Lonely Planet: Maureen & Tony Wheeler In 1972, Maureen and Tony Wheeler bought a beat-up car and drove from London "as far east as we could go." They wound up in Australia, by way of Afghanistan, India and Thailand. Their notes on how to travel on a shoestring became a book, which grew into Lonely Planet — the largest travel guide publisher in the world. PLUS in our postscript "How You Built That," an update with Melanie Colón, a frustrated renter who created an easier way to communicate with noisy neighbors, called Apt App. (Original broadcast date: May 8, 2017)
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Lonely Planet: Maureen & Tony Wheeler

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Lonely Planet: Maureen & Tony Wheeler

Lonely Planet: Maureen & Tony Wheeler

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

Hey, it's Guy here. And I just wanted to let you know that we first ran this episode last May. And we're bringing it back because we think it will totally put you in the mood for the summer travel season - especially if you happen to be going some place very far away in a cheap car and with not a lot of money. Enjoy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MAUREEN WHEELER: We had grown so fast. We had television going. We had started investing heavily into the digital side of things, a lot of staff. And we were in the middle of that when 9/11 happened. And, of course, people stopped traveling. And travel guides then just stopped.

RAZ: Did you think that there was a possibility that the whole thing would collapse?

M. WHEELER: Yeah. We did have to let people go. We did have to cut back the number of books we did. And I honestly believed that the whole thing could disappear.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: From NPR, it's HOW I BUILT THIS, a show about innovators, entrepreneurs, idealists and the stories behind the movements they built.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, how Tony and Maureen Wheeler backpacked along the Asia hippie trail in the '70s, jotted down some notes and turned them into the biggest travel guide company in the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: So much of how a company comes together happens by chance. I mean, think about it. If Sergey Brin and Larry Page never met, would there be Google? If Kate and Andy Spade never worked in the same clothing store in Tucson, Ariz., would Kate Spade bags have happened? Same thing for Airbnb or Instagram or Warby Parker.

They all happened because of a chance meeting - just a moment in time that could have passed, which is kind of the story of Lonely Planet guidebooks because it all started on a bench in Regent's Park in London on an October afternoon in 1970. Maureen Wheeler was just looking for a quiet place to sit and read.

M. WHEELER: And as I was walking around the park, there was only one bench that had sunlight. And I walked around several times because on the bench there was also a young man. And I thought if I sit in that bench, he's probably going to try and pick me up. And I really don't feel like that.

So I walked around a few times. And I thought damn it. This is 1970. I can sit wherever I want. So I sat on the sunny bench and turned my back to the young man and started reading my book.

RAZ: And what were you doing, Tony?

TONY WHEELER: It's appalling now. I had a car magazine, a new edition of it, and I was just reading that when this young woman came along and sat down and started reading Tolstoy. I mean, what do you do? I said, is this the in place to read on a Thursday afternoon? And she - did you reply positively?

M. WHEELER: No. I turned right and looked at him. And I was about to say get lost. And then he's got nice eyes. And I liked him. So I said, I don't know. I haven't been here that long.

RAZ: They started chatting. And after a while, Tony asked Maureen if she wanted to go see a movie, so they went.

M. WHEELER: And on the way home, he got lost. And we wandered around for quite a while before I realized he was lost because Tony just sets off really confidently and keeps going thinking he's going in roughly the right direction. And the thing is that's been our entire lives together.

RAZ: Anyway, that first date led to a second and then to a third and then...

T. WHEELER: Twelve months to the day later, we got married.

M. WHEELER: And Tony's proposal was very prosaic. It was May. We were in May. And he said, I will have known you a year on October the 7. And he said, we should get married. And I said, you don't get married because you've known each other for a year. And he said, no, but we would save tax.

(LAUGHTER)

T. WHEELER: Well, look. I was at a business school, so that's my only excuse for that, I'm afraid. It wasn't the most romantic.

RAZ: So once you got married, did you think you would just sort of get jobs in London and start your lives?

T. WHEELER: That was pretty much the plan, that I had - we met just at the start of my two-year course in London. And we got married halfway through that two years. But some time in that second year together, we decided we were going to take a year off and go travelling. And that certainly changed things.

RAZ: How did you guys make that decision? What was the conversation you had?

T. WHEELER: I don't know. You know, it was very much a thing to do at that era. I mean, later on they started calling it the hippie trail. And we just called it the Asia Overland trip that you left London and you headed east.

