How We Started a
Successful COVID-19 Travel Planner
Hi! Who are you and what business did you start?
We are Giorgio, Fred and Filippo. I (Giorgio) am gonna be the one answering for the team.
Our business is Canitravel.net, a website allowing all travellers around the world to easily access vital up to date information during this pandemic.
We are giving people who need to travel the information and tools to navigate safely the confusing realm of COVID-driven travel restrictions. With simple answers tailored to their travel needs.
What is your personal story and how did you come up with the idea?
I left Italy when I was 17, started a new life in England, working and studying.I then moved to New Zealand, Norway, Russia, and ultimately Vietnam, where I’m currently based. In between countries I kept travelling and worked a wide variety of professions, among which: cleaner, store manager, waiter, chef, tradesman, farmer, car salesman, ops. consultant and flight assistant.
I enjoy creating deep connections with people and I’m always looking for ways to express myself, whether it is writing, storytelling, public speaking, improvisation, stand up comedy or coming up with new creative business ideas.
As I approached 23, my life was in ruins, my relationship wasn’t working and I hated my flight attendant job. I was assigned to Italy and I was quickly reminded how my home country isn’t a place for young people to grow, as I was belittled by my superiors as well as my family for having bigger dreams than being an overqualified waiter shot up 40,000 feet in a tin can full of entitled passengers.
I had enough.
I decided to take a break, leave everything and hitchhike solo through Southeast Asia, worry about my well-being now and money later. That’s when 2020 came along… first, the many articles of an incoming recession contributed to my anxiety over the future or lack thereof, then COVID happened…
Fred and Filippo (my cofounders) also left Italy rather early. We always had this bond of being the ones that grew out of their hometown and throughout the years, in spite of the distance, we stayed in touch.
Around 2019 we started having regular calls, mostly catching up and pitching overly ambitious business ideas over zoom. All until the pandemic hit… At that point, our calls quickly turned into confused and frustrated rants about injustice, our uncertain futures and fears over the ever-changing coronavirus situation.
Feb. 2020, as international travel was effectively reaching a halt, we were living apart, scattered between Sri Lanka (Filippo), Thailand (Fred), and Vietnam (me).
Driven fully by the sheer frustration of losing the 2 jobs I just carved myself and the impossibility of finding reliable travel information, as opposed to the readily available, ever more depressing, infected and death charts; I had an idea ‘Why don’t WE create a tool to provide clarity on the whole COVID travel restrictions clusterfuck?!’
I wrote a basic draft, it would have to contain 2 key elements:
- Accessible information, by giving tailored answers based on users passport, departure country and destination
- Simple interface, with a basic traffic light colour status to identify whether the country is Open, Restricted or Closed.
The next day I rushed to pitch it to the guys. After some understandable hesitation…they loved it! The idea of being able to create something that would have a direct impact on people’s lives really resonated with us!
The very first version of the website March 2020:
What challenges did you face when creating your product/service?
Everything has been a challenge, we went in as experienced travellers, we came out as experts in the travel sector. We had to literally reinvent the wheel since when we started this project none, except for governments and the designated intercontinental agencies (such as IATA), had done anything to even acknowledge travel restrictions.
So far we have been bootstrapping all the way, we are open to investment, but not the kind that will require changes that are detrimental to our quality of information and the user experience.
As we gained enough followers we started getting offers of every kind, but we consistently turned down easy money and all partnerships that weren’t in line with our vision.
As major companies realised the pandemic was here to stay, travel restriction websites started to spring up like mushrooms. We were initially truly concerned about the number of companies competing for a similar audience, however, it was also a motivation to add a layer of complexity to our website and none has yet been able to replicate our complex 3 factors search, which based on Passport/residency, Departure and Arrival, is providing anyone with an easy to digest answer, as well as an extended one.
While we were gaining international recognition in the form of interviews, articles, blog posts and 100s of emails, for our work, most of my family never supported this and actively tried to talk this project down.
Other challenges were:
Continue working on this project full time as a small fully remote team while we work side jobs and figure out whether we should return home or not to survive the pandemic. And to stay motivated despite server and other third-party issues and the constant AdSense demonetisations.
Who is your target market?
So far for our users, we have focused on:
- English speaking travellers of adult age
- Travelling for tourism or within the limitations of tourism travel
- Mostly inexperienced travellers
Our users are overwhelmingly Americans followed by Israelis, Germans and British.
That is also reflected in the companies we have deals with.
We have all ages, however, people from 25 to 34 being our main traffic drivers.
For our API:
- Small to medium travel agencies
- Small to medium blogs/info websites
- Small to medium travel-related companies
How do you market your business and which approaches have been the most successful?
