Startup Success as a Non-Technical Founder with Lizia Santos of Citycatt
Last Updated: By TRUiC Team
Summary of Episode
#2: Startup founder Lizia Santos joins Annaka and Ethan to discuss how she created a community of travel influencers, or catts, to help tourists find authentic and local experiences while traveling. Lizia discusses validating business models, pivoting, and raising a family while building a business. Additionally, Lizia shares her insights on mentorship, startup incubators, and why now is the perfect time to start your own business.
About the Guest:
Lizia Santos is the founder and CEO of Citycatt, a platform that helps travelers discover authentic experiences through the help of local guides (known as catts). Lizia previously worked as a journalist and used her research skills, along with her family’s experience in the hospitality industry, to create Citycatt and build a world-wide community of influencers that are ready to help travelers explore.
Podcast Episode Notes
Who is Lizia Santos, and why did she start her travel-focused company Citycatts? [1:00]
Finding authentic, unique, and family-friendly things to do while traveling is a problem [4:10]
What are catts? Building a community of local guides for travelers [7:27]
Validating a business model and learning to pivot in order to overcome early challenges [11:37]
Focus on solving the problem, and be open to exploring various solutions [15:00]
Finding experts, and building a good team that can cover your bases [16:23]
Seeking help, discovering available resources for startups, and joining the WIN Lab (a startup accelerator at Babson College) [20:05]
Measuring success using KPIs that matter while avoiding vanity metrics [23:52]
How to scale a company and Citycatt’s future [27:30]
Pivoting and adjusting a business focused on travel during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic [32:50]
Building company culture and adding a personal touch while scaling [36:22]
What is it like working with family members? [39:40]
Mentoring other early-stage founders and finding resources for startups. We all have strengths to contribute, and mindset is everything [42:01]
Find a mentor who had been down your path yet is still relevant to your experience [46:03]
The magic formula for creating work-life balance — well … it probably doesn’t exists [48:42]
The Key to creating a successful startup according to Lizia? Stop spending so much time planning, and start tackling problems. [52:59]
Building community for your team is both an important and elaborate task [56:00]
Lizia’s ‘first citycatt’ may have been a family member [1:02:45]
Just for fun — Lizia’s difficult travel story: Lost in an Ohio corn field, stuck in a New York snow storm, and a crash course on Midwestern geography [1:04:10]
Lizia’s advice for other entrepreneurs: Focus on your pain point and build your team; do not get tunnel vision focusing on one solution. Be flexible and obsess over the problem you are trying to solve. [1:05:55]
How to help Citycatt — Plan a trip with Citycatt’s platform! Or, consider becoming a catt, hiring a catt, or refering a catt. [1:10:25]
Full Interview Transcript
Annaka: Hey, and welcome everyone to Startup Savants, a podcast dedicated to helping aspiring entrepreneurs and startup enthusiasts by bringing you news, insights, and stories about the startups and founders that are making waves right now. I'm your host Annaka.
Ethan: And I'm your other host Ethan.
Annaka: Our guest today is Lizia Santos of Citycatt. Now Lizia is a mom, mentor, and startup founder of Citycatt, a travel startup that aims to provide authentic travel experiences. Before launching her own startup, Lizia was a journalist in the US and Brazil, both in online and print journalism. How are you doing today?
Lizia: I'm great. I'm doing great. How are you guys?
Annaka: Doing very well. It's a little overcast where we are today, but we're happy to be here. So if you could, tell us a little bit about the history behind Citycatt and its mission.
Lizia: All right. I don't think the idea for Citycatt would come about if I was in hospitality. Part of why I had an idea so outside of the box was really because of who I am and my different roles in life. As you mentioned, I'm a mom, I'm a journalist, and I'm an expat. I'm from Brazil and moved to the US 15 years ago. And these three things kind of came together and made me think about the idea. Why is that? It's because first of all, before being a mom and a journalist, I was always a travel lover. My family is spread around the globe, my cousins, my aunts, everybody just lives abroad. Ever since I was little, we always either hosted family or went to visit family and friends. It's also a very Brazilian thing. And we are very friendly.
Everybody knows we're friendly. And that's what we are known for. It's way worse than you guys think. It's friendly to the level of sending friends to friends to your house so you can host them. That happens all the time. I get phone calls, "Hey, can you host this friend of my friend in your house?" And that's how Brazilians are they? They have no clue. So, you end up doing that a lot.
Ethan: That's very friendly.
Annaka: So that was the first thing —
Lizia: It is very friendly, friendly to the highest levels — annoying sometimes as well. But I became a passionate host for that reason. And I also loved traveling to places where I had friends more than going places where I didn't know anybody, because then it just went to another level where I found out that experiencing destinations through that insider view, it was just so much better than trying to find information online and the other way around as well.
When I hosted people, I just did my best to take them outside of the traditional touristic circuits. In the US I've lived in three states already. And I'm always the curious one. I'm always trying to explore new places, find out about new cafes, little museums that nobody hears about. These kinds of stuff. And I'm always taking people with me to these places when they come to visit. This was the first thing that came to play. And then as a journalist, the first thing that every journalist has to do, the main skill is you’ve got to be a very good researcher and that's it. If you're not a good researcher, you're not a good journalist. As a travel lover that goes online to plan my trips, I'm expected to be the best planner that is.
Usually when I travel with family and friends I'm the one assigned to plan, and it's an experience that frustrates me a lot because although I'm good at researching, and I can do that for any other subject, when it comes to travel, you go online and you type things to do in any given destination you just find the same thing.
Annaka: The same top 10.
Lizia: You're on the 20th page of Google results and it's still the same 20 top things to do in any given destination, which is a bunch of prepackaged things, touristy things, things that anybody else will do. For anybody looking to do anything that's more authentic. If you want to really experience local culture, you have to keep going maybe to the 50th page of Google results and find that one blogger that couldn't manage to get up in the Google results.
