Pivoting From A Cheap Flights Website To A Money Saving Browser Extension
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi! My name is Ju Li and I am a co-founder of GetBuyLo.com. We’ve built a browser extension that’s like Honey but specifically tailored for flights. Basically, when you are at checkout on a supported flight booking site, it will automatically pop up and scan other flight booking sites for a lower price on the same flight.
We are not profitable at the moment as we launched during the COVID pandemic but early users are loving it. We’ve been featured in YCombinator’s Startup School newsletter and the front page of multiple subreddits.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I actually started my career as a Consultant at Analysis Group before joining a local insurtech marketplace as a Strategy Manager. I do not have a background in travel. No one on my team does. But we are all immigrants and we have all noticed a societal problem bubbling under the surface: increased polarization.
We believe this to be a direct result of increased social media use. The algorithms that drive engagement have a side effect of funneling us into online echo chambers. Furthermore, the anonymous nature of online interaction also distorts the way we interact with each other. People aren’t constantly broadcasting their political views and dropping zingers on each other for likes in real life. Social media is the root of the problem but they can’t be part of the solution for this reason.
How do we reverse this? We believe that travel has the power to bring people together. There is no such thing as a well-traveled racist. The very act of traveling and experiencing different cultures will elevate your consciousness and level of empathy.
As a team of immigrants, we lived this. We have traveled to another country, met friends from other parts of the world, and traveled to their country together. Surprisingly, you would think that every new place we went to, we’d find people completely unlike us. But that’s not the case. We find people who are different in many ways but just like us in other ways too. We all share the same hopes, dreams, prejudices, and biases, that are shaped by different environments.
Build something that your customers love, not something that VCs will invest in.
So we want more people to travel. We identified 3 major pain points limiting travel: (1) it can be expensive, (2) it can be a hassle to plan, and (3) it can be time-consuming. The product we envisioned was an automated trip planner that would automatically plan every component of a trip (bookings + itinerary) while considering your budget constraints (both time and money-wise).
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
That’s a big dream and a big plan. We didn’t have a plan. We just jumped right into it. Launch quickly and fail quickly is what startups live by. And we did launch quickly and failed quickly. This is a story of our first (of many coming down the pipeline) pivots in our journey to find product-market fit.
"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" - Laozi
Our first step was to create a booking platform. It is the most basic thing we’ll need to monetize our traffic in any way and would allow us to dip our toes into the data. How do you quickly build one? We found out that you don’t. There are travel affiliate programs that offer a White Label search and booking platform. It only took us a few hours to set this up:
We used Travelpayouts, which is a travel-focused affiliate platform. Approvals are quick and white labels are enabled right from the get-go.
What’s next? So now we have a way to monetize. But why would anyone use us? With access to a booking platform and Travelpayout’s data, we decided we could build a product with the following features:
- Cheap flight deals (like Scott’s Cheap Flights) - this solves the problem that travel is expensive
- That comes with an automatically generated trip plan - this solves the problem that travels planning is tedious
We designed it to look something like this:
“Wait, this is nothing like what you showed earlier,” you might be thinking. That’s correct! Read on and you’ll find out how the product evolved.
Describe the process of launching the business.
We built the cheap flight deals component first as it was the easiest to get off the ground. It’s also the component that hooks in customers. We launched it in August of 2020 and quickly grew to a subscriber base of 10k. At a CPA of < $1, it cost us ~$10k to acquire the customers, which I funded by taking a HELOC loan on my apartment.
Great! But cheap flights don’t pay the bills. Our competitors would charge an annual subscription for access to the deals but we wanted to do it differently: By packaging our cheap flight deals with an automated travel itinerary, we could sell our customers additional travel purchases and make additional commissions.
With that in mind, we created and launched our automated trip planner in January 2021. The final completed combined product looks like this:
Now we just have to announce it to our customers!
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
How did that go? Well…
Interest was, ukewarm. Only 10% of users who click on our flight deals interacted with our automatically generated trip plan. This was a disaster. We were counting on it to bring us to profitability.
What went wrong? Well, the elephant in the room is the pandemic, of course. But, from conversations with users, we began to realize something: The kind of spontaneous adventurous travel that our product is best geared to support isn’t going to be coming back for a while. Even when travel restrictions are fully lifted, users will be traveling but they will be traveling specific routes for specific reasons such as visiting family. Our product would find you the cheapest flights for a given month but our users wanted the cheapest price for a specific flight.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
How should we move forward? Fortunately, we kept in contact with YCombinator Stephanie Simon after we interviewed with them but didn’t get in (understandable as we were doing travel during the pandemic and haven’t fully figured out our monetization). She gave us the advice to take a step back, look at the pieces of the business that work well, and pivot off of those.
