As we put the finishing touches on our very first monthly investor update, it reminded me: we just survived our first month.
Something that every startup team can relate to: the to-do list never gets shorter, a lot of them are things you would have never done before, and the only way to work through it all is by being organised and pace ourselves. So for our first month, our focus has been on the following three key buckets (not in any particular order):
The boring (but unfortunately important) things like finalising our legal documents, applying for a business bank account (which we have discovered is now a very long and painful process in Hong Kong), and setting up an accounting system;
The more fun stuff like working with our new UX/UI designer to design a brand new website landing page that better reflects the spirit of pebblar going forward – simplicity and utility; and
The super exciting work of finalising the design for our very first full app (pebblar 1.0) and getting the development process started! We definitely got our work cut out for us as we work towards a pre-Christmas release deadline.
Unmistakably, our daily lives are increasingly centred around the mobile and it is only logical that we plan our trips on our mobile while sitting on a bus or sitting on the couch watching TV.
Whilst there are plenty of “trip planning tools” out there, almost all of them focus on suggested contents and inspirations (as opposed to simplifying the trip planning process). In addition, almost all of the mobile trip planning apps out there are direct 1-1 conversions of their respective web platform.
Pebblar 1.0 will seeks to streamline and simplify the DIY trip planning process rather than providing inspirations and recommendations.
Pebblar 1.0 will not be a simple conversion of our desktop tool but rather a mobile app designed from the grounds-up for mobile trip planning.
In designing pebblar 1.0, we are following two guiding principles with the uttermost discipline:
SLC not MVP.
There have been many articles and discussions on MVP (Minimum Viable Product) vs SLC (Simple Loveable Complete). As a team, we didn’t wanted pebblar 1.0 to be a MVP with lots of half-baked, incomplete features, we wanted to deliver a SLC – a purposefully simple, genuinely useful and function-wise complete product that delivers true utility.
To put it simply, we rather give people the best skateboard there is rather than a crappy car that falls apart.
Our core focus is on delivering real utility to our users. So, with every function we include or not include, we always ask ourselves (and each other): is this something useful to a DIY trip planner on the go? How is that need being fulfilled right now?
We want pebblar 1.0 to be a truly practical and useful trip planning app but still simple to use.
So, for all the DIY travellers out there, who don’t want automated “inspirations” and actually enjoy the process of working out what to do, where to eat and what to see, we have designed pebblar 1.0 specifically for you. We hope to enable you to create your own unique trips with your own notes anywhere you are, with ease.
As most of you may know, up until now, pebblar has been somewhat a hobby project for Andrew and I. The journey started a couple of years ago out of pure frustration with having to use excel/docs/email to plan trips.
Over the last several months, we have reached a crossroads – without any paid marketing, pebblar now has almost 3500 subscribers and that means Andrew and I had a decision to make – keep pebblar as a side project or go out there and really have a go at making this tool which we both love and now rely on for our travels into a real business. After months of brainstorming on the possible paths forward, we chose the latter.
Deciding to have a real go at this wasn’t a decision we made alone – we have tested the water with friends who are users and/or potential investors with a business proposal we have spent almost half year to put together. The amount of support and positive feedback we received was both overwhelmingly encouraging and humbling.
We wanted and needed outside validation so we decided to do an angel round capital raise. We reached out to close friends who we knew, aside from their financial support, would also be great mentors and partners on this long and difficult journey we are about to embark upon. The most amazing part of this was, ALL OF THEM said “YES” (one even introduced a new strategic investor to us).
So, I quit my job and ended a 10 year career in finance. In the same week, we found our CTO – a position Andrew and I have kept vacant because we did not want to just hire any one and we knew when the time comes, the right candidate would appear, and he did. Introducing to you all our third founding member: John. Now the founding team is complete.
As most people would tell you, investing in startups, especially early stage startups, it is largely investing in the founders and their abilities to execute and adapt. So, I want to take a moment and thank all of our investors for taking that giant leap of faith to go on this journey with us.
