Whimso is an integrated engagement, inspiration, and prediction service making it possible for hotels and airlines to personally engage with travellers and offer tailored destination and in-destination travel deals and experiences at scale.
I invited its founder, Bianca Packham on YHP as she shares her entrepreneurial journey so far. This is her story.
Hi there, thanks for agreeing to share your story on YHP. Can you give us some background information about yourself?
My name is Bianca Packham, I'm the founder and CEO of Whimso, an AI startup for the travel industry. It surprises most people to know that I'm not a technologist, but a creative with over 10 years of experience in communications, design and research for the travel, leisure and cultural sector. I spent the 18 months before starting Whimso working as a digital archivist for a leading commercial gallery. Working in the cultural sector is where I first explored my interest in connecting people and places and it's still the reason why I started my business. Whimso may be a deep tech startup but it, like all my work before, is deeply human-centred. I look forward to seeing what my creative skillset and background can bring to the tech sector. In the meantime I've surrounded myself with two excellent co-founders with technical and business backgrounds. Together we make a well-rounded trio.
Tell me about the early days, the type of challenges you initially encountered?
Earlier this year Whimso was a personalised recommendation tool for travellers. It didn't take long to realise that although early beta-testers loved the first prototype, a Telegram travelbot, it would be incredibly hard to build enough traction to attract the right travel partnerships and investment to help us really grow. We didn't want to give up. Our personal approach to understanding traveller preferences is what set us apart from our competitors and we wanted to see where that could take us. Thankfully a mentor, and now advisor, helped us understand the value Whimso could add to travel companies looking to increase customer satisfaction and retention through personalisation. We pivoted to B2B just a few weeks ago and are excited to see where this new path takes us.
What is your company? And what are you trying to solve with it?
Whimso is an integrated engagement, inspiration, and prediction service. It makes it possible for hotels and airlines to personally engage with travellers and offer tailored destination and in-destination travel deals and experiences at scale.
An AI travel assistant helps travellers find relevant experiences before and during their trip. With this individualised behavioural data providers can drive intelligent marketing campaigns they know will inspire and convert.
Empowered to compete differently with the data-powerhouses of online travel agents through personalisation, we help hotels increase direct bookings by fostering brand loyalty.
How have you been able to fund it so far?
We are bootstrapped from our personal savings. Joining Plexal as part of their Plexiglass accelerator for female founders has helped immensely in this regard. Not only did we get an amazing place to work for free for two months, but also access to a fantastic community who have been helping us grow our network with potential future customers and investors. We're so delighted by the great connections personally and professionally we've made here that we've decided to stay for the summer as official Plexalites!
About the first few months, how excited were you, tell us about how those months felt, what happened?
It's only been 4 months since I registered the business and 2 months since the team came together to work on it full-time so I would say we're in the middle of the exciting part. But while it's been an incredible whirlwind with amazing progress and personal achievements, I'd never pitched before and now have to do it all the time, it hasn't been without anxiety. When everything is an assumption it can be hard to see the light at the end of the discovery phase tunnel. But laying the foundations now is probably the most important thing we'll ever do for Whimso, so we do it with care and patience. For me, personally, the learning curve has been steep, but not insurmountable. It's amazing to discover your own capacity to absorb new jargon, concepts and processes and then use them. I sometimes think my role should be Chief Learning Officer because it turns out that while I'm the newest in my team to the sector, technology is ever-changing and it's my job to keep everyone abreast with what's happening.
Why did you choose to join the Plexiglass programme and what have you got out of it so far?
I've answered this a little already but in a nutshell, it's helped me go from zero to one. What I mean by that is that it's helped me take the very first steps as a business on everything from business modelling to recruitment, to help my shape the present and future of Whimso. We need good foundations if we're going to grow properly and I'm proud to have built them at Plexal.
What are the most crucial things that you have done to grow your business?
We onboarded a third cofounder when we realised the B2B model would require a sales-heavy approach. I'm so grateful to have a team to help me realise the Whimso vision, building a business is, after all, about the people.
What would you say has been the highlight of your entrepreneurial journey so far?
I was asked by Tony Markovski, Director of Innovation at Plexal, to speak about lateral thinking in technology at the MirumOpus conference this month. It was a fantastic event with like-minded entrepreneurs and thinkers and I'm grateful to have been able to share my story with them.
What should we be expecting from yourself and your team for the rest of 2018?
We're launching our MVP for hotels and their guests in September.
I'll be carving out time to write regularly about these really early days of starting up while it's still fresh. I really miss writing, it used to be what I did all day, and I think there's value in sharing our own learnings. I am indebted to all those entrepreneurs who have shared their journeys before me and think it's a fantastic way to pass on knowledge especially to fellow female founders.
Lastly, what three pieces of advice would you offer entrepreneurs starting out today?
Do your research. I can't tell you how many times I have attended events on raising seed investment and pitching only to hear the same questions about slide numbers and the differences between funding rounds. These are excellent opportunities to connect with Angels and VCs and shouldn't be wasted on topics easily Googled.
If you can join an accelerator remember the best stuff isn't always in the programme, it's from the people you meet there. Be present. Don't only talk about your startup to anyone who will listen. Share your passion and your vision will probably naturally follow suit. Apparently people buy into people, not products, in my experience this has been true.
Don't let your experience define whether you have what it takes to pursue an idea. I don't come from tech or specifically travel, although both have played a part of my past work in one way or another. Most things can be learned provided you are open to learning. Work ethic, passion and perseverance are much harder to develop if they don't come naturally but I believe they will take your further in the long run.