CultureMee initially launched as a free app in late 2017 while it sought its market fit. It pivoted towards business travel in late 2018.
CultureMee provides engaging content including videos and culture models to business travelers to help them avoid cultural hiccups.
Describe both the business and technology aspects of your startup.
Anyone who has lost a deal due to a simple culture faux‐pas will testify to the importance of understanding how to do business like a local. Just look at Dolce & Gabbana recently when they shared a video of a Chinese model eating Italian pizza with chopsticks. This led to a country wide boycott of the brand, costing them hundreds of millions, in one of their most important markets.
What we do is allow business travelers to have engaging culture content at the touch of a button so that they can avoid some of the major cultural screw ups that can end up costing a business.
The technology aspect of our start‐up is mainly to deliver this content via our api and app which has a lot of unique features that you won’t find anywhere else, whether it be videos from locals and visitors, or using culture models to help you to understand the biggest differences between your culture and the culture you’re travelling to.
What inspired you to create this company?
We asked ourselves why is it that you have a map to get to your destination, but when you get there why don’t you have anything to understand the local people? John had already had lots of experience using culture models in international business and both founders had travelled the world, so we knew there was a gap in the market for something like this.
Give us your SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis of the company.
- Strengths - Our biggest strength is our team. We are passionate creatives who think differently around culture, and this is what inspires our content.
‐ We are the only travel company in the world using culture models to compare your culture.
‐ We’re proud of how our API has a “talk to the pros” section which is like an app store for culture where you can access powerful, synergistic services from our partners such as a global network of culture consultants (Hofstede Insights) or language interpreters (whym).
‐ Like any start‐up with global opportunities, financing is always a balancing act, but we’re confident that as we gain momentum through the corporates we’re signing up that we’ll have the fuel to aggressively capitalise on this market opportunity over the coming years.
‐ Growing a global network of videographers and content producers is always a challenge for any small team, however with the recent launch of our CultureMee Culture Ambassador programme we’re already addressing this.
‐ There is simply a massive opportunity in business travel, so this is where our near‐term focus is. According to FCM, eight out 10 business travellers research the local culture and three out of four business travellers want their travel buyers and TMCs to be providing them with culture content. With circa 180 million business travellers globally, there is a considerable opportunity in business travel alone.
‐ Another dimension worth noting is how many TMCs and travel buyers are looking to elevate their strategic offering and move beyond just moving travellers from A to B. They want to really engage their travellers on‐trip and offer something different, and this is where we can come in.
‐ The move towards a greater recognition of the importance of culture more generally in society is a big opportunity. We started hundreds of millions of years ago with our individual personality, then moved into our tribe or organisational culture. But it is only in the last 30 years since the deregulation of the airline industry, and the creation of the internet, that national culture has become so important.
‐ Another dimension is how traditionally people have prized iQ, but over the last 15 years this has moved to EQ (emotional intelligence). But when it comes to doing business internationally, CQ (cultural intelligence) is the next step on this journey.
‐ One of the global culture players could move more firmly into the travel space, however we feel that we have more than enough differentiation in our product to compete with the best.
‐ Another threat would be if one of the large online travel players or even Google tried to go after this space.
What are the travel pain points you are trying to alleviate from both the customer and the industry perspective?
Imagine doing business blindfolded. This is what it is like to do business abroad when you don’t understand the culture. Business travellers these days try and find cultural tips on Google, Youtube or simply try to ask some of their colleagues.
But all of this barely scratches the surface. So many business travellers find they’re losing really important business deals by not understanding the nuances of how the locals do business. That is where we come in by helping them to navigate the local culture.
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So you've got the product, now how will you get lots of customers?
We originally launched the platform as a free app in December 2017 to try and identify where our product market fit was. Despite talking to many different potential customers, we were not sure whether it was leisure travellers, business travellers, expats, international students or refugees who might be the best fit for CultureMee.
It was not until September 2018 that we pivoted towards business travel, identifying TMCs (travel management companies) as our key distribution partners. With many TMCs such as BCD Travel, to name one, opening up their core systems and customers to external APIs, this meant innovative travel start‐ups could immediately access millions of customers overnight.
While it’s true life is not quite as simple as that, in that enterprise customers take between 12 and 18 months usually to sign up, we found that the business travel ecosystem is ripe for change where many companies are now embracing the opportunities third party apis might offer to differentiate their offering to their corporate customers.
Tell us what process you've gone through to establish a genuine need for your company and the size of the addressable market.