But this was the era, you know, the music of the time was riding the "Marrakesh Express." And the Beatles were off in India. So there was a lot of sort of cultural significance to it. But we joined what became known as the hippie trail. And we headed east.

RAZ: So this is, I guess, around 1972-ish. And what was the plan? The plan was to drive from London to...

T. WHEELER: To wherever.

RAZ: ...To wherever?

T. WHEELER: Yeah. Well, the car - we bought this car. And it was so cheap that we thought, well, if it breaks down, we'll get out of it and leave it by the road. And we were going to go as far east as we could go. We had to dispose - either it would break down or we'd sell it, one of the other.

RAZ: So when you guys set out, I mean, you would like - you just start driving through Europe and then what?

M. WHEELER: You just keep driving.

T. WHEELER: (Laughter).

M. WHEELER: You know, there's - you go right to the border with Turkey and Iran. Then you go right across Iran. Then you go right across Afghanistan. And then you just keep going through Pakistan. And then you go through India. And then you couldn't get across. You had to fly across Burma.

T. WHEELER: And then we'd just carry on. And the plan was we'd get to Australia. And then we would stay in Australia and work for a while. And we'd save up enough money. And we'd fly back to London. And that was the plan.

M. WHEELER: So we had so little money. We left London with 400 pounds. So that was our money.

RAZ: And you just stayed, like, slept in the van?

T. WHEELER: We did at times. But generally, we camped most of the time across Asia, until we really - actually, even in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, you know, a lot of the hotels in those days, there'd be gardens. And you could camp in the garden.

RAZ: At that time, how did you even know where to go and what to do and how to get the right bus? I mean, how did you figure all that stuff out?

M. WHEELER: It's not that hard. You know, I mean, if you walk into a bus station in Afghanistan and you're kind of pointing towards the border, somebody will put you on the right bus, you know. And if you're wandering down a street with a bag and you're looking - you know, you look like you're lost, someone will point you towards a hotel. Or you'll see something that looks like a hotel. Or, you know...

T. WHEELER: You're in a restaurant. You want food.

M. WHEELER: (Laughter) Yeah. You know, it's not - it's easy.

RAZ: Well, it's easy today because you just pull out your Lonely Planet. All right, but I'm talking about (laughter) 1972, right? I mean, there was nothing really.

M. WHEELER: Yeah. But you, you know, managed. And actually, you know, what was great is that you could travel for weeks without seeing another Westerner. But then suddenly you'd pile in somewhere like Kabul or somewhere, you know, or Herat, and there'd be others.

And you just spent maybe an afternoon just trading information. You know, when you get here, this place is good. This place isn't. You'd swap information that way. It was just like old-fashioned communication.

RAZ: Yeah. And - what? - like all along, you are keeping a journal - Tony or both you guys or?

T. WHEELER: I did keep a diary. I've always been reasonably assiduous about documenting things and keeping records of things.

RAZ: What would you write down?

T. WHEELER: Oh, just where we stayed and what it cost and how many miles the car had covered that day. And, you know, now I think about the palaces and the walls and the fortresses. You know, those things are just as important. But in those days, it was very much the information which, of course, was a good thing because that's what we were later on selling.

RAZ: And presumably, you were doing all of this with like next to no money, right?

M. WHEELER: Yeah.

T. WHEELER: Yeah.

M. WHEELER: We had to do everything as cheaply as possible. So it was third-class rail, and it was hitchhiking. We hitchhiked from Bangkok all the way to Singapore to get down there. And then we went across by boat to Jakarta. And then we went by bus to Bali. And then in Bali, we were really run out of luck.

The airline that was supposed to - that we were supposed to have tickets on to take us to Australia broke down and didn't have any more planes. And so we met this New Zealander who had a little yacht. And he was looking for crew to get down to Australia. So we got on his yacht and crewed to Australia.

RAZ: Was that, like, scary at all?

M. WHEELER: The only time I think I got really - we had a huge storm in the boat. And if I had had more sense, I'd have been terrified, but we were so busy hanging onto the boat. And then the thing - then we got to Australia. And I remember standing on the yacht looking at this coastline that had nothing on it, nothing at all.

We had come in at a place that was miles from anywhere. And there was nothing. And I thought, I have no - there's snakes. There's spiders. I don't even know if kangaroos bite you. I have no idea. You know, what are we doing here?

RAZ: What did you think you would do there? Did you think you would hang out there for a while because neither of you had any connections in Australia, right?

