Yuan Yao & Jan Gerber are not your ordinary travelers. With more than 50 countries visited under their belts, this dynamic duo knows a thing or two about traveling and, more importantly, what matters most about it. If traveling is your cup of tea, then read the the following interview as these two co-founders present a compelling new idea on an old pastime.

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Allentrepreneur: Good to have you here with us Yuan & Jan! The travel industry has always been one of the most exciting to work in, and whenever a new startup comes around to try and improve things, there are always people willing to listen! Can you first tell us a little about yourselves and how you came to work together?

Yuan: Jan and I have been best friends for eight years. We both love, love, love to travel and have been to more than 50 countries each – with many more to go! Jan has a business background and has been working as a consultant all over the world for the past few years. I studied International Affairs as well as Sinology and am currently pursuing my PhD in International Business. I used to work for international organizations such as UNESCO or the UN so both Jan and I have traveled a lot for business. We complement each other perfectly so it was always clear to me that we would be a “dream team”.

Allentrepreneur: How did the idea for A La Carte Maps come about? Which problem are you trying to solve with your product?

Yuan: The idea for A la Carte Maps evolved – where else – while traveling. In fact, I was on a one year trip-around-the-world last year and got really fed up with all the guidebooks that claim to have “the best insider tips”. What exactly is an “insider tip”? Are we talking about the insights of a traveler? An editor with a functioning  Google search? A restaurant that has paid big bucks for a flattering review?

Personally, I have had the best travel experiences when a local showed me around. The idea behind A la Carte Maps is to have a local friend in exciting cities all over the world. Not only will this friend provide you with the most important information about your city, he or she also knows where-(not)-to-go and will reveal the city’s best-kept insider tips by writing them on a hand-drawn map.

So: No more browsing the internet for days. No more carrying heavy guidebooks. No more circle-drawing on ugly maps. No more worrying. Just kick back, relax and save time (and money) for the important things in life. Our local guides will gather the best ideas to make your stay unforgettable in the meanwhile.

Allentrepreneur: As a long time traveler I have often come to the realization that guidebooks are, although informative, often inconvenient. However, for most travelers, one of the first things to do when preparing for a trip is to buy one. What would you say is the problem with guidebooks these days?

Yuan: Conventional tourist guidebooks are boring, outdated and similar in their setup. Most of them are unpractical – you want to go out but the maps & addresses are in your clumsy guidebook – or too informative to be truly useful.  80 restaurant tips for instance may be a little overwhelming for a weekend trip. So, what I need is a succinct list of the city’s not-to-be-missed:

–          Best place to impress? (1-2 recommendations)

–          Best view? (1-2 recommendations)

–          Best restaurant for local food?

–          Best place for a date? (1-2 recommendations)

–          Best things to do on a rainy day?

–          Something I have definitely never done before and can only do in this city?

–          Etc.

Jan: Furthermore, most maps in guidebooks are too small – especially if there are 100 little numbers indicating recommended locations splattered all over them. Regular maps on the other hand are unhandy, ugly and made of cheap material that falls apart quickly. Since the map is the tool you use the most while traveling, why not make it a beautiful one?

Allentrepreneur : While walking around the travel section at the bookstore, I noticed that publications such as Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, etc. have come out with many iterations of much more condensed guidebooks, such as Top 10 or Day by Day. What are your thoughts on this particular segment of the market? Would you say A La Carte Maps is a reliable competitor to these guides?

Jan: We do not see any existing publication as direct competition. The Top 10 or Day by Day you mention are in many ways different from our maps: Our aim is not just to have condensed information on a map, but the nature of that information is special. It has been compiled by a local, and the tips are focusing on things to see and do „off the beaten track“. The content of most guidebooks, no matter how dense, has been compiled by traveling editors rather than locals that have lived in the city. Furthermore, our maps are in a handy format (42x70cm), made of high-quality material and additionally matt-laminated which makes them moisture-resistant and durable. Also, when you buy one of our maps, you get access to our online database of the given city, where a broad array of additional insider tips can be searched and printed.

