From early 2000 until 2013, I helped to build VirtualTourist into one of the best, biggest and most pioneering sites on the web. I’m proud of my work at VT though it was definitely a roller coaster ride. Kind of the classic “guys in a garage” story. VirtualTourist was one of the first sites to champion user-generated content for travel and made it possible for you to get information from real people before anyone was really doing it. In July of 2008, we were acquired by TripAdvisor and whole new journey began.
During my time at VirtualTourist, we were named “A Site That Changed Our World”, by one of the UK’s most respected papers, The Guardian. We were featured in Time, Newsweek, The Times of London, Travel and Leisure, to name just a few sources and won many industry awards including Magellan’s Gold Medal, the W3 awards. In 2013, we were nominated for PR Week Global Campaign of the Year.
My nephew is in college now and as one of his projects he decided to interview me about VirtualTourist, its history, the ups and downs, internet start ups, advice and lessons learned. I figured it might be of interest to other folks.
Q: Tell Me About VT’s History. How Did it Start?
Giampiero: Well, the URL, VirtualTourist started in 1994 as a project at the University of Buffalo. In those days, it was just a world map showing all of the internet servers in the world. You can imagine how early that was due to the fact that you could still show all the servers on a map! Word is that it was the first clickable map on the web, though I say definitively that’s the case. That version, was the first webpage that a couple of German Computer Science students, Tilman Reissfelder, and Thorsten Kalkbrenner at the University of Karlsruhe ever saw. It was the start page for computer science departments in a lot of places in those days and fairly well known in a small circle of internet enthusiasts. Well, in I think 1997 or maybe 1998, Tilman and Thorsten saw that the URL, VirtualTourist was up for sale and they decided that it would be an interesting adventure to grab the URL and try to do something cool with it. That was about the only idea, then. In those days people were starting to get excited about the internet, but most people didn’t really do much with it yet. So those guys bought the URL with the idea of making something travel and user generated related. The idea was that you could ask people to give their favorite links and advice and organize a kind of user generated travel advice site. It was embryonic for sure, but that was the idea which formed the kernel of VT and of user generated internet sites for travel in general. By 1999, Tilman and Thorsten had a site with a few hundred city locations with travel links that people could add to and which would reference their user profiles. The links would get ranked by anyone and then resorted overnight with “movers and shakers” and so forth. The links were organized into Hotels, Restaurants, Things to Do etc. The site was doing about 1.5 million page views per month from about 500,000 unique visitors. The site was already on it’s way. Later in 1999 Tilman and Thorsten met J.R. Johnson who was an attorney at the time. He was visiting Germany to attend a conference and got interested in the initial idea. They decided to raise some money, join forces, and give this burgeoning internet start up thing a go. They moved to the US, pulled together about $200k from family and friends and went to work on launching a beta.
Q. How Did You Get Involved?
Giampiero: Since about 1993/4 I was using the internet daily as part of my job working on investigative documentaries for NHK which is like Japan’s BBC. We’d talk with experts on obscure topics like plant genetic engineering or space debris and you’d only get one shot at an interview or info call, so I was using the internet to email for papers, ask a question, do research etc. We even used it to get location photos etc. It all seemed very arcane and technical at the time. People used ‘pine’ for email, and the very first browser “Mosaic” was just being used with baby steps. It was all very confusing, but thrilling. I remember spending a long time trying to figure where to put a “URL” in the browser. Plus on dial up, it took forever and stuff failed constantly. But the bug had bitten me and I resolved that I wanted to do something in the internet and see where it would go.
