The top 5 reasons your travel startup will fail


I’m here to persuade you not to launch a tech startup in the travel sector.

Specifically, if you think the world needs another website providing travel inspiration or an app to help with trip-planning, I’m very keen for you to read this.

I don’t want to overstate the matter, but your startup will likely be dead in in a matter of months. If you’re very lucky, you’ll identify the need to pivot into something unrecognisable, or sell for pennies to a established industry player.

If I sound pessimistic about your chances, let me assure you I’m not. Chances are you’re very smart, but very smart doesn’t mean you won’t do very dumb. No amount of funding will help matters.

It’s happened again and again.

And again and again.

And again and again and again and again and again.

And again.

I’d like to explain why I think it keeps happening, in the hope you’ll take note and live substantially longer than others that have gone before you:

1. Planning a trip isn’t a problem for most people.

At least, it’s not a bad problem.

I hear very few friends complaining that they don’t know where to find inspiration for their next holiday. At the very least they’ll start asking questions, not rack their brains to think of a specific website they can turn to. Most people I know relish the opportunity to daydream, to scour the internet, to #humblebrag to friends on Twitter and exchange stories at work.

This all sounds like a good problem, one we enjoy having — and research backs this up:

“Vacationers reported a higher degree of pre-trip happiness, compared to non-vacationers, possibly because they are anticipating their holiday.”

We’re very happy wasting our time here, because it’s not time wasted — it’s escapism, and as much a valued part of our vacation as the vacation itself. And yet it’s a problem so many founders misidentify, including this recently launched travel startup:

Does this really sound like something so many talented developers should be pouring their brains into?

2. Inspiration is chaotic. And that’s how we like it.

The moment we sniff the chance of a vacation, we start talking to friends; buying guidebooks to read in the bath; scouring Pinterest; interrogating flight comparison sites; posting queries on Facebook; downloading apps; eyeing up package holidays on Expedia; checking exchange rates.

We pool our ideas from any number of sources, and despite all this chaos, nobody is hurting for the lack of an online repository that aggregates our inspiration. A few of us might write a to-do list, start a Pinterest board, open a spreadsheet, but we’re not crying out for our adhoc processes to be packaged up with a bow. We cherish the lack of order.

PathWrangler attempted to organise and regiment everyone’s inspiration:

PathWrangler wanted to “take the conversation that normally occurs over emails, spreadsheets, PDFs, Word Docs, etc and put it into a central place where your team/group interacts with each other from a single version of the truth”.

PathWrangler lasted 20 months before a lack of revenue saw it close.

3. People don’t travel enough to care.

Let’s say you’ve ignored the first two points and are still convinced that a lack of inspiration is a genuine problem. If it is, then it’s also a problem that consumers are only likely to experience three times a year. Of those three vacations, UK travellers are only likely to take a single trip abroad.

Meanwhile those people who travel regularly don’t really need to feel inspired. Business travellers are visiting pre-determined destinations; the variables will be schedule, availability and price. Inspiration doesn’t come into it.

People who may consider a service providing inspiration will hardly use them; people who travel often rarely need them. You can’t build a successful service that your most engaged users will barely use.

There are problems (and opportunities) in travel, but they tend to be around hard issues like logistics, schedules and pricing— the stuff everyone has to go through, regardless of frequency. You can target that slither of consumers who travel frequently for leisure, so ask yourself how you best engage them; having to download an app immediately creates friction — can you create a service that compliments or utilises a more established platform?

4. Group planning is like herding cats. Only harder.

Planning anything for a group of friends is rarely a democracy. Everyone wants the right to have their say, but the reality is most participants are lazy and will absolve themselves of all responsibility at the first opportunity.

Again, there are logistical issues when it comes to group travel —how to qualify for group discounts, hotel booking sites that don’t differentiate between ‘twin’ and ‘double’ rooms — but the likelihood is that the planning stages will be led by a very small number of people, not the whole group.

5. Bad logic kills startups before they start up.

A non-sequitar is a conclusion that does not result from the original premise. It’s a failing in basic logic, and it’s why the world is full of bad startups:

“I’ve experienced this problem. Other people probably have, too.”

That’s fair, if you ask the other people and validate your assumption, but it then leads to:

“I’ve thought of a solution to fix the problem.”

And that’s where so many startups go wrong. There are a thousand ways to solve any given problem; it doesn’t follow that because you’re capable of identifying a problem, you’ve magically determined the best solution.

Group travel planning is a big problem, so that means a web app together with a calendar plugin will solve it, right? So many founders will start developing their ideas based on similar leaps of logic.

Edit: a bonus reason that was in my initial draft of this post — travel is really hard. We identify with it because it feels familiar, we might think we recognise the issues because we travel regularly, but there are thousands of moving parts behind the engines that power discovery and planning. It’s not easy to pick it all apart or put a finger on the issues we think we’ve spotted. (Thanks to Alex Hunter for the prompt!)

If you’ve read my considered opinion and thoroughly disagree with it, that’s ok. Nobody has yet made their billions by writing a step-by-step guide to guaranteed startup success. There’s no right way to succeed.

There are, however, plenty of wrong ways to go about a startup, and the travel sector knows this better than most. Take flight, but don’t crash and burn.

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