From Concept to Funding - The Formation of Trazzler with Founder Adam Rugel

by Jason -- January 13, 2011

The following interview is with the founder of Trazzler, Adam Rugel. Adam first became interested in the travel space during his days at AOL Travel. He ultimately found his passion for entrepreneurship while working at Odeo alongside the eventual founders of Twitter. While at Odeo, Adam came up with the initial idea for Trazzler with the help of Twitter co-founder Biz Stone.

In the interview we talk about how the idea for Trazzler came about, how they got funded and how they were able to gather 1.3 million Twitter followers.

You can listen to the MP3 of the interview by downloading it, using the player below to listen to it, or reading the transcript.

Adam Rugel Trazzler Interview (Click to listen)

If you have any additional questions for Adam or feedback on the interview, let me know by leaving a comment below.

Jason:Tell me about yourself and your pre-Trazzler days

Adam: I grew up in Northern Virginia and worked in radio stations throughout high school so I was always interested in Media stuff right from the get go. Back in 1995 I had been out of college for about a year and when it was time to get a real job the closest company was AOL and I did not have very much internet experience at that time but it was a good place to get a first gig so I started off at AOL in ‘95 and worked there through 2002. The last 4 years were at Aol Travel and so that is where I the bug to work on Travel stuff was the experience with that Aol channel as they were called at that time.

Jason: What did you study in school?

Adam: I was communications, I went to Syracuse in New York and they have a Media Communications Program which was pretty popular. I was television, radio, and film. I am not a developer. I came from a more traditional media background. I always worked at radio stations and worked at a few magazines. When I got into AOL it was a good hybrid, a lot of people with traditional media background. That is sort of how I started to learn some internet stuff even though at the time AOL at the time was in a proprietary Rainman Code. So a lot of the technical knowledge we got there wasn’t transferable but a lot of the marketing stuff was.

Jason: Leading up to Trazzler, what was the initial inspiration for the idea?

Adam: One thing stuck with me from the time at AOL was that there was a lot of travel sites out there. Covering everything from your Asia trip, California, or Maui or Guatemala. Travel sites tend to focus on far flung destinations. For the vast majority of trips that people take are within driving distance, things that are within 100 miles of the home. It struck me way back in those days that there was a surprising lack of travel content and information focused on local travel — the driving trips that most of us take the most frequently. That was the kernel of the idea. That still is what we are trying to work on today.

Jason: Tell me a little about starting a company as a non-technical developer. How did you build that first product?

Adam: We had the idea of doing something around local travel, then I had the opportunity to work for a couple startups in the Bay area. When I left AOL I did some of my own stuff on the video side. Then I worked for a podcasting company in Silicon Valley. Then I got the job at Odeo which was the podcast which eventually turned into Twitter.

When that happened I realized I was in the company of some pretty good people. When Odeo was at 15 people and went down to 5 or 6 when Twitter was just getting started and it was all developers. At that point I realized, it was a pretty good idea if I was to start up a company I may as well stay associated with these folks and learn as much as I can by continuing the work at this office. I started off there, so surrounding people that were building stuff was huge, it sort of helps show you the way. I think working at start ups and being around people who are building stuff is really helpful whether you are an engineer or not. Just being in that environment and learning as much as you can from folks who are doing that, and there is just no substitute for that.

Jason: Did you pluck Odeo Engineers to help build the Trazzler product?

Adam: I actually worked with Biz Stone and I actually collaborated on the design and the look and feel of the product from a design perspective. Then to build it, I had a buddy of mine, the reason the engineers and in Florida is that a guy I have known since Kindergarten Adam Weller was working on similar projects on his own and he’s an engineer. He actually was the one to put it together. The first thing we put together was customize Word Press set up called 71Miles, and it is still out there today. Actually a lot of the content John Lehides wrote for 71Miles was used to seed Trazzler. So it was sort of a jacked up Word Press implementation.

Jason: Very interesting.  You said you continue to work with Adam in Florida today?

Adam: Yeah and the other engineers are with him.

Jason: When did you decide to look for funding for Trazzler?