T. WHEELER: No.

M. WHEELER: No.

T. WHEELER: We went to Sydney, first of all. I mean, if you're going to go to Australia, Sydney is the golden city that you will head towards. The yellow brick road leads there.

M. WHEELER: As we were crossing the Sydney bridge on our last ride, and I said - and it was not long after Christmas, so it was quite closed to holidays. And I said to Tony, how much money have we got left? And he put his hands in his pocket, came out and he said, we've got 27 cents. And I said, well, how much is that in English money?

T. WHEELER: Not much is the answer.

(LAUGHTER)

RAZ: So what did you do? Like, how did you even...

T. WHEELER: Well, I had a camera. So we went to the area of Sydney where you'd dispose of those sort of things, sort of a loan shop. And we got $25 for my camera, which I bought back a week later. So we had $25. And in those days, you could get a room for a week for $15. So we found a room.

M. WHEELER: We got a single room with a single bed. The guy let us both stay there in a communal kitchen and bathroom.

RAZ: You're newlyweds. You know, it was romantic.

T. WHEELER: Yeah.

M. WHEELER: No. At this stage, we were married almost two years.

T. WHEELER: No, a year and a bit.

M. WHEELER: All right, felt like two years.

T. WHEELER: Yeah. Well, we'd known each other for two years, yeah (laughter).

M. WHEELER: And I got a job again.

T. WHEELER: Instantly.

M. WHEELER: I got a job that afternoon instantly in a...

T. WHEELER: Cafe.

M. WHEELER: ...Little kind of corner shop. But they did sandwiches and things. And at the end of the day, they let me take the sandwiches home that were left, so we ate. And I worked there for a little while until we - and then we both, you know, got good jobs.

T. WHEELER: Our one-year trip had now become a three-year trip.

RAZ: So what did you - what kind of job did you get, Tony?

T. WHEELER: I got a marketing job for a pharmaceutical company.

RAZ: Maureen, you're working a job - another - what was the job you were doing in Sydney?

M. WHEELER: I was a PA in a wine company.

RAZ: So you're working for a wine company. How do you get to a point where you're - you start selling a travel book?

(LAUGHTER)

M. WHEELER: Well, Tony has all the great ideas like let's travel around the world, let's do guidebooks. I mean, I always say Tony's the architect, and I'm the carpenter. So he said, look, we should do a book of...

T. WHEELER: Really though, this was after we'd met so many people. Every time we went to some sort of party or met friends at restaurants and so on, always someone would ask us, where did you go? How did you do this? There was a lot of interest in the sort of trip we did. After a while, we thought, hey, we could - instead of just telling them and writing things down, we'll actually, you know, make - put the information down as in the form of a book and sell it.

M. WHEELER: And I was working in an office, so I was able to get my typewriter and bring it home at night. And I borrowed a guillotine when we were trimming all the books and one of those massive staplers, so we stapled the book together. So in a way, our - we kind of - we were able to get enough equipment to do this. We had it printed, but it was a very basic little book.

RAZ: Yeah.

M. WHEELER: It was a very - it was actually done - really was done on our kitchen table because actually we only had a kitchen - kitchen and a bedroom, so...

RAZ: And then you took it to a printer, and you ran off a bunch of copies of it?

T. WHEELER: We found a little - I mean, we didn't go to a big commercial printer. It was a guy who had this print thing in the basement under his apartment. And he printed them for us. But he just printed the pages. We actually folded them and put them together, and as Maureen said, stapled them and trimmed the edges with the guillotine.

RAZ: Yeah.

T. WHEELER: So it was really a home-produced book. You know, I had - when they were finished and done and we had them in boxes in our apartment, I took a day off work. And I went straight to the bookshop that had said they'd buy 50 copies of it and said, OK, here I am, write me the order. And, you know, at the end of the day, I'd sold a surprising number. I was...

RAZ: What did you - what was the price?

T. WHEELER: $1.80.

RAZ: $1.80.

T. WHEELER: It sold for - it was 96 pages. It sold for $1.80.

RAZ: And it covered all the countries you went through?

T. WHEELER: All of Asia in 96 pages.

(LAUGHTER)

M. WHEELER: Very brief. But I went into what - we got our big break, I suppose. I went into one bookshop. And she said - and I said, do you want to buy this book? And she said, so what company are you with? And I said, Lonely Planet. She said, I've never heard of them. And I said, no, you wouldn't. And I showed her the book. And she said, oh, what's your telephone number in case I want to get more books?