Our official start date is 1 October 2017 and it has been a super busy 10 days – from trying to open a business bank account and being told it is a very difficult and painful process in Hong Kong, working up legal documents while trying to minimize our legal expense, to working on delivering our development goal of releasing our first fully editable app by year end. Things are definitely getting real and moving fast.
While Andrew, John and I are all super pumped, I am not going to lie, it is also a tad scary. It is our first startup and we are trying to create a tool that really has not been done before in a segment of the travel industry where, for better or worse, no one has managed to gain real scale.
So we decided to keep a journal and record every step of our journey – the pebblar story. Different to most development blogs you may have read before, we are not going to write about “lessons learned” or “advice to startups”, we just want to keep a diary of our progresses, keeping it real and genuine. You are all invited to go on this journey with us to read about our challenges and growth first hand and in realtime and if you are willing, share with us your advice and experiences.
I recently came back from a 6 day trip to Turkey. A week before our departure, yet another terrorist attack took place – this time it was a suicide bombing in a central shopping street killing at least five people. This attack was the fourth bombing in Turkey in 2016 alone. Suffice to say, the idea of maybe cancelling the trip definitely came up, but it also quickly went away. I think for the most part, I didn’t want to let the terrorists win and have them rule and ruin my travel plans. So we went, and I am very glad we did.
The Cappadocia hot air balloon ride has been on my bucket list for many years now and I still remember that one late night while working late in the office, my colleague and I googled images for Cappadocia and we both went ”wow“ (we were trying to make ourselves feel better about the long night of work ahead of us). That image has been stuck in my head ever since. So finally the time has come, I wasn’t going to let anything get in my way. On the day of our hot air balloon ride, the weather god gave us his blessing and up we went (the 2 days before both had strong wind so all rides were cancelled). It was every bit as beautiful as I had imagined in my head.
While the hot air balloon ride was the most memorable part of the trip, another thought stuck with me and it was something that became more and more apparent as our trip went on – Turkey’s tourism industry and more importantly all of those everyday people whose livelihood depended on it have been severely affected. We saw empty hotels and restaurants everywhere we went and I couldn’t help but feel heavy-hearted.
In a recent Wall Street Journal article, it has been reported that bookings for this summer are down 40% from last year and hotel occupancy rates have plunged more than half. Hundreds of hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, and boutique resorts have been put up for sale. The string of attacks were followed by a number of countries issuing travel warnings to their citizens, understandably so of course. But for a country where tourism accounts for more than 4% of the national GDP and employs more than one million people, seeing a middle-aged restaurant owner lining up tables in his empty restaurant has reminded me that these everyday hard working people are also victims of terrorism.
I am also seen dozens of questions being posted on Quora asking if it would be safe to go to Turkey (or Europe), I wanted to share my own feeling on this:
I would be lying if I said I had no hesitation, but it was only for a brief moment. In reality, I felt perfectly safe when I was there, and of course we still paid attention to our surroundings but one should do that no matter where you go. Terrible things can happen anywhere, anytime – accidents, shootings, attacks, natural disasters, diseases; while we should definitely practice all the right precautions and be safe we should not let those things rule or ruin our lives.
I also want to quote some of my favorite comments from the various Quora responses on this question:
“While a terrorist attack attracts total media coverage, the 34 deaths in Brussels, as terrible and tragic as they certainly are, are hardly a blip. Chicago, a city that I visit often, had 43 murders and 160 shootings in February 2016. In my sedate little state of Minnesota, the daily newspapers are filled with stories of automobile deaths and random shootings. I have made plans to spend some time in Europe as I do every year. I plan to fly into one of the major airports and leave from another and I know that the most dangerous thing in the whole trip will be the taxi ride to the airport. Here’s what I think. CNN, Fox, MSNBC, with their wall-to-wall coverage of every terror incident in any OECD country have contributed to a feeling of dread. I will visit Paris this year as I did last year and will not be expecting a random act of terrorism.” – Thomas Johnson
“No place on Earth is 100% safe. Also, media tends to blow risks way, way out of proportion. Yes, there were recent terror attacks. Yes, some people died or were injured. AND, YES, something bad could happen. It could also happen in your hometown. You cannot live your life in fear, or you truly will miss out. In most of western Europe you are far safer than in most US cities. In excess of 40 million tourists visit France every year, and the vast, vast majority of them have nothing bad happen.” – John Miele
Lastly, to end this blog on a happier note – here are more photos from my trip.