It takes a lot of time. And it's supposed to be a fun experience, but it's not. When you're planning trips, you don't want it to resemble work. You want to relax when doing that, but it's just not possible the way information is displayed online. And then the third role that I mentioned is I'm a mom. I have three boys, a nine, a six, and a five-year-old. And they're very different. They have different personalities. They love different things. And when I'm planning trips for my family, I have to accommodate all of that. And plus, it has to be safe. I'm traveling with my kids. I'm not going to expose them to anything that's not safe.
That added up to my frustration because now as a mom I'm trying to plan something that's authentic. I'm trying to introduce my kids to this whole world out there that's amazing. And all this diversity out there, but it's just so hard to plan. And when I do find something that says authentic, it's usually targeting younger millennials or Gen Z’s that are adventurous, that don't require lots of planning. They can just do whatever. I couldn't find anything like that. And that led me to think through, how can I solve that, to myself first, and then I realized it's a problem for everybody else. As a journalist, I had the aha moment when I realized maybe this is much simpler than anybody else think because as journalists, what we do is anytime we don't know anything about something, we just try to find a reliable source that can educate us very quickly on what we need to do so we can then write the piece.
What if we could do this for travelers? What if we could create a community of these reliable sources and destinations that travelers could use as resources for planning trips. I applied that very basic journalistic principle to a problem in hospitality. And that's where Citycatt came to be. And then that's what we are. We are in hospitality, but we joke within the team that we're not a travel company, actually. We are an out-of-the box human resources company, plus a personalized media. It's very outside of the box, we're in travel, but essentially what we are is a community of people that you can use as resources when planning trips, and that follows that basic simple principles of being a safe, authentic, and personalized experience for anybody.
Annaka: Yeah. And you have a kind of, what word am I looking for … a group of people that are referred to as Catts? What are they, what do they do? And then how do you find them?
Lizia: Yes, that's a great question. That's my passion within everything that I do in Citycatt is building that community of Catts. So, what are Catts? First of all, Citycatt, the name of the company, has absolutely nothing to do with pets, full disclosure, I don't even have any pets. I have three kids. That's enough.
Annaka: Oh yeah, I would agree.
Lizia: But it is just making reference to that Catt, that cool Catt, and being the Citycatt and also we're playing with the concept of Catts being the one animal that's known as being the explorer. They always leave the houses. They go and explore the city. They always come back. We thought it would be fun to use that name and then we ended up calling our local resources Catts. We just shortened it up for Catts. Sometimes I forget that people are not familiar with the term, but they will be, it's going to be just like Google. Everybody will know. Catts, they are knowledgeable people that we screen, we recruit, we train, and we onboard into our platforms. When I started Citycatt, they were any regular people that could go through the process and prove their knowledge.
But when I found out about this one concept called scalability, that anybody starting a startup, if you haven't heard that yet, you will. That's something that you'll be challenged to achieve. Then I realized it wasn't scalable to grow with ... I couldn't grow a community of local people that way because how could I even measure the knowledge of people all around the globe on destinations, if I haven't been to every single destination in the world. That wasn't scalable, it would take too long for me to grow that community. And that's when I had the idea for actually making them influencers. That iteration was really important for us. Now, plus whatever I already said, they're reliable sources, they also have to be micro-influencers, and the subject of their profiles has to be either their local explorations or their trips. They can also be passionate travelers that make it their thing to just travel to as many destinations as possible.
So, these Catts, we go after them on social media. We have Catt seekers within our company. These are interns whose goal is essentially finding these talents, these Catts out there. And now we have a whole database of people that we are reaching out to. We do a cold reach out at first, that's the top of the funnel for us. We let them know who we are if they're interested in the opportunity. And then from them on, they have a whole onboarding process that they go through with Citycatt, the main thing being, we want a diverse community. We want to be in every single destination. And we also want to build a diverse community within each destination so travelers can find people that they relate to.
We don't have just moms. We have moms because, I thought, okay, family friendly is important, but we have foodies. We have people that are very passionate about local, people that are very passionate about touristy, and we're expanding all of that. We have night outs, we'll have coffee holics, workaholics, people that like sports. All of these categories, they are niches that they're passionate about and the travelers can then match up with them to have help when planning trips to that specific destination.
Annaka: Yeah. It's different, matching different needs for different travelers. And looking through your site, you already have a huge list of places and people that know a lot about those places. Super cool business structure really in getting all of that started. I like it.
Ethan: Yeah, absolutely. So, you mentioned that you had had this idea for Citycatt quite a long time ago, and it had gone through different iterations. How did you know when you were at the right iteration, and how did you go about validating that?
Lizia: Yeah, that's a great question. When I first had the idea for Citycatt, because it was based on my own experience as a hostess, the first idea was the Catts being actual hosts for the travelers, not hosts in their own houses, but being sort of like out-of-the-box travel guides, being in-person guides. That was the initial idea, but when I started exploring the idea, I found out that the logistics was a nightmare to implementing that. Especially because I wouldn't compromise the whole safety side of it, as I met as a mom, and for it to be safe, it would involve a lot of technology that I would have to build in order to do something similar to what the other marketplace platforms are doing. Like Uber, when the driver is coming and then you see them coming, things like that. This is all very expensive.
I'm not a coder myself so I had to think through that. I actually, side story here just so you understand why I had to iterate in the beginning. I actually raised a family-and-friends round right in the beginning. And I thought I needed an app to make it work, the whole plan with the whole go out with a Catt thing. And I spent all that money on an app development, which ended up not working out. The company that was doing that, I hired them from abroad, they ended up getting involved in a bigger project, and they didn't finalize my app. So, I spent all the money, and I was left with nothing. And that was the lowest, I was at my lowest then. And that's when I had to think through, okay, am I going to give up or am I going to find a way to still make it work somehow?
And that's when I understood, okay, maybe let me look at travel from another perspective, let me understand how travel goes. And I understood them that there are different stages for any given trip. You first, you dream about it, then you plan. Then you go and you book your trip and then you experience, and then you share about it. In the beginning, I was completely focused on the experiencing stage of it. But there's a lot of players in there, but then I saw the planning stage not being very much explored by any travel company. And I realized maybe here I have more chances of thriving. Maybe here, I can scale my recruiting of Catts more. I can scale providing services to travelers further. And that's when I focused on that and I tried to find a way to serve travelers in that specific stage.
