Monday, November 21, 2011

Build Minimal Beautiful Product (MBP)

Does Lean Startup methodology apply to mobile apps? Listen to customers and keep on iterating still apply, but a minimum viable product (MVP) is not enough, said Vic Singh, founder and CEO of Tracks, at the Travel 2.0 Meetup.

For websites, people expect it to evolve, so even if the first time experience is not perfect, it’s easy to type in an URL to try again.  For mobile apps, you get one shot. If the first time experience is not good enough, users are likely to uninstall the app right away.  

Twitter’s research shows that if people don’t use your product within the first 7 days after sign up, they are likely not going to use it ever again.

The answer? Build a product that is beautiful for the first time user, and do one thing really, really well. Then keep on improving, without feature creep. When someone says your product is too simple, it is a good thing.

Vic also shared his insights on questions every mobile app venture wrangles with:

1.    How to treat non registered users for mobile apps?
Allow non-registered users to explore before commit. Show them what’s possible to lure them in.

2.    How to stand out in a crowded app market?
·      Use social media and organic search. Use paid advertising when appropriate.
·      Try to get featured by App Store – build relationships.
·      Make viral distribution deals. Build partnership with a purpose – do not lose focus for a seemingly great partnership if it doesn’t help with the brand.
·      Most importantly, great products go viral – design inherently viral products that users love to tell their friends, or better yet, use it together with them.

3.    How to view competition?
Don’t panic about competition. If you act reactively, you’ve already lost. Don’t scramble when Techcrunch writes an article about a competitor. Focus on delivering a great product.

4.    Tips on creating a great mobile app logo?
Logo creation for the mobile app is an important and often over-looked exercise for branding. Of course you can get a logo designed cheaply on Crowdspring, but spend time up front to create a logo that conveys the brand message. Changing logo in the middle of your venture confuses users. Finally, design a logo that stands out even within the folder on the phone.

5.    Advice to aspiring entrepreneurs?

Never give up, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever...

Friday, May 13, 2011

Can a Mobile App be a Big Business?

As of January 2011, there are 350,000 apps in App Store alone, but most don’t get discovered at all. The average shelf life of an iPhone app is less than 30 days.  By 30 days out, less than 5% are using the app. How to emerge from the vast number of apps, and how to capture recurrence is especially critical for free apps.

Travel mobile apps are especially challenging, as most people take trips just a couple of times a year. Besides selling digital guidebooks, can travel apps make money, and become a real business?

One travel app that showed particularly impressive result is GateGuru – initially launched in December 2009, which many likened to "Yelp for airports", and was featured in an Apple television commercial. It has had over 300,000 downloads, featured by New York Times, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes and many others.

What impressed me was that GateGuru didn’t sleep on the accolades as Yelp for Airports, they have a bigger vision as "day-of" travel platform. While TripAdvisor is for planning, and Expedia is for booking, GateGuru aims to become synonymous with "doing" travel.

Travel 2.0 Meetup invited Dan Gellert, founder of GateGuru, to talk about his founder story at our May Online Travel Startup Roundtable. He was charismatic, honest, and engaging, I took away many valuable learnings:

1.    Socialize the idea with reporters before launch. Leverage the power of exclusives.

A few months before the app launched, Dan started to socialize the idea to various reporters and got them excited. He gave exclusives to top press, and launched with a big bang, covered by New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.  This paved the way when he approached Apple Developer Relations, which ultimately featured the app in an Apple TV commercial. The learning: Don’t wait until the app launches, cultivate relationships with the press way before the launch. Reporters love exclusive stories.

2.    Have a smart pricing strategy.

At initial launch, GateGuru charges $1.99 to recoup development costs. At one time it had both a premium version and a free Lite version. This echoes the Pinch Media report that most free apps don’t get revisited often enough to justify an ad only strategy. When the Apple commercial was about to come out, Dan decided to change the app to free, which fueled the hockey stick growth of downloads. Since then, GateGuru partnered with airlines and OTAs to license its platform and do joint campaigns, which leveraged the power of its data to expand the business model. The learning: initially, consider charge for the app to recover costs, then consider free if growth picks up, and if the long term business model requires capturing large amount of data to achieve network effect.

3.    Take one step at a time with bigger visions.

Many mobile apps started as a feature. Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom believes that ‘the best products in the world start out as features’. Often features solve a specific problem. Once you solve a problem better than anyone else, you have the start of something that can continue to evolve. Chris Dixon also believes that the next big thing will start out looking like a toy.

