About 18 months have passed since founding Teleport, 10 months since our first big public release, 6 months since our mobile app and one month since Teleport Cities, the web based global life search, become our centerpiece. Not to mention our little “side projects” like Teleport Flock, Teleport Sundial and early revenue experiments around Teleport Scouts. (We do ship a lot, don’t we?)
“This is just the beginning!” as every single founder of any startup ever created at this point would tell you. Nevertheless it feels like a good time for a bit of reflection on what we’ve learnt to date.
Below you will find a few of my personal “aha!-s” both big and small. I was initially intending to write this down just for Team Teleport. The aim for publishing this to the outside world is two-fold. First, some specific lessons might be beneficial for fellow entrepreneurs targeting some aspect of the human mobility space. But secondly, we would love to hear any further reactions from our users living the increasingly location independent lives. What resonates with you, what have we gotten wrong about you?
Focusing a generic search engine is hard
Building Teleport feels a bit what I imagine building early Google felt like for the people involved in 1999. On one side we are indexing the cost, quality of life and income potential data for the planet. On the other hand, we’re trying to keep the user interface for exploring it as simple and clean as we can (even though arguably our use case will be always more complex than a single text box).
This means that any limitations we set on user segments are rather driven by the need to focus marketing & distribution, rather than inability to serve others. Our current focus on the white collar people whose brain does most of the heavy lifting at their job is there to make our messaging simpler, not because we couldn’t get salary data for plumbers or carpenters. Narrowing your focus is hard for startups anyway, but it is harder when you feel like cutting away addressable market without inherent technical reason.
Getting the language right
Speaking about our early users, you might notice another subtle, but hard learning. The very underlying construct of the entire location independent movement is a mess: there is no good language yet to talk about this phenomenon. Who are the people most free to move around? Digital nomads, startup people, creative class or knowledge workers…
Talking to the super-nichey stereotype of a single, 20-something adventurer roaming South East Asia with a 40-liter backpack is great (and we are sending our respect and regards to NomadList, as ever). True nomads are the avant garde of the location independent movement, the pioneers, but the narrow term locks out so many people who should also frequently consider it they are at the right place, and whom we can help with the tools we’re building.
For example, a founder of a distributed startup team with their people in 3 cities and clients in the fourth might spend significant time in 4+ countries every year, but they do not consider themselves “nomadic”. Furthermore, their de facto lifestyle doesn’t even fit the active verbs we’re used to using: does someone “move” or “travel” or “relocate” when they stay in three countries for 10 weeks at a time? The discussion on how to talk about this specific way of mobile life in clear and simple way is still very much open for your suggestions.
It’s not about permanent moves
To continue on that distributed team example, the rise of such organizations hides a much deeper point. Today’s talent moving around the world is not about going from A->B permanently anymore. The entrepreneurs we talk to are not asking “should I move to Silicon Valley or not”, but “how much time should I spend there this year”. It is about one’s personal location strategy, having a well-planned and beneficial mix of cities where one spends a share of their time every year.
This is a classic democratization of an issue by technology. Location strategy used to be the exclusive domain of 10,000+ person corporations with tens of millions of HR budgets to optimize. Only the Walmarts and largest gas station networks used proprietary software to optimize where to put their next store and employees. The same process on micro scale has now become feasible for single professionals and small teams.
Frequency of moving around
Since the first times of pitching this company to investors we’ve been asked about perceived low frequency of moves. Do the users come back frequently enough to build a business serving them? We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it.
First, imagine a moving slider. On one end you have a 2 day business trip and on the other a “big move” US real estate sites track to about 5-7 years on average.
By democratizing access to location optimization tools, we are moving the slider way more to the left. For 2 days you should stay in a hotel closest to the meeting you’re attending, sure. But if you’re going to be in a new city for 10 days you deserve better. Find an Airbnb at a place where you can walk to restaurants and go running in the evening, and you have reasonable commute to the 3 offices in the area you’re visiting. This means Teleport can already help you discover where the best place to live and work is, even if you’re not after a 30-year mortgage.
