Peek is a San Francisco startup that launched to fanfare at a rooftop party in autumn 2012. It's a tours-and-activities platform with two sides: one aimed at consumers and the other at suppliers.
For consumers, Peek offers a curated list of 20,000 things to do in selected destinations in the U.S. and Mexico, plus Paris and London. Activities include ziplining, swimming with sharks, and taking a cooking class.
On its business-to-business side, Peek offers a suite of software tools to help activity operators run their companies.
Peek has competition on the consumer front. Last week GetYourGuide received a $50 million Series C, in the sector's biggest funding round yet -- led by venture capital firm KRR.
In 2014, TripAdvisor acquired Viator, the largest consumer player in tours-and-activities, for $200 million. That company also has some (basic) tools for suppliers.
Competitive, too, is Expedia Inc --estimated by analysts to sell a roughly comparable number of tours and activities as Viator. Another player, Zerve, has raised $20 million.
On the supplier side, dozens of other companies worldwide have attempted to offer similar tools and product suites, such as FareHarbor, Musement, RezGo, RezDy, TicketingHub, and TourCMS(which was just acquired by Palisis).
Yet the economics remain challenging, according to a report from the consultancy Phocuswright, and a lively panel talk at World Travel Market.
Peek has raised $6.9 million and is backed by investors such as Eric Schmidt, Jack Dorsey, Carl Sparks, and David Bonderman.
In 2014, Peek was named one of Fast Company’s 10 Most Innovative Companies in Travel, and one of Time magazine’s 50 Best Websites. This year, it won the Tribeca Film Festival Disruptive Innovation award.
CEO Ruzwana Bashir, 32-years-old, has had a storied career, to date. After investment-banking and private-equity gigs at Goldman Sachs and Blackstone Group, she earned her MBA at Harvard as a Fulbright Scholar.
She worked at Gilt Groupe and Art.sy before co-founding Peek with Oskar Bruening, an MIT grad who has worked at businesses like VMware and Symantec.
Tnooz recently spoke with Bashir by phone. The following transcript has been edited for brevity.
Tnooz: Peek has a consumer offering and a B2B offering. Is the startup still dedicated to both?
Ruzwana: We are fully dedicated to both. We’re similar to OpenTable. Just as OpenTable is solving problems on both the consumer and the supplier side of the equation in the restaurant space, we’re doing something similar in the activities space.
A couple of companies have potential in tours and activities. But there isn't a massive brand in this space yet. Most of the activity inventory is not online bookable. There’s a lack of real-time availability....
That’s why we started building B2B tools. Those tools evolved into Peek Professional, a suite of software tools helps operators get inventory online and available via mobile in real-time.
Tnooz: What’s the balance of your business now?
Ruzwana: For the last couple of years, we've been very focused on Peek Professional. That work is probably more extensive than you might be aware.
The tools save a lot of time for suppliers, because they provide customer relationship management. Things that would normally be done manually, like email responses to customers, are now done instantly....
We also have mobile apps for tour operators and their guides to run their entire businesses while they're on the go -- whether that's taking walk-ups, whether it's having manifested everyone who's coming, and having records saved in the cloud.
As you can imagine, tour operators or guides are rarely behind desks....
We have built the best in-class B2B software for tours. We’re the industry leader in this space in the US. That's been our big focus.
Tnooz: In a 2014 New York Times article, Peek said it had had double-digit month-on-month growth in 2013. Could you share a more current, comparable figure?
Ruzwana: We've grown just over 1,000% in the last year, in terms of bookings through our whole platform, consumer and business, with a huge increase in the number of operators participating.
Ruzwana: We’ve monetized those supplier tools. We're building a very healthy and profitable business, because we charge for the Peek Professional tools as well as any bookings that we send through our consumer site.
It’s been great to see two things: A, the product works and our operators love it, and B, there's this huge market opportunity for us to go out and provide these tours to not only more operators in America, where we have principally focused, but also everywhere else in the world, too.
We've been scaling up as a result of our revenue growth, adding more talent into the team. We are outgrowing our office space….
Tnooz: How many full-time salaried employees does Peek have now?
Ruzwana: The team's about 55 people. We are recruiting, though. A lot of what we've been doing is adding more senior talent to the team....
Tnooz: Peek Pro is only on the Apple operating system, right?