The Inside Scoop
In 1999 I went to work for an internet start up that became the poster child for the first internet bubble in LA. It was called Digital Entertainment Network or Den.net. At DEN I had the idea for a travel site that we were then calling “The Inside Scoop.” It was based on the idea that instead of having to get information about places from editors and experts, the internet could actually put you in touch with locals and could give you the inside scoop from a word on the street perspective. It was based on the idea of: Where do you want to go? What do you want to do? Who do you want to meet? Along with this I had recruited some travelers for a feature I called, “Travel Addict.” For this, I gave some adventurous 20-something travelers Sony Mavicas and sent them on crazy trips. They were supposed to take photos, and keep a log, and send us updates via internet cafes along the way. One guy was biking the entire length of the Trans Canada highway from Victoria, British Columbia to New Foundland. Another was going on a backpacking surf safari across Indonesia. Another was doing a historical trek across the ancient world…Greece, Turkey, Asia Minor. The Sony Mavica was a huge boxy camera with floppy disks that took crappy photos, but it was the first inexpensive consumer digital. That’s incredible, what a relatively short time ago it was and how quickly technology moves. I mean in those days only a little more than 10 years ago, NO ONE except professional photographers and broadcast news agencies had digital cameras and the ability to update ‘live’. So we would plot these “Travel Addicts” course on a map and they would send photos and travelogues in from the road. That was pretty exciting at the time, though now, it’s hard to imagine that the basic concept of a travel blog was so new and interesting. Like dispatches from the jungle. Anyway, we were building this “Inside Scoop” site when one of the researchers at Den.net showed me a beta site that had just launched some initial functionality. It was VirtualTourist. That was pretty cool, and right up our alley, so we invited Thorsten and J.R. Johnson to come down to one of the den offices and we talked about how we could work together. But, before we could really get rolling, the internet went south. A few months and 100 million dollars later, it all came crashing down for den.net. Convinced that we were on to something, I talked with J.R. and Thorsten and I came over to work with the VT team, though there was almost no money and we were running against the clock.
Q. You said the Internet Bubble Burst. How did that affect VT?
Giampiero: As I recall I went to VT in May 2000 and a couple of months later, VT was hit by the bubble burst too. What few advertisers existed went away and we had to close up shop. We gave up our small office on 6th and Wilshire and Tilman and I moved into a crappy apartment up the street. We moved the machines into that apartment and for the next two years, Tilman and I ran the site out of the apartment. We redesigned the site adding in most of the functionality – some of which survives up until today. J.R. took a job doing some consulting for a German video game company. It was definitely a trying and very depressing time…running up credit card debt, hustling, working hard, and trying to get something going while constantly taking hits. All around the whole internet world was imploding. We had no money, and we’d go to Coffee Bean on 11th and Wilshire, and linger for hours over a cheap cup of coffee and literally write stuff out on napkins. We’d stay up all night working, and watching the Simpsons whenever it came on 3 times a day. When you don’t have a dime, it’s all the entertainment you can come up with. Then September 11, 2001 happened, and it looked like the entire world would stop traveling forever. One of the household name travel booking sites offered us $50,000 for all assets. At the time, it was almost an attractive offer. But we persevered. In a way it was one of the best times because Tilman and I would brainstorm and work on something and by the evening or the next day it was ready to launch.
