Tuesday, November 4, 2008
Interview with Eric Bjorndahl, TravBuddy.com
Story by Benjamin F. Kuo
We recently ran across TravBuddy.com (www.travbuddy.com), a Los Angeles area travel site which allows travelers to meet others, share travel reviews, photos, and more, and had thought it would be great to hear the story behind the site. The highly ranked travel site was founded, and bootstrapped, by two brothers--Eric and David Bjorndahl--and we talked with Eric about the company. (Photo: David on the left, Eric on the right).
For our readers who haven't used your site, what's it all about?
Eric Bjorndahl: At the highest level, we're a social networking web site for travelers. How we differentiate from other social networks that are more general, is that we offer lots of features specific to travelers. The most compelling part of our site is it's possible to find travel buddies online through our web site. For example, if you wanted to travel somewhere, such as Paris, at Christmas, you can see who else is going at the same time. We've had a lot of success with solo travelers, who want to meet other people, travel with locals, or just find someone else to travel with. We've just surpassed 5,000 testimonials from people who have met in real life through the site--those testimonials are how people vouch for each other on the site.
What's the story on how the site started?
Eric Bjorndahl: My personal experience, is I studied in Rome in my senior year in college. I have a background in computer science. At the time, there were lots of social networking sites, like Facebook and MySpace, but there weren't any sites based on travel. I thought it would be great to create one for travelers, who have lots of useful information to be shared. In contrast to a lot of companies, we're still a relatively small startup--it's just myself and my brother, but it supports both of us full time and profitable.
What's your brother's background?
Eric Bjorndahl: My brother also majored in Computer Science, and he's a traveler too. I graduated from U.C. Berkeley in 2005, and right after that I started working on the site. My brother graduated from UT Austin in 2004. I gave him a call, he joined me, and he recently moved out here about two years ago to continue working on the site.
We often hear it's tough working on a startup with family--how has it been for you?
Eric Bjorndahl: That's a great question. When we started, we were working back to back in a tiny room, and sometimes tempers got a little high. The great thing, is we trust each other completely, and the overall benefit of that has been great. We have a pretty strong shared vision of the site. As we continue to grow and start hiring it will be a challenge to maintain that culture. We did have to set clear limits when we'd talk about work and other stuff.
Travel's a very crowded marketplace, how have you stood out and gotten attention given how small you are?
Eric Bjorndahl: Since we haven't taken outside funding, we've done things for low cost. For example, we released a Facebook application right when Facebook applications were first launched. That application basically allowed people to check off the list of companies they've visited, and put a map on their profile page. We launched on MySpace a few months before that, and it was very, very popular. That is what really spurred our growth. Over 600,000 people registered on our site from Facebook alone. That was the biggest thing. Other than that, there has been lots of viral community growth. When people meet in person, they form a much stronger connection to the site and tell their friends and families about it. Another example is a lot of our members have organized travel meetups--in Amsterdam right now, there is a big meetup with over 50 members now. It's one thing to market online, and another offline. That component of people meeting in real life has formed stronger bonds to the site.
What's the business model behind the site?
Eric Bjorndahl: We're primarily advertising driven, and we also do hotel and flight bookings on the site. Those are our three main sources of revenue. The site is completely free to use and for users to sign up.
Travel's been fairly impacted by the economy--how's that affecting your site?
Eric Bjorndahl: We've definitely seen a slowdown in display advertising. However, in terms of actual bookings we haven't noticed a big decrease. I think a lot of companies are running travel deals in order to get people to travel more, so people are getting real good rates to Europe and other places. So, on the travel booking side we haven't noticed any change in bookings, though we've definitely seen a slowdown in advertising. One of the advantages of a site like this is it does help people save costs--members can visit a place and get shown around by a local they met on our site, rather than having to hire a tour guide or join a tour group. That's one of our most popular features.
It looks like you've been a beneficiary of how easily the Web has made starting a company?
Eric Bjorndahl: There's a huge number of web services that are now available to any developer. Things like Google Maps, five years ago, would have costs tons of time and resources to develop. Now, it's something you can set up easily, and set up relatively cheaply. We're also utilizing things like Amazon Web Services to store our photos, so we don't have to build a scalable photo solution to store the 1.5 million photos we have on the site. It's all hosted on Amazon. That's the biggest change--the wide availability of cheap, or free Internet services, which allows two developers to make a very sophisticated site.
What's next for you site?
Eric Bjorndahl: Our biggest focus right now is to continue enhancing the functionality of our site, and growing the community, so that we'll come out of the recession with more market share and an overall better site. We're in a good position, because we have extremely low overhead, the site is able to support us, we don't have outside investors to answer to, and we can continue to gain market share and come out even stronger at the end of the recession.