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Students vs Startups Ep 19: From White House to the Travel Marketplace

Students vs Startups Ep 19: From White House to the Travel Marketplace


Featuring Trip Tribe

Welcome to Episode 19 of Students vs. Startups. This week, moderator John Gilroy talks with the founder of Trip Tribe, Dave Aidekman. Dave takes us on his journey from working in the White House post 9/11, to founding his very own online travel company.

[audio src="https://easternfoundry.files.wordpress.com/2017/04/students_vs_startups_podcast_episode_19-final.mp3"][/audio]


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John Gilroy: Welcome to Students Versus Startups: Showdown on the Potomac. My name is John Gilroy and I'll be your moderator for today. Believe it or not we're doing our 19th show. For the first 16 shows I had this kind of radio format, you know? And people complained, so I switched to a more podcasty kind of an informal kind of a way to do this show. I'd just like to thank everyone who's agreed to spend one half hour in the room with me this afternoon. Thank you very much ladies and gentlemen, round of applause for you! I can't believe you'd sit here and understand what's going on.

We're in a room at the Eastern Foundry, which is a community of innovators here in Rosslyn, Virginia. We have a little table here. I have three students to the left of me. I got a startup to the right. We're going to have a little conversation, and then we are going to end. It should last around 26 minutes.

To my left, I have three students and they are all candidates for a master of professional studies in Systems Engineering Management from the School of Continuing Studies at Georgetown University. Our first student is Michael Lamos. Tell us a little about your background please, Michael.

Michael Lamos: Hey guys, how are you? I'm in my final semester at Georgetown, working on my masters in Systems Engineering Management, hoping to excel my career and build relationships with a lot of great people so far.


IMG_8611 (1) Michael Lamos


John Gilroy: Michael tries to impress girls by telling them that he wrote an article on carbon nanotubes. So that's really going to impress the ladies, isn't it? He did, he wrote an article on carbon nanotubes. It's impressive.

Michael Lamos: I was a co-author, but-

John Gilroy: Still, it was a good one. Our next ... Greg Foreman, please.

Greg Forman: Yep, so I originally was a Finance major, and I've actually gone into the Systems Engineering Management program to try and pivot into more of an engineering trajectory.

John Gilroy: Great. And you have a degree from USC, right?

Greg Forman: Correct. The University of South Carolina.

John Gilroy: Yeah, it's not the real USC. We got to make sure that's who ... My daughter's dating a guy who says he went to USC. We got to be careful about that. The University of South Carolina. Kevin Uffelman, please, your background.

Kevin Uffelman: All right. History major, I'm a Project Management Strategy Professional supporting federal customers, also in the Systems Engineering Management program. Finishing up actually over the summer, but I still get to walk with these guys in May, so that's exciting.

John Gilroy: I think many listeners have heard the phrase "What do you think, he's a rocket scientist?" You need a rocket scientist to figure that out? Well Kevin works with rocket scientists, don't you? And satellite people.

Kevin Uffelman: I do. I work in an organization, NASA, that we do satellite communications, relay communications.

John Gilroy: Yeah.

Kevin Uffelman: Pretty exciting.

John Gilroy: Work with a whole lot of smart people. And to my right, we have a startup. triptribe-logo-300x140The startup, the company name is Trip Tribe. I'm going to say that very carefully because it's tough on the radio to say that. The founder is a gentleman by the name of Dave Aidekman, is that right, Dave? Trip Tribe. I'm going to say that very carefully because it's tough on the radio to say that. The founder is a gentleman by the name of Dave Aidekman, is that right, Dave?

Dave Aidekman: Yep.

John Gilroy: Okay. Tell us about your background and your company real quickly please, Dave.

Dave Aidekman: Sure. Yeah, background was quite different from what I am doing now, but started out coming out of grad school worked in government in national security. I was recruited to work at the White House, and I worked on defense technology, so familiar with the rocket science as well. I worked on counter-terrorism. I was in the White House on 9/11, and part of my background ... I was recruited to work on the original Office of Homeland Security team and part of the original Policy Office there.