Yuan: In my opinion, there is one more aspect that really sets us apart from regular guidebooks: Our maps are very, very, very personal. Not only do you get a welcome letter with every map written by your friend in that city, many of the tips are also hand-written. Since you have a different friend depending on where you go to, there’s always a different handwriting in every city. Furthermore, the maps are designed by young artists trying to capture the spirit of the city making each map unique in its appearance. In a world of mass produced guidebooks and maps, our maps will definitely stand out as each one of them is made with a lot of love and passion. And that is something you can see and feel – but not copy.

Allentrepreneur: In one of your press releases, I came across the term flashpackers. You describe them as: backpackers who love to journey in style. Can you elaborate more on this kind of traveler?

Yuan: There are many guidebooks for classical low-budget backpackers as well as high-end travelers. However, there is not much for the segment in-between which we call “flashpackers” – backpackers that love to journey in style. “Flashpackers” don’t backpack because they have to but because they want to. Even though they enjoy splurging a little money now and then, they don’t want to spend their entire vacation in gourmet restaurants, shopping streets or posh clubs that are – let’s be honest – more or less the same all over the world. Instead, they seek an authentic travel experience off the beaten track: Wherever they go, they never go there as “tourists”. Whenever possible, they try to grasp the city’s spirit by breathing it. Living it. Embracing it like the locals do.

“Flashpackers” are independent, curious, smart, passionate, sophisticated and adventurous. They don’t have a fixed itinerary, love the uncommon and are not afraid of the unknown. Instead of just seeing things, they want to experience them.

What would be a perfect holiday for a “flashpacker”? Walk through the old town without seeing a single tourist all morning, have lunch in a food stall on the street, catch some sun in a park where children fly kites nearby and enjoy a traditional massage before heading back to the boutique hotel in order to get ready for a fancy night out (and why not pick a club that is frequented by locals).

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Allentrepreneur: As a Swiss-based startup, can you tell us what are the challenges involved in reaching a worldwide audience? What strategies do you have in place in order to market your product?

Jan: We naturally use the most common marketing and distribution tool available today for a global strategy, the internet. Customers can order online via our website, and the orders will be processed at regional distribution centers across the globe. Our aim is to keep this the main distribution channel for our maps. However, we do have regional marketing strategies for every city map that we have brought out so far. Furthermore, we receive more and more inquiries by wholesalers, bookshops, etc. and of course, we try to satisfy the demand from alternative channels. As for the direct marketing of our products, we focus on various online and print media. We do not advertise, but rather catch the attention of major publications. This has proved a very promising way to make people aware of A la Carte Maps.

Allentrepreneur: What is the process behind the creation of one of your maps? So far, I understand that each map is hand-drawn by local artists and filled with insider information from local guides. How do you go about choosing the right ones?

Yuan: Our artists are from all over the world (not necessarily local artists) but the insider information is always from locals. All of our local guides are anonymous and we pride ourselves on a strict “no tea money” policy: We don’t accept any paid advertising, free products/services, goodies, bribes and so on. All the things and tips are on our maps, because we like them. It`s as simple as that.

At the moment, all of our local guides are either friends or friends of our friends. That way, we can guarantee the quality of our content as we have been to all the cities (we have maps of) at least once and have tried out many of the recommendations ourselves.

Allentrepreneur: Once a local guide has been found, what are the criteria involved in choosing what information makes it into one of your maps? How often do you update that information?

Yuan: All of our local guides are required to talk to at least 15-20 people from different backgrounds (tourists, teenagers, young professionals, middle aged art lovers, expats, locals etc.) in order to gather as many insider tips as possible based on various categories. Out of all these tips, only the best of the best make it onto the map. This process takes a lot of time as we are very demanding when it comes to our maps.

As mentioned before, we focus on tips “off the beaten track” that travelers won’t find in any other publication. As an example, we recommend travelers to have lunch at the cafeteria of a Chinese university in Shanghai. This is a truly authentic China experience and definitely something different!

We update our information monthly on our website. For the printed version, the updates depend on need. So: In a city like Shanghai (as an example) where things change so quickly, we might have a new edition every six months. In Zurich on the other hand, we might bring out a new edition every two years.

Allentrepreneur: A La Carte Maps are printed on beautiful gloss paper and are a visual treat. The packaging is also very well done and shows that a lot of thought has been put into it. Can you tell us a bit about the printing process and its costs?

