From the June 2011 issue of Startups

When Maria Tilton joined Cruise Planners/American Express, she came with an interesting résumé. After high school, she went to cosmetology school and worked as a hairdresser for 11 years. Then she answered an ad from a local home builder and ended up running a construction site for 13 years. Not the sort of credentials that usually lead someone to the travel industry.

"I had no travel agent experience," Tilton admits. "The only experience I had was traveling myself." But she had done a lot of traveling. She and her husband, Jason, fell in love with cruising on their honeymoon trip to the Caribbean in 1996. Fifteen cruises and some 52 countries later, Tilton's dream was to share the travel bug with others through a business of her own. So when the economy slowed down--and her construction job along with it--she saw her chance to finally make that dream come true.

How quickly did you go from deciding to join Cruise Planners to opening your business?
It was all really fast. Mid-February 2010 was when I found out that my job was being cut down to two days a week. On March 12, I signed and mailed off my papers--and wow, what a feeling. About a week later I was doing my six-day training in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and on April 1, I was back sitting in my home office in Millstone Township, N.J., ready for business.

Was the low startup cost of the franchise a factor in getting up and running so quickly?
I was going to make this business work no matter what I had to do, but the low startup costs definitely helped. Besides the franchise fee, there's really no overhead. I bought a second phone, a laptop for travel and a printer and that's it. You get back much more than you put in. I had $400,000 in sales my first year.

How did your previous career experience help?
Hairdressing taught me the importance of developing relationships and a love for making people happy. Building toughened me up as a woman in a man's world. It gave me the drive to say, you know what, I can run my own business, and I can build myself my dream. It's funny, I went from dressing cute and wearing heels everyday in a salon to wearing work boots and jeans at a job site--and now I can wear my pajamas while I work if I want to, except when I go out and meet clients.

How important is it to meet with people face to face?
Very. I don't hide behind my phone. I want customers to see that I'm a real person--not just somebody who runs your credit card, but someone who's going to hold your hand through the whole experience and make it great for you. That's what sets me apart from online travel services. That, and I'm here 24 hours a day. I've had clients call me from the airport at 11 p.m., and I'm there to solve their problems. Customers see that dedication when they meet me, and they appreciate it. They also see my passion for travel. When I talk about Alaska--the smells, the sounds, the beauty of it--they want to book.

Now that you can book your own cruises, what's your dream destination?
Australia and New Zealand are at the top of my list--if I can just get myself to get away from the office.