Sam Bruce formed Much Better Adventures as a tech start-up, and is now working in the heart of London's tech community. Here is his advice on getting your idea off the ground.
What pitfalls do early-stage startups need to be aware of within in the travel & hospitality industry?
The pitfalls are by and large the same as in any industry; have a clear mission and solve an actual problem in a unique way without forgetting about the whole 'how it makes money' bit.
In travel in particular, I've seen an awful lot of startups come and go, usually down to overzealous entrepreneurs biting off more than they should and not differentiating themselves enough from existing solutions. Having done the same thing ourselves, the trick is to achieve product-market-fit, doing one thing very well, to give yourself a blueprint to then move on to the next phase.
The online travel space is fairly competitive and I think it's fair to say you have to work hard to get noticed in the noise. That is not to say that opportunities are not there - they definitely are - there are just countless generic booking sites and apps, online directories, aggregators and their imitators.
The trick to standing out from the crowd online in travel, is to be the best damn place for one piece of the enormous puzzle. Focus on the segment you know best or have some serious competitive advantage within. We didn't see sales take off until we switched off 95% of our site and focused on just one vertical. We then raised off the back of our success with it, on the basis that we could then do it in other verticals too.
What ecosystem needs to be put in place to support early stage startups?
Luckily, the ecosystem for startups gets better every year. The growth in support functions in London especially has been exponential, and I'm confident it will continue to despite Brexit.
There's a startup event every day in London, you can quite literally eat for free if you don't mind a diet of canapes and Carlsberg. The challenge is knowing which events and programmes are worthwhile - sadly there are a good number that are fruitless.
It is possible to make it on your own, but with 90% of startups failing inside three years, a helping hand from the right people can make the difference between surviving and scaling ten times faster. We've learnt this first hand having started the business in a dusty old chalet in the French Alps before moving ourselves to London solely for the support available here for our next phase of growth, joining the Travel Tech Lab and Seedcamp programmes.
Seedcamp's model has worked well for us so far, giving us access to what we need to succeed. The cash investment aside, the true value comes from feedback and introductions on-demand to a global network of experts, mentors and investors as well as our fellow founders who share their good and bad experiences openly.
When we first joined, Alex and I, along with the other founders from our cohort were taken out of our day-to-day firefighting for an intense week-long boot camp. At the time it felt like a lot of time to take off but it was one of the best things we could have done. The insights and reassurance we received that week and since has had a lot to do with where we've taken the business today.
What is the role and value of accelerator programmes within that ecosystem?
There is a growing variety of great accelerators available to entrepreneurs nowadays, for founders at all different stages and in specific verticals, like Fintech, Healthtech or indeed travel tech, with new ones being added to the ecosystem all the time.
Having played mentor at travel tech accelerators in Lisbon and London I can definitely see the value in vertical specific accelerators if they are run well, with the right intentions. I'd like to see more industry-focused accelerators in the UK, with meaningful prizes and ongoing support in place for all those that took part and carried on with their idea.
Accelerators can, in just a few days, prepare you for all the things you need to go through as a startup, from developing your product and building a team to pitching the idea to people who can take it to the next level. Pitching is something that doesn't come naturally to many people. There's an awful lot of pressure to nail something you've maybe never done before inside three minutes - if you even get that long. I think accelerators are a great thing and more should be done to get young aspiring, skilled or simply passionate people access to the experience, particularly at school and university level.
You don't often get a chance to zoom out and have everything about you and your business scrutinised, but it's massively valuable. My overriding feeling during Seedcamp's bootcamp and the accelerators I've been part of was wishing I'd done it earlier.
What insights and advice did you bring from acting as a mentor?
What I loved about mentoring at the recent accelerators was the fast-pace of it and the challenge to get to know a business and its founders in under five-minutes and then providing meaningful bespoke advice. From small things like removing the silly market size stat from the deck, or questioning bigger things like the whole raison d'être of the business.
I also learnt a lot about my own business in the process by watching others pitch and reading through decks - it has a way of helping you realise the things that we could improve too.
Looking at the startups who garnered the most from the accelerator experiences, my advice for anyone about to make their debut is to;
1. Don't be defensive. It's a competitive environment and it can be easy to feel the need to display that you have all the answers, but the truth is, you definitely don't and it's best not to.
2. Build relationships. Relationships play a huge part of the process but people are unlikely going to want to help you if you don't invite feedback and push back on hard questions.
3. User test, user test and user test some more. Make use of potential customers in and outside the room.
4. Know your market. I have seen quite a few decks at travel accelerators that have presented the entire market size instead of the market size that is actually relevant to their solution.
What is missing in the industry and should be created?
From a tech perspective, there is so much yet to do as part of our journey to digitise one of the world's fastest-growing industries and the fragmented suppliers within it. Consumer expectations are growing all the time and the tech needs to catch up. I've just returned from a weekend in Barcelona and my brain was whirring with opportunities for how things could be 10x more efficient at our hotel, how we could have better unlocked authentic experiences, spent less time queuing, and felt safer anytime I spent any money.
The recent investments and acquisitions indicates that travel tech is buzzing right now and access to investment is probably the biggest blocker. You can see from just looking inside the Trampery's Travel Tech Lab that there are some super talented entrepreneurs working on some very big and varied opportunities with immense potential.
Are you developing the next travel app?
If you are a tech start-up with a travel-related app in development, then Marriott TestBED, an accelerator programme is ideal. Marriott Hotels is looking for individuals or companies working on a technology, gadget or app aimed at enhancing or changing the way its hotel guests experience travel.
Those who are selected for the eight week programme will have access to mentoring that includes training and workshops delivered by professionals and potentially go on to launch their product or service at a Marriott Hotel.
Get all the details now at MarriottTestBED.com