Jan: It is our aim to provide a high-quality product. Not only has the content been developed with great care and effort, we also don’t compromise with the material. From the very beginning, the selection of the right material and provider of the same has been a main priority. We have searched globally for the right partner to produce our maps. We finally decided to produce our maps in China and from there directly ship to our distribution centers. Unfortunately, we cannot reveal any information with regard to our financials.

Allentrepreneur: Has the startup experience been a good one for you so far? What would you say is the most important aspect of setting up a new product in a crowded market?

Jan: It has been a great experience. Though the workload is tremendous, it is a lot of fun. And learning new things (from printing techniques, international freight shipping, to licensing agreements, etc.) every day is a great reward of doing something new. We would not consider our market crowded: We believe that our target audience (“flashpackers”) has been underserved so far which is why we are convinced to have discovered a niche market. We move away from the mass-travel guide market and offer a combination of guidebook, map and art in one high-quality product which is very personal and truly unique.

Allentrepreneur: And finally, what further innovation can we expect from the travel industry and A La Carte Maps in the future?

Yuan: I believe that there will be a trend towards mass customization. New markets – demographically as well as geographically – will open up so there will be a lot of space for innovations.Travelers are becoming more sophisticated and demanding. Instead of seeing things, they want to experience and learn things. Of course, the internet will also continue to have a crucial impact on the travel industry.

Regarding innovations to expect from us: Let us surprise you. We do have a couple of exciting ideas so you’ll hear about us.

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Travel 2.0 is a crowded arena. But that of course doesn’t mean there’s no room for innovation as is the case with AirBnB. In the following interview with Joe Gebbia, learn about the humble beginnings of one of the hour’s most popular travel startup!

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Allentrepreneur: Good to have you here with us Joe! First, tell us about yourself and the AirBnB team. Who does what and why?

Joe Gebbia: I’m one of three co-founders on the team along with Nathan Blecharczyk (developer) & Brian Chesky (biz dev/design). Together the three of us run Airbnb.com – the eBay of space. We’re an open platform that allows anyone to rent out extra space, from a futon to a full house, vacation rental to bed & breakfasts. Together the company has grown very quickly to include listings in 1120 cities and 82 countries. Each of us plays an important role, and like in most start ups, our roles overlap. Brian will work on a partnership deal, while I handle customer service, and Nate keeps the site’s architecture afloat. The team continues to grow as we ramp up certain areas of the company.

Allentrepreneur: Right after your “ah-ha” moment came when you realized the need for genuine hospitality and cheap rental, what ultimately convinced you that this was an idea worth persuing? What kind of market research did you undertake?

Joe Gebbia: We started the company by accident – in  2007 our rent went up for our San Francisco apartment and we had to figure out a way to bring in some extra income. There was a design conference coming to the city, but hotels were sold out. The size of our apartment could easily fit airbeds on the floor, so we decided to rent them out. We didn’t want to post on Craigslist because we felt it was too impersonal. Our entrepreneur instinct said “build your own site”. So we did. It wasn’t much of a site to start out – a couple pages, and pictures of our apartment. 3 people stayed with us, and we cooked them breakfast each morning. We became friends by the end, and they were grateful to have saved hundreds of dollars on their trip, and connect with actual people. We netted close to $1000!

After that first weekend when we hosted people on our airbeds, we received emails from all around the world asking when we would make the site available in place like Buenos Aires, London, and Japan. At that point we started to brainstorm what a larger, international version of the site would be. That was basically our market research. People told us what they wanted, so we set off to create it for them. Ultimately while solving our own problem, we were solving someone else’s problem too. We were at a point professionally where we were very ready to pursue our own idea. We were anxious though, like waiting in line for a roller coaster. We didn’t know exactly what was ahead, but we knew we were in for a ride.

Allentrepreneur: How was AirBnB funded?

Joe Gebbia: We used the money in our wallets, some credit cards, and small loan from our parents. Along the way we funded ourselves through the sales of a cereal we created around the time of the 2008 presidential election called Obama Os’ (www.obamaos.com). 500 boxes later, we had our rent and expenses paid for a few months. Not long after that, we were accepted into the Y-Combinator program. They provide a small amount of seed money to get your company to the next level. Since then, we’ve been a profitable operation.