Now, we didn't have a telephone, so I had to give her my work number. Anyway, she called me. And she said, my flatmate is a journalist, and she wants to interview you and your husband on television. So we went on television to talk about our trip and doing this book. And that was our first big publicity thing, wasn't it?

RAZ: Yeah. I was reading through your first guidebook, the pamphlet. And, I mean, it's, I mean, there are some pretty different things in there - right? - like, I mean, like it tells you where you can find marijuana.

T. WHEELER: It was not hard to find. It was all around (laughter).

RAZ: Oh, OK. I got you. Sorry (laughter). Or like where to get a fake ID and stuff like that, right?

M. WHEELER: Yeah.

T. WHEELER: Fake IDs or fake student cards. They were very popular and probably still are in some places.

RAZ: Yeah. I mean, I have to assume that you, you know, you guys could not have been, like, stoned hippies because you were pretty motivated to write every day and to go places and to catalogue your business, right?

M. WHEELER: No. We were actually really boring. We didn't do a lot of that stuff at all - occasionally but very rarely. In fact, it was years later - you know, as Lonely Planet became better known, all these people who were using Lonely Planet, you know, and they were really cool people. You know, it was - cool people used Lonely Planet. And Tony and I would be at the cafe and all the cool people. But we just didn't look cool. And yet, we were the ones who had done these books.

RAZ: You had written the book, yeah.

M. WHEELER: So we'd sit there quietly while they're all being incredibly cool around us and think, oh, God, this is interesting, you know.

T. WHEELER: Yeah.

RAZ: How did you come up with the name Lonely Planet?

T. WHEELER: (Laughter) There is a story behind that. We'd got the book done. You know, we had everything. We had a title for it. It was "Across Asia On The Cheap." But we didn't have a title for the publishing house, a name for the publishing house. And we'd been out at a restaurant and drinking too much red wine. And we'd just been to see the rock 'n' roll band on the road film "Mad Dogs & Englishmen." It was Joe Cocker and Leon Russell traveling around the U.S. in the late '60s. It's a great film. And one of the songs in that movie and that album is Joe Cocker singing a song called "Space Captain." And the first line of the song goes, once while traveling across the sky, this lonely planet caught my eye.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPACE CAPTAIN")

JOE COCKER: (Singing) This lovely planet caught my eye.

T. WHEELER: And I said to Maureen - I was humming the song - hey, that sounds nice. Why don't we call the company Lonely Planet? To which Maureen said...

M. WHEELER: Actually, the first line is lovely planet. And I wish you would stop singing. And he said, well, Lonely Planet's even better. And I said, how? And he said, well, it just sounds better. So I said, yeah, OK.

RAZ: Yeah. It's a great name.

M. WHEELER: And it's a great song for us as well, you know, we're learning to live together on this planet. It was great.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPACE CAPTAIN")

COCKER: (Singing) Learning to live together. Learning to live together.

RAZ: So did the first book, like, make any money?

M. WHEELER: Not much.

T. WHEELER: No. It was - in some way...

M. WHEELER: It was more or less covering the cost of the printing.

RAZ: Yeah.

T. WHEELER: We didn't lose money on it, but it wasn't a real moneymaking proposition. But around that time, when we were thinking of OK, this is when we quit and head back to Europe, then we began to think, you know, that has sold surprisingly well. Maybe we should do another book. And what we thought was towards the end of the trip from London, we had come down through Southeast Asia.

And, of course, at that time, the Vietnam War was still winding down. So Southeast Asia wasn't seen as a, you know, hot spot for a holiday. It was a place next to a warzone. But we could see that was about to change. And we thought, OK, what we'll do is we'll travel around Southeast Asia. And we'll write the best book anybody has ever seen on Southeast Asia.

M. WHEELER: And we had a Yamaha trail bike. That was our transport.

RAZ: And at this point, Tony, did you think this is it? I think this is what we're going to do.

T. WHEELER: No. I still think, you know, we realized we'd sort of - we'd found a sweet spot. We found - we were doing something that people really liked. But, you know, one of the things I've said a lot over the years is it wasn't like your dot-com or, you know, social media's set up these days. They start on one day, and a week later they're worth a billion dollars.

That wasn't us at all. We did - our business grew very slowly. And I think it was more like the snowball rolling downhill. You got to keep pushing it at first. And then it starts to develop momentum and starts to get larger as it rolls down the hill.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: When we come back, how Tony and Maureen grew Lonely Planet and then shrank it and then almost lost it. I'm Guy Raz. And you're listening to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Hey. Welcome back to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So in 1973, Tony and Maureen were traveling around Southeast Asia once again. And they were doing research for their second Lonely Planet book.

