Walk around any city, and you'll see countless people with thin white cords trailing from the earbuds of their iPods. As those of us who wear them know, being attached to an iPod provides a sense of freedom and autonomy amidst an urban crowd. But plugging in also opens new possibilities for experiencing auditory stimulus while outside. One such possibility was realized by Rob Pyles, the creator of Audissey Guides.
Rob Pyles and Juliet de Vries are the right and left brain of Audissey Guides, which produces downloadable, portable, "anti-tour" tours of major U.S. cities. These are not the dry, textbook, impersonal tours you may have experienced as a kid dragged along on family vacations. Narrated by locals, and infused with energizing sound, Audissey Guides are a blend of entertainment and information, designed to leave listeners with the authentic flavor of a city that usually only comes after years of having lived there.
Considering that Juliet graduated from Pepperdine University in 1999, and Rob in 2001, the same year Apple launched the iPod, it is impressive they have already capitalized on this resource, without which their two-year-old company might not be possible. Even more intriguing is the fact that the young business partners are also husband and wife.
A Couple of Entrepreneurs
Juliet's long, dark hair, curled at the ends, gives her a softness that contradicts her sharp, business-savvy banter. Rob looks local to Boston-think the Mark Wahlberg/Matt Damon brand of tough cute. The only difference is that he did not grow up in Southie, but was raised in Wellesley, Massachusetts and spent much of his childhood in Wellfleet, on Cape Cod. Preppy he is not. His shaved head, worn jeans, and Kelly-green track jacket hint that he is the less conventional of the entrepreneurial couple.
"I never saw myself sitting behind a desk, chained to a computer."
The daughter of a business owner, Juliet always new she wanted to be her own boss, but she needed an idea. Her marketing major and minor in entrepreneurship would prove a perfect complement to Rob's creative writing and international political studies majors.
"I never saw myself sitting behind a desk, chained to a computer," said Rob. For him, the corporate world was not conducive to a love of being free to get up and go. Eventually, Rob's creative mind, combined with his compulsion to travel, would have to be reconciled with the need for a career.
Travel Fuels Ingenuity
"It felt so free," said Rob of traveling to Ireland with his sister in high school. They were there with a group to get credit toward future college courses, yet Rob could not digest the idea of actually going to college. Instead, after high school, he opted for a paint brush and fresh air, taking a job painting houses to save up for a return trip to Ireland.
Turbulent, unstable places attracted Rob. He was fascinated by the political struggle in Ireland and sought out remote locations, rich in local history. But upon reaching those places away from traditional tour guides (whom he loathed), Rob wished for the kind of audio guides they have in museums-except that you could take it with you outdoors.
Rob's love of travel kept him from immediately entering college, which meant that he was the same age as Juliet when they met his freshman year, but she was a junior. Conveniently, Juliet shared his propulsion to travel.
"Rob and I both have a high tolerance for taking risks."
Rob's idea for a new kind of tour percolated as he continued to travel throughout college. At Pepperdine, he majored in creative writing and international political studies. He studied abroad in Florence, Italy, and Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. A self-taught Spanish speaker, Rob was always seeking authentic ways to learn about foreign places without looking like a tourist.
"Rob and I both have a high tolerance for taking risks," shared Juliet. In fact, she gave up a job offer to travel with him for three weeks through the Czech Republic-a surprise graduation gift. It was then that he told her about his audio tour concept. "I thought it was a cool idea but more of a product than a business," she said. The logistics did not seem possible. People like Rob would not want to tool around with their disk-man and CDs, she thought.
The pair stayed together until he graduated two years later, but then they followed separate paths until 2004. Honing important skills for the future, Juliet worked as a marketing manager, creating strategic partnerships in an online media company in L.A. Rob moved to Costa Rica, where he began thinking more seriously about creating portable audio tours.
Serendipitously, the technological advances of the twenty-first century aligned with Rob's vision. Audio became much more portable, and people started traveling with MP3 players and iPods. Now, all the sudden, a convenient way existed to listen to an audio tour.
Thanks to Media and MySpace
Back from Costa Rica, Rob returned to Wellfleet, on Cape Cod, where he bartended and began to formulate a prototype for his audio tour. "I always thought it was pretty lame that tourists would come and spend a weekend at the beach, and think they knew Wellfleet. But I realized it was because the real character of the town, the history and stories, wasn't accessible to them, so I wanted to make it accessible. I wanted to inspire them. To make them love the place for its soul, not just its pretty face."
