When Shana Zheng and Aigerim Shorman were students at the University of Southern California, they shared a passion for travel that took them on study abroad programs, as well as on short trips organized by the University over winter and spring breaks. “The place that inspired our business idea was Thailand,” recalls Zheng. “There were elephant rides and monkey feedings. But it’s such a touristy place that you don’t get a chance to meet local people. We wondered ‘where are the local college students?’” The company they eventually launched together, TripTrotting, connects globetrotting travelers with a taste for authentic experiences to local hosts eager to play tour guide.
A Small Detour
First, however there was a two-year detour into the world of investment banking for both young women, who graduated from USC in 2007. “It was the best boot camp you can go through,” says Zheng of their banking careers. But in 2008, the partners finally realized that long hours and demanding careers in banking left them little time to pursue their entrepreneurial dream. So they both quit and took “normal” jobs. Zheng went to work for Disney and Shorman signed on with Teach for America. “We were trained to work long hours, so when we got nine to six jobs, we had a lot of time on our hands that we could put into our business,” says Zheng. After work, the two would grab a bit to eat, then head over to the USC library to work on TripTrottting for a few hours.
Testing the Concept
They first tested their concept by working with USC’s study abroad program, starting with a group of students headed for Thailand. After collecting information on students, they then matched travelers with local hosts rustled up through a university in Thailand. “It was super manual,” Zheng says, “but it was the only way we knew how to do it and we needed to prove that people wanted this.” In January of 2011, they quit their jobs and devoted themselves to TripTrotting full time.
Originally, the company was housed in and funded by Bill Gross’s Idea Lab—a perk that the Zheng and Shorman landed after placing second in a graduate level business competition at USC. In the summer of 2011, they were ready to launch an alpha version of their website, with all of their attention focused on building a community of users, rather than on generating revenue.
Users Speak Up
As more users signed up, the partners were surprised to learn that many “triptrotters” were interested in meeting one another in their own communities. “They created local events, and that became a great way to organically grow the community,” Zheng says. It also became a viable revenue-generating model.
In June, TripTrotting relaunched its website with an activities platform. Members can now sign up for activities—attended by both locals and travelers—that are organized by vendors with whom TripTrotting shares revenue. In New York City, for instance, the company recently offered a nighttime photo shooting experience, and in Hong Kong, there was a well-attended squid fishing event. All the activities have a distinct local flavor. No double-decker tour buses allowed, Zheng says.
Still, Zheng is clear that the partners have no intention of turning their company into an “activities aggregator.” TripTrotting’s primary mission, she says, is to make one-on-one introductions between travelers and hosts, using a proprietary matching engine that was created with the help of a former scientist at eHarmony. Zheng says that TripTrotting has already facilitated meetups among almost 10,000 people.
The company’s proven ability to scale recently enabled Zheng and Shorman to raise $1.5 million from Golden Seeds, an investment firm dedicated to female entrepreneurs. The company now has over 50,000 members in 2,000 cities and 150 countries. Thirty percent are in Europe, another 30 percent are in Asia, and only 10-15 percent are in the U.S. “We never thought of it as a local business,” Zheng says. “We’ve found that people are interested in global citizenship."
Donna Fenn is a business journalist and co-founder of Y.E.C. Mentors, an initiative of the Young Entrepreneur Council. She is author of Upstarts! How GenY Entrepreneurs are Rocking the World of Business and 8 Ways You Can Profit From Their Success and Alpha Dogs: How Your Small Business Can Become a Leader of the Pack.
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