Polina Raygorodskaya, Founder of Wanderu
Polina sits down with Kevin and I to talk about her journey founding Wanderu Highlights include the story of how they lost their deal with Megabus when they were first starting out, how the idea for Wanderu came out of a cross-country roadtrip, millennials and the evolution of bus travel (and the future evolution of bus travel), and Polina’s personal experience with sexism fundraising from venture capitalists.
Polina on how she started Wanderu:
01:31 - 05:51
Polina: Yeah so Wanderu started from my own frustration with booking bus travel when I was living in New York City. I was running a PR firm which I was I started when I was a sophomore at Babson College and when I graduated I moved out to New York City. I didn't have a car and I traveled all the time by bus and train travel because it was the most convenient way to get around and bus companies had power outlets and Wi-Fi that allowed me to connect and get work done during my trip which turned it into a little mobile office, but despite the fact that traveling by bus was super convenient, I found the booking process to be a huge headache because many of the providers didn't even have mobile websites and there are actually more options going let's say between DC and New York than there are flights that go between that same route. So you'd have to go to ten different websites to see who's traveling the time you want to travel for what price and normally I would want to do that through my mobile phone but I would have to go to a local Starbucks and plug in my computer and go to a bunch of desktop sites and sometimes even have to download PDF schedules. So this was back in 2011 when I was experiencing this problem and then I kind of kept putting up with it as I was running my PR firm but then during the summer of 2011 I got together with a group of friends and we wanted to do a cross-country road trip to raise awareness for national parks and forests and so we started a blog to document our trip and we thought, "you know how can we get young people to pay attention?". So we decided instead of just doing the regular rent a car and drive across country that we would ride share cross country so get complete strangers to give us rides from place to place and this was kind of pre uber and lyft days so people thought we were completely insane trying to hitchhike cross country, which of course is not what we were doing. We were gonna find people online and we'll make sure to look at their social media accounts which are basically all the things that Uber now does for you, background check and all of that, and so I used my PR background to get us local media in all the places that we were going through and so we had local newspapers writing about us and people writing in and offering us rides and wanting to be part of this journey with us. So we had everything set up for our trip and we got from New York to Washington DC then to Shenandoah National Park, which is beautiful, and then to the Jefferson Forest in Virginia and to a tiny town called Newcastle. At that point we got a call from our next rideshare that said "Hey I'm really sorry something came up and I can't give you guys a ride to your next destination" which was Indianapolis and so we thought "oh crap we didn't really have a plan B for this because we don't have a car" and so we thought maybe there's a bus or train that can get us to our next destination so I return to Google like any millennial does. I looked for bus or train from Newcastle Virginia to Indianapolis and there's no magic bus that just goes into a tiny town of like 50 people in the middle of a forest so there was nothing there and we thought maybe we could find the closest major city and get a ride locally to the closest major city which is closer than Indianapolis. The closest city that we could find a bus in was Salem Virginia and there was a bus that served Salem but it did not go all the way to Indianapolis somewhere along the way we'd have to connect with another bus or train and so we tried to combine different options and look at different cities that we could route through manually and spent over an hour trying to figure it out and we couldn't. We ended up having to rent a car which at that point you know felt like a massive failure for our campaign but reflecting on it, it's one of those things that is like the tipping point or the moment where I got myself and another person, who's now my co-founder, just so frustrated wanting to solve this problem where I can get anywhere I want and figure out anything I want on the Internet, but I can't figure out how to get from point A to point B using different forms of transportation. That's where the origin for Wanderu started and that was back in 2011 and we formally became a company beginning of 2012 and started building out the product that you see today.
SNIPPET 1: David discusses the evolution of the bus industry and why the timing was right for Wanderu
06:08 - 12:39
David: Obviously the problem has existed for a while, but something in the bus industry changed to make aggregating them possible and I remember one of the first times we met five or six years ago, you were telling me about how one of your chief challenges was dealing with these various owners at various local bus companies that basically didn't want to be shown next to their competitor and so I'd love to see here a little perspective about "what you think changed in the market?" and then kind of a second question is like you know "how were you able to convince these companies to work with you?”
