Startup Savants is a podcast that’s dedicated to helping aspiring entrepreneurs and startup enthusiasts by bringing news, insights, and stories about the startups and founders that are making waves right now. Our guest for this episode is Lizia Santos of Citycatt. Lizia is a mom, mentor, and founder of Citycatt, a travel startup that aims to provide authentic travel experiences. Before launching her own startup, Lizia was a journalist in the US and Brazil.
How did you come up with the idea behind Cittycatt?
“I don’t think the idea for Citycatt would come about if I was in hospitality. Part of why I had an idea so outside of the box was really because of who I am and my different roles in life. As you mentioned, I’m a mom, I’m a journalist, and I’m an expat. I’m from Brazil and moved to the US 15 years ago. And these three things kind of came together and made me think about the idea.
Why is that? It’s because first of all, before being a mom and a journalist, I was always a travel lover. My family is spread around the globe, my cousins, my aunts, everybody just lives abroad. And ever since I was little, we always either hosted family or went to visit family and friends.”
Is this friendliness just a family trait or is it part of a wider cultural pattern?
“It’s a very Brazilian thing. We are very friendly. Everybody knows we’re friendly. And that’s what we are known for. It’s way worse than you guys think. It’s friendly to the level of sending friends to friends to your house so you can host them. That happens all the time. I get phone calls, ‘Hey, can you host this friend of my friend in your house?’ And that’s how Brazilians are.”
How did this gregarious attitude affect your love of travel?
“I became a passionate host for that reason. And I also loved traveling to places where I had friends more than going places where I didn’t know anybody because then it just went to another level where I found out that experiencing destinations through that insider view, it was just so much better than trying to find information online and the other way around as well.”
In what ways did this collaborative approach play out?
“When I hosted people, I just did my best to take them outside of the traditional touristic circuits. In the US I’ve lived in three states already. And I’m always the curious one. I’m always trying to explore new places, find out about new cafes, little museums that nobody hears about. These kinds of stuff. And I’m always taking people with me to these places when they come to visit.
This was the first thing that came into play. And then as a journalist, the first thing that every journalist has to do, the main skill is you’ve got to be a very good researcher, and that’s it. If you’re not a good researcher, you’re not a good journalist. As a travel lover that goes online to plan my trips, I’m expected to be the best planner that is.”
When planning trips, what major problem did you confront?
“Usually, when I travel with family and friends, I’m the one assigned to plan, and it’s an experience that frustrates me a lot because although I’m good at researching, and I can do that for any other subject, when it comes to travel, you go online and you type things to do in any given destination you just find the same thing.
You’re on the 20th page of Google results, and it’s still the same 20 top things to do in any given destination, which is a bunch of prepackaged things, touristy things, things that anybody else will do. For anybody looking to do anything that’s more authentic. If you want to really experience local culture, you have to keep going maybe to the 50th page of Google results and find that one blogger that couldn’t manage to get up in the Google results.
It takes a lot of time. And it’s supposed to be a fun experience, but it’s not. When you’re planning trips, you don’t want it to resemble work. You want to relax when doing that, but it’s just not possible the way information is displayed online.”
How did this research experience affect you?
“It added to my frustration because now as a mom I’m trying to plan something that’s authentic. I’m trying to introduce my kids to this whole world out there that’s amazing. And all this diversity out there, but it’s just so hard to plan. And when I do find something that says authentic, it’s usually targeting younger millennials or Gen Zs that are adventurous, that don’t require lots of planning. They can just do whatever. I couldn’t find anything like that.”
Was it this experience that triggered the Citycatt conception?
“The experience led me to think through ‘how can I solve that’ to myself first, and then I realized it’s a problem for everybody else. As a journalist, I had the aha moment when I realized maybe this is much simpler than anybody else thinks because as journalists, what we do is anytime we don’t know anything about something, we just try to find a reliable source that can educate us very quickly on what we need to do so we can then write the piece.
What if we could do this for travelers? What if we could create a community of these reliable sources and destinations that travelers could use as resources for planning trips? I applied that very basic journalistic principle to a problem in hospitality. And that’s where Citycatt came to be. And then that’s what we are. We are in hospitality, but we joke within the team that we’re not a travel company, actually. We are an out-of-the-box human resources company, plus a personalized media. It’s very outside of the box, we’re in travel, but essentially what we are is a community of people that you can use as resources when planning trips, and that follows that basic simple principles of being a safe, authentic, and personalized experience for anybody.”