T. WHEELER: Well, it was just about finished. And I had a dummy of the book. There was one big bookshop in Singapore. I got a appointment with a buyer for that bookshop. And I said - I thought to myself, you know, he'll definitely - he'll certainly buy 10 copies. And if I'm lucky, he'll buy 20 or 50.

He listened to my spiel. And then I looked at my dummy of the book. I saw him writing Southeast Asia on a shoestring in the - on the order form and then write some number down. And he spun the order around and pushed it across the desk to me. And he bought a thousand copies.

RAZ: Wow.

T. WHEELER: You know, I walked out of that office, you know, a foot above the ground and raced back to the hotel and said to Maureen, we've sold 20 percent of our print run to one bookshop. Fantastic.

RAZ: So after you saw the success of that book, what - I mean, what was your next move?

M. WHEELER: And we did another one.

T. WHEELER: And another one and another one. People started coming to us with ideas for other books.

RAZ: And, Maureen, did you think - I mean, so by the mid-'70s or late '70s even, did you still - did you think that this was going to be your work? I mean, did you both kind of focus full time on this thing now?

M. WHEELER: Pretty much, although I was at university. But, you know, I had plenty of time left to work on - with Lonely Planet and to travel.

T. WHEELER: But the first year, though, of Lonely Planet in Melbourne, you had a full-time job.

M. WHEELER: Yeah.

T. WHEELER: And, you know, we - were living on your - Maureen's salary while I worked on the books.

M. WHEELER: I didn't think it was going to be our life. I couldn't see how it could. It was still Tony and I living in a little rented house with a pile of boxes - boxes everywhere full of books. And when we, you know, we'd wrap them, we'd addressed them, we'd put them in the back of the car and take them to the post office, I mean, you don't really see a multinational conglomerate - out of this. You know, I was still going down to the docks to pick the books up when they came in from the printer and then sending them out again. You know, it still felt very much like a cottage industry, you know.

RAZ: And it wasn't like you went out and raised any money. You were just...

M. WHEELER: No. Nobody would give us any money.

T. WHEELER: Yeah. Basically, you know, if you told a bank, you know, what we were doing books on, they'd say get a life. You know, it wasn't...

M. WHEELER: No. We were - we didn't have any money. And we weren't making a lot of money. But we were making enough to keep on doing books.

T. WHEELER: But we did find other people were coming to us. You know, they'd used our book. And they'd say, you know, I really liked your book traveling around Southeast Asia. I'd been living in South America, you know, I could write a book about this place or that place. So we started getting other people coming to us with similar ideas. And really by the end of the '70s, we had about 20 books.

RAZ: Yeah. What was the turning point? What was the book that, like, all of a sudden where you thought, OK, this is our breakthrough?

T. WHEELER: Well, it's - was very easy to see that one. It was - we did a book on India. And we researched that in 1980. This was the first time we'd been able to, you know, put a team into a place. So Maureen and I were one team. And we had two other writers. And we sort of divided the country up - the north, the south, the middle.

M. WHEELER: And I found out I was pregnant just about a week before I flew to India for this five-month trek around India.

RAZ: Wow. So you're pregnant traveling around India. And were you guys just like stuffing pamphlets and brochures and notes in your backpacks?

T. WHEELER: Yeah, very much so, you know...

M. WHEELER: We lost anything else. We'd also collect every brochure, every timetable, every map. I mean, we'd go with hardly anything in our rucksacks and come back with this massive pile of information.

RAZ: Of stuff, yeah.

T. WHEELER: Yeah, much easier these days. We put it on a memory stick.

RAZ: Yeah.

T. WHEELER: And suddenly, we had this book that was over 700 pages. And it sold for, you know, double figures. It was $12 or $14 or something instead of three or four. And it just sold - it sold - we sold 100,000 copies of it.

RAZ: Wow.

M. WHEELER: It was the first all-India book of that kind, you know, guide that told you everything. And there wasn't - it wasn't book like that, but there was all of that huge interest in India at the time, you know. So it just took right off.

T. WHEELER: The company doubled its size overnight. And we suddenly started taking on more writers and looking at other big projects.

RAZ: And you had a baby at this point.

T. WHEELER: Yeah.

M. WHEELER: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

RAZ: So what did you do? I mean, how did you sort of...

