020 | Leveraging Your Network to Grow Your Business with Gillian Morris

Gillian Morris is the co-founder and CEO of TripCommon and Hitlist, building technology to bring online travel search and booking into the 21st century. TripCommon was born out of cofounders Gillian and Timo de Winter’s years of struggling with outdated, buggy travel search and booking tools. The company’s first product, Hitlist, helps users travel more by leveraging data in their social graph to present them with relevant destinations and deals. The app’s intelligent filters help users to find trips that suit their time, destination preferences and budget.

LL020-Gillian_MorrisWith over 350,000 users in 83 countries (as of 8/18/2015), Hitlist is disrupting the status quo for the travel industry. In July, Craig of Craigslist named TripCommon and Hitlist two of the 4 Women-led Startups Disrupting Travel.

Before entering the start-up world, Gillian worked as a consultant, journalist, and educator in Turkey, China, the Gulf states, and Syria. She is currently based in New York and Boston, where she leads a series of Travel Tech Talks. She earned her BA from Harvard and was the first entrepreneur in residence at TechStars Boston.

Gillian’s work in emerging markets has made her a passionate advocate for entrepreneurship and private sector investment in the developing world. She is a proud mentor with the School of Leadership Afghanistan.

Resources & Links

Gillian Morris

Hitlist

TripCommon

Hitlist In the News

Interviews referenced in this episode

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Let’s start out with you sharing a little bit about your background so listeners can get to know you.

I come from a very non-technical background. My jobs post college, I was a journalist, I briefly worked for CNN, freelanced a bit, and then I worked in business intelligence throughout the Middle East, so I was a market analyst. I worked a fair amount on the airlines – the Middle East is the fastest-growing airline market in the world. And so, Qatar Airways, Etihad, Emirates. I was doing some projects on where airports should be built, where terminals should be built, and what the capacity was, so that’s where I really started to learn about the distribution side of the travel industry and the tech behind it, and I was just totally shocked to find how unbelievably outdated it was. I mean, most of the stuff was built in the 70s and it’s just kind of been patched on ever since. It’s total like Frankenstein, if you get down into the code of it. And then like on a bit more of a sort of personal note, I also have always loved to travel. I kind of took off when I was 18 with some money that I saved up from my childhood business of selling parakeets to pet stores, which was totally bizarre, and I took off for Paris and I lived there for a while and it was a really transformative experience. I believe so fully in the power of travel to change – you know, you as an individual, and also to impact communities positively. So, there is a social mission behind wanting to build Hit List and that’s to essentially make travel more affordable and accessible, make people want to spend their money on travel versus all the other things they could do with their time and money.

My wife and I did that with the kids. You know, we traveled to Europe, and we thought it would be a better thing to invest in experiences and memories over things. You know, the gadget you buy this year, you forget about next year, but that trip to Europe that you took a couple years ago, you might remember for a lifetime.

Absolutely. I think there’s a lot of actual scientific research behind this that says exactly that – the value of an experience tends to grow over time, and the value of an object fades. So, I think it’s a great way to spend at time, and it’s very educational as well. Lucky kids.

So let’s talk about Hit List. I did some research. I saw you actually started a company called Trip Common. Is that the parent company for Hit List?

Yeah, I guess you could say that. In start-ups, I think we call it a pivot. So, from 2012 to 2013, I was working on Trip Common with one of my Co-Founders – our second Co-Founder joined us towards the end of that time – and we can quickly realized in the summer of 2013, that maybe Trip Common wasn’t the billion-dollar idea. It was a great learning experience, and we built some very cool tech, actually. I still kind of want to return to that idea someday, but I won’t go back into it.

But, we moved on and decided to focus on Hit List. So, Hit List is a mobile app where you list places you want to travel and we alert you when there are good fares to get there. Right now, we focus on flights, because I think that’s the genesis of a lot of leisure travel. That’s the first thing that people will solve, and then, hotels and everything else. And we have every intention to get into hotels, and the full trip experience, in terms of activities as well.

Take some time to dive into the app itself. You know, so what is the user experience, from downloading it, to what they set up, and how it works with them.

