Today we talked with CEO and co-founder of Wanderu, Polina Raygorodskaya, to learn the amazing story behind her business!
As we’re here trying to build a story, a tale, about your business, the reader might need some exposition. What is the prologue to your business, the smaller things that lead to Wanderu?
The idea for Wanderu was born out of my own frustration of not having one specific place online where I could find and compare all available bus and train options for traveling between any two points in the U.S.
There are more bus companies than airlines traveling between major cities and, up until only a couple years ago, I had to visit every carrier’s own website and manually compare options to find the one that best fit my schedule and budget. That’s when I realized I shouldn’t have to do all that every time I needed to go somewhere.
I teamed up with my co-founder, Igor Bratnikov, and we did a survey of hundreds of other bus travelers to see if this was something other people wanted, and it was! That’s how the idea was born and now, several years later, Wanderu has become the leading bus and train travel search in North America.
What was the turning point in your life when you realized that the world needed your service? When did you realize this?
The turning point came in the summer of 2011 when my now-business partner Igor Bratnikov and I joined a group of young professionals traveling across the country using only shared rides on a mission to raise awareness about national parks and forests.
During our trip, a driver who was supposed to take us to our next destination cancelled on us at the last moment which stranded us in the middle of rural Virginia. At the time, we had no way of knowing what buses or trains we could catch to continue our journey because there wasn’t a single go-to place online where I could find and compare all available bus or train options for traveling between any two points in the U.S. We had to go to all these different carriers’ websites and manually search to see if any of them served the area and check if there were any routes going to our next stop. It was very inconvenient and a big waste of our time.
It was then that we became determined to create Wanderu, a ground travel search engine that allows people to easily find and book the best deals on bus and train travel. With the help of Wanderu, travelers can easily find the most convenient and cheapest bus and train tickets from their location to thousands of cities across North America and Europe.
Over time, we have come to discover that a lot of people do prefer to take a bus or train over flying even for some longer distance trips. In fact, some of our most popular routes include Los Angeles to Las Vegas, New York to Chicago and New York to Atlanta.
Did your previous experiences or education affect your decision to start Wanderu?
Yes, they did, both directly and indirectly. I earned my undergraduate degree from Babson College which is one of the most prominent schools for entrepreneurship in the country, so I essentially knew from a very early point in my life that I wanted to be an entrepreneur. In fact, during my days at Babson, I started my first company, a fashion and lifestyle public relations firm, and after that experience I knew there was no way I could let go of the entrepreneurial spirit.
As my first company was based in New York and I am from Boston, I used to travel back and forth occasionally to visit my family or for business. I usually took the bus or train and that was my first encounter with the inefficiency of the ground travel industry. I would spend hours online going from one bus company site to another trying to decipher complicated PDF schedules and searching for the best deal. It was all the way back then that I first noticed the gap in the industry and the business opportunity it presented.
What was the biggest difference between your service from the competitors?
Wanderu is the only travel search platform in the world that allows you to look up and compare both bus and train travel options in North America and Europe and figure out how to get from point A to point B even if that means taking two buses or a bus and a train. We are currently adding more and more ferry options to our system, and we are working on integrating our flight options into our regular results. None of our competitors offer a truly multi-modal product.
We’ve also built a unique routing technology that automatically combines options from various carriers to build a customized trip itinerary to get you to your destination when there are no direct trips for the route you’re looking to take.
In addition to that, Wanderu has the largest coverage network in the United States and through Europe compared to other ground travel aggregators. And, unlike some of our competitors, we never charge any additional fees for booking a trip through Wanderu.
What were some of the biggest struggles/hurdles when you were first starting your business? Did you have any approach to overcome this obstacle?
The biggest challenge we have had to face was creating a digital platform that could easily integrate and work with the ticketing systems of the various ground travel providers. Unlike the airline industry, many bus and train companies operated using very old-school platforms and many of them didn’t even sell tickets online. Therefore, we had to figure out a way to factor in the specific elements of every single carrier’s ticketing platform and converge them into a universal system that is both reliable and user-friendly.