Yelp for Airports sounded like a simple idea, but the first version of GateGuru solved a clear problem: what places can I eat at airports? It has since added many more features like all the facilities, security checkpoint wait time, wifi options, leaderboard, TripIt integration, etc. It’s innovating ways to partner with various players to become the ‘Day-of’ travel platform. The learning: start small, and rapidly evolve to get steadily better. Partner with other players to grow as an integral part of the ecosystem.

In summary, mobile apps can start as a feature, but do more faster, keep iterating and innovating, partner with other players to grow, and eventually, an app can grow to be a real million dollar business. It's not about the device or platform the product is built upon, but about the vision, the market, and the problem it solves.

Many more great tips about data collection, cofounder, partnership, and SEO were shared at the Meetup. To keep updated on exciting new developments of GateGuru, download the app, follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

54 hours of Rollercoaster at Startup Weekend NYC

Hi, I’m Holly, I’m a Startup Weekend Addict. I’ve attended two Startup Weekends and one and half Lean Startup Machine weekends.  I was blessed to work with some of the best people in the New York startup community. This past weekend though, was the most emotional of all.

At this past Startup Weekend New York, April 15th-17th, I wanted to pitch something related to social travel, but not sure exactly what. When I saw the amazing live coding demo by John Britton of Twilio on Friday night, a light bulb struck and I pitched a ‘Twilio for travelers’ app, where travelers can text message each other before meeting, sort of like GroupMe but for people who don’t know each other to find travel buddies. Here began the ride.

The UP:
The idea was voted as one of the most popular ones, many people came to me and said they loved the idea, and at least five designers expressed interest to join. I was pretty confident I would form another great team like previous weekends, until later, people started to disappear into breakout rooms, and I ended up with only one designer and no developer.

I panicked. I ran around the room asking everyone if they were a mobile developer, or at least know a little PHP. No one. It looked like that the project was going to die. I couldn’t believe it. I thought people loved the idea! It was just me and Wilbert Gutierrez, who committed from the very beginning, and stayed with me. For this, I’m forever grateful.

Calming down, I sat down with Willy to talk through the idea. We created wireframe of what we envisioned this to be. I told myself, I’m going to get this done no matter what. At 1am, I got home and posted the project on Solvate, oDesk, and Elance and reached out to a number of developers there. Worst case scenario, I would work with an outsourcer, or I would use my horrible PHP skills learned from two Girl Develop It classes to hack something together.

The UP:
The next morning, I ran into Adam Ullman from Tokbox, who presented the OpenTok API on Friday night. After hearing my desperate plea, he took pity on me and came on board! His colleague Jonathan Mumm, who already signed up on another project, also agreed to help out part time (who later spent much more than ‘part-time’). The universe responded!

After discussing in detail the functionalities of Twilio API and Tokbox API, and the fact that we didn’t have an iOS developer, we agreed that our app should focus on smart phone users, and we would use web tools to demo the interaction. More importantly, from the user value perspective, people may feel more comfortable with both chat and video options before meeting without giving out their phone numbers. So we pivoted from ‘Twilio for Travelers’ to ‘Tokbox / ChatRoulette for Travelers’. Jon came up with the name ‘AdventureCliq’, which everyone loved.

The UP:
I couldn’t have asked for a better team. Adam was truly a world class engineer, yet so humble and gracious. Jon was a whiz with excellent user experience sense. Willy created such elegant and clear design that all I could say was ‘Wow’. I worked on customer development and got people to sign up on our LaunchRock page. By Sunday, we had a working demo! After furiously looking for logo design help and some last minute scramble with GoDaddy hosting, we were live on! It was such an adrenaline rush the whole time.

What I regret is that I didn’t spend much time to practice the final presentation. Half an hour prior to the presentation, I mumbled a general outline. I was taken aback a bit when the team scheduled ahead of us dropped out, and we rushed to the stage (yes, excuses...). Of course the video chat didn’t get connected. I wasn’t as at ease and smooth as I should have been, and what’s worse, I forgot to thank my team on stage! What could be worse than that?!

The three minute pitch and three minute Q&A went by like 30 seconds. When I got off stage, I didn’t felt the greatest. We accomplished so much these past two days: we had a functioning live demo online instead of just mockups, with a team of just four people. Everyone worked so hard, and I didn't do as good a job presenting as I wanted.

