Today, managing director Steve Singh sits down with Troop Travel Fo-founders Dennis Vilovic and Leonard Cremer. Madrona invested in Troop and its corporate travel meeting management platform in 2021 and was particularly interested in how Dennis and Leonard were effectively creating a new technology for a market segment that was largely served through manual processes. These three talk about looking for the right problem to solve to launch a company, and how you decide if it’s the right time. They also discuss when you need to switch from bringing on generalists to bringing on experts, how to identify the right investors to work with, why working closely with customers and potential customers is so important, and so much more.
This transcript was autogenerated and edited for clarity.
Steve: Welcome to another episode of Founded & Funded. As a direct result of a global pandemic, the nature of the workforce has changed. Where we live and where we work has evolved. What has not changed is our desire to get together to collaborate and improve the quality of life, so how do globally distributed teams come together to collaborate? To explore that question, we’re going to be speaking with Dennis Vilovic and Leonard Cremer, the co-founders of Troop Travel, a next-generation meetings management travel platform.
Dennis, Leonard, why don’t we start with just speaking to your experiences prior to Troop? What was it, as far as a pain point, that inspired you to create Troop? I’d love it if you could explain how two people who were unlikely, perhaps as a pair, came together to solve this problem.
Dennis: A quick introduction about myself. I’m Dennis, one of the founders, German originally, economist by profession. I’m based in Spain, and I used to work my whole life as a consultant, driving efficiency and how government institutions, or organizations in general, operate. So introducing new business processes and technology, etc. And there were two key moments in the time before founding Troop, which basically led to identifying that there’s a big challenge we are solving here right now. One was in 2014 when actually I was trying to meet up with a friend who was living in a different country. I hadn’t seen this person for a year, and we said, “Hey, let’s just come together somewhere,” It didn’t really matter where. We just wanted to spend a weekend together.
So I remember I literally went into Google, and I put in, “Okay, I’m based in Madrid. My friend is based in Munich, where do we meet?” And I thought there would be this service to help us — to tell me, “Well, if you meet in Paris, that’s the cost, and if you meet in Lisbon, it would look like this, etc.” Well, it didn’t exist, so I manually gathered these data points in a Google Sheet. It took me about a week to figure out how to bring two people together, and in the end, we realized, Milan would be the best option. So we met in Milan, and it was great. Fast-forward a few years, and the second part of the story is that I started to work for a global organization, which is a membership organization, having a lot of members all over the world, bringing them together frequently, and I was part of a remote team at the time already. I was wondering, whenever we organize our internal team meetings, why would we always go to locations that, in my opinion, didn’t make any sense.
For example, we kept going to Paris. Paris is a beautiful city, but it’s very, very expensive. And I thought, why are we not going to Prague, for example? And that’s where I had this frustration in that organization, and that’s where I met Leonard, who was a member of that organization, that’s where we realized we should maybe try to solve this.
Steve: Fantastic. And Leonard, what’s your background, and how did you get interested in solving this problem?
Leonard: Now Steve, so my background is from a technology perspective. So, I studied engineering, and then I worked in telecoms for a number of years. Our previous business that we founded was integrating with mobile operators and doing high-volume transaction switching for them, and we grew that business across Africa and to a number of countries. But then that industry started to change, and I joined the organization EO, Entrepreneurial Organization, to network internationally and to look for other opportunities. I think it shows you also the power of in-person meetings where I met Dennis in person two times at some of these events organized by the organization. And it’s really through those events and discussions with Dennis that he introduced me to the idea.
Initially, I didn’t know if there was opportunity or not. But after the second time I came back to South Africa, I started doing some software around it to test the scenarios, and then we saw that actually there was opportunity to save quite a lot on the cost side of the travel, but also the travel time. And then, from there, we started exploring the idea properly and talking to funders, etc.
Steve: That’s incredible background. One of the things that is common across both of you is that you both worked at fairly large organizations in the past, had very comfortable jobs, and could meet your needs and your family’s needs easily. It’s risky. It’s challenging to go start a business. How did you get comfortable with that idea? What drove you to say, “Yeah, this is the right time to go do it, or this is the right thing for me to do?”