It’s really simple. You can download it. We’re on the app server actually featured as the best new app in 83 countries right now, which is fantastic. And, the only things we ask for are your home airport and your email address, just so we can keep in touch. It is for the most part, a logged-in experience right now, which we find isn’t that foreign to mobile. It’s one of the things that’s really a huge advantage of mobile. So you specify your home airport, and then we just start to present to you. Here are the places you can go. You can just explore, and we have a very beautiful, immersive, picture-based experience with some great content from contributors. And, then you can also explicitly plan a trip. So, what’s really different about us compared to the Kayaks and Expedias of the world, is we allow you to be flexible in your travel plans, which I think is a little truer to life. Sometimes you know exactly where and when you’re going to travel, you have to get to Vegas for a conference or something like this, but sometimes it’s just you know my brother and I want to go on as sibling bonding trip, we want to go away for a long weekends to somewhere warm, or I really want to go and visit my friends in San Francisco, but I’m a little flexible on timing. Or, I want to Europe this summer, or any number of things like this.

So, with Hit List, you can come in and you can be flexible and say, I want to go anywhere, or a specific location, or a specific type of location. You can specify what timing you’re interested in, and we present you with what options are live right now, and if there isn’t anything especially attractive right now, you can always save a trip and monitor it, and we will send you alerts when fares drop. And that’s the real exciting stuff sometimes, is when you get things. I got a $292 round-trip flight to India from New York City. We see stuff like this happen on time. I actually got $150 round-trip to LA direct a couple weeks ago. And, the thing is, you know, these fares are out and gone in minutes, and unless you happen to be fortuitously looking for them, or unless you’re a crazy travel hacker, which there are some, you might miss them …until now. And, Hit List makes it really easy. We send notifications for things that meet your criteria come out there.

Do you store credit card information in your profile?

Not right now. We’d like to do assisted booking, but it’s just a matter of time and effort to set it up.

So you feed them to the booking site to actually make the reservation?

Yes, exactly. Right now, we pass you predominantly to Sky Scanner, which is a Meta search engine – it’s like Kayak – it’s better known the rest of the world. And, they are, I believe, the number one flight search engine worldwide by volume, just Kayak has a hold on the US. So, you select your flight, and you end up being passed through to a booking partner to book somewhere else.

These incredible deals you’re talking about – those $150 trips – Is that a leave tomorrow kind of a flight

No, actually that’s also a very common misconception. You know, we’re not just last-minute deals. Although, we certainly can help you find those. So, good flight deals can happen at any time. I mean, the $292 round-trip fare to India from New York, that was something that there were hundreds of date options available anywhere from, I think that came out on Christmas Day which was a nice little PR thing by Etihad, I think. But yeah, there were hundreds of dates available from February to September. So, you have to be a sort of like footloose, fancy free backpacker who can just pick up and go at the drop of a hat. You can also use it to plan more long-term trips.

That’s incredible. I’ve been to India twice and the tickets were $1500 – $2000 round-trip.

Well, I mean honestly, the thing is, there are really great fares all the time. If you look at the app right now, we’re seeing from San Francisco to Hong Kong for $500; from New York to Bangkok for $660. I mean, you just have to be able to scan across a lot of them, and I think that’s something that has been unnecessarily difficult with the tools that are out there today.

So, tell me about the social aspect of it.

Sure. I think any brand that is not paying attention to social right now is so in the Stone Age, it’s hard to even say. Within the app, you can login with Facebook, or you can sync your address book, and you can find and follow people that you want to connect with whose travel taste you like, whether it’s a friend of yours, or potentially an influencer, something like this. If you want to follow Anthony Bourdain, or something like this. He’s not using our app currently, but perhaps, perhaps soon. And, you know, why we did this is we think social recommendations are the driver of commerce. So TripAdvisor, for example. I was talking to Adam Madros, who is the head of product over there, and he said when people connect their Facebook accounts to TripAdvisor, they found conversions go up 27%. I mean, that’s nothing to sneeze at. But, I also think what’s more important, there a lot of people put a lot, a lot, a lot of effort into Big Data and analysis, and all this stuff, and finding that perfect hotel for you, or the perfect flight. And, the truth of the matter is that you can have every statistic in the world telling me that you know Charleston South Carolina is my dream vacation place, and if I have one friend who says, ‘Yeah, I went to Charleston. I didn’t really like it.’ Then, I’m not interested. You know, we trust the recommendations of the people that we know so much more than anything else. And so, we really wanted to make that easy to discover; catalog that information and expertise of, not the crowd, but of your crowd.