And I also understood maybe the thing isn't about the service in itself or the product in itself, it's all about the Catts. If I think about the Catts as the sources, as the resources for the travelers then from them I can provide a multitude of services. Let's start with something in the planning stage that's scalable. And we had the idea then for the plan with the Catt. You hire the Catt to help you and the planning stage of it, of the trip. And that becomes much more scalable because then we don't have to be in person. There's no in-person meetings. We don't have to have a native app. We can do a web app because in the planning stages, people usually plan in desktops anyway. It became much more doable — even in the technology side of it, attracting talent to make a web app versus Android versus iOS. All of that.
If you just focus on the product and you don't think higher, think about the industry, think about different ways that you can approach it, there's always hundreds of ways that you can approach solving that problem. Don't compromise solving the problem. But as for the solution, there's so many ways that you can ... And if you're not open to it, you probably die in the beginning. I'm so grateful that someone challenged me to not die at that moment.
Ethan: Well, we're glad that your business didn't die. If it did, we wouldn't be here today. Thank you. Thank you for not. You mentioned something that I want to go back to the unfinished app. I think that as a former founder myself, I think this is something that people who don't have a lot of experience managing or handling tech teams, especially external tech teams. I think this is kind of our worst nightmare. We reach out on Upwork or some sort of third-party situation and try to find a person or a team that can put together our vision of an app — no matter how solid or blurry that vision may be. It sounds to me like the overall answer was, well, we don't necessarily need an app, but if you did need an app and you were to go about that again, how would you do that process differently in finding a tech team or hiring out that process?
Lizia: More than finding the tech team is finding a tech co-founder, someone that understands tech key language. I'm not saying that people will deceive you. It might happen as has happened to people that I know. It wasn't my case. They haven't deceived me, but they got involved in a bigger project, but it could have been much better what I went through if I was knowledgeable about what they were talking about, and I wasn't. We just wasted a lot of time in that process of trying to understand each other. If you do find a tech key person, not necessarily a co-founder or someone that you hire, but a friend, someone that can translate all of that for you, you should have that person then go after whatever resources you need in tech. There's so much that goes into that.
You have to find what's the right language. You have to create wire frames. You have to think about UX. I didn't even know what UX was. What was user experience? I had no idea what went into building a map. Until I found a technical co-founder that translated all of that to me, it was a nightmare. I just wasted money and time. And I got really frustrated. So my advice for anybody starting out and what I would do differently is I would find that person earlier, even if that person isn't the one to actually make the coding, but it is the CTO is that person that's taking charge of that aspect of the company. You can't do everything. You can't learn everything. It's just too much.
Even like for someone like me, where it's my job to learn something real quick and write about it and pretend I know what I'm talking about, because that's what journalists do. It wasn't possible. It's just not possible. It's a whole new world in itself. That's my advice for anybody. Find a technical co-founder or a technical friend, someone that can help you then hire someone to outsource or whatever is that you need.
Ethan: I think that's really great advice. I think that as founders we're expected to be experts in everything, but at some point, I think your expertise is to find someone who is the expert. I think that's really great advice. Thank you for that.
Lizia: It is.
Annaka: Taking advantage of resources that are available to you. And when that did happen, I mean, you said that was your lowest point. How did you kind of rebound from having to overcome an obstacle so early?
Lizia: Until then, to be honest, I wasn't even aware of what's out there in terms of resources for startups. I was acting solo. I had an idea. I wasn't even aware that I was a startup, to be honest. I had an idea, and I was just trying to make it work. Then, I had to go online and try to find something that could help me get out of that hole. That's when I found out about this conference in Miami called emerge. It's a very large conference in Miami for whole Latin America, not just America and not just North America, I mean. I ended up going to emerge as an early-stage startup. And there, I found out about this world of resources out there for startups, one of them being an accelerator that I ended up being a part of by Babson. Babson in Boston, they have a specific cohort for women called the WIN lab. Women Innovating Now. And Babson was a game changer for me.
Not having a business background, there was a lot that I didn't know. And I didn't even know that in that I needed to know. Babson really challenged me to think beyond money and money that I needed to do anything. Because your first thought as a founder is I need money to do that. And not necessarily, there's lots that you can do without money, but you do need to think and plan out how you're going to make that money in the future. And that's also another mistake that we do as a founder. We think that a single servicer or product is going to take care of that. Babson led me to think through, okay, you cannot rely on one single monetization avenue. You have to think through different ways to monetize. Startups they're built to scale, how are you going to scale that? It can't rely on just you, or it can't rely even not just on your team you have to build technologies or processes that will take care of scaling that up for you.
They led me to think that my biggest resource wasn't the money that I lost. I still had my biggest resource, which was myself and my ... where's the word now, my hunger. Myself and my hunger to keep fighting. That was my biggest resource. As long as I'm willing to keep trying, then I can still find ways to make it work even without money. That was a turning point for me. That's when I iterated, that's when I thought about changing stages of providing help through the Citycatt. And that was really what made me survive up to this point. And that's why I think it's amazing providing services, providing information through podcasts like this because you can help other founders get up from low points like this.
Ethan: Yeah, absolutely. That's the goal. And hopefully listeners can take from this story because talking about those low points, I think that's where the real value comes in. We can talk about when we raise our next round or when we make a great hire and that's great, but talking about those low points, I think is really where the rubber hits the road. Thank you for talking about this. Speaking of high points. We've talked about your low points. Let's talk a little bit about success as a business. How do you measure success as a business? What are some of the KPIs that you pay attention to and how do you keep away from following vanity metrics?
Lizia: Yes. That's a great question. You get in the beginning, when you're trying to build something, especially in technology, you tend to pay attention to the vanity metrics. Everybody is on top of you saying, hey, these are the KPIs that you should be paying attention to because this is what people are going to ask from you. But really that's another thing that I've learned is your business is unique and nobody knows more about your business than yourself. There's nobody better than yourself to set the KPIs for your growth.
