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Behind The Scenes At Adioso - Part 1: Reality Check (tomhoward.co)
348 points by tomhoward on May 8, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 64 comments

Crazy good blog post.

I live with Tom for a few months and I can say Tom is definitely passionate about Adioso and fighting for survival any way he can. To me, Fenn and Tom are two of the pioneers in the startup scene in Australia. I know that there were people in Australia doing startups before then, but for the current generation of new people doing startups they are an inspiration and the people we look up to.

When someone talks about YC in Australia, you can be sure that the name Adioso isn't too far off. I love using Adioso, even before I met Tom & Fenn. It such a cool idea and I still use it as my first point of call for looking for flights. If only they could keep adding more flights! I'm glad that they have gone back to open ended text search - that is what made them unique and easy to use.

As a user, you sometimes don't know where you want to go, BUT you want to go somewhere. You might know the origin destination and possibly the end destination, which makes Adioso great to use.

I also had an interview with an incubator in the US, and who do you turn to? The guys with the experience. So I asked Fenn for help which he was more than happy to assist with and he gave me some invaluable advice to prep me.

I'm sure these tough little cockroaches just won't die easily and they can figure it out.

I think that there's potential but the current layout of the homepage doesn't appeal to me. Just because of the homepage, I'm not inclined to continue using the app. I know you guys aren't designers but there are a few improvements that I can see.

1) Your tagline on the bottom of the homepage tells me more about your service than the copy with the "Have the best vacations humanly possible". Lists are boring, especially without visuals. Because the homepage is the most important page, I'd focus on only getting them to try search first then find out about all the other features you offer.

2) As many have mentioned, the video thing is really annoying. I click on the video to expect something to watch, but it's blank. If you don't have a video, don't put a placeholder image there yet.

3) Where do you want to go and when? default text in the searchbar. The less the user needs to type, the better. It's also MUCH more convenient for the user to select the When from a drop down list because they usually have pretty precise dates they want to travel. Because there's this extra option, I didn't know what to type at first. I had to search 3 times to realize that you do City, State and Country.

4) Because your site doesn't have any visuals, your featured lists actually take most of my attention. Those should never take away from your search bar which is your call to action.

I'm no expert on design, but I'm just listing out what I've learned the past year (my homepage for a past startup was very similar to what you have now).

I took a few minutes to make you a sample homepage mockup that incorporates a lot of the stuff I mentioned above. Design is a really subjective matter; everyone will think differently of the mockup below, so it's up to you. Just my two cents.

LINK: http://www.grooovy.me/Adioso.jpg

Nicely done, Jon. fwiw, I think you've stepped it up to where I would have expected it to be, graphically, as an average-joe user.

that's cool

When is the right time to quit something? A startup, a marriage, a book, etc. Is there a right time? If not, when should you quit? Or should you not?

The people who make it say that persistence is key.

But what if you're climbing the wrong mountain? How/when do you know that what you need most is change?

For me personally, I've changed things when my heart just isn't in it for the long haul anymore. When I don't love it anymore. (And usually, when I realize I don't love it anymore, I often realize -- sometimes not until much later -- that I never did.)

It's been clear to me when I do love something, or someone. So that's what I focus on.

When you really want to quit, set a deterministic goal to hit in say six months. Give it your all with your last reserves. If you hit that goal, your energy will come back. If you don't hit that goal after six months, then you know you gave it your best. Pursue the contingency plan of posting your CV on Whitetruffle or LinkedIn as a startup founder/early employee and score a six figure offer within days.

Take the offer, heal up and lick your wounds for a few years, figure out what you did wrong...and remind yourself and everyone else why you truly are God's gift to hacking by utterly killing it at your new company.

Then try again.

This is a really good comment.

The principle, "Exits are harder than entries," comes up in a lot of different places.