Got it, so it is your immediate crowd; people you’re friends with connected socially, but it’s also people that are kind of in your extended network. Is that correct?

Yeah, I mean, you can choose to follow whoever you want, and as we expand, there might also be things where, you know, you could follow the Dallas Cowboys or something like this, and you could go and follow their games around, or you can follow an influencer that you like and see where the wedding traveled.

Yeah, the social aspect is huge, absolutely. So, when you do the integration – I saw that I think it has an integration with Facebook and LinkedIn, is that correct?

Facebook and your address book is where we are now

Okay. So, when they do that, you know, I have logged in with Facebook many times, but you never know really what information of my Facebook am I giving away when I accept those terms. So, what does your app collect based on that?

Yeah, I think people got really freaked out about that because Facebook used to be quite liberal with your information, but they’ve actually tamped it down a lot. We don’t get much from Facebook. And it does say explicitly, when we ask for permissions, we’re just getting your name, email address and home location. I think that’s all we can get now. We used to really get your friends names and locations as well, but Facebook made a pretty significant change to their API in January, so were not able to harvest that information anymore, which is sort of unfortunate as it was useful for helping you. Even if your friend wasn’t using the app, but you can see that they lived in LA, and we could display that in the app. That was nice. We can’t do that anymore.

Yeah, so they cut that off?

Yup, but also, I mean, for what it’s worth, whenever you get information from Facebook, it doesn’t necessarily mean that where sharing any of that information back to Facebook. We’d have to explicitly ask for permission to do that as well. We don’t post anything to Facebook right now unless you choose to share or post something explicitly, but there’s none of that sort of background stuff where, you know, Spotify posts that you’re listening to some like 90s boy band without your realizing that everyone is now broadcasting the you’re listening to some embarrassing boy band, you know?

So again, I just downloaded it, I haven’t said anything up yet, so I don’t know if you have the option like, if you book a flight for example, do you prompt them to say to “share this on Facebook?

We don’t right now. Certainly that would be a good growth tactic, I think, for getting the word out there, but were very, very sensitive to the customer experience. So, that’s something that, if we implemented it, it will be tested. It will be something that you can explicitly opt in or opt out of.

Yeah, the problem with that is, you know, from a security standpoint, do you really want the rest of the world to know that you’re going to be in Europe for the next two weeks, for example.

I think it matters more to some people and less to others. I understand if you’re a really well-off person who lives in a beautiful house without much security or something like this, you wouldn’t necessarily want people to know that there’s going to be no one at your house for two weeks. If you’re a twentysomething living in a shared apartment in Brooklyn, I’m not sure how much it really matters.

As you said, you don’t have any integration with hotels, so do you have any recommendations for people – so they book a flight and they know they’re going to be in Barcelona for the next two weeks, what steps do you recommend from there for them to make hotel arrangements, restaurant arrangements, things like that?

There are so many amazing resources out there, we don’t explicitly direct anyone to one specific thing right now, but I think it’s a huge opportunity for partnership development. It’s something that words that were working. I mean, we’ve talked with everyone from booking.com to Hotel Tonight, to Stay Full, which is another new app from the former CEO of hotels.com. There a lot of great resources out there and we generally just kind of trust that people have their own tastes, and for now, they know which things to look at. But Airbnb as well is very appealing to our core demographic, so were talking with them as well.

Do you have a pretty good sense of who your demographic is?

Yeah, so we don’t have a complete picture of it because some people don’t provide certain information, but were looking at an average age of around 29, so it is really squarely in that Millennial demographic, maybe on a slightly older side of the Millennials. And, our biggest cities are New York, San Francisco and LA, and London as well. We’re about 66% in the US, and then another 20% or so in Europe, and the rest distributed throughout the rest of the world. We actually have a pretty strong base in the Middle East, you know, relative. Hit List users, per capita, are highest in the Middle East, but the populations of the countries are quite small, so that’s not necessarily such a surprise. And demographically, it’s almost all iPhone users. We do have an Android app, but it’s unfortunately not up-to-date with the latest version. We just decided to concentrate our resources on iOS, so at this point, we’re about 95% on iPhone.

And how many users do have right now?

We have over 250,000 – the question is, do we have over 300 K yet. Yeah, were having a really good week right now. Apple actually tweeted about it yesterday. So we’re at 312,848 users.