Dennis: For me, it was really, I was working in this organization which was working with entrepreneurs. I had a direct contact with these entrepreneurs who were kind of a different breed, and it was fascinating working with them, the energy and always solving problems. So I really got excited about being an entrepreneur myself, but I was looking for this opportunity, I was looking for this one idea, and I couldn’t find it. And the light bulb went on at an event in Bangkok in 2016, I think, where I was having a drink with the founder of Trivago, and I was talking about this frustration I had in that organization with how we are organizing our meetings. And I asked him, Rolf is his name, “Rolf, why does a service not exist where you bring in your starting location, it tells you where we should we meet?” And then he looked at me, and he said, “Well, what a fantastic idea.” I was like, “Wow, oh really?” So is that the idea I was looking for? And then, the next evening, I was having dinner with Leonard, and I was telling him that story.
Leonard got very excited, and then two weeks later, Leonard was back in South Africa. I was back in Kenya at that time. Leonard gave me a call and said, “Hey, I actually looked into that idea, and I think there is something.” So there were some key moments which led us into, well, at least spending our free time working on this concept, and then the real game changer came as then a few months later actually the founder of Trivago said hey, he wants to invest in that idea we have, and then I said, okay, if someone gives us money to build this business, then we have to go all in. And that was, for me, the reason then to say, okay, let’s actually become an entrepreneur, and have enjoyed it very much so far.
Leonard: For me, the journey was a little bit different. I think for me because I’ve gone through the journey myself, I understand what the adventure is of building a company. And I think it’s just, in my previous company I’d been there for 15 years, and it was an established company, and I think that excitement was gone, and I was really looking for something to get involved in again. So at that time when I met Dennis, I was actually exploring a few different ideas around where you can apply technology to make the business processes better. I think when we started exploring this idea, I was still continuing with a few of these ideas, but then as the idea crystallized and we saw there was a real opportunity, and then also I think when we raised the funding from Rolf from Trivago, that’s when I stopped all the other opportunities and went full time into this and then started the journey to where we are now.
Steve: And so far, I’m assuming it’s been a fantastic experience.
Leonard: I think for both of us, it’s really, every time you do it, you learn new things, and I think it’s just such a unique opportunity that we have here that we’re excited about the future.
Steve: So you gentlemen started the company in 2017, and a couple of years later, there was a global pandemic. Now, most founders, especially those operating in the travel industry, would’ve looked at the impact of the pandemic and said, boy, maybe we should rethink our strategy and maybe think about a different area to focus on, but you saw it as an opportunity. Tell me a little bit about why.
Dennis: So, actually, the time before the pandemic was quite exciting. 2019 was the first year where we had paying customers, and immediately we signed Fortune 100 companies. So it was quite exciting. So we went into 2020 really with a lot of expectation, a lot of hope. We were at the business travel show in London actually just two weeks before the pandemic started, and you could feel at that show already like, wow, something is happening. People heard some news from China and then some people got worried. But I don’t know, at least on my side, I never really thought that that would impact us so much because what I’ve always believed in is that we need in-person meetings, we need connection, so this will happen. So the pandemic is a temporary thing, and as human beings, we have to or we required to come together more often, and it’s way more complicated now to meet in person. That’s a bit of what we saw.
As the pandemic started, people stopped to travel, people stopped to have meetings, but people were thinking already, okay, how will the future look like and will it be different? There were some additional data points that no one thought about in pre-pandemic, like what entry requirements if you travel to a country, for example. And so those were all functionalities that we were able to bring into the platform. And then, as we were getting a bit out of the pandemic, that was one of the main reasons why we were able to grow the business in that time. So in 2020, we tripled the business, we tripled the customer base, and we continued to grow in 2021 as well.
Steve: Incredible. So when you think about the impact of the pandemic, it seems like that was actually obviously coming out of it, a potential growth vehicle for the company. Is that a fair way of thinking about it? Leonard, what do you think?
Leonard: Yeah, for sure, Steve. I think, as Dennis said, I think the data that we brought in about Covid restrictions, that was a big positive for us. So I think really it complicated the whole travel experience, especially for larger corporates where compliance and safety of the people are important. And I think the other thing that happened is during Covid, their employees couldn’t travel. So the people responsible for the travel program at times actually looked more strategically at the products that they used and their strategy going forward.
