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 COO 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.
In this episode, you will learn:
- 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.
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About Tao Tao:
Tao Tao is the Co-Founder and COO at GetYourGuide, a travel activity booking platform. Prior to GetYourGuide, Tao was an intern at Siemens from January 2007 to December 2007.
Before Siemens, Tao was the President of ETH juniors from January 2006 to December 2007.
Tao Tao’s educational career includes studying economics at Tilburg University, spending a semester at Peking University as part of an exchange program, studying physics at ETH Zürich, and attending high school at Gymnasium Neubiberg.
Tao was also an assistant scholar at Woodberry Forest School.
Tao Tao works with Patrick Kleffel – General Counsel & Company Secretary, Udi Nir – CTO, and Ameet Ranadive – Chief Product Officer. Their manager is Johannes Reck, CEO & Co-Founder.
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Read the Full Transcription of the Interview:
Alejandro Cremades: All righty hello everyone and welcome to the dealmaker show. So today. We have a very exciting founder that is joining us and we’re going to be talking about all the good stuff that we like to hear we are going to be talking about building scaling financing the founding story of this business. Also what has what was the market reaction I mean there was people even laughing you know at at events telling them that their idea was not going to work. Also no one wanted to invest in at the beginning in Europe and how they needed to come here to the us what was that transition like as well as coming up with the definition and defining and shaping up. Their own culture. So a lot of good stuff. Ah, ahead of us. You know, very inspiring conversation. So let’s welcome our guest today dao Tao Tao welcome to the show. So originally born in Beijing.
Tao Tao: A handle. Thank you so much for having me.
Alejandro Cremades: But you grew up all over the place so give us a walk through memory lane. How was life growing up.
Tao Tao: Yeah, absolutely so already a world traveler since since a baby so I was born in Beijing China then moved to Germany when I was 6 spent most of my time in a mix of Berlin and Munich. Um, also spent a high school year in the us which is actually where I met my future cofounder johannes then yeah, studied in the Netherlands and and in Switzerland so said physics and economics and we started a business as a college project. So um, it’s my it’s my first job.
Alejandro Cremades: So then so then let’s talk about that the world traveler too because I think that the the opportunity of having been raised. You know in Germany berlin may ah, they’re in Germany obviously Berlin a Munich but but that that worldview you know. Also you know from from. Having immigrant parents too and and and seeing them. You know, like really like build like ah like being very proactive at trying to build a better future for for the family. What what kind of perspective. Do you think that gave you.
Tao Tao: It’s a great question. Um, you know it’s it’s hard to compare because I don’t know what a different life would have been. Um, that said if I if I look at my life and maybe some some similar narratives and similar life stories I do think you get imbued with a very high uncertainty tolerance. And so that’s something you need as a founder as an entrepreneur because I think it’s less so much about taking like crazy risks and beinging the dardevil but it’s much more about in in business especially in the early days when you don’t have product market fit when you don’t have funding raise when you don’t know if you can hire good people if you don’t know if you know customers want what you’re building. And doing it anyway. So dealing with that uncertainty is I think something that immigrants or people who get transplanted into other places are very familiar with and that that I think has helped me and my co-founders as well.
Alejandro Cremades: So also you came to to the us you know and you did a year of high school here I’m sure that coming here to the us seeing the american dream and innovation around you and and being okay, you know to to take big bets being bold. Rather than than europe now which is a little bit more It was at least more conservative things are changing now but more conservative on the way of thinking where people will point at you if you would fail rather than clapping up and and and saying come on get back on that horse and and and keep going you know like they will do in the us how how would you say that that also you know shaped. Ah, who you are today because um I believe that that experience was very very fruitful when it came to to building your network as well.