Polina: Yeah I think it was definitely the biggest challenge and you know to bring partners on board for any marketplace business, you need to have the sellers side down, but in order to get the sellers side down, you need to have enough buyers that are interested in willing to buy. I think very early on we, before we launched anything to the public partially because we didn't have anything to launch, we set up kind of a sign up for our private beta and you know we were able to generate some buzz around the concept which allowed us to get a good amount of signups before we were ready to go live just in the Northeast market. I think two of the things that allowed us to to get to where we are now and that I think were important for us to do in the beginning was getting the initial interest from the consumer side and getting enough people signed up to use our product before our product was ready to go to the public. So starting to generate that interest and at the same time focusing on not looking at it as like the whole country but most people travel by bus and train regionally so most people are willing to sit on a bus for maybe four or five hours and anything beyond that it becomes fewer and fewer people that are willing to do that. So we realized that bus travel is actually very regional (it's not very national) so having a company in New York and having a company in California and a company in Chicago is not really going to make our product valuable so what would make our product most valuable is if we have at least 50% coverage of any particular region that we are in before we go live and so we focused on the Northeast because it's the biggest travel corridor in the country. So our goal, instead of getting as many partners as we can nationally, was to get at least 50% coverage of the Northeast so that when people search for particular routes they're able to see enough where we are valuable to the customer and that also allowed us to focus on the types of partners that we went after so going to partners it was a lot more helpful where we already had users that were ready to use the product. The other thing that we really focused on was understanding what value we are bringing to the bus partners so instead of just saying, "hey we're gonna put you on a website and compare you to all of your competitors so that we're basically making your product a commodity", what we focused on is that "we're gonna help you expand your network". Because we're a point-to-point search we're able to combine multiple providers together so a company that might only serve you know New Hampshire is now going to be connected to companies that serve other states and will become a feeder service to actually help them grow the market and on top of that we went and brought on the former CEO of Greyhound, Craig Lynch, as an advisor very early on and he helped us understand the reasons that the bus companies may not want to work with us and gave us a lot of understanding of what is important to them, what scares them, and also how we can differentiate our product and create something that's actually labeled to our partners. So those are the things that we did in the beginning to you know help break through some of those barriers and then once we actually got partners on board, they were satisfied with the results. The industry is very small so even though they don't like a lot of their competitors, everybody talks and so you really only get one first impression for this market and so if you kind of oversell and under-deliver, you're not going to be able to keep that partner but not only that, that partner will tell everybody else now and you're gonna have a hard time getting more partners in the future.
Kevin: it's interesting because in a few of these podcasts of people that we've spoken to they talked about them their frustrations with you know talking to initial partners and almost kind of selling the story to their potential customers and people that are going to help them build a brand and I'm particularly interested in how do you do that as the CEO to the rest of the company? Because obviously there must be some initial kind of setbacks. I mean how do you keep up the encouragement within the team that this is all going to work out and we just need, like you say, the word of mouth around the partners and some help ... how do you kind of behave as a CEO to kind of control everybody along with you?
Polina: Yeah that's a tough challenge and I think making sure you celebrate the wins is really important and we're also very transparent as a company so you know when things aren't going as we want them to go, we share that openly with with the people that work at Wanderu because we feel that it's important that people have that ownership and that we work together to strive for fixing things and making things better and maybe someone has an idea of how we can do something that I don't immediately have or someone else in the executive team doesn't immediately have so being able to crowdsource and share those ideas from the really smart people that you hire is, at least for me, extremely helpful. I think in the beginning there is that sense of wanting to shelter your team from bad news and the best way that you can do that is to have good news to counterbalance that and be able to celebrate those things and even the smaller wins so maybe going after some of the smaller partners first and showing value to them.
SNIPPET 2: Polina talks about losing a Megabus deal near their launch.
