A Q&A with Wanderu co-founder and COO Igor Bratnikov. The Boston-based startup, which is a bus and train scheduling and booking site, closed a $2.45 million Seed funding round earlier this month.
SUB: Please describe Wanderu and your primary innovation.
Bratnikov: Wanderu is the simplest way to find and book bus and train travel. We are the first ground travel search that has secured direct partnerships with major travel providers; and have built the first ever technology in the ground-travel space that is very similar to ITA for bus travel, with a consumer-facing search similar to Kayak.com, but tuned especially to the needs of bus and train travel.
SUB: Who are your target markets and users?
Bratnikov: Our target is anyone that travels, but specifically the majority of our target audience is students and young professionals. The ground-travel industry has seen a significant demographic shift. Now 74 percent of all travelers are under 35. And they travel by bus because buses are comfortable and liberating. Many in our generation no longer have cars as a primary means of transportation. These are the same folks that use Airbnb, use Pricegrabber to compare electronics, and want everything easy to find at their fingertips.
SUB: Who do you consider to be your competition?
Bratnikov: Our biggest competition is consumers that decide to fly and especially drive. Our challenge is to connect people to their destination with affordable, sustainable ground travel options allowing them to leave the car at home, save some cash, and enjoy a great ride. Buses have changed a lot, now-a-days you get plugs, wi-fi, and leather seats so you can jump on a trip with no security lines, and get work done or watch a movie and get to your destination without a hassle. There are folks like our partners C&J that run luxury bus service. That’s something most travelers don’t know exists—you get first class seating, free snacks, and drinks all at a very affordable price. By matching travelers with the right trip and service level, we make the argument for ground travel hard to beat.
SUB: What differentiates Wanderu from the competition?
Bratnikov: Though there are several other companies in the ground-travel space as people are getting excited about the changing marketplace, we don’t see them as competition but rather additional ground-travel tools. And I think there is a place for ground-travel discovery tools that focus on covering as much ground [as possible], and true search and booking tools like Wanderu. It’s the difference between a travel planning tool where you start the planning process, and a travel search where you can plan and book. There are no other companies that boast the coverage and level of detail we provide through our 12 and growing direct carrier partnerships. We provide a true meta search experience in that we list the latest prices and availability, filtering by things like wi-fi or green certification, and deep linking people to book directly in the booking systems of our partners. Our latest feature is a first in ground travel. Wanderu Live Check, which live verifies prices and availability before sending users, ensures a smooth booking experience.
SUB: When was the company founded, and what were the first steps you took in establishing it?
Bratnikov: Both my co-founder Polina [co-founder and CEO Polina Raygorodskaya] and I gave up very promising careers to take on the challenge of building the best ground travel search. Polina ran a very successful PR company that she founded while still in college that generated a very nice revenue stream. I, on the other hand, gave up a legal career at one of the top law firms in the world. Though it was a big sacrifice to make at the time, neither of us would want it any other way.
SUB: What was the inspiration behind the idea for Wanderu? Was there an ‘aha’ moment, or was the idea more gradual in developing?
Bratnikov: Polina and I were part of a group in the summer of 2011 where we went cross-country to promote National Parks and Forests to the young generation. We intended to travel entirely by ride-sharing. We launched a blog called GreenXC and built up a community around the trip. But then one of our ride shares cancelled last minute and we got stranded in the middle of nowhere near the Jefferson Forest in Virginia. After searching on Google for hours, we couldn’t put together any bus trips to get us to our next stop in Indiana, so we ended up renting a car, which went against our whole plan.
After returning we were shocked that in that day-and-age, a point-to-point ground travel search didn’t exist, and the two of us decided to take it upon ourselves to create a consumer site to make searching bus and train trips effortless.
SUB: How did you come up with the name? What is the story or meaning behind it?
Bratnikov: Coming up with the name was one of the hardest things. It involved several hundred cups of coffee and other refreshments, inspiration walks, and frustrating domain searches. Wanderu came to us because it embodies what the company is all about. We want to help people wander around the country and beyond—a careless state of mind where it is just as much about the journey as it is the destination. We believe through our search we make planning a trip so easy that people can travel more easily and focus on enjoying the trip. If traveling to anywhere in the country was as easy as a few clicks and showing at a bus ready to explore, all at a cheap price, wouldn’t you travel more?
The one question we get all the time is: How does Wanderu relate to the monkey logo? Wanderu is actually a type of endangered monkey that is known to be very smart, cunning and playful. At the San Diego Zoo, the Wanderoos living there turned on all of the sprinklers to shower passing-by visitors. It’s the perfect embodiment of a careless traveler.
SUB: You recently closed a $2.45 million Seed funding round. Why was this a particularly good time to raise outside funding?
Bratnikov: Our investors include some very knowledgeable and connected funds and individuals that assist us with our current needs and help with our long-term strategic visions. We are thrilled to have them on board and they bring a lot more to the table than just finances. For us, the time was right because we were able to find the perfect group of investors to help us tackle this industry.
SUB: How do you plan to use the funds?
Bratnikov: We plan to use the capital to expand our coverage, scale our data systems and release new features. We are rapidly adding to our engineering team which currently consists of eight engineers. We are looking for great full stack engineers to join our team. The Wanderu data systems, similar to middle-layer technologies in the airline business, enable Wanderu to connect directly with partner’s reservation systems. The system standardizes the schedule and pricing information from across the different sources by converting to Wanderu Unified Data Standards.
SUB: Do you have plans to seek additional outside funding in the near future?
Bratnikov: Not until we successfully execute our current strategic goals.
SUB: What have the most significant obstacles been so far to building the company?
Bratnikov: The biggest obstacle has been the raw state of the industry. In building Wanderu to its launch, we have had to create everything from data standards with our Wanderu Unified Standards to enable different carriers’ data to interconnect. We have created a full middle-layer collection and processing layer that is typically separate from the consumer-facing search engines in the airline business. And we have done all of this in an industry that does not have APIs. At the same time the technology challenges in the industry we see as opportunity for future growth. Through the Wanderu search we have provided several of our partner carriers their first ever mobile consumer interface.
SUB: How does the company generate revenue or plan to generate revenue?
Bratnikov: We receive a commission off of each ticket that we sell through the search.
SUB: What are your goals for Wanderu over the next year or so?
Bratnikov: We plan to grow Wanderu across the country and beyond. We are already international, serving parts of Canada. Our partnerships already cover from beyond the northern border, to Key West, and all the way west to Seattle. Now we are working hard to add the close to two hundred bus carriers in the U.S. for complete coverage. Just in the past two weeks I clocked in over 2,300 miles on the road, meeting with bus companies across the country. We will also continue to roll out features and tools to make the search and booking experience continually better.
Wanderu – www.wanderu.com