just keeping that, um, a CZ part of your focus on DSO. I think you're doing a great job. That's evident. Yes,
I thought you did a great job to Uh huh.
That same night at a time.
I don't know.
You got to keep room to grow,
but maybe seven or eight.
Why do you always get better?
I'm in a very competitive household.
So we got 10 out of 10.
It's what was driving Force ignited a title that's still pretty good.
Like any person ever.
Sometimes it's hard to admit that your parents or people your parents age might know a thing or two We don't.
But here's why. I spend time with Dad, another founders his age. Millennials are actually the least entrepreneurial generation in modern history when it comes to starting businesses. And I want to change that. I'm constantly looking for ways to help the entrepreneurs. I invest in a CZ well as inspire other people to get started. But without knowing it, I did adapt to my dad's playbook, even though I've never spoken with him about business per se. I learned things from him that I carried into the way I do business and the way I see the world. For instance, adapting the business no matter what, but also not complaining about the fact that I have. The free market is brutal and it's gonna change, and if you don't change with it,
you're gonna be left behind. And that's something I've always tried to do in all the businesses that I've started. Similarly, he looks at relationships is being things that he can add value to always and over the long term, build really human, genuine connections with people that I've found pay tremendous dividends in the long term. My dad didn't build a $1,000,000,000 company. He's not labeled as a management guru. He's actually really risk averse. But that's because there isn't one size fits all when it comes to being an entrepreneur. If you look back on what's made these founders successful, you can see how my generation has been busy adapting and adopting their moves like with Greg and P. C. Richard Son. I've got young founders pitching me on their startups ability to generate lifetime value, and this buzzy metric has become a really core part of almost every deck.
Really, though it's common sense, and it came naturally to Greg and his grandfather, who never graduated high school or with Jenny Doan. She figured out an ingenious way of creating a feedback loop between content, community and commerce that you see now in every modern, direct consumer retail brand. They're all trying to emulate it. They probably don't realize Jenny started it or look at Chuck. He's managed to b'more and more profitable for 35 years in a row. Yet think about how much he spent investing in his employees, training them and really deliberately trying to build a culture around music in order to create a customer experience that's unmatched anywhere by any e commerce titan. Now that's a lot of overhead for privately owned regional business, but it's a model that's really paying dividends. It sounds a lot like big public tech companies when it comes to how he treats his employees, but he's doing it from Fort Wayne,
Indiana. It's funny. These lessons Aeras much about life is they are about business. The values and principles you live by are the exact same ones you should do business by. So if you're like my dad, go start something. Take all of that experience patients, maybe some of those savings and do it and If you're just getting started in your career, I hope some of these principles will help. This play book is being written right now, and each entrepreneur brings something different to it. So go and write your own chapter. I'm Alexis Ohanian signing off synchrony Thanks you for joining us on this journey. We're constantly impressed by the ingenuity of America's entrepreneurs, founders and business leaders, many of whom we work with every day. We hope that by sharing stories like the ones you heard in business school, you'll be inspired to start something or build on what you're already doing. Let's write the next chapter in your playbook together. Visit us any time at synchrony dot com.