Before John O’Sullivan created his dream job in Minnesota, he established a historical TikTok template on the other end of the Earth.
The professional walking tour guide grew up in Mankato, attended St. John’s University, and, in 2008, graduated into a global recession. O’Sullivan managed to find two jobs in advertising and marketing, but got laid off from both. He needed a change of scenery.
“I went overseas and forgot to come home,” the 36-year-old history buff says with a chuckle.
In 2009, O’Sullivan traveled through Ireland and Wales, eventually meeting a backpacker in a hostel who told him about history-focused walking tours. For the next seven years, he’d guide tours by bus and boat with Sail Croatia. While in Europe, the Minnesotan met his future Australian wife, and the couple relocated to Melbourne around 2017. That’s where O’Sullivan launched Depot Adventures, a walking-tour company whose 13 employees would guide 15,000 guests per year around Melbourne and Sydney.
Then COVID-19 happened, followed by Australia’s stringent lockdown measures. Depot’s business suffered, and a new baby forced O’Sullivan to revaluate his hemispheres all over again.
“I was feeling the call of Minnesota, and I was in the enviable position of deciding where my company would expand to next,” he says of the decision to move to St. Paul last November. “I’m more and more sure a walking tour would indeed work in the Twin Cities. I’d been fantasizing about it for years.”
The one-time marketer discovered an ideal digital marketing tool while in Australia. With @DepotAdventures on TikTok, O’Sullivan attracted over 20,000 followers who gobbled up his one-minute video clips of Aussie history.
“I give three-hour walking tours, but what if I could boil that down to one minute?” he says of his TikTok light-bulb moment. “If I could just strip out every interesting knowledge bomb, I could have hundreds and hundreds of one-minute walking tours on TikTok. It’s hyper-local, and it gives people value.”
So, as O’Sullivan plots the Minnesota division of his company, he’s developing a following at @DepotMN, a source for localized historical tidbits that’s drumming up excitement on TikTok and Reddit. O’Sullivan doesn’t script his videos, and most are posted after just one take. Don’t expect meandering, Shelby Foote-like lectures: The on-the-ground clips provide quippy, conversational history nuggets.
He’s told followers about the horrors of the deadly 1940 Armistice Day Blizzard, and given fun facts on the Governor’s Mansion. But O’Sullivan’s scope is as wide as the bathroom stance of Sen. Larry Craig, the disgraced lawmaker whose 2007 Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport scandal was recapped by @DepotMN.
For a handful of days, it was the account’s most popular video with 19,000 views, only to be surpassed by a visit to Schmidts Meat Market in tiny Nicollet, Minnesota—33,000 views—days later.
“It’s not a one-way conversation, the audience takes it and runs with it,” O’Sullivan says. “You so rarely get those positive vibes on the internet. I want it to feel like an authentic conversation.”
By April, the TikTok historian hopes to launch Depot’s Twin Cities offerings.
The first will be a walking tour of St. Paul that begins with coffee at 11 a.m., snakes through the capitol while telling the history of the entire state, and concludes three hours later over a beer. The 3 p.m. tour, “Booze Makes History Better,” will be something of an educational bar crawl through Minneapolis, though O’Sullivan can’t reveal which bars quite yet.
“People are appreciative of someone being enthusiastic about the last couple of years, between George Floyd and Covid,” he says. “I think people can see I’m just me, I’m not trying to be an influencer: I’m a guy who gives tours for a living.”