T. WHEELER: Well, we took her with us. You know, we - when she was - how old was Tashi when we went to India to - not to India, to Malaysia?

M. WHEELER: Southeast Asia. She was 8 months.

T. WHEELER: Like 8 months, yeah. So we dragged our 8-month-old daughter around with us.

M. WHEELER: And we have two children. And every school holiday, we'd just go Africa or Asia or wherever. And they'd travel with us for that period of time. So every time we got a chance, we'd go and travel as a family. But mainly Tony was doing the writing and the sort of the planning and all of that. And I was doing the carpentry, you know, keeping it together.

RAZ: Yeah.

M. WHEELER: And we'd actually moved out of the house.

T. WHEELER: We had a real office, yeah.

M. WHEELER: We'd moved into a kind of ramshackle office. And we had a lot of kind of loose contractors. You know, they'd float in and out and do a bit and float out again. And we paid them by the hour sort of thing. So it was beginning to take shape in the '80s as a real business.

RAZ: When - at what point did you stop having sleepless nights about whether you were going to be sustainable?

M. WHEELER: Well, I don't know - we've had sleepless nights all - every year. I would say actually towards late '80s, early '90s I think was more when it became obvious that this thing had its own momentum. And it was carrying us as much as we were pushing it.

T. WHEELER: And I've talked to people who were doing the - handling the publishing of LP at that time. And they said it just seemed like we couldn't do anything wrong, that every book we did, you know, sold. And I think when we started doing Europe guides because we were this little publisher at the other end of the world who'd started off doing Asia.

And when we finally did get around to doing Europe, we were big enough by that point that we could really do it well. And I think people in the office really got a kick out of that, that it was such a thrill doing that and sort of, you know, going out and taking on anybody in the world who wanted to try and compete with us.

M. WHEELER: I mean, people everywhere you went were using Lonely Planet guides. I mean, it used to give me a thrill, you know, even in New York seeing someone come in with a German copy, Chinese copy or, you know, whatever, just - I used to love that.

RAZ: But, I mean, were there ever any moments where, you know, it wasn't going well?

M. WHEELER: Oh, there was a period when things were not looking very good. And that happened at around 2000. And we had grown so fast. And we reached a point where we're doing so much. We had television going. We had started investing heavily into the digital side of things, a lot of staff, a lot of, you know, we created a whole lot of desktop publishing before it was even a term.

And it was eating away all of the money. The books were still selling like crazy, but were just doing so much. And we were in the middle of that when 9/11 happened. And, of course, people stopped travelling. And travel guides then just stopped.

RAZ: Did you think that there was a possibility that the whole thing would collapse?

M. WHEELER: Yeah. I definitely did.

RAZ: Really?

T. WHEELER: I didn't (laughter).

M. WHEELER: Tony's an incurable optimist. I mean, and that's one of his charms. But it's also one of the most infuriating things because we were definitely looking at a really bad time. We were looking at - we did have to let people go. We did have to cut back on our offices overseas. We did have to cut back the number of books we did. And it was looking - I honestly did believe that it was possible the whole thing could just disappear.

RAZ: Wow.

T. WHEELER: I've got to say, in retrospect, I think Maureen's view of it was much more accurate than mine.

M. WHEELER: So we really had to pull - start pulling everything together in a very serious way.

T. WHEELER: But we did. I mean, we did cut back and make it a much more efficient business. So it did turn around. It took a couple of years, but it did turn around.

RAZ: But I guess it was around that time - like I said, the mid-2000s - where you wound up selling the company, right?

M. WHEELER: Yeah. I think we both felt that it wasn't the same company anymore. It was turning into much more of a digital company. And that has a way of taking over everything. It's not something I'm particularly excited about.

T. WHEELER: We really felt it was time. It wasn't going to be a dynasty. We weren't going to hand it on to our kids. Our kids have both worked in the company at one stage, but neither of them were going to take it over from us. And we just began to feel it was time to, you know, move on to something else.

RAZ: And, I mean, did you - did it feel great to sell it? Did it feel sad?

M. WHEELER: It was the saddest day of my life.

RAZ: Really?

M. WHEELER: One of the saddest days of my life.

RAZ: Yeah.

M. WHEELER: It was - I remember walking to the BBC with Tony to sign the final papers.

RAZ: BBC, who bought it, of course.

M. WHEELER: Yeah.

T. WHEELER: Yeah.

M. WHEELER: And I said to Tony, do you have your passport? And he said no. I said, you know, said, you know, if we had our passports, I'd just go straight up to Heathrow and get out of here.

