It was almost Christmas: the busiest travel season of the Southern Hemisphere, when Brisbane mates Ryan Hanly and Mark Cantoni, had their global travel app pulled from Apple’s app store. The timing couldn’t be worse. Not only did the Outbound founders confuse and disappoint customers, but also they were right in the middle of investment talks with large corporates who were keen to play with the global travel app that been downloaded 26,000 times in 100 countries.
“We were devastated – it was a highly stressful time,” says Hanly, who left his Head of Department role at Padua College, Kedron, to chase his startup dream. His bank balance was low, his wife was expecting their fourth child and all of his hopes for investment were crumbling around him.
“Our branding was challenged by a U.S. startup and when we couldn’t resolve it with them directly, they asked Apple to take our app down. Apple, not wanting to come in the middle of the dispute, kindly obliged, even though our lawyer told us we were in the right. We couldn’t believe it.”
For five excruciatingly long weeks, Hanly and Cantoni’s future hung in the balance. Apple finally relented and let them back in the app store, on the proviso that they resolved their legal dispute or promptly changed their name.
At last, the Brisbane mates could sleep again, their customers could find them again and they could pick up where they left off on the fundraising journey. Only this time, it was as Travello – and with global trademark applications lodged.
The idea to create “a social network for travellers” came in March 2014, when Hanly and Cantoni – both experienced solo travellers – saw a gap in the market to connect travellers via mobile.
“Facebook does a great job of connecting friends. But most of your friends aren’t traveling to the same place at the same time as you. So how do you easily connect and find new friends to share experiences with?” asked Hanly. He went on to explain that the Travello app is effectively digitising the offline social experience of youth hostels, but for a broader age demographic.
The development hurdle
But the journey has not been smooth sailing. Their first hurdle was finding a development company who could build their app for less than the $200,000+ the first agency quoted. They succeeded, but whilst they received an app to launch, they later learned that their investment in version 1 only bought them “a period of grace”, not a sustainable product. Their development company’s code wasn’t scalable and it was only backed up by a three-month warranty. As soon as they launched in early 2015, the race was on to build an in-house tech team.
Hanly and Cantoni started canvassing Twitter and local hackathons to find Brisbane techies to hire. To their credit, the founders captured the imagination of three developers, two of whom went on to build Travello’s recently launched 2.0 version in both iOS and Android and are still with the team today.
The marketing hurdle
“How do you launch and market your app, when you’ve sunk all your money into building it? That was our dilemma. Thankfully, our pre-launch blogger outreach and social media efforts paid off, as we had nothing left in the kitty.”
“Building our community and brand awareness pre-launch was one of the best things we did as we had a ready made audience to market to the day we did launch. This is something I don’t think a lot of founders put enough thought or emphasis on,” said Hanly.
The investment hurdle
With an app in hand, the team secured early stage angel investment from a banking executive.
In 2015, the team was a finalist at Brisbane’s River Pitch competition and hoped to entice potential investors in the room to inject some much needed cash. Their pitch went well, as did a follow-on conversation which led to a significant investment offer. However, with such good traction behind them, the boys were convinced by trusted advisors to revisit the opportunity in a few months, when they would hopefully be in a far better position for investment. Consequently, they left River Pitch with no more money than when they went in.
Later that year, Hanly and Cantoni were accepted onto the six-month muru-D accelerator program at River City Labs, which brought in a much-needed $40,000. However, it was a temporary fix. The founders still needed to hustle to sell their dream.
Nearly a year and dozens of meetings later, Travello has secured a $1.26 million investment that puts their company at a $4.56 million post-money valuation, thanks to a group of local Brisbane investors.
“We’re the overnight success story that took more than two years,” joked a sleep-deprived Hanly, who’s just become a father for the fourth time, moved Travello into a new office, almost doubled the team (to seven) and seen Travello downloaded in 180 countries.
When asked the main lessons Travello has learned on their journey, Hanly replied:
“Choose a name you can trademark. Don’t underestimate Apple. Build your own tech team. Tap into social media. Don’t give up when the going gets tough (and it will). Don’t time your fundraising over December/January when all of the key decision-makers go on holidays.”
Hanly pauses to smile as he looks back on his startup experience to date.
“If it was meant to be easy, I guess everyone would do it.”