Today we start a new feature – “Start-up Spotlight”, where we zoom in on those numerous Estonian start-ups, to find out more about their business model and how they operate. Our first start-up under the spotlight is Like A Local Guide – a website and a mobile app for tourists to help find cool and cozy spots; places where locals like to hang out at and miss the tourist traps. Founder & CEO Ülane Vilumets shares the insights.
IHow did the idea of starting your business come about?
Me and the other main founder Kalev Külaase have both travelled a lot, to about 40 countries each, and in 2006 we started publishing an entertaining city map of Tallinn that focused on places frequented by locals rather than tourists. At first it was just a summer project to complement the youth tourist information that we also ran, but in 2011 we decided to give the map a new name – Like A Local – and start publishing the maps in other countries as well. In the last 2 years we’ve taken it to Helsinki, Riga, Vilnius, and Berlin just came out recently. So with starting www.likealocalguide.com was really just moving the concept from offline to online.
What is your business model?
Our revenue already comes from offline city guides and we’re launching new cities weekly, but in the future we’ll be adding different services that complement the local experience, like booking tours through us, buying tickets to events, meeting and doing things together with locals etc.
What would you say was the hardest part of starting the business?
Starting a business is not hard. Everyone can do it. It’s the growing part that’s hard. You need to involve good people with a spark in their eyes and give a chance to do something meaningful. Sometimes to be able to grow you need to give up deciding on every little thing yourself, even if you think in your head that you could do it faster and better yourself.
Where are you based and why?
We have an office in the old town of Tallinn where we can be close to the travellers and observe their actions. Ironically, what surrounds us every day is the exact theme-park-like environment and shallowness that we rebel against (such as nearby restaurant staff dressed up in medieval costumes), resulting in wondering people who don’t know which city their cruise line has stopped at – this can remind us every day why we do what we do.
How were you able to fund the business?
Mainly we’ve been growing it little by little from our own savings and profits from other ventures, but we’ve also got a small grant from Enterprise Estonia, a bit bigger prize money from the startup contest Ajujaht and a small investment from Startup Wise Guys accelerator.
Could you briefly describe the founding team and their background?
We are both experienced travellers having been to about 40 countries each. Kalev has a background in advertising, he worked as an art director previously. I was in HR before, mainly in sales organisations where I was responsible for in-house training and recruiting. We own two more businesses together – both in the independent travel sector.
How has your market changed since you started? How has your business changed to keep pace?
Actually, we feel that the market has only now started to buzz. When we first talked about the idea to our mentors and critics last year, many of them didn’t understand the concept or the need for it. But now many big players have added features that show that the trend is moving towards more local and more personal travel experience.
What was the minimum viable product (MVP) you built and if/how it has changed?
Actually, at first we thought the website itself is the product, but we realised that the way the info is presented there is only good for research, but not usable in the real travel situation, so we left the site as it is for now and focused all efforts to the mobile app which works offline, including the maps.
Do you have governmental subsidy to operate your business?
We got a small grant from Enterprise Estonia to get our mobile app out in the market, but we hope to go for the bigger growth grant in the near future.
What is an average workday like for you?
Every day is different, but I talk to all our locals around Europe a lot, also our staff and potential partners, media and keep an eye on the finances. My partner’s day is more about general strategy and design/usability.
How is your company different from other competing and similar platforms out there?
Most travel sites in the world share the knowledge of tourists and it’s great for people who don’t want to leave their comfort zones while travelling or just have limited time to see the main attractions. Experienced travellers are always looking for something extra, something more authentic and honest, so in this specific field we really have only one other player Spotted by Locals. In the future we’re looking to add more options to personalise the results so that the experience would be more dynamic.
What could you say has been some of the key things you’ve learnt so far as an entrepreneur?
To let my team take things over, to step aside, to avoid telling them what to do exactly and how to do it, instead talk more about what we want to achieve and give them the liberty of coming up with ideas themselves.
What trends, startups, technology are you personally looking forward to in 2013?
It is visible that the travel sector is definitely moving more and more to the mobile and towards the personal local experience, so we’re excited about that.
What pieces of advice could you give to aspiring entrepreneurs out there looking to start their business?
Do it. Fail, learn, start again. Don’t spend you life thinking what if.
Where do you see your business in 5 years time?
We hope to have our app in all of the main cities in the world. We are specifically a city guide because it’s mainly in big cities where you can easily end up in a tourist trap – it’s not so difficult to find local experiences in a tiny village with no other tourists.
Jüri Kaljundi, start-up advisor and co-founder of Garage48 Foundation:
“Like a Local Guide has been one of my favourite new Estonian start-ups. They’ve shown that you can always innovate even in very competitive sectors, such as travel. Being one of those people who has been to New York multiple times without any urge to see the Statue of Liberty and not having visited Alcatraz in San Francisco even when spending months there, Like a Local is close to my heart. There’s a huge population who wants to end up in small local places when traveling and this far there has been no good way for that. What I like in them is how they mix human editors with online service. Online mixed with offline is what often works. The team is also very passionate and lives and breathes what they do, so I am sure they will be a success. The challenge for Like a Local will be how to keep the hidden spots from becoming visited by masses and still reach huge audiences on mobile.”
Mike Reiner, co-founder of Startup Wise Guys:
“The Like A Local Guide team is full of energy and charisma. Ülane and Kalev have known each other for quite some time, they also run a travel business together and have a lot of industry experience. Their platform has a lot of potential even though their model is not easy to execute and maintain. Because it is difficult no one has properly nailed this market yet and the only way to do this is with the right effort and persistence. They have done a great job so far, are growing internationally and are still as passionate as the first time I have seen them. The travel space is waiting for the next big thing and it very well might be from Estonia.”
Cover: Founders Kalev Külaase and Ülane Vilumets on the left.