White Wolf

Starting a Private Tour Company in San Francisco

Dylan Gallagher

$110k in Year One

Dylan Gallagher

The idea arose after working in the tour industry as a guide for several years. Especially as wifi and technology has become more ubiquitous and the world’s screen time has gone up, I noticed the overall pleasure from tours for clients had gone down. Why is that? Are we too addicted to our technology to notice where we are and escape from our email/text/social media bubble? Regardless, I created White Wolf to show guests how to experience Yosemite (the first protected piece of land on earth) the “right” way, which for each person is different, but for many includes getting away from our mobile signal to see one of the most beautiful spots on earth, the way John Muir saw it in the early 1900s.

White Wolf Tours Dylan Gallagher

Was it a gradual decision or lightbulb moment to start your own White Wolf?

It was gradual. I had to learn the major landmarks of America first, educate myself and others on how other cultures were looking to experience America, and then notice what the other companies were missing, whether they refused to offer a service because of the effort involved, or because it just didn’t fit their business model.

How did you get your first three clients?

Our first clients came about because our first company, Orange Sky Adventures (a budget travel company), became popular and an authority on Yosemite. The ratings for that company rose and guests of the Four Seasons and Fairmont began to call asking not for a budget tour, but for our expertise. How could they see and do Yosemite even though the park was crowded and “sold out?” We knew the ways to get around the crowds to have a more genuine back-to-nature experience, and we began to offer the “tours” they asked for. It was more about the unique experience and less about the money.

How did you validate the idea?

The idea was validated because we knew the Yosemite market so well, and we noticed a gaping hole in the luxury market. If you are wealthy and want to visit Yosemite from San Francisco, you only have a few choices: One, you can rent a car and drive yourself (which requires time, planning, logistics and gear, which many people do not have or have time for). Two is to reserve a bus tour, which means you need to ride with other families or kids, which is a crap shoot at best; and three is to hire a private driver from San Francisco, who often doesn’t know anything about Yosemite, and may not have ever hiked Yosemite in his or her life. So we began to offer luxury Yosemite services from a Yosemite expert. We custom plan our private tours, whether clients are eighty years old and can barely walk or are young and fit. The response has been quite positive.

Did you have any experience/expertise in the area?

Yes, I’ve conducted dozens of tours—probably more than 200—to and in Yosemite and spend much of my free time there. And White Wolf’s biggest advantage is being able to connect the city of San Francisco to Yosemite for the luxury market without exploiting the iconic national park.

How do you ensure the tours are enjoyable?

We’ve done the tours for so long we can usually tell just by screening beforehand what clients need/don’t need. We don’t claim to by psychologists or therapists or aerobic instructors, but we do have a certain understanding after having dealt with thousands of travelers over the years. So we get to know our guests when orienting them to the tour. Then, during our drive to the park, our expert guides can further curate the private tours. Imagine bringing a friend to your hometown for the first time. You want to tell them the stories, and perhaps the history, of your home and showcase where you live in the best way possible for your community. That’s what we do but for Yosemite, and for each person individual interests will vary, and we adapt the tours accordingly.

Have you raised any money?

The only money raised was on my credit cards, including the purchase of our luxury Mercedes vehicle.

Who is your target demographic?

Our target demographic includes those who value time and experience over money—the people who want to see Yosemite at a different level than the typical visitor. Although we do tours in Yosemite, what we really sell is expertise. Clients are going with the best of the best. We use their time and money wisely to curate the best possible experience. Our ultimate goal is for former clients to want to visit Yosemite again, on our tour, with someone else, or alone.

How do you attract clients?

We do have a website, and guests usually find us through internet searches or through word of mouth. Also, travel agents and hotel concierges send us clients, which we very much appreciate.

What is the funniest/most strange request you have received from a client/prospective client?

We were asked by a wealthy guest to rent an A-class motorhome (one of the largest vehicles on wheels) to show them authentic Yosemite camping, including satellite TV and full butler service. We had a laugh and politely educated them about the real way to camp in Yosemite for authenticity, the same way John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt did in 1903. They understood and no longer wanted to authentically camp, and instead stayed in the Ahwahnee hotel for their visit.

What happens if someone does not enjoy the tour?

We can generally tell rather quickly whether a guest is enjoying the tour or not. Typically, if someone is not, it’s because of some external source, such as a bad business deal or a family problem, which in this crazy world can happen to all of us. We’re experienced in relaxing and amusing people, though once in a blue moon, a person might refuse to enjoy him/herself. We can bring that person to the water that is Yosemite sans technology, but even if we can’t make him drink, we can usually spray him with a little figurative water.