He and Juliet had never lost touch, and they eventually got back together. Around the same time, she began changing her mind about the potential of Rob's idea. He launched a CD tour of Wellfleet, the response to which helped them both realize the possibilities that lay ahead.
"I guess the media thought it was cool that this young kid was so passionate about the past, and was trying to bring it to life for the masses."
"Every store on the Cape wanted to carry it. Every Cape news story covered it. I thought, oh, wow-maybe it could be a business," explained Juliet. "I guess the media thought it was cool that this young kid was so passionate about the past, and was trying to bring it to life for the masses," said Rob. "They played a huge role in making it a success, and in helping me realize that this could be successful for cities all over the world...a totally new way to travel, to experience places."
From Wellfleet, Rob went on to create tours of Boston, Chicago, Seattle, and Miami Beach. Since the concept is to create a tour that does not feel like a tour, Rob chooses his narrators carefully, using online networks to scout out interesting locals.
"We look for narrators who really embody their city - who symbolize their hometown somehow. In Seattle, it's a DJ. In Chicago, it's a Jewish hip-hop poet. In Miami, it's a Hispanic bikini model. We hop on MySpace, and do a search by city. So for Miami, we typed in the keywords: female; club scene; south beach; and model. About thirty profiles came up, but the cool thing is that each person's profile tells you so much about them. It's almost like an interview where you don't even have to ask any questions. We narrowed it down to a couple of people and then spoke to them on the phone before making our decision."
Juliet moved from L.A. to Boston and continued to work in marketing while she simultaneously advised her husband. "I didn't want him doing everything. He didn't know how to turn what he loved into a business." They realized that her experience and expertise could increase the reach of the company, which led to the decision for Juliet to leave her dependable job to become "Queen of Marketing and Partnerships" for Audissey Guides.
Entrepreneurial Challenges and Advice
Aside from time spent at the production studio, Rob's day-to-day business is conducted from home. He does have an office and spends a lot of time on the computer, but he is not chained to it-he goes willingly. In fact, it can be a challenge to leave his work behind at the end of the day. Who would want to leave a workplace designed to look like an Irish pub, complete with whiskey and an Irish beer fridge?
Living together as a couple and working as business partners has been an interesting challenge for Rob and Juliet. "Our office spaces are very separate," said Juliet. Unlike his laid-back "pub," hers is minimalist, with mood music playing. They refer to it as the Marketing Lounge.
Also key to working at home, Juliet added, is getting dressed. "If I'm in pajamas until noon, then I am not answering my phone, and I'm getting nothing done. Rob stresses looking the part-wearing funky clothes and setting the mood."
"If you commit [to pursuing what will give you freedom] and do it, it will come together."
"What has been the biggest risk in all of this?" I asked. Rob answered quickly: "When Juliet came on full-time, about six months ago." The security of her previous full-time job in marketing would no longer be there as a safety net. "In our society there is such a divide between having freedom versus security," explained Rob, "and most people opt for security." Rob and Juilet strive to strike a balance. "If you commit [to pursuing what will give you freedom] and do it, it will come together."
Rob makes success sound possible for anyone with a dream, but he and Juliet are not implying that their jobs come without challenge. "The line becomes blurred," said Juliet, referring to their business and personal lives. They find comfort in their relationships with other entrepreneurs, who offer advice from experience. Rob and Juliet have been told to compartmentalize what is business and to leave it at the end of the day, the way anyone else would do in a nine-to-five job.
"If someone likes you personally, they will do what they can to make something happen in your favor."
Asked to offer words of wisdom to future entrepreneurs, Rob and Juliet stress the importance of being likeable, and of fostering connections. "If someone likes you personally, they will do what they can to make something happen in your favor," advises Juliet. She should know-having formed strategic partnerships for Audissey Guides with companies like iTunes, Yahoo Travel and Orbitz.
Next up for Rob and Juliet: tours of New Orleans and Hollywood. In the long term, they hope to expand Audissey Guides' coverage beyond the United States, and to provide local tours of highly traveled international cities.