First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Alex Rainey: I’m healthy and happy. And the same for my family and team. That’s the most important thing to keep in mind at the moment!
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Pluto Travel.
Alex Rainey: My co-founder and I previously worked at Accenture Digital (me, Alex) and Fjord Design Agency (Harry). We both worked there for several years, helping to build and design digital products for big companies. We learned a lot, but we both always had that entrepreneurial itch and wanted to build something completely ourselves.
We’re both super passionate about travel and do it as much as we can. But, strangely, we started Pluto with our travel insurance product. We thought there aren’t any other startups in this space, and if we can crack building a great product in a dull, regulated market, then we could do anything. So we launched in 2018, and over the last 2 years, we’ve been building out our proposition. Most recently, in September, we launched our travel planning tool on our mobile app. This is the biggest and most exciting thing we’ve done since launching, I think.
How does Pluto Travel innovate?
Alex Rainey: This is our secret sauce! We don’t consider what we’re doing innovation and certainly don’t call it that either, but I guess it is. For us, it’s about finding the right balance between; 1) the instinct of what we should be building based on where consumer trends are going. 2) spending a huge amount of time with travelers and understanding what they need, their problems, and what they want. We think it’s key to do both, customers aren’t going to tell you the next big idea, but they’ll help you understand, out of your 10 ideas, which one might be the best.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Alex Rainey: It’s had a huge impact. Our travel insurance sales fell off a cliff from mid-March. But, since launching our travel planning tool and starting to market to USA users, we’ve seen growth pick back up again. And in the last 2 months, we’ve grown our entire user base by over 30% and grown the entire business 5x in the last 12 months. So we’re coping but focusing on what we can control and by building a product that’s still relevant even though we can’t travel right now. Because we can still plan our next trip and we can still dream about our next holiday.
Coronavirus has disproportionately affected travel, but a bounce-back is inevitable. Travel has always bounced back from previous negative global events, so we’re optimistic for the future.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Alex Rainey: We had to drastically reduce our marketing spend and team size and heavily reduce our product development team. These were not easy decisions, but we always said we would never criticize ourselves in the future when looking back for being too conservative. Coronavirus has had a much longer impact than most people anticipated, so we’re glad we did what we did.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Alex Rainey: Harry and I, as co-founders, are big into our Stoic philosophy, meditation, and even journaling. Harry actually got me into these three things, so thanks to him! These types of practices, activities, and topics could probably not be more relevant than today with everything going on. They help keep us grounded and focused on what we can control. They keep us calm and happy, even when things aren’t going well.
Of course, some stress and anxiety are unavoidable, but we’re doing all we can to keep our heads level.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Alex Rainey: There are some dedicated travel planning apps like TripIt, but most of them are very business travel-focused. When we speak to travellers, they’re actually using a bunch of different non-travel tools to plan their trips. WhatsApp, Google Sheets, Notes, the list goes on. So at Pluto, we are trying to make travel hassle-free by making it easier to discover, organize, and even protect your next trip. We’re trying to stay in the game by replacing a bunch of different services and focusing on the entire end to end travel journey, all delivered with a delightful product that puts a smile on your face.
Your final thoughts?
Alex Rainey: We’re optimistic about the future generally, but especially the travel industry. If there’s one thing we’ve learned over lockdown ourselves and from our users, travel is core to people; it’s part of who we are, exploring and trying new things. No pandemic will ever change this.