Okay, so tell me about advertising. I read someplace that you have not done any advertising yet. How he had so much growth?

So, we have utilized a bunch of free tools. We’re decently active on social media, so were on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and then we’ve seen some fantastic earned media, as it is called. The App Store features are very useful for us, so when Apple posts you in Best New Apps or something like this, that’s big for growth. And we also definitely benefited from some great press, we’ve never had a PR team or anything like this, but we been in stories in everything from the New York Times, to Business Insider, to Vogue, to Harvard Business Review. And, I have to say though, a lot of it just comes from word-of-mouth. I think we’ve built a product that is pretty strong and people do tend to refer a lot of others to the product. And, I know that’s kind of a copout, I mean, I wish there were some silver bullet, but it’s all lot of like sweat, iterations, paying attention to our metrics, and figuring out what works and what doesn’t, but really, really focusing on the product. I think a lot of people will spend a lot of money on PR, and sell something before they really built something that will stick, and we didn’t want to be like that.

I read the Harvard Business Review article that you wrote, “Traveling the world made me a better entrepreneur,” and one part that really jumped out at me is where you wrote:

“When you get stuck on something on the road, you need to find someone who can help you solve your problem, because there won’t be an obvious process. You can do this most effectively when you have an extensive network of contacts.”

And he went on to talk about how a lot of people make the assumption that the best way to get a job is to just apply for it. And that’s just not the case. The reality is that it’s all about relationships and networking. Can you give us an example of how networking has helped you in your journey?

Absolutely. I think networking is absolutely key, just like you said. You can get a lot further a lot faster with connections. And just one obvious example is, about a year ago, a little over a year ago, I heard that Richard Branson hosts this gathering on his island, Necker Island, down in the Caribbean, for entrepreneurs and investors, and occasionally he’ll sponsor an entrepreneur or something like this. And, it was really hard to get any details, but I was just like, I clearly need to be there. Obviously, it would be cool to get a private island, but much more importantly, Richard is – sorry, Sir Richard Branson – is very much on brand for us with what we do at Hit List and I just wanted to make the connection. and so I basically just worked every possible connection I could have two Branson, and I emailed a bunch of people, you know, I asked friends who I knew were tangentially related to some things he had done. And, two weeks before, I had totally given up. I was like, this is never going to happened. Well, it was worth the try. And then, you know, I got one person’s phone number of this woman who is apparently close to Branson. I called her up, and she was like, “Oh yeah. No, I’ve heard about you. I was going to invite you, like you should come.” I was just sort of like, Oh well, good to know.

And I ended up getting to go down and spend close to a week down on Necker, met Sir Richard it was an a really incredible transformative experience. I’ve made a lot of connections from that that of been really impactful for the business. And, that was just something like – there was no process to apply for this – you just have to know the right people, and I was able to find them.

Wow. And how long did that process take, you know, from when you got the idea to when you actually got the invite?

You know, I had heard about it probably three months before the event, and I was sort of vaguely talking to people, and then you know I talked to one person who was like “I bet we can actually make this happen,” and that’s when it really became real, and that was probably a month and a half before the event. So, it was from there so I guess four weeks. It’s not like it was the only thing I was doing but it was something that was on the side.

That is incredible. Thank you for sharing that story.

Yeah, I think that that is the central take away; the central thing that I say to any entrepreneur – you need to work your network. And, that doesn’t mean just getting stuff from other people. You know, you have to build up Karma, and you have to give back as well.

I send a monthly update email to a list of a sort of inner circle, and I also publish on blog.list.com, and ideally, I try and give something back as well, an interesting events or knowledge about something. And, this communication strategy, like I’ve asked for things everything from an introduction to the App Store, which helped us get our App Store feature, to introduction to people in press, to housing. When I had two people on the team coming in from out of town and they were going to be in New York for three weeks, and I was looking at it, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, if I put them up in an Airbnb or a hotel or something, this is literally $10,000. You know, so I just put out a call – does anyone have a spare room – and this guy was actually “I’m going to be away. You can have my beautiful loft in Greenwich Village, two bedrooms, for free.” You know, this type of stuff. And just last week, Apple asked us for promotional material. They were like, “We’d like a 30 second high-quality video trailer.” And I was like, yeah sure, I’ve got one of those to turn around in 24 hours.” But I just went to Facebook and I posted and I said, “Help guys – does anyone know a great filmmaker who can put together something high-quality in 24 hours and is not very expensive.” And, it came through and put together a gorgeous video which I can’t wait to release. We’re still waiting to see if Apple will promote it or if we’ll be doing it. Being, being able to have that network and come to ask for help from people is something that not a lot of people do and it’s remarkably effective.

