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Startup profile: Foto Ruta

This is the first in a series of profiles about startups.

Foto Ruta is an energetic, young company that offers creative ways for travelers to explore a city while becoming better photographers. Get a taste of their flagship tour by reading about my experience from last weekend. In addition to the weekly tour that covers a different neighborhood each Saturday, Foto Ruta offers a set of creative photography options in Buenos Aires: half day and full day street photography excursions, a half day iPhoneography tour and workshop, a full day post-production workshop on learning Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, as well as custom excursions.

Foto Ruta photography tours Buenos Aires

Founded by Joss Mandryk and Becky Hayes, two expats living in Buenos Aires, this company is much more than the typical expat starts a walking tour business that you see everywhere. Foto Ruta is prepping to go international with franchises in New York and Santiago, Chile in the works. Plus, they planning an iPhone app.

The founders’ backgrounds are visible in the success of the company. Joss is a graphic designer and photographer, and Becky comes from a career as a Marketing and PR Director. That combination is evident in their extremely well design marketing materials:

Foto Ruta marketing materials

To gain a better sense of what drives Foto Ruta, I talked with co-founder Becky Hayes.

What was the spark that gave you the incentive to start this specific company?

We’re both expats living in Buenos Aires and started off as tourists. We fell in love with Buenos Aires but found that tourists who were here for only a few days often missed out on what was great about the city. People who’d heard so much about the city, arrived, spent a few days visiting the main tourist sites and then went away bemused as to why Buenos Aires got such rave reviews from travellers. In other words, it’s a city that requires a bit of time to really appreciate.

We wanted to offer a way to show tourists the greatness of Buenos Aires, such as the crumbling architecture, secret restaurants, passage ways, street art, quirky street life. As photographers we are both aware of the way photography can be a great way of seeing a place and hunting out the unexpected. And so we came up with a concept that would fuse the two…tourism and photography!

Foto Ruta has a solid momentum going, which is hard to achieve in a young company. What was a challenge that you had to overcome to get the company on course?

I’d say as with most start-ups the biggest challenges were financial. We started Foto Ruta with a miniscule pot of money with the hope of growing organically, so we had to work really hard to prioritise expenditure. With our combination of skills we were able to launch the company without having to make huge investments in design/programming and marketing. Foto Ruta managed to get a momentum going fairly quickly towards the end of 2011, which was great but it meant that we grew quite quickly, and what we planned was originally going to be a part time set up, became a full time job (while we were both still having to juggle other full time jobs!). The balance between growing a new company and making it profitable whilst also earning a living is a tough one to manage.

You have a good mix of products that are well defined at varying price points.  Do you have any suggestions for other entrepreneurs on creating a slate of products that offer value to different customer segments, AKA product market fit?

It’s definitely been a bit of a process of trial and error. We began with our lead product Foto Ruta Weekly, a clue based tour that explores a different neighborhood each week. It was this product that we felt had a real unique selling proposition. It was totally unique to us, and, as it’s a tour that supports large groups. We rely on volume, so we can offer it at a very low price. This means it appeals to every type of traveller, and we find due to its uniqueness, it appeals to pretty much every customer segment from budget traveller through to the top end of the market. We also find due to the low price and the explorative/fun nature of the events, it appeals to photographers and non-photographers alike.

Customers meeting before a tour

As Foto Ruta Weekly began to grow we were getting to know our customers and their needs more and more, and realised there was genuine demand for longer, more intense photo experiences. So we launched the full day Academia tour. The idea behind that tour was to take Foto Ruta to the next level by focusing more on technical and practical aspects of photography and showing people some amazing places in Buenos Aires that otherwise they would never get to see. The price point was higher which made the product more niche, i.e. for people who were either photography enthusiasts, or those for whatever reason, were willing to pay a bit more for their experience.

As time has gone on, we’ve realised there is also a middle ground in between those products, so we created the 1/2 day Academia as a more mass market version of the full day. In addition to creating products to fit market, we’ve also created products we feel are relevant and push the boundaries creatively and professionally. e.g. Labs (Photoshop Lightroom course) and iPhoneography.

I can only offer advice to service providing entrepreneurs..and my advice would be:

Know your market and stay nimble. As long as you know your market and have a good solid product, you can tweak everything to adapt to the market as you go. Nimbleness and constant awareness of your market is crucial as its a continuously evolving beast.

