Unanchor Itinerary Writer Program Update

by Jason -- May 24, 2011

As a marketplace business, my startup, Unanchor.com faces a chicken-and-egg problem. We need itinerary writers to attract travelers and travelers to attract itinerary writers. To address the itinerary side of the problem, two months ago Mohammad and I unveiled our most aggressive program to date. We offered to pay writers up to $100 upfront in a revenue advance. In this post, I’ll give an update on the program and its results so far.

A Stroll Down Memory Lane…

When I started Unanchor, I thought finding writers was going to be easy. With all of the travel bloggers and long-term travelers out there, I thought tapping into that market and populating the site was going to be easy…wrong.

Attempt #1 – Guest Posts & Interviews

I started by writing guest posts, doing interviews and trying to plug Unanchor on various blogs. I received positive feedback about the site and drove in some traffic, but ultimately my primary mission of finding itinerary writers failed. This effort disappointingly resulted in only 1 or 2 itineraries.

Attempt #2 – Emailing Bloggers Directly

My next plan was to Email bloggers individually and pitch them on the idea. Every day, my goal was to find at least 3 bloggers and send them an Email. This ultimately resulted in a few interested writers and also a couple of itineraries. I could tell this plan was eventually going to work, but it was very slow and extremely time consuming – in other words, another fail.

Attempt #3 – Up to $100 in a Revenue Advance

Mohammad and I decided to address the problem with money. He invested $5,000 into the business — $2,500 went to legal fees and the other $2,500 was going to be dedicated to itineraries.

When we prepared the program, we decided that the money was going to be an advance on future revenues. The purpose of this was two-fold: 1.) We would be able to make the money back 2.) It (hopefully) signals to the writer that we really believe in the business of selling their itinerary.

Our Goal for the Program

The night before the blog post announcing the program was set to go live, Mohammad and I discussed our goals. We decided to strive for 10 applications in the first week. Given our lack of success previously in recruiting writers, it seemed aggressive at the time, but possible.

So…how has the program done?

In a few words – beyond my wildest expectations.

I launched the program by doing my own personal outreach. I posted on this blog, Freelance-Zone, asked for the help of my fellow Nomad Couriers, and reached out to my entrepreneurial network. Essentially any connections that I thought could be helpful, I asked for help. The first day, we got a nice bump of traffic and a couple applications – the program was off to a good start.

One piece of great advice I received recently was to take my itinerary writing recruiting “up a level”. Meaning – find out where potential itinerary writers hang out and recruit from there -look for associations, forums, and groups. The next day we tried out this advice and posted to the Travel section of Reddit. I was nervous about the reaction of posting something so commercial. The post ended up doing extremely well, getting 44 upvotes, many positive comments, and remained #1 or #2 for its entire 24-hour period. It was the catalyst that kicked the program into high gear.

Within a few hours, the applications began to roll in. In the first two days we received 36 applications to be itinerary writers – blowing away our goal. It was an exciting two days.

Since then, I’ve continued to “take it up a level” and as of this post, we’ve now received almost 300 applications!

Reflecting Back on the Program

Every time I had the opportunity to talk with someone about Unanchor, I brought up our chicken-and-egg problem and asked how would they solve it. I cold Emailed people, went on This Week in Startups (37:00 minute mark), went to the Launch Conference, and posted on this blog. Essentially, I asked advice from anyone who listened. Nearly all of the key ideas to the program ended up coming from these conversations. The idea to solve the problem by paying people, to make it a revenue advance and the idea to “take it up a level” were all the ideas of others.

If this idea would have failed, to be honest, I’m not sure what we would have done. To say the least, I’m really excited that we seem to be over this hurdle.

The Next Hurdle

Like most things, the success of the program has brought on other issues. One issue is the volume of Email I now receive on a daily basis. While it’s exciting to receive so many applications, it has been extremely time-consuming working with all of the new writers - however, this is a good problem to have.

The next issue is the percentage of writers who follow-through on their application. We’ve received nearly 300 applications and accepted about 100 of them, but only 7 itineraries have actually made it to the site.

We’ve started implementing a few things to try and improve this conversion, but the jury is still out if it will make a difference. So, I’m going back to the same process as before and asking anyone who will listen –

What would you do to try and improve the percentage of writers who follow-through on their applications? Leave a comment below or send me an Email, I’d love to hear your advice.

I’ll make sure to have a follow-up post and let you know the results.

Find me on GenJuice!

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15 Responses to “Unanchor Itinerary Writer Program Update”

  1. 300 applications, 100 accepted, only 7 itineraries? Wow - sounds like the interest is there, but the lasting impact isn’t yet seen. Of the 2/3 that aren’t being accepted, what are the sticking points? As they learn about the application process, they should be aware of the expectations (assuming they’re being directed to a site of yours).

