Finding great places to travel often takes a lot of time. It’s easier to hear from your friends which hotspots you shouldn’t skip. That’s the idea behind Urban Journalist, an Amsterdam-based start-up that allows travelers to explore cities using highlights from their network.
Innovation Origins speaks with Timo Bierens, one of the four founders of the company.
What drives you and how did you come up with the idea?
“I travel alone quite a bit and am always looking for a hidden hotspot – a hidden gem – a place where tourists don’t go. When I know a friend of mine has been somewhere, I always ask for his recommendations and vice-versa when it happens that I’ve been somewhere. That’s much more personal than looking on Tripadviser or in a Lonely Planet guidebook. Someone who says to you, ‘This bar or club really shouldn’t be missed!’ makes much more of an impression.”
“When I’m traveling I keep asking locals until I’ve found the perfect hang-out, but that takes a lot of time. That made me think: why does such a search have to take so long? That’s when I first sketched out the idea for Urban Journalist, literally with pen and paper. I’m not technical at all – I studied law. After I got home, I immediately brought my little brother in on the project, because he is technical, and we got to work. Meanwhile, our cousin has also gotten involved. It’s very nice to do this together with them; the trusting relationship we have is important to me.
How does it work?
“We don’t want to be like Google Maps where everyone can share their experiences. That’s why we select at the gate. We mainly focus on millenials that don’t settle for just a fun place, but are looking for new experiences. They want great places that really suit them and that they want to share. We mainly focus on big cities; we skip the backpacking places. If someone wants to know where the coolest clubs, restaurants or coffee bars in Bangkok are, they have to be with us. I think we now have over 3,000 hotspots on our platform that users can store and share.”
What makes you different from Google Maps? And do you see them as a competitor?
“In France, you have Mapster. They’ve been doing it for four or five years. Tripadvisor is huge; Google Maps is even bigger. We have a huge number of competitors and yet again just a few. Everyone does it differently anyway. We try to find a niche: our target group has taste and goes for the best experience.”
“Google Maps doesn’t have the personal touch that we do, where you don’t know who has posted a review. We focus on personalization and sharing cool places.”
How do you make your money?
“Very simple. We’re not making any cash right now. We want to grow first, and at the moment we’re doing well. We don’t want to say exactly how many users we have, it’s more about quality than quantity. All I want to say about it is that we have around 100,000 users. We are now looking at which business model suits us best. We want to roll that out after the summer.”
How do you keep the business running if there’s no money coming in?
“We have the luxury of being able to finance the first version of the platform internally. That should be enough to grow and later roll out a business model. We did have talks with investors in the beginning. But we consciously put that on the back burner, especially since in the early phase we want to do everything ourselves as far as possible. We want to avoid investors getting involved and having to dance to someone else’s tune.”
What do you have to be good at to run a start-up?
“There are so many start-ups these days that do something cool and the technological possibilities to do this are enormous. But I think that creativity, both practical creativity where you’re very solution-focused and aesthetic creativity, is incredibly important, particularly during the initial phase when you are constantly running into challenges.”
Above all, what should you not do?
“I can give you a very clear answer to that. Above all, don’t think your idea is unique. I made the same mistake in the beginning, I didn’t share the idea with anyone for fear that someone would steal it. But there are thousands of people with the same idea. There’s no point in holding on to it fanatically. In the end, it’s your execution and timing that determine your success.”
Who is your great role model in the field of entrepreneurship?
“I can rattle off a whole list of entrepreneurs here, but I find Apple’s Steve Jobs so cliché. If I have to choose someone, it’s Walt Disney. He really gave Disney a soul. It’s fascinating how much feeling and magic he gave the brand. I think that’s clever. We’re making an app, which is really just some software, but we’re trying to organize and do a lot around it so the brand will truly come alive.”