Social Travel: Rediscovering the Friendly Skies

Social Travel: Rediscovering the Friendly Skies

Editor’s note: TechCrunch contributor Semil Shah is an entrepreneur interested in digital media, consumer Internet, and social networks. Shah is based in Palo Alto and you can follow him on twitter @semil We’ve heard endlessly how “social” will eventually disrupt and transform old, stodgy industries, perhaps even reinvent them for the better. The promise of this change, of course, is often tempered by the reality that, if indeed this stuff actually happens, it will take time and we’re currently in the early stages of the game. And when it comes to travel, one of the most heavily regulated industries, disruption and transformation would be music to travelers’ ears. There are a number of reasons travel has become more of an onerous task (thank you, TSA), yet consumers continue to brave the elements to merrily trot around the globe. Brushing aside the fact that a significant portion of travel is business-related, decisions around leisure travel typically involve a number of factors, many of which are coming online. The catalyst for a personal trip can originate from different sources. One could have vacation time that will evaporate unless you use it. One could be offered a travel deal rate that motivates you to capitalize on it. One may want to catch up with old friends or families, or travel for entertainment, adventure, or to simply get away from your surroundings. In exploring the travel space through a social lens, most of today’s consumer web-related entrepreneurial attention is focused on what travelers do once they reach their intended destination. In the old days, travelers would book hotels directly (or through travel agents) and would rely on branded guides like Lonely Planet or Frommer’s, hotel concierges, and traditional tour companies to help address these needs. A few years later, services like Kayak and TripIt offered more options for users to organize their travel. Today’s traveler has many more options. They can “couch surf” or use others’ private spaces as lodging (thanks to Airbnb), and by comparison, could literally pick from over twenty different services to get information about their intended destinations. When I travel somewhere, I’ll typically ask friends on Facebook and Twitter for recommendations, which so far have tended to be excellent and satisfy my needs. If I happened to need even more information, I could continue my research through sites like TripAdvisor, FlyerTalk, TripIt, Quora (local), explore Foursquare lists, peruse Gowalla’s new social travel guides, or sign up for one of a new wave of startups focused on the space, such as Planely (meet people at the airport or on your flight), Trippy (friend-sourced itineraries), Triposo (interactive mobile guides), Travellr (location-based Q&A), Toour (currently in stealth), Tripping (traveler community service), Twigmore (connect with your friends’ friends in other places), Globetrooper (tool to find travel partners), MyTab (where folks can gift travel to members), Gtrot (scrapes social data and aggregates around places), JetPac (seems to be a slick iPad app, but not released yet), and many, many others I haven’t gotten around to trying.

Jetlagged yet?

The sheer number of startups focusing attention on this aspect of travel seems out of balance to me. Investors like this particular space because the path to victory is clearer, albeit its crowded, and because these types of apps and services could be inherently viral, both in terms of onboarding new users as well as benefitting from positive word-of-mouth.

Instead of destination-based guides, however, I’ve started to wonder if the real opportunity is higher up the decision funnel, before we buy plane tickets and hotel rooms, at the point we first feel the urge to travel.

The best travel recommendations I’ve received (and acted on) have come through having conversations with close friends in real life. They share slideshows of their trip and we get to interact with them in rich ways about their experience, to see if we want to sign up for the same feeling. That is a true recommendation with a real strong social signal. These moments of inspiration oftentimes ignite the travel spark and could trigger a transaction. Startups like Gtrot and Gogobot, for instance, allow users to plan trips or record them after the fact, and research travel tips from social networks, organizing information around places.

Montana-based mapping startup onX raises a round of funding fit for Big Sky Country

Montana-based mapping startup onX raises a round of funding fit for Big Sky Country

A mapping startup based in Missoula, Mont., which allows users to download sophisticated offline topographic maps outlining public and private lands and a number of other features geared towards hunting, fishing and camping, has pulled in its first major outside funding.

onX has closed a $20.3 million Series A round led by Summit Partners. Bessemer Venture Partners, Millennium Technology Value Partners, Next Frontier Capital and NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke also participated in the round. The company is calling the fundraise one of the biggest ever among startups based in Montana.

This is impressively the first bout of outside funding that the 70-person startup has ever taken since being founded in 2009.

The company’s founder and CEO Eric Siegfried, an avid outdoorsman himself, had created a more basic program to integrate these maps with his own Garmin GPS. After finding his friends were interested in having a product like this too, he put down $27k of his personal funds into the venture and turned his wife’s scrap-booking room into an HQ of sorts, copying the software he’d written to microSD cards and laser-printing labels. A big application of the Missoula, Montana-based startup’s technology has been in enabling users to track the boundaries of public and private lands while creating custom maps with other information grouped into “layers” for when they’re hunting, fishing or hiking. The company’s central product for desktop, mobile and Garmin GPS devices is an app called onX Hunt, which the startup says is used by “millions of hunters” though onX CTO/COO Joshua Spitzer notes that “almost zero percent of users use the product just for hunting.”

