Travel planning startup YouLi has secured $200,000 in funding as it gears up for scale. But co-founder Jen Fein says she couldn’t have done it without her co-founders — and that finding them was the biggest challenge she’s faced so far.
The idea for YouLi sprung out of Fein’s own destination wedding to Jordan three years ago, when she designed a platform to help guests manage their trip.
Now, the software is a little more sophisticated, and YouLi is sold on to boutique travel providers and anyone else managing group trips, allowing travellers to coordinate their plans.
Fein set out to understand “whether or not you could monetise FOMO”, and if her wedding party was anything to go by, the answer was a resounding yes.
Even on the early prototype platform, guests were able to sign up for a hot air balloon ride and see who else was going.
When her friends saw others were going, they didn’t want to miss out.
“We ended up having to get two balloons,” Fein says.
Now, the startup has raised $200,000 from angel investors and through a friends and family round funding — which, according to Fein, values the startup at $1.6 million.
According to Fein, the funds will be used to invest in the next stage of product development, and to ramp up marketing.
When Fein returned from her wedding, she had a concept that worked. But the journey to actually launching YouLi into the market turned out to be trickier than expected.
First, her initial co-founder dropped out.
“They ended up realising startup life was not for them,” she says.
She met co-founder Caitlin Wynne through a mutual friend, and started working with her on user experience design work.
Finally, in 2015, Fein attended a Girl Geek Academy hackathon, where she met Bron Thulke.
“We weren’t on the same team, and she won,” Fein explains.
The pair got on well, had a lot in common, and struck up a friendship.
“It was about that time when the developers I was working with totally flaked on me.”
This was a week before Fein was due to run a demo of the platform. Thulke, who was freelancing at the time, stepped in and made sure they made the deadline.
“That was a really important thing for me,” Fein recalls.
“Bron showed up, and she was there when I needed her to be.”
From a basic prototype Fein says was “mostly designed on paper”, the newly formed three-woman co-founding team set to work fully building out and launching the product.
True to form, they tested it out on a trip to Kilimanjaro later that year.
And while she may have ended up with the co-founders of her dreams, Fein was surprised by how hard it was to build the team that would get the startup off the ground.
“I didn’t think that would be the biggest challenge I would face,” she says.
Her original co-founder was someone she had known for eight years, and who she had worked with before. Their relationship was trusting and respectful, she says.
When it fell apart, she was “quite wary” of working with someone new.
“I had read that with co-founders, it’s like getting married again,” she says.
“How am I going to bring in a co-founder when I don’t have somebody with that relationship?”
Equally, she notes that, as a developer, she often found herself at networking events with all men and “having to earn their respect”.
The #SheHacks hackathon created space for Fein to connect with other women. Spanning three days, it also allowed enough time to “have unique conversations with people”, she explains.
“It’s really hard to take that spark of a connection and create working relationships,” Fein says.
“That was really valuable to cement,” she adds.
“It creates that foundation of trust, and gives you the space to make a foundation outside of those events.”
For Fein and Thulke, it also gave the pair a chance to see the way the other worked — even if they weren’t aware that’s what they were doing at the time.
“What the hackathon did was give me a place to see [Thulke] for who she was, in her element,” Fein says.
It’s been an emotional journey for Fein. And if she has any advice for other founders, it’s to not expect it to be a quick journey either.
“Expect it to take a really long time,” she says.
“And give yourself permission to take the time it’s going to take.”
This is something it’s taken Fein herself a while to get used to.
“I was benchmarking myself against some absurd startup growth concept,” she explains.
Tech startups can grow quickly. But they don’t necessarily have to.
“More often it’s the Canva story … that was seven years in the making,” Fein says.
“It doesn’t mean you can’t make progress in that time. But it takes that long to establish relationships.”
Fein likens startup growth to an “unrealistic body image kind of thing”.
How do you know if you’re moving fast enough? Are you doing enough?
“It’s the question you ask yourself every day,” she says.
“That can be quite sad.”
Founders should try to find their own benchmark, and go at their own pace, Fein advises. It’s different for everyone, she stresses.
“It could be that in the industry you’re in, it takes three years for them to adopt new technology,” she explains.
To get a B2B product into the market, for example, “actually takes a really long time”.