So spent seven years in various parts of the White House, and then the State Department, working on counter-terrorism and national security policy. Left government, and started doing some consulting work in related fields. And finally had a chance after spending about six days a week for seven years around the clock working in a government office building to finally pursue some passions and hobbies, one of which was travel.

Started organizing a variety of vacations, mostly for myself and friends, and over time the passion grew into a small business. My fiance at the time, and now wife, was part of the start of this company. We built trips, and they grew, and our reputation grew and expanded into a small business, which expanded into a technology company.

John Gilroy: Find out more about that.

John Gilroy: You are very humble about your background. You have a strong Ivy League background. A bachelor's degree, University of Pennsylvania. Master's degree up to the big school up in the Charles River, hm?

Dave Aidekman: Indeed, yep.

John Gilroy: That's Harvard. He has a master's degree in Public Policy from Harvard.

Dave Aidekman: Yes, that's right.

John Gilroy: I mean, I'd have that tattooed on my forehead if I had that degree. It's a strong background, and you wind up working with travel. I think that's a good question for students to find out how to make that transition. And I normally ask all our guests, so what business problem do you solve?

Dave Aidekman: Sure. Well, I'll point out we're working in vacation travel, so it's hardly a problem. It's more of an opportunity. Yeah, first world problem, more of an opportunity, more of a chance. Basically over the time of working on those trips and vacations, we learned a lot about the industry and especially about the group vacation industry, and there were two big problems that we set out to solve.


IMG_8632 Dave Aidekman


The first was just the real lack of technology. 20 plus years after Expedia and Priceline and other segments of the travel industry, this space around group vacations still was almost entirely offline, so we wanted to solve that.

The second dynamic was really a lot more interesting and exciting for us, is that we discovered that the most important thing for people who go on a group vacation is the other people on the trip. It's more important than the destination, the price, the dates, so we wanted to build some social technology on connecting people because at least half of a great experience is about the group.

John Gilroy: Wow. And we have group to your left here, and we have Michael. Jump in, a question please.

Michael Lamos: Sure. So kind of segueing from what you were just saying, I was thinking about when I was reading your ... the company website and things like ... as a challenge or maybe a lack of a challenge, how do you strike interest in getting people to go and sign up and to want to go and travel with people that they don't know? How do you feel people who want to travel with friends, and then distinguishing between them and people who are more willing to travel with others?

Dave Aidekman: Sure, yeah. The answer is it's really actually quite natural in the space. We don't feel like we need to push people, or encourage them too much to do something that they wouldn't otherwise do. It's very natural in this space. You have a 75 or 100 billion dollar group travel industry, where the dominant part of it are people joining tours by themselves or with one other person who are joining a group of 15, or 20, or 30 people. So it's actually pretty conventional. It's not something that we have to do a lot of pushing on.

John Gilroy: Kevin.

Kevin Uffelman: Yeah. So expanding on that, I noticed ... I was doing a survey of the website, noticed yoga, fitness type travel. Is that a consequence, the fact that you find people willing to do that, based on the demographics you all are serving, or there are other factors at play that are influencing that?

Dave Aidekman: Do you mean in selecting those categories?

Kevin Uffelman: Yeah, yeah.

Dave Aidekman: Yeah, it was a deliberate strategy decision to get really focused and narrow on a niche. When you're a small startup in the early days, resources are pretty scarce, and good advice or good practice is to be very focused and really succeed in a narrow space and expand from there. So we made a deliberate choice to go after those categories, partly because they are very social.

"There's a lot of passion around the people who do it and travel together, and it turned out to be a really successful category for us."- Dave Aidekman, Founder and CEO at Trip Tribe

Partly on purpose, and partly just unanticipated that it would dominate our group. Over the next few weeks, you've caught us at a good time, we're about to launch into some new categories after two and a half years really focused on yoga, fitness, and wellness.

