Walking the walk: Travel site Vayable trades the Valley echo chamber for Paris

By Erin Griffith , written on September 16, 2013

From The News Desk

Despite the growth of new tech hubs around the world, Silicon Valley is still the number one ecosystem from which to build a consumer-facing app. With its many generations of institutional expertise, it's hard to argue otherwise.

And yet, the "techo-chamber" can also be dangerous.

Take Jamie Wong. Her company, Vayable, graduated from Y Combinator in 2012 (and 500 Startups in 2011) and raised funds from a notable group of Silicon Valley investors. She is very much "in" the Valley tech scene.

But she realizing something during a recent trip to Paris, when a friend asked if she needed to use an ATM. She replied, "No, I have my phone," implying she could use her Square or Google Wallet accounts to pay for things.

"They joked, like, 'You know they don't take Square or Google Wallet here, right?" Wong says. Oh right. Even in the US, where Square and Google Wallet are currently available, there aren't many regions outside of Soma and Palo Alto where literally anything you'd want to buy can be paid for with an app.

It was a reminder of why, as the founder of a travel site, it's important to get outside of the Valley every once in awhile. Hell, it's important for any tech entrepreneur to do that -- it's the best way to stem the criticism that rich, elitist Valley types only make apps for themselves and their friends.

Vayable's early adopter community and Silicon Valley network is important to the company, but it is still a minority population that isn't terribly mainstream, Wong says. "As we were starting to build for this outlier population, I realized it would be potentially dangerous and risky for us to not break out," Wong says.

So she drew up plans to do exactly that. Vayable has packed up its bags for a month-long "Pop-up Headquarters" trip to Paris, where her team will host a number of community events for its guides and users. The team left yesterday.

While there, Vayable team members will book and go on as many Vayable experiences as possible while also recruiting new guides, holding office hours for existing guides, and getting feedback so that the guides can help shape Vayable's product roadmap.

And because Wong wanted to do the trip without increasing Vayable's burn rate, the company lined up a sponsor for the trip. In exchange for sharing Vayable content in its mobile app, British Airways has paid for part of the trip.

Paris is Vayable's biggest market. The site has 5000 "on-the-ground guides" in Western Europe and the US, as well as 150 "insiders," which curate and offer advice. Vayable doesn't disclose how many users it has. After the Paris trip, Vayable plans to do a similar program in New York.

Earlier this year, Vayable switched up its marketplace offering by introducing its "insiders" feature for peer-to-peer advice and trip-planning. Vayable's curated group of insiders now create custom experiences and itineraries for travelers. Vayable takes a 15 percent cut from bookings done through its site, including anything from a $20 list of the restaurant recommendations to a $500 trip-booking service for six people. Vayable's philosophy is that the site helps travelers cut through the clutter of reviews and guides on places like TripAdvisor.

Early results of the new approach seem to be paying off. During the travel high season this summer, bookings were $350,000 in June and $1.4 million in July after slyly introducing the new features, Forbes reported. The company plans to take the majority of its revenue from hotel bookings, Wong said.

[Image Credit: agaw.dilim on Flickr]