Building a Tourism Startup in Lisbon

Nov 26, 2020 · 9 min read

Wendy van Leeuwen, Co-Founder of Secret City Trails, tells us why she picked Lisbon to build her tourism startup.

BRIDGE IN — Let’s start from the beginning: tell me a little bit about your background, where have you been, what companies have you worked for and what did you learn that made you realize you were ready to start your own project.

Wendy — I did part of my Bachelor's in Madrid and at a certain point I thought “I love Southern Europe! Where can I do my MSc?”. Since Lisbon is nearby I literally came here for 24 hours and fell in love with the city instantly. Looking for Master’s programs, I found the Master in Management at Nova School of Business and Economics (I did it in 2009 and 2010). I specialized in Human Resources and ended up writing my MSc thesis at Microsoft in the Netherlands, about “What types of organizational environments help people discover and develop their talents?”.

I ended up staying at Microsoft for one year and quickly realized I wanted to do more about how organizations communicate to their employees because it is such a key aspect of internal engagement and motivation.

I decided to move to London — from the Netherlands — and the moment had come for me to understand the world of startups. I applied to an HR position at Groupon, which back then was a hyper-growth startup. I got an interview with their HR director and I told her I wanted to help organizations communicate better with their employees. She said, “we don’t do that right now so we will hire you to do that!”, basically they ended up creating a role for myself and that’s how I got into more internal and corporate communications.

I quickly realized how things get easily outdated at a hyper-growth startup: with the amount of funding that Groupon raised, any structural change ends up not lasting for long, internal communications were no exception. Where could I have a long-lasting impact? And there I was, back again into the corporate world, this time at Carlsberg, and then later, when I moved back to the Netherlands, at Nike.

I loved experiencing different companies and industries, and I came to a point where I wanted to start building something from scratch. I tried joining another startup — — but came to the conclusion that I was ready to start my own project. I quit Booking and went to Sri Lanka volunteering my skills to help social enterprises — it was the best decision I could make: I really wanted to get into something different like social innovation and really see the work you are doing impacting organizations.

The experience in Sri Lanka brought me new opportunities, first in London — where I managed the Chivas Ventures 1Million fund for social entrepreneurs and the accelerator program in partnership with the University of Oxford — and later back in the Netherlands when I set up the 2Million fund at and helped them build the 3-weeks accelerator for startups in sustainable tourism.

It was working with sustainable tourism companies at Booking that I realized that Secret City Trails, the project that Kristina (my co-founder) and I started as a side gig when we were at Nike, could really work.

BRIDGE IN — Secret City Trails — a way of “giving back” the city to its own inhabitants, how did you come up with the idea and where do you source information from to build the routes?

Wendy — Secret City Trails was a side project, Kristina and I wanted to create some type of experience that really makes locals fall in love again with their own cities — if you think about it, we don’t really explore our own city. For example, when going to the office in Amsterdam we were biking the same route, without knowing anything about the stories that surrounded us. So we created what we now call a gamified discovery walk in the center of Amsterdam.

There are many areas in Amsterdam that locals consider “touristic”, which is enough for them not to explore. But when we tested the route with some friends who had been in the city for 10 years or that grew up in Amsterdam, they realized they knew little about their own city. They were able to unlock stories about many places they didn’t even know existed and said “this is so cool we didn’t even know whoever a famous painter lives here”.

Initially, Kristina and I created all our discovery walks. We have a few friends who build experiences for escape rooms and they know a lot of strange locations and hidden tunnels. We also met with some historians to get to know the history of the city, we went to the library just to look up crazy stories and a lot of online research as well. After creating routes in 10 cities, we build a framework for any local to create playful walking routes with us. Locals are paid for this and they receive a percentage of each sale. In sum, it is always a combination of people who are experts in architecture, history, and so on. Our routes are not only a fun way to walk through the cities but also to learn more about them and discover new locations. Today we say we are truly reinventing how we explore and enjoy cities.

As you know, I have been speaking with many founders in the past few weeks and, while all of them are happy to be here, some of them mentioned how slowly Portuguese bureaucracy can be compared to other countries. You talked about how you took care of your own projects even inside big organizations and how quick you were in getting things done. What is your take on Portuguese bureaucracy and ecosystem? Is it as slow as some people describe it? BRIDGE IN — And then Lisbon appeared on your radar. Why did you think Portugal could be a great location to set up your company?

