If Berlin has a reputation for something other than clones, it’s for idealistic startups – companies that want to change the world. And with its quest to help people experience new things, Gidsy has become the most prominent example.
Hewing to the Airbnb model of using the internet to hook people up in the real world, Gidsy makes it easy for people to offer or take part in activities ranging from walking tours to cooking classes. The service, which is evolving into a tourist tool as much as anything else, is about to get a major refresh — so I thought it would be a good time to catch up with CEO Edial Dekker to find out more.
Meyer: What kind of changes will we see in the new release?
Dekker: We’re going to make it a lot more social. It’s not rocket science, but when you think about it, it’s a bunch of people coming together for an activity and paying money for it. They have the incentive, so it was important for us to realise it’s a big social thing. When we go to activities ourselves, people hang out afterwards, so we thought, ‘Why don’t we make it a lot easier for people to connect before, at and after the event?’ So we’re creating a messaging system, and we’ve created a unique URL for each event.
To make it easier to share events? When do we get to see it?
A lot easier – you can also share photos afterwards. It won’t become a social network, but it will become a lot more social. We’ll also have deeper Facebook integration. We’re testing it now.
I must admit, I was intrigued by your Cape Town launch a couple of weeks ago, seeing as that’s where I’m from. How’s expansion going?
Well, Cape Town was the last one and Hamburg is next, this coming Monday. At first we launched in cities where we thought we would personally love to launch, but then there were so many people from around the world who asked us to launch in their city. It’s a lot of work, but we said, ‘We’re going to give you the tools to do that, and if you find enough activities that are good, then we’ll unlock your city.’ Istanbul was first, then Ghent, Hamburg, Cape Town…
So it’s about letting them set it up themselves. Does this mean low overheads?
Yeah, we’re trying to have a system where we don’t have loads of overhead. We’re trying to make our system as flexible as possible. We realized it really is OK: we’re focused on creating tools for people to use so we don’t have to do the work.
I’m curious: as you scale up, you’re going to need to set up regional offices, right?
For sure. That’s definitely where we want to be. Things like customer support work a lot better if you’re there, but there are also things like cultural differences and time zone differences. We need a lot of resources for that.
We’re creating the Explorer program [to recruit] ambassadors, people who want to be part of the Gidsy community. These people get certain advantages – they can go to activities for free and check out new features. We try to reward them for that and also give them tools to help us and themselves.
So you’re holding off from establishing regional offices, in other words.
Yeah – we don’t have those resources right now. Etsy and Airbnb do it, but it takes time. You also have a company culture and you need someone from here moving there, and right now we don’t have anyone we can miss from here. We tried it – we had a small office in New York and had one guy running that, but it’s really tricky to do that right.
Gidsy comes across as one of the idealistic, creative Berlin startups – is that a fair assessment?
It’s a founders kind of thing. If you look at the core team members, they all have amazing hobbies: one guy does drawings, another Arduino robots. That’s important and it fits Gidsy extremely well, and we’re focused on keeping this culture. It’s definitely something we channel. Gidsy is a good way to make a change, but in a sustainable kind of way. And we add a value layer on top so people can make money.
Can that kind of sustainability and growth coexist?
Yes, but it’s very tricky. You need to be big. We take a very small cut – 10 percent – so we need to do a lot of transactions and be everywhere in the world or it’s not going to work. A company that does that very well, and we learn a lot from them, is Etsy. Everyone there still has that vibe of making things more sustainable and nice and friendly and ecological and fair. The core values are still there and they are profitable.
It does require a lot of energy and time from the start, though. You have to be super-aware of this – it’s very easy to slip down a different slope. It also depends on the kind of investors you have [Gidsy's include Sunstone, Index and Ashton Kutcher] and the first people you hire. Also the place. Berlin has a very open mindset. It’s very lifestyle-driven. Lots of people are very aware of how they live, which is a good thing, also for companies.
Many people in Berlin say it’s all about the exit or IPO, though. Do either appeal?
No. This space is super-interesting [and] we want to stay far away from that. Just now, we had lunch together and someone from the Gidsy team cooked. Everything feels right and that makes us happy, and it’s very exciting for us to build a company rather than just building a product that grows extremely fast. We want to build something big – it’s a huge idea with huge potential.
Europe has a small ego problem. We haven’t had many big IPOs. Big ideas are really rare. SoundCloud are a great example: they have no intention of selling out; they really think much bigger. Look at companies like Skype – they could have been huge, but when they sold the first time… it’s sad. They had the opportunity to become Facebook-size, if they had stuck to their core ideas.
So where’s Gidsy going to be in three years’ time?
We’re becoming the place people go if they’re looking for something interesting to do. Gidsy is about real people meeting. We want to move away from the only-digital space. There’s so much more to be done there – not just offering and booking things online, but if there are more things happening offline, that would be great. If we replace Lonely Planet in that sense, for travelers, that would be great.