MBA Program: University of Virginia, Darden School of Business
Industry: Travel Technology
Founding Student Names: Amanda Joseph
Brief Description of Solution: Trulli is the platform for travelers to plan trips based on recommendations from the people they trust most: their friends. Users can search for a destination (like “Australia” or “Nashville”) to see all their friends who have been and exactly what they loved doing there. That means Instagram-style inspiration meets TripAdvisor-level logistics.
Trulli is currently open exclusively to MBAs (and alums) and has launched at Darden, Columbia, and Fuqua, expanding to ten additional schools this Fall.
Funding Dollars: $35,000
What led you to launch this venture? The idea for Trulli arose from planning a four-month trip around the world before starting my MBA.
I was thrilled at the opportunity to travel but overwhelmed by the amount of information available and unsure of who to trust or how to account for differences in taste. I found myself faced with the analysis paralysis that comes with thirty open browser tabs.
On my trip, I realized my favorite moments frequently came from friends’ recommendations, but I struggled to know who to ask (‘Did I see an Instagram last year of you in Japan?’). And when I did receive recommendations, I was left sorting through disorganized passed-down google docs and forwarded emails. Ultimately, my trip was the adventure of a lifetime and it led me to arrive at Darden with the goal to simplify travel planning through the lens of personal recommendations.
What has been your biggest accomplishment so far with your venture? My biggest accomplishment to date was winning UVA’s E-Cup Competition. The win not only meant funding and recognition, but it also drove user sign-ups and led to valuable connections.
This accomplishment was especially meaningful to me as a founder, as it taught me important lessons stemming from an initial setback. I had not placed in an earlier E Cup round because the judges were not convinced that my target audience would use this type of platform. In the four months following that loss, I finished building the site and arrived at the next stage of the competition with hundreds of dedicated users and inspiring itineraries. The experience taught me the importance of not simply explaining why your business will work, but demonstrating that it does.
How has your MBA program helped you further this startup venture? Darden has been instrumental in transitioning Trulli from an idea into a viable business.
Darden’s commitment to entrepreneurship provided access to invaluable resources like the i.Lab, which offers workspace and community to accelerate new ventures, as well as a formal incubator program in which Trulli participated for the Summer 2019 cohort. Darden’s strong entrepreneurship curriculum allowed me to refine and develop my idea through classes focused on approaches like Design Thinking and Effectuation. It also enabled me to connect with inspirational faculty-turned-mentors like Damon DeVito, who always encouraged me to push myself beyond what was comfortable – such as making the decision to invest in Trulli’s technology and work on my venture full-time.
Darden also introduced me to Trulli’s ideal users: MBAs. Surrounded by my target audience, I was able to conduct interviews, test product, quickly iterate and I was ultimately inspired to initially launch exclusively at business schools. As any MBA knows, we travel a lot. On average, as reported by Poets&Quants, MBAs spend $21k+ on social travel over two years! MBAs are also already part of a diverse community with extensive travel experience. Trulli allows students to foster connections and benefit from that network’s knowledge.
What founder or entrepreneur inspired you to start your own entrepreneurial journey? How did he or she prove motivational to you? I have been interested in entrepreneurship from a young age, watching my father and both of my grandfathers start and run companies of their own. However, as I embarked on building Trulli, I looked to entrepreneurs who sought creative solutions in today’s technology-driven world. I have been especially inspired by female tech entrepreneurs like Bumble founder Whitney Wolfe Herd.
Whitney dominated a crowded space — dating apps — by recognizing that the current system was broken. There were numerous large competitors, but Whitney realized that no app empowered women to take control and engage with the online dating experience in new ways.
Whitney’s story motivates me to empower travelers to engage with their planning process in new ways as well. I am inspired by Whitney’s drive and perseverance, her persistence in entering a crowded market with a unique point of view (as I intend to do bringing personal recommendations into travel), her success bootstrapping and hustling on college campuses to build grassroots support and early evangelists, and her incredible foresight in seeing potential in new verticals.
Which MBA class has been most valuable in building your startup and what was the biggest lesson you gained from it? My most valuable class in building Trulli was “Innovation and Design Experience,” taught by design thinking pioneer, Jeanne Liedtka. The most valuable lesson I learned is that an entrepreneur’s primary focus should lie in defining the problem because too often we are creating perfect solutions to problems that customers don’t feel. I spent ~80% of the class focused on defining the true issues related to travel planning through long-form ethnographic interviews, journey mapping, and assumption testing. I was then able to spend the remainder of the class designing a solution that I could be confident my target audience actually wanted.
One key example of this learning applied was that I initially envisioned Trulli as a site to build traditional itineraries (e.g. on Tuesday at 9 a.m. we will go to this museum, at noon we will go this restaurant, etc.). However, through this class, I found that millennials feel overly planned in their everyday lives and instead prefer for inspiration on-the-go to make day-of decisions. I therefore pivoted to creating lists of “musts” in four categories: stay, eat, do, and go out, including maps to see the proximity of these items to a user’s current location.
What is your long-term goal with your startup? My long-term vision is for Trulli to be the all-in-one solution for a new generation looking for personalized, trustworthy travel guidance beyond makeshift Google docs or forwarded emails. LinkedIn provides access to friends’ professional information, Instagram to their day-to-day lives; Trulli will provide that access for travel.
To accomplish this goal, I am largely focused on user acquisition today, launching at ten additional business schools this fall and expanding to colleges (with a focus on study abroad) in 2020. I am also building an app (launching mid-September) that will make on-the-go use—from following friends’ recommendations to logging your own favorite moments—even easier. Ultimately, I plan to incorporate booking functionality and build out an influencer marketplace to streamline travel planning and remove barriers to exploring new places. I will be raising a friends and family round this fall to expand the team and turn my vision into reality!