Full interview can be found here: https://www.phocuswire.com/startup-stage-pebblar
Pebblar offers travelers a visual workspace to map and create itineraries. Think the functions of Microsoft Word and Excel, plus Google Maps, all in one collaborative, cloud-based software for leisure or business travelers.
Pebblar CEO and co-founder Nan Zhou is quick to note Pebblar is not your standard trip planning service. For one, it steers clear of offering recommendations; rather, it focuses on amassing map and logistics data.
Q: Describe both the business and technology aspects of your startup.
Pebblar is a collaborative software for DIY itinerary planning. Our mission is to have everyone in one visual workspace to map and create their next itinerary.
In creating our software, we used a number of different technologies:
1. The planning interface has a live map as the base canvas so you can visualize your whole trip as you plan and not have to Google Map everything separately.
2. The entire software is cloud‐based to enable real‐time content creation, auto-save and group collaboration.
3. On top of the standard “direction” function, our iOS app is also augmented reality‐enabled, which means we can literally “show” you the way to your itinerary places.
Q: What inspired you to create this company?
Pebblar co‐founders are all big travelers, and to various degrees we all like to plan beforehand. Like most people, we had to use multiple applications (Excel or Word, plus Google Maps) just to plan one itinerary. It was frustrating going back and forth between Excel and Google, not to mention all the copying and pasting.
We thought: Why don’t we just combine the two, so we did! Pebblar is essentially a notepad and a live map combined into one.
Q: Give us your SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis of the company.
Our strength is definitely our super easy‐to‐use interface, which lets you map trip ideas and create a detailed itinerary all on one live map. It automatically syncs all necessary details (including addresses, phone, website and opening hours) and calculates multimodal travel times.
We have some very exciting opportunities. After acquiring over 10,000 registered users on our prototype without paid marketing, we now also have a number of business users trying out our software. Our first business user is a United States Fortune 500 fashion retailer that uses Pebblar to plan its periodic buying trips. We are also seeing other business use cases appearing on our platform, which is very exciting for us.
Our biggest challenge is definitely convincing people to switch from the current Word/Excel/Google Maps combo. Habits are hard to change, so it is our job to make sure that our tool is many, many times better than the existing option, so much so that people are not only switching over but also willing to pay for it.
Q: What are the travel pain points you are trying to alleviate from both the customer and the industry perspective?
From the customer perspective, before Pebblar was created, if someone wanted to map and plan a detailed itinerary (for holiday or work), they did not have a proper tool to use.
From the travel industry perspective, given the group nature of travel, it is about time we have a cloud‐based collaborative software dedicated to itinerary planning.
The one thing we are certain of is that in the future, people will not be using Excel to plan itineraries. There needs to be a special‐purpose tool to fulfill this void. We have definitely taken a very firm first step in addressing that void.
Q: So you’ve got the product, now how will you get lots of customers?
The one advantage of being a itinerary planner is that most of the time, people don’t travel alone. This is true for both personal and business trips. So a significant portion of our users are actually “invited trip buddies.” In addition to that, a lot of our users also come from word‐of‐mouth referrals.
Q: Tell us what process you’ve gone through to establish a genuine need for your company and the size of the addressable market.
Before our current commercial interface, we actually had a prototype that was created based on our own personal use case. We made it available for people to use for free because we wanted to see if there are others like us. Two years later, we had accumulated more than 10,000 registered users and 15,000 trips.
We have watched hundreds of hours of user sessions and exchanged countless emails with our users. What we have learned from these early adopters helped us answer these three very important questions:
1. What is the most intuitive and natural itinerary planning process so we can make onboarding easy?
2. Where are their biggest pain‐points?
3. What kind of trips are being planned using Pebblar?
In understanding the addressable market, the third question was particularly interesting to us. Pebblar was initially intended for personal trips, then we noticed people started using Pebblar for work.
This is when we realized this pain point is actually an even bigger issue for business itinerary planning because not only do business travelers need their itineraries planned out beforehand in detail, but they also travel a lot more frequently. This gave us the confidence to launch our commercial interface.
Q: How and when will you make money?
We graduated from the free prototype a couple of months ago and launched our fee‐charging commercial interface. We generated our first revenue earlier this month.
We offer everyone a one‐month free trial, and after that, if they want to keep using Pebblar, they have two simple payment options: $10 per itinerary or $9.95 per month for an unlimited number of itineraries.
The former is designed for those who use Pebblar to plan their two to three big trips a year, while the latter is tailored towards business users.
Q: What are the backgrounds and previous achievements of the founding team, and why do you have what it takes to succeed with this business?
Between John (our technical co-founder) and I, we each have over 10 to 15 years of professional experience in either technology or business, so we are very used to high-pressured business operating environments and understand how hard it is to build a real product and business.
We are also big travelers ourselves, so we have first-hand understanding of this pain point.
Q: What’s been the most difficult part of founding the business so far?
The most difficult part is definitely building the team. We want to gather a group of people who are not just smart and technically capable but also passionate about solving this particular problem and work well together. One by one, we are growing our Pebblar family.
Q: Generally, travel startups face a fairly tough time making an impact ‐ so why are you going to be one of lucky ones?
I think this statement is probably even more true for our space ‐ “trip planning.” There have been many dead or dormant “trip planning” startups before us. We are definitely not the first to realize planning itineraries in Excel is inefficient.
So, what makes us the “lucky one”? I think it comes down to two key things.
Firstly, we don’t offer recommendations. While most of of the other trip planning startups went down the path of suggested itineraries or recommendations, we made a point of completely staying away from that. We wanted to stay disciplined and focus on the core pain point – the lack of a proper “tool.” Being “content‐free” also meant no content bias, so Pebblar’s use case goes beyond just casual travelers.
Secondly, timing. As for all things, timing is important. To create an effective collaborative itinerary tool, we need access to affordable cloud infrastructure as well as comprehensive map and logistics data. Over the last couple of years, we saw significant improvements in both areas, which enabled us to create Pebblar without compromise.
Q:What is another major tech trend you are also echoing?
As people get used to the idea of working together in real time, we are seeing a wave of collaborative tools being introduced from accounting, design, project management and communications. So far, most of the collaborative tools have focussed on team communication and project management.
I believe we will see more collaborative tools being created, for all kinds of purposes. Given the group nature of travel, there has to be a better way to collaborate than sending around a Word doc or spreadsheet. Pebblar is the first‐of‐its‐kind collaborative software to focus on itinerary planning. More specifically, it is one of the first collaborative maps where people can mark and plan a detailed itinerary together.