The END:
When I was still licking my wound, people came to say how much they loved the idea and the product. After a while, I made peace with myself. It’s not about what a great presentation I could have done, it’s about the journey. What four of us have gone through, the ups and downs we overcame together, is more precious than anything else. What I’ve learned over the past 54 hours and what I do with these learnings matter more than the result. The best thing I could do to make it up to my team is to move the project forward and let them see what a great product they helped start.

  1. Tell a great story. Pitches were 60 seconds. Presentations were 3 minutes. To convince the audience, you need to relate to them. Justin Isaf is a master in this. He’s one of the best story tellers I’ve ever met. 
  2. Relax and have fun. Work hard, but when it comes to presentation time, don’t take it too seriously. Enjoy yourself on stage, look like you’re having fun, and the passion and confidence will come through.
  3. Practice your presentation. Leave at least an hour prior to the final presentation and go over the flow with all the team members, including testing the demo multiple times on different machines. The WeTrip.It team did a fantastic job on this, to the extent that one presenter forgot a word on stage and another team member completed his sentence right away.
  4. Believe in yourself. When things look doomed, don’t give up. The turnaround may be just around the corner. If you don’t believe in yourself, nobody will come to save you.
  5. Don’t be over ambitious. Especially in an environment like Startup Weekend, there’re limited things one can accomplish, makes sense to pitch something small enough and launch 80% than pitching a grand idea and launch 20%. I learned this from Jonathan Wegener and took it to heart this time.
  6. Proof of concept comes first. You don’t need to do serious coding from the get go. Lots of hacking can be done to test whether the idea is feasible. What matters at the beginning is how much your users and audience understand your vision, can play around with it and give feedback, rather than launching a real product. Be creative in your workaround. Sometimes this is your only option anyway.
Finally, I want to thank everyone who made the project possible: Adam Ullman, Jon Mumm, Wilbert Gutierrez, top notch talent I’ve ever met in my career. Jeff Domke, Wendy Hu, Andrew Cornett, Andrew Kirpalani for logo design help. John Britton and Isabel Summers for the advice. Volkan Unsal for your support when I most needed it. And everyone who took time to fill out our survey! Check out, and click on 'Download' to enter your email to be notified when we launch (Yep, conversion tracking!).

Picture credits to Solvate. 

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Monday, March 28, 2011

Travel 2.0 Meetup with Founders of

What I love about featuring a new startup is that it could be very intellectually stimulating for the participants of the roundtable. Think about it as a Startup MBA Case Study. Just like thinking about your own startup idea, figuring out how to design the product, market it, acquire and retain users, negotiate partnerships, hire people... In an hour, you’re going through the journey with the founders who have just been through the process for the past year.

For the April Travel 2.0 Meetup, we’re featuring Nicole Cotroneo and Mark Jolly, founders of and

GloboMaestro is the web's first collection of true local travel experts. These experts are top hotel concierges whose business is to dispense insider advice to travelers every day. Partnered with prestigious hotel brands, including St. Regis, Fairmont, Mandarin Oriental, The Surrey and The Bowery Hotel, GloboMaestro empowers concierges to get out from behind their desks and bring their local know-how directly to consumers via personal blogs, high quality videos, and direct interactions.

Nicole Cotroneo is a seasoned news reporter and contributor to The New York Times and The Washington Post, among other publications. She is a regular travel columnist for Delta Sky magazine. She also authors the popular food and travel blog, NY Girl Eats World, and has been seen on television as a guest judge on The Food Network.

Mark Jolly is a longtime contributing editor at Condé Nast Traveler, and has been published in numerous top publications on both sides of the Atlantic. A product of English-Iranian parents, he has lived in four continents and has reported from over 60 countries.

What intrigued me about GloboMaestro is their slick design, unique content, and smart business model. To consumers, it is the place to get high quality video and blog content about hidden treasures of the city;  to hotels, it is the place to market their high quality service, showcase insider access of the concierge, and build relationships with customers via social media channels.

There are several areas that would be great learning from Nicole and Mark:
  • As most hotels have a corporate parent, selling to headquarters could be a long and bureaucratic process. How did they overcome this hurdle? What is the most effective way to navigate the complex ownership and management structure and sell to hotels?
  • Operating a successful luxury travel site, what prompted them to start a new business? What are the most important learnings from working on Globorati that are benefiting their second venture?
  • How do hotels measure success of this effort? How do they measure social media ROI?
  • How does GloboMaestro maintain editorial control while getting paid by the hotel?
I’ll be asking Nicole and Mark all these questions. What would be yours? Check out before coming to the meetup, and get ready for a night of great discussions and learnings!

