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Polina Raygorodskaya is the co-founder and CEO of Wanderu.com, the largest ground travel search in North America. Working with major partner's including Amtrak, Megabus, Greyhound, Boltbus, NY Trailways and many more to help people find the best trip by bus or train travel at the best price, Wanderu's multi-modal search was recognized as the "Most Innovative Technology" of 2013 at SXSW Interactive and has helped over 17 million people find their perfect trips.

Prior to Wanderu, Polina founded Polina Fashion LLC, a boutique fashion, travel and luxury PR firm where she represented some of the biggest names in fashion and produced over 100 events across the United States. 

Her entrepreneurial work has been recognized by national media outlets like Business Week, the Fox Business Channel and Legal Zoom. In 2015, Inc Magazine named Polina one of the “Best 30 Entrepreneurs Under 30” and in 2016 she was named one of Forbes 30 under 30 in Consumer Tech.  Polina earned a Bachelor’s of Science in Business Administration at Babson College.

You can follow her on Twitter: @polinatravels

She will be live on April 19th starting 930 AM PT for one and a half hours during which she will answer as many questions as possible.

  • SA

    Shaker A

    almost 4 years ago #

    Hi Polina,

    Thanks for taking the time to be here! I have a few questions for you.

    1) You partner with a lot of large companies for wanderu. When you were starting out and didn't have the past success (in the travel industry), to show your potential partners as an indicator of future success, how did you convince them to give you a shot?

    2) Can you break down the process you went through to find companies you wanted to work with, find people to champion you in those companies, and what was your value proposition that convinced them to take you seriously (and give you a shot) even though you were just starting out?

    3) How did you decide on what percent of the transaction you would take? What did you do to get your partners to agree to the percentage you proposed, as opposed to them using their size to force you to take a smaller cut than you thought you deserved? Any tips on negotiating a percentage with suppliers when it comes to the marketplace model?

    Thanks again

    • PR

      Polina Raygorodskaya

      almost 4 years ago #

      To answer your first question: One of the most important things that we did from the beginning of our business is realize how little we know about the industry and decide to find an advisor that can help us understand the way bus companies thought, what is important to them, etc. Through building a network at industry events we got an introduction to a former CEO of Greyhound who was very forward thinking and led a lot of innovation in the industry. We convinced him to sign on as an early advisor and he helped us understand what was valuable to potential partners and helped make introductions.

      4 Share
      • PR

        Polina Raygorodskaya

        almost 4 years ago #

        We went to a conference in the industry and realize how little we knew about it. This was in the research phase, pre-building the product. At that point we decided we needed to find a good advisor that understood the space and could help us navigate. This was one of the most important decisions for our business and was important to get us to where we are today.

      • AA

        Anuj Adhiya

        almost 4 years ago #

        So what was that specific point from a product timeline perspective (eg when you were at the MVP stage itself), that led to this realization of needing an advisor? And based on your experience, what's the right stage to think about getting one on board?

    • PR

      Polina Raygorodskaya

      almost 4 years ago #

      To answer your second question: finding companies we wanted to work with we decided initially to focus only on one region. Because people travel within 500 miles mostly via bus and train it became clear to us that it was important to have at least 50% coverage of one region in order to have the most value for our users. So we focused on the Northeast US for our launch and made a list of all of the companies that we needed to have to cover that region. From there we found people to make introductions to the companies and put together presentations showing them the value of working with Wanderu and the unique technology we had that would benefit them and drive them incremental customers. Our early advisor who we signed on who was the former CEO of Greyhound had a lot of relationships in the industry so he was able to make some intros and we would meet with potential partners and present our value.

      2 Share
      • PR

        Polina Raygorodskaya

        almost 4 years ago #

        We decided on 50% minimum based on what the value of our company was (which is the ability to compare multiple options). If there aren't multiple options to compare then the product isn't valuable to the customer. Part of this was based on feedback we got from potential customers, part of it was gut feeling.

      • AA

        Anuj Adhiya

        almost 4 years ago #

        How did you come to the realization that you needed at least 50% coverage of one region to be valuable? Was it some specific data, user feedback etc?

    • PR

      Polina Raygorodskaya

      almost 4 years ago #

      For your third question: we tried to look for what was standard in the industry that partners were already used to paying and went a bit lower. To figure out what to charge I would start first by understanding your costs (including what it might cost you to acquire a customer) and then add some margin to it. Most industries have standards already set that you can also look to.

  • TS

    Terence Strong

    almost 4 years ago #

    Hi Polina:

    Thanks for doing this!

    How did you build in defensability and differentiation into your company to ensure new entrants would not be able to out-compete you?