Did you always plan to expand beyond Buenos Aires? Or at some point did Joss & you say, “Oh, we’re on to something.” Or did expansion simply come about through opportunity with someone proposing to work together in a different city?

Joss and myself are both quite ambitious and passionate about what we do. As soon as Foto Ruta took off we knew it was always going to be more than just a hobby business. Since the start, we’ve had participants coming us to say ‘oh you must do a Foto Ruta Philippines’ or ‘FR Istambul!’ so we’ve definitely had international ambitions and a ‘hit-list’ of cities we’d love to run Foto Ruta in. New York City was the first overseas pop up we’ve done, it seemed the logical next step because we have contacts over there who were keen to get involved and help us set it up. We’re now also in the process of planning to launch Foto Ruta in Santiago very soon.

Participant in a Foto Ruta workshop

What’s the vision for the company?  How do you envision Foto Ruta growing over the next few years?

Our vision is to continue growing our Foto Ruta roots in Buenos Aires, whilst gradually expanding into new territories and seeing how they go. Our challenges will most likely be, managing the financial unstable environment that exists in Argentina and in terms of expansion, dealing with the huge physical distance between territories!

What’s the business model for expanding internationally?

We’re considering a number of options for expansion. The first being licensing to partners in new territories and the second, franchising the product to franchisees in new territories. We favor the first option initially as we’re keen to maintain control of our product and brand in the early stages of growth.  One of our key strengths is service. We pride ourselves on offering a personal, friendly service and a great customer experience. So at this stage it’s really important we have a tight hold of the reins. However, in order to achieve our future expansion goals, we will look to use the franchise model, and look forward to getting that off the ground within the next year.

Reviewing photos after a Foto Ruta tour

What’s one tip you would give to entrepreneurs who do not have a marketing background?

The most important thing is to know your customer, get into their mindset. For example for a tourist product like ours, I’d ask the following questions: Where are they coming from? What are they reading? Who is influencing their holiday activity decisions? What are their deciding factors for them when booking a tour? Where are they drinking coffee/eating? 

It’s all about maximising opportunities to reach them in their environment.

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Jobs to be done analysis: taking a tour

In the post City touring for those who don’t use tour guides I alluded to the concept that people hire a guide for a walking tour for reasons other than just learning about a particular place.

That sounds entirely counterintuitive. How else could there be any reason to hire a tour guide other than to learn about the points of interest on the walk? (Many of these also apply to bus tours as well as walking tours.)

Gaining knowledge of place is certainly one job for which people hire a tour guide. But if one only wants to gain knowledge of a particular place then one could read a book, Wikipedia, or even take advantage of the new breed of apps that provide contextual information based on your location.

What are some other jobs to be done, and are there reasons that may be even more important than gaining knowledge?

It’s a thing to do. When I actively wrote my blog on Buenos Aires I was astonished that the #1 search phrase was “things to do in Buenos Aires”. The number of searches for that expression (and its variations) numbered in the thousands every month. When people travel they want to know what to do. A walking tour is a thing to do. The people who hire a tour guide for this purpose don’t necessarily even care about the quality of the tour. They may be entirely indifferent to what the tour guide is saying. They’re simply looking for a way to fill a morning or afternoon. To the dismay of tour guides this may very well be the largest segment. However, this customer segment is also price conscious: a $10 tour is just as good as a $100 tour. Tour companies that cater to volume seek out this customer.

Walking tour as entertainment: a tour guide friend of mine often described his role on each tour as an actor giving a performance. Indeed, mystery tours often are given as performances with the tour guide in character and period costume. This segment builds on the things-to-do segment and also is price sensitive. Competing tour operators differentiate themselves by providing ever more entertaining tours. Or is it even better to characterize this type of tour as a show? Is the factual quality or historical accuracy of the tour important? Those factors likely take a backseat to the entertainment quality. Some tour guides will scoff at that notion.

The tour as entertainment is a job to be done that has potential for disruption by technology. Entertainment is a basic human need that is more powerful than the need for knowledge or (for some) the need for companionship. Tour as entertainment deserves more analysis in a separate post.