John Gilroy: Greg.

Greg Forman: You mentioned being a startup and not having a lot of resources. You started off as Adventurati Incorporated, right? That was your previous startup. How did that end up turning into Trip Tribe? Is it kind of a rebranding? Is it a little bit more of a spin off, or what was the strategy behind that?

Dave Aidekman: Yeah, primarily a rebranding. In fact our corporate name is still Adventurati. It's our entity, so we just have Trip Tribe as a brand name. We started it to basically handle small group vacations, but as we wanted to deploy a lot more technology and be more sophisticated online, we thought about new types of branding. So nothing different about the entity legally, just a name adjustment.

Greg Forman: Were there any challenges to switching brand names, going from Adventurati? Did you find any issues with losing customers, or just getting your name out there?


IMG_8621 Greg Forman


Dave Aidekman: We were tiny when we did it, so I think it was a pretty small risk. We're probably still pretty tiny in the grand scheme of things anyway. I always feel like when you're talking about a commercial Internet business where you have the entire internet as your audience, you're always a lot smaller than the opportunity ahead. So it wasn't a big concern.

John Gilroy: Michael.

Michael Lamos: So kind of switching gears a little bit, and thinking about a more long term perspective. So you were talking about you've been two and a half years, and now you're about to release a new product, some new services, or travel groups. Do you have any partners? Or do you have plans for partnerships, or do you think that's premature, or ...

Dave Aidekman: Sure. So we have partners of different varieties. I can tackle that in different ways, or kinda maybe ask for more specificity, but we see ourselves primarily as a technology company, as primarily as a marketplace. So the actual execution and delivery of the travel experiences on the ground, in the dozens of countries that we work in, are executed by partner travel companies. So we work with dozens, up to hundreds, of resort destinations for the yoga and wellness. We are partnered with different types of tour operator companies to handle some of the more adventure experiences.

And we're actually not wishing to grow a team globally and execute them on the ground. We want to be an online company. Like Expedia doesn't operate airlines and hotel chains, we want to be in that vein.

Michael Lamos: So it's part of your business strategy, is to stay small, stay in the niche market, as opposed to really growing into an incredibly large enterprise.

Dave Aidekman: We'd love to grow big, in the sense that Expedia and Priceline are huge. We're not looking to be on the execution end of travel. But if we can serve the billions of dollars of group vacations through our website, but not do delivery, just in the way that Expedia's a partner with United Airlines and Hilton Hotels. We're a partner with tour operators and resorts who do group vacations. They handle the customers when they arrive at the destination, and we handle it until that point.

John Gilroy: Kevin, please.

Kevin Uffelman: Yeah. So you've deployed an infrastructure to connect other businesses with customers. What were the challenges in doing that? I mean, it's very different, it sounds like, from what other providers have.

Dave Aidekman: There're a lot of challenges, and we've gone even a step further. I think you've hit the nail on the head on what we've built. We really see ourselves as a network and as a marketplace, and we are connecting the travelers who want to go on these vacations with the operators who operate the vacations. So we've created a marketplace. I'd like to think of it in the same way as Airbnb or eBay, where you have the people who deliver these experiences and who are serving them, and the people who want them.

We've added to our own challenge by adding in an additional layer of customer for a product in there. In group vacations it's very natural to have a leader of a group vacation. So we have added software not only for the travelers and the suppliers, but also the leaders of the trips to manage their groups, and to market and reach out. I know you're all focused on technology as well.

"To build technology for three different audiences has been a big stretch for us. It's the opportunity and the challenge at the same time." Dave Aidekman, Founder and CEO at Trip Tribe

John Gilroy: Dave, if people want to get more information on your company, where should they go please?

Dave Aidekman: That easy? Our website is TripTribe.com, spelled like it sounds.

