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by The Daily Telegraph, October 31, 2016
The co-founder of the journal-making app reveals how he turned the experience of asking for directions into a tech start-up adventure with friends.
The idea for travel tracking app, Esplorio, came to me when I was on holiday with my wife, Emily, in Sri Lanka. I wanted to surprise her with a visit to a turtle hatchery that I had previously visited.
I was sure that I had recorded it somewhere online, but where? Facebook? Foursquare? Perhaps I made a note in an online document. After about 20 minutes of racking my brain, I gave up and suffered the indignity of having to ask for directions.
The experience got me thinking. Even though many of us create huge amounts of pictures, posts and videos on social media, these sites focus on disseminating content immediately. It’s difficult to find things later on. I thought I could solve that.
Being a travel start-up, we travel regularly. We’ve been able to work away from the noise of London – in the rolling hills of Umbria, or California
I was working for Oxford University at the time, running a research project on mobile technology. Almost every week a new app or concept would launch that had no precedent. I felt like anything was possible.
I then found myself on the recruitment track to one of the most notoriously difficult jobs – a product manager role at Google. Five months and seven interviews (which involved designing the perfect toaster) later, I was finally given a “no” – or in Google-speak, “not just yet”. The experience got me thinking harder about the industry and what was missing.
I quit my job at Oxford University, worked at a couple of start-ups, became a consultant and spent my evenings and weekends working on my idea, Esplorio. It’s an automated travel journalling app that integrates with existing social networks. It does this automatically by combining our battery-friendly GPS-tracking technology with users’ photographs and social media data. It keeps your data private, unless you decide to share it.
I teamed up with Essa Saulat, who’s now our talented chief marketing officer, and roped in an old friend and expert colleague, Sean Pham, to becoming our chief technology officer.
When we began developing Esplorio, we had limited funds and had to solve difficult problems in handling massive amounts of data. At this time the cost of third-party services would have crippled us. We even had to build our own “reverse geocoder” – a piece of software that takes latitude and longitude coordinates and returns the address or placename. Using Google’s reverse geocoder would have cost us around $100 (£82) per user, per year. We built it, and we made it about 10 times faster than anything else on the market.
Raising funds for an ambitious consumer app in the UK is harder than in the US. It came down to finding the right people, who understood the problem and backed the vision and the work we had already done. Our shoestring operation gained us recognition. We were supported by Oxford University Innovation and the European Space Agency, and later we raised venture capital investment from two angel investors and one micro-VC.
Being a travel start-up, it’s only fitting that we travel regularly. We’ve been able to work away from the noise of London – in the rolling hills of Umbria, for example, or California. The first design and iteration of our iPhone app was created in the picturesque town of Bellano, Lake Como (which, it turns out, was cheaper than renting a London office).
Building our code in-house has meant that we’re able to work quickly, because we don’t have to rely on external support. As a result, we’ve been able to release more than 400 updates of our app in the past 12 months.
People in more than 120 countries have used our app to record visits to more than 11 million unique places to every corner of the planet. We’ve been featured on the App Store, and we’ve worked with corporate partners, including Williams Martini Racing.
If I could give one piece of advice for aspiring tech entrepreneurs, it would be this: hire a great team and get them to use the product that they build (what industry calls “ dogfooding ”). We found that our team understood the product, customer and pain points so much better.
Tim Fernando is co-founder at Esplorio
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