Where did you meet your cofounder/founding team?

No co-founders. Many thought the task of building a tour company from scratch in a saturated tour market like San Francisco was too difficult. Really, it’s easy when you know what’s missing in the industry, so I began alone. Once I was successful, then people wanted to join in. Any tips for finding employees? Look for those who are hungry for something more, whether to explore, earn more money or help those less fortunate in knowing Yosemite or San Francisco. Those have been the best employees we have contracted, either from word of mouth or through craigslist.

What is the most common package you sell?

Our most common package is our Yosemite Wilderness Tour, which families or couples who want to reconnect with each other away from technology usually book (with hikes to the top of Half Dome as a specialty tour for that). Our Yosemite One-Day Tours, although we always recommend clients stay longer in Yosemite, are for those with limited time, and we also do private San Francisco tours for those who need help feeling comfortable in City by the Bay.

Did you run any companies prior?

Yes, I created a tour company here in San Francisco called Orange Sky Adventures, which showed budget travelers from other countries the classic American road trips with friends, like the kind you see in the movies. It was how I had the confidence to spend thousands of dollars on my credit cards for White Wolf: I knew the process of how to build a tour company from scratch already.

What motivated you to start your own business?

The honest answer is I knew I could provide a better tour than what other tour companies offered. And because I’ve been waist-deep in the industry for the last decade, I know what the guests crave, both for seeing America as a whole and Yosemite as a micro-market. Even escaping technology is another sub-market to follow.

What were your family and friends first thoughts of you creating your own your company?

My friends and family have supported me from the beginning. They have helped with sound advice and even some of the work, such as website design and writing, as we continue to bootstrap.

What motivates you when things go wrong?

When things go wrong—and they always do—is when a business becomes fun. You are forced to be creative to solve your problems, whether with your product, advertising and marketing, legalities and permits, or the money and cash flow itself. Like high tide and low tide, it ebbs and flows. One day we might make a mistake which costs us thousands of dollars, and the next we could reserve an unforeseen tour worth twice that amount.

The end goal is to create an organization of people who can support themselves financially in San Francisco (one of the most expensive cities to live in) and share their love of travel with others. Yes, we want cash flow and money to keep coming in, but we want true contentment for our employees too, while showing San Francisco and Yosemite to the guest the “right” way, so the next time she ventures into the wilderness, away from technology, she does not need us.

Do you have any advice for someone just starting out?

Yes, just begin. Don’t procrastinate. The sooner you start, the quicker you will create a profitable company. If you know more than anyone in your industry or area, there is no reason you cannot build a business around it. Just offer to sell a product or service, and when your potential customer says no, rework your product and marketing until he says yes. It’s that easy. And that challenging. What is stopping you from being 3x the size you are now? A mixture of things: marketing and getting the word out, maintaining our quality with all employees (with our goal of showing Yosemite the “right” way, with expertly trained private guides) and being able to guarantee more tours for those guides, while honing our product as guests ask for more tours.

Also natural disaster. The California wildfires taught us a huge lesson in 2018 to not grow too fast, because you never know what problem or catastrophe can be around the corner ready to stop your income in an instant.

What are the top 3-5 apps your business could not run without?

Just the website because it explains about what we offer as a brochure would, freeing up our time (from our daily emails and phone calls) to run tours. Everything else we could lose, no problem. Plus, in the wilderness, you need to know how to operate without signal, which is the fun part. You cannot learn Yosemite and wilderness expertise from an app.

Are there any new tours/packages you’re working on?

Yes, several executives we’ve shown around have inquired about these technology-free services for their employees, whether bringing a group up to Yosemite for front-country camping (for those who are new to camping), or even showing their group around San Francisco for a “fun day” with a bus and our private tour guide services tailored to them. We already ran a few, and they were great.

What is current revenue? If you don’t mind sharing

Not at all. We are new and after our first year reached $110,000, with next year's sales looking to double based on our already-reserved tours. But anything can change with wildfires, earthquakes, and government unrest possible, which can stop our cash flow in an instant. We plan to grow with no problems but will continue to keep our expectations low and instead focus on the best service and product possible, and we believe the rest will fall into place. There is no rush.

Would you ever sell the company?

Probably not. We feel we have a larger purpose to reconnect people with each other, away from technology. And what better place than in the beauty of nature and Yosemite, away from your cell signal.

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