Tao Tao: Oh absolutely. So and so both Johannes and me so my cofounder and Ceo um with whom I’ve been doing this business for now fifteen years so so we met on that high school year and and that year was tough so if you grew up in Germany public school. You know everybody goes to public school in Germany. And in the us we we got a scholarship to this pretty pretty pretty fancy school where the academic standard was extremely high and and the athletic standards were super high and it was rough right? So you know first time as kids you know out of home in a new environment. This was Virginia which is very different also culturally. From where we were in Germany and I think the learning would took with us is um, you know nobody died. Um, you know we actually became better in that process and so I think that you know gave us the idea when we approach new projects is you know, basically how hard can it be right? so. Um, you know we’ve we’ve done all these different things from an early life on starting a business. You know how hard can it be? Let’s just ah, let’s give give it a try. So I think it’s just lowering the bar for adventures. Um, is it’s definitely something that I took with me from the early age.
Alejandro Cremades: So eventually, you ended up going back there to to Germany and you decided to study to do a combination there of physics in Switzerland and then also economics in the Netherlands you know obviously. You had to keep going keep exploring the world. You know it’s just in your nature. You know based on on what I’m hearing but but that’s quite a very interesting blend. Why why? those 2 why did you want it to combine those 2.
Tao Tao: Well so so the combination is easy because I didn’t finish physics so that’s that’s always a good reason. No look I mean I think the reason I was drawn to both subjects is there are very very first principles based so physics obviously very first principles and economics I’ve always been attracted to because.
Alejandro Cremades: And.
Tao Tao: It’s about decision making theories. It’s about what binds the social construct but you can apply mathematics to it. So I think those two and I was always drawn to philosophy as well. But um, that was 1 thing where my parents were a little bit skeptical whether I should do that. So I think I always like first principle subject.
Alejandro Cremades: So Eventually when you did your economics degree. That’s a when you know the idea of really coming up with get your guide came about so walk us through that. Incubation ideation incubation and and then you know all the way to launch. What were those sequence of events.
Tao Tao: Yeah, so so um, so our journey began with a travel mixup so johannes and I we were traveling to China for a student conference and this is when I was still in in Zurich setting physics and so we’re going to a student conference in in Beijing. And Johannes booked his flights wrong and landed a date too early, but he was um as he is you know he brought a huge appetite to explore. He was hungry to learn and to experience things. Um, but without a guide which which was then me a day later he was he was quite lost so it was very hard to actually experience the city. And so when a day later I arrived I really opened up the city to him transformed the trip connected him to the locals to the local cuisines the culture and everything and so that really sparked in us a very foundational belief that the um that the future of travel should be very much guided that you have someone. That can help you really go deep in Explor City and so that that was really that faithful trip and when we came back to um, back to Europe we thought hey you know there is there’s something there and you know how can we build something that can connect people on travelers. To those destinations the visit just as I helped johannes connect to their destinations and and so when we came up with our first idea of building a peer-to-peer marketplace is how you would call nowadays so where you know you can book local tour guides in different places or you could be a tour guide yourself so that was the initial idea.
Tao Tao: Um, but that we later then pivoted into much more of a professional marketplace where the idea of being um of of having guided travel and connecting travelers to the local destination still held except that we connected you to um, professional providers for travel experiences.
Alejandro Cremades: So you ended up taking this. You know it was time to launch you guys even went to to an event and it sounds like the reaction was a like field with skepticism. You know you even had the Ceo of companies like bookings.com or or or other people saying that it was a terrible idea. Ah why.
Tao Tao: So in in hindsight you can you can always say why they were wrong, but but back then and this is remember this is two thousand maybe ten I think 2011 so we just launched our first version of the new professional marketplace where we connected. Ah, professional travel experience providers and and creators such as you know river rafting providers or some bus tours or attractions with traveller. So when we launched that very first product. Um, the reaction was this market is super fragmented. It’s actually too fragmented. Um, and this is a market that will always stay offline so that was the reaction obviously a statement like some markets being offline some markets being online is a very sounds very ah early two thousand s as a statement but but that was a prevading notion back then and so people thought this is too fragmented. It’s too difficult to aggregate. Um, and this is a part of the market that will always stay offline and I think this was the big one people always thought that travel experiences will always be an add-on product. So. It’s always an add-on to hotels and add-on to flights and we we obviously held a very different different belief. We. We always thought that. The reason you travel is for the experiences. The reason you travel is not to sit you know in in a low costst airline and and sleeping in a 3 star hotel and getting this amazing ah breakfast. Um, but it’s read for for the for the travel experiences.
