Who the Hell is Driving This Thing?
TL;DR: How we pivoted from a higher-education social network to the travel agency of the future.
[Editor’s note: We can’t believe it has been over two years since we wrote this. To commemorate the occasion, and to keep everyone in the loop during this crazy journey, we decided to write a Part II.]
It was about a month after graduating from Techstars that my co-founder, Lianne, and I had our “oh shit” moment.
This is a special moment for founders; it’s not when you find a fixable bug in your app, when you realize you have been poorly optimizing your conversion funnel, or when you get a “no” from an investor. An “oh shit” moment is when you realize there is something fundamentally wrong with your business.
In our case, we realized that the product that we wanted to create was irreconcilable with a viable business model. So who were we going to tell? Techstars, who just accepted us into their highly prestigious accelerator on the basis that we could make it work? Our investors, who we just closed a round with?
It turns out, our Techstars family, our friends, and the angels (literally) who invested in us became our greatest allies, supporters, and advocates as we navigated the treacherous, terrifying, uncertain, and ultimately wildly liberating waters of a pivot. So let’s start at the beginning…
In February of 2014, Lianne and I were completing our undergrad CS degrees at the University of Colorado. As we were reflecting on the past four years of school, we realized that the most valuable experiences that we had happened outside the classroom in the incredible communities that we became involved in. Being techies, we wanted to build a product which helped other students make these “serendipitous” connections around their campus — to make the most of their time in college as well. We wanted to help our friends explore their world around them.
We called it Varsity. The app was basically a replacement for the unreadable kiosks full of posters found on college campuses. Students could submit events and activities happening around their campus that others could discover and indicate they were attending. We also built in a personalization mechanism, which proactively suggested things to do around you based upon your interests.
A few months later, the MVP of the Varsity and a well-practiced pitch won us the New Venture Challenge at CU, which came with a $13k award and garnered the attention of Techstars Boulder.
(Techstars is an incredible venture accelerator that turns the 95% failure rate of startups into a 90% success rate of Techstars-backed startups.)
The next couple of months were a whirlwind of change; Lianne and I graduated, we transitioned to our first full-time job (working for ourselves), and I spent a month in Israel with my sister before she left for college in Florida. We spent a good amount of our time networking our way around Techstars — feeling a little like the high school kids at a college party — but loving it at the same time. We met some incredible people (Sue Heilbronner, Brad Berenthal, Zach Nies, and Howard Diamond, to name a few) who taught us so much about our nascent business in a very short time.
We took as many meetings as we could with whomever would talk with us, and we funneled all of our learnings into our Techstars application. Through some combination of luck, sweat, and my uncanny ability to say the right things when standing in front of a large group of people, we were accepted into Techstars.
Techstars was incredibly challenging for us. The 3-month program was also equally rewarding. Lianne and I learned more about ourselves, our company, and our relationship with each other than we had in 4 years of undergraduate education together. About half-way through the program we started exploring new ways to monitize the platform. The product had come along way — we had done some incredible engineering and design work that we were happy with.
Unfortunately, the problem with Varsity was absolutely zero alignment between the product that we wanted to build and the way that would bring it to market. One option was to spend the next 3 years grinding through the 8-month sales-cycles of universities across the country, which felt challenging (in the wrong ways) and bureaucratic. Alternatively, we could monetize the student attention we garnered, which we feared would cause discordance between the content students wanted to see and the content that advertisers wanted to show them.
Soon after graduating from Techstars, someone showed us Simon Sinek’s famous TED talk about how great leaders inspire action. Sinek describes how famous brands like Apple engage their customers starting with their “why” for doing business, which takes precedence over “how” they do business, and even over “what” their business does. Lianne and I knew our “why” was something about helping people discover the world around them, and we now knew that the “how” and “what” of our current business wouldn’t get us there.
So, we decided to pivot.
Around this time I grabbed coffee with my friend Fletcher Richman. I explained to him the situation and asked for his advice. He offered the perspective that startups are designed to solve problems in the most efficient way possible. Basically, startups should be created to fill voids in the market that weren’t being solved by an existing company. The main issue was we had no problem to solve.
250k in funding, but nothing to fund? Do we give up, give the money back, and go get real jobs? Lianne and I weren’t done yet, so we went in search of problems worth solving.
Being borne out of both startup orthodoxy and an engineering education, we wanted to run several experiments, but we also felt it important that we took these experiments through to working Minimum Viable Product (MVP). We knew that we should actually build the MVPs because we knew we wanted to create products like Dyson — the kind of thing that you had to feel and use in your hands to understand why it was 10x better than the competition. We were also students of design thinking, and knew that we had to prototype to learn.