Lizia: Don't fall for that. Because they'll try to impose that on you. And in my case, they're very unique because I'm building something that isn't out there. There is no other platform that is gathering influencers for trip planning. That being said, we had to come up with our own measures of success.
And for us, it's mainly all about the Catts. Our KPIs are things like the number of Catt reach outs that we do every day, the amount of people on the top of the funnel that we're reaching out to and say, "Hey, would you like to join our community?" Another one is number of Catts being onboarded. It's all about how efficient we are and reaching out to them and bringing them into the platform without compromising the quality of what we're providing, because we're selling a reliable community of influencers. If we want to keep being reliable, our onboarding process cannot compromise that reliability, but it also has to be fast because I also want to provide a Catt in every destination in the world. For that purpose, we need to go fast. Another KPI is the number of destinations with Catts and how many Catts we have in each destination.
And with all of these, we're trying to learn more about supply and demand and how we can supply the demand really quick, based on travel seasons, based on whatever, because in these days nowadays, any destination can become really famous in a day.
Annaka: Yeah, absolutely.
Lizia: Depending. There's a famous TikToker [who] goes out there and does something all of a sudden that destination becomes famous. We're dealing with something really quick, crazy world now that we have to respond very quickly. The other thing is that the number of conversions of hiring a Catt versus just using a trip planner. Citycatt provides a free trip planner. Anybody can go out there and plan a trip for free. Not everybody has to hire a Catt. That conversion is important to us. And that's something that we're also trying to learn is how we can make the conversion even higher. How can we attract people to going for the resource of a Catt versus just trying to plan themselves. Make sense?
Ethan: Absolutely. It's like the freemium model of free versus get your paid Catt. It's a great model. Love it.
Annaka: And you've mentioned scaling a couple times already and discussing the number of Catts, a number of outreach and number of outreaches. That's not right.
Sure, we’ll take it.
We'll make it work. How many people you're in communication with or hiring at any given time. Is that how you'd like to scale? Do you have other things in the planning stages? What does scaling up look like for Citycatt?
Lizia: In general, scaling means us getting really good at the supply demand thing with the Catts. Always responding quick, as I just mentioned before. In terms of numbers, that is kind of tricky for us right now because at this point we've been doing the top of the funnel in a very manual way with the interns that we have on board that I don't know if I mentioned that before we call them the Catt seekers, funding that we made up for that role. They are literally seeking Catts all over the world, but there's a limit to how much we can find being that it's completely manual at this point. We'd like to also turn that top of the funnel into something more scalable by doing that through marketing, implementing marketing campaigns in that top of the funnel so we can reach out to a higher number of Catts. In general, our conversion rates are really good.
For every 10 people we reach out, at least four respond positively and end up becoming Catts. Because right now being that the top of the funnel is Catts seekers is the interns that know exactly what we're looking for. We are looking for people that already show that they're fit through their profiles. They're travel lovers, they're passionate about their cities. They are diverse. Because we have a culture that's strong, they get attracted by that. The conversion rates are big there, but we're working to raise those numbers in a scalable way. Again, I keep using scalable, it's a mix of people and also technology. In our case, we would need to apply some technology to the process to make it easier to grow those numbers. We would like to double the team so we can achieve that.
Today, a great part of my team is focused on the Catts on the supply. I would like to grow the number of Catts that we have, at least five times by the end of this year. Also destinations that we have Catts on. My ultimate goal is having a Catt in every single destination. Think about an island in the middle of nowhere. I want you to have a Catt there. We actually have a Catt in the island of Cyprus. And I'm really proud of that. That's one weird destination that we have someone in and I love that.
Annaka: It's a little niche, but it's awesome.
Lizia: Yes, very niched.
Ethan: Absolutely amazing. And it sounds like, I mean, 40%, not just response rate, but positive response rate, it sounds to me like you could really put on a masterclass of targeting and pitching. I mean, it sounds like you've really got this down. And you said that you're doing a lot of top of funnel stuff that doesn't scale, but I'm sure you've heard the Airbnb story where the folks at Y come in and they said, "Hey, you can't do scale things right now because you don't have scale." And so really doing those things that don't scale while you don't have scale, it's an excellent learning opportunity. And I'm sure that's part of the reason why your positive response rate is so strong.
Lizia: Yeah. On top of that, one thing that I did that didn't scale whatsoever at all, is I used to onboard them personally. I would have a call with each one of them as the CEO of the company. I already had a team that was looking into them, but I made it a point to be the one welcoming them. And that's also one reason why lots of people that started with us a year ago when we didn't have a platform are with us to this date is because I took the time to sit down and say, hey, here's who I am. Here's what I'm building. I'm just this regular person — got interrupted by my kids a couple times. And people, they saw that I'm just this person trying to build something. They wanted to be a part of that. That doesn't scale at all but it was very important to the foundation of Citycatt.
Ethan: And I'll bet you those early Catts that you had those discussions with, they're probably some of your best Catts.
Lizia: They are.
Ethan: And they probably will be for a long time. And we'll talk more about culture a little bit later, but it sounds like you've really done everything you can to embed culture in all of your touch points, which is really amazing to hear. I want to segue a little bit into business over this past year. You're in an industry, obviously that has seen a huge change in these past two years. I'll ask you the basic question and you can take it however you want. How did COVID impact your business and the Catts, the employees, and the people that you work with?
Lizia: For Citycatt, and I have to be very careful how I put this because COVID was awful and then let's just leave it like that. But for us, it ended up being a blessing in disguise because we had an early MVP that we were going to launch two weeks before everything happened. And then we started seeing all the news about it, and I decided to hold off on that and just observe for a while. And at that point we always told, in my speeches about Citycatt every time I pitched, I always told my niche is the cautious traveler. It's the traveler that cannot afford not to plan for any reason. Turns out that throughout COVID the niche grew, the cautious traveler now became pretty much 60% of the market.
People now know that anything can happen overnight, literally even a world-wide pandemic. The niche grew and with that, it opened up an opportunity even bigger for us. I honestly, at that point also I had not iterated for the whole influencer model. And that's also another thing that led me to do that because I'm like, well, since the niche is growing, how can I make it even safer for these travelers? How can I make them feel even more comfortable within the platform? And that's when we had the idea for the Citycatt being influencers, because now they're socially validated. You can check up on them. You can see they're real. You can see that they're knowledgeable yourself. You can go and visit the profiles. All of that happened throughout the pandemic. Me getting that idea, the adoration, observing the industry and how it reacted.
