Moving a small business from start-up to growth mode requires a leap of faith, hard work and difficult, strategic decision-making. Carrie Sagel Burns has the” leap of faith” part down, regularly suspending disbelief in thousands of visitors who ride around Atlanta in buses guided by former zombie extras, an actress portraying author Margaret Mitchell or character actors from The Hunger Games.
She also knows something about running a small business. So within a year of launching Atlanta Movie Tours, she and her partner were pouring over income projections and developing a growth strategy with business consultant Erica Bracey of the UGA Small Business Development Center at Georgia State University.
Burns comes from an entrepreneurial family. So after college and marriage, she joined her husband in starting a website development company from their renovated loft in Castleberry Hill, on the southwestern edge of downtown Atlanta.
On the side, she found herself helping location scouts who came into the historic industrial/warehouse neighborhood looking for gritty, urban film settings. One of the better-known productions to use the area was AMC’s The Walking Dead, which now boasts millions of viewers.
“When friends would visit, they’d ask about The Walking Dead, so I’d take them on tours,” says Burns. “One night at a local restaurant opening, I told Patti Davis what I was doing. Patti’s reply was, ‘Let’s start a business.’”
[tweetthis display_mode=”box”]See how the #UGA #SBDC helped turn a casual movie tour for friends into a #startup #success:[/tweetthis]
They built their first Atlanta Movie Tour around the route Burns had developed in 2012. They scripted it, hired extras and actors as guides and hired a charter bus. “We ran our first tour for media on March 21, 2012, and on March 31 for guests. It sold out,” she says.
She and Davis approached the University of Georgia SBDC in 2013. “We had opened our retail shop in Castleberry Hill,” says Burns. “We were definitely seeing growth and were looking for someone who had the tools to help us run our projections, develop our business plan and put us in touch with the right lenders.”
Burns was familiar with the UGA SBDC and had, in fact, referred other friends with small businesses to the Georgia State office. “This time, we needed help,” she admits.
Their first challenge was to put together aggressive, realistic income projections. “They were running such a new, innovative business that there wasn’t really a road map for them to follow,” says Bracey.
“This impacted the projections. They had to ask, ‘How aggressive can we really be? How many tours can we run?’ There’s not a business like it in the Atlanta market. And because there was nothing else to follow, it made it more challenging to create, grow and build.”
In 2013 Atlanta Movie Tours had two employees and $170,000 in revenue. In 2015 it closed with more than $800,000 in revenue – nearly 300 percent growth – and 24 employees. It was named an Atlanta Magazine Best of Atlanta in 2014 and Creative Loafing Best of Atlanta in 2015 and was awarded two TripAdvisor Certificates of Excellence. And in 2016 Burns purchased her first tour bus.
Burns continues to work closely with Bracey on marketing and strategic planning. They recently worked together to secure a small business loan for working capital that allowed Burns to expand her office, tour offerings and merchandise.
“Erica has been amazing,” says Burns. “Without a strategy, you’re throwing darts at a dart board. I keep going back to those projections and updating them on a regular basis because they are so helpful.”
“Carrie has survived the start-up phase and is on a rocket trajectory,” says Bracey. “She has figured out how to make this business work. Now I’m simply assisting her as she manages its enormous growth potential. Atlanta Movie Tours is perfectly positioned to take advantage of everything that’s happening in the ‘Hollywood of the South.’”