12:41 - 21:03
Polina: One of the things that happened to us really early on that at the time felt like a stab in the heart and the end of our company, but in reality was the best thing that could have happened to us, was that we had a final... this was pre-launch so we were going to South by Southwest where we were competing for the most innovative technology award in their startup competition and we had a contract, at that point we had a couple of partners already signed, we were pre-beta launch so we hadn't launched to the public yet but we were pretty far along and wanted to get partners in place before we were ready to launch. So we had a pretty much final contract that was approved by lawyers from both sides with Megabus and we were hoping to get that signed and we were kind of pressuring them to get that signed so that we could make a major announcement at South by Southwest and get both of us some press and we decided to almost replicate our cross country trip that we had done which kind of kicked off the start of our company, so we decided to take buses and trains only using the Wanderu search to Austin for South by Southwest and I remember I was on a Megabus and I got an email from Megabus saying "hey we're gonna have to put this contract on hold and delay it for six months" which in start-up world is eternity and I just wanted off that bus right now because I was on a Megabus and so angry at them. So I remember just thinking "This is it" because this was our major announcement and this is what we needed to really get that credibility going and yes, we had some partners at that point, but they weren't as big as Megabus which is a national carrier. So it was just, at the time, again a very deep blow to where we thought we were going to be especially going into that competition which, by the way, we ended up winning most innovative technology at South by Southwest that year even without that partnership. Later on we ended up launching and, of course as any launch goes, we had maybe 15 to 20 thousand people signed up for beta which is great, but it's not like we were selling thousands of tickets from day one as any launch with any startup goes. We launched in August and we were selling a few tickets and it went up to dozens of tickets and slowly we started growing, we grew very fast, but going from one to a hundred is very fast but it's not going to make you a massive business. As we continued to grow, we continued to add more partners and we were growing, at some point for the year after we launched, we were growing 400% quarter to quarter so we grew very quickly and then another six months after that, we ended up signing that contract with Megabus and, at that point, we actually were doing some real sales so when we launched Megabus they were able to actually see value from Wanderu because we were able to actually sell tickets. It's funny because now I have a very good relationship with the former president of Megabus, he stepped down maybe about a year ago, and I shared the story with him how mad at them I was and he's like "yeah you know we actually did that on purpose because we knew you weren't ready for it" and he said it jokingly but in reality it was actually very true. Reflecting on it, if we had launched Megabus and if they were our launch partner and we launched with them and we had a few hundred people going to our website per day at the time, I don't remember the exact numbers, but we had just launched as a company so it wasn't astronomical numbers, we probably would have lost that partnership and we would have shown them that we're not that valuable. At the end of the day, if we lost that partnership it would have been much harder to come back and then convince them to work with us but because they didn't sign that contract at that point and only when we became a bit bigger that we actually finalize that partnership, at that point when they launched, we were selling a good amount and then we continued to grow 400% each quarter so they really saw the fast growth that was happening. So we are still partners with them to this day and, in fact, we are, as far as I know, one of the only partners that works with Megabus and we have a very good relationship that we probably would not have had if we had launched and shown that we're not really selling anything.
Kevin: Everything happens for a reason doesn't it?
Polina: Absolutely and it's one of those things that you kind of, as a founder, you go through these moments where you think it's the end of the world and sometimes it is because sometimes losing a big contract will actually kill your company, but I think it's better to lose that big contract before you have built a company then if screw up a relationship or lose a big contract in the middle of actually doing a lot in sales because it's much harder to get those partners back at that point.
David: So following up on that story, which is a fantastic story by the way, I feel like a common piece of advice to startup entrepreneurs is launch as quickly as possible or you can never launch too quickly because you need to start getting data, it sounds like you had a very targeted rollout from basically drumming up a lot of PR so you didn't have those 20,000 signups to then whether or not, well you just told us it wasn't on purpose but a blessing in disguise, you ended up having a good pace when it came to suppliers as well with Megabus and so I mean do you have any general advice about how to think about that? About when to launch and when not to and when to maybe not risk sabotaging that relationship?
Polina: Yeah I think for us our plan was always to do a phased rollout so we knew that having a critical mass in any particular region before we go live is important. I think a lot of our competitors thought a little bit differently and their strategy was very different and you know it's up to them to say whether it worked for them or not, but we have been very methodical with our focus on being the best in the areas that we are in before we expand to more regions and more areas and I think it really varies from company to company but it goes back to kind of the MVP where we are very deeply rooted in the culture of testing and getting feedback from our users as quickly as possible and iterating. It's very hard to do that if you try to be all things at once and in all regions in all areas and I think it's really important as a start-up to shift quickly and get out there quickly but have a solid product when you do so if we had launched with just one carrier it probably would not have been very useful to our users either and we probably would have lost a lot of our users too. So waiting until we had at least 50% coverage was important for us so that we could provide a product that was valuable to the user and the reason why we went with 50% was that we talked to a bunch of users and got their feedback on what would be valuable to them? and why they would use our product? I think that for each startup it's important to move quickly and get something out there and get feedback as quickly as possible and then test and iterate from there and ultimately if you're building a consumer business or any business you've got to talk to your customers and understand what's important for them what's valuable for them and what that MVP will look like because if you launch with a crappy product, even if you get out quickly, then you're also potentially alienating your customers and not going to be able to get another chance with them either.