And then we decided, since we have the time, let's just become really good at recruiting these influencers. And everybody was just at home doing nothing. We ended up probably reaching [to] out much more influencers because of the pandemic than in any other, if it was any other time. To us, it ended up impacting us in a very positive way. Plus, I also was able to recruit lots of the team members throughout the pandemic. People were working from home. They had much more time available. And I was able to recruit people from high executive levels and big hospitality companies to fill up gaps that I needed, not being from hospitality. And I don't think that would happen if it wasn't for the pandemic. Again, being very careful with saying that, because it was awful at the same time. But to us, it gave us time to change the wheels before going on a road trip.
Lizia: And it ended up being a blessing.
Annaka: Good. I am glad to hear that, that the whole travel industry was really kind of having to pivot and adjust really quickly. Congratulations. I mean, that was taking an opportunity and running with it is great. If we could come back to Citycatt's company culture, the Catts, when you were originally hiring them, you were talking to them one on one. We recognize now that that's a little difficult to keep up with as you keep adding and adding and adding. But how do you maintain that kind of personal touch within your culture? And what's important to you about the culture that you have now?
Lizia: First of all, given it some foundation, what ended up becoming our culture. It was a pretty natural process because it kind of came from who I am and my first team members and who we are as people. As I mentioned, and you guys mentioned, I am a mom, I am a travel lover, I am an expat. All of that kind of translates our company's culture. We are diverse. We welcome diversity. We think diversity is the most amazing thing there is out there. We love everything that's local and that's very authentic, that represents the local culture. We all love travel, obviously. And our Citycatts are also very family oriented. Even if they're not parents, they're just family oriented. That was a discussion I had. The family part of it, just a side note here, in the beginning with my co-founder, my co-founder is my aunt. When I had the idea, I invited my aunt to join me because she is in hospitality. She was the president of a big hotel here in Orlando for more than 10 years. I'm like, she has what I don't.
I'm not good with finances, admin, operations, all of that. She complimented me. In the beginning, we kind of pretended we weren't family. I'm calling her by her first name and we are trying to be very professional. And then we just realized, this is ridiculous. It's not who we are. You are my aunt. And I'm going to be proud of saying that. And actually, let's just make it a part of our company's culture instead of being this closed group of we're family and then the rest is outsiders. Let's make it our thing, let's be a big family.
Because that's who we are as a family too. We all love hosting. We're always having people over for Christmas, for Thanksgiving, whatever. Let's do that with our company as well. So this became a big thing for us as a company. And it ended up attracting the right people. And that's something that I became very passionate about, ended up happening naturally but now I realize that it was just a blessing to me that I ended up happening naturally. And I feel bad for people that don't prioritize that in the beginning because you end up attracting the wrong people and then you have to course correct things and it sucks. I think that was a full up question that I forgot.
Ethan: No, you nailed it.
Annaka: No. Great, great answer. But keeping going in discussing the family aspect of this business, there are some of us I'm sure that think of like ‘man working with my family, no thank you.’ But how did you balance that in that close relationship you had versus your non-family employees? How does that kind of balance out?
Lizia: My family is not perfect. You'll have the occasional people wanting to take advantage of where you build. This is just what happens with families. But I wouldn't say everybody go and found a company with your family. It really depends on how your family is. The family dynamics, the person in the family that you choose as well. I chose someone that's very mature and ended up balancing me in so many ways. It wasn't that hard for me being that she respected me a lot. She's a professional, she's a leader herself. And she understood what I had that she didn't and vice versa. So, we respected our roles. She doesn't like being a spokesperson. I'm the face of the company, she's behind the scenes. We respect each other a lot.
We do have a cousin that works with us that's in hospitality as well, but also same way she was also very experienced in hospitality and respected the roles. And then from then on, once we realized, okay, let's embrace the fact that we're family, it became easy. Everybody else that came on knew about us being a family. And we made it our thing to make them feel like a family as well with us. It wasn't hard for me. You got to check back with me in a couple years, see how it goes.
Annaka: We'll give you a call.
Lizia: So far it is great.
Ethan: Yeah. That's awesome. And just like what we were talking about earlier, it goes back to putting the right people in the right positions. Don't just play to your strength, play to everyone's strengths. It sounds like you had some good folks to pick from, which is awesome. All right. Let's talk about something outside Citycatt for a moment. Something that you mentioned in our questionnaire was that you mentor early-stage minority founders. Tell us a little bit about what that looks like.
Lizia: That first happened through Babson. Once I graduated from Babson, I didn't realize that I was ready to mentor at all. I didn't feel like I could be a mentor yet. I became passionate about it because I saw how it played an important role within my journey. I was about to give up, and then they helped me with resources and that lifted me up. I remember having that conversation with my aunt and saying, "Hey, once we reach such a stage that we feel comfortable with doing that, I would love to go back and mentor. I would love to also help any accelerator like this in any way I can, because one big thing with Babson specifically, and it being accelerator geared towards women, is that it helped me realize that there's many resources within me being a woman that I could leverage instead of looking at it as a weakness, I could leverage it.
Many people would look at me and say, “hey, you're a mom. This is a weakness. You cannot do this at this stage because you're a mom.” Babson looked at me and said, “hey, you're a mom. Which means you're a great multitasker. That's a great skill for a founder.” All of these things, they changed the way I saw things and mindset is really everything. That led me to want to do something like this for people. A year went by and one day I received an email from Babson inviting me to be a pitch competition judge. And I went and did that without really believing I could do that. But I, surprisingly, I added so much to that moment. I had feedback to give, and I had it because I've done it.
