City guide app maker Ulmon is Europe’s largest mobile travel startup you’ve never heard of
The apps are map-centric, with 6,700 interactive city maps that feature enhanced point-of-interest content. The apps vary in price by region, starting at 99 cents in the US for the iPhone version. An Android version is also offered.
Ulmon encourages users to pay for upgrades such as “Wiki Plus,” a one-time in-app purchase of $3, which allows users to add “travel guides” that are curated from Wikipedia sources to an unlimited number of maps.
The company also does Apple-only apps for individual cities that are free and that focus on handful of major European and North American cities individually, such as the guide to London.
In the last year, Ulmon’s growth has taken off, with map downloads quadrupling to 6.5 million. (A single user might download multiple maps.) The company says it has “hundreds of thousands” of active monthly users. Most of these users are in Germany, France, and Italy.
The mobile city maps can be used offline to avoid cellular data charges or surmount spotty network coverage. A map with nine levels of zoom can locate yourself on the map, even without an Internet connection.
When used online, the maps are connected to a cloud back-end to allow users to pin, share, and comment on places. You can be pointed in the walking direction of places you want to see.
This startup is run by CEO Tymon Wiedemair. Four of its seven team members are full time developers, which makes the startup strong on engineering.
In the last year, Ulmon booked 500,000 euro in revenue.
The indie developer is entirely self-funded by the three founders, growing organically by reinvesting out of its cash flow. It’s looking for funding to speed up its move to the Android platform and to ramp up its marketing.
UPDATE: Since publishing this TLabs this morning, Ulmon has clarified the company’s history. It was founded in October 2010. Prior to that, one of its co-founders was developing travel apps as a side project to his day job by himself, putting up a couple of apps like “Paris guide” in July 2009.
Q&A with CMO Florian Kandler:
Describe what your start-up does, what problem it solves and for whom?
Smartphones and tablets are in the pockets of most travellers today. Yet mobile webpages or even apps is high are not designed to properly orient users on a map and organize guide content, causing friction and dissatisfaction.
Why should people or companies use your startup?
People love our product because it is easy to use and works reliably regardless of data connectivity.
Our apps have collectively received 24,000 user reviews, with an average rating of 4.5 stars. Our apps are ranked in the top 10 for their category in 72 countries, confirming that our product is solving a real problem.
Where do you see yourselves in 3 years time, what specific challenges do you hope to have overcome?
We want to be the most popular go-to solution for map-driven city guides explicitly aimed at travellers using smartphones and tablets globally.
We define the competitive landscape into five areas.
ii) Big “web first” travel incumbents. Most of them are trying to gain traction on mobile, but many of them suffer from legacy and focus issues, and thus struggle to adapt to mobile.
iii) “Paper First” travel publishers. Most of them try to expand their business model of selling content to mobile. But we believe that free, web-based and user-generated content is the guide-publishing model of the future.
iv) Travel booking players. We tend to partner with these guys rather than compete with them.
v) Mobile “generics” – mobile solutions that are used by travellers but not particularly tailored for travellers e.g. Foursquare, Google, Facebook, Yelp. We are moving in a different direction – we want to deliver a superior user experience tailored specifically for travellers.
Our target market is at the intersection of growing online travel e-commerce, which is already a $408bn market. Smartphone and tablet adoption for travel research and purchases is expected to triple in 2013.
What is the strategy for raising awareness and getting users?
Our users are our most beloved advocates and brand ambassadors, with 82% of active users recommending the apps to their friends, according to our internal survey.
We also have great partnerships with brands and tourist regions that share our passion for travel, and see the utility of our app for their clients.
How did your initial idea evolve?
From the outset it was clear that we wanted to build a product that helps travellers all around the world to plan, organize and then maximise their experience on trip.
Along the way we got plenty of offers for project work, consulting, and building tailored apps. These would have brought in nice revenue streams, but instead we kept focused on our vision.
What is wrong with the travel, tourism and hospitality industry that requires another startup to help it out?
No company has really delivered a mobile travel product which is easy to use and covers all main needs of a traveller. Information fragmentation remains a problem.
Hotel bookings through the platform via booking.com are rising, too. That’s a promising revenue stream.
The company’s emphasis on engineering over marketing and its self-funding out of growth in its first years are good signs that it is on a solid financial foundation.
Ulmon is clearly making something lots of people want, but it will need additional funding to reach and serve all of its potential customers worldwide.
One worry is that the company largely depends on data that it doesn’t own or control: OpenStreetMap for its maps and Wikipedia-type user-generated content for information and advice. As an open source project, OpenStreetMap may not be able to sustain the development of accurate and thorough maps at the same pace as its rivals.
All in all, does Ulmon truly deserve to be called a “startup”? Can its business model scale so that its revenue in 2014 is 12 times its revenue of a half-million euro last year? Unlikely.
Content may be king but distribution is everything, and right now, the company relies on third-parties for distribution and doesn’t have creative ideas to get the apps out farther, such as by piggy-packing app-download links onto the itineraries prepared by corporate travel agents for clients.
Few leisure travelers travel often enough to repeatedly use or recommend apps. So we wonder if the true model for scaled-up growth are city guide apps are ones targeted specifically at business travelers and integrated with services that business travelers could rely upon regularly and be see as a money-saving benefit — whether it’s related to travel rewards, discounts at airport lounges or on city shuttles, or information on the best bars for entertaining clients.
It seems the endgame here, as with many European companies, may be an acquisition by a well capitalized company — such as a traditional guidebook publisher that fears Ulmon or fears Ulmon will be acquired by a rival publisher.
Or, in the best case scenario, Ulmon gets acquired by a day-of-travel company that could truly take its user experience and integrate its features into a different, existing, day-of-travel product, such as Concur.
Then again, maybe Ulmon will prove everyone wrong and find a sustainable growth business in appealing mainly to tourists with map-based tools that rely primarily on user-generated information.
Sean O’Neill is a New Jersey-based reporter for Tnooz. He is also a daily contributor of consumer news to LonelyPlanet.com.
He used to work for BBC Travel, BudgetTravel.com, and Kiplinger's, and used to live in London, New York City, and Washington, DC.