Hello! Who are you, and what business did you start?
Hi, startuppers! My name is Justinas Albertynas - I’m one of the founders of our travel-tech startup and my beloved product, a browser extension named RatePunk. It’s a tool that compares hotel prices on different booking websites live & for free. It’s available to install on 5 main browsers: Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Opera & Edge, and we connected the 9 biggest OTAs into one system. It shows the cheapest option in seconds, helping the user not to waste more than necessary and better splash it on the fun during vacation, not on accommodation.
Although ** ** the product brings the most value to frequent travelers (the more often you search for accommodation - the more often you find savings), even people who go on a vacation once per year find incredible deals, constantly motivating us to widen our target audience.
The beginning was unexpectedly challenging for our team - we barely collected the first 500 users in almost half a year, but… we hit more than 3000 less than a few weeks after that & got into the TOPS of Apple Store in the US, the UK, and in our home country - Lithuania. Statistics show that only around 13% of browser extensions on Chrome Store have more than 1k users, and we feel a bit special already!
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I certainly didn’t expect to start a business immediately after entering the so-called adulthood, and after hearing the word “unicorn,” my first thought indeed wasn’t “value over 1 billion USD”. It was a colorful horse with a horn. I studied & graduated in Journalism at Vilnius University; during these years, my main focus has been travel writing. I did a lot of research into the technology part of it and always kept up with the latest news in the industry. Nevertheless, I always felt that even though Journalism was an exciting subject to study & travel was an interesting topic to cover, it was not the dream I wanted to pursue.
My real career journey started together with my school friend Janis Možeiko, the co-founder of RatePunk. From classmates, we became friends, and from friends, we later became business partners. Since we both were passionate travelers from the very beginning (and that’s precisely what brought us together), we decided to explore the travel industry from the inside. Both of us were still in the last years of university then. We tried more than a few travel-tech products in that decade since we started, but now we’re giving all of our energy to RatePunk.
After visiting most of the continents (hoping to checkmark Australia soon) and booking dozens of accommodations, I understood that as much as I love planning my trips… There’s something about it I hate a lot. At least for people who travel often, there’s no secret that OTAs offer different prices on the same hotels (it all depends on the contract that’s been done with that particular hotel). So I always checked prices on at least a few different booking websites before confirming it - to assure myself I was getting the lowest price. And then, when I was booking my trip to Morocco, it hit me: that’s the part that annoys me so much. That’s the one.
During the few years of reporting travel content, I’ve read a lot about browser extensions, and their concept in the travel market caught my attention. Long story short: the very first one for hotel price comparison was Side Step, but then it was acquired by Kayak. Later Honey launched a hotel booking website that also worked with an extension (Honey Travel), but it didn’t stay active for long either. And that’s when I understood we could make a tool that fills in the current gap in the travel market. Janis liked the concept & that’s how the idea for RatePunk was born.
I’m convinced this product is different from the other products we’ve started by its relevance: anyone can be a RatePunk user & find it helpful. Anyone - from a person planning a trip 20 kilometers from his hometown to a digital nomad jumping from one country to another every few months. It’s our 5th product we’ve launched to the travel market, and we have a strong 6th sense that this one is going to revolutionize it. It’s already steadily doing it.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Our team for this project started with us two, a designer, a developer & a marketer. We started by renting out a little space near the center of Vilnius: like all of the great starts, everyone was working in one room. Our primary focus has always been to test as many products as possible, and soon after launching a few, we needed more backup, which led to our current team of 9 at the moment. The other products generated enough revenue to continue our work but all of them were improved copies of already existing services. We were eager to create something of our own, something that could turn into a unicorn one day (and not the colorful one this time). That’s why after discussing the browser extension idea, we decided to invest our revenue in a new product, which turned out to be RatePunk. That’s where our financial basis to start came from.
We had 7 (!) options of possible RatePunk designs, and after the democratic voting, we chose the cartoonish one we have now.
This was the very first one that we thought we’d take:
After declining that one (later, we decided to go in with calmer colors), we were left with two possible versions, the yellow & the white one:
And ta-da-dam - we chose the white one, and here’s the final result, just how it looks now:
While creating price comparisons, we had to dig deep into every hotel provider and find out how they are structured. With each provider, we have faced new challenges. For example, some providers may include taxes to the hotel price while others display taxes only in the booking step, which creates a mismatch between scraped prices and incorrect results. One of the most complex parts was how hotel providers approach internationalization. Hotel data might change according to user location, browser, or even the type of hotel selected. That means we must manually encounter every possible use case available to check if the extension will work as expected.
