I love the smell of startups in the morning – travel and the making of Apocalypse Now

Tnooz loves analogies. But here is a grim one: running a travel startup could be compared to the making of Apocalypse Now, the seminal 1979 film about the Vietnam war.

Apocalypse Now might be one of the defining movies about the conflict in South East Asia, but behind the scenes the production was marred by a combination of spiralling costs, a change to its leading man (Martin Sheen for Harvey Keitel), problems with sets and the Philippine government fighting a civil war, natural disasters, nervous breakdowns and a mild heart attack (Sheen).

Director Francis Ford Coppola’s wife Eleanor captured much of it for a documentary eventually released in 1991 called Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.

For film buffs it’s a must-see, charting the chaos that played out over 15 months or so as her husband tried to keep the movie together in the face of extraordinary pressure from its financial backers, the media, cast, crew and, ultimately, himself.

One such fan of the movie and associated documentary, also runs a travel startup.

During a recent conversation he said that after watching the documentary for the umpteenth time he realised that the average travel newbie often goes through the same trials and tribulations as Coppola did back in the 1970s.

Unless you’re a Facebook of this world (through The Social Network), there is realistically only an extremely slim chance of a movie being made about the creation of your business – but, nevertheless, the challenges are often the same.

[Sorry folks, but quirky, self-made cartoon efforts do not count]

The analogy is an interesting one – travel startups do indeed go through many challenges, often on a weekly basis as they look to establish themselves in an industry often predisposed to fearing and distrusting outsiders, or those with big, new ideas.

Like Coppola who wanted to adapt the original Heart of Darkness novel into a movie about Vietnam, many startups have a germ of an idea for something ground-breaking, manage to convince people to come along for the ride and then start work.

Although there are a few startups where the germ probably shouldn’t have even been let out of the petri dish, many new businesses start with bright eyes and bushy tails.

But then the problems start, similar to Apocalypse Now, which found itself facing issues once it set up its production camp in the Filipino jungles.

Sometimes a startup’s supply chain of product or content proves more difficult than expected to organise or maintain, often leading to delays or a rethink around strategy.

While this is normal in the course of a company’s evolution (fail early/fast and fail often, Silicon Valley-speak, etc, etc), what it often leads to is uncertainty about the long-term viability of a startup’s model and strategy.

The studios behind Apocalypse Now became increasingly nervous as Coppola – considered a relatively safe pair of hands after his previous successes – switched storylines, altered production schedules and his lead actor.

And these backers, like the financial investors of travel startups, have a lot to lose.

The pressure on a startup can be enormous once a VC, the angels or others start seeing the cracks appear in a business, whether it is sudden changes to strategy, personnel or, most importantly, a lack of growth.

Holding it all together, motivating the team to stay the course and keep fresh, papering over any cracks and working out the next move, are some of the biggest headaches for a startup CEO, our analogy provider says.

Interestingly, those arriving on the scene from previously successful startups (take Hipmunk with its ex-Reddit co-founder) often have an added weight of expectation on their shoulders, similar to Coppola following his Godfather blockbusters in the early-1970s.

Pipeline issues, strategic decisions, financial security – all common problems that startups have to face. But there is also the personal toll to consider.

Similar to Coppola, those with the original vision behind a startup have an enormous amount of pressure to contend with, and the effect on their reputation and, more seriously, their health is often terrifying.

The duck comparison is an obvious one here. The CEO/founder has to be the serene bird on the water, gliding around and looking majestic, while often paddling frantically below the surface to keep everything going.

If the duck looks like it’s about to start sinking, then more often than not the rest of the team panics, too.

Coppola had to keep it all going while much of everything else was in chaos around him, while still trying to maintain a calm exterior.

He succeeded with that (despite some outbursts along the way) and eventually finished his movie, receiving the critical acclaim he craved. Many travel startups succeed (although there is debate as to what actually defines “success” – some cynics say it is simply surviving) and, like Coppola, will live to tell the tale with all its ups and downs.

But for many, it is one hell of a ride.

Smelling startups

One of the most memorable scenes from Apocalypse Now involves Robert Duvall, playing Lieutenant Colonel William “Bill” Kilgore, a battle-hardened veteran commander in the US Air Cavalry.

