Javier Escribano is cofounder of TouristEye, a mobile travel and tourism app which was bought by Lonely Planet at the end of 2013. In this article, Escribano himself tells the story of TouristEye, from the moment he first showed it to Marissa Mayer in 2009 until its sale to a travel and tourism guide giant.
I will always remember the first time I showed the prototype of TouristEye to someone outside the university. It was at the graduation ceremony of the master I did at IIT in Chicago in May 2009. I took the Google G1 out of my pocket and presented the few horrible and ugly screens we had been working on up to this point. The person I had in front of me was Marissa Mayer, who was then vice-president at Google and is Yahoo’s CEO today. This is how our great adventure started, by presenting something I would be ashamed of today to one of the most important people on the planet.
My colleague Ariel Camus and I started to develop apps for third parties while we were already working on TouristEye. And soon we noticed that if we wanted TouristEye to really go somewhere we would have to commit 100%. We did not want it to be just another app, we wanted TouristEye to be an ambitious company. At the time we even rejected some very interesting offers to run their app development for international companies. We were only 23 and we were not afraid to fail. And we knew that if the project did not turn out well, we could always start looking for a job then.
July 2010: the start
We were already there in Silicon Valley, but knowing our metrics we still did not know where to go. During these weeks of product analysis with the mentors at 500Startups we decided to try something new using the users’ travel information and the result was spectacular. Users loved it. And so we decided to trust our instincts and the metrics and do something nobody would have ever recommended. If we wanted to become an important company, if we wanted to increase user loyalty and have more stable revenues, we would have to simplify our product and rewrite the entire code from scratch.
Six months later, in May 2013, we launched our third version. During the following weeks we could confirm that use was increasing, users liked the product better and revenues went up. In addition to that it was now much easier to improve the code, because it did not carry the weight of three years of modifications anymore. We could make changes every day during the summer of 2013 in order to optimize to the maximum. To give you an example, we obtained an increase in the quota of registered users from 10% to 52%. Metrics and iteration was key.
With these figures we considered a new round of fundraising in America. In the middle of it, Lonely Planet called us up, we saw that everything really fit together perfectly and we decided to accept the offer they had made us for our “app”. We went to their head office in Nashville and we closed the deal. We will always remember having beers on a canoe ride we did to celebrate the agreement with their managing directors or the dinner afterwards where we had spare ribs and listened to country music while we drank toasts to this union between the best content and the best technology. Who would have guessed 4 years ago that the biggest travel guide company in the world would become interested in our small great idea? Very few believed in us and we will be eternally grateful to them. A simple piece of advice: All you need is a big dream and the will to pursue it with passion and perseverance. Good luck!
From day one we had an international vision, which is why we launched in Spanish and English despite the additional effort that required. At the time we had already been to San Francisco a few times. And so it was only natural for us to turn to a start-up accelerator like 500Startups in Silicon Valley. We contacted some people we had met earlier to win the support of mentors and people involved and we were invited to join. We always knew that it would be in the US where we would find the necessary funding to really become competitive. And it would be here where we would be able to create partnerships with other companies (like the one with Virgin Airlines we signed) and where we would be able to sell the company.
We launched TouristEye for iOS, Android and web in July 2010. Before launching it we had been promoting the app for months among different bloggers and travel communities. In only two weeks we obtained 5,000 users. Word-of-mouth did the rest and we reached 10,000 users shortly after that. The key to this was a free product that did not do a lot but was well designed and the fact that we had made an effort beforehand to capture potential users. Many people hide their idea and their project until they feel it is perfect. I believe this is a mistake; you should release it as soon as possible to see if your assumptions are valid. This is especially true in case of a mobile app where there is so much competition and iteration takes longer than on a website.
We were ambitious and offered a travel guide for any destination, however we had content for only very few destinations. Users could add content, but only 5% – at most – actually did. We saw that a tremendous effort would be needed to complete our databases. Users smashed us with bad reviews on the application. But at least we discovered that users did not value the descriptions of the places we had provided and that they were really satisfied with knowing prices, opening hours and the opinion of other travelers. In order to correct the problems, we made an additional effort, added more content and improved the interface to make users understand that the success of TouristEye lied in its community. We started with only 1.000 places; by now we have more than 200.000.
During this first year we lost our Android developer and could not afford to hire another person, which is why we could neither correct the errors that occurred on different Android models nor add new features. The rating of the app dropped dramatically until we hired a new developer six months later and updated the app. Since then we have witnessed the stability of Android, as it has become less difficult to develop for this and that Android is the best platform for iterations. Not only because you can upload updates daily (we have had weeks where we uploaded 3), but also because the Spanish market is so dominated by Android that there are enough users to make the trials you are doing representative.
In 2011 every week there was a new app competing with us in some way or another, and many of them came with various millions of funding to support them. After talking to our users we decided that we had to give them better tools to plan their trips instead of simply being a travel guide. This is why we made our first update, giving our users the possibility to plan their trips day by day with a new and unique interface. This went very well for us, because it became the perfect tool for people who love to plan their trips and those travelers spoke to their friends about us. Google spotlighted us on its Chrome Web Store with our web version and also in the Play Store. Thanks to this we obtained 50.000 new travelers.
In 2012 we started to charge for certain functions inside the application, but we noticed that – even though the conversion was decent (5-7%) – these revenues would not cover our costs. Making money with apps is very complicated, especially on the Spanish market. And on the other hand we were not sure how we could obtain more downloads. The SEO at the App Stores was getting very complicated, especially because in our case the algorithms of Apple and Google favored apps with the city’s name in the title. But for us it was impossible to launch an app per city because that would have contradicted our vision of providing travel plan support wherever our users went. We did not want to spend additional money on promotion, because we did not have enough revenues and spending money on advertising could ultimately have ruined us. In fact, throughout the entire history of TouristEye we never did any advertising, the entire growth was organic.