Kevin asks about if Wanderu targeted millennials explicitly, and Polina elaborates on the history of the bus industry.
21:04 - 27:17
Kevin: it's interesting I mean I love the way that you've thought through this all but I'm kind of curious, Polina, well because you had this focus or you have this focus on Millennials or younger generations, is that something that the style of it is, forgiving me if I'm wrong I'm not a millennial, but the style of the site seems to be aimed at a younger generation as well, is that something that came out in your customer discovery that that was going to be the target base? Why did you focus on them? Is it because there weren't older generations that were using bus and train at that stage?
Polina: The history of the bus industry over the past 20 years is actually very interesting because the type of person that took a bus 20 years ago is very different than the type of person that takes the bus now and if you kind of look at those demographics they've shifted quite heavily towards Millennials and a lot of that happened very shortly around the time that Megabus launched and the reason why is because 20 years ago buses there wasn't a whole lot of competition and it was kind of a dying industry and it was predominantly people that walk up to the bus station purchased their tickets and tended to be skew older and kind of people that couldn't afford other forms of transportation. When companies like Megabus launched, they only sold tickets online, they call them curbside carriers where they pick you up and drop you off at the curbside so the only way you can buy a ticket, if you don't purchase it online, is by standing in line and then if there are seats then they will sell you a ticket but there's no kind of guarantee that you will get on unless you buy that ticket online. Also they they start offering power outlets and Wi-Fi and so that attracted the demographics of travelers that were traditionally not ...they grew up using the Internet and also Millennials are less likely to own cars so there's this whole kind of appeal where you have somebody else drive you and you can get on a bus and use outlets and Wi-Fi and so all of a sudden Millennials start flocking to bus travel and then bus travel became the fastest-growing form of transportation so while you know short-haul flights dropped you know 25% over a five-year period, bus companies were growing 7 to 8 percent year-over-year and you know other forms of transportation were pretty much flat. So they started taking market share from short-haul flight carriers, especially on markets between DC, New York, Boston and so when we kind of... I was the same, I never took a bus before, Megabus was the first bus company that I ended up taking shortly after they launched and I actually heard about it from my parents, they're like, "oh there's this bus company that has Wi-Fi" and I was like "how cool I really want to go on that bus" and I had never even considered taking a bus before, in fact, when I was in high school I used to drive between New York and Boston and I went to college in New York City and I still, I had a minivan at the time and I would drive and now I don't own a car at all and I take bus and train travel. So it was really interesting that shift that happened because it's not just about prices, it's about the convenience, but it's also about being connected and it's kind of cool to be able to buy the tickets online and you're at the curbside and you have other people like you and so just the demographics shifted pretty heavily and it happened pretty recently and we just came in at the time when it was happening because, again, I was one of those people, one of those Millennials that were kind of driving bus travel forward. That's kind of the the reason what why I got into it because you know I'm a millennial myself and that at the same time I found that traditional travel sites didn't offer these other travel modes probably because much bigger companies take much longer time to kind of catch on to the trends and at the same time, everybody else in the travel industry is kind of fighting over the same customer, the same demographic, the same offerings of hotels and flights, and it's all kind of the same but it's just who's got more money to spend on at attracting people from Google and for television ads or whatever. But if you look at the actual offerings, they're not really any different and so when we came into the space and started offering bus travel and then we expanded to train travel and now we have ferries and we're about to launch flights as well, but we were very focused on kind of being point to point and and serving a demographic of users that could not go anywhere else to book bus and train travel but at the same time they're the most tech-savvy demographic that is so used to having things super easy and having to go to a different website didn't make any sense. I guess our brand is geared towards Millennials but anybody can use Wanderu and we have plenty of people all ages but at the same time the 80 percent of bus travelers are now Millennials and so that's why - Millennials and Gen Z, the next generation of travelers - and so when we think about our brand, we think about that we want to be the travel brand for the next generation and for future generations of travelers and bus and train travel allowed us to start by giving them an offering that they weren't able to get elsewhere but as we continue to expand we're helping them solve "how do I get from point A to point B?" or long distance so that's bus, train, ferry, and flights as well. Being able to combine all those modes of transport together into one itinerary, which we do to this day. A lot of companies talk about multimodal and a lot of companies talk about "oh well we have bus, train, ferry, and all that" but we actually do it right. Right now you can book an Amtrak with a bolt bus together and so being able to combine those options and, once we launch flights, being able to say "okay I want to take a train to a Providence Airport and then fly to Fort Lauderdale" so actually being able to put that into one itinerary and that's kind of very geared towards the demographic that wants to do those like travel hacks and find better deals and so it all kind of fits in to the brand and to the users we currently have today.