As an air strike zooms overheard and pounds a village with ordinance, he tells his fellow soldiers cowering on the floor:

“I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

So unnervingly contented does he appear at that moment that his affection for the liquid incendiary appears almost hard-wired into his psyche as a soldier.

Tnooz’s DNA also has a particular piece of genetic coding.

We have always had a soft spot for travel startups – perhaps being a tech media newbie ourselves we can somewhat sympathise with some of the challenges that many of the new, industry companies go through: coming up with a battleplan, getting exposure, gaining traction, making a mark on the sector, those kind of things.

Such affinity, coupled with an onslaught on travel tech startups in recent years that no-one else was covering in a comprehensive way, led us after about six months following our own launch to create TLabs in March 2010, a channel on the site to give travel-related startups around the world an opportunity to show the rest of the industry what their big idea is.

Almost 400 startups and two years later, we thought it was about time to overhaul the TLabs Showcase questionnaire which we used as an elevator pitch-type introduction to each business.

Each new TLabs will include the usual, basic details everyone wants to know (size of team and names of executives and key personnel, funding arrangements, estimation of market size, competition, revenue model and strategy for profitability), alongside six follow-up, slightly more colourful questions:

  • 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?
  • Why should people or companies use your startup?
  • Other than going viral and receiving mountains of positive PR, what is the strategy for raising awareness and getting customers/users?
  • What other options have you considered for the business and the team if the original vision fails?
  • What mistakes have you made in the past in business and how have you learned from them?
  • What is wrong with the travel, tourism and hospitality industry that requires another startup to help it out?

Furthermore, at the end of each TLabs Showcase article, Tnooz will be outlining what it thinks are the major opportunities and challenges ahead for each startup, where the worry lines might be or, indeed, the chances of the industry falling to its knees in appreciation (kind of).

As well as welcoming the usual flurry of praising/damning/constructive comments, we will also have a poll included on each article so readers can give a quick reaction to what they have read.

And, of course, we will endeavour to follow-up with as many of the startups featured on TLabs Showcase after 12 months through the TLabs Reprise (it will also have a new set of questions).

Here’s to the next 400 or so startups featured on Tnooz… Good luck!

NB: If you are travel business under two years old and wish to be considered for a TLabs Showcase, email us.

tlabs logo microscope

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Kevin May

About the Writer :: Kevin May

Kevin May was a co-founder and member of the editorial team from September 2009 to June 2017.



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  1. Augustine

    I love the smell of startups in the morning too. Its a great experience

  2. Thomas the Bescoverer

    http://bescover.com is a start-up firing on all cylinders, for sure! Bescover was formerly Lanier Publishing a company with over 3,000,000 guides in circulation on travel and Bed and Breakfast Inn’s around the world. Bescover is the jump into 2030 and beyond. This article rock! thanks…

  3. Colleen Moo King

    Great article. Thanks for your insights.
    Colleen Moo King.
    TST LLC, Travel Syndication Technology

  4. Tommy Hoffman

    I have passed the start-up phase and have a success full business that has achieved over 200% growth in the last three years. I am am looking for private equity and am having difficulty connecting to individuals who know how big of an opportunity I have in front on me. The consumer is no doubt confused by the many new websites that appear daily offering vacation experiences but with no “local knowledge”.

    The name of my company is “Rocky Mountain Vacation Rentals” based in Vail, Colorado.
    Our Registered tagline is “Friendly. Knowledgeable. Locals.®”. I thought you might have some suggestions. I would greatly appreciate any advice.

    Tommy Z. Hoffman


    I am planning one startup in travel space, though I am a serial entrepreneur and have a registered company in eServices and consulting space, can we be considered?

    • Kevin May

      Kevin May

      @dolly – you can email me kevin[at]tnooz.com and we will take a look.

  6. James Penman

    Terry Gilliam’s ‘Lost in La Mancha’ is probably more applicable to any business start-up: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0308514/ At least Coppola made it through with ‘Apocalypse Now’ 🙂

    • Kevin May

      Kevin May

      @james – also true… like to leave a bit of positivity though 🙂


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