Jan Dolezal of SmartGuide tells us about building the future of safe, sustainable, and more authentic travel.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Jan Dolezal: Like everyone, we are a bit fed up with lockdowns and would love to travel freely. But are prudent about following restrictions and lucky that none of us contracted Covid – or at least we are not aware:-)
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded SmartGuide.
Jan Dolezal: I have two big passions in life. Traveling and technology. I started coding when I was 11 and ended up studying robotics. I traveled the world hitchhiking across Europe with no budget since I was 17, going on crazy adventures like a week alone in the jungle with a cannibal tribe, but also flying business class around the globe and working on 5 continents as a consultant with McKinsey. During my MBA, I worked for dew startups, and the entrepreneurial bug got hold of me. I could not understand how it is possible that we use such outdated guides when traveling. Some people still travel with paper guidebooks, others visit cities like cattle in a big tour group with a guide who broadcasts to them via audio, and many museums require you to deposit ID to rent you an outdated audioguide. We all carry powerful hardware in your pocket that could do all of that and even better. Few startups tried to fill this void, but none had a scalable business model. When I found this opportunity at the intersection of my passions, I quit a well-paying job and founded SmartGuide.
How does SmartGuide innovate?
Jan Dolezal: SmartGuide turns every phone into an engaging personal guide. It is a ready-built platform that enables tourist attractions, destinations, tour operators … and even live guides to easily publish self-guided tours. We use cutting-edge technologies, including the best TTS, recommendation engine, and AR, to deliver an unparalleled guiding experience. We are the first to do this B2B2C which allows us to grow cheaper than B2C guide apps and bigger than B2B players.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Jan Dolezal: We are in travel, the sector which got most hit by the pandemic. Still, we managed to grow our revenues by 700% in 2020, so I’d say we cope pretty well. Covid-19 forced the industry to go digital and travelers to travel independently, so our product is super relevant. The only problem is that almost all our revenue is B2B and these travel companies now have usually no budgets to invest. So, as soon as Covid hit, we decided to develop a free self-service solution which had been quite a hit. It allows our customers to get started for free, even earn revenues selling SmartGuides, and we can then upsell them some value-added services.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Jan Dolezal: We were planning a fundraising campaign in the spring of 2020, but as you can imagine, that was the worst time for a travel startup to ask for money when nobody knew what travel sector was collapsing would follow. So we had to extend our runway by a year which was really tough. I had to let all non-essential people go and close our B2C business. As a consultant, I did lots of cost-cutting for corporations post-2008. But a small startup is like a family, and letting some people go so that the startup can survive for the rest is a lot more difficult.
I think our biggest weakness was defocused, and the pandemic taught us to focus on what matters most. Startups operate with very limited resources, so the focus is paramount.
What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Jan Dolezal: I had always been a big proponent of combining in-person to build relationships and align with remote work to focus and get stuff done. I worked 1-2 days a week remote even before the pandemic, but I believe that during the pandemic, we really mastered the tools for effective remote collaboration – G-Suite, Trello, Miro. We have probably increased efficiency, but I hope we will soon be able to get a beer together because that is hard to do over Google Meet – even though we tried:-)
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Jan Dolezal: The pandemic killed most of our B2C competitors. There are a few well-entrenched B2B competitors, often companies who did traditional audio systems and then added an app to stay relevant. We have the advantage of being a digital native and a platform. Our competitors produce white-label guide apps that have no synergies besides reusing some code. We are building a platform where every new user, every now place of interest, and every new partner makes the product better for all involved. I believe this is the long-term winning strategy.
Your final thoughts?
Jan Dolezal: Stay Covid-negative, mindset-positive.
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