I fell in love with Lisbon the first time I visited. And since I lived here during my Masters, Lisbon was one of the cities where Kristina and I built one of our first discovery routes.

In 2017 we applied to The Journey — an Accelerator Program in Lisbon by Beta-i — that led us to build a partnership with Hop-on Hop-off buses. Then, in the Spring of 2018, we realized that if we were to work on Secret City Trails as a full-time ‘job’ we should be in a city that’s more affordable than Amsterdam. We also wanted to grow our business in a friendly, slightly younger, startup ecosystem. We felt that Lisbon was THE place. We already had that first commercial partnership here and later on got invited and supported by accelerators from Beta-i, Startup Lisboa, Altice and Techstars. And my love for the energy in this city helped too!

So we moved here. We rented an office at Startup Lisboa which by the way is super affordable, something you could never have in Amsterdam.

We also thought about funding for the first time in our startup journey, and the truth is that to approach investors it doesn’t really matter where we are in Europe.

As per the local ecosystem, we really felt the cool vibe of the startup scene and people gathering. It is a small and connected ecosystem, which has pros and cons, but for us, it was quite nice because we were starting this entrepreneurial journey. Here you know a lot of people very quickly, there are many Whatsapp groups to support you and to network. That’s great, helpful and makes you feel supported because we all know that it is hard to run your own business and be an entrepreneur. In addition, the lower cost of living means you can hirevery talented people at an affordable cost compared to anywhere else in Europe. Lisbon is a great destination for entrepreneurs, here you can have a healthy balance, or at least, we feel this! We work long hours because we’re building and growing a startup. And here, we can combine it with a great lifestyle and beautiful weather- which means spontaneous sunset drinks with the team on a rooftop or working from a beach bar for a day.

However, here the pace is indeed slower. For example, compared to the process of starting a business in the Netherlands, things here are more complex. We needed local support to set up our company here (even with an ok understanding of the Portuguese language). For Lisbon to become a bigger startup hub, these processes need to improve a lot! And, we didn’t feel the slowness as much when we worked with international freelancers, but as soon as we started working with organizations in Portugal, I admit it was slower than I thought.

There are some positive surprises too though — a while ago we started working with MEO to launch a campaign to encourage people to go discovering their city again. We worked with their New Product Development team and it was a very quick and efficient process.

BRIDGE IN — What about diversity? The ecosystem is indeed small, and I think it is in principle inclusive. Many people say that Portugal is a diverse country, what do you think about it as a female entrepreneur?

I do love having a company here. I think it’s great that the ecosystem is quite small, you quickly learn how things work and you get to know so many people. When you have a question, there is always someone that has the answer. And people here are super willing to help.

Wendy — I definitely think that the startup scene worldwide is not that diverse, it is still mostly white men. We raised funds twice now and we also did the Techstars program here in Lisbon (which by the way it opened up a lot of great connections!). Throughout the program — and in the global ecosystem — there were people with different backgrounds and nationalities, which is cool but in general, it is a male-dominated ecosystem. When we raised funds for the first time we really noticed that we had been asked different questions than male founders. And during the pitch male founders would say, “these are our ambitions and we will make this crazy amount of money”, and we were more humble and honest explaining that we think we could do this and at the same time also being realistic and speaking openly about possible challenges. Maybe we were way too honest.

BRIDGE IN — Last but not least — let’s talk buzzwords. What do you think about fully remote work?

Plenty of times investors and other people from startups told us that we should use our beauty to our advantage. I found that quite insulting. This sort of bias in some cases can also work in your favor: for example when deciding who will pitch first, usually, ladies are the first ones. So, what may seem a disadvantage, can be turned into something positive! Always! Again, I think that there are pros and cons.

Wendy — At Secret City Trails we have gone fully remote with Covid-19. It was a smooth transition because we already had good processes and collaboration tools in place, even before.

With good processes in place, moving online and managing things remotely is quite easy. Having said that, I think it would be harder if we were in completely different time zones — now we are just spread across Portugal (more beach working days!), the Netherlands and the UK.

Going remote definitely opens more opportunities to attract people from different places, but especially in an initial phase, when you want your employees to connect with and internalize the company culture, it is important to share some moments together. We had been working together as a core team, in person, for nearly 2 years, so everyone is living and breathing our values and culture, making the transition a smooth one. We give everyone the opportunity to have a co-work membership whenever they want or work from home. We also got more creative in our social connection moments, creating activities that make us feel as if we are together, while apart.

Originally published at on November 26, 2020.

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