Ruzwana: We've focused on iOS, and Apple has really loved our apps, so we were selected as a Best New App by Apple. Last summer, if you went into Apple stores
in San Francisco* across the US*, and wanted to look at iPhones, you would see the Peek consumer app loaded on the display devices....
*CORRECTED at 16:22. Sorry.
Tnooz: In October and in the summer, you released some updates to the Peak Pro apps for iPad and iPhone. Could you talk about that?
Ruzwana: In terms of more functionality, which I think you are asking about, we've added several things that small businesses need…. Take waivers, for instance. Often, if you go horse riding or you go zip-lining, you have to sign a waiver.
Ruzwana: And that waiver is typically a physical piece of paper that the small business keeps for seven years.
Ruzwana: As you can imagine, there are thousands and thousands of these pieces of paper that you have to keep as a small business.
So, imagine how incredible it is to suddenly have an app that you, as a guide, can use on your iPhone or an iPad, and let customers just sign with their finger, and then you upload the record to the cloud and you never have to worry about it again.
You have tens of thousands of these waivers that are all saved in the cloud. Easily searchable, and you never have to think about it.
Tnooz: Nice. When was that, the saving the waivers form functionality, when was that added?
Ruzwana: That came out in the last few months.
Tnooz: Okay. By offering a B2B solution that competes with other independent tour operator software providers, Peek risked cutting itself off from other sources of inventory, because other tour-and-activity service providers that own supplier inventory might have been reluctant to offer bookable inventory up to Peek’s consumer-facing site. Did that worry pan out?
Ruzwana: That's a pretty long question.
Tnooz: It is.
Ruzwana: I'm just messing.
Tnooz: Has it mattered, the approach that you've taken?
Ruzwana: No, what we're seeing is that about 90% of the activities in the US have no form of real-time availability online. So, the vast majority of tour operators don't have any form of online booking.
Ruzwana: We are already the number-one tour operator software in the US. You know, when I started our business, I didn't realize how impactful we would be for small businesses.
The vast majority of software operators aren't using any software. They're using pen and paper. They might be using Excel, they might be using Google Calendar.
So we really haven't had an issue with getting supply, because so few operators are using any kind of software. In a very short period of time, we've accelerated and grown to have the most number of operators in the US using our software to run their business, according to our internal research.
We see our tour operators really using Peek Professional as a backbone of their operations.
Tnooz: Peek uses a curated model, while the largest player in the space, TripAdvisor-owned Viator has in the past year gone for the open marketplace model, following the lead of the other large consumer player GetYourGuide. What are the pros and cons of your model versus Peek’s alternative approach?
Ruzwana: In the end, really what we're trying to do is provide lots of coverage, so that every single different type of activity is available to somebody who comes to Peek, but also that they're getting high-quality experiences.
Because a lot of the reasons that this space is difficult to people when they're booking is that there's a lot of anxiety. A traveler may ask themselves, “Is this the best price? If I'm going to go off on this tour for five hours, am I going to enjoy it?”
Ruzwana: Because I'm doing it with my friends or my family, and it's terrible, we can't get that time back. Because of that anxiety, curation is important.
When we talk about curation, it's really another way of saying that we give recommendations that are based on themes, like what to do with kids, or foodie activities, or adventure activities.
We also have lists of recommendations from tastemakers that people can trust, like former mayor of San Francisco Gavin Newsom's highlights of the city, or Paris picks from TV host Suze Orman.
That's really helpful for people in terms of discovery.... Otherwise, if somebody just lists 500 activities in one location, that's almost overwhelming, and it actually may do the opposite of us wanting to book an activity because there's some friction.
Our model has been helped by adding price guarantees and reviews, too.
Tnooz: You have used your personal brand to promote Peek in a variety of outlets and venues that are relatively unconventional for the relatively staid travel technology industry. For instance, you have appeared in Cosmopolitan, Elle, and Vogue magazine issues and in recent advertisements for Tumi luggage. I can’t think of any other travel technology startup founder who has leveraged their personal brand to such an extent, which has gotten you interviews on CBS News and the Charlie Rose Show. How has this paid off for Peek?
Ruzwana: It is actually funny, because for every example you mentioned, all of those outlets reached out to Peek. Just as you did.
Ruzwana: So it's actually funny, because I think the assumption is, 'Oh, they reached out because of Ruzwana', but actually they reached out because of Peek.
And they said, 'Hey, look, we'd love to partner with you.'
