A Harvard grad and an IITian turn travelistas with 36hrs.in
More and more travellers around the world are looking beyond touristy places to visit. They want a more authentic taste of quaint corners, little nooks, which only locals or experts know of. When Ravijot Chugh, a computer science grad from IIT Delhi, and Jen Blumberg, a Harvard University graduate, met this need while working as management consultants with The Parthenon Group in Boston and Mumbai, their startup, 36hrs.in grew out of it.
36hrs.in is a platform to collect, categorize and share awesome spots in different cities around the world. Say you want to get a taste of Argentina on a tight budget. At 36hrs.in, we found an itinerary by Amanda Barnes tagged under ‘Minding your Pesos’. She takes a money-smart traveller through 2 days in Mendoza. From the plazas that tell the country’s history through monuments of independence battles and immigration influences to a taste of helados (famous Argentinian ice-cream), tango nights and vineyard tours, Amanda’s travel board works as the perfect mini city guide, a solid travel plan. Just a few weeks old, 36hrs.in, currently has about 100 such detailed ‘travel boards’.
“We are enabling content publishers, as well as users to share recommendations with their network, essentially allowing anyone to create their own mini city guides,” Jen says.
The site works this way: Users sign up and can create their own travel boards as collections of their favorite “spots” in a city. In a way, they can create their own mini city guides on different themes. Users can search through travel boards and itineraries contributed by different members, based on their interest, to find spots that they like. They can also ask friends to create a board or an itinerary for them as a recommendation. They can use those spots to snap together a perfect itinerary for themselves, or add to their own travel boards. “Users can follow their friends to keep a tab on their recommendations, follow our tastemakers – experts, travel writers, food bloggers, etc. – people who know the city well and bring interesting perspectives,” she says.
Brushing up the idea at Startup Chile
In 2013, Ravi was planning a 3-day trip with his girlfriend to Singapore from Mumbai. He has always been interested in finding the “hidden gems” in a city, so asked for recommendations from his friends living in Singapore. He got a few email recommendations from friends, found some good restaurant ideas from a popular food blog and Lonely Planet. However, knitting all of those together was a nightmare since they were textual. He had to create a Google doc and put together an itinerary in a spreadsheet to share with his girlfriend. This is when the idea first struck him to develop a platform which could make the process of sharing recommendations as easy as a few clicks and remove the hassle of reading through emails, long articles and manually gathering information.
The inception of 36hrs.in was in Boston, at The Parthenon Group’s office, where Jen and Ravi were working as consultants. Ravi was talking about this idea he had for a travel startup to anyone who would listen. Jen was ready to move on from the consulting world and was looking to startup. Both of them were passionate travellers who had visited over 40 countries across all continents. Both believed that technology and social media can drastically improve the way people travel. Before long, they were packing their bags and heading to Chile to participate in the Startup Chile.
Getting accepted to this accelerator program that attracts early stage, high-potential entrepreneurs to bootstrap their startups was a pivotal point for the duo. “Most startups accepted into the program had a working prototype, whereas ours was accepted based on the concept alone. Being accepted into the program not only helped validate our idea but also provided us with an incredible amount of support and resources (seed capital, mentorship, networks, lessons learned) that enabled us to get to where we are today,” Jen says.
1000 signups in 2 weeks
Jen and Ravi received over $30,000 from the Startup Chile accelerator program and since then have been bootstrapping with personal contributions. In the next few months, they are planning to raise $300,000 to further develop their web product and implement their mobile app, among other things.
Since their initial launch just a couple of weeks ago, they’ve reached 1,000 signups and have seen users create over 100 travel “boards”, with thousands of “spots” added. “In particular, we’ve seen a lot of users sign up from India and South-East Asia. That doesn’t really surprise us. It’s a growing market and there’s a big demand for high quality travel content in many of those countries,” Jen says.
A recent survey by Red Rocket media indicated that 63% travelers are influenced by online testimonials and more than one-third of travelers would create content if it would benefit their friends or family. “The core value proposition of our platform is to enable content creators to share recommendations with their network easily and quickly, without the need of writing long articles, and in a form that is easy for the audience to interact with and organize into actionable itineraries,” Jen says.
The need to go local
The educational and professional background of Jen and Ravi did play a key part in how 36hrs.in shaped up. To start with, they were both tech geeks. “We love everything to do with social networks, web apps, mobile apps, etc.” Ravi has a degree in Computer Science and Jen has taken several courses in the same field. So they were able to work together to build the prototype. Currently, 36hrs.in also has Manpreet Khurana and Amit Mondal as back-end and front-end software engineers.
Experience as management consultants has also given Jen and Ravi “a pretty big boost”. “Working on a variety of projects has translated directly into the idea of “wearing multiple hats” in a startup. Also, working in multiple countries has made us adept at quickly understanding the key dynamics and competitive landscape of a new market and developing the best possible strategy for that market,” Jen says. Being avid travellers was an obvious advantage as wel. “100 plus days on the road every year really gave us a good understanding of what is and is not working well in the travel industry.”
Jen feels that in general, it is a challenge to build a sustainable business in an industry where the nature of usage is highly episodic. “The biggest challenge for us is to build a product which is not held back by the episodic nature of leisure travel, and provides value above and beyond the number of times you go travel. We believe this means (quite ironically, for a travel website) that we’ll need to go “local”. In other words, we’ll need to provide a product that locals of a city will be excited to use over and over again,” she says.
Initially, they launched a prototype in the form of “featured 36 hour itineraries” for 8 cities to test people’s interest in travel itineraries written by travel writers who know the cities well. They created a form for users to share their perfect itinerary, and came away with two lessons.
1) We needed to make the product much more interactive rather than just content focused
2) Users overwhelmingly cited the lack of an easy way to record favorite places in a city they visited and share it with their networks as their recommendation.
Jen says that they took the users’ comments to heart and, based on their feedback, created the site as it is today.
Maneuvering a $100 billion market
Both Jen and Ravi had quit excellent jobs to startup. “Making the leap from a stable office job to the unknown startup world was really scary, for both of us. We weren’t going to have any income for a long time. We were going to have to learn a lot of new skills as quickly as possible. For example, neither of us had much experience writing code, let alone building a large social-network focused platform. We had to learn a lot of that stuff on the run,” Jen says.
The best advice, Ravi received was to not rely on gut feel or assume how a customer would interact with a product. Instead, “rely on actual tests/ customer development interviews. Many times, I found customer behavior with certain features very different from what I had imagined or even logically perceived. However, the only way to know is ask your customers and test it out,” he says.
The opportunity before Jen and Ravi is huge. The travel activity booking market is approximately $100B in size, with a CAGR of 9%. A recent survey by Red Rocket Media revealed interesting insights into this market:
- 42% of shared content on Facebook is travel
- 55% are influenced by online searches
- 63% are influenced by others’ testimonials
- One-third of travellers would create content if they thought it would benefit their friends/family
- Gamification would motivate 10% of travellers to create content
Jen strongly believes never to compromise on going after what you want. “I think a lot of people end up on the wrong path because they feel like they’re not good enough, or they’re not smart enough, or because their college’s career services center took their imagination away.” That was why when she wanted to work on an awesome product that changed the way people travel, she knew, “I had to give it my all.”
That is what the duo is doing with 36hrs.in.
What do you think of their idea? Tell us in the comments below.