    On the 100 accepted but only 7 itineraries - these things take time to write, especially if it’s easy to put it off as a low priority project. Have you put forth a deadline for completion to each person? I’d assign a deadline of 2 weeks for most places and cases, but it’s not like I’m putting this on my calendar.

    E-mail overload is another problem altogether - have you considered having a second, priority e-mail?

  2. Awesome update! Thanks.

  3. Hi Jason,
    As someone who recently submitted an application, I might recommend tightening up the application process to perhaps “weed out” some of those who might not be likely to follow through (or might not provide strong itineraries). I was a bit surprised at how basic the application form was and that it didn’t require me to provide any info on my qualifications to do the itinerary I proposed - i.e., it didn’t ask about my writing experience or my familiarity with the city.

    Just my two cents… :)

  4. @Chris — Thanks for the comment! I’ve Emailed quite a few of the people who didn’t finish the itinerary and unfortunately (but not surprising) I didn’t get much feedback from them. I think you’re definitely on to something with a deadline and this is something new that I’m trying. I’m starting with 3 weeks for now, but I may take it down to 2, we’ll see. What do you mean by a priority E-mail?

    @Rishi — Thanks dude!

    @Katie — Really good point Katie, thanks. That actually might help me with both of my problems (Email and lack of follow-through). We kept the application basic initially to not dissuade people from applying, but you’re right adding some more qualifying questions might be a good idea, thanks!

  5. Hi Jason -

    I think Katie raises a great point. More qualifying questions could definitely help.

    Also, I think a sticking point for professional writers might have been not knowing how many itineraries had been accepted. For me, it’s only worth investing the time in this project if I know that I have a good shot at getting the advance. (At least at this early stage of the project.)

    Perhaps now that people know only 7 itineraries have been accepted, you’ll see more submissions.

    Good luck!


  6. Hi Jason,

    To piggy back off of Katie’s suggestion, one element you can add to the application process would be to ask for a writing sample. For example, you can ask applicants to provide a guide or “mini-itinerary” for some aspect of their current city.

    This will show you the quality of work they can produce, as well indicate whether or not they are motivated to finish a task they are assigned.

    I hope this helps!

  7. @Barbara — Very good points. I’ve actually added one additional qualifying question to the application (what makes you an expert?). Thanks for the comment and suggestion!

    @Stacy — Writing samples are also a good idea. I’ve started occasionally asking for samples — but I’ve always left it generic and asked for any sample. That’s a really good idea to ask for a “mini-itinerary”. Thanks for the suggestion!


  8. Hi Jason,

    I just wanted to echo what a few others have already said here. A deadline coming from you definitely would have sped things up (not that I’m blaming you!). Writing just takes a lot of discipline, and perhaps even more so for a non-professional writer with a day cube job.

    Just my opinion, but a 2-week deadline might be a bit harsh-maybe 3 weeks for a 2-day itinerary and 4 weeks for a 3-day?

  9. Hi Ya-Yin — Per yours and others feedback, I’ve finally added a deadline and it’s helping tremendously. Itineraries have been coming in a lot faster and those who aren’t going to write, I don’t have to follow-up with them for months on end. I’ve decided to go with a 3-week deadline for the time being, which seems to be a fair amount of time so far. Thanks for the feedback!


  10. Jason,

    This is an interesting idea and I wondered if you are selling many of the itineraries? Not much point paying people to write if they are not selling.

  11. Hi Vincent — Thanks for the comment and good question. It’s tough to say exactly what “many” is, but so far, yes, I’m encouraged by the number of sales we’re receiving. We were averaging 1 per week for a month or two and are now averaging 2 per week. My focus remains on finding writers. I’m doing little to no advertising to travelers, and despite this we’re still selling itineraries.

  12. Just came across unanchor and your site for the first time today. Seems like a great concept. How is it going at this point? Sales and applications picking up?

  13. Hey Vicky — Thanks for the comment and the kind words! Things are going pretty well. Applications have been solid and consistent. Sales have slowly been picking up as well. It’s not easy :-).

  14. I just came across this site by trying to sell books on Amazon. Now I am hooked after reading a few of your archive posts. I’m curious if you ever had a face to face conversation with any of the applicants via Skype? Just to add that person touch of real connection with another. I owned a coffee shop for a few years and my goal was to help people feel more important each time they walked into my shop. I was always there serving, listening, talking and sharing day to day life with complete strangers, friends and locals but in the end they all felt as if they were Home for a little while. I think the person connection is important when dealing with people, even online through a computer.
    I appreciate you taking time to share your life, through writing, with others!

  15. Thanks for the comment Genevieve! I’ve done face-to-face conversations occasionally with our applicants. However, to be honest we have quite a few apply and it would have been quite time consuming to schedule and have all of those meetings. We no longer offer the revenue advance, so that means the people who apply are much more serious about it. It seems like the problem has solved itself. Thanks again for the the comment!

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