On a more personal side, I can’t even count the times that people in the ground travel industry have told me that Wanderu would not be successful and that it would be impossible to create a one-stop shop for bus and train travel. Instead of backing down, I worked harder and let the results speak for themselves. Wanderu is now the leading multimodal travel search in North America and Europe, and it’s one of the very few tech startups that has become profitable within just five years of existence.
As someone interested in marketing, were there any creative marketing techniques that you used?
Before I dedicated myself to Wanderu full-time, I had my own public relations company, so I’ve always been very well aware of the power of effective PR and media coverage. As a startup, we have very limited resources and we cannot afford to spend them on expensive marketing and advertising campaigns. That’s why we focused a large portion of our marketing efforts on earned media coverage and influencer campaigns to get the word out about Wanderu.
That proved to be quite a good strategy not just from an awareness perspective but from a purely business standpoint as well. One of the main channels from which any online business gets its traffic (if not the main one) is through search engines like Google, Yahoo!, Bing, etc. As it turns out, the more organic earned coverage you get, the higher you end up ranking in the search results, so PR has truly been the right way to go for us.
Was there ever a time when you felt you had to give up?
If you ever meet an entrepreneur who denies ever wanting to just throw everything to the side, move to a remote island and open a bar, you should know that they are lying to you.
When my co-founder Igor and I were laying the foundations for Wanderu, pretty much every single person from the travel industry whom we met told us that it was impossible to build a platform like ours. They said that many had tried and failed. Instead of detering us, that motivated us even more to prove them wrong, which we eventually did.
However, it certainly wasn’t easy. From people refusing to take us seriously because of our outsider status in the ground travel industry to almost running out of money in the early days of our startup, there were times when we would contemplate the journey we had embarked on. Fortunately, neither one of us is the type of person who would give up easily, so we persisted and were able to come out on top.
That’s how the entrepreneur life is, though. You have to be in it for the long run and be ready to deal with all the challenges that come your way. Besides, once you get your business off the ground, you’re no longer responsible just for yourself. You can’t just call it quits. You have your team, you have your investors, you have your customers – all of them are relying on you to make it work, and you have a duty to make their contributions to your original idea worth it. You can’t just quit.
What is one interesting thing that is not well known about your business?
Not many people realize that we are actually a very small team. There’s less than 25 of us, including software engineers, marketing team, product and business people, etc. However, since we get most of our projects done in-house (and we get a lot done for such a compact team), people seem to think that we are this huge company.
Has your focus changed from the beginning to now?
Not really. From the very beginning, we set out on building the best travel booking platform out there and we’re still focused on achieving just that. Obviously, it can’t all happen at once, so we set up different goals for each quarter, and for each year.
When we first launched Wanderu, for example, we only offered bus trips in the Northeast region of the U.S. and we focused on expanding to the entire country. Then, we set our minds to adding train options, and eventually bringing Wanderu across the pond.
Last year, our goal as a business was to become profitable and I’m really happy to share that we were able to achieve that. This year, we’re aiming at expanding the Wanderu brand across the European market.
As you can see, while our goals change depending on the business’ needs and priorities, the focus has remained the same throughout the years – we are slowly but surely building a true one-stop shop for travelers where they will be able to book any trip they want using any type of transportation they prefer.
What is your vision for the future?
We are going to continue expanding and adding new partners, routes and geographies. As we remain focused on building the ultimate travel brand, we are working on a number of strategies to turn Wanderu into more than just a place where people come to look for bus or train tickets. We want to inspire them to travel to different places and explore both local and distant destinations that they wouldn’t have considered otherwise, and we want to provide them with all the means necessary to achieve that.
Do you have a message for any aspiring entrepreneurs out there?
Probably the best piece of advice I got when I was first starting out was to not be afraid of failure. Not everything you put your hands on is going to work right away. In fact, if you don’t make mistakes, there is no way you for you to learn, improve and grow and become a better entrepreneur.
As I mentioned earlier, if you’re going into the entrepreneurship world, you have to be in it for the long run and be ready to roll with the punches because things won’t always work out the way you expect them to. Be ready to fail at certain things but also learn from your experiences and improve.
Most importantly, though, make sure to invest heavily, yet smartly, in building an amazing team – people who are passionate about solving the problems you are working on. It sounds so much easier than it is, but taking the time to find the right people and build a team that actually enjoys working together is key if you want your venture to be successful.