John Gilroy: Oh, alliteration's great. All right. We'll take a little break, come back, ask you some more questions about your company.

The founding sponsor for Students Versus Startups is The Radiant Group. If you enjoy solving problems and like to work with bright people, The Radiant Group is the place for you. Contact Al Di Leonardo or Abe Usher at TheRadiantGroup.com. We are hosted by Eastern Foundry. A community of government contractors who are bringing innovative solutions to the government marketplace. For more information go to Eastern-Foundry.com.

Welcome back to Students Versus Startups: Showdown on the Potomac. Well, you know the drill. We got a table. We got students on one side, a startup on the other. Our students, you know them, Michael, Greg, and Kevin. And our startup is Trip Tribe, and the CEO and founder is Dave Aidekman.

I was taking notes during the last conversation. I wrote down Priceline. I figure, well the way for your company to grow is to get William Shatner to be a spokesman for it. Get Captain Kirk in there, and he can drive all kinds of people to your site.

Dave Aidekman: That would be compelling. I've been to Priceline headquarters and there was a big poster, a statue, of him up in the lobby.

John Gilroy: Wow, that's pretty good. Greg, I'll let you open up the questioning, please.

Greg Forman: Yeah. I'm actually kind of interested to know how you started with funding for your ... I don't know if you had to fund separately Trip Tribe from Adventurati, but how did you start off? Was it savings, or family and friends kind of thing, or ...

Dave Aidekman: Yeah, it started out with savings. Basically, you heard about my background in government. I had a pretty good luxury after leaving government, doing some consulting where I had reasonable flexibility with my time and with my clients. I was able to earn some savings after a civil service salary, and was able to actually work a fraction of certain months and have my income support me. And my fiance was also part of the founding, and she was working full time.


IMG_8580 Dave Aidekman


We both worked nights and weekends on this business, and I was able to take some time off during most months, and operate to grow the business out of our own resources. Then it became to the point where we wanted to really scale, and we had a big ambitious vision, and there was no way to do it with our capital. So that's the moment when you need to start looking for outside investors.

John Gilroy: Michael, please.

Michael Lamos: Sure. So going through, and now you've kind of got a little bit of a track record, what do you foresee being your biggest obstacle, whether that's from a funding perspective, from a consumer perspective, from a partnership perspective, just kind of where do you see, not problems, but just like forging of the metal, if you will?

Dave Aidekman: Sure. There's dozens and dozens of challenges, so there's a long list to choose from. But to answer directly the question, we're in a category that is quite saturated. Travel is a very big industry with very big competitors who have a lot of resources, and who dominate a lot of the attention, and it's quite saturated when you go ... especially in leisure travel, you have thousands of choices of what you could do. So to really differentiate and distinguish ourselves and get attention around the country and around the world is the big challenge. We feel pretty comfortable about what we've been able to achieve at our size, but the ambition is big, so there's a lot of people to reach out there.

John Gilroy: Kevin, a question please.

Kevin Uffelman: Yeah. So given that market saturation, what is your strategy to reach those people? And it's not just, I guess, the consumers on the marketplace, it's also the providers of the destinations and the services once they get there. How do you deal with that?


IMG_8623 Kevin Uffelman


Dave Aidekman: Yeah, sure. Two parts to that question. I'll be quick on the first one, which is the suppliers. It is very natural in the travel industry for most operators ... vacancy is very high. They're desperate for customers. In this particular space there's not a lot of websites, or online booking, or technology, so to attract them is like the question of, "Do you mind if we send you customers?" It's pushing on an open door. It's natural. So we have a lot of demand on the supplier side.

On the customer side, our strategy has been to leverage what is natural in the group vacation space, which is to cultivate, and attract, and recruit leaders, and have leaders bring followers. So we've done online advertising, and content marketing, and others that are designed to attract and incentivize both with mission and financially, to have leaders help attract other guests.

John Gilroy: Greg.