So, 2 years ago a friend of mine told me some people she knows are thinking about visiting a Casino in Pyongyang, North Korea. Yes, a casino in North Korea. I personally had no interest in gambling but I have been wanting to go and see North Korea with my own eyes for quite some time now and I thought this was the perfect opportunity for me to finally do it and I may get to see a little bit more (or different things) than a typical tour group.
Suffice to say it was a once in a life time trip and for better or worse, it was definitely one of the most memorable trips I’ve been on. Below is a list of things I want to highlight and share with you all (whether you are planning to go there at some point or not):
I was quite curious what a “casino” would be like in North Korea, but when I saw it, it is really just a few slot machines and a couple of tables. The few nights we were there, I didn’t see any activity. and you cant take photos inside the casino
There is a massive water park in Pyongyang where people actually go (Well I saw people there as you can see in the pictures below though I really cannot be certain if people there were part of the propaganda or real visitors; our guide was telling us he takes his son there regularly)
Ticket prices have two categories: local or foreigner and I remember there was quite a bit of a gap between the two
It had an indoor area and an outdoor area, gift shop and a hair salon for both men and women
The hair salon had two big pictures on the wall showing all the hair styles you can choose from! Stylish!
A picture of the gift shop/ waterpark store where you can buy all your swimming stuff!
3. Pyongyang has modern buildings and taxi’s
As we drove into the city centre, I was amazed to see quite a few really modern looking buildings (like the one in the picture below) in Pyongyang. Not quite sure what was in all those buildings but have to say, they definitely looked the part.
There are also taxi’s driving around the city which according to our guide, people actually use. Though I am not sure if they were instructed to say that
Picture of a taxi
4. Blue sky
Before I went, I had this image of a grey looking place (not quite sure why but I think most of us had that mental image so when we went and saw the blue sky we were all pleasantly surprised); but come to think about it, it has very very little industrial activity, so why wouldn’t the sky be blue and clean? lol
5. China during the Cultural Revolution Era
So one of the main reasons why I have been wanting to see North Korea is because I have been told that it is “just like China during the Culture Revolution”, and my parents were the generation that was most affected during that period of time in China so naturally growing up I have heard many many stories about what it was like back then. In some indirect way, I guess it also affected the way my parents raised me starting from the fact that they chose to migrate to Australia when I was young. So for me it was the closest I could get to get a feel of what it was like, however little it would be
So was it? Based on the stories my parents told me, the numerous Chinese TV shows about that era I have watched, I have to say, it was more or less right. The most telling part was the language they used. My guide spoke amazing Chinese, not only was he fluent, he also spoke just like how people did during the Chinese Culture Revolution. I was amazed.
6. Devotion to their leader
This would seem particularly crazy to the rest of us living in the free world
So this is what I saw, we went and visited a number of monuments and museums while we were there and each time we saw any of the Kim (II-sung; Jong-il or Jong-un) statues, we would need to bow so we bowed a lot. During our visit to the International Friendship Exhibition where it showcases all the presents North Korea has ever received from foreign dignitaries (International Friendship Exhibition), in one of the rooms we saw this group of middle-aged women who were crying when they walked past one of the Kim’s statues. It wasn’t just a tear on the cheek, they were all bawling their eyes out.