Adam: When we first got started we got a tiny bit of cash together.  When we started I think we had $14,000 in our bank account.  We were just doing it, it’s mostly sweat equity and a little bit of money to pay for some development.  It was tiny.  We raised a little bit more from friends and family.  The first year I think we got by with less than $70,000.  It was really scraping.  Then we were fortunate to apply for and get a Facebook fund grant back in the day.  So that was really significant, it helped us, propelled us along for about a year and a half.  It wasn’t that much money but it was enough.  It was weird, it wasn’t an investment, it was a grant to work with Facebook features on our website.  At that time the stuff was pretty, you know it was definitely in beta.  It was definitely a grant, there was some stuff that we did that probably wasn’t the best thing for us in the long run but the grant was huge.

Jason: Grant meaning they didn’t take any equity, a free gift almost?

Adam:  That’s right.  They still have a Facebook fund.  I’m not sure exactly what it’s called but it’s more I think a Y-Combinator model now and I think they do take equity, so I don’t think that holds true anymore.  At the time, the grants were more significant financially than they are now, I think they’re smaller now.  But I think the program is really effective for some folks.  I don’t know if it’s under the name Facebook fund anymore but you know Y-Combinator is another one and I think those two seed capital models are real successful and there are some serious companies that have come out of them.

Jason: When did you start focusing on 71Miles or Trazzler full time?

Adam:  I guess it was in 2007.

Jason: When was that in relation to the Facebook fund and the scraping by with you said $70,000 in the first year?  What is that time frame?

Adam:  That’s in 2007.  I start working on it full time then.

Jason:  When did you say you got the Facebook fund grant?

Adam:  It’s at the end of 2007 I believe, beginning of 2008.  Something like that.

Jason: After the Facebook fund, have you raised money since then?

Adam:  We have we raised an angel round of funding from investors.  Some really great angel investors includes AOL founder Steve Case, some of the Twitter guys, Evan and Biz and Jack, actually all of the Twitter guys, Ron Conway, so there is some really fantastic investors who have been really integral to allowing us to hire some great developers to eventually move to be able to make some money.

Jason:  How did you find your first hundred customers or thousand customers?  How did you go through that customer acquisition process at the beginning?

Adam:  We’ve got two different kinds of customers for the site.  One is writers and the others are the site’s users. Travel writing is interesting, there’s a lot of motivation for folks who want to be professional travel writers so we tried to tap into that with our contests.  One of our core driving philosophies has always been you start off by contributing to Trazzler for free and out of that pool of folks who contribute for free we hire people for real freelance writing contracts.  In terms of recruiting writers to the site we’ve tried to make it so that we want a community of folks who contribute to Trazzler because they’re motivated to do so on their own but out of that community we’ll find the best writers, we’ll hire them, we’ll assign real freelance writing contracts that pay on a per word basis comparable to what the New York Times would pay a travel writer and then we’ll hire some of those people, so our editorial staff is comprised all of people who were originally contributors.  That includes our executive editor, Meagan Cytron, and our two editorial assistants, Sherry and Phillip.  On that side we tried to create contests and freelance writing contracts in different ways for people to participate for free and giving them the incentive to win freelance contracts, writer in residence contracts and eventually jobs with us.

Jason: You mentioned contests and all these different ways to kind of bring in the writers. What was your most successful campaign for bringing in those writers?

Adam: Well I think the most important thing has been the integrity of the contests, the way that they’re run. We read everything that’s submitted to the site, we take the time to do that. It’s the way that the contests are assembled. Megan, who creates the contests creates thoughtful themes that encourage people to contribute thoughtful content. I think it’s the combination of those two things that really did it. It was running with integrity the whole way through. Establishing a database of writers, and then coming up with themes that encouraged people to write as thoughtfully as the themes were conceived of. I really think it’s about consistency and integrity more than anything else.

Jason: Running these contests for you would say is the primary way that you’ve been able to attract writers?

Adam: Yeah, I think that’s a big thing for us. If you search for writing contests on the web today, we come up on the first page. And I think that we have done the contests consistently. We’ve got one running right now in partnership with the city of Chicago. Another big thing for us is we’ve been able to successfully partner with convention and tourism bureaus, and match up their editorial needs with our editorial needs. That’s another big key, is that our partnerships with conventions and tourism bureaus and DMO’s.

Jason: What are the convention and tourism bureaus, what are you selling them on? What are their needs?

