Bringing innovation to the Tech Travel industry is very, very challenging. Only a few companies have the majority (if not all) of the market share. The limitations are numerous; from dealing with really old code bases, to getting generic information, making path and gaining market share for small companies and startups is a challenging journey.
Co-founder of 30SecondsToFly.
Felicia and her team have developed an artificial intelligence technology called Claire that delivers a workflow automation to travel management companies.
Can you tell us about the beginning of 30SecondsToFly and how you got into the travel industry?
When I met my co-founder Ricardo we both had founded companies before, both unrelated to technology. He had founded a photography agency and I had invented a hardware tool that I had brought to market.
We had some entrepreneurial experience and knew that that was something we were very passionate about. When we met in New York, we quickly understood that we worked together very well as a founding team. Our journey started with a different kind of tech startup, that we started while we were studying at NYU.
We went through an accelerator program, which taught us everything about Lean Startup Methodology. The core of this of these teachings is to understand very quickly what the market needs, what it doesn’t; which businesses ideas work, and which ones don’t.
The idea that we had back then didn’t work. We went back to the drawing board and evaluated different kinds of industries for their need of technological innovation, specifically in the area of A.I. Applying the Lean Startup Methodology we looked into health tech, fin tech sector, and finally looked into the corporate travel vertical.
We found some really interesting opportunities especially in the SMB sector. After validating our hypothesis by talking to different stakeholders; we understood very well where there was a market gap and where we could fit with a technology that could bring true value to a very well-defined segment.
One of the most difficult parts for founders is to realize the idea that they have been working on, or investing on isn’t working, right?
Yeah it’s a very painful development. I have to say we learned very much out of this experience.
If I go for example to Expedia to book my business trip, or if I go to Concur, the experience that I have is by myself. We call it list shopping: you put in all the parameters and then, you get a long list of all the available options for both flights and hotels.The booking engine doesn’t know anything about me, maybe it knows a few of my preferences but these are very static. As a traveler I’m dealing with a very static unpersonalized system.
The other option, to get a much better experience, would be to go to a travel agency. It does provide a very nice service: excellent travel assistant, a travel professional, they know (especially over time) my preferences, they can assess the exact situation that I’m in and all the contextual parameters.
Now, the travel agent however is much slower than a machine. It takes much longer for them to answer, sometimes I’m in line waiting for them to search all the inventory, etc. Also they’re very expensive, because it’s human manpower behind.
The question was: Can we provide a self service experience that is personalized like the assistance of a of an educated travel agent?
And that’s exactly what we’re doing. We’re filling those gaps, through artificial intelligence technology we can provide a highly personalized experience to the traveler that is completely self service.
We get all the benefits from a traveler booking by themselves: very high speed, very low cost, very high value experience. The machine learns about the traveler and takes a lot of different parameters into account when curating trip options for the traveler. And that is basically what Claire does.
We’re giving back the power to the traveler, but with the expertise of a travel agent. We’re empowering him with a travel agents brain while servicing themselves.
I understand you have the tools for the travel management companies right?
Yes. In the first product that we launched we sold it directly to SMB as a license. We basically sold a technology that functioned as a travel manager within a small and mid-sized business, Claire would book and manage travel for employees. We now pivoted towards TMC (Travel Management Companies), we sell an automation software and that allows us to scale much faster because they already have a huge pool of clients. By leveraging our technology we can add a lot of value to them, and they can add a lot of value to their travelers and to their business clients.
So, having a product where your client would be the TMC and a user that will be the traveler, how do you incorporate feedback for both this kind of users into your product?
We work with constant market feedback. We place a lot of value on being market driven, we learned this strongly during our time in the lean startup accelerator in New York.
On the TMC side:
- We talk to top executives almost on a weekly basis. I assess what they want and like about the product. What they’re missing, what features they would like to change, etc.
- It’s a multi-step approach. I’m listening to all of my clients and assessing what kind of needs they have. I get a huge wish list of features. I take the ones that I hear the most, make a little mini survey, and send it out to all of my clients.
- They rank them by importance or pick one feature out of two/three. This allows me to assess what’s priority and how strongly the market actually needs it.
On the travelers side:
- We have two input mechanisms: On one side I hear from my T.M.C. clients what they want and need. On the other side I’m talking directly to business travelers who use our product and tools, to understand where we still have gaps and what we can improve.
If you had to explain Lean Startup Methodology, to someone who is just starting this entrepreneurial journey how would you do it?
The most fundamental thing is that as an entrepreneur you build hypotheses first.
Build hypotheses based on research and on conversations that you have with the market. Don’t take anything for granted
In the very beginning we always had five core hypotheses and then we went out to talk to people in order to falsify or verify them. Once I had processes and verified, we go and build the product, service, or feature depending on what that hypothesis relates to. The core essence is to talk to as many people.
Travel is such a unique industry, what are the biggest challenges and advantages of seeking innovation in it?
Is very, very challenging to bring innovation to. The reason for this is that the market structure it’s not very diverse. There are a few companies that have a lot of market power and accordingly is very difficult for smaller companies to come in and capture shares of the market.
You have to work with some of them and they have a lot of limitations. They have a lot of legacy code. The code base that we are working with is very flexible, very fast and we can make a lot of changes very quickly. However the content that we’re getting from the global distribution systems (GDS) is very limited, specifically when we’re talking about artificial intelligence it’s very challenging. The information we’re getting from is so generic that we are so limited in the way that we can actually offer personalized content. That’s one of the biggest challenges in the travel industry, that there’s a few companies dominate most of the markets and the code bases that they’re operating with are very, very old.
Something you have done really well is to bring that people, those key players into your board of directors and your advisor team, what would be your advice for a tech travel entrepreneur that is just starting this journey?
Reach out to people and ask them, that’s what Ricardo and I did in the very beginning. We first understood who are the thought leaders in the industry worldwide and then we made a list of the top 10 people that we would like to have in our advisory board.
These were people with different backgrounds. During the call we assessed if there was a personal fit. If a relationship develops so that you can work productively then it makes a lot of sense to ask them to join your advisory board. Give them a little bit of equity in return, obviously; because in a perfect world it’s a value exchange.
So if you had to start 30SecondsToFly again, what would you have done differently?
Without doubt what we would’ve done differently is keeping our products smarter. That’s a mistake that a lot of founders make in the beginning. That’s also what a lot of our teachers and mentors told and warned us about.
Keep your product simple don’t make it too complex, don’t build too much technology. This is something very easy to say, and very difficult to follow.
At the end we build a huge product. We have so much code, functionality, and product modules. Is very positive on one side, because we can offer a lot of value to many different client segments; but on the other side it’s a huge challenge. We need to maintain all of that product, and every time we build a new feature we need to make sure it integrates well into all of the different components.
It takes much longer to go to market and to get it right. It was really difficult in the beginning. Now we’ve climbed that hurdle and we’ve found a very round, very nice product market fit. I think we took much more risk than we should have by building a very big product from the very get go.
Words of advice…
Built a product that’s as small as possible, to build just enough value to find a client segment that is willing to pay, so that your business model works out well.