OHIO - A thought in an Ohioans head 10 years ago turned into his American dream.
His self-run Ohio tourism web site has an audience that topped 150,000 visitors last month alone, producing nearly 2 million hits. It was the 16th consecutive record-breaking month for visitors to the web site. Exploring adventures on Ohio’s roads less traveled, seeking free or inexpensive things to see or do, has put OhioTraveler.com on the map.
The site has always been run entirely by one person – Frank Satullo – known by many today, simply, as The OhioTraveler. It is through free monthly editions featuring personable articles and snappy videos of timely places to visit that he has attracted such a large and loyal audience.
In the highly competitive world of tourism where every visitors bureau, museum, festival, chamber of commerce, inn, restaurant, winery, you-name-it, is competing for your attention through the many Internet tools, the success of OhioTraveler.com is a testament to an American dream still being alive and achievable.
Satullo began his venture in the basement of his home and has since moved …upstairs. His innovations such as The Boneheaded Tourist – a 3-foot rag doll that toured the state getting into mischief – and other catchy offerings such as the cult-like following of his Lost in Ohio video series have at times achieved viral marketing status. But it’s the simple and content rich web site that continues to grow the audience along with a colorful monthly column titled, Happily Flawed Travelogue, that explores beyond Ohio but with that Midwestern perspective.
The back story of an American dream turning into reality …
There were naysayers – and there were plenty of them – before Satullo took the entrepreneurial plunge.
His company planned on shutting down so he brushed up his resume and acquired new skills, including how to build a web site. Once the web site was in place, he put his creative promotional skills to work.
Not being able to afford advertising, he created homemade bumper stickers, which lasted until the first rain. Then, living on a busy road, he created a homemade billboard for his front yard. It lasted until the next rain, which wasn’t long. But people began visiting the fledgling web site. Then, Satullo got quirky and devised some things that grabbed public attention.
Spot-The-Rock was the first idea to catch hold in a big way. It was a throwback to the pet-rock craze of the 1970s. However Spot weighed about 20 pounds, not including his wagon. He had eyes, long hair, arms and legs (taken from one of the kids’ dolls along with a voice box). Spot became a sensation and was booked across Ohio to make appearances, meet kids and talk about travel and safety. After several other gimmicks and modest success, a part of the web site was fast becoming a favorite – free places to visit in Ohio.
Satullo was now out of work and also interested in free Ohio fun to entertain his family of four. Finding so many free things to do and places to go, statewide, he decided to write a book about it. Then, the entire web site was channeled to promote the book. Before it was printed (self-published after numerous rejections), he had a job-offer and moved from Northeast Ohio to Southwest Ohio and went through the pains of selling his home and relocating my family.
Between houses, the family lived in two apartments. Within the next six months, They’d call four places home. On a mini trip, his young children looked around the hotel room and asked if it was their new home now.
Eighteen months later, book sales produced a little extra money. Managing to get the book in major bookstores, libraries and online sellers resulted in about a dozen book signings. This meant sitting in a chair at a table and watching people walk by wondering who the hell he was.
More importantly, the web site had acquired a rather large audience – probably because it was cross promoted with the book. This prompted the biggest sales presentation of Satullo’s life; not to corporate leaders, bankers or investors but to his wife! He had an entrepreneurial idea and asked her to just give me six months to make something happen. If it didn’t work, he hoped to have time to find a new job. Oh, and if he couldn’t pull it off, they risked having to spend their modest savings to get by. But to do this right and have a chance, Satullo said he needed to go at it full-time. His wife reluctantly agreed to the risks in this start-up venture.
The expansion of OhioTraveler.com offered unique family attractions across the state and not just the freebies from the book. Even though book sales were still going well, Satullo made the decision to dump its entire content into the web site, offering it for free. He also used the site as a tool to develop a marketing practice that helped those in the tourism field that the larger firms ignored – organizations with little to no budgets.
The start-ups first client was a non-profit in the poorest county in Ohio, smack in the foothills of Appalachia. It came by way of the unsexiest way to drum up business – a direct marketing email followed up by a cold-call. Satullo’s first promotional campaign for a client involved getting media and online attention for what are known as quilt barns or barn quilt squares. It was a hit. Today, quilt barns dot the countryside throughout the Midwest and beyond. So, a seed was planted and he was fortunate to harvest many new clients through word-of-mouth coming from this critical early success.
The road Satullo chose to travel had its share of bumps and fear of failure. It was a roller coaster. The most difficult part was not having a routine paycheck.
“I can’t tell you how many times I thought I might end up peeing blood from the stress of providing for my family,” Satullo smiled. “But, I stuck with it and my wife stuck with me, whispering confidence in my ear when I needed it most.”
They had no money for extras. Renting videos and ordering pizza were beyond our budget. His wife mentioned they could use a bookcase so Satullo built one – a pretty big one – out of scrap wood.
“It taught us how to appreciate what we had. But what I rediscovered most was what had been long lost – personal freedom,” Satullo said.
Gone were the days he only saw his children an hour before bedtime during the week. Now, he worked from home. Coupled with his wife – a special education teacher – they had much needed flexibility in their schedules. It took three years but they finally started to earn a bit more than was needed to merely get by. And without Mrs. Satullo’s employer’s health care plan, this entrepreneurial story would have remained nothing but a pipe dream.
OhioTraveler.com grew to attract one of the largest audiences of any magazine or tourism web site in the state.
Satullo saw that video was exploding online so he self-taught himself to film and edit videos.
“My first paid shoot for a client started with a panic,” Satullo remembered. “She was walking down the sidewalk toward me as a frantically tried to remember how to turn the camera on.”
Although he had never filmed before he had confidence that his creativity and general know-how would be enough to do a good job. This service would soon grow into a major part of the business model. It took a few years but he eventually produced award winning videos for clients.
He continued to come up with innovative ideas to capture attention. Some of his bigger successes were called GraveQuest (a twist on Geocaching), The Boneheaded Tourist (funny pictorials with a mascot) and Lost in Ohio (popular video series). It propelled Satullo to regular guest appearances on television morning shows across Ohio. He also landed interviews by other television, radio, newspapers and magazines, some even national in scope.
“Sometimes I became overwhelmed with fear because I handled everything in the business by myself and the competition had grown fierce, Satullo admitted. “Other times, I’d sit back and just smile at what I had pulled off. It was refreshing and rewarding to pursue a dream and succeed on my terms, persevering through my self-doubt and growing pains.”
It wasn’t easy but Satullo proved that achieving the American dream is still possible.