Adam: Their job is to drive people to their destination. So, if you’re a bureau convention and tourism bureau in San Francisco you want people to come travel to San Francisco, and so that entails getting the word out about this city. And then also, getting your own editorial. So what we try and do is say, “Hey, city of San Francisco, if you need an editorial, we can help you do that. We’ve got a database of writers and we’ve got an incentive for those writers to create content in a platform for doing that. So rather than just spending money on a freelance contract that you’re going to spend anyways, do it with us and together we’ll build interest in the destination, generate the content and do everything you set out to do with the original editorial contract but you get so much more with it.”

Jason: Great. So what about the other side? The people consuming the content, how did you find those customers? Those first one hundred and one thousand customers?

Adam: We always use Twitter. And Twitter’s been a big thing for us, we’ve got a lot of followers and a lot of different Twitter accounts.

Jason: You guys have an incredible Twitter presence, I noticed that researching.

Adam: Yeah that’s been helpful, we try to establish an e-mail database. We do a couple of different things to grow an e-mail list and use e-mail communication as a way to reach out to people. Search is still the biggest driver of traffic to our site. I guess it’s a combination of those three channels. We’re not as big as we’d like to be so we still continue to focus on search engine optimization, plus e-mail list growth, plus Twitter and all the social integration to the website. Those things are all easier said than done. To be honest, we thought a lot of these different aspects would be further along than they are now, it’s just that travel is super competitive. And if you want to try and do well in search and online travel, you’re up against professional search engineers who are working at companies like TripAdvisor, and and Yelp who are really killer at optimizing their point of interest pages and destination pages to show up in search results. Companies like TripAdvisor have been around for ten, fifteen years. And it’s very difficult to unseed pages like that because they’ve been there for so long. They’ve got the incumbent sort of wins in search and a lot of cases and so you’re up against some big players.

Jason: I’ve read somewhere that you have one point three million Twitter followers, is that correct?

Adam: We do, you know we were lucky enough to have one of the original suggested accounts. And that helped us a lot in that regard. We had @Trazzler and a lot of those followers that came automatically. We actually do better in terms of our click-through performance on some of the accounts where we gain followers organically. So @TravelDeals is another one of our accounts. That one has 70,000 followers that we gained organically. And actually when you gain them organically, you get a lot better engagement.

Jason: Do you have any advice on attracting all these Twitter followers that you have? You’ve obviously done very well with Twitter.

Adam: You know I mentioned the @ Trazzler one was sort of one that benefited by being there early and being one of the suggested accounts. On the @TravelDeals account, that one is a lot of retweets. So that one, what we try to do is find great travel deals that we don’t get paid on and retweet those. And I think being generous with those retweets and linking out to other folks has been the reason that, that account has thrived. So I think in a lot of cases if you can consolidate information and show yourself to be an expert and provide content that works well with the medium, I think that’s something that will help you succeed. And the handle doesn’t hurt either like I mentioned I was in the office and I think I’m the third person on Twitter so I got some of those handles way back when there was nobody on Twitter.

Jason: You yourself have @Adam right?

Adam: Yeah, I think I was sitting next to Jack when they invented Twitter, so I’m top 10 for sure, I think I was the 3rd person. On some of those sites it says #11 or #12, but I’m going to claim 3.

Jason: What was the biggest assumption that you made that turned out to be wrong?

Adam: The biggest thing for us was when we originally first conceived Trazzler, we thought a lot about the concept of a travel personality and building customized recommendations for folks based on their tastes and interests. And the way we assumed it would work would be that people came to the site, signed in on the site, built a profile and then we spit out customized results based on their interaction with the site. All that stuff is a lot easier said than done. There’s a lot of free travel information out there on the web, a lot of it is very good, a lot of it not so good but there is a lot of it. And to assume that you could create an application that’s compelling enough that non-technical people, regular consumers, are going to come in, create an account, establish a profile and really engage with your product I think it’s a big assumption to make. We haven’t abandoned that concept, but it’s something a lot easier said than done. To have a travel website that’s information based, we’re going to have people come in and create accounts, customize those accounts and really dig in to your product. I’m not sure that’s the way people consume travel content, and I haven’t given up on the concept, but it’s definitely something that we’re not focused on at the moment.

Jason: When you say, difficult, I’m assuming you’re not talking about technically or algorithmically, you’re talking about getting users to use the product that you’ve built?