Hindsight bias distorts the picture. What could be more obvious than that, say, the Twitter guys were right to keep making Twitter even when nobody else cared. But whenever we think that way, we're retroactively assuming the power to predict the future. Then we find ourselves in some real situation that matters and that superpower doesn't work and we're totally stumped. (Edit: actually almost all our vocabulary around "persistence" assumes hindsight. When something turns out to have worked, you displayed plucky perseverance. When it fails, you were a stubborn fool. In real time, these qualities are not so easy to tell apart! Maybe they're the same thing sometimes.)

So what do you do? It's a hard, deep question. I agree with stevenj. Consult the heart.

I'd have to disagree on this one.

Clearly there are tons of people excited about the idea of Adioso. The problem is that the technology doesn't deliver. No matter how ridiculous of a schedule I'm willing to put up with, I still can't get from NYC to Cambodia and back for $300 or whatever. And it's not even clear that that will ever be possible no matter how much time they put into developing it.

Now if they were able to figure out a way to charter planes that would otherwise be flying empty and get them filled to capacity so that I actually could go to some random country in SouthEast asia for a few hundred bucks then that would be awesome. But that simply hasn't happened yet.

Seth Godin's The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick) [1] is an oft-recommended resource on the topic, though I didn't find it particularly helpful the last time I was in a similar situation.

[1] http://www.amazon.com/dp/1591841666

On a startup, the concept of engines of growth[1] can be helpful determining if you are reaching product market fit (ie: you should stick with it) or not (you should change something[2] / change to something completely different).

The parallel to hill climbing algorithms: it serves as an heuristic to determine if you growth rate will be enough to reach product market fit.

[1] http://www.productbookshelf.com/2011/10/engines-of-growth/

[2] http://www.productbookshelf.com/2011/10/pivot-or-persevere/

Too rare are blogs/posts in the Valley about the "trough of sorrow." Even rarer are the ones that don't leave on an upbeat ending. This is life. This is what it is really like to build something people want... or to try to.

Thank you for writing this. The euphoric prose that plagues TC and ilk can often do a real disservice to those trying to build the seemingly impossible, and your honesty and humility are refreshing.

I think the guys at Adioso are on to something potentially cool.

But after reading this blog post and checking out their site, the only three words on my mind are "Video coming soon..."

They are probably 'smoke testing' whether it's worthwhile to spend the effort making a video, based on the percentage of people that try to play it.

That is exactly what they are doing.

Are you the ned mentioned in the article?

I have the definite impression I am missing something, a HN meme perhaps?

"Video coming soon..." ??

Edit: Oh wait there is a video box on their main page which just shows the above text.

and now there will be a meme. But Only adioso can determine what that meme will be.

Entirely agree. That video is the key to getting me to spend more time on the website. Without it, you might as well have a giant back button

At first glance, I thought adioso was another KAYAK competitor. It took me a few minutes to realize that adioso's core value proposition is its ability to predict the best time to buy plane tickets. May I suggest replacing your current home page with something like this...

Buy plane tickets at the best possible time 1) Search for your destination 2) Subscribe for deal alerts 3) Book your ticket to your destination

Furthermore, why limit yourself to plane tickets? Why not combine a few more services like hotels and car rentals? This opens up the possibility of booking entire vacations all through one portal.

Thanks for the great read. I wish you guys the best of luck.

They have hotels, although it isn't as core to the product as flights. I think the use case you describe and the KAYAK one are both valid uses cases of the site, you might though be right that shifting the focus to differentiate themselves could be a good idea.

Adioso is great - I love the date/price graph you get across the top of each search. It was super helpful in finding flights for my holiday to the US (PER-LAX) in August, which I booked just last week. I know very little about startups, or even how this article relates to your current situation, but I hope you guys do well.

edit: Some features I would love:

-'I need baggage' and 'I'm paying with a credit card' checkboxes which would add the relevant fees to the fares. From an Australian standpoint, sometimes the difference between a Tiger fare and a Virgin one is far less significant once you add fees.

-A 'get me here by [X]AM/PM' option, or the ability to sort flights by time a-la Hipmunk so that if I'm looking for a connecting flight which is different to the recommended one, it's easier to find.