While configuring an extension to support different stores is just a matter of minutes, it takes an eternity from submitting a new version to getting approved in different stores. For example, in most cases, Firefox approves extensions instantly, while Chrome and Safari stores might take a day or two to approve new versions. If Safari finds irrelevant keywords in your extension or it doesn't work as expected, it will reject the extension without hassle. Still, the medal for the worst review phase goes to the Chrome store for not allowing us to cancel the submission. That means that if we find a bug in the extension after submitting it, we have to wait until the new version rolls out, and only then can we submit a patched version that will be pending for the next few days.
Currencies, taxes included or excluded, price per night or per stay, just to name a few standards that depend on different countries. This means we have to adapt our extension to support as much variety as possible.
We had some struggles with the installation tracking system at the very beginning. First, it was complicated to install, so we used Chrome & Apple Store data. It was enough at that time, but when the installs kept growing, we needed more detailed tracking (like data of extension opens/closes or user’s redirects). The improved system allowed everyone from our team to check the numbers (using Google analytics) when only the developers had access to the Chrome/Apple store analytics before.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Our launch process has been incredibly straightforward and kind of punky. When our developer said that it was ready to go, we just launched it. With no marketing, with no further preparation. When it was already live, we sat down to think about the marketing strategies . That much we believed in it.
The launch was successful - we generated 390 installs in 2 months with zero money invested in marketing. That means we gained organic users by being creative on free social media platforms and other marketing areas. Whoo-hoo!
But then we were like, “Wait, didn't we plan to reach 10k by this time?” It was easy to notice that even though we got over a few hundred installs, and it was all without spending anything, the number compared with the period and the plans we had was little. Nevertheless, we knew it was only the start, so we stopped overthinking & continued what we’ve been doing. We also started slightly investing in marketing, understanding that it will make the wanted results come in a bit faster like this. And it did.
The installs started rising way quicker around 4 months after the launch. If we used to have up to 10 installs per day from February till April, in May, it hit the record of 400, varying from 100 to 200. This growth coincided with a few influencers sharing us on their social media platforms (paid collaborations), so we thought the breakthrough was only temporary. Nevertheless, more than half of the month passed after these successful campaigns, and the installs continue to come in at a similar pace. We collect 1000 installs every week so far, and that’s incredible, keeping in mind that only a tiny percentage of browser extensions overcome the 1k line.
One of our main lessons: thinking of as many different marketing strategies as possible. Testing at least 5 per week and killing it instantly if it doesn’t perform. This was what we started practicing after the installs stagnation. Of course, a few marketing campaigns can be left active for longer, hoping they’ll show results in the long term (we’re doing that with our paid YouTube collaboration & SEO), but we got stuck with some for too long (like contacting directories to be included to their TOP lists).
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
OUR MAIN STEPS & LESSONS
- We’ve been working with social media marketing from the very beginning: we’re active on different channels, and we managed to reach over a few hundred followers & engage the users. This is the best way for us to communicate with potential customers and search for collaborations. The best tactics for different platforms for us have been:
Instagram: getting featured on other people's stories (Instagram influencers, mention swap with people who have a similar number of followers for free).
TikTok: uploading a bunch of videos (we do around 10) - that way, there’s a bigger chance that some of them will pop up to the tops.
Twitter: engagement, engagement & once again engagement. With Twitter, the secret is not posting: it’s liking, commenting & retweeting that give the best results. It can be time-consuming, though.
LinkedIn: automatizations to reach better results quicker - using bots to contact people who might be interested in your product (we were doing it by hand the first months). The most successful posts are where you share lessons you learned and what impact they had on you/your business. Also, it’s crucial to tag people on your posts: tags = more exposure.
- Posts in Facebook groups. The most successful one was written by a Lithuanian travelers group and helped us reach our first three-digit number/day (128, if you’re curious). It gave us the main lesson: referring to Facebook communities & sharing the tip with them is one of the best ways to reach our target audience. We started posting on more groups on Facebook. Although many of them name it as an advertisement & disapprove of posting any names, there are plenty of groups where there’s no need to get approval. We did not limit ourselves to the English-speaking audience, so a TIP: spread the word in as many languages as you manage to talk, or Google Translate can translate! For example, in our case, the Lithuanian & Spanish-speaking audience was the most successful.
- After trying to work with micro & macro-influencers both, we’ve noticed that getting a good price-return of investment ratio is a challenge. So, after searches that took 5 months, we had our first paid collaboration. The platform we picked was YouTube & travel vloggers were our primary focus. The video has reached more than 23k views, which is constantly growing. Although it brought us a pretty significant number of installs (like a 3-digit number), we’ll keep tracking it & only the future can tell if it paid off. However, from the current CPA, the result seems quite promising.
