Seeing the Future of Data: Jim Li ’17 and TravelSee

According to a recent Gartner survey, 75% of companies are investing heavily into their data departments in the coming years. Proper data analysis provides key insights into customer behavior, marketing strategies, product development and more, thereby making data analysis a crucial element for any business. The bottom line? Embrace data, or get left behind.

Cornell psychology and economics student Jim Li ’17 wants to arrive at the forefront of this trend. Jim is the chief operating officer of TravelSee: a data venture looking to help cultural institutions, such as museums, rekindle their connections with their audiences. TravelSee collects and analyzes data from many sources, and transforms them into comprehensive action plans for institutions to implement.

Jim recently sat down with Entrepreneurship@Dyson to provide some more insight into TravelSee and the passion that drives him to support socially-oriented projects:

TravelSee Founders

Jim with co-founders Kwasi Agyemang and Joe Delia

What’s the story behind TravelSee?

TravelSee was started a year and a half ago. At the time, we wanted to bring a more systematic and convenient way of giving analytics to cultural institutions and museums. The company was created by 3 people who are very passionate about museums, because we noticed that after the 2008 financial crisis, a lot of museums were shutting down. Today, they still rely a lot on revenue from government appropriation and fundraising, which are two rigid revenue models. We want to use data to help them boost revenue streams and improve engagement for visitors. Because museums are very socially driven in educating the public, we hope to use our tool to satisfy that.

What do you see as the barriers to entry for TravelSee as you bring something new to market?

The biggest problem is data collection. A lot of data collection, especially for smaller players in the industry, is done on paper. This requires a lot of preprocessing. We’re doing OCR [optical character recognition] and partnering with another Cornell startup called Datalogue.

What things do you do to collect data?

Data collection comes from four major sources. The first is proprietary data. This is data museums have from their own surveys, etc. The second is social media and online. The third is population data you can find on census.gov or another site. The fourth is a recommendation bank we’re working on in how museums respond to certain things. We would go out to Pew Research and museum associations to get reports. We also look at research papers, and convert the information to variables our machine can recognize. It’s giving different models with various options.

What drives your passion for cultural institutions and TravelSee?

When I met the CEO, we were just talking about big ideas. We’re both very passionate about social missions in general, and we like the arts a lot. We noticed a lot of people weren’t going to museums, and were staying at home watching Netflix. We aren’t against that, we just noticed there weren’t a lot of people learning and educating people about arts. At first, we thought it was a consumer problem: consumers don’t like it. We interviewed 1,000+ museum experts, and realized it was a problem of museums not having the right tool.

How do you see TravelSee growing?

TravelSee LogoAs we build our startup, we’re seeing a lot more demand from the social or citizen sector. We’re hearing from a bunch of organizations that have a social mission as part of their organization. Professionals in those areas feel like they aren’t trained in quantitative skills, but they do need the skills. They want a cost-effective way of examining their internal operations and maximizing their market capitalization. For our team, we see this as a great opportunity to expand into.

As the COO, what strategies do you employ for fundraising?

You need to target the right investors. At first, we targeted a lot of VCs (venture capitalists). I personally talked to 50 investors in the past year, and a lot of them are VCs. Venture capitalists are usually responsible for the people who actually put in the money, so to manage the high risks of startups, they follow strict guidelines in how to evaluate a startup. There are VCs trying to divert from that, but usually they’re just stuck in a specific model. We realized that angel investors were right for us, because many have social missions.

Can you talk about the role your advisory board plays?

We have an advisory board of three people, and we see it as finding people who fill needs in your organization and are passionate about your cause, but may not have the time to run the full operations. On the statistics side, I do a lot of research, but I’m by no means an expert. We found Susie Li, who’s a statistician at MasterCard Worldwide (and a Cornell alum). We also have Maria Perez, who recently sold a company in the hospitality industry. She’s working for Adobe right now as a product manager in design, so she helps us fill our usability gap. We have a legal adviser as well who’s very passionate about what we do, which is amazing. We’re still looking for more people, but one of the benefits of the advisory board for fundraising is these people are really well connected.

How do you balance the social mission and the need to return profits for your investors?

I don’t think there needs to be a debate. We are charging a price that is fair to our customers. We are charging a bit less than the market rate to boost our market presentation, and to help museums who don’t have as big of a budget. They’re not mutually exclusive.

Special thanks to Jim Li ’17, along with his team members both at Cornell (Paul DeVito, Christine Geeng, Ziquan Miao, Randy Tung, Bai Xue) and elsewhere (Kwasi Agyemang, Joe Delia) for their support of this piece.