Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Day Trippin': An Interview with Tripit Co-Founder, Scott Hintz

For folks that read this blog regularly (yes, all 3 of you), you might remember that I did an interview series earlier this year called Experts in the Industry. My goal was to get forty five smart people -- authors, marketers and entrepreneurs -- in the forty five days leading up to SXSW with a goal of gleaning insights on the future of social. Not only did I end up with 75 interviews but I was lucky enough to have enough blog fodder for over two months.

Since then, most of my interviews have been saved for the weekly Quick-n-Dirty podcast I do with my partner (and blogger), Jennifer Leggio. To that end, Jennifer and I normally spend a few minutes during the show on a "featured social network. Three weeks ago, we happened to pick social travel site, Tripit. The reason I mention this is that the marketing folks over at Tripit (yes, this is a hat tip to you Angie) had their listening ears on and reached out to me once I tweeted out the URL for the weekly wrap up post on my blog. Angie was kind enough to thank me for the mention and offered up and interview with one of the two Tripit co-founders. A couple of e-mails later, I had my interview with Scott Hintz.

1. How did Tripit get started?

Gregg Brockway and I were part of the team that launched discount travel website (sold to Expedia in 2003). Gregg had since moved on to run Expedia’s luxury travel business (Classic Vacations), while I stayed at Hotwire for a couple more years. But both of us had the itch to start something again, so we decided to get the band back together. We both had a lot of ideas for new businesses in travel – there are so many problems to solve in our industry! – so we started working through them and we found a few that we were both passionate about.

We chose the TripIt concept because it addressed a problem we’d both encountered routinely in our lives – that drill of going through your inbox right before a trip and hunting for all those purchase confirmations, printing them out, stuffing them into a manila folder, hand entering and printing maps and directions you would need on the trip, etc. There had to be a better way, and we thought we could develop some technology that would make that process a whole lot easier. We also felt that there was a need for a traveler-centric travel site, one that was really focused on making the travel experience better, rather than trying to selling you more plane tickets or hotel rooms. Travel booking sites are great, but they are always a little bit biased because they want to sell you more stuff.

2. For a while, it seemed like Dopplr started off as the "travel social network" site of choice and then all of a sudden, Tripit makes a sudden surge. What happened?

I think TripIt has done well because we provide so much value to the traveler once he sends his booking emails to us – and that includes both social utility and personal utility. TripIt is unique in that it builds rich itineraries full of all the detailed information you need on a trip. We invented the “Itinerator” that processes booking confirmation email from over 800 websites (and growing every day), and that’s what enables us to piece together every detail of your trip.

With that as our foundation, we have all the data needed to power social features (like detailed itinerary sharing, our Who’s Close feature that tells you when you’ll cross paths with someone you know, and our LinkedIn application) as well as personal features like detailed calendar synch, mobile access to trip plans, automatic maps and directions, etc. We also have an API that allows TripIt users to share their itinerary data with third party applications, and that enhances the value of storing your itineraries in TripIt. With over 250 developers (and growing) using our API today, the value proposition of TripIt just keeps getting better. TripIt users can link their accounts to apps like USA Today’s new travel app Auto Pilot, top iPhone app FlightTrack Pro, expense solution ExpenseBay, and so many more.

3. I see that Virgin is a sponsor. Any plans to create a one click option where you buy a plane ticket and it automatically updates Tripit?

Yes, the TripIt API makes it possible for any site to hook up directly to TripIt and seamlessly transmit booking data into the traveler’s itinerary. We get TripIt users asking for this all the time, and we know that innovative and customer-focused booking sites will start addressing those requests soon. Go Airport Shuttle (which books over 2 million airport transfers a year) already offers an “add to TripIt” button on their site, allowing their customers to zap ground transportation details directly into TripIt. We’ve publicly announced a deal with Hotwire where they’ll be adding an “add to TripIt” button on their confirmation page, as well. And BCD Travel, the third largest corporate travel agency in the world, will soon be delivering its itineraries directly into TripIt on behalf of its corporate clients. Several other travel sites are currently working on direct connectivity with TripIt, so look for more announcements soon. And, as I said earlier, the TripIt API is open to any travel site that wants to hook up to us, so travelers should encourage their favorite sites to take advantage of that.

