Wanderu aims to be the Kayak of intercity rail and bus travel
Wanderu is a ground transport metasearch website that helps travelers find and book inter-city bus and train travel.
Once the site opens to the public, users will be invited to type in any address in the Northeast US, find the nearest bus or train station, schedules, and ticket prices. The site then sends users to book directly on travel partner’s websites.
It receives a referral fee from the partners.
The one-year-old company says it is the first intercity transport tool to enable travelers to figure out the ideal combination of rail or bus transport to get from point-to-point between cities. It hopes to be open to national searches for bus and rail travel by the end of the year.
Wanderu says it has raised an round of funding from prominent angels including the current chairman of Orbitz, Jeff Clarke, and that it is now raising a venture round.
Its advisors include Craig Lentzsch, former CEO of Greyhound and former CEO of Coach America (two of the largest national US bus companies) and Brian Harniman, former VP of Online Marketing for Priceline.
The company’s CEO Polina Raygorodskaya has some entrepreneurial bonafides, as BusinessWeek named her one of the “Best 25 Entrepreneurs Under 25” in 2007, after she founded a boutique fashion, travel, and luxury public relations firm.
COO Igor Bratnikov previously worked as an engineer at EMC and a licensed patent agent and CTO Eddy Wong has developed products for, Maark, Allurent, Macromedia, Allaire, Open Sesame, Philips, and AT&T.
Q&A with CEO Polina Raygorodskaya:
How is the way you are solving this problem more special or effective than previous attempts you or the market has seen before and how different do you have to be to succeed?
Ground travel booking is broken. Currently people have to go to countless different provider’s sites to search for travel to a particular destination.
If more than one carrier is required to reach a destination, it’s a mess for consumers, people have no way combining the options to get them to where they want to go.
We are the first ever ground travel search in the US to connect travellers with any destination around the country with just a single search and like Kayak redirects consumers to book directly on the provider’s checkout page.
Wanderu has secured exclusive partnerships with ground travel providers allowing people to search through hundreds of schedules and routes and instantly combine multiple providers and forms of transportation through Wanderu’s advanced routing capabilities to create the perfect trip.
The technology and data sets vary greatly from carrier to carrier and there are no APIs to easily plug-in and collect data from.
There are no software intermediaries in the industry like there are in the airline world who licenses their data to consumer facing portals like Kayak, Expedia, etc.
Direct partnerships are required to maintain accurate data and to be able to get to the check out pages of the providers.
Indirect competition includes flight searches. But they don’t offer bus travel and trip planners but they don’t list schedules, prices or allow booking.
Why should people or companies use your startup?
Currently bus and train travel is a great way to get to your destination, but finding and booking a trip is a rather tedious experience.
People travelling between major cities are often stuck searching through multiple different carrier sites, with some travellers reporting using six different open tabs just to find an available option.
While those in rural areas can’t reach most destinations because they have to take more than one carrier to get there and there is currently no way to combine options to find which carriers to take.
Other than going viral and receiving mountains of positive PR, what is the strategy for raising awareness and getting customers/users?
We will be working with strategic partners to reach our target demographic on websites that they frequent most in many cases already looking for ways to travel better.
We also have a full SEO/SEM campaign and strategy established which is important as our target customer is already searching for ground travel options on the web.
We also have some exciting viral campaigns launching soon that will have people talking.
What other options have you considered for the business and the team if the original vision fails?
Because we will have a complete understanding of the overall ground travel market we could offer B2B services within the industry—for which we have already received considerable interest—as well as explore other underserved industries.
What mistakes have you made in the past in business and how have you learned from them?
The team for a start up is the most important thing. In the past I have had the misfortune of jumping too quickly into a partnership which proved a big mistake down the road.
What excites me about the future of Wanderu is that we are all very passionate people whose life interests are in line with our mission at Wanderu of revolutionizing travel and making it more accessible.
What is wrong with the travel, tourism and hospitality industry that requires another startup to help it out?
We are solving a problem for consumers and industry that is not being solved by traditional travel sites. We are also creating a technology bridge for an industry that is traditionally not heavily technologically focused.
For most travel start-ups, jet setting vacations are sexy, backpacking through Thailand is sexy, but ground travel isn’t.
We at Wanderu disagree. Empowering people to travel anywhere, rural or city to city at affordable prices: that’s an awesome problem to solve.
Promoting the greenest, most eco-friendly ways to get to a destination gets us excited.
Helping a grandmother see her new grandchild three states away that’s a win (and we did it!). These are just of the few things that drive the team at Wanderu.
Wanderu had entered the 2012 MassChallenge, an accelerator program in Massachusetts, but it was not one of the 26 winners announced at the end of last month.
That was a blow, because the startup could have benefited from the publicity, funding, and advice of the program.
Wanderu’s founders seem to have spotted a rich vein of revenue, as the referral fees for helping to process $20 billion of intercity rail and bus tickets in North America could be substantial.
University students traveling back and forth from their homes are a natural first target market. To tap into this, the company has savvily created a game for its homepage. Winners of the game move up to the top of the list to receive invitations to beta-test the site.
Yet one wonders if the quality of the startup’s programmers is A-list. It’s hard to tell, but from the outside it looks like some people with a clever idea have hired programmers to put their plan into effect. Startups like that seldom perform as well as ones where computer programmers are running the show.
This may lead to two potential problems: The type of programmers who is willing to implement someone else’s vision may not be top shelf, because the top shelf ones want to have maximum exposure to the upside of a successful startup, a.k.a., they want to be involved in the founding.
The other possible problem: It’s also not clear that there’s anything in the background of the CEO that would enable her to tell if programmers are top shelf.
A startup of this nature will truly need excellent code if it is going to outsmart potential competitors.
Another red flag in the company’s responses to the questionnaire is its failure to acknowledge the existence of startups that have business models that are adjacent to ground-transport metasearch, like Rome2Rio, a platform for organizing and searching end-to-end travel options, and entrants like GetMeToMyFlight.
That failure suggests either bravado or oversight on their part.
Having said all that, the online sale of ground transport is broken, as the founders say. A solution is desperately needed by consumers, and there are a few promising revenue models to be built on those solutions.
So we wish these founders luck in being the first to grab the Holy Grail.
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Sean O’Neill is Editor-in-Chief of Tnooz.
Before joining us, Sean was the future of travel columnist at BBC Travel, senior editor of BudgetTravel.com, and an associate editor at Kiplinger’s. He now lives in New Jersey, after having worked in London for four years. He's on Twitter and is excited for #Rio2016.