Greg Forman: So I'm actually quite interested, what's the revenue model for Trip Tribe?

Dave Aidekman: Yeah, it's a transactional revenue model. So we're taking the booking, customers pay us for the trip, and we manage the economics around our expenses on that trip, so we-

Greg Forman: Provide economies of scale, is that kind of how the ...

Dave Aidekman: We have economies of scale, and we also are providing premium services that warrant premium pricing on the offerings. And we're delivering group experiences that they can't get if they booked elsewhere on their own, so we're able to charge for that. They're also able to go with the leader of the trip, who in most cases is attractive to the traveler, because -- especially in the category that we started in, yoga, fitness, wellness -- there are instructors who have followings, and people pay for that. And then we have a margin on what's paid.

John Gilroy: Interesting. Michael, any questions please?

Michael Lamos: Yeah, so going back to ... you were talking about how kind of the travel market is incredibly saturated. So once you have a customer, right, and presuming they have a great time, what's kind of the strategy on being able to get them back to book another trip with you? Is it destination? Is it your activities that you have? I mean, is it quality of guide? Is it the experience? I'm just kind of interested about that as well.

Dave Aidekman: Yeah, you've covered the range of it. It's starts with-

John Gilroy: You should work for him.

Dave Aidekman: Yeah. No, it starts with giving people a great experience. Giving people a great experience online, with the service, with the email communication that precedes their trip, during the trip a great experience, good follow up. We have happy customers. We have a very high repeat rate. Especially among the group leaders of the trips, we have a very high repeat rate, and they bring either the same guests or different guests the next time.

Part of what we're really aiming for with the online experience is a lot of personalization, so we know a lot about the guests. We know what they did before. We know what their interests are. We know what countries they want to go to. And we want to deliver them a highly personalized, high quality experience they can't get anywhere else.

John Gilroy: I went to your website, Trip Tribe. I tell you what, it looks like a pretty big company to me. Did you go to it Kevin? Did you take a look at the site?

Kevin Uffelman: Yeah.

John Gilroy: The site looks really good. I thought it was a huge big company. I mean, it's a very impressive site. It takes lots of hours to make it look easy, doesn't it? Question Kev?

Kevin Uffelman: Yeah. So where do you go next? I mean, you said you're branching out into new categories for travel. What's beyond that? Where do you see your company going in the next two, three, five years?

Dave Aidekman: Yeah. There're two parts of it, and one is actually what you pointed out. We've just covered a very narrow niche out of all of the spaces in group travel, so there are lots of categories of activities, there are lots of destinations around the world, there are lots of vendors who deliver these trips, and if we can be the source for both the suppliers and the travelers who want to do them, there's many, many multiples on where we are now.


IMG_8594 Dave Aidekman


And the second part follows on what I was describing before. That the better the experience that we can give to people, the better the personalization, the more that people are excited about and energized by the opportunity to have amazing vacations, and the more they grasp that, the people are what makes the difference and what's distinct about it, that is unavailable elsewhere ... the better the experience for them and the better for our company.

John Gilroy: Greg.

Greg Forman: Yes. I'm actually kind of interested, who do you consider your direct competitors?

Dave Aidekman: Yeah, great question. So I've been following this space for about eight years, and I have tracked somewhere between 60 and 80 companies who purport to be in the social travel or group travel space. In fact, I looked at this about six or nine months ago, and in that eight years most of them disappeared. So I'm pretty satisfied that we've been able to  . . .

Greg Forman: Last man standing or something, is that it?

Dave Aidekman: Yeah. So there's a lot who want to do this space but we really think that we have the secret sauce. I found very few who have a comparable business model. It's naive to say you don't have competitors. There's really lots and lots of places you can go for vacation travel. There are tens of thousands of operators who you could do that, but I like to think of our model, again, not to harp on it, but similar to Expedia or Priceline. Are they a partner with United Airlines, or are they a competitor? You can book it, and you can book direct. We want to be a partner to the operators, even though customers can go elsewhere. We want to give them a better experience, and not really be seen in a competitive vein.