T. WHEELER: (Laughter) We could still escape, yeah.

M. WHEELER: I think I drove the sale of Lonely Planet more than Tony did. And I always wondered, you know, if afterwards, he would really regret that.

T. WHEELER: I haven't.

M. WHEELER: I know he hasn't. But I did worry. And it was a huge amount of grief about it. It took months for me to - I still find it very hard to go back to the office. You know, I just - it's just hard.

RAZ: I mean, from somebody listening to this, like an outsider's perspective - and I know you've probably heard this from people who've said you just lived the dream. I mean, you got to travel around the world and create a company. And, yeah, you sold it. And it's not yours anymore. But it made you rich. And look at your life.

M. WHEELER: Oh, God. Listen. I think like that every day.

RAZ: (Laughter).

T. WHEELER: And we do - every year we do trips together. And we do trips with friends. And then every year, I go places on my own, you know, that I know Maureen would not want to go to.

M. WHEELER: Chernobyl. That's one.

T. WHEELER: Chernobyl.

(LAUGHTER)

T. WHEELER: I wanted to check the radiation, how it was these days.

M. WHEELER: I go to see ring cycles and operas.

T. WHEELER: And I can go to opera, but there is a limit to my consumption of opera.

RAZ: You know, I am curious because I interviewed John Mackey, the founder of Whole Foods, for this show. And he was talking about an early relationship he had with the woman that helped him start Whole Foods and how it really destroyed their relationship. It broke down over it. And he says, you know, business can really bring people together, or it can just tear them apart.

M. WHEELER: It can do both.

(LAUGHTER)

RAZ: I mean, you guys are approaching 50 years of marriage. And it just sounds like you have an incredible partnership. And, I mean, were there times - were there times when you were building up this company where there was tension and there was...

M. WHEELER: Yeah.

RAZ: ...You know, there was crisis or there were - you know, there was...

T. WHEELER: No, there was all of that, all of it and a lot more. You know, we - you know, we've had our fights. We've had our squabbles. It hasn't always been plain sailing.

M. WHEELER: And, you know, you cannot - you cannot run a business where you bring personal stuff into the office. I mean, you can't avoid it to some extent. And it was funny. You know, at Lonely Planet. People always knew first of all you come and talk to me about an idea, and I'll tell you whether it's worth - Tony has what's called the five-second - you've got a five-second window to gauge his attention.

You know, it's like the lifespan of a mosquito or something. So they would come to me and say, Maureen, I think this is great. What do you think? And I'd say, I think it's good. And they say, shall I tell Tony? And I'll say, yeah, let me talk to him first, you know.

(LAUGHTER)

RAZ: How much of your success and what happened with this company and everything - yeah, how much of it do you think is due to luck and how much because you're just really smart and skilled?

T. WHEELER: You definitely need both. And there's that saying about, you know, whenever I'm working really hard I seem to be luckier. But, you know, we were lucky. We came along when the baby boomers were suddenly deciding they needed to go to more interesting places than their parents did. So there was that element. They were a big market. Well, that was important. They were all sorts of things that it was a very lucky time to be there.

M. WHEELER: I don't know that skill came into it with Tony and I. There was judgment, I suppose, and the fact that we were doing something that we knew everything about.

RAZ: But it's clear that this company could not have become what it became without the both of you. I mean, you both brought different skill sets to this. And, I mean, amazingly, you know, this like chance meeting on a bench in Regent's Park resulted in this incredible company. What did - what were the traits that both of you had, like, that you brought to the company?

T. WHEELER: Maureen's sense and me nonsense.

(LAUGHTER)

M. WHEELER: Tony - Lonely Planet would never have existed without Tony. He was the dreamer, the vision. But he also very cunningly knew how he was going to place Lonely Planet very early on. And he never ran out of that kind of mad enthusiasm which carries you through so many things.

However, he was not good at day-to-day stuff. He never wanted to sit through meetings. He never wanted to sit with bankers. He liked all the staff, but, you know, he didn't want to hear what their problems were, you know, basically.

(LAUGHTER)

T. WHEELER: I was terrible, I must admit.

M. WHEELER: He wasn't terrible. No, it wasn't terrible. It was just really - he just wanted to know what new book we were going to do.

RAZ: Yeah.

M. WHEELER: You know, how big was it going to be? And where are the maps and pictures? I mean, The books that we did were fabulous books. If you look at our covers and inside. They just got better and better looking, which was good. And a lot of that was Tony.

