Paul English did not originally set out to build another great travel company. His plan was to build out Blade, an incubator for consumer web companies in Boston. Building an incubator would allow him to have a greater level of influence across multiple companies where he could provide capital and expertise to help these companies grow and scale.
However, when you are a serial entrepreneur, it is hard to watch things from the sidelines as an advisor, when you want to be in the game. English still has the passion, energy, and enthusiasm to do it all over again. He is the type of entrepreneur who feeds on speed and building world class teams to work together on a unified mission of building a company.
After realizing the team that was assembled to support Blade’s portfolio companies was as world class as you can get, it just made sense for them to make another run. They had already raised $20M for Blade from General Catalyst and Accel Partners and most of that cash was still sitting in the bank, so English and Bill O’Donnell (CTO & Co-Founder of Blade and former Chief Architect & SVP of Mobile Products at KAYAK) started to think about new ideas.
English was a user and a fan of Zirtual, a virtual assistant startup which helps you outsource the numerous tasks that can consumer your day like scheduling meetings, responding to emails, paying bills, etc. As part of their model, you are designated a Zirtual Assistant, which is a high caliber, US based assistant to handle your tasks.
They started thinking of ideas which could leverage the combination of modern technology with a high touch and personalized service, but taking an approach where the mobile app was more of the experience in terms of getting things done. After thinking through the different concepts and listening to the feedback from their board, the travel industry was the perfect option to build a big consumer company.
At an event last night, the team of Blade debuted the name and idea of the new company which is Lola, a mobile first, consumer travel company. As English shared with me, “think of it as your rescue button, where you can have all of your travel problems taken care of with the world’s best travel assistant.”
They launched a website yesterday, but it is more of a landing page at the moment and based on their mobile first approach, their website will be very minimal. They compared it to Uber’s website, where they are looking for you to download their app to use their service. Lola's app will be available in January.
The technology team will be using a sophisticated on-boarding process which is being designed by a machine learning expert, who is creating a scientific way of modeling your preferences. They will then have a team of travel agents that will use personalization technology for recommendations. Instead of offering up 100 hotels, their algorithm will offer up one hotel for you to stay at and their technology and a travel agent can handle every else, like renting cars or booking tickets.
Disrupting an industry
After chatting with the Lola team, you realize how the travel industry really hasn’t evolved much in the past twenty years. The industry made a radical shift from consumers working with travel agents to book travel and then the shift to the internet was a DIY (do it yourself) model where you were doing all the research online and booking the travel yourself.
Lola's model is very different from the current travel websites and a mobile first approach wasn’t feasible until the smart phone market hit massive distribution. One of the core elements of their technology is going to be the tools they are providing their Agent Consult team (travel agents). If you’ve ever seen a travel agent work with their terminal, which is called GSD (Global Distribution System), “it looks like The Matrix,” as described by English. They are not looking to replace the GSD, but they are looking to bring modern technology and tools into the equation which will lead to a much better experience for consumers and a personalized touch in terms of dealing with a human on the other end.
Growth & Branding
Lola currently has 31 employees and they are raising a Series A1 round of funding to help fuel their growth, as they have plans to be at 250 employees by the end of next year. This number includes 100 travel agents.
Alongside English and O’Donnell, there are other KAYAK alums like Robert Birge (former CMO) and Paul Schlenk (former SVP of Engineering), plus other team members like Ellen Chisa, who I met last night and heads up product management and design at Lola. She has prior experience as a Product Manager at Kickstarter and Microsoft.
Lola also recently expanded their team by acquiring a west coast based travel startup called hopOn and relocating two of the team members to Boston.
For branding, the word Lola just sounded right to the team. After conducting a bunch of research, they found that the word had a positive meaning across different languages and countries. Plus, the word Lola is a portmanteau (this was a new word for me), which means they are taking parts of multiple words to create one word. In this example, they are combining longitude (Lo) and latitude (la) to make Lola, which goes along with their travel theme. Here’s another fun fact, the name of English’s last company - KAYAK - was a palindrome, which means the word is spelled the same forward as it does backward. Let’s hope that Lola has the same success and we’ll see this happening again:
Photo credit: AllThingsD