Take me through your start-up story
James and I met at Bath University where we were both studying business administration. Our grandparents both had holiday flats in south of Spain so we decided to create a website telling people cool stuff they could do in Marbella. Our friend built the site on the cheap: we had £600 to get the business off the ground. In one summer, we pulled in 33 clients. We called the university and said "We're not coming back."
What happened next?
It was six months before we expanded to new destinations. The eureka moment came with the franchise model. We decided to use local experts and grow the business as and when the right person got in contact. People pay an upfront fee of between €15 - 50,000 to join as franchisees so we have no cashflow worries. The money from advertising on the sites is reinvested into the business. We've never had debt from the banks or chased investment.
How do you find franchisees?
It's more than difficult to find the right person. There's no particular skill set or characteristic for our franchisees. We just look for enthusiasm and people who are passionate about their destination. It's important that they don't just work on their franchise but become a part of whole business.
All the people we have on board are totally committed to the business. 50% of our innovation comes from our franchisees: it's like having 85 advisors in the company. And we recently raised half a million by selling 10% of the business to our franchisees. The round was completely oversubscribed so we always have the option to go back to them if we want to raise a second round.
Any other plans for growing your user base?
We're getting into mobile and special offers. This really is the year of the mobile. You can double your reach! We are releasing a MyDestinationInfo app in mid February so that our users can continue to use our site once they reach their destination, and while on the move.
The key thing that makes our business unique is the local aspect. Lots of other sites use local journalists to write up a place but our guys live there, they interact with the business owners every day. This means we can start to do really exciting new things, limited time offers like Groupon, for example. These work really well with the mobile aspect.
We're also introducing virtual tours and videos on the site - you can pan 360 degrees and see the whole interior of a hotel. Business can use our interface and upload offers - 2 for 1. With the internet, the sky's the limit. Technology can help business ideas explode.
What are your vital statistics?
In terms of visitors numbers, last year we had 8 million unique visitors and the year before 2 million, by the end of this year, we are on target to hit 20 million. In terms of franchises we also doubled last year from 35 to 85, and hope to reach 150 by the end of 2011. Revenue has followed a similar pattern and we are expecting to see £2m - £3m revenue in 2011.
What's your biggest challenge at the moment?
Our level of impatience! We have so many plans and ideas. It's also imperative to stay ahead of competition. At the same time, it's very easy to try and add too much and dilute the core message, which becomes confusing to a user. We're constantly reining ourselves in.
In terms of red tape, it's definitely the USA. Doing business there is on another level. It's taken us $120,000 and five months to be able to operate there. A US franchise agreement is 120 pages - everywhere else it is 19 pages. But it's worth it. We could have more sites there than on any other continent. But there's a lot of suspicion for businesses coming in from outside of the US. We have a base in Florida - they needed to see a local telephone number before they would touch us with a barge pole.
What are your plans for the future?
As we sit here today, we don't have any concrete plans. No entrepreneur doesn't think about the exit. We have plenty of goals: we want to become a worldwide renowned brand in travel but exit isn't on our minds right now.
We so have to control ourselves from not starting new things. We're serial entrepreneurs but it's important not to take our eyes off the ball. MyDestinationInfo still takes a lot of our time: James and I travel 250 days a year. But we have been tempted to start something else at least three times. That's our favourite part: proving something works, getting it going. That's more fun than running a big company.