4. I love the ability to e-mail in itineraries and have them populate trips. Even more powerful with the iPhone app. What technology did you use for this? Home grown or existing?

Thanks, we love it too! Honestly, one of the best parts of working at TripIt is that we get to read thousands of emails every week that praise us for the ease of use of getting booking data into the site. We invented the “Itinerator” technology that processes those emails, 100% home grown. We have a team of engineers that is fully dedicated to enhancing the Itinerator, adding support for new booking sites, and generally keeping everything humming along every day.

5. Which super hero did you want to be growing up?

Definitely Green Lantern from the Sunday-morning Superfriends cartoon. As he was depicted on that series, he could do anything with that ring – whereas all the other Superfriends had very specific powers. I always found it odd that he wasn’t the star of the show, since his powers were greater than all the other Superfriends combined!

6. Where does Tripit go from here? Maybe the "Friendfeed" route?

Boy, there are so many ways to answer this question, where do I begin?! The key is that TripIt has a comprehensive view of you as a traveler – we know your trip history, all the things you are doing on a trip, and where you are planning to go in the future. That give us the data we need to solve so many problems – like providing recommendations for things you might like on the trip, or alerting you when the price drops on a flight and you might be eligible for a refund, or making it easy to access your travel information on different types of mobile devices. There are also many needs we could address in the area of corporate travel, like helping your company locate you in an emergency, making it easier for your admin to plan and manage your itineraries, helping companies schedule internal meetings, or giving them data that helps them negotiate better deals with travel providers.

I think anyone who travels a lot will tell you that there are so many frustrations you encounter along the way, and so many of those are opportunities for TripIt to build features that ease the pain of travel. And we don’t have to build all those features ourselves – our API is open to all kinds of third parties who want to build apps that solve travel problems, and we’re seeing plenty of great innovation happening there every day. For example, one of my favorite new apps to use our API is FlightCaster, which is a new app that is trying to predict flight delays before the airline even recognizes that they might have a problem. Pretty cool, huh?

7. Assuming your answer to the last question is "stay the course," what future features/functionality to you have planned?

Well I can’t share our product roadmap, but I will say that our list of features is very long and there is no shortage of great ideas. We get so much feedback from our travelers every day telling us how we could make their travel experience better, so that’s a great starting point for us as we prioritize what we do next. We really try to listen to travelers and build what they want, so that feedback plays a critical role in our business. I’m so grateful that we have so many engaged users who take the time to send us their ideas – and I think they do it only because they know we listen, they already get so much value out of TripIt, and they have a vested interest in seeing it get even better. It’s really humbling to see how many people out there are relying on TripIt every day as they venture out into the world, but it’s also a lot of pressure to live up to their expectations and keep finding ways to delight them. But our killer team here at TripIt is definitely up to the task!

8. If you were stranded on a desert island and could only read one blog, whose would it be (and please don't say Techmeme - Scoble tried that with me and I had to hit him with a tazer)?

My guilty pleasure is Brett Snyder’s blog, The Cranky Flier, which I read in my Google Reader. I can’t help it, I’m a total airline geek and so is Brett, so it’s like candy to me to read his musings on the airline biz.

9. What's the ONE pearl of wisdom that you would like to share with other entrepreneurs who are just getting started?

If you’re considering ideas for a new business, make sure they are based in utility and that you can get users to form habits using your product. Utility = value = revenue. And habit forming = mindshare = free marketing. You need to find low cost ways to grow your business, and it doesn’t get any better than free marketing. And if you have real ways to generate revenue once users make it to your business, then you have the ingredients for success.

If you want to know more about Tripit, we'll have VP of Product, Will Aldrich on the Quick-n-Dirty podcast show this Thursday, November 19, at 6 PM ET / 3 PM PT.

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