So we made a commitment to build three apps in three weeks (how we did this is a story for another post). One of them was awful, one didn’t even make it out the door, but one of our experiments was really interesting. We called it Concierge.
The idea was pretty simple; it was basically an aspirational to-do list connected to a chat conversation. Users would add things that they wanted to do in the next couple months (take a yoga class, go on a date with my girlfriend, etc). The cool part was this list was also visible to a team of local experts, who would do the research for you about how to get that thing done, and then chat with you in-app about doing it.
The app took a week to get live, and we somehow convinced our intrepid team of interns to be our “in house” team of local experts. We emailed our friends links to the app, and within a couple weeks thousands of messages had been exchanged between our concierges and new users.
The experiment was especially exciting because the job of the concierge was fun and rewarding. Our interns loved feeling helpful and resourceful, even though all they needed to do was a little Googling and creative research. Concierge was also innovative because we were successfully helping our users explore the world around them without a huge database of local content (a significant barrier to the old app being successful).
One morning Lianne and I locked ourselves in a conference room for half the day and attempted to whiteboard out all of the learnings and opportunities we had over the past eight months. Our biggest insight was a total curveball to us: the times that we had felt we had discovered and explored the most (our “why”) was when we were traveling (we are both veteran backpackers and have been all around the world). We left that meeting knowing that if we woke up in 10 years and more people had gotten on an airplane as a result of our work, we would be satisfied. But we were still concerned that building a social network wouldn’t leave us feeling fulfilled. So why were we trying to build the next “social local mobile” thing, when we could be building something for fellow travelers?
Around the same time we reconnected with an incredible entrepreneur and friend of ours, Sam Felsenthal. There was a kinship, because he was struggling with a similar pain to ours in his current venture — a long sales cycle in a difficult market.
Sam had known about our Concierge experiment and knew that we were playing around with some things in travel. At about 4am one morning, I receive an email from him suggesting that we try a similar conversational app in travel. We tossed the idea around a bit more over the next couple of days, and started dreaming of something like the future of a travel agency in an app.
“What the hell?” we thought. “Let’s make an experiment out of it.” I started putting together quick mockups of the idea, Lianne built a splash page to show off the mockups with an email drop, and Sam started shopping the idea around his network of travel and VC friends.
We also started talking to anyone who would talk to us about the way they traveled. We spoke to about forty people in total, from people who travelled once a year to people who travelled every week for work. Consistently, we heard pain point after pain point around the time that travel logistics required. Pre-trip planning and booking was boring and time consuming, and mid-trip logistics and emergency management was harrowing and took time away from enjoying one’s travel.
After several weeks it started to become clear that we were on to something. Over 300 people had signed up to try the app, and Sam was spending 80% (or more) of his time working on the company. Around this time we decided to take the plunge, and rebrand the concierge service form “experiment” to “pivot.” We also welcomed Sam on as a third co-founder, which will go down in history as Lianne’s and my greatest business move of all time.
One Friday afternoon, while running through our database I noticed that we had received over 100 sign ups in the last hour. I quickly switched over to Mixpanel to figure out what was going on, and discovered that the referrer on all these signups was from a site called Product Hunt.
(Product Hunt is a website that allows users to upvote internet products that they find interesting or exciting.)
Turns out that Chris Messina (father of the hashtag) had found our splash page and posted us on the site. Within the afternoon we had been voted the top 3rd product. By the end of the weekend, Chris’s post drove over 10k people to our site.
My inbox on Monday morning was a mess. I had messages from hundreds of people wondering how the service worked, how soon they could try it out, and how soon we would have an Android version released. We were ecstatic. The limelight (albeit, quite small in the grand scheme of things) was incredible validation for us during a murky and scary part of our history.
When we went back to our early investors with the story of the pivot and some early traction, they were excited. (I think for many of them the pivot was a sigh of relief that they might actually see a return on their investment into these two crazy kids.)
Today, we are incredibly motivated to be a part of what we see as a revolution in the traveler customer experience. We think it is insane that you have to wait on hold with Delta for 3 hours every time it snows in Boston. Why is it possible to arrive at a hotel with a reservation and no rooms be available? How do you quickly learn everything to know about city that you have never been before?
Today, we are called Pana, your on-demand travel concierge. We are proud to build a way to give our users a way to make travel feel easy, personal, and safe. We are even prouder to have gotten here from where we have come.
If you made it this far, you pretty much understand our company history as much as I do (perhaps even a little better). Thanks again to all the family, friends, and mentors that have gotten us this far. See you on the other side!