Journy is a travel platform that combines tech and human expertise to plan the perfect trip. They enable a luxury concierge experience at the radical price of $15 per day of travel. Recommendations come from top chefs and experts. Plus, Journy takes care of restaurant reservations, as well as hotel and activity bookings. In short, it’s like having a luxury travel concierge in one’s back pocket. An affordable one. We spoke to the co-founder & CEO, Susan Ho.
How did you develop the idea for Journy?
I was working at Fab.com in 2013, managing a team of over 120 across New York and Berlin, when the CEO said, “You need to take a vacation in the next 3 months or you’re fired.” I booked a trip to Buenos Aires, but right before my trip, I had to spend so much time clearing my plate to even go on vacation in the first place, that I had zero time to plan anything. I ended up spending 10 hours in my hotel room Googling, searching, trying to figure out what to do. My efforts led me to a “local, authentic steakhouse,” but when I got there, I found myself surrounded by American tourists. I also ended up in 3 different nightclubs surrounded by 16 year old boys…not my finest moment. When I came back from that trip, I thought about how as an internet savvy person who took the time to research and plan, I still couldn’t find the types of experiences I was personally looking for. And, when I looked into existing services that offered the level of personalization I needed, almost all of them cost in the thousands of dollars — an amount still very much out-of-reach for today’s millennial traveler.
How did you make the decision to take the plunge and start your own company?
After Fab, I spent a year consulting for other startups (DigitalOcean, Blue Apron, LearnVest) and at the same time, was looking for a smaller startup to join with a product I believed in and a team I felt I could learn from. I met with dozens of companies, but I just didn’t find one that was the right fit. I thought about what I was passionate about and what I believed in, and I thought back to that time when I spent thousands of dollars on flights and hotels to go on a vacation that ultimately was unfulfilling. That’s when I decided to take the leap and start working on Journy full-time. There simply wasn’t any other problem I was more passionate about solving.
What is the scrappiest, most startup-y thing you’ve had to do to date?
So many things! In the early days, we were super scrappy in testing to see if people even wanted custom travel itineraries in the first place, and if we could even do it with any level of quality. I reached out to friends and family, and literally begged people to let me plan their trips for them. I built the first 70+ trips completely manually. Each one took 10-15 hours or more to put together. My cofounder Leiti Hsu is the ultimate food and travel connector, and I remember being up with her at 6AM getting recommendations from an Italian winemaker in Tuscany for a traveler who was visiting Tuscany later that same week.Ultimately, that scrappiness and the effort of doing everything manually in the beginning, led us to better understand our customer so that when we actually started building the tech for the first time, we already knew what to build for our customers.
How did you fund the business? What do you spend most of your funds on? Knowing what you know now about how to raise and spend funds, what would you have done differently?
We raised money from two early-stage VCs. We raised a “pre-seed” to build out the product for the first time. In recent years, the names for different funding rounds has changed dramatically. It used to be if you had an idea and a deck, you would raise a seed round to build the product. That’s now considered a “pre-seed” and a “seed” is now closer to what was then a series A, which is what you’d raise when you have traction and have figured out scalable channels of growth. We’ve seen that shift happen in the last year first hand, and if I were able to do it over again, instead of spending so much time on the product (most of our capital went to development resources — you typically spend 80-90% on salaries), I would have hired a head of growth and focused on marketing much sooner. We’ve been able to grow 30% m-o-m the last 5 months, but we’d be in a much better place had we figured that out earlier. As a product person, you always want your product to be perfect before you release it, but that’s entirely the wrong approach. Product is about building something people will pay for and rather than focusing on building and iterating on the perfect product, you should iterate on your target customer and how you sell.
What has been your greatest WFIO (we’re f*****, it’s over) moment so far?
Unless you’ve completely run out of money, it’s not over. So while we’ve had many “OH SHIT” moments, we’ve never had a moment where we’ve said it’s over. There’s always a pivot, a different channel, a different customer segment, and a different strategy to test. With startups, you’re building something that’s never been built before. To figure out not just what to build but what channels to sell it in is all about iterating and running as many experiments in as short a time as possible.
What are you most excited about in the next year (either within the company or industry/technology wide)?
We have exciting things coming up within the company that I’m not allowed to announce yet! On the tech side, and this applies to our business very much, it’s seeing some of the practical applications of the AI and machine learning algorithms that have been developed. Right now, we’re in a stage where the hardcore tech exists, but plugging that tech into real products and end use cases is something that is still very early and nascent. Some of you may have heard of or even used x.ai (Amy / Andrew). It’s a prime example of a great practical application that still has a ton of kinks to work out. I’m excited to see more of the combination of human and artificial intelligence to scale services, make previously luxury / expensive services affordable to the masses, and allow people to spend more time on what they enjoy instead of mundane repeatable processes.
If you could give an aspiring entrepreneur one piece of advice, what would it be?
Trust yourself. You’ve thought more about your product and business than anyone else. Have conviction and don’t second guess yourself. You don’t win by being afraid of failure. You have to be willing to fail hundreds if not thousands of times over before you find something that works. That also means being honest with yourself and confronting the reality of your product — too often entrepreneurs misjudge other people’s reaction to your idea. Unless someone is willing to shell out cold hard cash, you haven’t solved a big enough problem yet.