PICTURE this: you’ve just started dating a gorgeous girl and she agrees to go away for the weekend with you. You’re excited, you want to spoil her, so you book a spa. Things are going well. You managed to clean out all the junk food boxes on the back seat of your car and you didn’t even miss the turning on the motorway. She was probably even impressed by your choice of radio station. Quite frankly, the scene is set. All you need now is to be sat in a jacuzzi bath with a glass of champagne and the romance is sure to begin.
But then imagine this: the brochure wasn’t clear and as you check in to the hotel the staff ask you to “get weighed in” to record your body measurements, alcohol is banned and the menu only offers a selection of low-calorie macrobiotic meals. This actually happened to James Lohan fourteen years ago when he tried to take a girl he had just started dating away for the weekend.
Undeterred, however, James not only managed to win the girl’s (Tamara Heber-Percy) heart and then hand in marriage, but actually convinced her to pour all their life savings into starting up a guidebook business: the now well-known Mr & Mrs Smith guides.
“I had it in my mind that they’d be sort of a dirty weekend away guide, but Mr & Mrs Smith is a brand that is more fitting for the sophisticated boutique hotels our guides include,” James explains.
The pair really struggled to get set up. Having produced their first book at great expense, they could not find a publisher or a distributor. James explains: “We found that the publishing industry was all sewn up. Unless you had a publisher that had a relationship with a distributor you were not going to sell your book. And every publisher we approached said the guidebook market was full.”
After self-publishing, tracking down an independent distributor and launching an aggressive marketing campaign, the couple sold 25,000 copies in the first three months. The business now has 75 staff, bureaus across the world and a policy of never employing anyone from the publishing industry. It is fair to say they proved the market was not full.
James says: “The guides are designed to offer couples a way of guaranteeing an atmospheric weekend away: no doilies or squealing families.” “Although now we have a squealing family of our own,” Tamara laughs. “The kids are really little now, they’ll be drafted in as slave labour before long,” jokes James.
The company is based in Chiswick close to the couple’s family home: “It means we can work hard on both the business and our family life.”“Living close by means that I can switch quickly between feeding the kids breakfast and checking that the Asia team haven’t had any problems overnight.” “It works really well,” Tamara says, “James and I don’t see too much of each other because we work on opposite ends of the office on different parts of the business. It’s great to see my husband in a work environment. It means we always understand what kind of day each other have had.”
But are there downsides? “We don’t get to go on holiday much anymore. We travel mainly to our other offices for work. Our staff check out most of the hotels,” Tamara says. “Well, we do go to some,” James admits, “whenever there’s a hotel the staff aren’t sure is good enough to include in our guidebooks, we usually get dispatched to make the final call. Funny really, because it means that I’ve never stopped taking Tamara to bad hotels!”
CV | MR & MRS SMITH
Job title: Co-founder and CEO
Studied: “I went straight to work at 18.”
Motto: “If it were easy everyone would be doing it.”
First ambition: “To buy a classic convertible sports car. Achieved at 19 – and subsequently spent all my salary fixing it.”
Job title: Co-founder and CTO
Born: Ibiza, Spain
Studied: Languages, Oxford
Motto: “Don't be afraid to do it yourself.”
First ambition: “To travel the world.”
Talents: “I speak fluent Techie.”
Favourite business book: Don’t Make Me Think by Seth Godin