That said, inside the team we don’t know yet if the frequency really matters to the success of our mission. It is possible to make a case for a product that you use 2 times a week for very short term, yet trivial location changes (“which co-working space in my city should I choose tomorrow?”) as well as for a product that you use 2-4 times a year for only the location changes which involve a lot of friction and pain and visas and box moving and long haul flights and hence become valuable to solve.
People matter over companies
We have stayed true to our focus on consumers, the actual people who are going through the pains on the road. There has been some pull to build and sell versions of our software for enterprise customers already, but we believe that at this early stage it is important to keep our eyes firmly on the needs, wants and desires of the real humans on the move.
Why? Behind every 10 checkboxes, an HR department needs to tick for a group of recruits coming next month – there are life quality defining, sometimes just burning issues for each of those individuals. We want to solve those first, before we get drawn to corporate compliance and bulk purchases. Borrowing from the playbook of Skype, where a large share of our team comes from, we know that if you build an amazing consumer experience that people actually love to use, you will eventually find a way into the companies they work for.
For now, the closest interface to organizations behind our users are the conversations we are having around remote work. We see this as a proxy topic to reach the people who by definition think about their for location. We have met amazing entrepreneurs through a simple crowdsourced spreadsheet of remote working teams (which is still counting up from 150+ teams of 6000 people spread in 900 city locations!). A remote job sites review post is the best performing long-tail SEO we’ve got. Remote work is a tidal wave, and companies who are learning to leverage that to their advantage seem to be ones finding Teleport most useful first.
People care about where other people are
Besides just their direct working teams, we have seen people generally care a lot about where other people are. The location of your family, friends and clients is the obvious example, but we are learning more every day about the power of unlocking the reverse diasporas our co-founder Balaji wrote about back when we got started. People want to hang out with people like them and the people they like.
The problem for a startup in this space is that those who hold that valuable information about social and interest graphs are decreasingly likely to share it. As an example our early users really loved a feature of seeing where your friends live in the Bay Area Teleport, but Facebook soon deprecated open access to the API we built it on.
We did not set out to build a social network, but you now see us experimenting with simple use cases where people can describe the social graphs of their small groups that matter to them (see Teleport Flock and Teleport Sundial), and features like Ask a Local to help our users talk to each other about their moves. It seems that the market reality is that everyone needs to control at least the core bit of the graph their users need, not rely on others to deliver that.
Linking all these nodes up will not stop here. Between our users on the move, our early network of Teleport Scouts so eagerly willing to help others, the progressive governments and professional service providers we’ve met, we have become more intrigued by the notion of market networks as mastered by our good partners at AngelList. How can Teleport further interconnect mobile people and entities in a graph where they can exchange information but also transact if they choose to do so?
Living the product
I am a huge believer in dogfooding, a culture where the product team is actively using what we build every day. We’ve gotten a good start with that. Our team’s Sundial map tracks us in 5-6 countries (depending on the day). Silver has had his “home address” in five countries this year, ThomasK gets close as a full nomad too. Ardo is making a more permanent move to Canada; ThomasS heading for a few months in New Zealand. I’ve gone from Silicon Valley base to one in Estonia, which still means extended time on the other side. Flights inside Europe are more of a routine for everyone.
This diversity of locations and languages in team has another strength beyond testing and improving our software. For example we are much better equipped to execute local market focused media discussions around how location matters in places like war-torn Ukraine or Italy balancing some talent outflow with creating better startup environments. We have just entered the phase where we have enough product built to start focusing
Operating a multi-location team means that we’re burning our investors’ money at less than half of the rate of our San Franciscan peers, while our people are still getting paid higher end of local startup market rates European Union and Canada.
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I do hope you head over to Teleport Cities now to discover what is your best place to live and work. And please let me know how we could make actually moving there easier for you!