You know, Tony would look at a book and say, you know, this needs this. You know, this is what we need to do with this. So I would say that - I guess I've always said that Lonely Planet could never have existed without Tony, but it probably wouldn't have held together as long without me.

T. WHEELER: I'd agree with that.

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RAZ: Tony and Maureen Wheeler, founders of Lonely Planet. By the way, at its height, the company was valued at a quarter of a billion dollars. The Wheelers are no longer formally involved with the company. They sold all their shares. But Tony did recently score a gig writing a chapter for a new Lonely Planet book. It's called "Epic Drives Of The World." And as I speak, Tony is on a 3 1/2-month drive from Bangkok to London in a classic British MG sports car.

And one last question for you. When you travel, like, what is the thing you have to have in your carry-on bag?

T. WHEELER: My passport and a credit card.

RAZ: That's boring. Come on.

T. WHEELER: (Laughter).

M. WHEELER: For me, it's - I've got this wonderful pair of cashmere slippers.

RAZ: Oh, nice.

M. WHEELER: They are so cozy and comfortable on. When I get on a plane, and I put them on, then I kind of can relax.

T. WHEELER: I've never seen those.

M. WHEELER: Yes, you have. You just never noticed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: And please do stick around because, in just a moment, we are going to hear from you about the things you're building.

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RAZ: Hey. Thanks so much for sticking around because it's time now for How You Built That. And today we're going to update a story we ran last year, one that you can probably relate to if you happen to live in an apartment building and share a wall with your neighbor, which is exactly what happened to Melanie Colon.

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MELANIE COLON: I was sleeping. And all of a sudden, I heard this huge pounding and booming on the other side of the wall. And what was going on is my neighbor was watching some sort of thriller movie. And the bass was literally shaking my bed.

RAZ: Oh, I have been there, Melanie. Anyway, as you might imagine, Melanie first tried to talk directly to them.

COLON: One time I went to my neighbor's door. I knew they were in there. I could hear them talking. But they wouldn't answer their door.

RAZ: Melanie and her husband Luis tried everything.

COLON: You know, the creative note-leaving or hitting the ceiling with a broom or stomping your foot on the ground.

RAZ: And none of it was working for them.

COLON: So we looked around for a solution. We asked our friends in the apartment industry, is there anything that we can use to help us with this? And there was absolutely nothing. And so we thought of the neighbor-to-neighbor notification tool where neighbors can notify each other completely anonymously and confidentially about a disturbance from their neighbor.

RAZ: And so finally, Melanie and Luis hired a team to start developing an app which they named Apt. App, as in Apartment App. And here's how it works. The property management agrees to use the app, sends over the blueprint of the building. And then when neighbors have issues, they can log onto their app and anonymously contact the actual unit they're having an issue with.

COLON: So let's say Joe (ph) has a neighbor that is playing their music too loud upstairs. He can select that square, choose a preset notification - so this one would be fitting for please turn down your music. So he can select that and then send it to the neighbor upstairs. And then that neighbor is able to respond with resolved or sorry, not me.

RAZ: The property manager can also see if the neighbor has responded or if an intervention is required. Melanie and Luis beta tested it in a big apartment complex in Missoula, Mont., with a hundred units.

COLON: It went really well. Everyone was really excited about all the tools that were available and how easy it made communication with staff and residents.

RAZ: Since we last spoke with Melanie, she and Luis have started working with apartment buildings in the Denver area where they hope to sign up about 75 of them by the end of this year. And they also want to branch into a new market - university housing. And by the way, Melanie quit her job as a nurse around the end of 2016 and is now working full time on Apt. App.

COLON: There's definitely been times where we thought, how easy would it be to go back to our day jobs? But at the same time, we can't even stand the thought of it, and we get right back to work.

RAZ: If you want to learn more about Apt. App or hear previous episodes, head to our new podcast page, howibuiltthis.npr.org. And, of course, if you want to tell us your story, go to build.npr.org. We love hearing from you. And thanks so much for listening to the show this week. You can subscribe at Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. And while you're there, please do give us a review. You can also write to us at hibt@npr.org. And if you want to send a tweet, it's @HowIBuiltThis.

Our show was produced this week by Rachel Faulkner with original music composed by Ramtin Arablouei. Thanks also to Nour Coudsi, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Neva Grant and Jeff Rogers. Our intern is J.C. Howard. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR.

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