Just seven minutes before his presentation began, filmmaker and journalist Johnny Harris reached one million subscribers on his YouTube channel—another in a long line of extraordinary achievements that also include two Emmy nominations for his work on Vox.com’s web series, “Borders.”
Harris’s first trip for “Borders” was to Cuba, a venture he planned and carried out alone. From there, he and his wife, Iz—also a talented filmmaker with her own successful YouTube channel—traveled the world, often in the company of their two young children, producing extraordinary content that take viewers to all corners of the globe.
In addition to his six years at Vox, as well as his wildly successful YouTube channel, Harris is also an entrepreneur. His revolutionary travel company, Bright Trip, which was founded in 2019, survived the pandemic and is already in collaboration with Lonely Planet. After officially launching Bright Trip in January 2020, an inauspicious time for travel startups, Harris was forced to re-think his strategies. “My work turned really towards… [refining] my journalistic voice… how I could still tell stories and get creative without the tool of actually going and interacting with the places I’m telling stories about,” he explained. Luckily for Harris, the popularity of his personal channel soared over the last year, which helped support his new venture. Now fully vaccinated, he is ready to pick up where he left off.
“I am absolutely planning on going back to on-the-ground reporting. That’s my natural habitat,” Harris resoundingly confirmed when asked about his plans in a post-COVID world.
In an interview with Peter Vanham, author of “Before I Was CEO,” Harris discussed the motivations and philosophies that helped him expand his love for visual communication into an innovative travel company.
The Birth of His Journalistic Niche and Inspiration Behind “Borders”
Harris grew up five hours from the nearest airport. He didn’t leave the United States for the first time until he was eighteen years old. “Something sort of ignited in me,” he says, describing this sudden awakening of interest in travel as a “sleeping dragon.” This partially influenced his decision to major in International Relations. Initially, Harris planned to join the U.S. Foreign Service, but failed the notoriously difficult qualifying exam. Ultimately, he considers this to have been a positive outcome, as it gave him the chance to really think about what he wanted to do in life.
While working at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Harris realized that while his and other think-tanks produced incredible ideas that the public would benefit from consuming, there were no provisions for communicating this information effectively to laypersons. That is when he identified the “nexus of communication, international affairs, and rigorous data” that would later become what he considers his “niche.”
After two years at CSIS, Harris felt ready to make that niche his full-time career, seeking the opportunity to blend his fascinations with ideas, film, visual media, and communication. Fortuitously, Vox Media launched around that same time. Vox had similar goals to Harris and was willing to provide him with relative creative freedom. Although he was hired to animate international stories, after six months, Harris was ready for a new challenge. He proposed a filmed excursion to the higher-ups at Vox, who approved the idea but were unable to provide him with a crew. Undaunted, Harris made a solo trip to Cuba for less than two thousand U.S. dollars, leading to the establishment of his groundbreaking travel series.
Bright Ideas to Bright Trip
As Vox Media grew, the flexibility and freedom Harris had previously enjoyed became less accessible. This change in company culture led him strike out as an independent YouTuber. However, Harris has only good things to say about his former employer. “There was nothing wrong with Vox, or with me. It was me saying, ‘I need to disrupt this again and create another environment of big risks and big ideas that I can stretch out and do different thing, and that’s ultimately what led me to decide to step out on my own.”
“Disruption” is a term Harris used often during this conference, and always in a positive context. He describes himself as craving a “Wild West” working environment, where ideas dictate the work process. “I love being in this world where there aren’t any rules, just… what can you make that works in the market?”
Still wishing to fulfill his “love for communicating complex ideas in a visual way,” Harris transformed his love for travel and passion for visual communication into an appropriately disruptive travel experience. Bright Trip is no twentieth-century travel agency. Its video-based travel courses use visual communication strategies and incorporate historical and modern viewpoints to “demystify…and enlighten you about that place. The story of that place, how to actually take it on in a culturally sensitive way, and a responsible way… in a way that really gets you close to the place and the people.”
In response to a student question about the sociocultural ethics of his business, including the possibility of being “canceled,” Harris admitted, “I run into this all the time as someone who tries to tell stories in other peoples’ countries.” Harris was clear that Bright Trip’s goal is to empower others with knowledge, and that they are committed to making the future of international travel as “diverse and disruptive as possible.” He gave an example of Bright Trip’s Morocco feature, which was covered by a Spanish YouTuber who made the actual trip, but counterbalanced with presentations from a Berber host, who provided expert insight on religious and cultural mores.
Harris describes the feeling of making a cross-cultural connection as a “buzz,” and promotes the idea that we should be interested in each other’s differences, rather than reducing all of humanity to being identical under the skin. “If I can be a bridge where a viewer in Nebraska can see a Sikh man in northern India, and not relate to him, but embrace his story, I think that’s actually a greater buzz… it’s a harder connection to facilitate, but I really believe in that, and that’s what Bright Trip was founded on.”
Thriving in Times of Adversity
Commenting on launching a travel-based startup in 2020, weeks before the pandemic closed global borders, Harris said, “During that time, a lot of the incumbents in the travel world really took a big hit… it’s not a happy thing, but if you’re trying to start a new disruptive company, that’s also… an opportunity for us to, when travel comes back, be the new version of travel, the more informed, the more sensitive, authentic version of travel.” He added, “Oh, and it’s also visual—and video—which is the new way of consuming information.”
But Bright Trip hasn’t just survived the pandemic: it’s flourished, and Harris says they are “gearing up for an aggressive growth scaling process.” With Lonely Planet supporting them, not to mention Harris’s hopes that other companies will adopt their model, it’s hard to imagine any outcome but success.
Boundaries: Finding the Right Balance
The secret to success is setting boundaries and being meticulously disciplined about time management, according to Harris. While he values industriousness and has a strong work ethic, he also prioritizes spending time with his family. To accommodate his work-life balance, Harris delegates tasks and has a meticulously scheduled daily workflow. “It may sound overly disciplined, or overly dramatic, but what it does is it allows me to be done at 4:30, and to ‘come home’ and then have that time with my children.”
Harris’s guidelines for life, however, are a lot more flexible than his schedule. He claims that he does not have hard-set rules he lives by but allows them to grow and adapt as he builds experience.
Advice for Aspiring Professionals
Harris stressed that refinement of technique, as well as skill development through practical use, are the most crucial factors in mastering one’s craft. He encouraged students to explore academic writing in addition to mass media, explaining that any information can be accessible to the public at large. “It just needs to be said in the right words.” Harris advocates for following one’s natural curiosity, but stresses that it is chiefly use that lead to gaining new skills, not inborn talent.
For fellow travelers eager to pursue similar avenues, Harris recommends seeking out the most authentic experiences possible and finding an angle to a larger story that most outlets haven’t explored. He cautions against visiting places specifically geared towards tourists, and instead finding ways to interact with people in everyday contexts, in order to truly understand a destination.
With his devotion to outside-the-box thinking and effective communication strategies, Johnny Harris is steering the future of media in a more organic, holistic direction. “We have too much information, and not enough ability to communicate that information to mass markets,” Harris said, “And that is the craft I recommend anyone in this space to develop.” It’s up to his audience to take these ideas, expand on them, and make a freer flow of information possible. At EU Business School, we cultivate the entrepreneurial mindset and creative thinking skills that are essential for career success in the workplace of the future. Our multicultural community allows students to build an international network and provides them with a global perspective that fosters communication, open-mindedness and other essential soft skills. Our pragmatic approach to learning centered on case studies and business simulations provides our students with real-world business experience. Find out more about our wide range of programs and prepare yourself with the knowledge, skills and mindset you need to find career success and make your mark on the world.