If you're searching in the US, give Google Flight Search a try - it has a data/price graph that will let you filter by departure/arrival time, and it's instant.

I was actually looking for international/Australian domestic ones. For US domestic, I find Hipmunk is awesome.

This hits very close to home. Thank you so much for writing it.

Yes, this hit close to home and is a very inspiring read.

With our startup we have had multiple of those near-death experiences and currently are navigating a difficult situation. So it was good to read how others handle this. This just gave me a big boost. Thanks for sharing and the openness.

Agreed. Think a lot of founders identify with this story.

Tom - I have read hundreds of founder stories and you write like a skilled novelist and from the heart. Good luck, the numbers will keep going up..

I feel like your product is possibly amazing, but for some reason your front-end stuff just isn't hitting the spot or communicating what you're about enough.

I think you should try out your site on some random everyday folk, pretending like you're not hugely emotionally invested in it, and watch, listen, and ask lots of questions. Just go to a cafe or pub, and ask nicely, people are often kind. Even if you don't get any golden information, it's amazing to see what you do through someone elses eyes.

I'll be brave, reveal what an idiot I am, and honestly explain my "man on the street" experience:

* I follow the link on your blog post

* land page * What is this? "have the best vacations..." hmmm, maybe holiday booker (meaning flights + hotels) * 1. blah 2. blah blah 3. blah, video. whatever, no time, I'm ignoring * oooh, I like this search box. I type: "berlin on sunday" (true, I do in fact want to buy a flight to Berlin on Sunday)

* results page * I get "Birmingham to Berlin" results * I happen to have my browser window small. All I can see is something for typing in an email. I don't want to type in an email or read the text about why I should type in my email. Also I'm in London not Birmingham. I wanted something better than a box to type my email into. I think, "this is rubbish", and go back to the blog post.

* After finishing blog post. I think "maybe if I say I'm in London it'll work better". So I go to front page, and scout round for something to say I'm in London. Find it, and use it.

* results page again * I get "London to Berlin" results * I heard someone say something about a graph in the blog comments, so I scroll down * Ooooooh, nice graph! Wow, I really like this. * Now what?! Another scout around, and I figure out to scroll down some more to view the flight details * Top item is a cheap and correctly timed flight. I am extremely pleased and impressed. * I find myself opening up another tab to go to that airline's page directly. It was done automatically. I'm not sure why, I think it's because I don't quite trust your site enough and wanted to go to a "proper" site to do the actual buying.

So some clear problems:

* I totally didn't notice/get the following flights idea * Small UI niggles, and I guess maybe general look of the site, led to a general feeling of distrust * You communicated some important stuff using text (following feature), and I didn't read any of it * You're UI required me to know to scroll down * You quickly asked for an email. But at that point I hadn't experienced any useful functionality, didn't trust you, or understand what you would do with it.

Sometimes I feel like an a book dedicated to start-up mood management would go a long way. It could just be interviews of founders focused on how they managed ups and downs mentally.

It could be of great aide to founders who haven't made it yet.

Its a roller coaster ride for sure...one day you can change the world and the next you are piece of shit!

Very interesting the part about the "How much do you heart me?" campaign. This was very well designed, leveraged their core product well, got lots of positive feedback and got a significant amount of attention. Yet in terms of driving sales it completely failed.

This may have been a case of reaching the wrong audience, lots of people in the startup scene and lots of travel related people but nowhere near enough people actually looking to take valentines day trips.

I think as in many startups there has been some aversion to pushing the sales stuff. We hear so much about nailing the user experience and not making out products low quality and spammy. As many other articles have also said though build something awesome and people will come may work for some but isn't the reality to everyone, especially in the crowded travel niche.

Thanks for such a candid telling of the Adioso story. Certain parts ring so familiar it's uncanny. Just as you got a boost from hearing that Airbnb had some tough times before the tide came in, we find it encouraging to hear how you've had to battle the odds. Staying tuned for part 2...


Great read, really can't wait for part 2.

At least we know they didn't get acquired by another company, and they didn't quit, so the ending must be good, right?

