Sanne and Bart van Poll founded Spotted by Locals in 2008. Bart van Poll explains how he managed to turn his passion into a company. Since I love to use Spotted by Locals when I’m discovering new cities in Europe, I’m really proud to share this story with you, thanks to Startup Stay.

Describe what Spotted by Locals does, what problem it solves and for whom?

Spotted by Locals is a series of blogs, PDF city guides and mobile (iPhone, Android) apps with up-to-date tips by handpicked local writers in 46 cities in Europe and North America.

As travelers, we were always frustrated by the never up-to-date travel guides we used on our city trips abroad. Also online we found it very difficult to find reliable up-to-date information – other than typical highlights.

On our city trips we usually relied on blogs by individuals, who wrote about their favorite spots. We usually had a great time! But often it took a lot of time finding the right blog, if there even was one for the city we were visiting.

What we really needed was a network of blogs, where locals write about their favorite spots. When we found out it didn’t exist, so we started it in 2008.

Spotted by Locals solves the problem many travelers have: not knowing where the locals hang out.

I guess I’m the typical target customer: no kids, 20-40, very frequent traveler, interested in seeing the culture of a city.

Some people just like to see the highlights of a city, and go eat where the other tourists do. I don’t judge anyone else’s way of traveling. The more I travel though, the more « must-see » highlights I seem to be skipping. For me, eating a very simple local dish in an ugly former communist neighborhood in Zagreb served by a waiter who can’t speak any English but is so happy I’ve come to his restaurant, has meant so much more to me than visiting the Eiffel tower in Paris…
Why should people use your startup?

We are the only city guide network with always up-to-date tips by handpicked locals.

Where locals go are the places to find good food and drinks for decent prices, and the best atmosphere, etc. Locals know where to find these jewels in their city, outside of the neon lights. Mostly these places are not easy to find if you don’t know where to look. Visiting these locals places always make us feel special! It feels like we are lucky that we are « allowed » to experience a bit of their live.

What is your strategy for raising awareness and getting customers/users?

Our sole focus is creating unique up-to-date content, by the best locals. We don’t spend any money on advertising. Word of mouth promotion about our unique up-to-date insider tips is what has caused our traffic to grow rapidly organically ever since we started.

I think what we also do well is listening to customers. We treat every e-mail or social media message as a chance to make a person into a Spotted by Locals evangelist.

How did your initial idea evolve? Were there changes/any pivots along the way? What other options have you considered for the business if the original vision fails?

When we started we wanted to create a network of blogs by locals, with always up-to-date tips. We never envisioned mobile apps would become so important. Our business plan was based on advertising income. At this moment just 10% of our income is from advertising.

What is your background? What are your previous experiences?

Sanne had her own healthcare consulting company. I worked as a management consultant & project manager for 7 years.

Bart et Sanne van Poll

Bart et Sanne van Poll

How do you like to travel?

The more we travel, the crazier we get about travel! We’re abroad, mostly to meet our locals in 46 cities, about 6 months a year. The moment we’re traveling back to Amsterdam we’re already thinking about our next trip.

How did you manage to turn your passion into a company?

Just do it! We invested our life savings into starting Spotted by Locals. If it wouldn’t have worked out it would have been a pity, but we think we would have found a new job or other challenge without too much problems.

You have to be a little bit naive to start a company in this industry, but genuine believe in the concept and how it makes travel more fun made it work. We are not in this for money, funding rounds etc. We try to make the world a little bit a better place.  By experiencing a destination like a local, travelers learn about the local culture and habits. We are convinced more intercultural understanding leads to a better world.

What were your biggest mistakes, or biggest wastes of time/money?

We developed a Windows Phone app for a lot of money, just before Windows 8 came out. Now it will have to be built up from the ground again…

What have been your key marketing lessons learned?

We first thought social media would be the focus point of our marketing. What we didn’t think about well enough, is the potential of our network of Spotters. We meet all Spotters in person, and we know them well. We now have 260 Spotters, and it’s turned out our Spotters are so valuable for marketing our concept to their network.

How do you proceed to launch new cities?

We meet locals who are interested, and interview them. Then we make a selection, and get started! We meet all our Spotters in person in their city.

How did you manage to launch Spotted by Locals in the US and Canada?

North America is a totally new market, and we’ll have to work hard to make it a common name for a small niche of travelers like Spotted by Locals is in Europe now. We’ll be visiting the US & Canada in May & June, to launch 7 new blogs.

Where do you see yourself in 3 years time, what specific challenges do you hope to have overcome?

We hope to be doing exactly the same as we’re doing now. But in more cities, and more channels. The challenge will be a larger geographical area, and more locals to work with. This means we’ll have to outsource even more of our work to others, to keep on traveling to meet all Spotters.

On March 19, BBC sold Lonely Planet to NC2 Media and in the beginning of April Google sold Frommer’s back to his founder Arthur Frommer. What are your views about the travel guide sector?

The traditional travel guide publishers are having a very difficult time to re-adjust to the new realities: the market for paper guides is rapidly collapsing, and small online publishers with niche content are winning.

How do you see France as a Dutch entrepreneur?

I love France! I worked in Paris for a while in my former job as a management consultant. From a personal point of view I think the focus on quality of life is something we boring Dutch can learn something from.

I’m ashamed to say the only city guide we have in France now is Paris. If your readers in other big cities are interested in writing for us, please contact us !

Do you see things in common between traveling and launching a company?

I see almost everything in life as a project. Travel as well as starting a company are a project – both very fun ones!