What made you decide to give the name ‘Catts’ to this community of reliable sources?
“Yes, that’s a great question. That’s my passion within everything that I do in Citycatt is building that community of Catts.
So, what are Catts? First of all, ‘Citycatt,’ the name of the company, has absolutely nothing to do with pets … but it is just making reference to that cat, that ‘cool cat,’ and being the Citycatt and also we’re playing with the concept of cats being the one animal that’s known as being the explorer. They always leave the houses. They go and explore the city. They always come back. We thought it would be fun to use that name and then we ended up calling our local resources ‘Catts.’”
Were there any difficulties in growing your community of Catts?
“One difficulty was when I found out about this one concept called scalability, that anybody starting a startup — if you haven’t heard that yet, you will. That’s something that you’ll be challenged to achieve. Then I realized it wasn’t scalable to grow with … I couldn’t grow a community of local people that way because how could I even measure the knowledge of people all around the globe on destinations if I haven’t been to every single destination in the world. That wasn’t scalable, it would take too long for me to grow that community.”
What other ways to grow your business were possible?
“And that’s when I had the idea for actually making them influencers. That iteration was really important for us. Now, plus whatever I already said, they’re reliable sources, they also have to be micro-influencers, and the subject of their profiles has to be either their local explorations or their trips. They can also be passionate travelers that make it their thing to just travel to as many destinations as possible.”
How did you find these Catts?
“So, these Catts, we go after them on social media. We have Catt seekers within our company. These are interns whose goal is essentially finding these talents, these Catts out there. And now we have a whole database of people that we are reaching out to. We do a cold reach out at first, that’s the top of the funnel for us. We let them know who we are if they’re interested in the opportunity.
And then from there on, they have a whole onboarding process that they go through with Citycatt, the main thing being, we want a diverse community. We want to be in every single destination. And we also want to build a diverse community within each destination so travelers can find people that they relate to.”
How did you arrive at the present business model?
“Yeah, that’s a great question. When I first had the idea for Citycatt, because it was based on my own experience as a hostess, the first idea was of the Catts being actual hosts for the travelers, not hosts in their own houses, but being sort of like out-of-the-box travel guides, being in-person guides.
That was the initial idea, but when I started exploring the idea, I found out that the logistics were a nightmare to implement. Especially because I wouldn’t compromise the whole safety side of it, as I met as a mom, and for it to be safe, it would involve a lot of technology that I would have to build in order to do something similar to what the other marketplace platforms are doing. Like Uber, when the driver is coming and then you see them coming, things like that. This is all very expensive.”
So you narrowed your focus to one part of the travel market, right?
“Yes, I looked at travel from another perspective to understand how travel goes. And I understood that there are different stages for any given trip. First, you dream about it, then you plan. Then you go and you book your trip, and then you experience it, and then you share about it. In the beginning, I was completely focused on the experiencing stage of it. But there are a lot of players in there.
But then I saw the planning stage not being very much explored by any travel company. And I realized maybe here I have more chances of thriving. Maybe here, I can scale my recruiting of Catts more. I can scale providing services to travelers further. And that’s when I focused on that, and I tried to find a way to serve travelers in that specific stage.”
In what ways did this startup experience change your perspective about building a business?
“I understood maybe the thing isn’t about the service in itself or the product in itself, it’s all about the Catts. If I think about the Catts as the sources, as the resources for the travelers then from them I can provide a multitude of services. Let’s start with something in the planning stage that’s scalable.
And we had the idea then for the plan with the Catt. You hire the Catt to help you and the planning stage of the trip. And that becomes much more scalable because then we don’t have to be in person. There’s no in-person meetings. We don’t have to have a native app. We can do a web app because in the planning stages, people usually plan on desktops anyway. It became much more doable.
If you just focus on the product and you don’t think higher, think about the industry, think about different ways that you can approach it, there’s always hundreds of ways that you can approach solving that problem. Don’t compromise solving the problem. But as for the solution, there’s so many ways that you can … And if you’re not open to it, you probably die in the beginning. I’m so grateful that someone challenged me to not die at that moment.”
Your discovery of the accelerator program at Babson marked an inflection point in your development as an entrepreneur. How so?
“Babson was a game changer for me. Babson in Boston, they have a specific cohort for women called the WIN lab. Women Innovating Now.