Your Next Passport Could Be On The Blockchain

Your Next Passport Could Be On The Blockchain

A blockchain tinkerer named Chris Ellis has created a system to build an actual digital passport that, through use of the Bitcoin blockchain and some encryption, will allow you to identify yourself online and off. Called World Citizenship, the project just launched on Github and shows some definite promise. “The goal of this project is to learn and layout a simple process for anyone in the world to create their own Private Passport Service that can be used to validate and prove the existence of other persons using nothing but available tools,” wrote Ellis. To build a passport you basically take a photo of yourself and then build a private and public key. This cryptographically signs the document, proving it is legitimate. A number of other aspects, including the state of the bitcoin ledger called the blockchain, further confirm the issuance. Still confused? Read on: By including the Merkle Root of the latest block we prove we have knowledge of an event that cannot have taken place any time prior the latest block being published.By signing the Passport with a PGP key we bind the state of the document to it’s cryptographic signature preventing us from changing its contents without detection.By stamping the digest of the resulting passport and its signature in to the blockchain following these steps we prove that it existed in this state at no time later than the block in which it was published.By using the venue’s Bitcoin address (preferably one used by their customers) with a public IP address we prove that it exists in this space. This is because Bitcoin nodes collect IP data in the debug.log file. Additionally since the venue is commercial they have an interest in maintaining their reputation and advertising their location. (Note: GPS data on phones can easily be spoofed).

Basically you are confirming that the document couldn’t have been created by any other person at any other time, an assumption that goes into the production of government passports (the need to go into a post office to confirm your existence for a passport is a low-tech version of this process).

Obviously you’re not going to be breezing through security with your new digital passport quite yet but it’s an interesting step in a very interesting direction.

 

With 3X The Active Users From A Year Ago, Skout Launches A Feature For Traveling Vagabonds

With 3X The Active Users From A Year Ago, Skout Launches A Feature For Traveling Vagabonds

Skout, the app for meeting new people that picked up $22 million in a round led by Andreessen Horowitz last year, is adding a feature for travelers who want to scope out people in new cities before they land. The Travel feature is a paid premium feature, where Skout users can spend a little bit of virtual currency to meet users in another city. (Normally, you are only connected to users near you.) It’s especially useful if you’re traveling to a place where you don’t know anyone. It also slides into the company’s current virtual goods-oriented model, where users pay for points to send wink bombs or feature their profiles. At about 100 Skout points, “traveling” to another city should cost around 20 cents or fewer.

The past year has had some major highs and lows for Skout.

After a safety scandal tied the app to a few rape cases, the company banned minors from the service until they instituted safeguards that they confidently felt separated adults and children. They set up a Trust and Safety board to regularly review the company’s policies and haven’t had a bad incident since then. “It was a really challenging time for the company,” said Christian Wiklund, Skout’s CEO, who has seen the startup through half a decade of existence and many near-death experiences. Because of that initial bad publicity, they’ve kept their heads low. Even so, the company has grown its number of monthly active users by three-fold (although they don’t release the raw monthly active user figure).

They also facilitated more than 200 million connections between users last year, up fourfold from 54 million connections in 2011. In total, they’re adding about 1.5 million new users every month and their most active locale is Hong Kong.

Initially pegged as something of a dating app, Skout broadened its focus out toward helping people meet one another. But in the meantime, newer apps like IAC-backed Tinder that are specifically focused on dating have gained momentum. Tinder has facilitated more than 100 million matches in less than a year after launch. “Dating is a subset of what we do, but we think the opportunity is much bigger than dating,” Wiklund said.

Colombia Is One Of Latin America’s Most Promising New Tech Hubs

Colombia Is One Of Latin America’s Most Promising New Tech Hubs

Ten years ago, the idea that Colombia would become a burgeoning hub for any dynamic industry beyond its notorious drug trade would have struck most observers as far-fetched. As recently as the turn of the century, conventional wisdom had it that the tropical, Andean nation was on the verge of becoming a failed state. Fast forward to the present day and Colombia already boasts one of the region’s stronger startup ecosystems, with huge potential upside still waiting to be explored. By 2018, the government hopes to have 63 percent of the country connected to broadband. And according to 2013 GSMA mobile economy figures, there are already 43.9 million mobile connections and 24 million mobile users in a country whose 47 million people give it the third largest population in Latin America and third largest Spanish-speaking population in the world. These and other figures are highly encouraging for people looking to tap a rapidly growing market, and it follows that a stronger internal tech culture will also form the groundwork for Colombia’s own aspirations in the field of innovation.

Laying the Foundation

The first stage of the government’s concerted campaign to rebrand Colombia as a technology center involved drawing in IT services with tax incentives and professional training programs. A $6.8 billion industry has taken strong root as a result, with 1,800 software development and IT service companies registered in the country. Looking forward, the hope is that IT, and the investments that went into promoting it, can diversify into a broader innovation ecosystem. With that in mind, the government has spurred a number of public initiatives to address the lack of venture capital in Colombia, currently the biggest ceiling on startup growth. Founded to support and promote tech innovation and new ventures, iNNpulsa awarded three grants of up to $800,000 in 2013 to investor groups establishing operations in Colombia.