Now tell me if that doesn’t seem crazy to you, given how the rest of the free world feels about North Korean leaders. Moreover, when was the last time you can recall the ordinary citizens have that much devotion and emotionally attachment towards any one of their political leaders.
Picture of the International Exhibition Hall
7. You can take photos
Based on all the photos in my answer, I guess it is obvious now visitors can take photos but only in areas where your guide tell you it is okay to take photos.
8. Tourists eat quite well
As much as the country as a whole may be short of food, as tourists, you will definitely be fed. We actually ate really well
9. People are starting to realise maybe the outside world is not as what they have been told
Our guide for example grew up in Beijing because his dad was a driver for a one of the consulate officials and he was saying now with more and more tourists coming in, people (though small group) are starting to see and hear things from the outside world and I think most of them do realise it is probably a bit different to what they have been told by their government
10. Guides and drivers are very careful where they take us and what they tell us
Our guide got really worried when some people in the group did not follow their instructions properly and they were careful in answering our millions of questions. He was a really friendly guy but it was clear a lot of the things were propaganda talk.
Here are some more pictures:
A show we saw
That famous building which took forever to build
The view from top floor restaurant at the Yanggako Hotel
I took almost a year off work several years ago. I was laid off during the GFC so I decided it was the perfect time for me to pack up and travel. So I did. I packed everything and just left (Melbourne was home for me at the time) and started a journey that changed my life and me as a person.
For all of you who have thought about it but have yet to pull the trigger, I understand your reservations (almost everyone feels that way) but I think most people who have done it will tell you if you are worried about getting a job again, you shouldn’t. If you are employable now, 12 months is not going to make any difference. If anything, the personal growth you will go through during that 12 months, will probably make you more employable!
In terms of what to do after you return, why decide that now? You have a whole year to decide that, and honestly there is no better way to figure that out than travelling on your own for an extended period of time.
Now, next and the more important question — where to go?
Short answer is everywhere. Long answer is you need to consider the following factors (I will also weave in some of my most memorable places):
1. When is the best time to go to for the different parts of the world?
Since you have a year to explore the world, then i would plan it around the best time to go for each region. You may need to research the details but the key things to watch out for is summer vs winter destinations, wet vs dry seasons. I can offer some suggestions here：
Scandinavia is good for both summer and winter (i did a very similar trip in summer than winter again and i was amazed both times).
You can see the Northern Light in winter and there is nowhere like Iceland.
Driving in Iceland was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
Winter is almost all dark in Scandinavia, quite a unique experience
There are also a number of ice hotels you can try! I did one night in Ice Hotel in Sweden, quite a cool experience.
Go in summer and go hiking in Norway! This photo was taken at Trolltunga (a 22km hike), totally worth it! I recommend you go in early summer before the snow is fully melted because mountains are always prettier when it is capped by a thin layer of snow. Also it will make it easier to hike when the snow has melted a bit.
Seljalandsfoss in Iceland (winter vs summer — you can go behind the waterfall in summer!)
Australia and New Zealand — I would suggest you go in summer. Australia (I grew up in Australia) is definitely a summer destination. New Zealand is best for hiking and adrenalin sports so I would recommend it as a summer destination. I just went there for Christmas and did some amazing hikes there. Focus your time on Queenstown and the nearby towns (Milford Sound, Wanaka etc). Should try to allocate ~2 week per country.
South America — Best to go during the dry season. South America is huge and i have only been to a few of the countries with Chile being on the top of my bucket list. If you haven’t done so already, definitely do the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, do the 4 day / 3 night one not the day trip since you have time. It is not that physically demanding so don’t worry about that if you are. You can spend 2 days in Cusco (the starting point before the hike) to acclimatize and also well worth your time!