I think people appreciate it when a company doesn’t act like they have all the answers. When they’re willing to be a little vulnerable and say “We are trying to figure this out. We could use a little help. We could use your support in this area.” I think that goes a long way.

Yeah, I think in general, and this is something that I think travel taught me, is that people are generally pretty friendly and if you’re doing something that they find interesting they might be willing to help out, and a lot of people again – they just don’t ask in the first place. So, again you need to get something in return, and sometimes you know the most I can give is basically like well I’m building this product that might make your life better and that doesn’t seem like a lot but it actually is. And there are all sorts of different ways to get back as well, whether it’s sort of helping them out when they have their own idea that they’re trying to go through, or connecting them to someone that they need to meet. There a lot of ways that you can reciprocate that aren’t necessarily quantifiable in dollars.

So, tell us about your version 3. You just released that, right?

Yeah. Were really excited about it. So it’s, I think, the most beautiful yet, and I think it just makes it a lot more simple and straightforward to understand how you can plan and watch trips and also explore and discover new content. So yeah, I hope people do check it out. And like I said, there a lot of really amazing deals right now. I mean, you can get to most places in Europe for under $500, at least, from the East Coast.

That’s fantastic. Tell me about a defining moment in your career. Take a moment, take us there, and tells us what it felt like.

Oh, it is funny to think – there have been so many – but one that I always come back to. When I was 23, I had just left CNN to join this business intelligence company, I was a couple months in, and I actually met with the CEO and I was like, listen – you know, I think I want to hand in my notice and go start this like events promotion company – I really wanted to start my own thing. And I thought there was a gap, and is living in Istanbul at the time. And he said, “You know, listen – I started my company when I was 23, and for the next eight years, I had no good night sleep. I didn’t know whether it was going to work out or not, and I definitely had fun along the way, but it was extremely difficult.”

And obviously, it did work out for him – he was the CEO of the company that I was working for which is worth I think $50 million or something like this at this point, but said “Listen, we’re giving you a good job and you should make some money. We’ll help you see the world a little bit, you know, we’ll send you on your field assignments, and like be an adult for a little bit because you’re basically like a cocky, just-out-of-college person who thinks that they know what they’re doing, but you don’t really know what you’re doing.” And he’s like, “Stay with us for a little bit, and then like when you’re 26, 27, if you still really want to do this, you then you won’t have to go into debt to fund the first little bit of your idea as you would if you did it now. You’ll have the experience, you’ll have contacts, and you’ll also just have the experience of working for someone else, and you’ll know whether you like that are not. Because, there’s also if you start something now, it’s tough and you can be like, ‘Oh maybe I should just go sell out and leave.’ He’s like, “At least you want to have experience to go back to.”

And, you know, I heard this and I was like no, I still want to quit. He was like, “Give it a week. Come back to me, and if you still want to quit and do this thing, do it.”

Then he gave me this really plum assignment to go to Oman which I thought was pretty cool. And, you know, I never really meant to, but I ended up following his advice to a tee. I basically stayed with the company from a little bit, and then worked in the industry for about three years before starting my own company. But, I think he was right. I mean, I don’t know if I would’ve been a success if I started when I was younger but I’m glad that I had the experience. I think there’s a cult of the entrepreneur being like a 19-year-old developer or something now but I actually think it’s good to be a little older and statistically are more likely to be successful. As so I know that was kind of a long story, but that was a pretty impactful moment for me.

Yeah, it sounds like it. And, I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that. It’s helpful to understand what it’s like to work for somebody else and to learn some of those business skills on someone else’s dime, and so you can cut your teeth a little bit later on when you have more wisdom, more experience yourself.

Before we close out here, can you check your numbers?

You know, I just looked at it, and it’s showing me, there’s a delay in the reporting, so that’s just showing me at the end of Monday, so it’s not going to update until the end of today.

Do you have any parting advice for our listeners?

One thing – Travel the world. It gives you better perspective, gives you better connections, better experiences.

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