But I think a third thing maybe just to mention is that during that first lockdown period, we also called some of our customers and industry players to a strategy session around travel in the future. We’ve included people from the flight industry, hotel industry, and some of our customers, just for a workshop around it. So for everyone, it was so uncertain of where it was going to go that everyone was looking for answers and just people to discuss this with. I think some of the ideas actually came from that session on what created some thoughts on our side of how to move forward with the strategy of the business.
Dennis: And just to add maybe to what Leonard was saying, in pre-pandemic already, there was some remote work happening. Actually, in our case, I have been working remotely since 2016, but it wasn’t that common. But then, obviously, with the pandemic where within a couple of weeks companies had to move from working on-premise into working fully remote, people actually started to enjoy the benefits of it. Obviously, there are some implications to it, but it really showed that, well, as we’re coming out of the pandemic, there are certain things people don’t want to give up anymore. People don’t want to give up that flexibility of deciding, “Hey, do I go to the office, or can I work at home”? There are a lot of things we can do actually virtually, but then there are very key things we can only really achieve when we come together in person.
And one of the key things is building this connection, building culture within a company, which is the backbone of any organization, the connection between people. And I think a lot of companies have realized now that as they’re coming back on their, maybe turning into a hybrid work arrangement that hey, we have to facilitate building these connections between our people, and one way of doing it is by having way more internal in-person meetings.
Steve: So before Troop Travel, how did companies, whether you’re talking about some of the largest companies in the world or even small and medium-sized companies, how did they determine where to meet? And when you think about that now in the context of Troop, what’s the value that they’re getting out of it? Maybe you can give me some examples.
Dennis: So it’s quite interesting that when we talk to potential customers, and we tell them about the value of actually asking yourself where should we meet, that people have never thought about that that it would make sense to ask that question. And then we share some concrete data with them. And I think there’s a very interesting use case we have with a technology company based in San Francisco. They contacted us, and they wanted to do their first all-team meeting after the pandemic — 1,000 people roughly distributed over 76 different places from all over the world. And they said, okay, we want to bring everyone to San Francisco, and they asked to help them by basically letting them know the impact in terms of cost, etc. So we ran it through our technology, and we told them, okay, if you send 1,000 people to San Francisco, it’ll be roughly $2.5 million in cost. But then the real interesting data point no one ever thought about is that it would take the group roughly 14 years of working time — they would spend 14 years of working time on planes traveling to San Francisco and traveling back home. And that event would actually produce 2,500 tons of C02. So we said, hey, if you now do the same meeting in Paris, you would actually be able to reduce the costs by $400,000, reduce the travel time by four years, and avoid 800 tons of CO2.
Steve: That’s incredible. So massive economic savings, massive savings of time, and frankly, lower reproduction of CO2 or greenhouse gases. So one of the things that I find interesting about this market is that unlike some markets where there are existing technologies and cloud-native technologies are delivering oftentimes 10X better value props, here we’re talking about a business need that really wasn’t solved for. Why do you think that need was not solved for before? Obviously, it’s wonderful to be able to go after what effectively is a greenfield opportunity. Why do you think the need wasn’t addressed in the past?
Dennis: One key thing is really as well that technology was actually not able to manage all these different data points bringing together, and I think Leonard can talk to that, how much is really happening in the platform when we run those analyses and as well just simply, people in the past were going to their TMCs, to the travel management companies and ask them hey, we want to do a meeting, can you give us a location? So, in the end, then the people in the agency were doing a manual exercise, which is extremely time-consuming, and extremely difficult to do, and I think there are a couple of components why people haven’t addressed that in the past.
Leonard: Let me just add to that quickly, Steve. I think the one that Dennis mentioned about the technology, that’s a big point. I think it’s a massive amount of data that you need to manage and process and make sense of. And I think it’s just on both the back end and the front end side, the web browsers and the laptops that we use nowadays, it’s much more capable and can process that amount of data much easier where previously it was a challenge. And then secondly is access to the data. We saw that some APIs like Skyscanner, Booking.com, exposed all the APIs that weren’t previously accessible so easily. So I think there are a few factors that came together and just made the opportunity possible, maybe at the time when we started exploring that opportunity.
Steve: Yeah, what’s interesting, even in the legacy model, these are totally disconnected processes. Determining where to go was a very manual process to your question of where do we meet. Then, booking it was effectively re-keying a whole bunch of information into a booking tool, and then there’s no real itinerary management. Talk to me a little bit about what is the vision for Troop’s product suite. It’s obviously more than just answering the simple question of where do you go?
