Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi there! I'm Billy, a 20-year-old maths student from Brisbane, Australia. I've previously worked in genomics, anomaly detection, automated triangulation, and mapping using computer vision, and cutting-edge recommendation systems. My career so far has spanned two countries and taken me to places such as San-Francisco (in the USA), and Silicon Beach (in Australia). My most recent experience was in a company called Atmos, where I left following a raise of $4 million at a $25 million valuation, led by Khosla ventures. I applied my experiences at Atmos to build PlanIt. You can read more about me here.
PlanIt addresses the fundamental problem that searching for information about the physical world remains tedious and time-consuming. PlanIt collates all necessary information into an easily navigable graph using AI-powered web-scrapers. Then, information is collected and presented to users using state-of-the-art recommendation systems.
Although it is not generating much revenue yet, there is compelling growth in database coverage and user growth. In the past three months, the database has expanded from just covering the Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia, to covering the entirety of Queensland comprehensively, then the entirety of Australia, then New Zealand. At this point, there is some coverage for every country in the world.
As the user base continues to scale, we expect to travel and lifestyle businesses will be excited to list their details on our database. I anticipate this will be the main future source of revenue.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I’m really just an Aussie boy who studies math. I’ve been very fortunate to have found many opportunities to fulfill my creative desires. In general, I have a compulsion to create things: Whether it be through composing music, creative expression through mathematics, or designing and building products that I hope people will love.
If you have an idea you should just get started, regardless of whether you know what you’re doing.
I totally suck at planning adventures in the physical world: One time, I blew up my car in an incident involving a kangaroo and some mud. Following this incident, I figured I could build something that makes the process easier.
I had also recently finished a gig at Atmos, a venture-funded silicon-valley startup, designing cutting-edge recommender systems, and realized I could apply my experience to enable a seamless travel search and planning experience. In a sense, my first validation was by designing a product that would help me personally, and I remain the most active user of PlanIt.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
I have a really, really weird process for designing and prototyping products. First, I don’t really do any design. This is because the design is often affected by limitations and I find if you’re building the product instead you have a better feel for those limitations and can tailor the design as you go along
I also don’t actually work on the user-facing product until I’m confident the core functionality is complete. In my case, I want to ensure that internally the website will be able to provide the services it needs before actually creating the user-facing product.
I would say my process is like a pyramid, you start at the base level which represents the core functionality you want for your product, and gradually work up to the more aesthetic features such as design.
I’ve inserted some snippets of the design and functionality below
The search bar allows you to find regions and attractions. And you can construct complex queries such as “National Parks in Victoria”, or “Bays in Tasmania”.
Then we show results as a list of cards, which is optimized for both mobile and desktop.
You can save cards, interact with them, book travel in those locations, and keep track of the things you like.
When you click on an item, such as “Wineglass Bay”, you are directed to this page.
Continuing the process, you’ll eventually find yourself at the review page where you can refine your ideas and plan your adventure.
Describe the process of launching the business.
The website has not existed for long, and since launch has been in a relatively similar form minus some details and data. Ongoing work has greatly improved the recommendation engine as more user data has become available.
I’m not operating on a large budget, so I just told all my friends about it and asked them to go to the website and interact with the cards. The core value proposition is, in a sense, the recommendation engine, so the launch strategy has just been asking as many people as possible to create interactions on the website and thus refine the data offerings while growing organically.
I think there’s definitely a lot of things I could do better, I’m a relatively inexperienced entrepreneur and mostly just love building stuff.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
PlanIt has a large SEO focus. By providing comprehensive information for more than 22,000 locations, and making that information available to search engines, directs users towards the core platform.
I also improve SEO and do marketing through content creation. I use ButterCMS for my blog and post on social media channels such as Instagram and Facebook regularly. PlanIt currently has more than 200 likes and followers on Facebook, which is the biggest channel as of right now.
ButterCMS provides exceptional content management that can be integrated easily with my Vue.JS frontend.
I ensure these posts are visible on social media channels:
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
I’ve been focusing on improving the recommendation engine recently, as I’ve recently obtained enough user data to enable exceptional recommendations. I imagine a future where PlanIt is Instagram for adventure planning, with a vibrant community of businesses and creators creating & sharing cards people can interact with to plan adventures.
Over the past few months, PlanIt has acquired several thousand users as registered by the database and continues to grow organically. At this point, I have several interested buyers for PlanIt and am considering passing it off as I do need to finish my studies and I think there are definitely people who can run a business better than I (although I’m told I’m quite good at the initial stage of creating businesses and communities)
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Entrepreneurship is, in my opinion, a great learning experience. I’ve learned so much about creating websites, trying to build viable businesses, as well as marketing and legal lessons. My biggest mistake was not seeking enough support. It can certainly be a lonely journey and I feel I’d be greatly benefitted by seeking support and partnerships from many people.
I’ve also learned how to deal with the doubts and disapproval of others. For example, even my mother has been very doubtful that I should be spending time working on PlanIt. Further, living in Australia, people generally don’t realize it’s possible to build something amazing completely self-directed, and there’s an expectation that you spend your time on real jobs and employment.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
The platform is constructed using a microservices philosophy. i.e. You have several tools and services that do one thing, and one thing only, very well.
Internally, I have a graph-engine which interfaces with the database, a data queue that holds recurring tasks that operate on the database, a recommendation engine that hosts a PyTorch model which takes queries and locations and maps them to exceptional recommendations. These services are all hosted with python flask servers on Google App Engine.
There is a node.js API to which the frontend sends requests, it then requests services from the graph-engine, data-queue, and recommendation-engine to return the desired data. The frontend itself is written in Vue.js, and all the services are hosted on App Engine.
I use ButterCMS for content management and marketing. Generally, my stack is pretty lightweight because I aim to minimize costs as a young student.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I really enjoy listening to Lex Fridman’s podcast, it addresses some really important and relevant content regarding AI. Since my core focus with PlanIt is AI and specifically recommendations services, I find this very valuable. I’ve also been devouring content from Garry Tan’s channel, and the Y Combinator podcasts and content.
A book recommendation is the Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin. As an entrepreneur, you need to be able to learn a lot of things very fast. I think learning is the most valuable skill you can have, so it’s worth it to invest time into learning to learn
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
I know it has certainly been repeated many times, but I think if you have an idea you should just get started, regardless of whether you know what you’re doing. I’ve never really had a good grasp of things in the initial phases. I think the natural process of entrepreneurship is starting from knowing nothing to gradually finding which questions to ask.
Once you know the right questions to ask, you know how to solve your problems, and you know how to build your business. But you’ll never get to that point if you don’t start from the place of being completely unqualified to build the business you’re imagining
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Unfortunately, I’m not looking to hire at this point. However, I always love building relationships with clients and prospective employees. If you’re interested in what I’m doing, don’t hesitate to contact me at [email protected].
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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