I've been there before, but I didn't feel like it yet. But when I went through that initial moment of judging those pictures and helping those girls, I realized, okay, maybe I can do that already. I'm not super successful yet. Citycatt's not a global brand yet, but I'm ahead of them there. I realized that there was a specific niche that I could help even more, which is the minority early-stage founders. That's me. In a nutshell, I'm just a couple steps ahead. I got invited to go back and do that for another cohort but now for a longer period. And I've been doing that since I love sitting down with these early-stage founders and setting initial expectations giving them the initial resources for things that it's just normal for me to talk about now.
But for people in these initial stages, I remember, I didn't even know I was a startup to begin with and whatever comes with it. That is to me a great joy ended up being also part of the culture of the company. We established an internship program within the company where we invite students, they don't have to be business students, but students who have an entrepreneurial mindset and any field that they want to apply their entrepreneurial mindset in, we invite them to come in Citycatt and work with us for a couple months and whatever they want to work with. We give them opportunities to hop from job to job and experience things so they can find themselves and then get out there feeling confident within their skill set. I'm mentoring all around. I also homeschool my kids. My whole life is a mentoring.
Annaka: Oh my God.
Ethan: What work-life balance? And that's amazing. I find that, and I think it's widely accepted that a mentor that is closer to you, but ahead of you, is more helpful than somebody who is so far ahead.
You’re so right.
If I'm going to start a business tomorrow, I would rather have someone who A, knows the business that I'm going to start. And B isn't that far ahead of me, and that has some real life experience. I would rather have that than Elon Musk as my "mentor" just because it's more relevant to the context of the situation that you're in. And so on the subject of mentors, you said that you've gone through Babsons, which is Women Innovating Now, is that correct?
Lizia: Yes. Correct.
Ethan: Which is an accelerator. But did you have a specific person or team who was a mentor to you?
Lizia: Not throughout the whole thing. I've had mentors in different stages of the company, depending on what I needed at the moment. I'd say my first mentoring within Citycatts journey was my own aunt. Being in hospitality for so long, she was the one that opened my eyes to the industry's ins and outs, because I wasn't knowledgeable about the industry to start with. And then in the process, I've had different people. There was a moment where I was trying to find more about traction and building a company, building a company culture, all of that. I had a specific person in that moment. There was a moment where I was focused on products and rebranding the whole company.
I went after a childhood friend who's in marketing and who's in hospitality as well, and he was my mentor for a while. Then with funding, I sought out another person. To this day, I haven't had one single person that could be the case, for some people. It just didn't happen with me, but I'm open to that. Totally open to that. But with the founders that I've helped, it was the same way as well. I've helped them through some parts of the process of building the company and then someone else came in. I'm always happy to refer them to whatever resource they need in the next stage.
Annaka: Those networks of resources. I mean, it goes back to what we were talking about earlier with having a technology person. Those resources can be invaluable.
Lizia: Oh yeah, they can buy you so much time.
Annaka: Yeah. Like, oh that's what that means. Okay. Got it. And we had mentioned one of those golden words or phrases right now that's been floating around work-life balance. And it sounds you have a very full work life and full life life. How do you keep that in check?
Lizia: I've tried it all. I've tried tight schedules, to-do lists, whatever, name it, I've tried it. And I don't think there's a formula for anybody. You really have to try and find what works for you. In my case, it's just being very productive all the time. And whenever I have a little bit of time, I'm like, what can I get done right now? If I'm walking in my house, I have three boys. You can imagine how life goes here. There are swords everywhere. There are balls everywhere. I'm just trying to make the most of my time. I'm walking towards another room in the house and I see something here that I can grab with me and take to the next room and put away, I do it right then. I don't plan, let me do this on Saturday.
What works for me is this, just getting things done all the time. And that goes for my personal and work life. I don't really have a time set apart for working. I do a lot of everything at the same time. That might not work for everybody. I am very hyper. I'm busy and I'm happy being busy. For some people it might take really setting up part times. Maybe they couldn't work with the kids around. To me, it works. For me, I don't think there's a balance. I think you choose. You either choose being very busy or not. And if you choose, just be ready because it literally is getting busy all the time.
Annaka: So you're maximizing your time really at that point.
Lizia: I use a lot of technology. Alexa's all over the house. I use Siri as my friend as well. I'm using everything that I can also in technology.
Annaka: And when you do have a moment to breathe or when you need that alone time or downtime, is there anything you go to, to sort of unwind?
Lizia: Yes. I work out. I love biking. I bike to my gym, and I love listening to audiobooks while doing that, while working out. I don't like working out with people. I used to, I grew up playing volleyball. I loved group sports, but now that time is such a commodity, I have to make the most out of it, and I need to listen to audiobooks and read books to educate myself. I do it while working out, because then I forget about the pain of working out as well. It works great for me and biking is big for me because being on the outside and just the wind blowing in your face, it just relaxes me so much. It's a different day for me. If I get to work out that day, the whole day goes different.
Annaka: Yeah. I'm with you on that one but we choose to listen to very different things during workouts. I'm a heavy metal girl.
Annaka: Yeah! But the exercise, we've heard that from a couple founders now and it can be crucial to balancing out the day.
Lizia: Totally. It gives you lots of energy.
Annaka: I might have to try audio books though.
Lizia: Do it. But choose once, if you're a heavy metal girl, you’ve got to find something that's upbeat. Don't don't choose audio books that talk about too many lows.
Annaka: Right, no Neil deGrasse Tyson, I'd be laying on the floor like I'm done. Cool. I love that. So many exercise people. And then kind of one other, a little bit general question, but what's something that surprised you in launching your startup?
Lizia: The traditional way of doing this business was a lot of planning before executing. You had to have a business plan and that's how it was for me in the beginning, when I didn't know about ... Things changed so much in the past three, four years. It seems like it was just yesterday, but really, there wasn't that many resources available when I started Citycatt, and my line of thought was that I had to do things in a traditional way. I had just had a baby. I have three boys and I had one newborn, one one-year-old and one three-year-old when I had the idea for Citycatt. But I was so passionate about the idea that I didn't want to let it die. I'm like I have to keep going, moving forward with this.
