Travel is one of the most rewarding experiences in life. However, it is also one of the most challenging things to plan and execute. Even if you successfully reach your destination and execute your travel plan, you are met with another challenge – one of carefully documenting the journey. Now, what if there was a singular solution to all of those pain points and it was designed by a bunch of enthusiastic travellers. Well, that’s Polarsteps.
Based in Amsterdam, this Dutch startup is one of those few startups whose origin steps from a deeply personal experience. Polarsteps was not started because of an idea or a business model. Instead, it was started because the founders of the startup experienced a problem related to travel themselves and soon decided to fix it for everyone. This mission-driven approach is what makes Polarsteps a favourite among three million explorers.
A big passion for travel
The origin story of Polarsteps is not that stemmed from a garage or a basement but that one that was created when Niek Bokkers, one of the co-founder of Polarsteps, was sailing across the Atlantic. This was pre-smartphone days and Niek wanted to keep his family and friends informed about his whereabouts. A doer at heart, Bokkers took a GPS device and a satellite phone with him.
He also decided to set up a server in The Netherlands that would plot his movement on a map. This creative way of keeping family and friends informed about your whereabouts when smartphones weren’t the norm became viral. At that moment, Bokkers knew he could turn this ingenuity of his creation into a product that can be used by travellers around the world.
When Job Harmsen, Koen Droste, and Niek Bokkers began to rethink the idea, they met Maximiliano Neustadt, who came together to start Polarsteps in 2015. With four of them sharing a big passion for travel, they began to work on the idea of a service that overcame every challenge that a traveller might face, during the planning, travelling, and documenting phase of their trip.
As a travel service, Polarsteps solves the problem that a typical traveller goes through. This includes inspiration, planning, taking the actual trip, and then reliving it. “We believe that creating an end-to-end platform that makes this journey more enjoyable is something that is very needed in the industry. We also believe that there is a lot of land ripe for disruption individually on each of these steps in the funnel, especially when it comes to creating great user experiences,” says Neustadt.
Challenging the convention
For Job Harmsen, Koen Droste, Niek Bokkers, and Maximiliano Neustadt, the biggest challenge was to overcome the cold feet that people get while making a big move. Neustadt says, “the first challenge was to take the plunge and make the bet.”
The bet is to transform a side project that Bokkers envisioned in the Atlantic to a real company making impact in the lives of millions of people. This bet meant “radically changing the course of existing careers,” adds Neustadt. Their story is not dissimilar from that of Mark Zuckerberg who saw a lack of social communication tools in his college campus and eventually decided to drop out and build Facebook (now Meta).
Neustadt says their second challenge came in the form of getting seed investment. “Without big activity numbers to get investors excited or monetization streams in place or ready for scale, it was difficult to get people on board,” he explains.
Their singular focus on creating a great experience for their target audience did help them win both investors as well as users. Neustadt says 100 per cent of its users have come to the organisation either by discovering the service or by recommendation from an existing user.
Before the pandemic, Neustadt says Polarsteps was able to triple all of its metrics on a year-over-year basis. He says the pandemic did have an impact on them since the travel industry was significantly disrupted. Even during those tough times, Polarsteps found a silver lining with its users reliving their activities. In other words, Polarsteps achieved what it had set out to accomplish in the first place.
“Since we were doing so well before the pandemic, we were able to weather the storm without having to take any drastic action,” Neustadt confirms.
Now that the travel industry is returning to pre-pandemic normalcy, Neustadt says they are once again seeing a big surge in activity. The platform has recently reached 4 million users and a large percentage of them are active on a monthly basis. “Compared to January this year, we are seeing almost 3 times as many active users,” he adds.
An experiential business model
The business model of Polarsteps is unconventionally brilliant. Neustadt says they generate their income via printed travel books that users can order with the click of a button after completing their trip. One of the books that people like to place on their coffee table is a travel book or picture book centred around travel.
With Polarsteps, you can put your own travel book on your coffee table.Since the service has access to your location, photos, and stories, it is able to turn that data into a beautiful book documenting the journey. “Even though this was just a feature we implemented because users were asking for it, it quickly became a fundamental income stream for us,” Neustadt tells us.
Polarsteps has recently added destination guides as a way for people to find best places to eat, sleep, and drink around the world. When people book something they have seen on a destination guide, Polarsteps gets a revenue share. The co-founder says Polarsteps is on track to double its revenue compared to last year or even 2019, which Neustadt calls as pre-pandemic year and best one for the company yet.
To develop its product and sustain the growth, Polarsteps has so far raised a couple of angel and seed rounds and closed its Series A round at the end of 2018. It closed a Series A round of €3M from INKEF and Silver Point Ventures, and according to Dealroom, Polarsteps has raised a total of €4.8M.
Neustadt says they are in a “very luxurious position” of not having to raise in the near future. He says the current user growth and revenue that comes along with it will allow the company to further grow the business. One of the areas where Polarsteps wants to focus is building the team and ensuring that every team is allowed to succeed in their goals.
“We are always talking to investors that come knocking at our door to explore potential synergies, but for the short term our laser-sharp focus is on product development,” says Neustadt.
Standing apart with a strong product
Polarsteps is a team of 30 people focussed on making travel experience better for people around the world, from planning to execution to documenting phase. The startup has begun hiring once again for a number of areas and is particularly focussing on filling roles in its product and tech team.
Neustadt says they are also looking to fill a few engineering positions in the short term while long term focus is to fill roles across all disciplines within the company. With its biggest user base in the Netherlands, Polarsteps has grown on the back of strong organic support within its community. Now, the startup is looking at growing its presence in other markets as well.
“We have plans to boost our brand and run some marketing or user acquisition campaigns in a few key markets, but the core will come from our organic flywheel,” Neustadt explains the expansion strategy.
Polarsteps is unique in its ability to offer an end-to-end travel platform covering all the experiences. Thus, it lacks a direct competitor, but it does count Lonely Planet, Airbnb, and Booking.com among its competitors, even if they cater to a specific segment. To fend off these established challengers, Neustadt says they will stay focussed on their integrated approach and offer a “top notch UX for every single one of our product propositions.”
Catch our interview with Paul Down, Head of Sales at Intigriti.