Polina on luxury bus options, millennials "leveling up" and starting to book trains and more expensive forms of transportation.
27:22 - 55:23
David: So a follow-up question on that, I did not know the history on how Megabus basically redesigned bus travel, I think there's a new wave of innovation coming now. I'm an investor in Cabin, which is overnight bus company from SF to LA, there's a lot of hype around Flixbus etc, I'm curious how you view the market evolving, are these similar transformations to the Megabus one? Because I feel like there still is a stigma attached to bus travel being for you know more lower-income and just not being as smooth so yeah I mean I'm curious to see where you see the industry going?
Polina: Yeah I mean I think luxury buses are definitely exciting and we see this as well because we see our customers getting older and shift to more luxury products. People that were booking bus tickets all the time are now starting to book train tickets more often because they are coming into their careers and making more money and for them it's more comfortable. We have several partners that offer luxury services everywhere from Florida to DC, New York, and Boston market so there's a number of companies that are luxury buses and will be interesting to see luxury bus services on a national scale but that's yet to happen so there's a number of brands that kind of focus on luxury service but only kind of point-to-point and the small markets that they're in but not on a large scale like Greyhound or Amtrak or Megabus are so I think that will be very interesting. I definitely think that as people continue to you know mature and age in these demographics and start coming into money, I don't really see car ownership necessarily growing as much as it used to and that's backed up by statistics where fewer people now own cars. I think what will change this pretty drastically will be self-driving vehicles and as those become more accessible because I don't enjoy driving, but if I have a car that will drive me around on my own and I have the money to afford it then the proposition becomes different whether I'm taking a bus or train or having a car that can drive itself. I also think that this generation and future generations are a lot more eco-conscious and I think that that plays into the bus and train industry a lot as well and just caring about the environment and wanting to take cars off the road I think that a lot of our customers find and appeal to that. I think smaller shuttle services, especially on-demand smaller shuttle services between cities that can kind of be spun up where you don't necessarily need to fill a bus with 55 seats but you can take a shuttle that can fit maybe 15-20 people to get to certain destinations, is an interesting concept as well, but in general we see our partners getting more and more interested in using data to power their decisions versus you know historically where it was kind of an estimated guess and could cost them a lot of money. More and more companies are even coming to us and asking us for help with their own understanding of data and how to use data to kind of power their own thinking as they continue to expand.
Kevin: It's interesting I think, take note David, I think there's a podcast further down the line all on autonomous vehicles and the concepts of mobility as a service and it's it kind of strikes me just as a comment rather than a question that a brand like Wanderu is probably quite in an interesting spot for the evolution of mobility as a service once autonomous vehicles come online, but do want to shift a little bit let's talk about kind of your investment and your funding and things like that and forgive me if I'm incorrect but I'd say that for a consumer-facing travel startup, your investment so far is a fairly modest amount, would you agree?
Polina: Yes and we're very proud of that. Many businesses in travel have not necessarily raised that much money, in fact, I think the TripAdvisor raised something like two or three million dollars total and one would argue they're probably the most successful in terms of traffic. I think for us we don't associate the value of our business with how much money we raise, in fact, every time we raise the money you're selling off a chunk of your company and we've been able to - our focus has been how do we build a sustainable business that can make money? And with our Series A round, our goal was to get to a place where we can become profitable. In the summer of 2017, we hit profitability and we were profitable for the rest that year and then this past August we took on a little bit of money just to kind of scale-up marketing, but you know it wasn't anything that we... we didn't go out and raise a Series B round because for us it's not about raising a bunch of money every 12 to 18months. We probably will go out and raise a large round at some point in the future, but again it's based off data that we know these unit economics make sense and we can actually take that money and scale it out versus let's raise as much money as possible and spend all that money so that we can grow even though the metrics and numbers will never make sense.
Kevin: You're clearly not just spending it on marketing because you would probably need a lot more if you were spending it on keywords and going up against others in ground transportation. What do you do with the money around the business?