Here’s the result:
Also, we had a free collaboration with one of the best-known travel journalists in Lithuania (170k followers on IG). I’ve known him since my time working with him for one of the leisure magazines in Lithuania. We could call it THE MOST successful tactic, resulting in skyrocketing install growth (4 times more than usual). It proved that users find clear value in our product after it’s been shown step-by-step to them. Although searching for influencers that would suit our needs takes a lot of time (hundreds of emails sent & replies with the prices received), it seems to be worth the effort.
IndieHackers turned out to be a great platform - sharing thoughts & experiences with the community offered new ideas and taught new lessons. It’s helpful to connect with like-minded people & hear their opinions since most of them not only comment on your product but also are open to trying out new things in a scale of areas. Of course, it’s essential to give feedback in return. Joining this community would be my sincerest recommendation for anyone starting a new project.
We’ve been collecting users’ email addresses from the beginning, and in May, we started sending out our newsletters. We’re constantly analyzing the stats & working on the content to understand the needs of our users better. We’re using Omnisend for this, but we’ve been facing quite a few inconveniences (emails sent out later than expected, etc.), so we’re looking for alternatives now. Clickbait & personalization go a long way.
- Getting featured in media coverage. Reaching out to journalists & offering our pitches showed results: I was interviewed by one of the leading Lithuanian business newspapers & agreed to make another interview focusing on leisure. I also got invited to talk on one of the tech podcasts. It’s been complicated reaching out directly to journalists (we didn’t get many replies), but once the installs started growing and we got into the TOPs, we had more argumentation why the magazines/websites should cover our story. This also led to increasing installs from our home country (since it was a Lithuanian audience). My main advice would be to clearly emphasize the main idea first to yourself and only then send the message. It’s been a challenge for me since browser extensions are not that easily understandable & widespread in general, not even talking about bringing it to a broader audience. Explaining complicated things (like browser extensions) simply is the key.
Here are the 2 biggest local newspaper examples we’re super excited about:
- We even tried the traditional marketing at the very start - hung posters (they were hilarious, trust me) with QR codes leading to our website all over our city. It was a fun thing to plan & brought us a few installs, but we wouldn’t call it a successful campaign. Nevertheless, the brainstorming process for this marketing strategy turned out to be a great way of team building.
This is how our growth looks after all of the steps mentioned above. The red arrow shows the very first breakthrough:
One of the biggest challenges we faced with RatePunk was MOBILE TRAFFIC.
The fact that browser extensions can only be used on desktops became our curse. The most frequent con named by RatePunk users sounds like, “I don’t always bring my computer once traveling, you know. An app would be way more convenient”.
I believe that it’s a problem that many browser extension creators face. Mobile traffic has wholly taken over the computer version, and we have to find ways of attracting people to use their laptops when making a reservation. Keeping in mind how easy & popular it’s to do this using a smartphone - our goal has been complicated. We’re trying to convert mobile phone users into actual installers when they’re on our website by offering them to get a desktop reminder later. They can leave their email address & get a notification to their inbox.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
It’s just the beginning for RatePunk, and it’s starting to bring us more revenue just now. Our revenue comes from our affiliate partnerships. We have signed them with Booking.com, Trip.com, Agoda & Seathustler. Although it’s still not all of the providers that we compare the prices on (they’re 9 in total), we’re constantly communicating with each & persuading them to work with us. So even though the income we gain from it may not sound impressive, it’s still profitable and, most importantly, a proof of concept & our teamwork. We’re super proud of our sharp growth & focus more on the process now, moving forward to the final result.
More about our stats:
The primary platform we’re running ads on is Facebook, it showed the most results. We also tried TikTok recently, but it was only a small-scale test, so we can’t make obvious conclusions from it yet. Here are our ad costs on Facebook:
And here’s our monthly traffic with sources. Most of it came from organic searches, organic social media & direct. The table shows that our email marketing hasn’t been a success till now, but we’re running some A & B testing now, and the change of more clickbait subject lines & more personalized sender names showed some better results in the end.
We’re not focusing on the average time on our website since it’s mainly for installing the extension. It results in the fact that the user doesn’t spend much time there. We also don’t count the time the RatePunk extension is open because its purpose is to redirect the user to a better deal.
We’re using Google Analytics 4 (GA4) to track the data, so it doesn’t count the conversion rate, but according to our calculations, the click rate in June is 36.14 %.