Hesitancy about the unfamiliar: travelers to a new destination, particular in a foreign country, are often reluctant to get out and explore neighborhoods on their own. This fear of the unfamiliar is not abnormal. We’ve all experienced it to some degree. For many the walking tour is a safe way to explore a large city. This customer segment always will be wanting to hire a person to take them around. Often this type of customer is willing to be carted around in a van or bus filled with a dozen other tourists. For some this is merely a way to get a quick orientation and then they’ll explore more on their own or with a hired guide. For others it’s the only way to travel.

Afraid of missing out: nurtured by the guidebook industry to believe that there’s a list of must-see sites we’re afraid of missing that special place that supposedly will make our trip. People hire a tour to make sure they see those spots, even if for a few seconds as the bus rolls on by or the walking tour guide gently pushes you along to the next spot on the schedule. Guidebooks (print and digital) supplant the physical guide for this customer segment.

Rent-a-knowledgeable-companion.  If you are a walking tour guide then this is the customer segment you want to target. These customers are willing to pay a hundred dollars or more for a personal guide that fulfills several jobs: knowledge of place, thing to do, entertainment, becoming familiar with the unfamiliar, and not missing out on important sites.

Many of these jobs-to-be-done for tours are based more on human connectedness and that’s why the real-world job of a tour guide is not totally replaceable with technology (whether it’s print or digital). Yet, the customers that fall into these jobs-to-be done might only represent an overall small slice of travelers.

If you’re planning a digital product in this space, then take a much closer look at the things to do and tour as entertainment jobs to be done.

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City touring for those who don’t use tour guides

The ability of Google’s Field Trip app to let a person know what’s around them as they walk through a city has been a long desired feature for travel apps. Not everyone wants to employ a tour guide. But this type of ambient local discovery app is not going to present a major disruption to the walking tour business with a real guide. People hire tour guides for a different reason. (More on that in another post.)

This type of app will have a greater impact on travel publishing by further reducing the perceived need to purchase a guidebook. For a traveler comfortable wandering a city a Field Trip app is a great asset to have around. Personally, I find unplanned excursions to be a great way of exploring an area. In the copywriting on the companion site for the app Google re-enforces that theme repeatedly:

there is no path, only the one you make”

“Field Trip day is dedicated to the art of the wander, and discovery through exploration”

“There are no right choices, no wrong turns – but there are treasures to be uncovered just out of sight.”

“This is not a tour. There is no guide. It is discovery, pure & simple.

Odd it might seem then for a product that targets unplanned use is that Google sponsored organized Field Trip days when the app was launched. Perhaps that simply was as a means of gaining feedback via a public beta test (without calling it that).

Note that the positioning of this product is for the local explorer and not the traveler. People are more comfortable exploring the familiar but I can see the appeal of ambient local discovery apps to travelers with an adventurous spirit.

For a review of the Field Trip app see the article by Rachel Metz in Technology Review, and Metz points out that the app would be most useful on vacations when a person is more likely to have the time for random interruptions. As most of us go about our daily lives we really don’t have the time to be pestered by historical tidbits or the latest deal down the block. Fortunately, the ability to set notification levels and the type of data is built into the app.

I’m hoping we’ll see the capabilities of this app built into the future Project Glass. If so, then Google has a huge winner on their hands.

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“leisure travelers don’t scale”

The quote “leisure travelers don’t scale” is from an interview with Rafat Ali (founder of paidcontent) at the Next Big Thing. (At the 6:35 mark in the video if you want to skip over him talking about his new venture Skift, though if you’re interested in the travel industry then you should become familiar with Skift.)

Skift also aims at informing the business traveler rather than the leisure traveler. The business person might travel several times a month. Anyone involved in a travel startup knows that it’s difficult to scale a business around consumers traveling to specific destinations. How many times does a person travel for leisure. Ali says “once, twice, thrice a year”. How many times does a person travel internationally? Only a few people do so even once a year.

Even if you build a loyal customer with your superb guide to the basket weaving of the Peruvian highlands, it’s going to be another year or more (if ever) before that fan buys your insightful, one-of-a-kind guide to the public sculpture of Odessa. Okay, that example is an extreme niche but it’s hard to grow a business by selling content to leisure travelers. You need content to dozens, if not a hundred or more, destinations if your travel content business is to sustain a staff of more than one based on revenue alone.

