Tomorrow, a startup called Bustripping officially launches with a party on the rooftop of the Manhattan headquarters of Gawker Media.
It enters a race to become the Kayak of bus ticketing metasearch that is currently being led by Wanderu and Bus Catchers.
After users punch in their destination and travel dates, each website pulls a list of long-haul buses that serve the itinerary. A user can sort the results by cost, trip duration, and operator.
Most bus companies do not provide anyone with APIs of schedules and fares, which makes it difficult to build a metasearch site.
Startups need to create proprietary systems to collect data, ensure the data is accurate, and enable customers to be redirected into the check-out pages of these bus companies websites in simple and fast ways.
US ticketing boom
The US is a growth market for inter-city buses. In 2011 and 2012, passenger volume for curb-side, long-distance bus operators like Megabus and BoltBus grew by 30%, according to a study released in January by DePaul University.
Europe and Asia are also seeing strong growth in bus ticketing, and a dire need for metasearch--especially on mobile-optimized websites. There's no true mobile bus websites. Usablenet conversions is as close as it gets currently.
Here's the lowdown on the latest news from each startup.
Best placed to become the next KayakWanderuThe pitch: In private beta. Since Tnooz profiled Wanderu last November, this Boston startup has seen the most growth in traffic, sales, funding interest and marketing coups. Examples: It won the award for "Most Innovative Technology" at SXSW Interactive in March (the same award that Hipmunk and Siri received in previous years).
Coverage, as of today: The main US corridors. Includes Boltbus.
Biggest flaw today: Still in beta, 15,000 users signed up but hardly anyone has actually booked a ticket through the site yet.
Funding situation: It closed a fresh funding round in April (amount undisclosed). Investors include Jeff Clarke, chairman of Travelport.
Next move: Public launch in the summer. Site is fully mobile optimized, but even so, it is planning to release mobile optimized checkout soon. The company is hiring for four positions, including full-stack software architect and a dev ops engineer.
Launching this week with buzzBustrippingThe pitch: The first website and mobile app for Kayak-style comparison bus shopping in North America.
Coverage, as of today: Focusing on routes in the Northeast (mainly NYC, Boston, Philadelphia, and D.C.), as well as L.A. to Vegas, San Diego and other southern California routes.
Biggest flaw today: No coverage of Boltbus or Megabus, the largest discount players.
Funding situation: Seeking $2 million by end of the year. Debuting with $30,000 in loans and cash.
Next move: The company is talking with companies in Chicago to deepen its coverage of the Midwest. An iPhone app is on track to be available for free download from iTunes by the end of June.
The dark horse of bus metasearchBus CatchersThe pitch: Metasearch for US that works and has super-fast response times. Its seamless integration with Megabus and Boltbus is impressive.
Coverage, as of today: Northeastern US, half-dozen most popular destinations, with the largest operators included (such as Megabus and Boltbus).
Biggest flaw today: Single-person operation. Can it scale?
Funding situation: Sweat equity.
Next move: The site is run by Nico Jimenez, who will be starting a PhD at Stanford in the autumn. So the site's next moves are to add air travel, Amtrak, CO2 consumption estimates, and more locations. Jimenez says he has developed a framework for automatic web-browsing click by click and html parsing that will allow the site to function maintenance-free, using a assortment of Python scripts that pull data from the various bus websites twice a day.
Who can become the Kayak of bus travel?
It will be a long while before any one of these startups breaks out of the pack and gains significant consumer traction in their geographic market. The reason is best summarized by Polina Raygorodskaya, CEO of Wanderu:
The reason behind it is two fold: the difficulty of building the technology like this (you need to be both the middle layer data provider like Sabre and the consumer facing site) which requires you to have direct partnerships with carriers and a brilliant engineering team to solve the complex data problem.
If you look at the bus space, it is a very decentralized system with un-standardized technology and no data feeds and there are tens of thousands of possible routes and stops across the U.S. alone.
This is far more than you see in the airline space so it is a very complicated problem to solve.
For that reason, Wanderu seems to be doing the best job of positioning itself to become the Kayak of bus metasearch in North America. Its CTO/Co-founder has over 15 years of senior level programming/engineering, and the company has five additional full-time engineers, creating an excellent engineer-to-biz-dev ratio of two to one. The startup now belongs to PayPal incubator space.
Pombai, a Bangkok-based startup that Tnooz previously profiled, couldn't get the funding necessary to keep going so it is shutting down.
Previously, Bus Junction attempted to do bus ticketing for the northeastern US, but it shut down in 2010. Catapulter, which strove for multi-modal search for the northeastern US, has been inactive since 2011.
NB: Image courtesy of didbygraham via Flickr/Creative Commons.