‘Good advice is always priceless’: Interview with Johannes Reck, co-founder and CEO of travel tech scale-up GetYourGuide

GetYourGuide_founders
GetYourGuide co-founders Johannes Reck (CEO) and Tao Tao (COO)

About a decade ago Johannes Reck was a student lost on the streets of Beijing, when his friend Tao showed up and gave him a personal tour. Thus was born the idea for GetYourGuide (of which Tao is now COO). Founded in Zurich in 2009 (and now headquartered in Berlin), GetYourGuide has since grown to be the world’s leading tour booking platform.

The startup offers a collection of over 31,000 things to do in 7,500 destinations across the globe. Customers can book fully-refundable tickets through its site in 19 different languages, in 40 currencies, with 24/7 multilingual customer service. GetYourGuide has so far sold over 20 million tickets through its platform, raised €155 million (including $75 million last November), employs 450 people – and has no plans of slowing down.

Below, GetYourGuide co-founder and CEO Johannes Reck shares his experience starting GetYourGuide, how the startup has evolved over the years, and his advice for founders.

Johannes, what is your background, and what led you to start GetYourGuide?

I grew up in western Germany, near Cologne. I attended the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich), and studied biochemistry with aspirations toward a life in academia. GetYourGuide’s current COO Tao Tao (whom I knew previously) also attended ETH; while enrolled there, we met our other co-founders, Martin, Tobi and Pascal.

The five of us classmates formed a friend group, which turned into a working group for a student project, the concept for which was based on a trip Tao and I had taken to Beijing. That project then grew into a business plan for what was to become GetYourGuide, and my group of friends became my co-founders. The rest, as they say, is history.

GetYourGuide has become the premier online platform for booking travel activities, with over 20 million tickets sold, and it continues to grow. Can you tell us a bit about the company’s journey?

Success hasn’t always come easily. When we first launched GetYourGuide, we had conceived of it as a peer-to-peer platform for students in the same vein as Facebook — this was way back in 2008, mind you. But we soon learned a tough lesson that no one wanted to book tours from students (…except my mother).

But this failure gave us an important insight: that travellers did have an interest in finding things to do online, and that professional tour providers wanted to reach them. We pivoted to focus on the latter in 2009 and relaunched our site, and that’s when things started moving quickly.

One of the unique things about the $150 billion+ tours & activities industry segment is that it was, and still is, largely unclaimed by online players, so it’s been a constant race since then to achieve significant market share. We’re racing faster than ever.

“We often credit our success to our dedication to infinite learning.”

What do you think have been the greatest factors in GetYourGuide’s success?

There was no playbook for success when we started GetYourGuide. Unlike many European startups, we weren’t importing an American online business model for the EU market, as was commonly being done ten years ago. With the added fact that Tao and I are first-time founders, too, I think it suffices to say that our path was totally uncharted.

We often credit our success to our dedication to infinite learning. In the early days, our only advantage was our ability to learn fast and turn those learnings into growth. Today, a lot has changed at GetYourGuide, but that advantage remains the core of our success, and one of our most highly-prized core values. If we constantly achieve all the short-term goals we set for ourselves, it means we’re not challenging ourselves enough, so every GetYourGuide employee follows a very specific process that essentially encourages ‘educated failure’.

It’s the common language of our company culture, and one of my most important responsibilities is to preserve and evolve that mentality.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced along the way, and how did you respond to them? Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?

The biggest challenges we faced were in 2010, when Europe’s VC landscape was very different from its current state. Back in 2010 to 2012, Zalando and Rocket Internet (two current Berlin tech/VC behemoths) were just scaling up. If you were pursuing an unproven business model with an unproven team, there was just no capital to be had, because major VCs simply did not believe in Berlin as a source of global innovation.

I still think lack of capital is a major problem throughout Europe, but conditions have measurably improved. With more clarity, more capital and better advice on how to build a company, I think we could have shaved off 2-3 years in our growth trajectory.

What are some of the challenges you face now as a successful scale-up?

Like any scaling company, growth always presents new, unique challenges. Of course, finding and developing the right talent to maintain the energy and company culture that drove that rapid growth in the first place is at the core of each step of the process, but we’re also facing the pressure of heightened expectations, now that the ‘cat is out of the bag’ that tours and activities are a huge business opportunity. Major players are definitely taking note.

Luckily for GetYourGuide, our specialization and years of experience in the space are a huge advantage. We’ve gotten a head start on the competition, and we welcome the attention.

GetYourGuide has raised €155 million to date, including a massive €66 million Series D round in 2017. To what do you attribute your success in fundraising, and what advice would you give to early stage startup founders that are looking to raise funding?

Don’t choose investors that will give you the most capital. Choose investors whose advice you trust, and who understand your philosophy and the culture you seek to build.

I recommend the same criteria you’d use in hiring an employee: Do they share your vision? Are they good culture fit? In your toughest situations, you’ll want your investors in your corner, to help you make decisions, handle conflict, and overcome challenges.

It’s pretty simple: in an era with ever-bigger funding rounds, good advice remains priceless.

What are GetYourGuide’s plans for the future, and where do you see the company in the next 3-4 years?

Our next great frontier is to develop ourselves as a brand. We want to be more than a successful European startup; we want to be a ubiquitous travel brand that is known and beloved by travellers around the world.

And that will come from more than big marketing budgets. The way we develop the product, the way we grow our team, even the way we help our customers when they need it — all of this will be impacted by our fundamental brand promise to help you love where you’re going.

In three years, if we manage to get that right, GetYourGuide will be a household name. I promise.

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