Fifteen years ago, Jordan Harvey was a self-described “smart-mouth,” a drifting student at Orono High School.

At one point, he stumbled across some information about the American Field Service (AFS), which sponsors foreign exchange students. It seemed interesting and exotic.

“I decided to go to Chile,” Harvey, 33, recalled. “It looked like a long, sexy strip of land along mountains and oceans. And it was a long way from Orono.”

Harvey relished learning Spanish, making new friends and broadening himself through a new culture, traditions and perspectives.

“It even caused me to start valuing everything I had in Orono,” said Harvey. “I was maturing.”

The experience also started Harvey, and his now-wife, Tara, 32, on an intermittent journey that ultimately led them to start a travel agency, Knowmad Adventures. Along the way, the couple made it through college working a string of jobs ranging from waiting tables and selling corporate software to freelance graphic arts work and teaching English during a year they lived in Thailand.

They married in 2009, the same year they moved to Chile with $50,000 in savings, determined to start a South American adventure-travel business.

“You’re not supposed to speak too loudly about the fact that you started a company with minimal industry experience, no business plan or, in our case, barely a plan at all,” said Tara Harvey.

But the young entrepreneurs had a vision, and some experience in Chile and Argentina. And they knew how to stretch a nickel.

And they’ve built a five-person company from satisfied customers and favorable reviews from the likes of Travel & Leisure magazine. They are hands-on employee owners, working through affiliated in-country tour specialists and local hospitality owners to build custom itineraries for trips to Chile, Argentina, Peru and Ecuador.

Travel & Leisure has included Jordan Harvey on its list of 133 “A List” travel advisers since 2013. That distinction has helped business grow from $700,000 in 2013 to an expected $1.1 million in revenue this year.

$7,000 ‘dream trip’

In a recent article in the magazine, Knowmad put together a 14-day, $7,000-per-person “dream trip” that would include touring both the Argentine and Chilean Patagonia, ice trekking on a glacier, and tours of off-the-beaten path boutique vineyards in lesser-known Chilean wine valleys, as well as horseback riding, farm and ranch tours and stays at world-class adventure lodges as well as little known haciendas where the owner’s family cooks and has known the Harveys for years. There are also stops in bustling Buenos Aires and Santiago.

That’s a long way from the Harveys’ 10-month “honeymoon” in Chile and Argentina in 2009-10. They lived mostly in a cold-water cabin on a farm near Puerto Varas, Chile, a town in northern Patagonia.

“It was low cost and … we were on the ground, putting the business together,” Jordan Harvey recalled. “We lived on about $500 a month. We had to come out of there with sample trips. And we developed key business relationships [in Chile and Argentina] with in-country coordinators, guides, lodge owners and regional providers of different services. We helped out on the farm for eggs and fresh produce. We took care of the family’s horse. We ate wild boar for Christmas with them. And I would make extra money driving to the Puerto Montt pier on the Pacific Ocean, 40 minutes from where we lived, and meeting cruise ships. People who hadn’t signed up for the $300 [ship-promoted] rafting trip, I would take rafting for $150 through my partner business, Ko Kayak. And we still work with them.”

Building the business

Tara Harvey, a graphic artist, built a website and the couple recruited friends and family for test trips.

They returned to the Twin Cities in late 2010 and worked out of their St. Louis Park apartment.

Their agency had $150,000 in revenue in 2011 and $300,000 in 2012. They didn’t take salaries, but lived on Tara Harvey’s freelance graphics assignments, Jordan’s savings from three years as a computer software salesman, and credit cards. In 2013, with a growing business that topped $700,000 in revenue, the Harveys added a couple of employees, expanded to leased space in south Minneapolis. They bought a house and had a baby. Tara is done freelancing.

“We’re taking modest salaries and continuing to invest in the business,” Jordan Harvey said.

Cheryl Davis, a veteran accountant who acts as controller and business adviser for small business clients, including Knowmad, said the Harveys are successful because they were willing to save, invest and sacrifice to live their passion through a small business. They also are organized and keep good books.

Living on a shoestring

“They had to live on a shoestring for several years,” Davis said. “They didn’t fall into the trap of a huge house or expensive cars. They live modestly.”

Peter Olin, director emeritus of the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, has scheduled trips for members for 30 years. The first of several through Knowmad was four years ago.

“They put a customized, 10-day trip together, including a boat trip through the Andes for about 20 people,” Olin recalled “Jordan came on the trip. He speaks Spanish, He’s good with people. I remember we were on this island off the southern coast of Chile, an estuary. It was a Sunday. No restaurants. Jordan went to town and bought groceries and a little wine. He put dinner together. It was great.”

Jordan Harvey foresees a $5 million business within 10 years and enough staff to take off a day once in a while.

“On Christmas, we’ll have 10 or 15 groups on the ground in four countries and I’ll be checking e-mail every 20 minutes,” Harvey said. “I don’t want to be doing that in 10 years. It will kill me.”