Check out our recent interview with Phocuswire

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.

A great start to 2018

Happy new year everyone!

Hope you’ve all had a great break over the holiday period – we’ve had a busy yet surprisingly productive December!

Firstly, we would like to welcome Ming into the pebblar family. Ming is a highly experienced full stack engineer and just one of many who will be coming on-board over the next couple of months.

We’ve also made significant progress towards taking pebblar beyond leisure travel planning and into the big scary world of business!

Whilst up until now pebblar as a tool has focused on leisure travel, the end game is to become the “go-to” software for the planning and creation of itineraries for every type of travel and events.

So, imagine our excitement when we were asked by a corporate trip coordinator to develop a set of advanced features to help solve their real world business requirements!

We delivered a prototype of these enhanced features before Christmas and we’re really excited with this new direction. Hopefully, you’ll be able to try out these features really soon!

We’ve also seen a substantial step-up in new sign-ups on our platform in recent weeks and received an increasing amount of user feedback and engagement. This really means the world to us. We’re encouraged by the fact that many of the user requests we receive are already part of our product road map – it means we’re not too far off the right track *fingers crossed*.

It really has been an exciting start to 2018 and we can’t wait for you all to try out all the cool interface upgrades we’ve been working on!

Until next time,
Nan

What is it like to visit North Korea?

So, 2 years ago a friend of mine told me some people she knows are thinking about visiting a Casino in Pyongyang, North Korea. Yes, a casino in North Korea. I personally had no interest in gambling but I have been wanting to go and see North Korea with my own eyes for quite some time now and I thought this was the perfect opportunity for me to finally do it and I may get to see a little bit more (or different things) than a typical tour group.

Suffice to say it was a once in a life time trip and for better or worse, it was definitely one of the most memorable trips I’ve been on. Below is a list of things I want to highlight and share with you all (whether you are planning to go there at some point or not):

1. Casino(s) in North Korea

  • The casino that my friend’s friends were thinking of visiting was on the ground floor of Yangakdo Hotel – one of the best hotels in PyongYang. (this blog actually has a pretty good overview of this hotel��North Korea: There’s no escape from the Yanggakdo Hotel, Communist Resort, and Casino )
  • I was quite curious what a “casino” would be like in North Korea, but when I saw it, it is really just a few slot machines and a couple of tables. The few nights we were there, I didn’t see any activity. and you cant take photos inside the casino
  • I understand there is actually another casino near the border of China / North Korea (North Korea Casinos – 808kimchi )

2. Munsu water park (Munsu Water Park )

  • There is a massive water park in Pyongyang where people actually go (Well I saw people there as you can see in the pictures below though I really cannot be certain if people there were part of the propaganda or real visitors; our guide was telling us he takes his son there regularly)
  • Ticket prices have two categories: local or foreigner and I remember there was quite a bit of a gap between the two
  • It had an indoor area and an outdoor area, gift shop and a hair salon for both men and women

  • The hair salon had two big pictures on the wall showing all the hair styles you can choose from! Stylish!

A picture of the gift shop/ waterpark store where you can buy all your swimming stuff!

3. Pyongyang has modern buildings and taxi’s

  • As we drove into the city centre, I was amazed to see quite a few really modern looking buildings (like the one in the picture below) in Pyongyang. Not quite sure what was in all those buildings but have to say, they definitely looked the part.
  • There are also taxi’s driving around the city which according to our guide, people actually use. Though I am not sure if they were instructed to say that

Picture of a taxi

4. Blue sky

  • Before I went, I had this image of a grey looking place (not quite sure why but I think most of us had that mental image so when we went and saw the blue sky we were all pleasantly surprised); but come to think about it, it has very very little industrial activity, so why wouldn’t the sky be blue and clean? lol

5. China during the Cultural Revolution Era

  • So one of the main reasons why I have been wanting to see North Korea is because I have been told that it is “just like China during the Culture Revolution”, and my parents were the generation that was most affected during that period of time in China so naturally growing up I have heard many many stories about what it was like back then. In some indirect way, I guess it also affected the way my parents raised me starting from the fact that they chose to migrate to Australia when I was young. So for me it was the closest I could get to get a feel of what it was like, however little it would be
  • So was it? Based on the stories my parents told me, the numerous Chinese TV shows about that era I have watched, I have to say, it was more or less right. The most telling part was the language they used. My guide spoke amazing Chinese, not only was he fluent, he also spoke just like how people did during the Chinese Culture Revolution. I was amazed.

6. Devotion to their leader

  • This would seem particularly crazy to the rest of us living in the free world
  • So this is what I saw, we went and visited a number of monuments and museums while we were there and each time we saw any of the Kim (II-sung; Jong-il or Jong-un) statues, we would need to bow so we bowed a lot. During our visit to the International Friendship Exhibition where it showcases all the presents North Korea has ever received from foreign dignitaries (International Friendship Exhibition), in one of the rooms we saw this group of middle-aged women who were crying when they walked past one of the Kim’s statues. It wasn’t just a tear on the cheek, they were all bawling their eyes out.
  • Now tell me if that doesn’t seem crazy to you, given how the rest of the free world feels about North Korean leaders. Moreover, when was the last time you can recall the ordinary citizens have that much devotion and emotionally attachment towards any one of their political leaders.

Picture of the International Exhibition Hall

7. You can take photos

Based on all the photos in my answer, I guess it is obvious now visitors can take photos but only in areas where your guide tell you it is okay to take photos.

8. Tourists eat quite well

As much as the country as a whole may be short of food, as tourists, you will definitely be fed. We actually ate really well

9. People are starting to realise maybe the outside world is not as what they have been told

Our guide for example grew up in Beijing because his dad was a driver for a one of the consulate officials and he was saying now with more and more tourists coming in, people (though small group) are starting to see and hear things from the outside world and I think most of them do realise it is probably a bit different to what they have been told by their government

10. Guides and drivers are very careful where they take us and what they tell us

Our guide got really worried when some people in the group did not follow their instructions properly and they were careful in answering our millions of questions. He was a really friendly guy but it was clear a lot of the things were propaganda talk.

Here are some more pictures:

A show we saw

That famous building which took forever to build

The view from top floor restaurant at the Yanggako Hotel

North Korean side of the DMZ

North Korean subway station