In the summer of 2017, both Brynne Merkley (‘20) and Colby Triolo (‘19) wanted to travel the world. Brynne was excited to bike across Canada, and Colby wanted to backpack through Europe. Not wanting to travel solo, they each reached out to their friends, asking if anyone wanted to join. The responses they received were defeating: people had internships and jobs or only wanted to travel for a week, not the whole summer. As a result, Brynne and Colby cancelled their travel plans and got tech internships in Boston, where they ended up meeting and sharing their problem of wanting to travel. Both bonded over not being able to find like-minded travel partners with similar schedules and compatible styles. Together, they wanted to bring travelers together and help people explore the world, which inspired them to launch their company, The Worldwide Travel Network.
Once they came back to Cornell in the fall, Brynne and Colby began working on The Worldwide Travel, previously known as Wanderlist. They applied to eLab, an accelerator program for student startups, and got accepted. Through eLab, they enrolled in a weekly class with four professors and with three Saturday business bootcamps. They also have an eLab coach, Tom Schryver, who helped them to develop their target market and execute customer interviews. Brynne and Colby have also been working with Professor Deborah Streeter, who encouraged them to apply for eLab and has since provided honest feedback in their business plans. As far as working together, Brynne describes the overall team formation as organic, with her focusing on the marketing and business development, and Colby doing software development and UX design. With Colby’s experience in software development, they have not needed to spend their eLab money on software, allowing them to save it for marketing expenses.
As a member of the 2017-2018 eLab cohort, Brynne said that, “In eLab, what they teach you is you have to discover who your customer is and talk to who you think your customer is and figure out exactly who they are, exactly what they want, and exactly what their problems are. That was hard at first, because we kept saying ‘But we are our customers and we know what our problem is’, but it really helped us step outside our own bubble.”
Brynne and Colby delved into thorough customer research, completing over 100 customer interviews and some market research on the travel industry, finding out that 80% of millennials value experiences and time with others and that many problems with traveling in groups stems from the different travel preferences people have. They narrowed down their target market to recent college graduates in their early 20s, living in urban areas that want to travel but are limited by their immediate circles. They are also focused on women because their research has shown that men are more likely to travel alone, whereas women are often held back by the fact that they do not want to travel in certain places alone.
Over winter break, they launched their minimal viable product (MVP), which is an online website that allows users to create profiles about themselves, the trips they are planning to go, and what type of people they are looking for. To market their website, they have used Instagram and targeted travel bloggers and influencers, getting 200 users to already sign up. Currently, they are working on the user experience design to facilitate trust between their company and users and their users and other users. “If you look at dating sites, people trust each other, and there aren’t a lot of cases where bad incidents happen on dating sites,” Brynne pointed out that this, “is interesting because a huge question we’ve had is ‘How can I trust people on this site and make me want to go on a trip with a stranger?’ To start address this trust issue, they have been focusing on the Cornell University community, given that most students will have a common connection to each other. Furthermore, since their current website consists of profiles, they are looking to create an algorithm that can filter and match people to make travel companion suggestions.
Brynne recognizes competition is steep in the travel industry, but she believes she has a competitive advantage. She notes that, “Every travel site right now match you with things do in the country you’re visiting and places to stay and the cheapest flights. There is also eco-tourism which helps you travel in groups, but costs a lot and is very structured. For people looking for an unstructured travel experience, it is very difficult because there isn’t a trust website or app. The options are traveling through a group travel agency.” Brynne emphasized The Worldwide Travel Network’s value proposition is “making it as easy as possible for people to find the people that are as compatible as possible for what they want to do”, in addition to highlighting the fact that the company is founded by two college women who have had this problem, which builds a sense of trust.
In terms of challenges, since The Worldwide Travel Network is a young company, Brynne said that, “Every first step to starting a business is challenging and every step is harder than it looks like because every decision is important at this stage. We want to be as thoughtful as possible to build a business that will last and be successful long term.”
As a sophomore studying Environmental Science with a Business minor from Portland, Oregon, Brynne mentioned that she hadn’t always been entrepreneurial, although she is interested in it and likes working on startups. “It’s really cool to see a problem and come up with your own solution and execute that. Since we’ve started, it’s been great to see our own work pay off and work for something we are passionate about and that’s really empowering,” Brynne also added that, “Entrepreneurship isn’t just about the idea or the cleverness of the idea. It’s about listening to other people in your community and in the world and solving whatever problem they have and the best way to do that.”
In the next six months, Brynne and Colby want to increase their user base and have their first successful trip. Over February break, they will be traveling to Madrid after receiving a federal grant to do international customer research. They will be touring hostels and asking people about their travel preferences and pains, and using those insights to future grow The Worldwide Travel Network.