A Q&A with Withlocals co-founder Marijn Maas. The Eindhoven, Netherlands-based startup, which connects travelers to Asia with residents for authentic local experiences, closed a $500,000 Seed funding round last week from the Greenhouse Group. It was founded earlier this Spring by Maas, his brother Willem and Mark Mansveld.
SUB: Please describe Withlocals and your primary innovation.
Maas: Using the principles of the sharing economy, we enable people to get a better life by redesigning the Asian travel industry. We connect local people directly to travelers through our marketplace, making it possible for a much wider group of people to earn money in the tourism industry and to deliver the earnings directly to the people who need it the most. On our website, travelers can find verified local and authentic travel experiences in the categories ‘Home Dining,’ ‘Tours,’ and ‘Activities.’ Focusing 100 percent on Asia, we want to facilitate people to earn money with things they are good at, from cooking their favorite curry, to giving traditional fishing courses, or teaching tourists how to make their own ‘Batik.’ Directly connecting local people to travelers wasn’t possible in many parts of Asia even about two years ago because of low Internet penetration. Currently, Asia has the second largest and fastest growing travel economy. Combining these two trends, we see huge potential in launching Withlocals.
SUB: Who are your target markets and users?
Maas: From a local host perspective, our focus is on Asia. We are the first ‘experience’ marketplace which is 100 percent focusing on Asia—we start with the countries Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Malaysia, and Singapore. There is no authority yet for this part of the world.
From a traveler’s perspective we’re open for ‘all travelers’ in the world, with a main focus on the U.S. and Western-Europe. But if we listen to our first fans we might get surprised by the Asian locals and tourists booking experiences from Asian hosts.
SUB: Who do you consider to be your competition, and what differentiates Withlocals from the competition?
Maas: We are the first to introduce the home dining category across Asia. In this category you have recent startups EatWith and Cookening, but until now they have only been active in the U.S. and Europe. We specifically chose Asia. We believe the extra money local people in less developed parts of Asia can earn can really make a difference in their living standard; and we can focus our marketing activities on the second largest and fastest growing travel economy in the world.
In the Asian tours and activities category, traditional travel agencies are our biggest competitors. Looking at online marketplaces, two recent startups, Voyagin and Triip.me, also target the Asian market, but we are the only platform offering a total local experience for travelers from home dining to tours to activities with locals. Next to that, the success of an online marketplace is all about having traffic. Many people who’ve had beautiful ideas in the tours and activity category didn’t make it because of the lack of traffic. Being part of a group of 150 online geeks, working for customers like Vodafone and Microsoft, online marketing is our specialty. We already have a bit of traction with over 100,000 visitors a month and about 25,000+ Facebook likes—and the numbers are growing every day.
SUB: When was the company founded, and what were the first steps you took in establishing it?
Maas: We were founded in June, 2013. But we launched our Alpha website earlier in May 2013 to get traction, and we will launch our Beta in October this year. Without our Beta being launched and only having our story live on our Alpha website withlocals.com, we already have about 25,000+ Facebook likes, over 100,000 visitors per month and more than 6,000 Asian people per month who want to sign up as a host.
SUB: What was the inspiration behind the idea for Withlocals? Was there an ‘aha’ moment, or was the idea more gradual in developing?
Maas: Two ideas came together. Willem, co-founder, could be called a true travel guru. He has traveled to many places all over the world and has especially fallen in love with Southeast Asia. His many authentic travel experiences inspired him to create the concept of Withlocals.
On the other hand, the idea for ‘EAT Withlocals’ came up in Sri Lanka during my honeymoon. After my wife and I had dinner day-after-day in high-end restaurants, we by coincidence experienced a home dinner with local Sri Lankan people. It was so amazing—listening to each other’s stories, experiencing their way of living, while eating the best food of our entire trip. I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great if all travelers could have an experience like this?’ We love the sharing economy and wanted to give travelers and locals in Asia the opportunity to connect with one another.
SUB: How did you come up with the name? What is the story or meaning behind it?
Maas: That’s an easy one. It’s all about locals. Travelers will enjoy their unique, authentic experiences with real locals.
SUB: You just announced that you raised $500,000 in Seed funding. Why was this a particularly good time to raise funding?
Maas: With funding secured, we plan to launch in Beta for a small group of local hosts and travelers in the Fall of 2013. This group will have the advantage of sampling the first experiences with the service and will lay the groundwork to grow the platform. The funding gives us the opportunity to speed up our launch and initial roll-out.
SUB: How do you plan to use the funding?
Maas: It will be used for developing our Beta, launching our platform, and rolling out in the first selection of countries: Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Malaysia and Singapore.
SUB: Do you have plans to seek additional outside funding in the near future?
Maas: We might be open for outside funding in the future, if we think it can help us further propel to reach our goal to enable people to get a better life by redesigning the Asian travel industry.
SUB: What have the most significant challenges been so far to building the company?
Maas: Keeping up with the pace the market is developing, and new competitors appearing in the same or similar business.
SUB: How do you generate revenue or plan to generate revenue?
Maas: The main goal of our company is to enable other people, who need it more than we do, to make money. Of course to build a sustainable business, and with that being able to help more people, our company will make profit. We don’t charge the local hosts anything—they can publish their experiences and home dinners for free and risk-free on our website. We charge the travelers a fee of 20 percent. So, your Himalaya mountain view dinner with a local Nepalese family will cost you six USD instead of five USD.
SUB: What are your goals for Withlocals over the next year or so?
Maas: Our first goal is to open 10,000 new locally-hosted home dining spots throughout the Asian region. On a longer time period, we’re aiming to expand outside Southeast Asia and open up in more countries.
Withlocals – www.withlocals.com