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Every business has a unique origin story, and seeing how successful ventures came about is always fascinating. In the case of TripKit, an assistant service for luxury travel advisors, the idea began as part of a class project.
But the business’s origin isn’t the only detail that makes TripKit’s story compelling. The company was founded shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and almost completely shut down international travel. Despite the bumpy start, co-founders Grace McBride and Sarah Peters were able to grow the company before exiting in 2022 to pursue another business.
From Class Project to Real-World Business
In 2019, during their senior year at Cornell University, Grace and Sarah faced an assignment in a class led by Andrew Quagliata. Grace describes the class as a “game-changer” because of the introduction to customer research and interviewing.
As part of the assignment, Grace and Sarah had to go through the process of creating assumptions and open-minded research questions. The discoveries were then organized into a matrix to determine the significance of the findings.
Earlier, Grace had worked as a travel advisor for the luxury travel agency MilesAhead. She decided to use this class project as an opportunity to explore some of the problems she’d noticed in the industry.
Through the assignment, Grace and Sarah came up with the idea of creating a business that provides organization and administrative support for luxury travel agents.
Speaking about this process, Grace said, “Once we got a deep understanding of their challenges, the business idea suddenly became crystal clear. I’m not exaggerating when I say I had complete confidence that we could make it work because the problem seemed glaringly obvious to me after conducting the research.”
And so, in 2019, TripKit was launched. Instead of providing travel planning services directly to clients, TripKit assists travel advisors, primarily in creating itineraries.
Early on, Grace and Sarah contacted as many luxury travel agents as they could find on LinkedIn, and started growing the business.
Weathering the Pandemic
Shortly after the company was formed, the travel industry was rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic. At that point, Grace and Sarah lost all the early progress they had made. Like many other service-related businesses in the travel industry, TripKit’s revenue was crushed due to the travel restrictions.
The disappointment and shock of the pandemic led to serious stress-related health issues for Grace. After she spent at least a week in bed, Grace’s father gave her some work in his store. “He phrased it as ‘needing help’ at our family business,” Grace says, “but really he was the one helping me, making me a productive member of society again, showing me it wasn’t going to be the end of the world.”
That distraction helped Grace to relax and heal, and her passion for the business slowly returned.
With the lack of business during the pandemic, Grace and Sarah offered their services for free to whoever needed them. Grace says, “We just had this feeling that being helpful would pay off in the long run.” And as the travel restrictions eased, many of the contacts they had made led to paying clients.
Growing the Business
Word-of-mouth advertising was the biggest key to TripKit’s growth. Speaking about that growth, Grace said, “We found that one good experience with a client got us three new ones. So we focused on great customer service, and soon the word spread.”
Grace and Sarah also had an email newsletter that reached nearly 1,000 potential clients, contributing significant business.
“We just took it one step at a time, not looking much further than our next customer,” Grace said.
By 2022, TripKit employed four full-time virtual assistants who provided assistance to more than 100 travel advisors.
The business was growing, but Grace and Sarah had a problem. They’d also started a second business during the pandemic. The other project was Lucia, a freelance marketplace for outsourcing any aspect of travel planning.
Grace and Sarah felt they couldn’t effectively grow both businesses simultaneously, so they decided to sell TripKit.
The listing led to more than 100 inquiries, and they ultimately came to an agreement with a buyer who had a similar vision for the future of TripKit.
Valuable Lessons Learned
The process of growing and selling TripKit provided invaluable experience for the pair of young entrepreneurs. Grace says one of the biggest lessons learned was to “price your services according to their true worth; don’t undervalue yourself out of fear that clients might walk away.”
In the early stages of the business, Grace and Sarah offered several clients discounted pricing. Before selling the business, they worked to get all the customers on the same plan, which meant they had to increase prices for the clients still paying discounted rates.
To Grace and Sarah’s surprise, they didn’t lose a single customer due to the price increase. This one simple change instantly boosted monthly recurring revenue (MRR) by 30%. Grace says, “I couldn’t help but feel frustrated with myself for initially setting our business’s value based on old revenue figures. In hindsight, we could have fetched a much higher selling price.”
Another lesson involved the importance of getting professional help with taxes and legal matters. Grace said that she still occasionally gets notices of filing errors that were made while setting up the business without the proper help.
The experience of growing TripKit, despite a major obstacle like a global pandemic, proved that customer research works. After going through it, Grace advises aspiring entrepreneurs to take a similar approach.
“Go after a problem that really hits home, one you genuinely feel the pain of,” she says. “Every company should only begin after deeply researching a problem to uncover a real-world ‘need’ that’s desperate for a solution.”
For Grace and Sarah, the customer insight proved to be invaluable. “Sometimes, I thought I had a good handle on what customers wanted,” Grace says, “but after chatting with them, I realized I was way off. Like Paul English wisely said, the best way to find out what a customer wants is to just ask them.”
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