It is interesting reading this from my perspective as I am in the Melbourne tech/startup scene and have met all these guys at various events, and have even worked with one of them. From the outside Adioso has always looked like the shining beacon of what can be accomplished building startup while living in our wonderful city. The reality of course is so much more.

The obvious take away from this post and something I have already experienced first hand, is the difficulty of raising and networking this far away from the valley. Locally we just don't have the investor or talent pools to draw on and finding people with the right attitude for a startup is very difficult.

Thanks for the epic candid post Tom and I am looking forward to the next instalment!

It really makes you wonder how many of the other shining beacons are also working their asses off to stay afloat. Probably, nobody has it easy.

This is the clearest testament I've seen in a while to what the downside of startup life can be like. The problem with most of these stories is, you read them in the context of something that was eventually successful, so they follow the Bad News Bears/Rocky Balboa/rocumentary narrative of defeat, struggle, success. Understanding that in real life, you have absolutely no guarantee of a happy ending -- in fact, it's the less likely outcome -- is important, I think. Otherwise, you may find yourself thinking "Wait, I can see this thing actually failing - that's not part of the movie script, so I must be doing something wrong!"

Thank you very much for this - a rare, personal and beautifully written insight in to what it's like at a startup after the initial enthusiasm and buzz has worn off and the hard slog has set in. I'm really looking forward to part 2.

Searched for something I've been wanting to do for awhile, and got this message:

We can't get you directly to China just yet.

Might want to put a prominent (disclosed) affiliate link there instead of letting me down. Or just simply say "But wait, there's more! I can get you to country X nearby.

Perhaps consider using different geoip databases for different locales, I might be in the minority but you thought I was 940 miles away, in the USA.

Some of the questions I have after reading the article, which I loved the story behind.

1) What took 2 years to build? I don't understand special technology behind this site.

2) What's the value proposition to a user here? The data isn't even accurate and the site warns me of outdated prices.

3) How do you guys come up with trips? Are those manually maintained?

4) How would you make money in the end if all booking would happen by a third party?

I am not affiliated with Adioso in any way and this is what I can remember about them but, I hope it answers some of your questions.

Adioso quietly launched to Australian discount travellers in early 2008 which had a simple interface and the ability to search over broad terms.

It was initially a side-project but they ended up pursuing it further - and got into YC W'09 program. They had a major global launch in 2010.

With regards to the technology behind the site, Adioso use NLP rather than the traditional stuff you find on other travel type sites entering the origin dates etc in forms, with Adioso, you can enter stuff like "Europe In July" etc.

They also have a routing engine which links flights from low-cost airlines to create long-haul itineraries to help their users save $$$.

Essentially the value proposition for Adioso is to:

- allow travellers with flexible dates & destinations to see where they can go/look for alternatives they never may have thought of

- Use low-cost airlines to make long-haul flights - saving you $$$

With regards to their revenue model - even if it happens on a third party site - they can still take referral fees from both airlines and accomodation.

Similarly, I believe for all of these travel search engines etc that there is the potential to develop a new method for airlines to advertise their services and acquire new customers - there would also be some referal fees (and potentially an upfront fee) for this as well.

This smells like another round of search engine wars, only with niche searches and complex UIs.

How many search engines for the same task will a significant userbase ultimately tolerate? Of course most of the current players will have to exit at some point. And I bet the winners will mainly win on UI because in this case it's complex and the prices seem pretty close.

Following deals, date range and wide area search are very nice touches but then if I want to search the traditional way, helps to remember a bunch of other search engines and figure out noticeably different UIs more suited for the task, like Hipmunk.

And is it really surprising the Adioso userbase remains small with a novel therefore hard to explain value proposition and an unfinished landing page which might not explain it? Also the UI needs bugfixing and polish. Otherwise a few more marketing attempts that clearly communicate the novel searching concept and that it allows you to find the lowest price should lead to slightly higher numbers.

This is one of those blog posts that I don't think I will be able to forget.

Strikes close to home, and so well written.

