Entrepreneurs, Profiles

Team mates to entrepreneurs: Travello co-founder Mark Cantoni on being a non-tech tech founder and running a business with your buddy

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien /

Travello

Travello co-founders Mark Cantoni and Ryan Hanly. Source: Supplied.

As old sports buddies and travel nuts, Travello founders Mark Cantoni and Ryan Hanly got into business together almost accidentally.

But three years later, they’re raising millions to develop their social media travel app, and their friendship is alive and well. It’s even been a key ingredient in a culture of trust that has developed throughout their business.

Founded in 2015, Travello is a social network designed for travel, allowing like-minded globetrotters to connect and offering recommendations for activities and adventures.

Two months after launch, the startup had users in 100 countries, Cantoni tells StartupSmart.

“We were onto something,” he says.

Now, an accelerator program and two capital raises later, Travello’s got 350,000 users and is growing that number by 10% to 15% month-on-month.

Cantoni doesn’t reveal the company’s revenue growth, but predicts it will grow within the next six to 12 months.

While the startup saw some early traction, it’s was being accepted into Telstra’s muru-D accelerator in 2016 that “really helped propel our business”, Cantoni says.

Later that year, the founders completed a $1.26 million capital raise, allowing them to “get some really good tech guys on board and grow the platform.”

Since then, the startup has been working on developing commercial partnerships, creating brand awareness and growing the user-base, while also expanding into new markets and “creating brand awareness around Australia”, Cantoni says.

And just last month, Travello raised a further $5 million from various private investors who have not been named.

Friends and founders

The Travello founders go way back, having met at university playing rugby league together. With mutual loves of sport and travel, the pair stayed in touch and came to a point “where we were both looking for a bit of change in our lives”, Cantoni says.

Being in business together wasn’t something either founder necessarily saw coming, he adds, but “so far, it seems to be working”.

There are ultimately more plus points than challenges when you’re working with a friend, Cantoni says.

“We have some robust conversations, but at the end of the day it’s all good,” he adds.

“There’s an element of trust because we’ve known each other for so long … We can be really upfront with each other and we won’t take it personally.”

Cantoni and Hanly also make it work by ensuring they draw a line between the business and their personal lives. When it comes to Travello, it’s about “sometimes just switching off and not talking about it”, Cantoni says.

And while there’s no one way to make a friend-and-co-founder relationship work, “I think having some common interests outside work helps”, he adds. “It’s a part of what works for us”.

The pair are also well aligned in their vision for the startup, and have had “no major arguments to date,” says Cantoni.

That element of friendship and trust is something that now permeates the whole Travello team.

As two non-technical co-founders, Cantoni and Hanly haven’t always had it easy. They’ve also needed to rely on their early hires.

In the early days, the startup had to bring in a tech team, paid only in vested equity in the business, who had to “completely rebuild the app”, Cantoni says.

“There was not one line of code that the original company created,” he adds.

From the beginning, those staff members were “invested in the company”, says Cantoni, who believes Travello was lucky in “finding the right guys and girls to really believe in us”.

“They’re still with us today,” he adds.

In fact, the company now has a headcount of 12 people, and plans to grow to a team of 15 in the next few months. So far, “everyone who has come on board is still with us”, Cantoni says.

“That’s a good validation,” he adds.

“We think we have a very good culture here — not just work-life culture. At the moment, everyone really gets on.”

Exciting things on the horizon

For Travello, the pipe dream is to “become the number one travel social network”, Cantoni says.

“What that looks like, or how it transpires I don’t know, but that’s the main goal,” he adds.

In the near future, the founders have plans to make some data-driven changes to help them understand their customers better, and to encourage further growth. This involves creating a resource to “really see what people are loving and utilising”, Cantoni says.

There are also plans in the pipeline for a business-to-business platform to plug into Travello, allowing businesses to engage with customers throughout more of their travel journey, although Cantoni declines to to share many details on that, apart from saying “there are some exciting things happening on that front”.

For startups in the early stages of their journey, Cantoni’s advice is to get as much help as you can.

There’s huge benefit in going through an accelerator program, he says.

Cantoni says the muru-D program allowed Travello to  “enter the market”. During that time the founders went to meetups and events, connecting with other startup founders and people working in their fields of either travel or technology.

“We just connected with as many people as we could in the space,” he adds.

The entrepreneur also advises founders to approach “anyone that’s knowledgeable and highly regarded”. They may be surprised at how many people are “willing to help and willing to share their knowledge with you”, he says.

And, of course, Cantoni would recommend finding “a co-founder you have known for a while”.

It may not work for every startup, and it’s “not a dealbreaker”, but for Travello, it has provided “an element of trust”, Cantoni says.

“You don’t have to second guess each other,” he adds.

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Stephanie Palmer-Derrien

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien is a reporter at StartupSmart.

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