Asia — Asia is big and I am going to say each country is very unique so very hard to give a generalised recommendation. I have lived in Asia for the last 6 years and travelled to almost every country in the region. I am going to mention one in particular — Japan is a must go, the food, culture and scenary, it is probably the most unique place to visit in Asia and you will taste some of the best tasting and meticulously presented food in the world. I would probably spend 3-4 months in Asia. Myanmar, Cambodia, Korea, China, Bhutan and Vietnam are also very interesting and definitely worth going. In terms of season, North Asia has clear 4 seasons and I would try to avoid the summer months as it gets really really hot here. South East Asia is generally warm throughout the year. It has wet and dry seasons and can get really hot so just bear that in mind. Countries like Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar are less known travel destinations but they are absolutely stunning. They do get really hot in summer so I would recommend to go in the cooler months.
Western Europe — probably one of the, if not the, most popular travel destinations. Spain, Greece, France and Italy are all beautiful, and each would need a good few weeks if you want to do them properly. Personally I see Western Europe as more a summer destination and if you want to avoid the crowd and go in winter months, then please remember to check opening times as many small tourist towns (sights and restaurants) are closed during the off season. Switzerland (technically Central Europe), is beautiful in both summer and winter.
Eastern Europe — my favourite part of Europe actually. Underrated compared to Western Europe, but IMO it is even better — it is just as beautiful and rich in history, people are nicer (based on my personal experience) and so much cheaper! Poland, Bosnia, Germany, Prague, Budapest are good for both summer and winter. Croatia and Montenegro i think are better for summer (at least starting April / May).
A cool thing to do in Croatia was going into the water with restaurant boat (Bota — Sare is the restaurant) and eating freshly harvested oysters (picture below).
Going more east, Turkey is amazing too (my Turkey trip is coming up in 2 weeks, so excited!)
North America-I have only been to a few cities in US and Canada but i think both countries are summer and winter travel-friendly. Lake Louise was very memorable for me
Now for the practical aspects of your trip planning…
Most things you can find or sort out on the road but getting visa can get tricky once you leave your home country. So, I would recommend once you have a vague idea of where you want to go, try to get visas sorted beforehand, especially with some of the Asian countries. It will save you a lot of hassle to get them done before you go then when you are on the road and trying to find a consulate, though bear in mind most visa has an expiry date.
Most people don’t think about this but it’s more important than you think! lol. Some country’s visa application may even require certain vaccination, eg yellow fever vaccination is a common one for some parts of South America and Africa. Most people get sick after it too (only for a day) so probably best to get it done before you leave for your trip. Go to your local doctor and they can help you to find out which region needs which vaccination (some are mandatory some are just recommendation so entirely up to you)
4. Buy a good camera!
Doesn’t have to be a hardcore top of the line DSLR, but get a nice camera (there are a lot of smaller size but high tech cameras) so you can take photos of your journey. I still go through my photos from my past trips and they bring back great memories.
5. Do your pre-trip research
Looping back to my first point, do some high level planning and city research, but leave plenty of flexibility too because you will meet people along the way and you will learn about new places which may not have been on our original list. Also since you have a year, special flight and hotel deals may come up, so leave some flexibility in your plan and keep an eye out for the special deals.
Pre-trip planning will also help you to have a vague idea on how much money you need for the trip. Most places I have been to can be done on budget or super lux so I would recommend do a high level budget based on what you can afford and how you like to travel (the two are not always correlated).
How has it changed my life?
The time I took off and travelled made me realise how much I love travel. Now 7 years and 60+ countries later, I have started my own travel startup focusing on making trip planning easier. In the age where we have driverless cars and drones, we are still using spreadsheets and word docs to plan our trips?! Come on! We can do better and we have.
So, if you are looking for a web-based trip planning tool to save your pre-trip research notes and have everything integrated with Google map, then give pebblar a try (http://www.pebblar.com). I use it for all my trips now and wish i had it when i was backpacking! Our read-only app also lets you access your e-tickets and booking confirmations even when you don’t have internet access (we are the only travel planner that does this).
My final comment — JUST DO IT! You will love it and wonder why you ever waited!