A core requirement in forming a startup is to spend time reflecting on the product you’re developing and, particularly, what problems are people buying that product to solve? Are there enough customers to actually build a business that can grow, or is the business so narrowly defined that it’s potential is little more than a supplementary income for one person? The latter is not a startup.

In the interview with Ali the moderator Scott Kurnit (found of about.com) asked a wonderful question, “Twenty years into the Internet, why do we get to do something new…why hasn’t it all been done…why wasn’t this done 5 years ago?”

As Kurnit suggests, it’s often because technology has changed (particularly with regards to mobile) or consumers have changed. Ali goes a step further and reveals the forumla behind his successful strategy, “I love businesses that are a layer on top of existing businesses.”

For those of us who lovel travel, Ali offers a vision at the 8.33 mark in the video as to why travel is important:  “travel is a lens that can bring understanding to the world”.

The challenge is creating a livelihood through a travel startup.

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Field Trip app hints at Google’s future

Aimed at travelers & locals curious to learn more about their city, Google’s Field Trip app (Android only for now) serves up content based on your specific location within that city. The app launches today in six cities.

The app, oddly for a Google product, presents a very nice visual design. There’s  even a sleek made-for-tv commercial. What is Google up to with this app?

An insightful post on the New York Times Bit blog predicts that the app “reveals a lot about the big directions Google wants to go.”

Note the binocular/field glasses motif that also forms the icon for the Field Trip app.

Are those field glasses just ornamentation, clever use of graphics,  or a hint towards Google’s future attempt to disrupt mobile computing with Google Glass & wearable computing?

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Where are the Apps for the Armchair Traveler?

Mobile developers & entrepreneurs occasionally forget that smartphones and tablets are often used in the home. The iPad makes an excellent lean-back device. We mostly recognize that tablets excel as devices for reading, watching, shopping, & other “passive” activities. Obviously I’m leaving out a wide range of tablet uses but for the sake of this particular analysis let’s focus on that passive behavior of consuming content.

People create startups based around ideas where they understand the possibilities. Are their untapped possibilities to provide valued products to users sitting at home in a cozy chair?

The Armchair Traveler

I continued to be astonished at the absence of apps aimed at the armchair traveler: the person sitting at home who is planning a trip or, very likely, just curious to learn about the world.

The Fotopedia apps are among the best examples of current apps that serve the armchair traveler by offering spectacular images by professional photographers.

A couple of print publishers that have surprised me by not doing more with apps are DK and Insight Guides.

DK’s Eyewitness Travel books are beautifully designed for appealing specifically the person who is not at that destination.  Those are great books for planning a trip & figuring out the sights you want to see. But they’re even better for getting a sense of a place without ever going there.

More than 10 years ago I was browsing in a bookstore with a friend when I brought the  DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Japan

My friend, rather curiously, asked, “When are you going to Japan?”

I answered, “I don’t know. I just want to learn about it.” A decade later I’ve still not been to Japan, but I have purchased many DK guidebooks. Yet, as someone who has traveled a lot, I would never take one of those books on a trip. That’s not because I can get all sorts of information online these days. It’s because the books are simply not that useful at a destination. Better to have a Lonely Planet or Rough Guide.

Since DK truly understands the visual I was excited when they released an app for iPad. Sigh, as a long-time DK customer how disappointed I was at their iPad offering. It was okay but didn’t inspire me in the same way as the printed edition. That’s not because print has any intrinsic quality over digital in this case. I ended up deleting the app after not much use and am really hesitant to ever buy another app from DK. Hmmm, but I would still buy their books and will give an app by DK another chance at some point.

I mentioned Insight Guides, which is a very different type of publisher from DK. Whereas DK publishes visually rich, but content thin, volumes. Insight Guides produces in-depth, mostly historical accounts of destinations. Great opportunity for repurposing these products onto a new platform, but the publisher has taken the rather bland approach of converting to e-books. Well, that’s a step and the title offering should certainly exist as -ebooks. I’m not doubting that.

The holdback

What’s keeping publishers from creating more exciting apps for armchair travelers? Certainly the cost & complexity of app development is the major factor. Then there’s the issue of multiple platforms. Not only does technical expertise need acquiring, but also the platform requires a new way of conceptualizing the product. And that’s the really hard part.

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