Very nice piece of writing ... nice to the point where I think this fellow may have found his true calling (He talks about attending a movie premiere, and, honestly, a film adaptation of six years in the trenches of a ycombinator start-up would--I think at least--make decent fodder for a film).

That said, when I read this I immediately thought of this bit of PG's LISP advocacy:


There's clearly no explicit delineation of human drama here, b/c, obviously, it's not intended as such: it's a technical briefing (a really masterful one). One can only guess what trial by fire--if any--there was behind the scenes.

There is always the third option -- quitting (or doing a pure talent acquisition) and going to a successful later stage company in an easier market.

Especially if you're approaching burnout, a purely-technical role in a "safe" place (where there's great technology, but the business itself is largely derisked, at least on a short timescale) is probably going to be a good way to recover.

Especially if you're covered in preference, for founders, it's probably relatively better to go to the best new role vs. maximizing sale price in a talent acquisition but going to a less interesting company or position.

Wow, what an amazing post. Honest, sensitive, and very well written.

A friend and I almost did a travel-search startup, but I'm we didn't, we wanted to do something like Wanderfly (before we knew it existed). Seems like Wanderfly made somewhat of a pivot though, so that either means the idea (of selecting interests and a price range or even certain geographical areas and doing relevant searches) didn't work at the time, at all, or the execution was flawed. I very much doubt that bad execution was a factor, it looked very good to me.

You have cool + unique + valuable core capabilities but you lack a distribution mechanism and your site communication/UI is ineffective.

Spend more effort getting the right people involved and less effort on coding. Talk to the guys below who have good landing page and virality suggestions. You dont necessarily need one of them fulltime, but you do necessarily need to listen and internalize what they're saying. Be generous with equity to solve this problem.

Off-topic: Adioso sounds like the Spanish word for hateful (Odioso).

Might confuse people in Spanish speaking markets.

As a native spanish speaker: it reminds you much more of "adios" (goodbye). I didn't even think of "odioso", which isn't nearly so common.

I even thought that they possibly based the name on the Spanish word "adios" (you say "bye" when you leave, right?).

I'm also a native speaker.

I do get the play on words with the word adios. But after saying it aloud my wife asked me if I was saying Odioso instead.

I actually say bye rather than adios. :)

I was just sharing that it didn't remind me of "odioso" until you mentioned it. In any case, "adioso" still doesnt sound good to my spanish-speaking ears, but I understand that's not the target market.

I wonder what happened since then? Socialcam launch party was quite a long time ago, and the story is basically around that time. And the story doesn't sound like a startup failure postmortem, so I'm kinda confused. Hopefully some good news coming up in the next post?

Keep ploughing in for growth Tom. You'll get there. Its part of startup life cycle.

Sometimes a better advice is to quit.

Here are some good points about quitting talked in Freakonomics: "The Upside of Quitting" http://www.freakonomics.com/2011/09/30/new-freakonomics-radi...

Heartfelt, true, emotions raw and stripped to the bone. Amazing post.

I used it to search door a flight from LA to Rhode Island. The date list went from April -> August...alphabetically? April is done and the drop down only included April and August.

Thanks for sharing an honest insight. I think many of us have been or are in a same position, so its good to read younjourney. But, please edit it down and make it shorter.

Best writing I read this month, and I only read half of it yet. Story captures the startup situation and founder feelings really well, I found a lot of parallels.

You want your numbers to go up?

You need a viral component. That "You aren't following these results" thing should be a Facebook app (or maybe a Twitter bot?), not an email.

> Suddenly email was back, and now it was our big hope.

Email wasn't "back." It had never ceased to be important.

By the same token, when all those "email is dead" memes went around, email wasn't "dead" either. "email is for old people","everyone uses facebook", etc. were all popular for a bit a couple of years ago, iirc.

Promise you'll write part 2! Thank you so much for sharing - can totally relate. All the best, Tom.

Nice blog post but since when Greece belongs to Asia? http://i.imgur.com/NMYeQ.png

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