But I thought that I needed to learn so much, know everything about everything. I needed to craft this perfect business plan in order to have Citycatt get off the ground. I had to have legal advice, so much stuff that I thought I needed to have. And I actually wrote a business plan. I put my baby to sleep and then I would sit down and write a little bit. And I did that for a couple days, and I have a business plan. It has nothing to do with what we're doing nowadays. It makes absolutely no sense, but I thought I had to have it all figured out. And as I pursued the journey of building the company, especially startup, that it's built to grow and scale fast. I realized it's not about having everything planned out, it's not about knowing everything really, it's about being open to iterating and changing and responding quickly and surrounding yourself with the right people.
When I realized that, that was a game changer for me. And that was something that I didn't expect when building a business. I thought I would need to be very smart first, get an MBA or something like that. It really isn't like that, anybody can be a founder if you just put the right people around you and put this right mindset also in motion.
Ethan: Yeah. It sounds like flexibility is really a skill that one must have to be a founder because just like what you said, there are going to be iterations at some point in time, you may have to pivot off of your main idea. Being able to be flexible and when you find that thing, hit it at full speed and give it everything you've got. One more question just about being a founder. It sounds like you may not sleep anyway.
Annaka: I agree.
Ethan: But as a founder of Citycatt, what keeps you up at night?
Lizia: It is people and I'm a people person. And when building a company that's all about people and essentially it is people and building something that they feel like they're a part of in my mind, in my vision, they're so special. What I have here, what I envision for Citycatt is so big. It's so special. I want people to feel like they're part of that, but it's hard translating that vision into everyday things that really gets to them. And when I say people I'm saying my team, every Citycatt within the company, how do I make them feel like they're special because they really are. But sometimes things are just inside our hearts and we can't really translate it into actions. I'm always thinking about that. What can I do? What resources can I put out for the Catts?
What message can I send them? What video can I record and send? We're trying different ways to do that every day in the company. And I realize now, that's another thing that I learned with the process is that's the main thing about being a CEO. It's not knowing everything about numbers. You have people that do that, operational people that are working on numbers every day, but it is working with your people inspiring. You're really an architect of your team and how your team is going to grow together. That's what keeps me awake for sure.
Annaka: All right. Speaking of Catts and working back in with your company culture, how do they fit in, how do you incorporate them and make them part of your family … kind of company style?
Lizia: Okay. For us, we're very intentional with building that community of Catts. They are the Catts, meow, the Catts are the Catts meow of our company. We are really intentional and having them know that through different initiatives, we have one person in the executive team that's in charge of the Catts, and her job role is the Catt chief officer. She's the big Catt person and then under her, there's a whole team just focused on the Catts. And we do different initiatives. The whole onboarding process in itself is very unique. It's a mix of them being brought into the company by automated things but also we do a lot of personal touch points where they talk to the team, they have video calls, they get introduced to the company. They have direct access to us through different channels, WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, name it, we're available in any of these channels, because we understand that they're the biggest thing around here.
Also, the other thing that we have is until recently we had a private Instagram account just for Catts, just for us to share our own trips, our own local explorations, and for them to know each other. And now it's become a public account, but geared towards the Catts as well and recruiting the Catts. But it was a space for them in the beginning when we were just building the community to interact with each other, and we have the Catt academy. The Catt academy is a place where they learn about the company, where they learn about the industry, where they get informed about the best practices, but it also will become a place of sharing resources within the Catts. Being a Citycatt is not a full-time job, it's something that you do to earn some extra income.
These Catts are influencers. They have full-time jobs in several fields. We have Catts that are teachers. We have Catts that are personal trainers that are flight attendants, therapists. We want these Catts also to feel proud to be a part of our community that is united by … it's local, that's diverse. And within the Catt academy and the future, that's going to be a place unique and exclusive for Catts, for them to share resources. So a therapist can create a whole course about, I don't know, happiness within a pandemic, just throwing that because that might happen again. I don't know. But whatever it is, they can share the resources through the Catt academy, the flight attendant can share resources about best practices for flying.
I don't know. Whatever it is, it's going to be a place for that as well. We're intentionally building things just for the Catt community. There's the technology for the travelers and to serve travelers through the interaction with the Catts but there's the technology being built just for the Catts and within their feedback as well. They also know when they're onboarded that they're heard. Their voice is heard within the company, whatever resource they feel like it would be useful with providing the services we also want to build upon their requests. It's a bunch of intentional things that we're doing so they can feel like they're valued within the company because they really are. That's the challenge, making them feel like it.
Ethan: Right. You're truly building a community for these like-minded folks who it probably at the end of the day won't even feel like work to them.
Lizia: Yes. That's the goal.
Ethan: That's absolutely amazing. I mean, it really sounds like you're firing on all cylinders. You've got a SaaS product. You run a two-sided marketplace. You're building a community for these — what aren't you doing?
Lizia: I'm not sleeping.
Ethan: Also the kids. I mean, you're a wonder woman. It's amazing.
Lizia: Yeah. I'm not sleepy, and I probably, I'm not eating very well too.
Ethan: All right. You mentioned in the community, you guys talk and share personal travel stories. Do you have any personal travel stories that make a splash at parties?
Lizia: Yeah. I want to mention something real quick. That's part of the foundation of Citycatt.
Lizia: As I mentioned, my family lives abroad. I have cousins from America to the other side of the world, Japan. I have cousins everywhere. One of my cousins, she's in marketing and she's lived in New York for a couple years. Now she's back in New York. But when I was young, she was already living in New York. And we were going to go on the trip to New York and she created a whole itinerary on paper for us. She's very creative. She loves drawing as well. She got little yellow papers and she made that handmade guide to New York outside of the box. She was sort of like a Catt for us. She didn't have the trip planner that we have now, but she created that for us. And my first time in New York was through her lenses, through her eyes, which was way beyond whatever anybody else is experiencing.
That's just a side note. It's not the funniest story, but it's something that I hold special. It's very special. And I have that guide to this day, it's an inspiration for Citycatt.
Ethan: That's awesome.
