Another day, another travel-inspiration startup debuts. But today's new site -- Villy -- stands out from other travel-planning tools by being located at the Harvard Innovation Lab in Boston.
Villy was founded by two students at the Harvard Business School. Rami Lachter formerly did investment banking work at Morgan Stanley, and his co-founder Itai Turbahn is a former researcher at the MIT Media Lab and program manager at IBM Haifa Research Labs.
Villy says that, unlike well-funded trip-inspiration services like Stayful and Hotwire's Tripwatcher, it is unique in that it gives map-based results that take into account each traveler's personal interests and provides them with neighborhood and hotel recommendations that will make their planing easier, and trip more enjoyable.
Villy has made a Vine to illustrate its premise:
Q&A with co-founder Rami Lachter:
Tell us how you founded the company, why and what made you decide to jump in and create the business.
A few years ago, I explored six continents in a trip that took over a year after completing my military service. I visited countless new cities, and at each one had to repeat a research process to figure out which neighborhood in the city is best for me. This frustrating experience gave me the idea for Villy.
A year ago, I started my MBA at the Harvard Business School, and after meeting Itai Turbahn, a classmate, MIT engineer and designer with experience in travel software solutions, we decided that we can solve this problem together, and founded Villy.
Size of the team, names of founders, management roles and key personnel?
We’re a team of two co-founders: Rami Lachter who takes care of the business side and Itai Turbahn who manages all of the technology aspects. The team's past experience includes work for Microsoft, VeriFone, and The Boston Consulting Group, along with the already mentioned MIT Media Lab and Morgan Stanley.
We’ve bootstrapped to date. We received fellowships from the Arthur Rock Center at the Harvard Business School to work on Villy. We are also residents of the Harvard Innovation Lab’s venture incubation program.
Estimation of market size?
We’re in the business of selling hotel rooms to travelers. There are different methods to size up the market, but any way you look at it, the market is large.
If you just try aggregating the revenues online travel agencies earn from hotel bookings in a given year, you will get comfortably to over $10 billion.
Our main competitors are data providers and city guides. When travelers need to plan a trip to a new destination they search for information that will be helpful in deciding where to stay in that city.
Villy provides personalized recommendations that make this antiquated process fun. Our data is sourced from vetted city experts so travelers get great information. Because we provide great deals and recommendations on hotels, Villy is a one stop shop and travelers don’t need to browse further.
Revenue model and strategy for profitability?
We’ve partnered with Expedia’s affiliate network, which provides us with access to their hotel inventory and low price guarantee.
We use this inventory to recommend the hotels that match each traveler’s preferences and budget. When travelers book a hotel, they are referred to Expedia’s site to complete the booking process.
What problem does the business solve?
When looking for hotels in an unfamiliar city, we find ourselves comparing and cross-referencing sites to learn about the city, and identify the right neighborhoods and hotels for us. We go to multiple information sources, jump to booking sites, and hop back and forth to finally make a decision.
This process is tedious, and too often we can find ourselves in the wrong part of town, with an expensive hotel that is far away from the places we’re interested in.
Villy cares about the best location in the city for you, and helps you figure out this location in less than 5 minutes.
It does so by identifying which neighborhoods in the city are best for your taste, and then highlighting great value hotels within these areas that are the best fit.
Villy visualizes the city on a map, so that you get a real sense of where you’re about to go. For each neighborhood you can find a list of the top restaurants, bars and clubs, museums, landmarks, and shopping areas that you can save or share with your travel companion.
How did the initial idea evolve and were there changes/any pivots along the way in the early stages?
Itai spent time at IBM Research working on social travel, and authored patents in crowdsourcing and gamification. Before school, he also worked on hotel revenue management solutions.
When we first met and discovered our mutual interest in the field, we decided to join forces and solve this together. The combination of technological expertise and personal experience led us to a solution that relies on complex algorithms, but is extremely friendly and easy to use.
Villy capitalizes on powerful consumer trends of personalization. We are very focused on developing personalized recommendations, while maintaining a simple user interface that makes you start enjoying your vacation while planning it.
Why should people or companies use the business?
Villy makes your vacation much better, while saving you time and at no extra cost. Why wouldn’t you use it? We heard the sentence “this was fun, but next time we should stay at the [x] neighborhood” countless times.
With Villy you get the right neighborhood for you the first time around without spending hours of frustrating online research.
Not only is the service free, Villy also provides a low price guarantee on hotel rooms thanks to a partnership with Expedia. Through a 3 minute process travelers know they are going to stay in the best neighborhood for them and that they got a great hotel deal.
What is the strategy for raising awareness and the customer/user acquisition?
We don’t anticipate there is one magic bullet solution to acquire customers.
We are looking at a robust and diversified marketing mix. Heavy Public Relations. Paid media including display, search, Facebook, Google and other platforms. Social via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Vine. Partner marketing. Considering offline via outdoor and events in key test markets.
We believe that based on consumer passion for travel, we can gain double-digit, unaided brand awareness growth within the first two years.
Where do you see the company in three years time and what specific challenges do you anticipate having to overcome?
In three years, Villy will be your trusted personalized travel recommendation engine for everything travel related. It will know you and your travel preferences, and recommend the best places to stay at and go to when traveling.
As a travel-tech company, we expect that getting to users in a crowded space will be a challenge.
What is wrong with the travel, tourism and hospitality industry that it requires a startup like yours to help it out?
When traveling to new cities, it is hard to figure out where to stay. Travelers used to solve this by leveraging travel agents, but as those became relatively expensive, a “do it yourself” approach gained popularity.
However, travel sites provide users with information, instead of actionable knowledge. This data overload leads to indecision, which reduces the fun of planning a vacation, and often brings to costly and inaccurate bookings.
Using Villy, travelers can get smart, personalized and actionable recommendation, at the best price available.
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?
We really like what WhatsApp has done. They created an amazing product that is focused on providing a seamless experience for a specific need. They had a relatively small team and a vision they acted on in a competitive consumer market.
Which company would be the best fit to buy your startup?
We are passionate about the intersection of travel and technology, and our intention is to stay in this space for a long time. We aren’t looking to be acquired.
Describe your startup in three words?
City -> Neighborhood -> Hotel
Trip-inspiration is a crowded space. Consumer attention will be elusive.
Piggybacking on an existing dominant platform would be an ideal move. Consider how personalized hotel recommendation service Olset has piggybacked on virtual assistant service AnyDo to get customers.
In any case, after Villy achieves product market fit -- which is still a ways off -- it'll have to think about funding its marketing effort.
Toward that goal, it should consider some of the emerging trends in raising capital for travel startups.
Tnooz wishes these young entrepreneurs at Villy the best of luck.