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  • 10.13.15
  • dispatch from

A Q&A with Jamie Wong, CEO of Vayable

Vayable is an online marketplace enabling people to discover, buy and sell unique travel experiences, activities and extended trips.

What inspired you to found Vayable?

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I traveled to more than 40 countries over the years (I spent a lot of my time in college living and volunteering abroad), and as a storyteller working in documentary film and TV, I was always inclined toward the human side of travel–the stories of individuals and their connection to the people and sites around them. I would come home from my trips and share these stories with people in my own community, and they would inevitably request that I connect them with the people I’d met along my journeys: the carpet shopkeeper who drove me into the Sahara to stay with a caravan tribe for five days, the mayor of a small island in Brittany who hosted us for drinks and the Strauss expert in Berlin who was finishing his PhD and gave me a musical history tour of the neighborhoods. As I’d share my stories and connect my network, friends would have their stories and connections to contribute. As technology advanced, making it easier and cheaper to build social platform and facilitate payments, the dream of Vayable began to take shape. I taught myself basic web design and programming and built the first version of Vayable in a week, with the support of friends in San Francisco who were also starting to get their companies off the ground.

You must have a love for travel and seeing the world through the lens of a local. How do you balance travel for fun with travel for business?

Until I started my own company, it was impossible to balance the two: I was either traveling for work, in which case I would spend my entire time in a destination focused on my job, or I would travel for fun and completely put work out of my mind. Since Vayable is fun, I am able to do both and find a greater balance now when I travel for work. However, I still find that to truly have fun when I travel, I do have to unplug. I try to spend at least a day without using my phone or Internet and immerse myself in the sites and people of the places I’m visiting. These are always the most rewarding experiences.

How have you differentiated Vayable from other tour guide or experience-focused businesses?

Vayable is unique in that it was conceived, created, and built for everyday people like you and me to offer experiences to others. Very few people using Vayable are actual tour guides–most are local experts or aficionados of a certain interest (Asian food, street art, or bicycles, for instance) who want to share their passion with others. Our entire platform–everything from the design to the technology to the language we use–is built to serve the community of everyday people, rather than large businesses or tour companies.

What role do you see mobile playing in Vayable’s growth; especially since your customers are often on-the-go?

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Mobile continues to grow as a focus for us. Last summer we launched an iOS app in the Apple Store and a few months before that we optimized our website for mobile. Our analytics show that mobile usage on Vayable mirrors the larger trends–its adoption is growing, but it’s still not ubiquitous nor has it replaced traditional web, such as laptops or desktop computers.

What marketing strategies (i.e., social media platforms) have been most effective for reaching your customers?

Our network of Insiders and travelers has been integral to our marketing, as we have a lot of very market-savvy members promoting their personal brand and expertise and helping to grow the audience that knows about Vayable. Community events have also been especially powerful for us as well.

How do you maintain quality control with scale?

We have invested a lot in platform development that includes automation of our vetting process. International payments, identity and bank verification, video vouching, photos, and reviews all help us maintain a high level of quality at scale. This has taken a lot of time and effort to build, but it’s been core to allowing us to scale without compromising the integrity of our content.

What is your strategy for attracting people to list experiences and how do you stay in touch with them to ensure consumers have a premium experience?

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Most people find out about Vayable through word of mouth, which is key to building a cohesive and vibrant community that has trust and safety standards like the one we have. We host community events and do a lot to empower our community to contribute in all aspects to the product and business. Our pop-up headquarters were an example of how we have been able to immerse ourselves in the community and co-create the platform with the people who matter most.

What has been the most interesting or rewarding experience Vayable has facilitated?

As a San Francisco-based company, we decided to start building our community locally. It was important to us that the experiences in San Francisco were not only high-quality and led by trusted locals, but also told an authentic and unique story of the city. One of the first experiences listed was a homeless tour of the Tenderloin, offered by a man named Milton who lived in a local shelter. We had met him while volunteering at a soup kitchen in the neighborhood and by the end of the year, he was one of the most popular Insiders on our site. The idea that people were electing to spend their money and leisure time exploring a neighborhood that travelers and locals alike typically avoid cut to the heart of what Vayable is about and is why I started the company in the first place.

What might the perfect vacation look like if planned it with Vayable?

There are as many perfect vacations as there are people–individual tastes and preferences vary so much when it comes to travel! And that’s the point of Vayable. It assumes we’re all different and seek out different experiences, and the platform allows for a high level of personalization and genuine human connection that we believe is key to building the perfect vacation.

What’s next for Vayable?

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We are continuing to improve our product and grow our community. So much has changed since we first launched in 2011, including technology, policy, and market trends that it’s important we stay nimble and adaptive.

RAPID FIRE:

What are three things that you cannot travel without?

My Muji roller suitcase, audiobooks, and grapefruit seed extract.

What are your favorite apps for keeping your team organized/connected while on the go?

Meldium for password sharing, Asana for planning, and Google Apps for collaborating.

What destination are you off to next?

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Los Angeles!

Jamie Wong is the CEO of Vayable.


This article was written in partnership with the Marriott Rewards® Premier Business Card.