Time: Wednesday April 13, 2011. 6pm

Sunday, March 27, 2011

My First SXSW Part 1: General Impression

It’s been a week since I came back from South by Southwest Interactive. Finally got to sit down and reflect this surreal experience. In three posts, I'll write about my general impression, interesting companies, learnings and regrets.

General Impression: 

As they say, SXSW is a big tech party, or geek spring break. For two weeks, Austin turns to a big amusement park. Conferences are held at both the Austin Convention Center and various hotels downtown. You see badge-wearing panel goers everywhere, small groups of people sitting in the convention center and hotel lobby discussing the next big idea, eager entrepreneurs pitching investors, startups marketing themselves in many interesting ways.

I have never seen such concentration of hipsters in my life (living in New York, that's a pretty strong statement): 

Just a regular street corner with nerds, business people and musicians: 

Posters (Below photos courtesy of Jeffrey Donenfeld

QR codes: 

Free food: 

Food trucks (This one is sponsored by Groupon, of course): 

Late night favorite:

And of course, parties and music: 

This last one is taken by me at 3am on 6th Street, it can rival Time Square on a Saturday afternoon! 

It's probably a bit all over the place, but just to give you an example that SXSW is not only about panels, but more about getting to know your fellow conference goers in a social setting. If you got a few beers with someone, it's much easier to connect for business later on, than the usual office / powerpoint style. 

Many people came just to take it all in and feel the vibe. For me, seeing all the startups and entrepreneurs, whether 'made it' or not, gave me the energy to push forward long after the conference. Sitting down at a random table in the lobby and chatting up with people, finding out it's someone who founded a dozen companies, is the type of serendipity that make me love SXSW. 

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Learnings from Travel 2.0 Meetup with Founders Cezary Peitrzak and Christy Liu

Travel 2.0 Meetup was very excited to have co-founders of Cezary Pietrzak, Director of Business Development, and Christy Liu, Director of Marketing, to talk about their founder’s story. Here are my learnings:

  1. Design is Essential: Wanderfly is driven by three major components: Marketing, Technology, and Design. Their clean and slick design is among the best I’ve seen lately in travel startups. I love it when startups value the role of user experience and design. Jack Dorsey said:
    And a lot of people think of design, when they hear the word design as visual, something that looks pretty. Design is not just visual, design is efficiency. Design is making something simple. Design is epic. Design is making it easy for a user to get from point A to point B.
    Wanderfly is not only visually beautiful, but also intuitive, following user’s thought process of using a few critical filters to find travel inspirations, offering budget estimate, as well as detailed activities recommendations. The flight and hotel search functions are very easy to use too.

  2. Building Partnerships and Integrate with the Ecosystem. As an unknown startup, establishing partnerships could be challenging. Wanderfly’s approach was to start with the smaller guys first, and work their network. Wanderfly integrates beautifully with Foursquare, Eventful, Rough Guides, Lonely Planet, Nile Guide, Kayak,, Yelp, FindEatDrink, etc., and charge for certain partner content (very smart).

  3. I always believe that the travel market is big enough to have multiple players serving similar purposes, instead of stressing out on someone being the potential competitor and offering similar functionalities, think about creative ways to partner together so both parties could benefit.

  4. Think Through the Business Model before Rushing Into Products. This is a controversial topic. Many believe otherwise and are totally justifiable. Wanderfly team spent 6 months planning, interviewing customers, creating business cases, before working on the actual product. They knew that affiliate model alone cannot sustain the initial phase of the business, so they explored additional revenue streams of partner content sponsorship and B2B solution to power other companies. I believe this served them well to quell the skeptics and to raise funding.

  5. Building a Team with Shared Vision. I love the story that all of Wandefly’s co-founders were friends from University of Pennsylvania. They knew each other and worked together for years, their visions align, and have great dynamics among themselves. An important reason they attracted their Director of Technology is that they were already friends from Penn and knew he was looking to go into the startup world. Having done the leg work of establishing the company and showing traction was essential to attract great technical talent as well.
Cezary and Christy were amazing presenters. They were honest, open and generous with their time to share their lessons learned with the Travel 2.0 Meetup members. The New York tech community is lucky to have such amazing young startup founders who are changing the world. Remember to follow @Wanderfly @cezinho @christyjliu on Twitter and stay updated on their Facebook page and blog! If you were at the meeting, share your thoughts and learnings too!

