The entrepreneurs behind Corner, a metasearch app, have some travel industry experience under their belts. In 2009, CEO co-founded Russia’s version of Kayak, Airban.ru, he later sold to a large digital company.
The CEO has put together a new team to build a metasearch app that claims to be the fastest way to book a flight to any corner of the world. Just select your travel dates and you can browse a half-dozen filtered, relevant possibilities on the first screens.
It's a fresh variation on Hipmunk's agony search and Google's Best price recommendations. And it's use of a calendar interface may be the most conceptually nimble that Tnooz has seen on mobile for a flights app.
This video tour suggests the interface's cleverness. (But turn the volume down before you play it in an office.)
Q&A with Artom Konovalov:
Tell us how you founded the company, why and what made you decide to jump in and create the business.
I was born in Russia and moved to San Francisco at the age of 3. At the age of 10, I moved back to Russia.
Growing up, I swam professionally all the way throughout my college years. Having spent a lot of time around former athletes, I’d heard a lot about how they had to find a way to restart their life after retiring from the sport. I decided not to wait, and stopped swimming at the age of 22.
A few months later, I read an article about a company called Kayak. I thought, we have nothing like that in Russia, so a friend and I founded a small startup that was Russia’s version of Kayak.
A year later, a big Russian company called Rambler (Russia’s equivalent of Yahoo!) acquired our humble startup, and we began work on the second version of our product.
During my three years at that company, I met my two cofounders, Dmitry Panshin and Merdan Agaev, as we worked together on a number of projects.
At one point I was approached by a group of investors that wanted us to come up with ideas for a new travel startup.
We initially turned them down because we hated travel search and everything related to that business.
Later on, we ended up accepting the offer as a dare, to see if we could forget everything we knew about travel and rethink the entire booking experience around it.
Corner is starting with flights because that’s how customers start planning their travels.
My two cofounders are CTO Dmitry Panshin, who had 7 years’ experience as the CTO of a lifestyle website similar to Yelp, called afisha.ru; and designer Merdan Agaev, who worked as one of the art directors at afisha.ru, as well as designed products for companies such as Microsoft.
Size of the team, names of founders, management roles and key personnel?
I'm Artom Konovalov, cofounder and CEO of Corner. My two cofounders are Dmitry Panshin, CTO; and Merdan Agaev, CDO (Design). The rest of our team is made up of backend and iOS developers, as well as operations staff, to a total of 9 people.
Right now we have a pre-seed round, and are starting to raise a seed-round in the US.
Estimation of market size?
The total number of flights booked in the world are estimated to be at 1.1 million per day.
All active metasearch engines.
Revenue model and strategy for profitability?
Corner features one streamlined checkout experience without redirecting you to other sites, no matter which partner you book through.
We decided to reverse the traditional search model; from directly integrating our product and running searches directly through leading global distribution systems (GDS), locally querying online travel agencies (OTA) for markups, to displaying the final prices on our app for customers.
Because everything happens within the Corner, we make the actual bookings ourselves, then forward the responsibility to the OTA after we process payment.
We earn revenue from GDS incentives and do not take any additional commission fees from OTAs; essentially making the system free for them to participate, and driving sales volumes to help them gain bonuses from airlines or earn money on markups that they add to the base fare.
What problem does the business solve?
For our initial launch, we focused on tackling three main problems:
#1 – Choice:
When you’re searching for a flight using the traditional methods, you always have to look through hundreds and thousands of search results. But what if you’re flying SFO to JFK and only five airlines can get you there? Why are we showing customers so many results? Why are customers the ones who have to filter through all this information? Shouldn’t we be the ones doing the difficult work?
Corner sorts 1,600 results by a simple algorithm: the cheapest flights are set within a certain time of day, while the only other options that matter are the more expensive flights that get you there faster—the ones worth paying more for. When you sort all flights with the same algorithm, you end up with 6-8 options that are much easier to choose from.
#2 – Checkout:
The problem with all these apps is that once you select the flight you want to book, you’re redirected to another website on your phone to complete the checkout process. It’s not the best user experience, and bad for conversion rates.
Within our app, all of our partners are integrated via full booking APIs which eliminates the need to be redirected. Also, customer profiles can be saved so users will never have to enter their information on another booking.
#3 – Exploration:
When we solved the problem of being able to quickly browse top flight options, we decided that Corner needed to bring back travel inspiration as a key component of how customers select their flight destinations.
The way we see it, there’s no such thing as “spontaneous travel”.
Most people have an idea of where they want to go, but upon checking prices they quickly realize that it’s not the ideal they had in mind. Then they’re hit with the question of “where else can I go?” That’s why Corner is set up in a different way where you just enter your travel dates, and we show you a list of places to go. Users can browse by price, alphabet, weather or flight time. Once they select a destination, they move on to select their flight itinerary.
How did the initial idea evolve and were there changes/any pivots along the way in the early stages?
We spent the first six months of development trying to forget everything we knew about traditional booking and flight search methods. Once we got past that, we were able to kindle our ideas from scratch, and it was a lot easier to think up new ways of simplifying the booking experience for customers.
Why should people or companies use the business?
Because we’ll help them figure out where to go and what to buy quicker than anyone else. If you like us, don’t want to spend hours looking through results then this is the place for you.
What is the strategy for raising awareness and the customer/user acquisition (apart from public relations)?
We focus on building a great user experience that solves problems for users at each stage of the booking path. If we can solve that problem perfectly for the customer, then he/she becomes the leading voice to raise awareness for our product. Obviously we’re not going to stop at that, but the core principle of our product is to think about acquiring loyal customers in the long run, as opposed to the total number of downloads.
Where do you see the company in three years’ time and what specific challenges do you anticipate having to overcome?
Our biggest challenge is trying to change the perceptions of future users and investors on what travel booking as a space can be, and why it makes sense for us to build a new product in that space.
People have been booking travel for a long time, and in order for us to succeed and still be relevant in three years’ time, we have to move the needle in every aspect of what we do—the product, our business model, and customer loyalty.
What is wrong with the travel, tourism and hospitality industry that it requires a startup like yours to help it out?
The established pattern of how customers book travel hasn’t changed since the 80s. You always start out with a search form, then go to view your results.
According to this article, people still spend around 30 hours over the course of five weeks preparing for a trip! It doesn’t seem like the industry has solved the problem yet…
What other technology company (in or outside of travel) would you consider yourselves most closely aligned to in terms of culture and style... and why?
As far as products in a similar space go, we admire and consider ourselves closely aligned to the style of Hotel Tonight. They view “mobile-only” as the future of customer experience, and so do we!
Which company would be the best fit to buy your startup?
It seems premature to be naming specific companies at this point. That’s like asking a teenager if he’ll marry the girl he’s currently dating!
Describe your startup in three words?
Change [the] travel experience.
"Travel search needs all the help it can get. That said, simply reducing flight choices isn't novel enough of a concept to corner the market just on its own.
For a while now, Google Flights has chosen a handful of itineraries to give a user the best trade-off between price, duration, number of stops and sometimes other factors, such as amenities and baggage fees. That's a more sophisticated set of rules and filters than what Corner is starting with.
Then again, again, Corner is just beginning. Plus, simplified flight search and mobile booking is a fresh concept in much of the Russian Federation -- just as it is still a fresh concept in much of the world.
In Tnooz's tests, the colorful and simplified interface brought a HotelTonight-style and Hipmunk-style briskness and elegance to flight booking that is impressive.
The team already has entrepreneurial experience with travel startups, good mentors, and a nice distribution of business and technical expertise across its team, at least on paper.
We are eager to see what's around the corner for Corner."