With a mission to offer the cheapest and simplest prepaid cell phone solutions to travelers with no contracts, bills and credit checks, Sebastian Harrison founded Cellular Abroad in 2002. His only goal was and is to make mobile communication affordable and simple for each and every person who travels abroad. Read on to know more about his business, goals and personal life.
Q: Kindly give our readers an introduction to your business. Please include what your business is all about, in which city you are located and if you have offices in multiple locations/cities.
Ans: Cellular Abroad offers international cell phone and data solutions for business travelers, tourists and study abroad students. We offer proprietary, all inclusive global cell and data services, branded with the National Geographic Society logo. In addition, we are the US distributor for telecom carriers from over 30 countries worldwide. Our mission is to offer affordable cellular and data services for anyone traveling internationally. Our international rates are often 95% less than US carriers such as T-Mobile, Sprint, AT&T and Verizon. We offer SIM card sales and rentals, phone sales and rentals and international hotspots sales and rentals.
Our commitment to our customers is paramount and we strive for perfection in customer service. We are endorsed by many travel experts and agencies locally and internationally We also have an A+ rating with the BBB. Our 5 year ongoing relationship with National Geographic is also indicative of our commitment to excellence.
Since 2001, we have helped over 200,000 customers stay in touch affordably, worldwide. We are headquartered in Playa del Rey, CA and have a distribution branch in Turin, Italy.
Q: What ignited the spark in you to start a new business venture? How did the idea for your business come about?
Ans: I have been a frequent traveler. Ten years ago, 'international cellular solutions' for travelers were few and far between. I solved the problem by purchasing SIM cards in the countries where I would travel. Even though I speak several languages, this solution, while cost effective, was far from convenient. I figured that if I made SIM cards available for travelers for different destinations, accompanied with English translations and customer service, before leaving the US, travelers would be interested to buy these SIM cards. Since then, we have grown to encompass many other communication solutions for travelers.
Q: How important have good employees been to your success?
Ans: Invaluable. We have a core staff that has been together since 2007. Our warehouse, customer service, IT, marketing, graphics and business development heads haven’t changed in last 5 years and each of them knows our business in and out. Earlier, we used to have meetings, but now we have 'work flow' where information change and implementation is often immediate. We can integrate new services and digest and change workflow or policies based on customer feedback without any bureaucracy. Ten years into the game and we still move with a sense of urgency. Back when I did the hiring, I used to tell people this is not a mall job where you stand, chat, scan in bar codes and give change every minute of your day. Here you will be mentally engaged with problem solving. I would hire people and say, 'I need you to work as hard as you can to figure out how to eliminate your job. Once you do that I’ll give you another one'. And that’s really the whole key with startups, engaging your employees by creating an environment they look forward to -- being challenged in and implementing systems that take care of themselves.
Q: What three pieces of advice would you give to college students who want to become entrepreneurs?
Ans: Do what you are passionate about. If you make a living out of what you love doing, you will be able to endure the long hours. Don’t give up. Persistence is the key. If something is difficult, see it as keeping the distance between you and your competitor. I know that if I have a difficult time with something, most others will have an impossible time. Find a good mentor and work for him – even if it’s for free.
Q: If you had the chance to start your career over again, what would you do differently?
Ans: I would have gotten myself a job at Google from day one. Seriously, I am not sure I would have done things differently.
Q: What would you say are the top three skills needed to be a successful entrepreneur?
Q: How long do you stick with an idea before giving up?
Ans: Before I initiate a new project, I invest substantial time and energy researching the market or, if it is a new product or service that has never been offered before, as most of our products are, I think about how the product would potentially resonate with travelers. Once I decide to go forth with an idea, I don’t give up.
Q: How many hours do you work a day on average?
Ans: When I started the company, I used to work 12 hours a day or at times, more than that. But with the team I’ve assembled now, I let our Vice President handle all the day to day work, so I’m in a situation where I can set my own hours. The majority of my ideas come when I am not in the office but in a relaxed or semi relaxed state of mind.
Q: How has being an entrepreneur affected your family life?
Ans: I don’t think that people with an entrepreneurial spirit ever disengage 100% from their work so, while I understand that this aspect can create challenges at times, the flip side is that I can dictate my schedule and can and do take long periods of time from the office in order to travel and be with my family.
Q: What motivates you?
Ans: Bringing new products to the market successfully.
Q: How do you generate new ideas?
Ans: Often our customers tell us what they are looking for and we try to find solutions to their needs. Other times, they just come to me.
Q: What is your greatest fear, and how do you manage fear?
Ans: In terms of business, I would say my biggest fear would be Apple or Google wiping us all out into oblivion.
Q: What are your ideals?
Ans: My ideals are very much revolving on transparency in business, building relationships, fairness and win-win situations.
Q: How do you define success?
Ans: Success is having enough time and resources to do whatever one wants – to a certain degree. We all, of course have obligations and commitments, but being able to, for example, travel to Italy for a month every year or more is a great luxury.
Q: What is the best way to achieve long-term success?
Ans: Having focus, determination and belief in what you are doing and also establishing good relationships.
Q: Where did your organization's funding/capital come from and how did you go about getting it? How did you obtain investors for your venture?
Ans: We started with $2,000. I have never needed financing from outsiders or business partners.
Q: How do you build a successful customer base?