Allentrepreneur: Which aspect of your business strategy would you say is more important at the moment and why?

Joe Gebbia: Awareness. We spent the last year figuring out the product, and filling our ‘shelves’ with awesome listings. The system works like a charm – you can have a listing live in less than 2 minutes here http://www.airbnb.com/airbeds/new, and the booking process isn’t far away from that on Hotels.com or other major travel site. With the operation in full tilt, our job is to let people know about the thousands of options that await them on Airbnb.

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Allentrepreneur: As a user-generated website, what simple technique(s) did you and your co-founders use to reach out to potential travelers and space renters at first?

Joe Gebbia: Word of mouth has been very kind to us. We have an original idea, and really easy to use process that people like sharing with their family and friends. People feel comfortable using the site because they know we’re an email or phone call away. Our customer service is pretty fanatical. When they return from a trip and a friend asks how it went, the conversation is usually around how cool the apartment was that they rented through this web site called Airbnb.com.

The story that we tell has a very human element to it – people connecting online, meeting in person, being resourceful – that it garners press like this 2 page write-up in The Washington Post. Coverage like that or our piece in Time Magazine puts the idea in front of millions of people. Obviously not everyone who reads about us jumps onboard, but those articles do generate a significant amount of traffic and users.

Buyers want to go where the sellers are, and vice versa. The Airbnb marketplace is becoming that destination for property owners and sellers alike. As it grows, it organically attracts those buyers and sellers looking to connect.

Allentrepreneur: As with any business, there are a number of risks involved. One question that came to mind is how you would handle petty theft, or bad service for example. Does AirBnB take any level of responsibility?

Joe Gebbia: If you compare Airbnb to Craigslist, where thousands of people have been renting rooms long before us, you’ll find that we have a pretty transparent process. Messaging stays on the site, transactions are handled through our payments system, and we have a full paper trail of every reservation. Craigslist is quite anonymous. Our responsibility is in creating an environment where people feel comfortable disclosing as much information as possible about themselves, and their place. After that, it’s up to you and your comfort level whether you want to book or not. You can choose to book with someone who has reviews earned form our reputation system, or not. To prevent fraud, travelers pay us, and we hold the money until after check in. On the host end, they can charge a refundable security deposit.

Allentrepreneur: You recently applied and got accepted into Y Combinator. Can you share with us a little of your experience there as well as what motivated you into applying?

Joe Gebbia: I highly recommend Y-Combinator to companies interested in developing their site in a very focused and dedicated environment. Each week at dinner meet the who’s who of Silicon Valley, and we’re in the company of some really smart people. We applied due to the advice we received from another YC company. Brian, Nate, and I worked very hard together. The months during YC were some of the most intense, and consequently productive, of my life.

Allentrepreneur: You have recently decided to offer vacation rentals as a complementary service after being overwhelmed by suggestions and requests from your users. How important has been such feedbacks to the growth of your startup and which tools/techniques would you recommend using to keep track of them?

Joe Gebbia: Our site has developed primarily from user feedback, and user behavior that we observe. Y-Combinator has a simple motto, “Make something people want”. We’re in constant contact with our users, both from the office, and also out in the field. We’ll frequently go visit with them in cities all around the country. You can learn a lot by listening to their problems, and watching them use the site. It’s an open platform, so you’ll find people renting boatscoworking spacewater villastreehouses, and even a castle!

Allentrepreneur: It seems to me that AirBnB’s timing couldn’t be better, with more and more people looking not just for good experience but great value as well. What further innovations do you see coming to the peer-to-peer travel industry? How about AirBed and Tour Guide?

Joe Gebbia: It’s funny, as the economy gets worse, we see our traffic and reservations go up. It makes complete sense – we offer a compelling alternative to overpriced hotels, and a mechanism to earn substantial income for a resource you’re already paying for.

In regards to tour guides, people are already doing that. We have listings on Airbnb where you can join the host for skiing, surfing, food tasting, or a bike ride through the city. It’s an open platform, so people can get as creative as they want.

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