It's one of those great American success stories; guy gets a wild hair one day and tells his boss to shove it. Goes home and spends a sleepless night during which he comes up with a totally off-the-wall idea, and next thing you know he's livin' large and lovin' what he does.
That, more or less, is how it happened for Boulder entrepreneur John Georgis, founder and CEO of Banjo Billy's Bus Tours. You've probably seen his bus parked out in front of the Big Blue Bear at the Colorado Convention Center. With its pitched roof and log cabin siding, it looks like a shack on wheels. The interior, tricked out with recliners, couches, and disco balls, is equally funky.
What Georgis offers is a 90 minute rolling history tour of the city. This, however, is not your standard high school history lesson. No, ma'am!
"This," said Georgis, "is out of the way history. It's behind-the-scenes story-telling. Stuff like the time the Mint got robbed, or how Molly Brown ran for US Senate twice before women got the right to vote, or how the city was named after a corrupt politician – Governor James William Denver – over a barrel of 'Taos Lightning' – bourbon, chili peppers, gunpowder, and tobacco."
Georgis bought the first of his two buses on eBay for $5300 on the very night that he quit his job. "It belonged to an electrical contractor in Moline who used it to haul construction workers to Chicago," he said. "I flew up there and drove it back myself." Which in and of itself was a scary proposition, considering that he'd never driven a school bus before in his life.
No sooner was he home, than he started having second thoughts. "I looked out the window and I'm going, 'What have I done?' I mean, I'd quit my job, and the insurance on the thing was more than my monthly mortgage payment. I called my girlfriend Beth, who came right over. She said, 'Hey, you're worrying way too much. These things always work themselves out.'"
And then, something quite miraculous happened. A guy with a long beard and shaggy hair pulled up in a rusty old Mercedes Benz.
"What ya gonna do with the bus?" he hollered.
"Gonna cut the roof off, replace it with a pitched roof, and put logs on the side to make it look like a cabin," Georgis hollered back. "Then I'm gonna give tours of Boulder in it."
"Cool," said the guy, whose name turned out to be Will Siske. "Have you ever done this before?"
Siske, it just so happened, was a welder who had already cut the tops off of two other school buses. Georgis hired him on the spot. Within three months, Siske had completed the renovations, and Banjo Billy's was up and running. His Boulder tours turned out to be such a hit that Georgis decided to buy a second bus and start offering tours of Denver.
"We launched the same week as the 2008 Democratic National Convention," he said, "which was a big mistake because all the roads were shut down and we couldn't go anywhere. I didn't do one tour that week."
It took two years for the idea to catch on, but now the Denver end of the business is bigger than Boulder. In addition to Georgis, the company has 8 part-time employees and, between the two busses, does an astounding 1000 tours a year. Last year NPR rated it one of the top five tours in the nation.
"I feel like I've avoided work for the last 9 years," Georgis said. "I don't have to go to the office, and I love driving around telling people stories. I guess it could have gone either way, but in the end it did work out. Worst case scenario I'd have had a really big bus parked in my driveway."
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Don Morreale's collection of Examiner.com stories, "Cowboys, Yogis, and One-Legged Ski Bums," has just been released. Don will be autographing copies at Barnes and Noble, 960 S. Colorado Blvd., on Saturday, August 9 from 1:00 to 3:00 PM. He'll also be handing out free chocolate chip cookies, so come on down!!!