    -Terence

    • PR

      Polina Raygorodskaya

      almost 4 years ago #

      There will always be competition so the trick is not to worry too much about them and focus 100% on creating the best possible product. We are always thinking ahead and getting input from our users about what they want and what we should be building next. From day one our goal was very focused on solving a problem, at the time it was being able to search from point to point and find options (and choose which is best for you). When we build the search we built it with that in mind, not based on what was already out there and what other people are doing. This thinking is what keeps us in the lead despite being in a competitive space. I think the best way to be defensible is to focus 100% on product and customer and dedicate your time to executing what is best for them.

      3 Share
  • AG

    Arthur G

    almost 4 years ago #

    What pro-tips would you share for those interested in promoting their app digitally? Thanks!

    • PR

      Polina Raygorodskaya

      almost 4 years ago #

      There are a number of things that are important for driving app downloads. To start make sure you understand ASO and optimizing for keywords that potential downloaders are searching for. The more specific your app to a particular niche the better as there is likely less competition. Having high reviews is also very important because often times that is the first judgement of your company by people that discover it and are considering downloading it. Therefor it is extremely important to focus on product, take feedback from users into account and adjust your app based on customer feedback. You should also encourage existing users to leave reviews. Power users can also be activated to spread the word about your app. We ran several contests to encourage power users to spread the word that have been very successful.

      • PR

        Polina Raygorodskaya

        almost 4 years ago #

        The number really depends on the business but it's repeat customers that are most likely to want to spread the word. Whatever is meaningful to your company in terms of number of times a customer bought something from you.

      • AA

        Anuj Adhiya

        almost 4 years ago #

        What's the definition of a power user in Wanderu's context?

      • AG

        Arthur G

        almost 4 years ago #

        Thanks a lot for your thorough answers, Polina, and keep up the great work with Wanderu! Cheers from Amsterdam! :)

  • AA

    Aldin A

    almost 4 years ago #

    Hey Polina,

    Awesome having you here!

    1) What was your process for researching the industry (an industry where you had no prior experience in)? What tools did you use to facilitate the process?

    2)How do you structure your time as a ceo day to day, and what do you focus on at different phases of the company(ie. conception, validating product-market feed, seed round, a-round, etc)?

    3)What does wanderu's marketing stack look like for the online tools you use to gathering and analyzing data?
    Can you list them out and also state your rationale for using each of the tools?

    Thanks.

    • PR

      Polina Raygorodskaya

      almost 4 years ago #

      Question 1: There are a lot of companies out there that focus on market research and this is what I turned to first. If you are currently in college most University libraries subcribe to services that specialize in research so you can go through the ones your University has and look through those. If you aren't currently in college google is the first resource to turn to. We spent a lot of time doing research, reading studies that we came across, speaking with bus companies and speaking with potential customers. We issued a competition to conduct a survey and received over 300 responses from people that travelled by bus to obtain their feedback.

      2 Share
    • PR

      Polina Raygorodskaya

      almost 4 years ago #

      Question 2: My day to day varies greatly depending on what our priorities as a business are. On a quarterly basis we do planning meetings with the management team and set the focus for both short term and long term goals and company vision. A good amount of my time is spent on recruiting, finding the right people for the team and giving them the tools and power to be able to make decisions and do their job. Then I provide feedback to these people. I also spend a lot of time speaking at conferences, meeting with current and future partners, interacting with media and executing on things we need to do to move forward.

      • PR

        Polina Raygorodskaya

        almost 4 years ago #

        ROI really depends on what you are trying to get out of it. Some conferences may have potential customers you can convert you versus others are about building awareness within a specific sector about your company or establishing credibility. Some are about giving back to the community. I get invited to speak at a lot of events but for the ones that I specifically seek out I will reach out to the organizer and see if they are looking for speakers and provide my credentials and experience speaking at previous events.

      • AA

        Anuj Adhiya

        almost 4 years ago #

        What's the ROI on speaking at conferences been for you?
        Also, how have you managed to get yourself on the list of speakers at these events?

    • PR

      Polina Raygorodskaya

      almost 4 years ago #

      Question 3:
      Except for Google Analytics, the two tools we use on the SEO front are Moz Open Site Explorer and SERPs.com which are both pretty awesome tools.

      Moz OSE - Helps us to identify links acquired and analyze the backlinks of any other websites.

      SERPs.com - Gives us the ability to localize keyword rank tracking for thousands of keywords so we can quickly identify whether a drop in traffic is related to keyword ranking changes or soft search volume. It also helps us identify which SEO strategies that we're using are working to improve organic ranking.

      2 Share
  • AL

    Arsene Lavaux

    almost 4 years ago #

    Bonjour Polina,

    Babson rocks! :wink:

    How do get into search for ground transportation from luxury fashion PR?