As I mentioned before, RatePunk only being available for desktop is one of the most significant inconveniences stopping us from quicker growth so far. We’re working on a mobile version of our extension to overcome this obstacle. For now, it will be for the Safari browser only since it supports mobile versions of extensions. We haven’t launched it yet, but we hope to do it soon. We already have the design & the developers are almost done with the coding. Here’s a sneak peek at how we plan it to look:
We’re working on presenting more currencies on our extension (the main focus now is on adding the zlotys) to reach more regions. We have most of the main ones, but more is always better since it helps reach more potential customers.
If I had to conclude our team’s current mood in one word, it would be MOTIVATED. It seems like we’re finally moving in the right direction & the small wins are turning into something meaningful. We’re going little by little, so if a week ago our goal was reaching 1k users, during the last meeting, we set our focus on achieving 10k, and we feel that we can get it faster than we did with our first 500.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I think the timing we picked to launch RatePunk added to where we are now. During the COVID pandemic, people stopped traveling & now, when everything is opening up, the desire to see the world is greater than ever. Moreover, it brought new trends that made RatePunk even more relevant. Take workstations, for example: getting away from an office is at its peak nowadays, and whatever the location, there’s most often the need for accommodation. And who doesn’t want to spend less? All of that puts our product in the right place & at the right time.
Talking more about the downsides:
We got some remarks from Indie Hackers about having an inaccurate & higher number of installs on our main website in the very first stages of our product. We learned from our mistakes: now we're monitoring it more closely and updating it regularly. Honesty is the best policy, no matter how small the subject may seem, and this was one of our poorest decisions.
Doing email marketing manually was disappointing. We were reaching out to directories, journalists & bloggers but barely got any response. We were stuck on it for too long: carefully personalizing it & pushing without getting visible results was a step we wouldn’t repeat.
Also, as I already mentioned, we were pretty stuck with the number of installs initially. Reaching 500 has been incredibly hard & we’ve been doing it for around 6 months before we noticed the quicker install growth. We started the day-by-day tracking in April. During the month, we achieved 142 installs (through all the browsers our extension is available on), meaning we had around 5 users/day on average. That was hitting on the team’s motivation.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Oh, the most important one for our business (and the one I feel is MANDATORY for every business) is this tool that compares hotel prices live… Don’t know if you’ve heard about it, but its name is RatePunk, and after installing it, workstations become routine in your office.
And now, if we’re being earnest: the one that our content writers use the most is, no surprise, Grammarly. The website is great for all the textual content & the extension is super helpful when writing on any other platform.
We used Topolio to design our newsletters - it has all the basics & is quite easy to use. For the design of advertisements, posters, etc., we often use Canva. It has all the main necessary functions for free, and the possibilities are practically endless with a PRO account.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I’m a person of books, even when it comes to business. “Per dieci minuti” by an Italian author Chiara Gamberale is the one I loved - it’s about getting out of your comfort zone. Even though the storyline has nothing to do with the business industry, it still shows the difference between YOU in your comfort zone & YOU in your growing zone. Creating a startup is the same as stepping out of your comfort zone into the panic one, but if you find the balance between these two, you are standing in the learning zone, which is most probably a goal for every one of us. This book inspired me to keep learning new things and experimenting since this is the only way to gain knowledge. Working in a startup, you always (or at least most often) have more losses than wins. Therefore small wins are even more appreciated and celebrated. And losses give lessons. And the latter are what prevent me from making these decisions again. This book is about taking 10 minutes every day to step out of your comfort zone and do something you have never done before. If you haven't walked backward when going to work - try it. It may sound absurd, but it's more about the mindset that the book creates. While working with a startup expanding your limits becomes natural. And yes, I tried walking to the office backward.
Talking about the podcasts, the first one to cross my mind was Masters of Scale. I guess that doesn’t come as a surprise since it’s once of the most popular podcasts for anyone in business. The main reason is its human factor - hearing the ups and downs straight from well-known brands helps keep your nose up when you understand that it’s something most startuppers experience.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Oh, I’m terrible at giving motivational speeches. But! We were mentioning closing this project when we barely reached 500 users. We thought it was just not performing, but the problem was we didn’t find the best ways to market it at that moment. If we got more than 100 installs in April, we multiplied it more than 10 times in May. So what’s the best decision I’ve made in creating RatePunk? I can definitely say not giving up and quitting when the going got tough. If you’re working on something you love and get the feeling of being stuck, it’s natural that the thought of killing it might cross your mind. But is it not too early? I guess it’s best to trust your gut on this one - mine certainly didn’t lie.
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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