Pivot alert: Mygola has changed its business model to become a one-stop-shop for travel itineraries, abandoning its previous trip planning portal.
Previously users could post questions to the US and India-based Mygola's travel experts and get recommendations back (the first question was free, with a fee for any additional probing).
The company secured $1 million funding in 2011 and since then has been expanding its user base and travel expert team.
Now, however, Mygola has transformed into a visual itinerary planning tool with a new user interface. Users will be able to search for a destination, then either select an itinerary from a bunch of already existing itineraries or create a new one from scratch.
For a selected itinerary, the system displays all point of interest in a destination.
Users can view pictures (in various sizes) of each PoV and mark them as "Maybe" or '"Definitely". Each attraction has a descriptive text and a tip.
Now, with the shortlisted point of interests, users are allowed to plan their itinerary in a new user interface.
Users can add/remove a day, drag and drop point of interests, extend/reduce time for each activity, ask the system to recommend list of attractions for the time left in a day, pose questions to the travel experts.
Pictures for the point of interest are pulled from various sources in the web and the description is from Wikipedia.
But, slick new tools and interface aside, this is still a marked change from the original vision.
Q&A with co-founder Prateek Sharma:
Is the new Mygola all about planning itineraries and inspiring to travel? Do you also provide booking service?
The trigger for creating the new Mygola started in mid 2012. We asked ourselves if there is anything more we could do for our users. Not just in terms of incremental improvements, but in terms of something more fundamental.
We found two signals that answered our question.
The first signal was from our users. We looked deep at all questions that our users were asking us and we realised that a huge proportion of these questions were targeted directly or indirectly at itineraries. We got plenty of questions similar to this style - "I am going to Spain for 10 days, what should I do".
The second signal was the state of the travel web, currently there is massive soup of information. Very rich soup, full of awesome content but very hard for the average traveler to make sense out of it. It was obvious that this soup needed a structure on top of it. We realised that an "itinerary" was a great structure to use here. If the traveler could experience the travel web through the lens of an itinerary, it will things simpler and more actionable for the traveler.
Now, how do we validate if itineraries are really important to users?
So we went out to the field and interacted with hundreds of users, they told us how important itineraries are for them and how exactly they use them.
We also looked around the web to see how itineraries were being used, and realised that itineraries are everywhere.
On forums like Thorntree people were sharing their itineraries and asking for feedback.
OTAs and tour operators like Expedia or Abercrombie & Kent have used itineraries forever to sell their packaged tours.
Travel blogs and articles in publications like the NYTimes, if you think about it, are essentially itineraries with a lot of personal experience thrown in.
Interestingly, Tripit did a lot of cool work on making itineraries effortless but they have become quite focused on the business traveler after the acquisition.
We believe we can truly make the itinerary experience shine for the leisure traveler.
So the new Mygola is about getting inspired by high quality itineraries and using them to build an itinerary for yourself, that is as much or as little customised as you want. This is a service for the independent traveler who is very discerning but also wants to make the most of their time.
Enabling bookings is definitely on the cards but we want to build it the right way. Infact a lot of our beta users told us that they would love to be able to book itineraries they created on Mygola.
We're right now focussed on getting the itinerary creation experience perfect but bookings will come soon.
While I was experiencing the new Mygola, I clicked a "guide" link and landed in Vayable. The new Mygola revenue stream is through referrals?
The way we're thinking about the new Mygola is that it curates the best of the travel web for the user.
We've worked to get the best 360-degree views so that you can immerse yourself into the destination, the best local tours so that you can get an authentic experience when you are at the destination and the best blogs and photoblogs to give you a personal peek into the destination.
Yes, referral is definitely a revenue stream that we will explore but not focussed on it right now.
What about the 20,000+ travel experts that you had? Earlier, "ask-a-question-to-our-expert" was the core feature of the platform, with the new Mygola, this feature looks sidelined and it is one among the core feature of "visual-itinerary-planning"?
I am glad you asked this. In fact this was exactly the question we asked ourselves when we started building the new Mygola.
We knew that as a startup we had built this unique capability. We were pondering how to leverage this to improve our new offering.
After much discussion, we ended up completely reinventing our process around travel experts.
While answering questions from travelers is still something we continue to do, the bigger portion of our experts now focus on helping us structure massive amounts of travel information.
Our technology does the heavy lifting (in fact, we’ve developed multiple patent-pending technologies as a result) by looking at huge amounts of unstructured data on the web and deducing itinerary structures from them.
Our experts then review these and help finalize this structure. This helps us offer really high quality itineraries to our users.
This is also the approach we use to identify best pictures, videos, descriptions, open/close hours etc for every place on the planet.
Our understanding of large distributed workforces has allowed us to scale this process to thousands of itineraries and hundreds of thousands of individual attractions, cafes etc. There is significant value in this structured dataset.
So to answer your question, yes we now offer a lot more than just "ask a question". But we continue to use our unique “Robocop” (90% tech, 10%human) approach to offer a unique experience to users.
Is there a change in your business model from being a human-expert-led model to a travel-inspiration-portal model?
Yes, a big change has happened at Mygola. We've fundamentally rethought the whole experience we offer to users. The vision is still the same though.
We want to dramatically simplify the travel web for the traveler. In the new Mygola, we don't offer just inspiration but inspiration as a stepping stone to solving hard problems that travelers face.
Yes, this impacts our business model as well but I think the bigger change is in our product and the company.
Over the last few months, not only have we built this new product but also created a whole new set of internal processes to support this new product.
What's the revenue model of the new Mygola?
Can't share a lot of details here but our older paid Q&A is still in place. It has become less upfront, though.
How long did it take to transform and build this new site?
I think it took us about eight months. While this was a big engineering challenge, I think the bigger challenge was to figure out what to build.
We had strong ideas but it's still a long journey from ideas to product. This is another area where we took a new approach.
We took inspiration from Steve Blank and Eric Ries and tried the customer development approach to get a very deep understanding of users, what their problems are and how we can solve these problems.
We did problem/solution interviews and then followed up with usability interviews to quickly iterate on the product. Several times we had to throw out a part of the product because it just wasn't working for users.
Challenges faced and what you did to overcome it?
I think the biggest challenge was getting a very deep understanding of the user and building something that users really wanted.
Using the customer development approach really worked for us. The other challenge was to reorient the team to think in a different direction.
We are a small team, and just a couple of years old, but even here a momentum builds up which takes effort to change.