Polina: Yeah I mean I we test a lot so testing is a big thing for us so a lot of the things that we have built to scale, are all built internally in-house so we've built our own ad bidding platform so that requires a lot of really smart engineers and so in order to be efficient, we believe technology is the best way to scale instead of spending tons of money and giving it to agencies or whatever it is. We bring everything in-house so we have custom CMS system that we build out that part powers all of our landing pages, we have a custom in-house ad bidding platform that uses machine learning to optimize bids, we have a ton of really smart people and engineers that that helps us kind of scale-out the marketing efforts which allow us to be a lot more successful. We're relatively small compared to a lot of companies right so we are now up to about 60 people that's grown about double over the past year or so, but at the same time we're still very small compared to you know a number of companies that have raised lots of money in the travel space, but we are very focused on where we allocate those resources and we test a lot of things and then when it makes sense we scale them out.
SNIPPET 3: Polina talks about her experience with sexism while fundraising.
Kevin: Okay I just last one for me for a while, this is a story that you shared with INC.com when you were trying to raise money and fairly awful thing that you experienced with regards to the reaction that you got from an investor when you went to pitch for some money, could you just give us a very quick overview as to what happened? and your sense now whether that kind of scenario will have altered or not in the more current climate or do you think it's still something that's prevalent? But just give us your perspective on what happens because I think it's important for any entrepreneur, particularly female CEO Entrepreneurs to hear this.
Polina: I think the particular case that you're referring to was when we were raising our Series A and we were growing very fast at the time, that was when we were growing about four hundred percent each quarter, we had incredible metrics we had all these partnerships in place and we actually garnered a good amount of interest in our in our fundraising but I went and met with a very you know prominent VC fund in New York City and I had met with several partners already and and this was a step where I was meeting with one of the founding general partners of the fund so this is basically the person that says yes or no and I came in there and I knew my shit because I'd been kind of pitching for a month or so or maybe two months at the time and as a CEO of the company, I have a male co-founder, but as a CEO I do the pitching to investors. I went into the pitch and I went through my pitch deck as I did all these other times and I noticed that the person wasn't really paying too much attention and was kind of just looking at me and after I finished my pitch, he looks to me and he's like "you know I don't typically invest in founders like you" and I was really taken back because I didn't know what that means and so I said "what do you mean?" and he wasn't expecting me to ask what he meant and so he tried to come up with a way to explain it and he's like "well I normally invest in people that are more analytical" and I looked at him like "you don't know anything about me why do you think that I am NOT analytical", it was very clear that he was saying that he does not invest in women. I've been rejected by investors before but this felt much deeper right because what this person said out loud was probably what other investors that I had pitched to were thinking and didn't say out loud and I just remember leaving that meeting and calling my co-founder and I was almost in tears because it was just so hurtful and just thinking maybe you should be the one that's raising money because you look more analytical apparently as a male. So that was definitely a point of time for me where I thought "you know what? I want to get to a place where we have a business that if we don't need to raise money we don't we don't have to raise". With our Series A, our focus was on building that business into profitability, but it was also on proving that investor wrong. I think that it's still a problem to this day and if you look at statistics, less than 10% of funding goes to female founders and less than 10 percent of VCS are women and it's one of those things that the only way that that's going to change is if it changes probably from the top because realistically people invest in people like them and you know we got a lot of rejections in the beginning because people thought that the bus industry is not sexy and it's not going to go anywhere and you know nobody cares about buses and Millennials aren't really riding buses and all of these excuses because realistically investors would never find themselves on a bus. It's much easier to invest in something that you can imagine using, but you when the problem is not that you could relate to the product it's that you can't, as a man, relate to the person on the other side that is pitching to you, that is something I can't change. I can have a product in a 100 billion trillion-dollar industry that has excellent barriers of entry and is growing ridiculously fast but I can't change being a woman when I go to pitch an investor. I can send my co-founder in but I just I refuse to perpetuate the issue and honestly I would rather not have investors that don't invest in women. I would rather not have those people on my team and so I was very fortunate to find very supportive investors and very supportive board members but I think that this is still very much a problem in this industry and I hope that it changes over time but the only way it's going to change this if you have more female VCs at the partner level that can make decisions. I don't think anybody should invest in a company because it's led by a woman, I think you should invest in a company because it's a great company but at the end of the day, that problem will continue to happen when there isn't enough representation of you know that sex in the industry.
