How Simon and Lani te Hennepe built global travel startup TRAVLR out of a simple PDF document
Monday, March 5, 2018/
Simon and Lani te Hennepe’s travel startup TRAVLR operates across six countries, has over 85 staff, and has raised $5 million in venture capital. But nine years ago, the startup existed only as a single PDF document.
It started as a simple thought: Lani, a seasoned Bali traveller, was planning her and Simon’s first trip to the island together, and was taking notes on different bargains for hotel and restaurant prices.
“I remember her telling me this hotel was $300 bucks a night online, but she knew if you rang then up and bartered with them, you could get it for $100,” Simon te Hennepe tells StartupSmart.
“We thought ‘people should know this’, and it all stemmed from there.”
Those notes became a PDF document — a scripture shared with close friends and relatives that quickly gained notoriety. Hundreds of people were asking for it, so the pair created a Facebook page that went from two followers to 10,000 in a matter of weeks.
Then it became a website, then a mobile app. By that point, it was no longer curating just the te Hennepe’s experiences but collating experiences from thousands of other travellers, letting them make their own Bali Bible and create shareable, personal trips.
Now the Bali Bible sits under the wider business of TRAVLR, with users able to book entire curated trips through the startup’s website. The startup is profitable, has nearly 2 million social media followers, and is already in the midst of seeking a Series B capital injection, just six months after completing a $5 million Series A.
But the te Hennepe’s success required numerous hard yards, and even harder decisions.
A path less TRAVL’d
Simon te Hennepe says he began his journey in the startup industry when he was just 15, starting a personal training business and even employing a few personal trainers before diving into a career leading product marketing and business development teams at companies like 1form and Fillr.
“I always knew I wanted to do my own thing, and I was always forcing my way up as an entrepreneur. Even when I was working in various different businesses full-time I still viewed it as a solution for the interim until I got where I wanted to be,” he says.
The Bali Bible and TRAVLR haven’t been te Hennepe’s only venture over the years, but he willingly admits they’ve been his most successful. The co-founder previously established a number of other ventures, including a web development company and a sunglasses company, along with some other failed projects (he briefly mentions a social media referral platform he admits was one of the “lot of things I’ve done that failed”).
“I’ve been aggressively driven my whole life, and I’ve always wanted to be in this situation as a founder, creating something that disrupts an industry,” he says.
“I just didn’t think a PDF document would be the one to do it.”
To be fair, labelling the Bali Bible ‘just a PDF document’ is a significant undersell. The startup grew rapidly beyond a list of recommendations quite quickly and it began to suck up most of the te Hennepes’ time.
Entirely bootstrapped from the founders income from their full-time jobs, the Bali Bible started as a hobby and a side project, reflected in the fact they “didn’t make a cent from it for the first three years”, laughs te Hennepe.
“We’d work all day at our jobs and then get home at 5pm and work on the company until midnight, replying to emails from users asking about where they should go on their trips. We outsourced development to India, which meant I sometimes had late night calls at two or three o’clock,” he says.
“It was a labour of love, but we knew there was potential to monetise it down the track.”
As they progressed, the money began to roll in, and the startup became more and more self-sustaining, and eventually profitable. At the start of 2015, five years on from the official ‘launch’ of the Bali Bible, te Hennepe says the business was in an amazing place, profitable and running smoothly — a perfect moment to tip everything on its head.
Te Hennepe says it sounded like a crazy idea at the time, taking all the money they had made (and even some they hadn’t) and pouring it into a new entity TRAVLR — an unknown, but one with the potential to become something much bigger than the business they had.
“Lani asked why we’d take something we’d been doing every day for five years and we were finally making a profit on and risk it all on something new,” te Hennepe says.
“She said to me, ‘you’re an idiot, but I’ll back you’, and that was a make or break moment for us. It was either rest on our laurels and sit on what we had for the next five years or whatever, or risk it all and go for the big goal.”
The two remortgaged their house, employed development teams across the world, and fell back into working to midnight every night. The business was “hemorrhaging money”, and te Hennepe laughs that he was “in the bad books” for a year-and-a-half.
“We now look back, and it was such a ride and we learnt so much. We were working full-time and every cent went back into the business, and it was only after a year-and-a-half of doing that did we realise we had made the right decision,” he says.
“We’d be somewhere else entirely if we didn’t go down this path.”
… on how TRAVLR leveraged social media
TRAVLR raises $5 million
Towards the end of last year, TRAVLR closed a $5 million Series A funding round from an array of New Zealand based investors, including Humphry Rolleston, Peter Guthrey and Grant Moreton. Te Hennepe says he had been involved in Series A processes with previous businesses so he had experience in the area, but it still required a lot of legwork.
The startup got more interest from more parties than the founders were expecting — an unusual feeling for te Hennepe who says he’s usually “begging” people to invest in his ideas.
“We got to pick and choose, and that’s never happened to me before,” he says.
But the two wanted more than just capital, looking for investors who could give them networks and business experience. They landed on the group of New Zealand investors that te Hennepe says have over 120 years of travel industry experience collectively.
“My view was the better our investors’ experience, the increasing potential for use to be the next TripAdvisor,” he says.
Startup founders who focus more on the capital rather than the investors themselves are going down the wrong path, he says, with experience being “worth its weight in gold”. But te Hennepe recognises TRAVLR might have been in a unique experience, saying not every startup founder can pick and choose.
“It’s hard to say to people they should pick and choose their investors because not many people are in that very fortunate position to be selective like we were. That’s where your relationships and networks play a massive factor,” he says.
The startup has also recently hired two executives: a chief operating officer in Geoff Stringer, who has experience working at Lonely Planet and Sensis; and a chief technical officer in Stuart Rowe, who also worked at 1Form and Fillr.
Te Hennepe is very excited about the recent hires as TRAVLR moves forward, and says that staffing has always been a difficult task for the startup but the team he has now is “just amazing”
“Someone told me years ago to find the right person, and fill the role around them, build them into a specific role. We’ve gone about it in that manner and we’ve always found the right people who fit the company and share our vision,” he says.
The company is now looking to future expansion, with TRAVLR’s service offerings soon to be launched in Seychelles, Indonesia, the Cook Islands, and New Zealand.
“It’s been a crazy journey, and we’re already in Series B conversations. We want to be in 20 countries, and we’ve already got tourism boards fighting for us and our technology,” he says.
“I never thought we’d be here today.”
… on what it means to be a founder