Adam: Yeah, if you want people to engage with a travel product to the extent that they’re creating a detailed profile, it’s not necessarily in-line with the way people consume travel information. I think to create a game-like application or immersive experience, where people are providing you with feedback either passively or actively. It’s not impossible to do in the travel space, but it’s very difficult. Because I don’t think that type of behavior, deep engagement where there’s a lot of feedback coming from the user. I don’t think that’s a one-to-one match with how most consumers generally consume travel information online. I think it’s an interesting goal, and it’s something we’re going to continue to explore, but it’s very difficult to do.

Jason: How do you think then, people want to consume travel content, or people do consume travel content?

Adam: A lot of it has to do with the fact that there’s a lot of different pricing for airlines and hotels out there and people have been trained to jump around from site to site to check. I mean this is just an assumption, just a theory. So, when most people book online travel whether it’s air, car, hotel, vacation packages, whatever, they’re usually checking in multiple locations. So they are not just checking one site. They’re checking lots of sites. So i think there’s an attention deficit disorder when it comes to online travel. When you take that over in to the travel information space, there’s a lot of content. From newspaper sites, to magazine websites, to TripAdvisor, to startups, to blogs, to Twitter, to Facebook friends. There really is a lot of different options out there where people can get information. And I think the natural behavior is you pick up a little bit over here, you pick up a little bit over there. So to say that hey, I’m going create something where people are really going to dive in and engage with my product; it’s presumptuous.  Because it’s not necessarily how people do things. I mean they’ve been trained in online travel to just, to go here to go there to go here to go there. And i think that that’s the typical behavior and so if you think that your site that is going be so immersive that people aren’t going to do that, they’re just going jump into yours. I think that it’s not impossible, but it’s not easy.

Jason: Two wrap-up questions. What advice would you give a new entrepreneur interested in travel?

Adam: You really don’t start learning stuff until you start doing it. So, if you’ve got the time, and the passion to do it, just put stuff out there. I don’t think you get anywhere in this world by holding back. You’ve got to do stuff and put stuff out there, and you can’t be scared to have negative feedback. Your first product is said ad-nauseam by all the startup information folks. But your first product should suck and you should put it out fast and you should iterate. And i think that’s really true.

And the other thing that isn’t talked out quite as much is if you start putting stuff out, it encourages you to put more stuff out. Once you put yourself out there, I think this is true with anything, whether it’s entrepreneurship, or art, or writing, or whatever. Once you put stuff out there, you sort of encourage yourself to do more. And if you don’t put the stuff out there, then you haven’t taken a first step. So, I think that whatever it is that you do, if you don’t put it out, you’re not doing it. And if you’re not doing it, you’re not encouraging yourself to do it more. So I think that’s a big takeaway.

Jason: Thats a really interesting spin on “just put something out there”. It’s kind of this snowball effect, if you will, that once you do it once, then you continue to do it.

Adam: I think that’s true, I mean for me, I spent a lot of my early years not doing it. I don’t know what it was that prevented me from putting stuff out there. But i think I always had the bug to do it. And i didn’t do it out of fear or whatever, but once i started doing it, was when I left AOL and started doing my own stuff. Once you start doing it, it’s sort of contagious within yourself. If you don’t put stuff out there, you’re not gonna put stuff out there. Once you start, it’s a lot easier to continue.

Jason: Yeah, definitely, I think my situations very similar with leaving my Silicon Valley cubical job and same way. So last question, what’s coming next for Trazzler?

Adam:  We just launched a hotel product, where we are culling the best of the submissions that we’ve received over the last two years, and finding the most interesting hotels, not necessarily defined by price or amenities, but hotels that are totally unique and provide a respite and escape from everyday life.  We’re creating a collection of those hotels on our website.  It’s different than anything else you’re going to see out there.  It’s not price or amenity defined; the driving characteristic of the hotels are:  Are they interesting?  Are they an escape?  It’s going to include both mom-and-pops, and bigger properties.  As we create that collection of hotels and try to learn how to present them in such a way that people are interested, and that it’s a compelling product for consumers, then that’s what we’re building on right now.  It’s really the business part of Trazzler, and what’s next for us is trying to figure out how to turn it into a business.

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One Response to “From Concept to Funding - The Formation of Trazzler with Founder Adam Rugel”

  1. Adam has been working with our property, Hampton Terrace, and have been VERY happy with his professionalism, his creativity and his interest in working out a business model that works for Trazzler and for us.

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