Back in the Saddle Again
Little by little we started getting traction. The community was growing and we were engaging with them, working collaboratively, and working out a lot of the issues that today seem standard. How does a forum work or get moderated? What’s the implicit understanding between a site and the contributors? We started making a little money when Thorsten got the idea to get GoTo to let us put their search ads within content. This was a very novel concept and one that was not embraced at the time. GoTo became Overture, and Overture was bought by Yahoo. The model proved lucrative and is what powered Google’s tremendous revenue growth in the early days (and largely still does to today). It wasn’t too long after that, that we were able to get back into an office – initially just a couple of rooms – and eventually a whole floor of a building. Traffic grew, the community grew, and we were poised for great things. I was pretty eager to continue innovating and moving VT forward but I think this is where the momentum didn’t accelerate as quickly as I would have liked. My own personal interest was always in VT, travel content, interesting features, and editorial projects, but instead we ending up focusing on projects that were not in my opinion, core to VT. The decision was made to focus on a local merchant program that was over complicated and for which folks were not yet ready; we spent a bunch of time and effort on a travel auction site that didn’t pan out; and dedicated a bunch of time, effort, and resources to a site that was created out of VT called Onetime.com. It still exists and is a meta search for flights and hotels. We also spent a lot of time and effort creating paper, real world travel guides, and also a travel deals project. What all this did was take focus off of VT – where personally I think it should have been razor focused. Unfortunately, the company also got embroiled in a lawsuit, related to discussions for the acquisition of VT, which I think J.R. has said taught him to carefully read agreements. It’s really crucial to get all of this right, and can be a big misstep because it just sucks up so much time, energy, and enthusiasm. It really took a lot of wind out of our sails and took focus off of VirtualTourist at a time when I think we were poised to see bigger strides forward. Still VT was growing and was really focused on extreme dedication to quality content, people behind the places, and a truly special and deep connection to the community. By 2006 though, I was feeling very adamantly that it was time to refocus on VirtualTourist and start a whole new cycle of innovation and development. We resolved to get rolling and hired a product manager to help us execute on the ideas we were developing. Instead he got pulled off of that along with VT’s resources and we started a cycle of chasing social media projects based on maps, apps, and other non-core pieces. By October of 2007, we were getting a ton of interest from acquirers – we were getting new interested parties probably every day. So in December of 2007 we decided we’d hear some offers. TripAdvisor made the most sense – and I personally advocated for this outcome – and we were acquired in July of 2008. I stayed on to run VirtualTourist for TripAdvisor, thrilled that I’d get the chance to see through a new era of development and innovation at VT. Tilman Reissfelder decided he would take a break for a while, get married, start a family and travel. He lives part of the time and Germany and part of the time in the Philippines and is working on some new projects. J.R. Johnson kept pursuing the project he was working on from 2006 with the team he assembled as a parallel project to VT. That team didn’t actually work on VT, but formed the core of J.R.’s new company, Lunch.com, and then his next company Gotoguru.com and finally Trippy.com. Those never really got off the ground, and most of the team left, but they’re continuing to work on it.
VT Now and The Future
As part of the TripAdvisor media group, VT runs VERY independently. TripAdvisor have definitely walked the walk. I mean when you talk to acquirers they all say, “you’ll be independent…blah blah blah”, but TripAdvisor meant it and followed through. After all it’s what has worked for them and continues to work for them. We’re encouraged to take risks, act independently and we don’t seek out fake synergies. We’re basically running more independently than before but with a wealth of talent, expertise and experience as a resource. I have a lot of respect for the people I’ve met and work with starting right from the top. It’s definitely made me a better thinker and better at executing efficiently and intelligently. VT has been growing, we’ve started launching a whole new cycle of innovation – moving into new technology areas and developing the next generation of user generated content. It’s mostly still under wraps, but the future will bring crucial innovations that I think play most strongly to VirtualTourist’s key strengths – Quality of content, trust, and the best advice around.
Q: What Are Some Lessons You Learned? What Advice Would You Give?
Giampiero: For sure the biggest lessons for me are that you need to be passionate, but that passion needs to be disciplined and focused. You need to always stay focused on your goals and drive towards them. Don’t get swayed by some new buzzword, or an article that’s getting sent around that conference attendees all seem to be parroting. Always deliver the core concept of a product, quickly, and efficiently, respond to measurable feedback and quickly iterate. Don’t spend years brainstorming and making false starts. Go! Be! Do! Don’t let leaders surround themselves with yes-men. Listen to people who don’t agree. The best solution is always the one that comes from tough questioning and good ideas from a variety of sources. You need people asking, will it really work? Also it takes hard headed analysis to come up with the best solution. What will effect the most people the most? Not what do you think would be a really cool feature just for super advanced users. That’s what you want to aim for in a website like ours. Also, it’s useless to come up with an idea that presupposes that you’ll have 90% of the people who see it, sign up for it. That just doesn’t happen. The learning keeps happening everyday. That’s why it’s still fun. It’s been an interesting ride, sometimes hard, sometimes frustrating, and sometimes exhilarating, but I wouldn’t swap it for anything.
The website of Giampiero Ambrosi