Journey of a lifetime: Everlater’s path from startup to game-changer

Any seasoned traveler will tell you that things do not always go according to plan. For travel enthusiasts Natty Zola and Nate Abbott, it holds particularly true.

Daily Pic | Flickr via Creative Commons

What began as a six month backpacking tour around South America turned into a four year startup endeavor, complete with venture capital funding.

The concept of Everlater started on a sailboat somewhere between Columbia and Panama. Abbott and Zola found themselves sharing bits and pieces of their adventures through a variety of disparate means, from mass emails to tweets to Facebook photo albums. It didn’t take long for the guys to realize there had to be a better way to organize, store and share their stories all in one place. From that moment on, they began talking about what it would take for them to create a website to do just that.

Every Journey Begins with a First Step

When the duo returned from their trip, they moved into their parents’ basements and got to work. Zola and Abbott had backgrounds in the finance world, not programming, so in order to make their dream become a reality, they first had to write code. In August of 2008, they launched the site.

When asked what kinds of assumptions they had about their target user, Natty explains that it was really easy for them to get into the mind of the traveler because they had just been through the exact situation for which they wanted to provide a solution.

“The existing travel blogs at the time really hadn’t been updated since the late nineties. They were really poor quality and we thought there was a huge need there. There are a lot of travelers out there and they need a great tool to share and record these experiences,” he says. “Our goal was in helping people share and record them; we would also help people be inspired to travel and where to go.”

Bumps in the Road: Learning to Go with the Flow

Shortly after the company launched they joined TechStars, a startup bootcamp which helped them to focus their product and taught them to think critically about the site. Everlater quickly became one of the elite members of TechStars, kicking off a flurry of media attention. The cofounders figured that this was their big break, so they kicked back and waited for the site to take off.

Only it didn’t quite take off the way they expected. They were getting traffic, but visitors weren’t converting to users at the rate they hoped. They believed this was possibly due to the fact that people would check them out from the article, think “Oh this is cool, I’ll have to use this next time I travel” and then forget about it. People weren’t coming to the site before or during the course of a vacation, which is when they were most likely to join. They knew something had to change.

“The most critical thing that we’ve done throughout our company is consistently looking at ourselves in the mirror and saying, ‘How’s this working? Is this working? How can we make it better?’” explains Zola.

They soon discovered that one of the biggest groups of people actively using their site was travelers that went on a trip as part of an organized tour, whether it was an African safari or a Caribbean cruise. Natty and Nate quickly realized they had a new opportunity when they noticed the passion these travelers (and their readers, maybe) had for their software.

Picking a New Path: Shifting Priorities

Development soon began on new software, similar to Everlater, but designed to work with travel agencies. The enterprise version of Everlater, called Concourse, was a hit with travel agencies who have struggled over the past decade to keep pace with rapidly changing technology.

Because the pair was able to take a step back and really look critically at what they were doing, they were able to find a new, highly profitable market that they may not have discovered if they remained dead set on their original course.

“A lot of entrepreneurs have this vision and they’re going to walk through walls until they get to that vision. But for us, the concept was sort of critical in terms of services we provide, but we were very open minded about who we provided it to and how we monetized it,” Natty says about learning to be flexible with your company.

Natty’s Advice to Startups: Be Willing to Change Course

“Startups need to realize that gravity affects everyone. We’re all here to start a business and if you really want to be a great leader and a great entrepreneur, you’ll be able to figure out how to bring those two together: build something meaningful that you really care about and have it be successful,” he explains.

In other words, be willing to look at your ideas with an editorial eye and take the time to ask yourself
the important questions and determine if you need to make adjustments in order to find success. When ego gets in the way of good business decisions, oftentimes, the result can be failure.

One of the other things that Zola attributes to Everlater’s success is the Boulder community. “We’re really proud to represent Boulder and I think for us, in terms of starting a company, where you are is really important… We’re excited to be a Boulder company.” From TechStars to the general startup scene and the adventurous lot that live in the community, Everlater definitely seems to have found its stride.

UPDATE: Nov. 13, 2012
And the journey continues. Everlater co-founders Natty Zola and Nate Abbott announced Tuesday that Everlater has been acquired by AOL/Mapquest.