We market ourselves in a number of ways. We have decided early on that paid advertisement wouldn’t be worth it for us, therefore we have resorted to the methods below:
- Social Media: we have a small team making regular posts across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Linkedin, and Tik Tok
- Ad Exchange: when we deal with comparable companies with aligned interests we often exchange banners so that our users discover them and vice versa
- SEO: a pretty obvious one, unfortunately, that happens to be a struggle within this specific field
- Blog/post commenting: we were quite concerned about this being viewed as spam at first, however, seeing the amazing response we get from people who discovered us through it, we now pay someone to do it!
- Newsletter: we send out newsletters and inform our subscribers of the latest news and all the new features being launched.
- Cold Outreach: we contact influencers and news outlets alike, in the hope, they’ll talk about us! Often times they do!
Since you launched, what has worked in not only attracting but retaining customers?
Certainly the information quality, our simple interface and ability to quickly adapt to the stages of the pandemic and offer what our users need.We often take users’ feedback to our meetings and morph the platform accordingly.
What kind of culture exists in your company, and how did you establish it?
What we realised, being a team of 3 from the get-go, was the importance of full openness and regular communication.
My partners and I have about 3 weekly meetings (more if necessary) as well as at least one with the teams/people we supervise. We don’t look at hours, but we keep each other in check by all regularly reporting what’s been achieved, none excluded.
We value integrity and critical thinking above all, expecting everyone working with us to be honest and driven- we love to hear new ideas!
What software, services or tools do you use within your business?
We use a myriad of software:
- Zoho CRM
- Wise for international banking
- Trello, Slack for online tasks and workplace
- VPSDime is our Server and Cloudflare for server related
- Docs, Sheets and Forms from Google to share all our documents
- Drive to organise and keep everything in the cloud
- Meet for all our business meetings
- Canva for designs of blog posts and social media stuff
- Calendar for our regular meetings and Calendly for interviews or external meetings
- Stripe to handle payments
- Upwork to hire freelancers
Those are the ones I remember off the top of my head, we use MANY more!
What are the most important lessons have you learned on your business journey?
This started as a part-time passion project, as it moved into a full-time job for all of us. I wish we had not wasted so much time on small details to see the bigger picture and I wish we spent more time on monetisation and outreach from the beginning.
It is no longer sufficient to be a pioneer in your field for a small “garage-sized” business to stay competitive and reach a size where it can weather the shock waves of more established players. It needs to be future proof, it needs leadership and it needs to move FAST.
It’s relevant to have solid foundations just as it is to not waste too much time on details, regular and effective communication with the team is key, just as is constantly assessing which parts of the business should be cut, changed or delegated. Delegate away!
What is your favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
The creative aspect of it! I love going into a meeting and enthusiastically pitching the idea I just had on a walk, especially when it could solve one of the nerve-racking issues we encounter weekly.
Managing your time, if I’m in the mood to be free for the next 8 hours, I’m free.
It is also extremely rewarding to have an impact on our end-users and staff and the amount of learning that I and my partners went through in 1 year of this project may not have been accomplished in 10 years of an ordinary job. The problem-solving, constant compromise and troubleshooting skills I picked up are priceless.
What is your LEAST favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
The worst is that ultimately when things go wrong (and they do!) you are to blame. Having to handle most aspects of a business makes it so that sometimes you just have to adapt, to “get down and dirty”, working on what others can’t do, whether you enjoy it or not.
You may have to pick up calls at an uncomfortable time to fit other businesses’ time zones and reassess your life in order to effectively move the business forward while still pursuing any other passions.
It’s truly rewarding, yet stress levels often rise as you have enough priorities to fill up a month and it is only Monday. Then you have to fire people (not as fun as it sounds).
What books, podcasts or other resources have inspired and influenced your business journey?
I’m slightly ashamed to admit that whilst I read a ridiculous amount of articles every day, I’m not a huge book reader, so here are my picks:
I CANNOT RECOMMEND THIS ENOUGH:
The Next Big Idea Podcast. They pick somewhat controversial books and interview the authors in dept. Many complex issues that were far from my bubble only made it through because of them!
- CGP Grey: Not business-related, but great for general work organisation and incredible videos on very unimpressive topics.
Where do you see your business 2-3 years from now?
To be honest that’s hard to say…our current model is based on the pandemic and believe me when I tell you: I want it to be over as much as you do!
We always had a plan to move away from this temporary lucrative market, but it’s also true that launching ourselves in another slightly different, yet still unproven business model is always somewhat of a gamble.
What I can say is that my team and I are emotionally attached to this project, and will surely work hard for it to thrive and be a standalone product well beyond COVID!
And with all the experience I have gained in over a year of managing a startup I’m truly looking forward to also bring to the market all the several businesses that I have planned over the past few years.