    • PR

      Polina Raygorodskaya

      almost 4 years ago #

      The PR firm is what made me passionate about solving this problem in the first place. I was living in NYC while running the PR firm and would travel frequently to surrounding major cities to meet with clients (Boston, Philly, DC, etc). I always took the bus because it was convenient (I could book my tickets last minute for a decent price) and the bus had power outlets and wifi so it allowed me to stay productive during the trip. But I found the booking process to be the complete opposite of convenient. I hated having to go to 10 different websites to see who was traveling at the time I wanted to go (and deal with many terrible websites). This is one of the big things that inspired me to want to solve this problem not just for myself but for the millions of people traveling by bus each month.

    • AL

      Arsene Lavaux

      almost 4 years ago #

      How do you get into search for ground transportation from luxury fashion PR? (too much French wine!)

  • GM

    George Mills

    almost 4 years ago #

    What was your strategy to get initial traction? How did you get your first 100 users?

    • PR

      Polina Raygorodskaya

      almost 4 years ago #

      We created a private beta and allowed people to sign up. The first test we ran to get users was created landing pages for specific keywords (IE boston to new york bus) and used a Google Adwords $100 credit to test whether this is something people would want and what our paid CAC would be. Obviously with $100 it is a bit hard to truly optimize but we saw very high click through rates and got our first beta signups that way.

      5 Share
      • AA

        Anuj Adhiya

        almost 4 years ago #

        Love that! Spending a bit of money wisely spent upfront can at times set you on the path to validation much quicker/more efficiently than other efforts.

  • LS

    Logan Stoneman

    almost 4 years ago #

    Polina! I'm a huge traveler, especially on the road, but I hadn't heard of Wanderu until I heard about your AMA here. First off, I'm stoked to finally have a service to help me with my explorations! Second, how are you trying to reach your target audience? What channels are you leveraging the most and which are you most excited about?

    • PR

      Polina Raygorodskaya

      almost 4 years ago #

      Glad you learned about us Logan, hope you try us out next time you travel and we would love any feedback! We have grown mostly organically since we launched and focus a lot on SEO and SEM for marketing. Interestingly a lot of our users learn about us from others (word of mouth) which is exciting. We also tested some out of home marketing to help build on the brand. In general we have grown over 200% each quarter since we launched to the public.

      2 Share
  • ES

    Edward Stephens

    almost 4 years ago #

    Hi Polina,

    Thank you so much for agreeing to do this AMA!

    1) What made you want to tackle the entrepreneurial issues you've broached - e.g. ground travel and boutique fashion?
    2) What similarities and differences have you noticed in the challenges of growing each?
    3) What do you think are the most pressing challenges to tackle in the future of entrepreneurship?

    Thank you so much.

    • PR

      Polina Raygorodskaya

      almost 4 years ago #

      Question 1: I got into the fashion industry because I was working as a model and was exposed to it. This is what made me start the PR firm because I already had contacts and relationships there. For Wanderu, I started it because I was passionate about solving the problem for myself and others.

    • PR

      Polina Raygorodskaya

      almost 4 years ago #

      Question 2: The two businesses are very different, one was a service company with only a couple employees. I didn't need investors, I was able to bootstrap it and then reinvest. Wanderu on the other hand is venture funded and fast growing, we wouldn't be able to bootstrap it. Both require proper budgeting, management and building a great team.

    • PR

      Polina Raygorodskaya

      almost 4 years ago #

      The biggest challenges to tackle in entrepreneurship is finding a problem that you are passionate about solving, figuring out how to solve it and making sure enough people want it solved and are willing to pay for it...and then scaling it.

  • SA

    Shaker A

    almost 4 years ago #

    Hi Polina,

    Thanks for answering my other question.

    How did you convince your first advisor to advise you, which gave you the initial credibility you needed?

    • PR

      Polina Raygorodskaya

      almost 4 years ago #

      As a founder you need to be able to convince people (including yourself) that you are capable of building what you plan to. Part of that is building the right team from the beginning (which also takes convincing other team members). That right team will then give you more credibility. Prior to going to advisors we made sure to do our research, know everything we could about the market and what we wanted to build and our solution and prove that we are capable of doing that with the team that we had. I made sure to have great co-founders that I knew could help me build what I wanted to build. Then I approached advisors once I did the research and had the team to be able to build it.

  • PR

    Polina Raygorodskaya

    almost 4 years ago #

    How do you feel your Ted talk aided your profile and credibility as an entrepreneur?

    I think speaking engagements in general are important to establish credibility and build brand awareness. Although each individual one may not drive significant value over time it is important to have a steady balance of this.

    and lastly, what has been the most difficult challenge you've faced as a serial entrepreneur and do you have any regrets?

    The most difficult challenge is finding amazing people, convincing them to share your dream and supporting them to be able to do that. Team is by far the most important thing to a success of a business.

  • AA

    Anuj Adhiya

    almost 4 years ago #

    Hey Polina,
    So cool to have you on!