David: Well yeah that's quite a story and I feel like asking any other questions about normal business operations after that would be inappropriate, but I want to ask something a little bit more in the weeds, you obviously had to work with bus companies in various stages of technical competence. Some of whom may have not had a website at all, some of them might have had a full API, how did you kind of manage? I think that when you're aggregating any industry you're gonna have that discrepancy in technical capabilities and your job as an aggregator is gonna sit as a layer on top of that and provide a uniform user experience to the users. Could you maybe just talk a little bit more about how you tackled that problem and yeah how you thought about it?
Polina: I don't know which one was more challenging, getting partners on board or integrating with the partners? The bus industry in the US is significantly behind a lot of bus companies in other parts of the world that we have worked with in terms of technology. Especially around the time that we were starting, APIs virtually did not exist and you know going and scraping websites would bring those websites down because they couldn't handle the load and so we had to do a lot of custom integrations and a lot of things on our side that would allow us to get data in a scalable way and everything from building our own ticketing reservation type integration to integrating with APIs to figuring out how to sit on top of the reservation systems of the bus companies. Every integration was pretty much a custom integration and I think that's one of the biggest barriers to enter into the space is just the lack of technology there and just the sheer amount of data. We have billions of data points in our warehouse that we have to you know that we've had to sort and standardize so unlike you know the airline space where you have the middleware technologies that kind of standardize all that data but they were able to get that data in a way where you know even the station codes carrier codes were all standardized already we've had to do all of that ourselves and that's also one of the reasons why we launched just in the northeast is just a sheer amount of data and having trying to figure out how to scale that was a huge challenge and you know why we're still building out and getting smarter our systems to this day and so just from when we had the idea to actually launching our first product it took you know over a year to get something live you're in almost a year and a half like we we started working on the product you know very beginning of that's more than a year and a half of just building out the technology and integrating partners just for the northeast of the US and you know luckily the the systems that we built out of were we were able to use across other partners but we still you know we don't have one way to integrate with a partner where a lot of companies will say ok if you don't have an API you have to build one bus companies you know they don't have tech teams to go and build that it's we've just had to build our own technology to be able to integrate those carriers
Kevin: it's it's interesting I mean so many consumer travel i've consumer-facing travel start-ups have tried the consumer route first of all and then have pivoted in inverted commas to doing a b2b is that something that you've resisted or is it something that you would consider along side to consumer facing productivity in terrestrial of OTAs for example or something that would be there would be dying for a white label of what you do
Polina: potentially yeah I mean it's it's something that we are starting now to consider our focus has always been kind of on building the brand right and and you can't do everything at once right so again going back to our our roots has really been about hyper focus like we've had partners that asked us to build certain technologies for them that could be a great fast business but you know we just we don't take those on because we just have we're hyper focused on the things that we need to get done and you only have so many resources and time and I think that's the biggest thing for us why we haven't pursued the b2b side of things as a in terms of kind of other OTAs is you know we we believe strongly that we have a great product and we have a great brand and we've been able to prove that we can grow and build out our customer base we have some of the highest retention rates and travel in terms of you know customers that purchase the ticket on Wanderu that come back to purchase another ticket and so you know we kind of have of course you know marketing cost money and his work but at the same time you know maybe it's an ego thing but we think we do things better than a lot of the companies out there and so on the user experience side right and so user experience is really really important for us that's been a big part of our brand and our product and so we've been hyper focused on that and we've seen success in that I think that you know a lot of the companies I switch over to b2b me have a harder time acquiring users or keeping those users and so b2b makes sense to kind of pivot to to grow faster but because we've been able to scale and growth so fast on the consumer side of things we haven't been as motivated to test out the b2b but that doesn't mean that it's not something that we won't consider in the future now that we have that established kind of brand and customer base
David: yeah I want to quickly jump a little bit into that on the brand side I think the only travel startups that I've seen recently be able to build a consumer brand have kind of figured out a secret to how to reach customers so for example I you know Kiwi.com was the first to route a budget carriers with historical carriers and then was ranking at the top of you know kayak searches for example and that was kind of a hack and it reminded me kind of how Zynga piggybacked off Facebook to get a bunch of consumers is there like you mentioned splash some splash pages you mentioned I do you have your own custom bidding there are these like the secret sauce that has led to you be able to do this is there is there what yeah I guess is there something that you have done that has kind of really made the difference more than anything else
