Shiroube Makes Travel Social, Cheap, Unusual

Anyone can be a tour guide--and redefine the term while they're at it--with this Japanese travel startup.

Tatsuo Sato got the idea for his startup, Shiroube, during a trip to Eastern Europe. While in Belarus, Sato made a sort of barter arrangement with a local student. Sato helped the student work on his Japanese, while the student served as an impromptu tour guide for Sato. “That was great,” says Sato, still moved by the memory. Rather than a cookie-cutter Fodor’s experience, Sato got an idiosyncratic, personal, back-alley sort of tour. Sato went to his guide's elementary school, and to a restaurant where one of the guide's friends worked. In a sense, it was more an emotional tour than a geographical one, recalls Sato: there was "true emotional attachment, like in a movie." And he saved money while he was at it.

Shiroube is Japanese verb meaning “to be a guide,” Sato told Fast Company at last night’s Startup Showcase, part of the Web 2.0 Expo in New York, where his company was one of about 25 featured. The idea behind Shiroube is pretty simple--it decentralizes the marketplace for tour guides, making it a peer-to-peer affair. Anyone can post on Shiroube saying what they want out of their upcoming trip to Medellín or Cairo or anywhere, really; and anyone from those places can offer, in turn, to show them around.

“We don’t limit what they can offer,” says Sato of the guides; the notion of being a “tour guide” can take on a broader, more capacious meaning. Guides can invite people into their homes for a local, home-cooked meal; they can take visitors on a pub crawl; they can show visitors around the residential, working-class neighborhood where they grew up. In that way, Shiroube becomes a broker of travel experiences, rather than of mere tourism. And it does so at a bargain--while all financial terms are worked out between guide and traveler, guides are frequently students, and may charge as little as five or ten bucks an hour, claims Sato. (Shiroube doesn’t take a cut, and currently only plans to make money through advertising.)

Sato has suffered from a severe case of wanderlust himself; a native of Japan, he spent the last 10 years bouncing around Asia and Europe--from China to England to France, then back to England, then over to Switzerland, and most recently back to France. He runs the company from there, with two others offering support in Japan. It’s a small operation for now, and a fair amount of Sato’s time is spent in “quality control”--that is, deleting sexually explicit or otherwise off-topic postings on his site. (This is the Internet, after all).

Shiroube was founded in January and went into open beta in June; it covers 1,000 cities, though Sato is keeping mum on more specific numbers than that. At the expo he was beset with questions from potential investors (and a journalist): Had he considered holding money in escrow until a tour’s successful completion? What would he do to prevent an Airbnb-style debacle? How would he compete with other “social travel” sites, like Tripl? Was he at work on an evaluation system so that top guides could rise to the top? He answered each question blithely--sure, he had considered these ideas, but wasn’t in a rush to implement new features. (His site currently still has a handmade, bare-bones quality.) He has a serene faith in the quality of the idea itself, and is working to grow the service as it currently stands.

One question he does have a ready answer for: How do established, professional tour agencies feel about his site? “It’s kind of a mixed emotion there,” he says with a grin. “My site can be disruptive.”

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[Image: Flickr user Woodleywonderworks]

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