Ans: The products sell themselves. When we get a customer to our site they are going to understand the viability and savings we can offer them. What we’ve done to retain customers and spread by word of mouth is all based in our customer support. We are strictly US based and we hire first and foremost based on demeanor. I don’t care if you’re a computer whiz and understand GSM technology inside as long as you are upbeat and personable and truly care whether or not our service is making or breaking someone’s vacation or business trip. We have a zero up sell sales pitch and will take the time to walk the most novice cell phone user through any process.
Q: How did you decide on the location for your business?
Ans: Playa Del Rey is really a unique area in Los Angeles. Our building borders 500 acres of federally protected wetland and is a block from the beach. Playa is separated from all the tourist traffic of Venice beach by the channel leading into the Marina Del Rey. There are no franchises allowed in this community and there isn’t even a gas station, so there’s no reason for anyone who isn’t local to stop. There isn’t even a sign for Playa off the freeway. It’s the perfect sleepy oasis in the last untouched area of LA. Since we spend so much time in the office, I believe that the work environment is important.
Q: Do you believe there is some sort of pattern or formula to becoming a successful entrepreneur?
Ans: There certainly are common traits among successful entrepreneurs. While the list is lengthy, what probably tops the list is work ethic. Everyone has an idea but very few people have the drive to actually put them into motion.
Q: If you could talk to one person from history, who would it be and why?
Ans: I would say Abraham Lincoln. Apparently, he had a photographic memory and it would be interesting to be able to have an accurate picture of the important events that he lived through.
Q: Who has been your greatest inspiration?
Ans: Probably my grandfather who founded, at the time, the largest independently owned movie production and distribution company in the world (American International Pictures). He started as an usher so basically, the bottom of the barrel in terms of the film industry. Among other things, he had a reputation for honesty and high moral standards – which is a rare characteristic in the movie business. He is proof one can be honest and also successful.
Q: What is your favorite book?
Ans: I think Ayn Rand's Fountainhead as it was one of the first books that influenced me. I was probably around 10 years old and ever since then, I have been interested in architecture.
Q: What is your favorite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
Ans: I love being able to work together with people from all over the world.
Q: To what do you most attribute your success?
Ans: I am very determined and do not sway or give up easily.
Q: What would say are the five key elements for starting and running a successful business?
Ans: Determination, passion, leadership, knowing how to pick a good team and knowing how to be conservative when necessary.
Q: What has been your most satisfying moment in business?
Ans: The most satisfying moment was probably when we became National Geographic Licensees.
Q: What do you feel is the major difference between entrepreneurs and those who work for someone else?
Ans: I have never worked for someone else and I would have a hard time doing so. I think the main difference is that entrepreneurs like to be responsible for their successes and failures.
Q: How do you go about marketing your business?
Ans: We use many different approaches including SEO, paid ads and revenue share.
Q: What has been your most successful form of marketing?
Ans: The most successful form of marketing has been to get our products into the hands of writers and have them write about their experience. The Wall Street Journal did a nearly full page article about the National Geographic Travel Phone when we first launched it a few years ago and the response was literally very close to being overwhelming.
Q: In one word, characterize your life as an entrepreneur.
Q: What kind of culture exists in your organization? How did you establish this tone and why did you institute this particular type of culture?
Ans: We have a laid back business culture but, I make sure that we don’t have any professionalism fall through the cracks as may happen in a laid back environment. The way this is accomplished is to make sure that you hire responsible employees.
Q: What are some of the biggest mistakes you've made?
Ans: This has rarely happened, but yes, it has happened, in the past. I have had suppliers not ship what they were supposed to have shipped, even though they have received the funds. In this financial environment, things happen. There is a fine balance between being cautious yet not hampering the flow of business.
Q: How can you prevent mistakes or do damage control?
Ans: Prevention is all about accountability and clearly defining expectations. Mistakes are going to happen. We don’t use words like 'blame'. We find out who’s responsible and then we find out where things broke down in the process. It’s usually always communication, crossed signals of timelines or functionality, but when it’s follow through that’s when you’ve got a problem. An employee who doesn’t follow through is as poisonous as an employee with a negative attitude. Often an employee doesn’t follow through due to being overloaded with work. You’ve got to be able to ask for help. You might enter a project with great intentions but then it becomes too big to handle. You’ve got to let other people relying on your contribution know that you need to change your deadline or you need to re-allocate some of the work to someone else. If you leave something undone and someone else is expecting it, it’s like any other relationship, you’ve lost trust and once trust goes, morale follows.
Q: What are your hobbies?
Ans: I play tennis, do stand up paddling, cook, read and garden.
Q: What do you do in your non-work time?
Ans: I dedicate a lot of time to my family.
Q: What makes you happy?
Ans: I think life should be a balance of work and play. What makes me happy is to do everything to the best of my abilities.
Q: What sacrifices have you had to make to be a successful entrepreneur?
Ans: I have worked long hours and with that, you cannot always do the things you enjoy doing the most.
Q: Excluding yours, what company or business do you admire the most?
Ans: I would have to say, Apple.
Q: Where you see yourself and your business in 10 years?
Ans: In 10 years, I will probably have retired. I would like to retire before I am 50.
Q: If you were conducting this interview, what question would you ask?
Ans: I would have asked what would you do had you not done this. I probably would have been a physician.