John Gilroy: Let me put Michael in the hot seat right here. So Michael, is this a service you think you'd sign up for, you think would be beneficial to you, or what do you think?

Michael Lamos: So, I think, yeah. I definitely like the idea and as I've become maybe a little bit older, I'm only 24, but I've kind of enjoyed like learning and hanging out with more people ... new people that I don't know. I would definitely be interested in investigating this type of vacation booking experience.

Dave Aidekman: We like to think we're not really trying to attract or disrupt people who aren't inclined to do this.

"This is a giant industry that just simply doesn't have technology."- Dave Aidekman, Founder and CEO at Trip Tribe

The people want to already go on group trips, we want to give them a better experience. For people who it's not natural for, then we accept they're potentially not our customers. We're not trying to be all things to all people who travel.

John Gilroy: Greg.

Greg Forman: I guess one interesting thing is, I know you said that you collected some data on your customers, so you know their preferences, right? Do you build personas? And if you need an explanation of what a persona is, generally it's just building an ideal customer. It's almost semi-fictional, but it's what you would kind of think of as your ideal customer. Do you build a persona that helps you identify what targets, you know, when you advertise on Facebook for example? Does that help you to figure out who your customer base is?

Dave Aidekman: Yeah it does. We've done it intermittently, at different intervals. Looking at both our marketing, looking at our offering of the experiences, looking at the type of software that we're building to help people. So we do study the challenges that people have, both in the industry as a whole and with our offering, and we look at their background and interests. It helps us with anything from software development, to pricing strategy, to marketing. We do think it's a good tool.

John Gilroy: Good. Kevin, anything?

Kevin Uffelman: Yeah. So government to you almost said accidental entrepreneur, but not really. You purposefully went into it. I mean, looking back on it now you've been in it for a few years, what do you wish you knew from the outset? I mean, something that you wish somebody had said to you, to get where you are now?

Dave Aidekman: It's a great question. There's definitely a million things to learn. Every week something comes up that is an education and something that's new. I felt reasonably well prepared, and I still do. My background, even though it's totally different, there's a lot of surprising overlap with what you learn working with policy and working in that environment. So I feel reasonably comfortable. I will say that this is also one of my first experiences just in the private sector in general, so dealing with the market, and dealing with that stuff, it's incredibly challenging. There are lots of hurdles every way you turn.

John Gilroy: Michael, can you-

Dave Aidekman: So nothing's easy.

John Gilroy: 30 second, quick question please.

Michael Lamos: All right. What's your favorite place to go?

John Gilroy: That's what everyone's thinking anyway.

Dave Aidekman: Great. I've really been privileged to be able to go all over the place. My wife and I are passionate sailors. One of the places that we went was sailing around the coast of Turkey, and that was extraordinary. Just thrilled to do that.

John Gilroy: Another good story that everyone's loved going to Turkey. It's a wonderful place I hear.

Dave Aidekman: It is. It's tough these days.

John Gilroy: If people are listening and are thinking about booking a trip somewhere, where should they go?

Dave Aidekman: Sure. Yeah. We're operating all over. We love sending people near and far. Our most popular places are Costa Rica, Mexico, Bali. So those are attractive-

John Gilroy: What website can they go to for more information Dave?

Dave Aidekman: Yeah, just find us at TripTribe.com.

John Gilroy: That's great.

Dave Aidekman: Thank you.

John Gilroy: We're running out of time here. If you liked this podcast, please give us a review on iTunes. I'd like to thank our founding sponsor The Radiant Group, our host Eastern Foundry, and our monthly sponsor Nutanix. Signing off from high atop a nondescript building in lovely downtown Rosslyn, Virginia, I'm John Gilroy. Follow me on Twitter at @RayGilray, and thanks for listening to Students Versus Startups: Showdown on the Potomac.