Alejandro Cremades: So for the people that are listening. You know to really get it. What ended up being the business model of get your guide. How are you guys making money.
Tao Tao: So the the way we work and and I think there’s ah, there’s a fun story there of how we transformed and and actually did the pivot from this peer-to-pe marketplace of the professional marketplace. So when we did this peer-to-peer marketplace which ah when we launched it we had I think 3 bookings in 1 year and and 2 of them were from our parents so it didn’t just didn’t work and however what happened is we? We suddenly had a um, a professional vendor a professional experience creator that did river rafting in Switzerland just sign up and then asked us where they could wire the money for the listing fee and so. You know, obviously we were all we were the were 5 founders of us we were economists two molecular biologists and 2 electric engineers. So we didn’t really know travel industry and we then did some research and realized okay, there’s actually this huge market of professional experience creators around the world and and then we should really. Tech of this market instead of the call it amateur you know I give you a walk through in the afternoon market. So. There’s a huge market for professional experience creators around the world and so that’s how we then pivoted into that model and we’ve had this model for the last fourteen years and the business model is that for every successful booking. We take a share of the revenue that we help facilitate for those experienced creators.
Alejandro Cremades: So also in in in this case, you know what was the um, how do you guys go about fundraising I mean I guess before we even go about that. How much capital have you guys raised late.
Tao Tao: So we’ve raised a couple hundred millions to date over the last. Yeah I would say for 15 years and yeah fundraising I mean this was um, it was tough so you know ah take I take you back again to 2009 2010 Switzerland you know this was not. Silicon Valley today or this was not. You know Ah maybe Berlin in in the 2020 s so in 2009? Um b two c startup ah really wasn’t a thing in in Europe at least at least not in Zurig and certainly not to the degree that it is today and and so we really struggled to to raise money. So fortunately, we actually raised some money from a local business angel who built his own travel business and we raised some money. Um, funnily from the local Zirk cantonel bank because they had a small ah venture seed arm. To help local businesses and promote local startups. So. That’s how we raise our first you know, hundred Thousand two hundred Thousand swiss rings and then we got going from there and then later on when we really had to scale the business because the thing with travel is. Unless you go for global scale. Um, it doesn’t really work so so in in a way from day one we knew we had to go global and and so that’s when we tried to raise money first in europe and I think every single venture capitalists every single Vc in Europe said no um, didn’t believe that we could build a global.
Tao Tao: Champion um, out of Berlin and that’s when we had to go overseas and and race from americans.
Alejandro Cremades: I mean it’s a pretty amazing what you guys have done on the capital racing side I mean I even see that last year you guys announced the last round actually which was a close to 200000000 at a $2000000000 valuation which is a remarkable I guess in this case, you know for you. What have you seen like for example, like the the european market evolving a little bit when it comes to seeing more like looking at startup investments.
Tao Tao: Certainly so I think think I think what’s what’s changed um is you now have a crop of a cohort of european companies that are not limiting themselves to being successful in europe or or being successful in their home country because um. You know ajandro and you know this but but Europe is obviously is is a mix of many many countries and and sometimes you have businesses are just strong in one country there’ are some businesses that may be pan-europan. But now now you have a cohort of companies that is trying to take the world and starting with the western hemisphere. And and trying to be market leader not only in Europe but also also in the us. So I think that level of ambition. Um, and vision is definitely something that has emerged in the last ten years and you you have ah you have a host of european companies spotify and and others. Um that have done that and you know we’re very much. Um, on that journey as well. So I think that’s that’s 1 thing that’s definitely changed.
Alejandro Cremades: I mean there’s a lot of people now listening that they maybe they’re in Europe and they also they’re thinking about raising money from us investors. What would you say are the main differences. You know that you have encountered from. Let’s say the us type of profile of an investor compared to the european. Profile of an investor.
