Interview With Lizia Santos
Describe your product or service:
“Plan genuine trips with help from local and travel influencers.”
Describe your company values and mission:
“We aim to redefine trips by connecting travelers with people who live and love destinations, and can open the gates to the authenticity of local culture versus a pre-packaged tourism.”
How are you funded? I.e. venture capital, angel investors, etc.
“We only had a friends and family round.”
How big is your team? Tell us a little about them (I.e. co-founders, freelancers, etc.)
“We're a team of 20, including founders, freelancers, and interns. The initial co-founders [are] a duo of niece and aunt, Lizia Santos and Lis Sommerville. We're Brazilian immigrants, living in the US for 20+ years. We were the initial Citycatts, with our love for travel, hosting, and exploring cultures. Lizia was the idea-maker of Citycatt, using her journalism background to imagine a platform that connects travelers with reliable sources of information in destinations that can take traveling and experiencing to another level. Lis joined in as an experienced hospitality executive, working for big hotel brands in the Orlando area. They were later joined by a diverse team spread around the world. We currently have amazing talent coming from successful companies such as Booking.com, Emirates, and AirFrance, among others. We also value the input of interns and love sharing our experience with them, creating a learning and growth environment where they can explore areas of interest and find themselves professionally. To this day, we've had several amazing interns contribute to our journey!”
Did you always want to start your own business? What made you want to become an entrepreneur?
“Actually, no. I'm a journalist who dreamt of being a foreign correspondent. I was always passionate about culture and travel, though. Added to that, when I became a mother, safety became a very important value to me, and that's when I had the idea for a platform that combines all that I am and love: travel, genuine local experiences, reliable information, and safety.
When I started the business, I found that entrepreneurship is also a passion of mine. I love solving problems, coming up with creative and scrappy solutions, leading a passionate team, and aiming high!”
How did you come up with your startup idea? How did you decide to actually act on the idea? What gave you confidence that you were on the right track?
“My personal burden of trying to plan fun trips for my family that didn't involve pre-packaged touristy traps played a role in it. As a Journalist, I surveyed people to find out if this was also a burden for others, and it turns out it is. I surveyed close to 700 people and found out that 67% of them spend more than 20 hours researching online to find out what to do once [at their] destinations. It's the internet era, but the overload of information is mostly shallow, repetitive, and outdated.
My journalistic intuition pointed me to an easy solution: sources. If you have good sources, you have great information. Then, this led me to seek micro-influencers whose theme is local or travel explorations since they're highly efficient content creators and socially validated by their followers. The organic positive interest and reaction of them, accelerators, and the general public gave me the confidence I needed to know I was right about it and to pursue it.”
How did you come up with your company name? Did you have other names you considered?
“My husband was the one behind it. He played with [the] ‘cool cat’ expression and the fact that cats are known as the animals that explore every corner of cities. We added an extra ‘T’ to make it our own!”
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What is the greatest challenge you faced in starting your business, and how did you overcome it?
“My family and friends round gave me the first capital I needed to create the app I thought I needed. I spent it all to outsource the development, but the company I hired didn't finish the job, and I was left empty-handed, with no money, no app, no team. I had to rebuild, all while raising three boys under six and barely any sleep to help me recharge.
Seeking a like-minded community and joining Babson's WINLab accelerator was a game-changer for me. It made me rethink our business model, design a scalable model, and seek a multi-dimensional monetization growth plan. Focusing on building a team that complements me and makes up for my weaknesses also made a huge difference.”
Who is your product or service made for? Who is your target market?
“It's made for the curious and cautious traveler. The one who likes to plan ahead and truly experience destinations, with a mix of touristy and out-of-the-beaten-path activities. Our target market is millennial families, with multi-generational travel being one of the biggest travel trends and families traveling together like never before. It's always a challenge to plan trips for groups, and our local and travel Citycatts can customize plans and accommodate unique expectations and needs.
Our survey also shows that people don't find much value in the current trip planners in the market, finding them complicated, resembling work software. Most people rely on tools such as Google Docs to plan trips with friends and family. We developed and offer[ed] a simple trip planner that focuses on collaboration and brings together all co-travelers and hired Citycatts to plan unique trips.”
What's your marketing strategy?
“We're focusing on these marketing channels:
Facebook/Instagram Ads: We've been doing a market field testing over the last four months focused on understanding our audience and refining our targeting strategy. Moving forward, this will be a key platform to our upper funnel sales.
- Content Marketing: Offering true value through our blog and newsletters.
- Google PPC: Already working on our group of keywords, we will avoid highly bidding searches focusing on the middle and bottom-funnel, with customized landing pages per search intention.
- Strategic Partnerships: During 2021, we will focus on bottom-funnel ads on travel websites (verticals such as flights, hotels, etc.) and partnerships with DMO's of the cities we have strong supply.
- Organic traffic: Attraction by smart content, SEO, and social media optimization.”
How did you acquire your first 100 customers?
“Organically with people searching for keywords and landing on our content channels.”
What are the key customer metrics / unit economics / KPIs you pay attention to to monitor the health of your business?
“Our main KPIs are:
- # of destinations with Citycatts
- # of Citycatts
- # of Trip Planner users
- # of Trip Plans on the platform
- # of Recruited Catts
- # of Trained Catts
- # of Catts engaged in private community
- # of Catts turned into Ambassadors
- # of Instagram followers”
What's your favorite book on entrepreneurship?
“‘Aligning the Dots’ by Phillippe Bouissou.”
What is your favorite startup or business podcast?
“‘How I Built This’ by NPR. I was actually in the first HIBT Fellow group in their first summit, back in 2018.”
What is something that surprised you about entrepreneurship?
“Simply put, I was surprised by how much I like it. But once I started going deep on it, I'd say I was surprised by how much of it was an individual journey. Although there are general principles and lots of advice out there, a great part of it is about sticking to your guts and your own life story.”
How do you achieve work/life balance as a founder?
“On a day-to-day basis, I couldn't go through motherhood and entrepreneurship without being a naturally organized person. Technology helps a lot, and I use all the virtual assistants I can, with Alexa and Siri teaming up to constantly remind me of things. Routines help as well. I keep my meetings and priorities organized by days and recurring meetings, so I don't go crazy.”
How do you stay motivated?
“Passion makes up for it. I chose to pursue a business that reunites everything I'm passionate about. Plus, I'm [trying] to build a better world for my kids and to be an example for them in this rapidly, ever-changing world. I think the entrepreneur mindset is a great asset for them, no matter what line of work they choose, and I love that they get to see me going for it on a daily basis.”
Did you have to develop any habits that helped lead you to success? If so, what are they?
“For sure! [S]eeking next-level organization was key. Resilience and creativity are also a big part of the equation.”
What are you most proud of as an entrepreneur?
“That I didn't give up when it got hard, and I got this far with pure creativity and little to no money, making up for it with lots of passion and vision.”
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