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Thrive was set up by Funding London, a venture capital company bridging the finance gap for early stage businesses based in London. With over a decade’s experience in supporting the startups of London through a variety of funding vehicles, Funding London sensed a need to illuminate the ever-evolving scenario of London’s early stage businesses.

Thrive features interviews with and opinion from budding entrepreneurs, investors and industry experts. A mix of contributors from all areas of the industry is desired in order to spark genuine discussion about ongoing critical issues. While it showcases the effectiveness of successful ventures, it also encourages sharing lessons learned from missteps and unsuccessful projects.

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In between the French Alps and the London Grind

About

In a basement campus @Finsbury Park, Sam Bruce tells the story of building 'Much Better Adventures' in the French Alps. MBA helps adventure holidaymakers to book local tour operators for a personalized experience.

5 April 2016

How adventurous was the journey of launching Much Better Adventures?

It was pretty adventurous! We packed our bags, rented out a rickety old chalet in the French Alps and stuck WiFi in it. It was our very own incubator with skiing and riding at our doorstep when blue sky thinking was required.

Living in the Alps was definitely the right environment to build an adventure company – we were inspired by the mountains around us everyday. Given what we were building, we got an awful lot out of being close to local holiday operators and customers. I’d strongly recommend doing something similar to other entrepreneurs starting up.

To help us grow the company, we had interns come out to stay with us – it is still the best internship I’ve come across – come live in the mountains with us, ski whenever you like and help build a tech startup – we had a lot of applicants.

How did the idea of MBA germinate?

Alex, Guy and I came together having previously been involved in the running, marketing and selling of specialist active and adventure holidays for small companies – experiencing how hard it was to compete with the big boys in the industry.

It was frustrating to know that the big tour operators, due to the sheer scale of their operations, failed to offer the same level of personal and local experience that holiday-makers were increasingly looking for and how local specialists were just so much better to travel with.

Local specialists are the ones with the knowledge and the passion, who know the best spots, and the stewardship to sustain their destination – but nowhere near the resources required to keep up with the online market and we could see the gap widening.

Leveling the playing field in travel and making it easier to find these local specialists online was too big an opportunity to ignore, and so Much Better Adventures was born.

What are the challenges unique to a Travel Tech company and how do you tackle them?

There are all the same challenges of starting anything up – getting traction, raising investment, hiring the absolute best people.

I suppose the one challenge specific to Travel Tech is working around the fact that many of the operators in the market are lifestyle businesses, often very low tech, with limited information available on their websites. API’s aren’t readily available – many still use pen and paper to manage their inventory. To digitize the market and compile their information online is a big job and we’ve developed proprietary solutions to deal with this. That said, if it was easy, it wouldn’t be worth doing and nailing the solution to all this is all part of the opportunity.

What does the Travel Tech Scene look like ?

It’s an incredibly exciting scene! A quick look at the recent investments and acquisitions in the travel space shows that. Check out the Travel Tech Lab in London for example, there are some super talented entrepreneurs working on some very big and varied opportunities with crazy potential – tourism is the largest service industry in the world after all.

Generally, the online travel market is pretty crowded – there are endless generic booking sites and apps, online directories, tour operators and agencies developing their digital capabilities, market aggregators, revolutionary concepts like Airbnb, their imitators, so on and so forth.

In the few years since we started out, we’ve seen a few travel startups come and go. The trick to standing out from the crowd going forward, we think, is to aim to be the best at one piece of the big puzzle.

What will be your strategy to sustain in this crowded market and keep up competitive advantage?

Our approach so far has been to be highly verticalized – grow one niche at a time and do it well to develop a blueprint that scales. So far, this approach has allowed us to innovate whilst focusing on the quality of our product and remain highly targeted with our marketing.

We would welcome more entrants into the adventure tech space. There is definitely space for disruptive startups to come in and grow the niche markets in the industry.

We’re already seeing some other marketplace startups take on niche verticals in the adventure market – making it easier to book with small businesses. They are helping to grow the market and that’s good for everybody.

Despite the fact that finding and booking with local and independent operators is a total nightmare, £22bn is spent on adventure holidays with them every year – it should be a lot more than that.

How would you describe your latest funding experience in London?

We learnt a lot during the process and looking back it was incredibly useful. Initially, we didn’t really know where best to start but we knew what we wanted – not only raise the funds to grow but also use the round to surround ourselves with the right expertise and advisors.

In the end we were oversubscribed and nearly all of our investors came via introductions by people who believed we had a good product – London has a very supportive ecosystem in that sense, which I think makes raising here easier.

There are so many events – there’s hardly a day when you cannot find something to go to. You could eat for free as a founder in London if you don’t mind a diet of canapés and Heineken.

We now have a really good mix of angels around us with strong track records in building two-sided marketplaces and international companies, as well as successful travel tech businesses.

We were particularly pleased to raise investment from some of the operators on the platform who valued it and wanted to participate in its growth.

Seedcamp came in with LCIF and beyond their cash input – the on-going support from the team and their ‘experts in residence’ has been massively helpful.

What are the three factors that you think influenced investments in MBA?

I think firstly the undeniable opportunity that exists to digitize the multi-billion global active and adventure travel market. It’s growing over 65% a year and has seen a 40% growth in suppliers setting up since 2000. Yet it’s still so offline and our ambition to update the industry struck a cord.

Secondly, the fact that we have deep industry expertise having managed, marketed and sold adventure holidays ourselves and have an incredibly talented and impassioned team.

Thirdly, our unit economics – we have an ever-growing community of engaged operators who are making good money on the platform and returning customers who love the service.

What is your vision for MBA?

As per day one – to inspire people to be more adventurous with their time off, to empower awesome entrepreneurs to make a great living doing what they love – and in the process – help conserve the planet’s most inspiring wild places.

We’ll do this by constantly innovating and developing our technology to make it easy to book the best kind of holidays with the best local businesses.

If we get it right, we’ll play our part in recalibrating the travel industry – channeling more money into local economies and businesses to make them the real beneficiaries of tourism, and give travellers ‘much better’ experiences than large tour operators could ever dream up. We’ll create a virtuous circle in adventure hot-spots, incentivising communities to protect the inspiring environments which attracts travellers in the first place.

It’s an exciting mission and I’m sure we’ll have our own adventures along the way.