Mark Zanmiller is an engineer, which to most of us suggests complexity, but to Zanmiller means he’s a “problem-solver.”
Makes sense, then, that he would imagine a solution when confronted with the common problem of putting key tools at the fingertips of travelers.
How do you say “Hello” in Thailand?
How do you say “Goodbye” in Kenya?
And how many schillings do you get for a dollar in Tanzania (1300 at last count).
Zanmiller was visiting Tanzania with his daughter Jordan a few years ago when he realized the need for a crib sheet.
“So I wrote some of the key phrases on the back of a business card,” he says.
From that simple act was born the concept for his new side business, Small Planet Travel Cards.
“I’ve traveled for pleasure and work for the last 13 years,” he says of the time he has worked for ANPC, Cloud Cap Technology and now SightLine Applications.
“I’m a language idiot, but I want to interface with people when I’m in their country.”
Through trial and error and a little of this and a little of that, Zanmiller has come up with an old-school tool that is way cool. No apps to download here, just pull the card from your pocket and convert currency, get basic cultural etiquette (in Kenya, dress conservatively and don’t eat or or greet with the left hand), learn how much to tip in different common circumstances (dining, taxi, bellhop), and quickly consult a dozen basic phrases.
“I kept nicking away at it for family and friends,” he recalls. “They would be taking a trip, and I’d make a card for them.”
Now he has a library of cards for 50 countries, and counting. He has fleshed out the product, and built small country packets that include two country cards, a note card, a metric converter, a pronunciation guide and information about Small Planet Travel Cards.
Zanmiller says he wasn’t sure if the cards were just a lovely hobby, or had real business potential. So when the Here & There Travel Fest popped onto his radar, Zanmiller rented booth space at the Oregon Convention Center — and went public Oct. 10-11.
As IPOs go, it was about as good as a start-up could ask.
“We had three people in the booth, and we were slammed,” he says. “Terry Richard from The Oregonian kept walking back and forth past us, then he came up and said, ‘You guys are doing better than the guys next door, and they’re giving samples of vodka.'”
Now there’s a tagline — Small Planet Travel Cards … better than vodka.
Zanmiller took the public response as incentive to push ahead. He’s pondering fun cards for special affinity groups. “There’s an endless number of cards you could do,” he says. “I want to go to Comicon and sell cards on how to speak Klingon and Vulcan.”
Selling direct to individual travelers is fine. He added a shopping cart to his web site on a recent Saturday, and had 10 orders by Sunday.
But Zanmiller sees bigger potential in selling custom-labeled quantities to travel service providers — cruises, hotels, museums. Imagine getting a Country Pack with your shampoo and shower cap the next time you check in.
He thinks he has tapped a niche to help casual travelers with limited time to spend in a destination country.
“It’s just deep enough to build a bridge with people,” Zanmiller says. “Once things open up, it’s wonderful.”