Wanting to combine work and play, Tara Cappel created a travel experience like no other – and bumped up her credit score while doing it.
What does a successful travel company founder do when people are prevented from wandering the planet? Adapt – which is exactly what Tara Cappel did. She’s the CEO of the Los Angeles, California-based For The Love of Travel (or FTLO Travel), which runs group trips abroad for young adults, along with Sojrn (pronounced so-jern), a new brand born with the desire to innovate amidst the pandemic.
“In 2019, my three-year-old business was really starting to hit its stride. And at the beginning of 2020, we were on track to do $4 million in revenue,” says Cappel. “Then the pandemic hit and everything changed. I had to cut my expenses in half and furlough part of the team. In the downtime, I started to think about work-life balance and the future of travel in a remote-first world. Instead of condensed vacations, why not spend more time in one place while remaining plugged in? So, we created Sojrn, which arranges four-week international stays in one destination, allowing people to work remotely while they immerse themselves in another culture and learn something new.”
Each program (or chapter) includes accommodations, a workspace with Wi-Fi, a community of people and curated educational activities relevant to the destination – such as conservation in South Africa, philosophy in Greece and design in Stockholm.
The idea resonated with people and Sojrn received 500 applications in the first month of its launch. Cappel, who studied diplomacy and economics in college, was thrilled. Travel shaped her world, and she wanted to share it. “This is my grassroots way of bringing people together on an individual level,” she says.
Today, a core team of eight works on both brands, and they are preparing for a busy summer. “There is so much pent-up demand for travel,” says Cappel. “Everyone has been cooped up at home for a year, and many people are looking forward to being able to get out and explore again.”
Sojrn sprung from For the Love of Travel, so how was getting that first business up and running?
Very challenging. I really didn’t have any money, network or experience in group travel. But I did the research and knew there was a white space in the market. So, I developed a business plan, built a website and launched a company for solo travelers in their 20s and 30s who were looking to make friends while going on an amazing trip.
Because it was clear to me there was a need for trips like these, I thought once I launched that people would be lined up to join – it didn’t happen. No one booked, and I had to cancel every single international trip that first year.
It was devastating but I wasn’t discouraged. I figured I just needed a lower barrier of entry, so I launched a line of local trips called The Weekender Series. To find customers, I messaged people on friend-finding apps like Bumble BFF and pitched the trips as a way to make new friends in their city. It worked! We got our first paying customers and ran five trips that first year.
What about the expenses involved in your business?
Starting a travel company takes more capital than I expected, which I didn’t have and couldn’t even get as credit when I first started.
In fact, because of some bad financial advice I’d taken in my early 20s, my credit was pretty poor in the early days of my business, and that was a major hardship. I had a total credit limit of $1,500 – which wasn’t even enough to pass the pre-authorization I needed to reserve hotel rooms for groups.
I asked my dad if I could be an authorized user on one of his high-limit credit cards and he agreed. Not only did that enable me to make the reservations, but it helped build my own credit because his well-managed account was appearing on my credit file.
And now you have your own credit cards for the business?
Absolutely. I started with a Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card. Though it’s a personal card, I only use it for business. After that, I got the Capital One Spark Miles for Business, and the most recent is my Delta SkyMiles® Reserve Business American Express Card.
I use the cards frequently since each have their own benefits. With the Spark card, some of my trip leaders are authorized users and can use it to charge trip expenses on-the-go. I can set their charging limits while retaining total visibility on transactions in real-time. All have rewards programs, and we earn a lot of points with them, which I use to book travel for the team.
Running my business would be impossible without credit cards. How would I book an entire trip for 14 people to Italy without them?
See related: Managing employee cards
How are you handling the financial management of two companies?
I use software for bookkeeping and have an accountant. I also recently hired an admin consultant and we have a two-hour call each week to make sure I’m on top of all my admin-type responsibilities. It’s not my favorite part of the job, but knowing your numbers, cash position and where your expenses are coming from is fundamentally important for any business owner.
I had to develop a habit of setting aside that time, and it’s worth it for me to pay for the help so that I stay accountable and don’t fall behind on paperwork. There were periods where I’ve failed to do that and then hit a backlog, which was awful. The longer the task is put off, the worse it is, so I put it on the calendar.
Is building and keeping credit important to you?
Yes, I cannot overstate how important building credit is. I have experienced how hard it can be without it, so I always keep an eye on the status of mine.
When I first started FTLO, I was rejected for multiple cards. I started small, used it well, and methodically applied for a credit line increase every six months. I also made sure all my payments were on time by auto-scheduling them with the bank’s app.
Now, not only do I keep my credit cards paid off, I have a business line of credit with my bank that I use and pay off, too. My credit score is now 150 points higher than when I started my business.
See related: How to improve your credit score
What are you looking forward to regarding Sojrn?
Travel is the best educator and I’m so excited to help people experience it in this immersive, meaningful way. On our application, we ask why people want to go on a sojrn, and it’s so inspiring to read about the passions they want to explore and motivations for wanting to spend time abroad.
Helping people get out of their bubble and encourage a shift in perspective is exactly what I set out to do with FTLO and it feels like Sojrn is the natural progression of that mission.
Any advice for eager entrepreneurs?
To start, do a ton of research and write a business plan. Even if it took a while and seemed tedious, I reread mine during times of doubt to remind myself of why I started down this path in the first place. It’s like my manifesto that re-energizes me to get through rough patches.
As you grow, manage expectations and get everything in writing – from partnerships to hiring people, to interacting with institutions. It’s best to have everything written out and agreed upon by both parties. I started out very trusting, but problems arose when things weren’t spelled out and signed on.
When you hit particularly difficult times, read stories or listen to podcasts about other entrepreneurs, such as “How I Built This” with Guy Raz. It makes me feel less alone and reminds me that the entrepreneur path is never a straight one. There will always be twists, turns and roadblocks, but with perseverance and creativity, there is always a way forward.
See related: How to start a small business
And as someone who transformed her credit while starting a business, what suggestions do you have for others who have similar challenges?
Don’t be afraid to start from wherever you are. If possible, try to work on your credit scores long before you start your business, but no matter when you begin, it’s a process.
There are small ways to increase your credit scores, though, such as being an authorized user if someone will do that for you. Also, apply for a credit card with a short limit so you can establish a credit history and then always make your payments on time. Always.
In the end, don’t let a bad score stop you from pursuing your business goals. Just be sure to take the necessary steps to improve your credit, because you’ll definitely need it!