Tao Tao: I think couple years ago there might have been a difference nowadays capital has become so globalized that it’s it’s even hard to tell apart the european vcs from the american vc so um, a lot of american vcs have now european outposts or or offices and they. Hire european folks. Um, likewise you have v vcs that hire american um investment professionals. So I think at this point um, it’s it’s become very mashed um and that it’s actually hard to tell the difference anymore. Um, and I will say there’s been also growing up by the european vcs. In that I think european vcs now are daring to think much much bigger as well. So as so remember in two thousand and eleven twelve and we were pitching some of the european frankly german vcs you know people were asking us for 3 hree -year cash flow projections when we were still trying to find product market fit. So. I think that that narrative and that expectation setting has also changed. Um for the better in european vc so at this point I think you know taking taking money from european vcs is is as good as taking from american vc.
Alejandro Cremades: So also for the people that are listening to really get an understanding here on the scope and size of get your guide anything that you can share that you feel comfortable Maybe number of employees or anything else.
Tao Tao: Yeah, so we have about 8 Eight nine hundred employees you know in in 17 offices around the world. Um, we have to this point had more than 120000000 bookings over the lifetime of the business and and very very much the market eater. Um, in the space that we define as travel experiences.
Alejandro Cremades: So when you have all these employees um culture is everything right? and and and I know that for you guys, you know it was a journey to really define it and to shape it up. So why was that the case.
Tao Tao: So when we were just 5 founders of us in Zurich and we then back then made the decision that um, we we needed an outpost or a second location where we could scale with operational sales and marketing folks. And we knew that Zurich wasn’t going to be the place because it was just too expensive and so we picked Berlin and so so I went to Berlin and we started to hire people and then around that time we read this book. Um, called delivering happiness by Tony Shay the late Tony Shay um about culture.
Alejandro Cremades: Yeah, okay.
Tao Tao: And and we thought hey that’s a good idea we should. We should do something about culture and you know obviously 1 thing that you do as an early founder is you ah rashly try to learn and and you know copy and imitate and so what we did. We just did a Google search um, found a couple of cultures that we liked. You know I don’t know Amazon and and couple other companies and and took some of the best principles of of core values mesh it up created a best off printed out put it on the wall and said these are now our 10 core values so we did that and it was course of a total failure. Um, people said you know. We didn’t live those values or they weren’t authentic and it was just a mess and that’s when we learned that you know culture is this is one of those areas where you you shouldn’t copy and cannot imitate because the culture is is fundamentally. You know who you are in your best version so to speak right? so. You know, not everybody will live live up to all values myself included every day but in the best version of ourselves we we do and and that’s when we did an exercise that was quite fun where we got together as an leadership team and um and one of the coaches who facilitate that session and I highly recommend that method is. He said okay now all of you like worth 5 or 6 of us said you know, um, all of you now imagine the 3 or 4 best people in your company if if you could clone these 3 or 4 people who are they and just write down their names. Okay, so we did and there was a huge overlap between the names we wrote. So.
Tao Tao: We basically all wrote the same 3 4 people um that we would. We would have loved to clone in the company and then they said okay now write down the trades and characteristics and from that infer some of the core values of your business and and so that was a really really good process so taking some examples where we totally agreed on. And from that infer what? ah some of the core behaviors and therefore core values of the business. Obviously we we did a couple of iterations from there but that’s when we then wrote down those values and then it really worked because people could see that we actually have real role models in the business who live those values and that those will be values that. Can make you successful in the business make you successful to grow your career in the company. Um, and also you know, just just really work as an operating system.
Alejandro Cremades: So what you say Ah you have 80900 employees and now you also have this culture and these values that you guys are living by how do you make sure that culture doesn’t break because I mean you guys have grown very quickly. You have. Tons of employees. So how do you make sure that you have that level of consistency and alignment throughout the organization.