As an example, Tumi loved the brand alignment in terms of what we do. For Tumi, they care about quality, they care about people going out and using their luggage to have these great experiences, and they really cared that our brand was a great mix for them in terms of that idea of us serving these global citizens as well.
In the end, most of the outreach that has happened to us has really not been about me. It's been about the company....
Tnooz: What’s your advice to other founders about how to decide if using their personal brand to get their name out through a variety of outlets is an effective use of their time?
Ruzwana: It helps that our product is something that's personally very resonant with people.
Travel experiences are something that everyone is passionate about. So, unless you are an entrepreneur in a space where people interact emotionally with your product, it may not be possible to get the level of attention we have gotten.
I was not already in the media prior to starting a company. I'm a first-time founder. So, really the only reason that people in these outlets might know me, is because of my role as a CEO of Peek. It's really been about the concept, which is, instead of people buying products, they should be buying experiences.
What has lent credibility to us as a small company in the eyes of these channels is that they also know that we have these well-known taste-makers providing perfect day recommendations on our site.
We also have a great group of investors who are clearly the best in the business when it comes to technology or travel, and that lends legitimacy to us as well in the media’s eyes.
Tnooz: Does Peek use much paid advertising to promote itself? Like Google AdWords or posters on the Muni?
Ruzwana: We don't do a ton of offline marketing; we do some online marketing. ... But we've not done a huge amount of marketing spend overall yet. That will change over time, obviously.
Tnooz: Okay. How many locations is Peek in today?
Ruzwana: We're in about 25 locations, and some are launching soon, so we've got a few cities that are ready for launch, and will be launching shortly. We've been growing in the destinations we already serve, really based on where a lot of the demand has been.
Tnooz:In March 2014, the New York Times reported, “Peek.com had grown to 17 cities in the United States, as well as London and Paris. Now it plans to use its latest fund-raising round to expand into at least 10 more locations this year, including Mexico, Ms. Bashir said.” Is there a reason why your geographic expansion didn’t go as far as you had hoped?
Ruzwana: After the funding, initially, we said, 'Hey, let's increase our geographic coverage a lot more.' Then what we realized is more of the need for us was in building the supplier infrastructure first. It was important to do more of the B2B side than to enable the B2C.
It doesn't really matter what geographies you're in if that content is not available in real-time. The continual focus that we've had as a business is, let's get as many tour operators in the world, predominantly in the US, because that's just where our company is, using our software so that we can get them online.
We can get them getting more bookings themselves and can make them more successful in terms of running their business. But then we can also leverage and allow Peek to have this great access to inventory, which is bookable in real-time, which is a rare offering in the market today.
Tnooz: At what point in the timetable are you going to switch focus, do you think, and work more on the demand-generation side? That way, suppliers will want to keep using the B2B tools, because they see revenue generation through it?
Ruzwana: We're doing both. We've had more of a focus on the B2B side the last couple of years, but we are doing both and we are involved in both, and it's important to do both, as you noted.
Tnooz: Could you talk about your distribution, co-marketing and integration with leading brands?
Ruzwana: Yeah, absolutely. Stripe is a partner on the payment side that just really simplified the payments process, and we had a really great experience doing that, and that's important.
When it comes to more of this co-marketing or distribution, we love our great brand relationship with Virgin America. Peek.com and our app are the only tours and activities partner in their Elevate rewards program, and it's really great to be recognized by a brand that is really aligned with us....
Tnooz: Can you talk about Peek-nics?
Ruzwana: We invite people who are friends of the company, who love what we do, who are open to coming by for lunch and sharing their experiences and answering any question the team has....
It's fantastic, because our guests have been tremendously open. It's Chatham House rules. There's no tweeting about what's said.
It's really about people being able to have this great experience with these entrepreneurs and leaders, like Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, Jeff Fluhr, who's the founder of StubHub, who's also one of our investors, and Rick Dalzell, who was the CIO of Amazon for a long time....
Just as importantly, we have had some operators come in and share some of their experiences. Plus people giving back to their community, like a founder of Code.org, which is involved in helping kids learn to code....
Our employees seem to really love it. We really care a lot about really building a culture. When you look at our core values, a lot of it's around intellectual curiosity, around taking initiative to really push yourself to be the best you can be.
NB: Images courtesy of Peek.
READ THIS NEXT: New focus on activities as Booking.com partners with buoyant GetYourGuide