First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Jeff Peo: Thanks for asking. We’re healthy and doing about as well as one can during these times. Since we’re a travel startup, we’ve really had to put a lot of work on pause, which has allowed me some extra time to spend with my young daughter – which I’m really enjoying.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Walkli.
Jeff Peo: I had been working as an engineer back in 2007 when I decided to apply to business school. I wasn’t really happy at my job, and I had some money saved up, so I decided to take some time off to travel before classes started. I spent about five months in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe exploring cities on my own. Traveling alone without a fixed schedule allowed me to get to know cities differently from when I had previously vacationed. I discovered that seeing a city on foot – especially beyond the major tourist sites – provided a really rich experience. After a while, I developed a routine where when I arrived in a new place, I’d take out a paper map and work with hotel staff or other travelers to draw routes to explore for a more authentic experience. I collected these in a notebook.
After I started my consulting career, I continued to travel whenever I could, typically making it to 5 or 6 new countries a year. Friends and coworkers took notice and started seeking out my advice when planning trips. I’d make recommendations and share my maps, which seemed to make people less intimidated to travel to somewhere new and foreign. Walkli was born to allow all travelers – and eventually city tourism boards and other travel stakeholders – to create their own digital guided tour maps and share them on a single platform.
How does Walkli innovate?
Jeff Peo: We built a set of mapping tools designed specifically for the sightseeing industry. Our goal isn’t to help someone get from point A to point B in the fastest way, but rather to provide a scenic route.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Jeff Peo: We’re in the travel industry, so it’s been pretty tough. Prior to the pandemic, we had gone through the MassChallenge accelerator, raised seed capital, and signed up some key customers. We finished off 2019 with about 20% MoM growth in site traffic. When the pandemic hit, it all came to a halt. People stopped traveling – and for a good reason. Our traffic was down 75% by April. It’s recovered a bit, but we’re still nowhere near where we were at this point last year.
Despite all that, we’ve actually been able to weather the pandemic ok. We put new development on hold and reduced our marketing budget, so we’ve kept costs to a minimum. But we’ve managed to retain most of our paying customers, so revenue has been steady. So, while we haven’t grown, we’ve been able to stay afloat.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Jeff Peo: We have. Actually, both my co-founder and I are new parents. He decided that he needed more security with a baby at home during a pandemic, so he took a more traditional 9 to 5 job while still helping out with Walkli when he can. I supported his decision but knew that it was tough for him to move on.
The other really hard part of the pandemic, for us anyway, was deciding what our role in public safety should be. Walkli is really about encouraging people to travel to new places, exploring neighborhoods, and engaging with local people and businesses – which is almost the worst set of activities one could do right now. We decided pretty early on to put a full pause on all business activities until it was truly safe to travel again.
Each time there looks to be a dip in new cases and a return to normalcy on the horizon, and we revisit our re-launch strategy. Then inevitably, there is an outbreak, followed by a spike in cases, followed by tightening travel restrictions. By now, we have what we feel to be a pretty good plan in place. The difficult bit will be deciding when it’s safe and appropriate to deploy it.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and Walkli in the future?
Jeff Peo: For me, the most stressful part about running a company is feeling responsible for other people’s’ livelihoods. People invested their money in us. People gave up other jobs to work with me. Fortunately, we have a great group of understanding investors, and those who were working with us but needed something more steady have been able to find other work. That’s certainly helped reduce anxiety.
In terms of how we project ourselves, we’re trying to be honest and transparent. We’ve let our investors and partners know that for now, our focus now is acting responsibly. However, we feel that walkli is a great platform for cities to reclaim tourists when things get back to normal, so we’re still able to keep some optimism.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Jeff Peo: The travel space is really crowded, and we overlap with aspects of a number of different companies. Pre-pandemic, we worked hard to carve out our niche, trying to add value where we felt there was a gap in the market. Now, it’s kind of all up in the air. So many travel companies are going out of business or refocusing their efforts that it’s hard to predict how the industry will look in a year or two. For us, we’re content staying quiet and not making life any more difficult for city and health officials. Once it’s truly safe to travel again, we’ll evaluate the landscape and go from there.
Your final thoughts?
Jeff Peo: I think this pandemic has really highlighted how rewarding it is to travel to a new place, explore new streets, meet new people, and engage with new cultures. It’s an experience that can change your perspective and stay with you for life. I miss it.
I look forward to walkli being part of the tourism industry’s recovery.