Leonard: Yeah, exactly. I think what we saw initially, our idea was more around finding the best meeting place, which was very much a manual process, and as soon as the meeting got too complex, it just didn’t happen because it was too much data processing manually. So people didn’t do it and they picked a spot, like Dennis mentioned, like Paris, and you just go there again and again, and it’s personal opinions, and I think we filling that piece of the need, we filling with our tool like Troop, but then I think the interesting thing is that when you do that exercise, we said right at the beginning of our process of executive meeting, so it’s exactly what you say, you need to book it, you need to manage it, there are expenses associated, etc, and because we right at the beginning of that process, you can then mold the product out to service the whole journey of a meeting planner and also attendees. So I think it’s just a very interesting position.
I think our strategy is really to be able to develop our product, to be able to cover all aspects of meeting planning, but not only the product or the platform side, I think for us, it’s important to build productivity tools for the ecosystem so that the different players within the system could collaborate. For instance, the person organizing the meeting should be able to collaborate with meeting planners in the city where they want to go and get proposals and collaborate with them around the proposals. Also, the data providers in the industry, like meeting space providers, visa providers, and local transport, we wabt to enable them to become part of this ecosystem through a marketplace that they could integrate into our platform and make their services available to either our customers that are planning the meeting or the local meeting planners that want to do proposals. So I think for us, it’s the platform, the whole journey, but also this whole ecosystem and to enable them all to be more productive and solve the meeting planning process in a better way.
Steve: So, in effect, what you’re doing is you’re building the booking and a full travel experience for meetings as opposed to individual travel, which obviously has been automated by companies like Concur in the past, but there’s really not been anything to automate the group travel experience.
Leonard: Exactly. I think that the group planning process is quite a bit different from individual travel. And I think the complexity for a meeting planner is that traditionally it was different people booking in different places and then collaborating all that and making sure who’s booked, who hasn’t booked, what the status is of the hotel booking, flight bookings, etc. So we enable all that with the future vision of Troop Travel, which just makes the whole process a lot easier.
Steve: And maybe Dennis, you can expand a little bit upon the meeting planner concept that Leonard just mentioned. Certainly, the way I interpret it is that, hey, if we’re picking a location for the group to meet, you want local experts to be able to advise not just on locations to use, but also maybe even coordinate as part of the trip. Is that the right way of thinking about it? And then how do you see that ecosystem expanding?
Dennis: So I think the big challenge when the difference of a meeting versus a normal business travel is that there are a lot of different components which are part of the things you have to consider. It’s not only the flight or the hotel, it’s the meeting room, it’s activities, restaurants, local transport, a lot of different things. So then when you pick or when you look at a hotel option for your meeting, it basically defines the other components around it depending a bit on the size, but let’s say if you have 30 people and you look at a hotel, well, ideally you don’t want to have dinner than on the other side of town because then you have to add local transport. So it’s the connections between these different data points, which really is almost like the secret sauce of the meeting, which makes a meeting successful.
And I think the way we look at local experts is that there are people in every city around the world who are focusing on organizing professional meetings in those cities, and they know exactly. If tomorrow I want to do an executive meeting in Seattle, they will tell me, well, there are really only these three hotels which will work for you and if you take this hotel, then you should take that restaurant and you should take that activity, etc. And I think that’s the fantastic knowledge we are bringing into the technology to actually help you to really make your meeting successful.
Steve: That’s incredible. So you end up getting a far better experience in each location than you could if it was centrally managed through an organization that may or may not know the details of that particular city or that particular town?
Dennis: Yeah. Just maybe to give you a concrete example, we are planning our next ALTI meeting. As I said, we are fully remote, we’re planning our next ALTI meeting for next year, and we start running it through Troop Travel, and we came up with a short list of destinations we want to actually get proposals in. So we shared them with one of our internal meeting planners, and then, she actually immediately said we were looking for example at Zanzibar, there’s one option in Tanzania, and then she said, “Hey, Zanzibar will not necessarily work for your meeting because there’s really only one hotel which can host let’s say a group of 60 people. When you do your next meeting, you might be around 80 people, so you really don’t have accommodation there. And secondly, the internet is very slow there.” So there is this knowledge, these gold nuggets, so to say, of knowledge that are crucial when you plan those meetings because it could really completely change the outcome of your meeting. =
Steve: So look, let’s shift gears a little bit here. So you’re effectively creating a new market or technology for a segment that was largely served through manual processes. One of the things that we’re seeing across other companies is how AI can be used to really aid in the customer service or customer experience part of the process. In the case of Troop Travel, post-booking or the in-trip experience, AI can be used to help. Maybe you can share some examples of how Troop is incorporating AI into that experience.