    One issue that almost every travel startup faces is that it is only used a few times a year.
    So how have you gone about tackling this from an ongoing user acquisition perspective and also from and a retention perspective to keep Wanderu top of mind for when the need arises?

    • PR

      Polina Raygorodskaya

      almost 4 years ago #

      The dynamics in ground travel are a bit different than traditional travel with average usage being much higher (on average 6 times per year). Bus travel is much cheaper compared to other forms of transportation so we try to inspire people to go and explore places more often. By making it easy for people to book trips and by making travel super cheap we have found that we are able to actually increase the amount of trips that people take by bus each year.

      • PR

        Polina Raygorodskaya

        almost 4 years ago #

        We have steady content in our blog, on social media and send out emails with inspirations and deals. Reuse is certainly greater if the customer has a great first experience and we try very hard to optimize for that.

        We try to get feedback from customers with surveys and through our feedback form. We actually find that if you can turn an unhappy customer around they end up being even more loyal so we always strive to have that chance if someone isn't happy about something.

      • AA

        Anuj Adhiya

        almost 4 years ago #

        That's awesome.

        So do find that in between trips you need to keep those customers engaged with content or in some other way or is that the case that once they find and use Wanderu, the likelihood of reuse is greater based on that great first experience?

        On the flip side, for the people that use Wanderu once and don't come back, how do you know they're not coming back because they didn't like the experience vs they just don't have a trip coming up?

  • SL

    sherad Louis-Charles

    almost 4 years ago #

    How integral was Wasabi Ventures in your endeavor? Are you finding that as you grow investors give you more leeway or do they try to be more involved in the decision making?

    • PR

      Polina Raygorodskaya

      almost 4 years ago #

      We have been very lucky with investors in that they have been supportive to us when we need them to be and they have given us freedom and trust to make decisions at all times. Finding the right investors based on what you want is extremely important for any startup.

  • HQ

    Hila Qu

    almost 4 years ago #

    Hi Polina,

    Very exited to have you for an AMA at GrowthHackers.

    1) Can you talk about how you get funding for Wanderu, and how you pitched Richard Brandson? :)

    2) Who do you view as Wanderu's competitors? What's your utimate vision for Wanderu?

    • PR

      Polina Raygorodskaya

      almost 4 years ago #

      Question 1: Funding is a very long process (usually 3-6 months) that requires a significant amount of preparation. You first need to identify why you need to raise money, how much and what you will do with it. Then you create a deck that tells the story to investors about why the need to invest. Next you identify the investors that you want and find people to make introductions and only then does the courting process begin.

      I had the opportunity to pitch Sir Richard Branson by being one of three companies selected through the Extreme Tech Challenge: http://extremetechchallenge.com/

      Anyone who has a startup can apply!

      • ES

        Edward Stephens

        almost 4 years ago #

        Absolutely true about fundraising, it's an exhausting process and it detracts from being able to grow your business.

    • PR

      Polina Raygorodskaya

      almost 4 years ago #

      Question 2: At Wanderu our biggest competition is people choosing to drive to their destination or not travel at all and so our biggest focus is to make the process of booking travel SUPER easy, quick and more efficient.

      • PR

        Polina Raygorodskaya

        almost 4 years ago #

        In the markets we are currently in we are the leading player because of our coverage (both number of partners as well as locations reached), unique value prop (ability to search point to point, find nearby stations and proprietary routing technology that can combine multiple providers) and product offering. This shows by our consistent growth, high reviews and user retention. So yes for us the focus is on getting people out of their cars and traveling more on Wanderu. To do this we consistently focus on having the best possible product in travel. We don't look to see who in travel we want to be like (or better than), we look at all companies as a whole from all industries that excel and learn from them.

        2 Share
      • AA

        Anuj Adhiya

        almost 4 years ago #

        That's interesting that you'd consider what you said above to be bigger competition to you than the likes of Busbud. What advantage do you believe you have over other players in the Bus/Train space that you are?

      • HQ

        Hila Qu

        almost 4 years ago #

        Great insight, Polina, thank you for sharing!

  • SA

    Shaker A

    almost 4 years ago #

    How did it convince him you were the best person to tackle this problem?

  • AM

    Andy Mura

    almost 4 years ago #

    Hi Polina,

    Congrats on your site and great app!
    What's the channel that mostly helped you draw attention to your product at the very beginning? (SMM, SEM, Contet Marketing, PPC, PR, blog mentions....)?

  • ES

    Edward Stephens

    almost 4 years ago #

    An additional question if you have time.

    How do you feel your Ted talk aided your profile and credibility as an entrepreneur?

    and lastly, what has been the most difficult challenge you've faced as a serial entrepreneur and do you have any regrets?

  • SA

    Shaker A

    almost 4 years ago #

    Can you name some resource you use to learn from? Books, podcasts, blogs etc?

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