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Ruzwana Bashir on redefining the travel experience

The CEO of Peek discovers the capabilities of customization and curation to discover activities

Women to Watch is a Fast Company and NET-A-PORTER.COM collaboration highlighting innovative female entrepreneurs who have leveraged style and design to accelerate their success. Here Ruzwana Bashir, cofounder & CEO of Peek.com, shares how her inspiration, passion, and personal aesthetic have helped to shape the San Francisco-based luxury travel site.

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What is the story behind Peek.com?

In planning a trip to Istanbul, I ended up spending about 20 hours researching activities. Once I found them, I had to call each of the operators to organize things. The entire process was lengthy and frustrating, and it made me wonder why something like OpenTable didn’t exist for activities. So that’s where the idea of Peek.com came from.

When the idea struck, I started to look into it and realized that the market is really interesting. About 20% of activities provided in America don’t even have websites, and less than 30% have any form of online booking. I realized that not only was it a huge problem for me, but it actually was really profoundly difficult for small businesses in the space. There was this huge business with an opportunity to build tremendous value.

How have you leveraged technology, design, and community to help curious travelers plan better and get more out of trips?

One of the biggest things we’ve done with technology (and I think design is wrapped in that as well) is helping people book activities in real time through the Peek app. No one really wants to book in advance. In fact, 80% don’t. We want to do things spontaneously.

Using the capabilities of customization and curation, we set the app up to show you a series of beautiful photographs from which you pick the ones you like best (like choosing between a picture of a Van Gogh painting or a really nice dessert). From there, we are able to customize activity recommendations and curate the experience specifically for you. This is really powerful, because one of the biggest problems we have in this space is a lot of clutter. With customization and curation, we are allowing consumers to go straight to the things they are going to like.

How have your experiences in fashion, art, and finance helped shape what Peek.com is today?

In my past careers, I found myself working very late nights in high-intensity environments and working on things that I have never done before. I had to power through and complete projects in a very short period of time. This gave me great insight on how to start a company, throw a fundraiser, and gain the capital I needed to execute my vision. Ultimately, my background has helped me understand what is important and acquire the skills I needed to succeed.

You’ve grown from startup to Silicon Valley influencer and travel-industry disrupter since launching in 2012. What was the biggest challenge in scaling up so quickly?

San Francisco is filled with startups, all of which are trying to get the best talent. Finding the right people for our team and making sure our culture was able to scale successfully were the biggest challenges. In the early days, we didn’t understand how to recruit the right people with the right cultural fit for us. It was difficult to pinpoint key attributes we valued. We wanted to make sure we had the absolute best and the brightest team.

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You’ve invited several celebrities to contribute “Perfect Day” itineraries to your site. How has their involvement inspired the community to contribute “Perfect Days” of their own?

We work with influencers like Tory Burch and Wolfgang Puck, all of whom share their experiences and provide great guidance on activities that they love to do in the cities they love to visit. The community loved this idea so much, they wanted the opportunity to build their own itineraries to share as well! As a result, anyone who visits our site can post their idea of a “Perfect Day,” and the nice thing about that is you get perfect days from a whole host of different cities and countries, even ones we aren’t in yet!

You’ve traveled to more than 40 countries! How does experiencing different cultures influence your personal style?

There are definitely different styles in every city, and I’ve adapted ever so slightly to each one. In London, people are edgier and perhaps more courageous in terms of what they wear–a little less put together than a city like New York. I think New York is a little bit more polished, but I love that there is always an excuse to dress up. Every night is an occasion where you can put on a bright party dress. It’s great to be able to see people’s creativity in cities like London and New York.

San Francisco is a much more relaxed and laid-back city. If you wear heels, you will definitely get some stares. So I’m probably the most shaped by London, and a little bit of New York has rubbed off on me as well, but I’ve just avoided acquiescing to San Francisco’s laid-back vibe.

When I am traveling, I don’t necessarily call time-out to go shopping; but if I am in an unusual place and someone recommends something unique, I do like to check it out. For example, I bought this beautiful wooden jewelry box when I visited Morocco. I love being able to transport a little part of my experience from a specific place.

How do you use your travel time to stay creative and productive?

Every week, I make the effort to find time to escape or explore other neighborhoods. At work, I do walking meetings with my team to give us a fresh perspective and the opportunity to get outside the office. And when I am traveling, I am curious and always up for an adventure. Stepping into a new culture or being in a new place allows me to gain different insights and perspectives that can lend a lot to my own work. On my days off, I really try not to check emails incessantly, and instead, try different activities like going on a hot air balloon ride and olive oil tasting in Napa.

If you could share one piece of business advice with your younger self, what would it be?

Be persistent. When you are at a startup, you will encounter so many different issues and numerous obstacles. As it happens, it is really important to stay persistent and keep doing what you are doing.

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Also, take risks much earlier in your career. I’ve taken a reasonably traditional route, and it seems to be what we are supposed to do. But by taking risks earlier in your career, you really push your own development and create an environment where you have an incredible approach as an individual and learn so much. You gain additional skills that you might not have. It might be a stressful time, but the reward is really high.

What’s next for Peek.com?

We just launched in Mexico and the Hamptons and will be launching in more cities towards the end of the year.

We are also focusing our efforts on perfecting our tour-guide app, which will allow tour guides to communicate with their offices and websites in realtime. We are focused on providing our on-the-go merchants with the tools they need to effectively run their businesses online. This will help prevent overselling and optimize their revenue and time.


RAPID FIRE WITH RUZWANA:

What are your three favorite experiences?

Horseback riding in Mongolia, hang gliding in Rio de Janeiro, and a helicopter tour in Hawaii.

Which city has the most interesting street fashion?

London. But I may be a little bit biased.

What piece of technology do you never travel without (besides your phone)?

My laptop, which may be similar to my phone. I never travel without it because flights are a fantastic time when you don’t have any kind of distraction, so I can power through and get a lot of work done.

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What else do you never leave behind when traveling?

Airplanes are ridiculously over-air-conditioned and I tend to get very chilly, so I love having a cashmere blanket with me. And my passport of course, which is pretty important.

What style advice do you live by?

It’s better to be overdressed than underdressed.

As CEO of an experiential travel company, frequent trips are a big part of Ruzwana Bashir’s personal and professional life. NET-A-PORTER invited the entrepreneur and travel junkie to select some of her favorite looks for fall. Check out her travel essentials and travel-inspired looks here.

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