Lizia: The second story is just to show how crazy I am. As I mentioned, I moved here 15 years ago, and I spoke half of the English I do now. And I came on a student visa. I had just graduated from my bachelor's in journalism, and I started a master's degree here. And my first place that I lived on was Kentucky in a tiny town in Kentucky called Campbellsville. And I was broke, super broke. I bought a Honda Accord 92, and my dad came and brought me from Brazil to the US, and we drove from Boston to Kentucky. He dropped me out there, went back to Brazil, and I was by myself in Kentucky, 20-year-old with a Honda accord 92 that the tank had a hole in it. So I can only fill it up up to half of it.
Ethan: Oh gosh.
Lizia: And the ignition of the car was always failing too, so I had to kick it in order, turn it on. But me being the travel lover that I was, I had to travel. I was in the middle of nowhere. I had nobody to spend time with, so I had to travel. I travel all around that area, the Midwest of US with the Honda accord, kicking the ignition and filling the tank up to half, up until the point where I finally was able to transfer my college to Boston where my fiance was. And I traveled back to Boston in my Honda accord. But it was back when you had to print Google maps and follow the instructions. I was going from Kentucky to Boston on a Google maps that I had printed and somewhere in the middle of Ohio, I misread something. I didn't follow a direction. I got lost. Think Ohio just farms all around you. You know that scene out of a horror movie where you get stuck in the middle of nowhere.
Annaka: Corn fields everywhere.
Lizia: With a half tank car. That whole trip was nuts. I ended up buying a, I found a gas station, I bought an Atlas, and I ended up going all the way to Boston with just the Atlas. Thank God I'm really good with directions. My parents instilled that on me, and I got lost several times. By the time I got to New York, there was a storm. I couldn't see a feet in front of me. I was completely lost. I almost hit the car several times. That trip was a 24 hour trip that I survived.
Annaka: Oh my God.
Lizia: And I'm so glad to be here telling the story. It wasn't like your fun, experience authentic trip. It was authentic in the sense that I authentically got lost many times.
Annaka: A crash course in Midwestern geography.
Ethan: Turn left at the cornfield.
Annaka: If you pass the pink house, you have gone too far.
Lizia: And New York, I got lost at a moment. And then I called my fiance. He's like, "Oh, I have a friend in New York that you can call." And then I called the friend and I'm like, "Hey, I'm lost." And he's like, "Where are you?" I'm like, "Seriously if I knew where I was would I be lost?"
Ethan: It's got a part of the definition.
Lizia: Yes. Because they ask, what's around you. In New York, everything is the same. It's a bunch of streets and buildings. What am I going to say?
Annaka: I don't know, there's a tall building here.
Ethan: Yes. It's brick. It's got some doors, some windows.
Lizia: From cornfields to brick buildings that was in one day.
Annaka: That's a character building trip.
Lizia: I got it all in one day.
Annaka: All right. I like that story. Thank you. You have to have one of those. You have to have one of those.
Lizia: Don't try that.
Annaka: Don't try this at home y’all. Don't do it.
Ethan: For sure.
Annaka: You were so great. You've been so great to talk to. Do you have advice for anyone that's sitting at home like man, I think I want to start this. What's your advice for anyone looking to become an entrepreneur?
Lizia: Yes. I would say don't overthink your products or your service. Be aware that that's going to change. What you really have to be mindful about is the problem that you're solving. Is that a real pain point for enough people that it justifies you starting that business. If yes, then you're already halfway through it. If you're obsessed about that, then the rest will follow. And that's one thing that I think you should obsess on, it's the product, the pain point. The other thing is the culture. I cannot stress that enough. It feels like it's silly. Why would I think of culture before the product? If I don't even have a team or anything. It sounded silly in the beginning being the CEO of nothing. I was the CEO of myself. But the thing is, if you don't think that through, you will attract the wrong people or you will attract no people.
If you know what you're building, if you know what kind of company and vision you have in mind, if you're thinking 10 steps ahead and you know what it is that you want to get to, you will attract the right people. And you'll also be aware of what you cannot do and the process of getting there. And then you'll know who is the people that you have to attract, what kind of skill sets you need in order to make that work. That is my advice for you. It feels like it's nothing right now, it's just an idea but obsess about that. Think, what kind of company, what is the pain point? And then be open, be flexible to it changing through the process of building it. Because it will change. Who would've thought that a pandemic would happen and that changed the whole travel industry and all other industries too.
Ethan: It really did. That's really, really great advice. Thank you so much for coming in today. Before we wrap up, is there anything that our listeners can do to help you out? How do people sign up to be a Catt? What else can we do? What else can we do for you?
Lizia: Yes. A couple ways. You could get involved with Citycatt by being a Catt or by hiring a Catt. But you can also get involved by referring us Catts. There's three ways that you can get involved. If you go on citycatt.com and you want to be a Catt, you just press on be a Catt there and you can follow the onboarding process to be a Catt. You just have to be a micro-influencer with an account that is focused on either your local explorations or travel. You have to have a minimum number of followers, but that depends on the social media that you are using to validate your knowledge of your destination. You can be a blogger or you can be on Instagram and TikTok it doesn't matter if that's you, we would love to have you. If you know someone that would love to be a Catt, either you know them personally or you follow someone that you love.
We have a referral program already for that. You can earn by referring Catts to us. And also if you go on the Be a Catt page, there will be a link there for referring Catts and plan trips with us. We have a free trip planner where you can plan trips in a very easy way. It's very, very simple, kind of like Google Docs, you start planning something. You invite people without having to figure out any other features within the planner. That's free, you can do it now. Or hire a Catt if you want to have an authentic and amazing experience. It's kind of like wonderlust for all right? You don't have to just watch people having fun, you can have fun too, just like them. Those are ways you can get involved to tell people about Citycatt. That's another way, a fourth way there.
Ethan: Awesome. Thank you so much for spending your time with us. Audience, we will put all of these links in the show notes, and I think that's going to be a wrap for today's episode of Startup Savants. We want to thank you for stopping by and listening in.
Hey, do you want to chime in? If you think we're doing a good job or you think we're doing terrible, got nothing, let us know in the comments. We read every single comment, and do our best to learn from you. For tools, guides, videos, startup stories, and so much more head over to truic.com. That's truic.com, T-R-U-I-C.com. See you folks.
Annaka: Thanks everyone.
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