Tao Tao: Yeah, so you know we’re big fans of of process um to help build the culture. It sounds counterintuitive. But I think ultimately that’s the way to go the the obvious starting point is during hiring so we have a very rigorous multi-stage hiring process. Where um culture is tested for so we have ah interview questions. We have interview stages that are entirely geared around culture. So That’s one um, the other one is we make um, culture and and behaviors of our culture part of performance reviews. Right? It’s It’s not the entire performance review and and results is a big part. Um, but leadership and collaboration and and culture. Ah big parts of the performance review and I think last but not least it’s about role modeling. So You know if if there are people who really you know live the culture and are role models for the culture. You know we we show that to the company and and we tell people you know these are cultural role models and we reward them Publicly. So I think there are different ways you can institute um, institute processes that reinforce that culture and I think last but Unli is also you know sometimes um if people don’t fit the culture. That you also part ways with them even if they are from a results perspective Very strong performers. Um and and look I think there is no right or wrong culture right? So if someone doesn’t fit your culture I think there is no judgment I mean just take the extreme example you have investment banks probably have a very different culture than.
Tao Tao: Ah, ngos then tech companies then us and 1 tech company may have a very different culture than another one. So I don’t think there’s a right or wrong culture. But um, if you have a culture then you need to know what it is and that some people fit or or maybe don’t fit in your culture.
Alejandro Cremades: So We’re talking about people. We’re talking about investors earlier. So I Want to ask you a question in this regard. Imagine you were to go to sleep tonight and you wake up in a world where the vision of get your guide is fully realized. What does that world look like.
Tao Tao: Well first of all I think I think it’s ah I think it’s I think it’s a it’s gonna be a very ah desirable world to live in. Um, so at the core of our mission is is to help unlock unforgettable trouble experience and and guide everybody to moments of wonder. Um, where they can bring their passions to life. So maybe I start from the traveler side. Um, there’s a saying that you know lots of people say travel is my passion but I think what they’re really trying to say is that they travel for their passions. So you know to our point earlier. Nobody’s passion is to. Sit in a non-reclining sea for 7 hours right? That’s not the passion. The the passion is when you land when you wake up in the morning leave your hotel room and explore that place right? I think I think and then whether you are coffee aficionao like myself and I was recently in Vietnam I did like this you know, ah coffee coffee with egg. A workshop or whether you’re a historic but reb buff or a nature lover and you do some exploration. So I think being able to help everybody connect with their passions when they travel um and not have them. You know lose out and just stay in their hotel room and not being able. Like yohannes back then just being adrift or or being lost so really connecting travelers with the places of of their travel and really maximize their their trips I think that’s our vision for for the traveler side and I think equally important on the creator side. So for our experience. Creator.
Tao Tao: That we can become that main catalyst for the experience economy where every entrepreneur with an idea ah to bring a certain experience to life can do that on on, get your guide and that’s that’s really what we think is about guide to travel that we you know guide travel through these passions. Ah innovation and human connections. And really unlock that experience. Economy.
Alejandro Cremades: So I’m gonna put you now into a time machine tow and today I’m gonna bring you back in time I’m gonna bring you back in time to 2009 and you know’s that moment where you are. You know, still brainstorming about you know what’s possible a world where you can bring a solution to a problem that you’re encountering and let’s say you know you’re able to have a sit down with that younger self that is starting to think about what would perhaps launching a business look like let’s say you’re able to. Have a sit down with that younger self maybe in one of those beer gardens there in Germany and and you’re able to give that younger tow one piece of advice before launching a business. What would that be on why now being almost fifteen years in with get your guide.
Tao Tao: 1 piece of advice. So there’s many pieces. But if there’s one piece. Um I would give is to be an infinite learner. Um, and because ultimately infinite learning. Is something that just enables everything and especially as an entrepreneur. The only superpower you have versus incumbents is that you learn faster grow faster change faster. Um, and that means you have to learn learn faster and that’s really the starting point. So. To be an infinite learner would be my main vice.
Alejandro Cremades: So for the people that are listening tow I will love to reach out and say hi. What is the best way for them to do so well easy enough. Well tow. Thank you so much for being on the deal maker show today. It has been an honor to have you with us.
Tao Tao: Linkedin.
Tao Tao: Thank you so much for having me.
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