Leonard: Steve, I think it’s a very interesting position that, again, because we know the data from the planning side, we know the attendees are going to attend, we know what flights they’re going to be on, so I think there we see opportunities to use AI to monitor either the flight or the bookings or other flights, delays, etc., and it can be used there in both ways or two sides of the planning process. One is for the attendees. We could notify them of potential delays and other suggestions like flight options to make sure that the meeting can still go on. On the other side — the meeting planner — I think there are some interesting use cases there as well where they know about all the attendees, but they are not going to monitor it all the time, and I think there’s a service both ways in the offering that we’ve got to use AI around that type of servicing.
Steve: In fact, if you are a large global TMC that’s partnering with Troop Travel, your cost structure to service that group travel experience is, in effect, a lot lower than in today’s model.
Leonard: Yeah, exactly. I think the interesting thing there is because we are integrating a lot of data providers, it could either be flights or hotels or risk that comes up, the duty of care. I think there are so many scenarios where we could make this process more effective and, as you say, reduce cost and the human effort to service that.
Steve: Fantastic. Let’s maybe shift gears for just a second and let’s talk about the team. Dennis, you mentioned that Troop Travel is a completely distributed organization. How do you see the company continuing to evolve and frankly, how do you think about the team and what you need, and how you’ll be able to bring those individuals in in what is a very different model of building a company?
Dennis: Yeah, so over the last, well, 16-17 months, we have grown the team from literally 6 people to 60 now. So we did massive hiring efforts and it was very important for us to really find the right people and they have the right mindset and specifically, the right core values. And I think there are a couple of things which have worked for us. One thing I think is actually quite beneficial for us is that while we are basically a Spanish-South African startup, as I said I’m in Spain, Leonard in South Africa, and I think these kinds of opportunities we have here are not very common in our markets, while in the US we have more, let’s say maybe companies similar like us with this opportunity. So it’s quite interesting for us to capture talent because it is a very unique opportunity. People understand the value of it, and we are able to really get great talent here.
And at the very beginning, I think, we, not on let’s say on the technical side but let’s say on the business side, we were adding more generalists because there are so many different things you have to work on and you have to have this entrepreneurial mindset basically because you have to build it. You have to build the sales motion, we have to get the first customers, we have to figure out how do we manage those customers, etc. And that obviously has changed as we were growing and now, especially after our latest funding round, we really focus on bringing now those experts of those different areas into the company. Now, we have reached a certain level and now we bring these people in who have built sales motions, grown into millions of ARR, built marketing functions, built customer success to really then focus on those areas.
And the biggest thing I think for us is our core values. So a key value of us is trust, and I think that’s crucial. So I don’t want to monitor someone, how many hours are you working because I believe that you have an interest in doing the best for the company because it’s beneficial for you as well. And I think values and culture for us are really, really important, and that’s why we have a very strict recruitment process where we go really into those culture interviews and where people as well sometimes are not able to pass to the next level.
Steve: So your recruiting process is really optimized and designed around a distributed and global workforce. Is that different, do you think, than more traditional settings?
Dennis: I think so. I really think so. Again, not everyone likes to work fully remote and we understand that, obviously, in-person interactions are crucial, but luckily we have our own technology to help us figure out how can we come together. And that’s why once a year, we bring the full company together, but then even throughout the year, they have their smaller meetups. So it’s really a combination of things. It’s the moment when you have this in-person connection, that’s where the magic is happening, but then you go back home, and there’s a lot of things you can obviously do fully remotely, and it allows you actually as well to bring your life and work closer together. I feel it’s almost like we can’t look at it separately anymore. We shouldn’t think about, okay, this is my life, and this is work. No, it’s actually this is your life, and you should spend your time on things you’re excited about. So we are bringing people on board who are really excited about solving this problem we’re trying to solve.
