Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Jim Hornthal and Triporati

Two years ago, right around now, I went to meet with Jim Hornthal. Jim was the founding member of Preview Travel, one of the first online travel companies. He became the first vice-Chairman of Travelocity when the two companies merged. He left when they were acquired by Sabre. I met with Jim to discuss working on a project during my final semester at Haas. I wanted to research a travel project and Jim was the ideal person to speak with.

I can't say the meeting went well. At least from my perspective. He was straightforward and honest and gave me the rundown on the difficulties of getting into the travel space. In fact, he told me if I had anything else worth doing, I should do it. I was a bit deflated, but it really helped me evaluate the idea and work on improving my approach.

I was excited to see Jim holding office hours this week and wanted the chance to catch-up with him. Both to let him know I forged ahead anyway, despite his best efforts, and to discuss our new business with him to get his perspective. Jim is also working on a new business, Triporati. While his tag line shares some similarities with our approach, we're tackling the problem from different angles.

"We help you discover great trips - for your unique travel interests" - Triporati

Jim was more forgiving this time around and was genuinely interested in what we were doing and how he could help. We spoke about the difficulties we had in attempting to solve the problem of efficiently delivering and personalizing content. We talked about Dr. Stanley Plog's BestTripChoices website. And how it's difficult to bucket travelers because people have different reasons for traveling. That's why I think Dr. Plog may fail. We also shared our skepticism of semantic search, with sites like UpTake. The semantic web is good for objective data, but in order to deliver more subjective content, like reviews or recommendations, it's necessary to find out more about the person searching than the content. People have different ideas of what they think is "cool" for example, so if you and I search for a "cool" hotel - we'll expect different results. Semantic search doesn't account for situations like that.

My two biggest takeaways from this were:
1) We're trying to tackle some important issues. Problems that have a long way to go before they're solved but that provide quite a bit of business opportunity.

2) Partnerships will be difficult in this economy as the first thing to get cut are budgets aimed at trying new things. As Jim said, most stagnant companies won't try to innovate during tough times, but they will hope their results change. And unlikely expectation.

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