No Excuses not to Travel: Noken is the First Digital Native Tour Operator and Here's Why I Backed It

A few weeks ago, I booked a customized tour of Iceland with Noken, and I did it in about five minutes.  All I had to do was to tell Noken how long I planned to go, what level of hotel and car I wanted, and then I had the option to add on a few extras, and within minutes my entire trip was booked.  I had a connection to my own personal trip concierge and a custom app that outlined my trip.  I literally haven't had to think about it since I booked it--no worries about reservations, what to do when, or doing additional research, things I really don't have the time for.

Some people really like researching travel--and you can spend weeks and weeks doing it.  There is more information on the web, not to mention all the friend recs you can get, than anyone with a full time job can really handle.  For the rest of us that don't have time, and just want to know that someone who does nothing but think about this all the time took care of all this for us--and that our plans, tickets, maps, etc. are all in one place on our phones, Noken us for us.

When I was growing up, we took a few road trips to see my brother in Chicago and then down to Florida, but we weren't international travelers.  My impression of international travel came from Mario Perillo, TV's "Mr. Italy" who used to advertise his family's tour business on NY television all the time...

My grandparents went on one of those tours in the early 80's.  They rode a bus with a bunch of other senior citizens and undoubtedly followed around some guy with an umbrella or flag or something.  That's not something I had any interest in.  

Travel changed a lot over the next few years.  The internet provided a firehose of reviews, lists, and research, which was nice for a while, but then it became overwhelming.  In a world of unlimited choices, curation, transparancy and simplicity became more valuable.

We went from searching millions of recipes to subscribing to meals that someone else picks for us.

We went from comparing every last product out there to trusting single product companies whose value proposition was straightforward and whose customer service was great--whether it was for buying mattresses, sheets, luggage, etc.  

Marc Espana and Emily Brockway, the Co-founders of Noken asked why booking travel couldn't be as simple as buying the luggage for your trip.  Instead of sifting through endless sources of information, why couldn't a company just say "Here, we did this for you".

They built the answer, and all you have to do is hear from the customers to find out the results:

They didn't just set out to make travel easier because it's a big opportunity with nothing else like it out there--they did it to build cross-cultural empathy at a time when that is in short supply.  The events of the last year affected this team personally--being LGBTQ and female founders, as well as having a Dreamer on the team.  It's been shown that the more you travel, the less you think of people who are different than you as your enemy or someone to fear.  One of the best way to make someone more empathetic is to hand them a passport and show them the world and its people.  

Thanks to Noken, there are no more excuses not to travel. 

The tours are an order of magnitude less expensive because the company doesn't have to pay for infrastructure on the ground--it's all in your custom app.  On top of that, unlike almost everything else in the travel space, they're not offering yet another search based route to a commodity product.  They've created something branded that a consumer can be loyal to and come back again and again as new countries are added (they have Iceland and Columbia currently).  The trips are Instagram-worthy, creating viral loops that you simply don't see with the Kayaks of the world.  This addresses some of the acquisition economics that scare some investors away from the travel space, because no one wants to invest in a business competing for the same customer as everyone else with a completely undifferentiated product.  

I backed Noken's pre-seed round back in August.  The funny story about that is that they weren't really raising, but just looking to build connections for their seed.  At the time, I was looking for a company to present to an investor education group that I run to help teach people about how VC meetings work.  When Emily wrote me, I responded by accepting the meeting request, but letting her know that it wasn't just going to be with me--but that she and Marc would be sharing their company like patients in an operating theater, with 30 people in the round listening in on the conversation.  Unfazed, they gave a great presentation and shared how they had done over $100k in revenue, without even having a real app.  It turned out they had been using Invision demo apps the whole time for their customers to use in their trips--and yet still getting rave reviews with only a fraction of the functionality.  

I talked them into taking money from me head of a real round and they've been amazing to work with over the past seven months or so.  I'm excited about their ability to build a seriously large consumer brand in this category in a way that doesn't currently exist.

I'm also excited to see Iceland in two weeks!!