Polina: yeah I think on on the getting customers in the door especially in the early days you know SEO was a big driver for us and again a lot of that was scaled out by systems that we we built and also just having useful content I think content is the most important thing and high conversions and so when somebody comes and lands on a page they're finding the informations they're looking for their know moving down the funnel purchasing tickets and that signals to Google that this is valuable and that this is the right content that people want to see when they search for particular terms but I don't think that long term that's what makes a consumer business successful right I think once people come in the door it's all about product and it's all about user experience and customer service right if they have a good experience with your product one they will keep coming back and two they will spread the word and tell their friends you know in serving a lot of our power users a lot of them found us through you know as some form of ad weather you know we've got some out-of-home stuff but a lot of them have heard of that heard of us from their friends right their friends travel a lot and they tell them about us and so you know if you go onto social media a lot of a lot there are a lot of mentions about wonder that are just organic you know we have you know vloggers talking about us and we don't have currently you know influencer program we're paying people to talk about us and I think you know if you have a product that is good and provides a good user experience and solves a problem for the customer and they have a good experience with you the best marketing is word-of-mouth and getting customers that will tell their friends and recommend you to their friends or know their followers or whatever it is without you having to pay them if you have to pay people to talk about you it's not genuine right and although you might get some customers in the door that way it's it's more important to figure out how to get customers to stay because if you can get you have a viral effect whereas it's much harder to pay for you know cause 10 customers and then convinced 10 more you know paid for 10 more customers over and over again and so I think that that's where you know we were very focused on providing a great user experience and everything from you know the website to you know if someone has a problem we have an amazing customer support team that are oftentimes doing support on behalf of carriers because carriers don't often have great customer support teams and so this is where we've been able to really you know get that viral effect going where we have customers that actually go and spread the word to other people and it becomes a lot more genuine .
Kevin: yeah that it's a terrific example I must say Polina to have one that's probably quite rare in the travel industry so you know what well done we're doing that so just two very quick fire questions the first one comes from me and what's what's your kind of end game with this is it just to grow as big as it is or do you do you see some kind of suitor that would come along at some point and find you a good home
Polina: I mean we're a venture funded company right so our investors would probably not be happy if we just permanently did not do anything at some point we will you know have some sort of exit whether it's an IPO or acquisition it's not something that we are focused on you know to today where you know we still there's still so much that we want to do and and we have so much ahead of us you know where we're just about to launch flights as I mentioned and with that we want to continue to build out our brand and double down on our thesis that you know we don't believe traditional travel sites are appealing to our demographic of travelers where you know the future generations of travelers where they're still you know showing all the same offerings I think there is a deep need for something like us that isn't just about you know transportation but even on the you know where do I stay once I get there what do i do once I get there and so you know we see ourselves continuing to build out and go in the direction of building this travel brand for future generations of travelers not just on the you know how do I get from point A to point B but also you know what what are the differences in the places that these people stay and what are the differences and what these people do that the traditional you know travel sites are not offering them and how can we continue to build on our product in such a way that we're appealing to this demographic and so you know for now we're just continuing to chug along and continuing to build out you know what we're probably going to end up doing you know a sizable series B round at some point in the future and just continue to you know double down triple down and build out our bread the travel space
Kevin: okay very cool so last question isn't very serious I'm just curious if there's any background about the fact that your logo is a monkey and the background on the name if there's any story there
Polina: yeah so and you know the very beginning when we were brainstorming kind of what we wanted to be right we always knew that we wanted to be a travel brand not just a search and so we and and we wanted to appeal to you know our demographic of travelers and so we were thinking you know when I travel what are the what are the words that really inspire me and the word wander this really kind of stuck right where it's like you're just going you're exploring you don't necessarily always have to have a destination you just you know it's you know the route for wanderlust you know just wanting to go and and explore the world and so I really like the word wander and so we started just adding sounds to the end of it and wander ooh just kind of blew off the tongue and at first we were thinking kind of like wander ooh kangaroo you know there's Australia has this you know for some reason I associate Australia with travel as well a lot of people in Australia like to travel the world because you know once you leave there you might as well travel for a long time because it takes so long to get anywhere and so we thought maybe initially to have kind of a kangaroo as a as a as a mascot but then when we googled the name to see if the name was taken yet we found that wander is actually a type of monkey so there's a wanderer monkey that is an endangered monkey in India in southern India so and it was super cute so it's perfect we're like okay great we have a name and we have a mascot so that's why we have a monkey it's actually the wanderer monkey and it had the name before we did so we're sharing it