So what works? Well, we developed a pretty sophisticated backend capable of scraping flight prices in real time from websites without getting blocked. We were pulling tens of millions of rows of data from Kayak daily to compute our flight deals.
And our users want to know the lowest price for the flight they want to take. So, why not deliver deals in real time to users? Kind of like Honey? But specifically for flights?
And thus a new idea is born:
A browser extension like Honey that:
- Detects the ticket you are booking at checkout
- Utilizes our flight deal finding backend to find a lower price on the same flight
It took us 3 weeks to build an MVP of the frontend but we were pleasantly surprised by it. This is it in action on Southwest’s checkout page:
Taking under a minute and being able to find up to 54% off flights? That’s a product we’d use every time we had to book flights! It should be a product that sold itself, right?
We launched it in Feb of 2021 but again, the pandemic dampened the success of our launch:
There were 2 huge spikes in interests post-launch:
- On Feb 22, when we got our shoutout in YCombinator’s Startup School newsletter.
- On Mar 4, when we hit the front page of several subreddits like r/awardtravel and r/free.
Users in the communities that we launched loved the idea. But not everyone’s ready to bite. Why install a browser extension when you don’t foresee flying shortly?
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
And that is where we stand today.
What went well?
- We were able to rapidly grow our initial product, rapidly launch, rapidly the issues with our product, and then rapidly pivot to a new product.
- We were able to formulate sensible business plans for both products and interviewed many top VCs such as YCombinator and Pear.vc.
What did not go well?
- The pandemic was definitely out of our control but we could’ve reacted to it better. For example, we talked to customers about their travel habits but it was mostly around how they used to travel. This blinded us to how travel has evolved due to the pandemic, causing our first idea to fail.
- We believe the browser extension that we pivoted to is a great product. However, the success of the launch was dampened by the pandemic. We chose to launch it in February as we wanted to make YCombinator’s March deadline. But given how the pandemic’s shaking out, it would have been more prudent to start with a beta test, iterate on the product, and only launch when the world is ready to travel again.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
For any aspiring entrepreneur thinking of starting their own business, I would recommend a few tools that are critical but overlooked in most lists:
Our biggest wins came from PR wins (YC Startup School newsletter shoutout + subreddit frontpages) but our wins were flukes. For a more consistent approach, we would need to build solid connections to reporters and this is the platform we’re using. A lot of the questions that we answer on the platform aren’t directly related to our product but it generates interest and improves SEO.
Startup founders need to do a ton of stuff so we need to automate the tedious work as much as possible to keep ourselves sane. Integromat is a pretty cheap no-code automation solution (cheap compared to Zapier) and I use it to do things like automatically propagate my flight deals to our social media pages.
If you are running a B2B startup, you need leads. Even for us B2C startups, I need PR leads and VC/angel leads. An automated scraping tool like BrowseAI can help you pull lists from websites to plug into your CRM.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Startup School is all you need. This program is run by YCombinator, a top-tier accelerator that funds 200+ companies a batch, 2 batches a year. When it comes to starting a company, they are the experts and they give out top-tier advice. Listen to them. It’s free.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
Build something that your customers love, not something that VCs will invest in.
This is the best advice I’ve received from a fellow founder recently and made me rethink things. Products that customers love and products that VCs love don’t overlap a lot, in fact. Most successful companies are bootstrapped with 0 VC investments taken in. Our competitor Scott’s Cheap Flights is one such company. Many VC-invested companies such as Quibi and Juicero aren’t loved by customers.
The biggest trap an entrepreneur can fall into is to build products to chase VC investments and we definitely have fallen into this trap. We squandered our launch growth potential by rushing out the browser extension’s launch mid-pandemic to chase YCombinator’s Summer 2021 investment.
But that’s not the end of the world. We can launch again. That’s another lesson you learn from Startup School.
Our browser extension has taught us that real-time price shopping is a reliable method for finding consumers' savings. And it can be widely applied to more than just flights. For example, meal delivery services like Grubhub, Doordash, and Ubereats all tweak the prices of dishes so, if a restaurant is cross-listed on these platforms, one could find potential savings by simply checking on another platform. What if we automated that too?
What if we open-sourced our extension so that it can be a platform for users to utilize our real-time price shopping algorithm for everything they buy?
We’re currently planning out the v2 evolution of our product so stay tuned!
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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