Predictive analysis and affinity matching is common to countless digital services, such as Netflix and Pandora, and have been used in different ways in travel, such as Wanderfly or Gogobot.
Zofari is a new Android city guide that offers recommendations not on time, type of vacation or general interests, but based on actual neighborhoods, bars and restaurants.
The user inputs a favorite spot, and the app makes similar recommendations in a different city/neighborhood based on the input.
Like many co-founders in the travel space, Nate Weinstein came up with the idea while on a journey:
The initial idea was born on a vacation to Colombia, where the guidebook was woefully inadequate.
In 2 days, we’d tapped all the “decent” Bogota recommendations, and ended up in the hotel watching bad TV. What I really wanted was to go find the Bogota equivalent of my favourite hometown neighbourhood, the East Village in New York.
This seemed like a natural evolution in location discovery, and after five great years at Google, I was ready for a new challenge. If you’ve ever been caught in a tourist trap, stuck in a hotel watching a crappy movie, or just at a general loss on where to go, Zofari was built for you.
A visit to the website offers a chance to explore the app in detail.
The team of two, Nate Weinstein (CEO) and Jason Kobilka (CTO), took a moment to answer Tnooz's questions regarding their startup.
What is your estimation of market size?
At Zofari, our focus is on mobile advertising for accommodations. Based on current trends in m-commerce and hotel advertising space, we believe the potential current market to be between $600M and $1B, with a user base of ~50M (approximately 40% of smart phone users). As the mobile advertising ecosystem continues to mature, we expect these numbers to grow significantly.
What is the competitive landscape of your market?
The travel and local markets are obviously fiercely competitive, which our focus on mobile narrows marginally. Yelp, Trip Advisor and increasingly Google, with its recent forays into content ownership, are serious incumbents.
In the middle-sized and start-up realm, Lonely Planet, Triposo and m-Guide have all established themselves as strong, talented players. We also expect big things from Hopper when they launch.
What is your revenue model and strategy for profitability?
While we know that price tends to be the top factor in a hotel-seeker’s decision tree, location is a close second. Our strategy is to become the premiere service at answering the question, “where should a person like me stay in City X?” In terms of revenue model, we’re currently experimenting with both affiliate-based lead generation and CPC advertising.
Describe what your start-up does, what problem it solves (differently to what is already out there) and for whom?
Zofari is a new kind of personalized city guide. You tell us your favourite neighborhood, restaurant or bar and we find its best match in the destination of your choice. This is a local experience that just isn’t out there right now.
In reality, the best local recommendations come from a good friend who knows the city, knows you, and can tell you the places you'll love. We know we can’t replace that friend (yet), but we can be there for the times when he or she doesn’t exist.
Why should people or companies use your startup?
If you’re someone who likes to get off the beaten path, who loves to explore, and wants to see places like a local sees them, Zofari is for you.
If you’ve ever been caught in a tourist trap, stuck in a hotel watching a crappy movie, or just at a general loss on where to go, Zofari was built for you. We think of it as a new kind of city guide, that shimmies and adjusts based on your favorite places.
Of course, there are a number of companies that attempt to do this by leveraging your social graph, but we weren't convinced that your friend network was necessarily the most effective proxy here as this will always tend to index towards over-sharers, which actually make up a very small portion of the population.
Our idea was to see if we couldn't start by building something a little more canonical, and pull in other social signals and co-incidence down the road.
Other than going viral and receiving mountains of positive PR, what is the strategy for raising awareness and getting customers/users?
We use traditional marketing channels, including display and cpc keyword advertising, but we’ve also focused significant effort on SEO.
While apps have certainly dominated mobile travel usage, there’s still a huge amount of traffic originating from search. Having launched and led with a mobile web product, we’re betting that we can start winning a good number of these organic searches, especially in the long tail.
How did your initial idea evolve? Were there changes/any pivots along the way? What other options have you considered for the business if the original vision fails?
We’re still in the finding-market-fit stage for the initial vision, which has been validated to a certain degree by very high levels of on-site engagement. That said, we understand how volatile the start-up landscape is, especially one with as many incumbents as travel/local.
We think the data set and methodologies we’ve built (and continue to build) could be applied to a number of other potential businesses, both B2C and B2B.
Where do you see yourselves in 3 years time, what specific challenges do you hope to have overcome?
In 3 years, we hope to have become one of the web’s premiere services at answering 2 questions: a) where should I stay and b) what should I do right now? The key here, of course, is “I”.
In the near term, the vision and goal is to see if we can build an audience around answering the question 'where should I go right now?' So that means launching on native iPhone, refining our Android app, and continuing to develop search as a valid channel. We'll also work on building out higher degrees of personalization -- as we get better at processing our data, our results can become more specific and tailored to the individual person, allowing specific preferences to weight our matches.
We're also investigating a number of potential revenue channels -- our early focus had been on hotel lead gen, but we've received interest from groups who have vested interests in building foot traffic to specific neighborhoods and districts, such as universities, neighborhood associations and commercial developers, so we're having those conversations and seeing where they lead.
Our goal is to make our service completely personalized, so that when you tell us you love the Lower East Side, we know that you’re looking for a place with punk music venues and cool history, and aren’t particularly interested in the great bagels. From a revenue perspective, the goal would certainly be to have enough quality traffic to justify our own ad auction. That said, if we’re alive and kicking, we’ll be happy campers.
What is wrong with the travel, tourism and hospitality industry that requires another startup to help it out?
I think that when it comes to highly personalized recommendations, especially in short-lead and on-the-ground travel planning, travel guides have lagged where other content producers have flourished.
In the music, entertainment, news and even DIY verticals, you see high degrees of personalization. Pandora, Netflix, Twitter, YouTube – these are platforms that are dedicated to delivering you a platter of content tailored to you. As far as I know, there’s no major player in travel who’s cracked this nut.
I also think that folks like Airbnb, Yelp and Anthony Bourdain have shown that there’s a huge audience out there for anyone who can move people away from the traditional tourist traps and towards a more authentic local experience. This is a great trend for everyone, and we hope to play a part in it.
This is an interesting idea - what makes it different than the myriad other travel planning products out there is that it actually focuses on finding places similar to places the user already knows and loves. Rather than starting from some cerebral concept of "hip" or "romantic," which can mean different things to different people, Zofari promises to deliver on like-minded places for travelers seeking a direct connection to currently existing affinities.
The proof will be in the pudding. Will users find the recommendations useful? Will they find a bit more of a fun jumping off point into trip research? Will locals also find utility in the app, as they look to discover new places and establishments in their hometowns?