More pictures from the event here.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Travel 2.0 Meetup with Founders of

Admit it, sometimes we just want to escape. From the crying kids and unwashed dishes, from the demanding boss and office politics, from the craziness or routine of our lives. But we often find ourselves asking: So…where to? There are so many exotic places in the world, how can you pick one that fits your time, budget, and interest? It was pretty hard until Wanderfly came along. On, simply answer a few questions, and you’re in to discover a world of wonderful destinations that you may never heard of or thought about going before. In a few seconds, you also get an estimated cost of the trip. I love the clean and slick design, and have spent hours and hours just browsing all those fabulous places and let my imagination wander.

What’s the secret behind this amazing New York tech startup?

All of us know that travel is a huge market, but most of the money is made during transactions: air, hotel, package bookings. A travel inspiration site like Wanderfly comes very early in the decision making process, would it capture enough transactions or generate enough leads to be profitable?

Even though many of us love thinking and talking about travel, most Americans travel once or twice a year, if ever, especially to international destinations which seems to be Wanderfly’s focus. Would the volume big enough to attract advertisers and realize sizable revenue?

Everyone talk about how hard it is to find a technical cofounder at startups. The founders of CEO Evan Schneyer, Director of Marketing Christy Liu, and Director of Business Development Cezary Pietrzak were classmates at University of Pennsylvania. None of them are whiz coders, how did they first get their idea off ground, find the director of technology, sign up an amazing board of advisors and raise $1 million funding from investors including Charles River Ventures and Jason Calacanis?

And most importantly, what’s next for Wanderfly? What are they cooking up to make travel more social?

These are the questions I’m going to ask them during the Travel 2.0 Meetup’s Online Travel Startup Feature Disucssion on March 17th, 2011. The co-founders of Wanderfly will share their founding stories in an intimate and honest roundtable. What questions would you ask? Join us!

Time: 6:30pm, March 17th, 2011
Location: NYU-Poly Incubator, 160 Varick Street, 12th Floor, NYC

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Giorgia - Gocce di Memoria

One of my favorite Italian songs: Gocce di Memoria (Drops of Memory) by Giorgia.

Was rewatching La Finestra di Fronte (Facing Windows) tonight, a movie about two people passionate about each other didn't end up together. One line stuck with me:

Does everyone who leaves you, always leave part of themselves with you? Is this the secret of memory? If that's true, I feel safer, because I know I will never be alone.

Many people enter our lives, we may never see them or talk to them again, but memories about them may surface at an unexpected moment, triggered by the most inconspicuous things. Memories are the only things who can unite us with people who came into our lives and have left a mark. That said, when you have a choice, ask yourself whether memory is the only thing you should hold on to.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Travel 2.0 Roundtable with Founder/CEO of Drew Patterson

The private sales model has been very successful in the fashion world, it’s only natural for other industries to consider applying it. Even their homepages all look pretty similar with a big splash picture and a sign up section.  We’ve seen
A number of larger Private Sale sites offer combination of several segments: 

We also see crossover between private sales and group sales sites: group sales site LivingSocial plays in the private sales for travel space with its Escapes section, private sales site Gilt plays in the group sales for local experience space with Gilt City.

The space is obviously super hot right now. Where is the industry going? Are there any differences in applying the same private sales model to different industries? What’s their secret for success? Travel 2.0 Meetup invited Drew Patterson, Founder and CEO of, market leader in the private sales for travel space, to talk about his founder’s story on February 8th 2011.

An industry pioneer, Drew was part of the founding team at where, during his five-year tenure as VP of marketing, he played an integral role in reshaping the online travel.  Prior to that, Drew cut his teeth as director of distribution and revenue management at Starwood Hotels, where he forged new distribution channels with online travel agents including Expedia and Travelocity. Drew has a BA from Harvard and MBA from Columbia.

Some of my learnings from the meetup:
  • Find the right partner when you first get started: For any web business, building the initial user base is extremely tough, Jetsetter was able to get a head start by partnering with Gilt and tap into its large member base of similar target demographic.
  • Apply great UX and design to capture consumer interest: User experience design is playing a more and more important role in consumer internet, beautiful and inspiring pictures help build user habit and encourage impulse buy.
  • Personalization is the future: Personalized experiences and recommendations is an important focus for Jetsetter, and it sounded to me that Jetsetter has more ambitions eying the entire travel vertical, instead of only the hotel segment. Considering that they've signed up 1 million users in a short year and half, I’m sure we’ll see many more exciting products coming out soon. 

If you attended the meetup, what did you find interesting from the discussions? For everyone, what do you think is the next big trend in the private sales industry?