Steve: Yeah, I love that. I love that. Hey, maybe let’s hit a couple more questions, and then we’ll go ahead and wrap up. You’ve obviously raised a few rounds of funding. For folks who are just starting out, as they think about capital raises, what advice would you give them?
Dennis: I always remember when actually we met the first time in person, Steve and I asked you, “Steve, why did you actually invest in us?” And I’ll never forget what you said and you said, “I invested in you guys because I see that you’re obsessed with solving the problem and I know that whenever there’s a challenge, you’re going to find a way to overcome that.” And that’s for me really, I think, the basis, to be honest, of any business. Build a business because you want to change or you want to solve a problem, not because you want to become rich or whatsoever. All these things will come if you solve a problem. That will be the side effects. But if you are not excited about what you’re building, what you’re solving, then you will see another opportunity and then you will follow that opportunity, but in the end, you will not be able to build what you want to build. So I think that’s for me one of the key things and then so as a starting point, the basis.
Secondly, then, work with your customers as closely as possible — it worked for us at the very beginning. We didn’t have any customers, but there were so many people in this industry who were helping us out and just talking to us and giving us input because they were excited about innovation. And all this feedback is very, very interesting, very important. Still today, for us it’s crucial. And our customers, again, are large corporations and they tell us that they laugh, that we are listening to what they say, and that actually when we have now our quarterly business reviews, we are bringing our developers into those meetings to actually listen to the comments of our customers, and people really appreciate that.
Leonard: So I think maybe just to add something to raising money from investors, I think Rolf’s investment really kicked off this journey for us, but I think really the way we raised money from a few different investors and I think for us what is really just unique with the investment from a donor is the active involvement from particularly Steve on the donor side. And I think for us as founders, that’s really incredible value add to the whole journey. But I think, in general, the decisions we make and the context — we’ve got the network … I think that raising money from investors, it’s not only the money that you should look for, it’s also the type of investor or the particular investor group that you raise from is very important in this journey.
Steve: Fantastic, fantastic. When you think about Troop Travel, when you think about it 10 years from now, what is it? What does it look like? What’s a measure of success?
Dennis: I think almost every company in the world has an empty spot available that we should fill because companies like us, small companies, we need our own technology to manage our meetings. So I would love to see that whenever someone thinks about organizing a meeting, they think about Troop Travel.
Leonard: Yeah, I agree with what Dennis said there. Maybe just to add, I think from a product perspective, I think what would be great for us is that, during this value chain, we’ve got the meeting planner, the attendee, the local expert, the data providers, the partners, that all of these players see value in what Troop Travel is and want to work with the Troop product and not be forced, for instance, like a Fortune 500 tell their local experts to work with it. You want all the different players in this ecosystem to love working with the product and to want to use it. And then, yeah, I think what Dennis said is the other side of it.
Steve: I’ll just add one thing to both your comments. So, Dennis, you’re a hundred percent right. What really drew me to both of you gentlemen was your obsession to solve this problem, and having built a company myself in the past, it’s that maniacal focus on solving the problem better than anyone else in the world can solve it. That really takes you through to the realization of that opportunity. That said, the other thing that I was truly amazed by is that this is an area that really hasn’t been addressed, the simplification of how you plan a meeting, how you book it, how the expenses are accounted for, the analytics, and then managing the itinerary all the way through the process and notifying everybody about where things are, where other travelers are, and when they’ll be there and coordinating across an entire group experience. It’s amazing to me that this problem hasn’t been solved.
And so we saw an opportunity, we at Madrona saw an opportunity to partner with two incredible founders to go build a multi-billion dollar company to solve this problem, and to be fair, it’s not so much that hey, we want to go build a multi-billion dollar company, which of course we certainly do, but solving a problem that becomes the fabric of how business is conducted, that’s compelling.
So we’re really honored to be on this journey with both of you and with the 58 other members of the Troop Travel team today. Gentlemen, thank you very much for being a part of Founded & Funded, and I look forward to seeing you in the near future at our next meeting location.
Leonard: Thank you, Steve.
Dennis: Thank you, Steve.
Coral: Thank you for listening to this episode of Founded & Funded. If you’re interested in learning more about Troop Travel, visit trooptravel.com. Thank you again for listening and tune in a couple of weeks for our next episode of Founded & Funded.