We have used a combination of external research as well as internal research, surveys and customer interviews.
As well as the FCM research, we did our own extensive internal surveys three years ago and again last month and in that most recent research, 80% of business travellers think about the local business etiquette when travelling abroad.
Then if you ask individual business travellers whether they have committed a serious cultural faux‐pas which cost them a business deal or seriously disrupted their business relationships, and almost everyone has a story to tell.
When you talk to business travellers about how they solve this problem these days, they talk about trying to find it on Google, Youtube or via colleagues. However it’s often difficult, a bit like trying to find a needle in a haystack and often the content barely scratches the surface (e.g. Top 10 tips in Japan). Nothing is tailored to the needs of business travellers.
As for the size of the market, of the 180 million business travellers globally, 78% or roughly 140 million of them search for culture content so this is clearly a multi‐billion dollar opportunity.
How and when will you make money?
The hardest part of building up a business like this is the enormous investment we have made in building the content, the technology and the global partnerships.
When it comes to sales, we’d expect to be closing our first enterprise deal in the coming three months and aim to be well on our way to closing one of the major global TMCs by the end of this year. Both TMCs and travel buyers see that this is a game changer and fundamentally reimagines their role in the travel ecosystem, so once we sign our first enterprise customer we’re confident this is going to move fast.
Which would mean by Q3 2019 we’ll have solid momentum on the revenue side and by Q4 2019 we should already be EBITDA positive on an ongoing basis.
However our ambition is to quickly capitalise on the market opportunity and first‐mover advantage which would mean we will likely be investing significantly in our tech and content capabilities in order to take us to the next level.
What are the backgrounds and previous achievements of the founding team, and why do you have what it takes to succeed with this business?
We both come from a finance background, partly because we wanted to understand the language of business and working in finance in large corporates offered us the opportunity to travel around the world. John alone travelled to over 150 different business locations across Europe during his time working in a senior finance role in the European division of Ireland’s largest company, CRH plc. Dee worked in investment banking in London in a number of different banks.
What was always clear is our passion for travel and meeting different cultures was deep within our DNA. We have travelled to over 80 countries, have lived around the world and John alone speaks six different languages.
This means we’re following our life’s passion and we are driven by making an impact in the world, in our case by helping to open people’s eyes to the beauty of other cultures in a really fun and engaging way.
We have what it takes because we are insanely driven to make this a success and we can see the impact CultureMee and our way of thinking about culture is having on individual travellers. Culture is something that resonates very deeply with people, whether it be the pride you have in your own culture or the immense curiosity people have about the cultures of other countries they visit.
People’s eyes light up when they experience that “wow” moment and that alone makes it something worthwhile which is why we are convinced this will be a success.
What's been the most difficult part of founding the business so far?
Building a global start‐up is something that takes every sinew in your body, mind and soul, in order to make it a success.
You have got to be beyond resilient. And that is before deciding to have a family in the middle of it all! So it’s been a continual evolution for us of learning how to consciously balance work and family life.
Certainly having a family has been a blessing in this respect, and for us family is number One. It is what makes life worth living and it is what inspires our own creative energy in the business. We always make sure, no matter what, that “play time” with Rosa takes priority whenever she comes home from the creche. And we’re the better for it.
Another challenge has been when you’re doing something completely new, something radical.
When you’re a first mover in something, people tend to look at you with a fair bit of curiosity, not quite sure initially of what to make of you. Maybe some people don’t understand the business.
Maybe others don’t see how this can fit into an industry where no vertical exists already.
In those moments, it is easy to give up, and you have to be incredibly persistent and resilient to push through, but it is in those moments that you know you’re really close to making a breakthrough.
Generally, travel startups face a fairly tough time making an impact ‐ so why are you going to be one of lucky ones?
We’re at a fascinating time in the world of travel, if you think about it.
For leisure travel, we travel for two reasons, either to visit a place or to visit people (e.g. family, friends or even just to experience the locals).
However for business travel, we travel for one reason, and one reason only. To meet people. And do business with them.
And that is exactly what we do, by helping you understand the different cultures you meet when doing business abroad.
And then you combine this with the fact that the business travel industry is an industry in crisis, crying out for something different that can elevate in a very meaningful way the roles of TMCs and travel buyers.
All of these factors combined we feel represent a perfect storm ripe for a service like CultureMee creating multiple win‐wins for ourselves, TMCs and travel buyers.
Only time will tell if we are right, however all of the signs so far are that now is the moment for culture.
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