In a world where travel experiences have become an integral part of our lives, few entrepreneurs have had the vision to redefine the industry. One such visionary is Tao Tao, the co-founder and CEO of GetYourGuide. In this conversation, Tao takes us on a journey from his early days in Beijing to the challenges faced in Europe and ultimately to the thriving success of GetYourGuide.
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A Global Upbringing
Tao’s life story begins with a global upbringing, born in Beijing and traversing through Germany, the United States, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. From a young age, Tao developed a high tolerance for uncertainty, a quality he credits to his immigrant experience.
Tao remembers his high school years in the US and Germany, where he met his future co-founder, Johannes Reck. He studied physics and economics in the Netherlands and Switzerland and started a business as a college project, which was his first job.
Tao explains how he was drawn to physics and economics since they are about decision-making theories. They are also about what binds the social construct but integrates with mathematics. Philosophy was another subject that interested him.
Tao reveals that he got a scholarship to a school in the US where the academic and athletic standards were extremely high. Going to Virginia into a new environment and unique culture was a different experience and gave him a new perspective on how to approach new projects.
Tao highlights the importance of core traits for founders and entrepreneurs, emphasizing the need to navigate through uncertainties in the early days of building a business.
He also talks about the challenges he faced, such as working out the product-market fit, fundraising, building the right team, and understanding what customers need.
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The American Dream and Taking Bold Bets
Spending a year in the United States during high school exposed Tao Tao to the American Dream and a culture that encouraged taking bold bets.
He contrasts the more conservative mindset in Europe, noting that in the U.S., failure is met with encouragement to try again, a stark contrast to the skepticism faced in Europe.
Tao has an interesting story to tell about the inception of GetYourGuide. He and Johannes were traveling for a student conference in Beijing, China. Johannes booked his flights wrong and landed a date too early, but without a guide, he found it impossible to experience the city.
When Tao arrived, he took Johannes around the city to introduce him to the local culture, cuisines, and other points of interest. That’s when they came up with the idea to build something that can connect people on travels with the destinations they visit.
The duo ideated a peer-to-peer marketplace where tourists can book local tour guides in different places or be their own tour guides.
From Europe to the U.S.: Overcoming Funding Challenges
Tao reflects on the initial challenges faced by GetYourGuide in Europe, where no one wanted to invest in their idea. They even had the CEO of bookings.com and other companies telling them it was a bad idea.
Sometime in 2011, the duo launched their first version of the new professional marketplace, where they connected professional travel experience providers and creators, such as river rafting providers or bus tours or attractions, with travelers.
The reaction they got was that the market was super fragmented and always stayed offline, which made it too difficult to aggregate. At the time, people always thought that travel experiences, hotels, and flights were an add-on product. However, Tao and Johannes had very different beliefs.
Pivoting to Success: The GetYourGuide Marketplace
Tao talks about the early struggles of GetYourGuide, starting with a peer-to-peer marketplace that failed to gain traction. However, a transformative moment occurred when a professional experience creator in Switzerland signed up, leading to a pivot towards a professional marketplace model.
Tao shares insights into their business model and the pivotal role of raising funds in scaling a global travel platform. He points out that the five co-founders of GetYourGuide didn’t know the travel industry.
However, they did the research and realized that there was a huge market of professional experience creators around the world.
Infusing technology into the market helped them create a new business model. For every successful booking, they take a share of the revenue that helps facilitate those experienced creators.
Navigating European Investment Landscape
Tao discusses the challenges faced while raising funds in Europe, emphasizing the shift in the investment landscape over the past decade. He notes the emergence of European companies with global ambitions, challenging the traditional notion that success should be confined to a single market.
The reluctance to embrace the concept of travel experiences as a standalone product led Tao Tao and his co-founder, Johannes, to seek funding in the U.S. They eventually raised capital from American investors, marking a pivotal moment in their journey.
Tao reveals that they’ve raised $194M in 2023, and the company was valued at $2B during the last funding round. A local business angel who built his own travel business was one of their first investors.
Zürcher Kantonalbank also had a small venture seed fund dedicated to helping local businesses and promoting local startups.
Storytelling is everything, which is something that Tao Tao was able to master. Being able to capture the essence of what you are doing in 15 to 20 slides is the key. For a winning deck, take a look at the pitch deck template created by Silicon Valley legend Peter Thiel (see it here), where the most critical slides are highlighted.
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Building a Global Team and Culture
The company has had more than 120 million bookings over the lifetime of the business and is a market eater in the travel experiences space. With over 800 employees across 17 offices worldwide, Tao sheds light on the significance of company culture.
Tao narrates the evolution of GetYourGuide’s culture, emphasizing the need for authenticity and alignment with core values. He explores how processes, hiring strategies, and performance reviews contribute to maintaining a consistent culture throughout the organization.
As the company grew, Tao and his co-founders realized that they needed an outpost or a second location where they could scale with operational sales and marketing folks. Since Zurich was expensive, they decided on Berlin, where Tao started to hire people and build a team.
Vision for the Future: Guiding Travel Through Passions
Tao shares GetYourGuide’s mission to unlock unforgettable travel experiences and guide travelers to moments of wonder. The vision extends to empowering experience creators globally, turning every entrepreneurial idea into a reality.
Tao envisions GetYourGuide as the catalyst for an experience economy, connecting people with their passions and fostering human connections through travel. He understands that travelers don’t want to spend seven hours of their vacation time in a non-reclining area.
They want to wake up in the morning and leave their hotel rooms to explore the location they are visiting. Whether it is to taste the best local coffee and eggs, absorb the history, or connect with nature. No vacationer wants to be adrift or lost in their places of travel but wants to maximize their trips.
Words of Wisdom for Aspiring Entrepreneurs
The interview concludes with Tao Tao’s advice for aspiring entrepreneurs – to be infinite learners. He emphasizes the power of continuous learning as the key superpower for entrepreneurs, enabling them to adapt, grow, and ultimately succeed in a dynamic business landscape.
Tao Tao’s journey from Beijing to Berlin, coupled with the challenges and triumphs of building GetYourGuide, provides a compelling narrative of entrepreneurial resilience, adaptability, and the pursuit of a global vision.
As the travel industry continues to evolve, Tao Tao’s story serves as an inspiration for those dreaming of reshaping the future of travel experiences.
Listen to the full podcast episode to know more, including:
- Tao Tao’s global upbringing and immigrant experience instilled a high tolerance for uncertainty, a crucial trait for entrepreneurial success.
- Exposure to the American Dream fueled bold ideas, but initial skepticism in Europe led Tao Tao and his co-founder to seek funding in the U.S.
- GetYourGuide’s journey included a pivotal pivot from a struggling peer-to-peer model to a successful professional marketplace, connecting travelers with professional experience providers.
- Early struggles in Europe pushed GetYourGuide to raise capital in the U.S., highlighting the evolving landscape and growing ambition of European startups.
- The evolution of GetYourGuide’s culture, rooted in authenticity and aligned values, has been crucial in uniting a global team of over 800 employees across 17 offices.
- Tao Tao envisions GetYourGuide as a catalyst for an experience economy, connecting travelers with their passions and empowering global entrepreneurs to bring unique experiences to life.
- Tao Tao’s key advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is to be infinite learners, recognizing the power of constant learning as the key superpower in the dynamic world of entrepreneurship.