Not having a business background, there was a lot that I didn’t know. And I didn’t even know what I needed to know. Babson really challenged me to think beyond money and money that I needed to do anything. Because your first thought as a founder is I need money to do that. And not necessarily, there’s lots that you can do without money, but you do need to think and plan out how you’re going to make that money in the future.
And that’s also another mistake that we do as a founder. We think that a single servicer or product is going to take care of that. Babson led me to think through, ‘Okay, you cannot rely on one single monetization avenue. You have to think through different ways to monetize.’ Startups they’re built to scale, how are you going to scale that? It can’t rely on just you, or it can’t rely even not just on your team. You have to build technologies or processes that will take care of scaling that up for you.
They led me to think that my biggest resource wasn’t the money that I lost. I still had my biggest resource, which was myself and my … where’s the word now, my hunger. Myself and my hunger to keep fighting. That was my biggest resource. As long as I’m willing to keep trying, then I can still find ways to make it work even without money. That was a turning point for me. That’s when I iterated, that’s when I thought about changing stages of providing help through the Citycatt. And that was really what made me survive up to this point. And that’s why I think it’s amazing providing services, providing information through podcasts like this because you can help other founders get up from low points like this.”
How did the pandemic affect your business?
“For us, it ended up being a blessing in disguise because we had an early MVP that we were going to launch two weeks before everything happened. And then we started seeing all the news about it, and I decided to hold off on that and just observe for a while. And at that point we always told, in my speeches about Citycatt every time I pitched, I always told my niche is the cautious traveler. It’s the traveler that cannot afford not to plan for any reason. Turns out that throughout COVID the niche grew, the cautious traveler now became pretty much 60% of the market.”
The pandemic also triggered innovation on your part. How so?
“People now know that anything can happen overnight, literally even a worldwide pandemic. The niche grew, and with that, it opened up an opportunity even bigger for us. I honestly, at that point also I had not iterated for the whole influencer model.
And that’s also another thing that led me to do that because I’m like, well, since the niche is growing, how can I make it even safer for these travelers? How can I make them feel even more comfortable within the platform? And that’s when we had the idea for the Citycatt being influencers because now they’re socially validated. You can check up on them. You can see they’re real. You can see that they’re knowledgeable yourself. You can go and visit the profiles. All of that happened throughout the pandemic.”
Share with us, one lesson your entrepreneurial journey has taught you.
“I thought that I needed to learn so much, know everything about everything. I needed to craft this perfect business plan in order to have Citycatt get off the ground. I had to have legal advice, so much stuff that I thought I needed to have. And I actually wrote a business plan. I put my baby to sleep and then I would sit down and write a little bit. And I did that for a couple days, and I have a business plan. It has nothing to do with what we’re doing nowadays. It makes absolutely no sense, but I thought I had to have it all figured out. And as I pursued the journey of building the company, especially a startup that’s built to grow and scale fast. I realized it’s not about having everything planned out, it’s not about knowing everything really, it’s about being open to iterating and changing and responding quickly and surrounding yourself with the right people.
When I realized that, that was a game changer for me. And that was something that I didn’t expect when building a business. I thought I would need to be very smart first, get an MBA or something like that. It really isn’t like that, anybody can be a founder if you just put the right people around you and put this right mindset also in motion.”
As the CEO of Citycatt, what keeps you up at night?
“It is people. and I’m a people person. And when building a company that’s all about people and essentially it is people and building something that they feel like they’re a part of in my mind, in my vision, they’re so special. What I have here, what I envision for Citycatt is so big. It’s so special. I want people to feel like they’re part of that, but it’s hard translating that vision into everyday things that really gets to them. And when I say people I’m saying my team, every Citycatt within the company, how do I make them feel like they’re special because they really are. But sometimes things are just inside our hearts, and we can’t really translate it into actions. I’m always thinking about that. What can I do? What resources can I put out for the Catts?
What message can I send them? What video can I record and send? We’re trying different ways to do that every day in the company. And I realize now that’s another thing that I learned with the process is that’s the main thing about being a CEO. It’s not knowing everything about numbers. You have people that do that, operational people that are working on numbers every day, but it is working with your people inspiring. You’re really an architect of your team and how your team is going to grow together. That’s what keeps me awake for sure.”
What’s your advice for anyone looking to become an entrepreneur?
“Yes. I would say don’t overthink your products or your service. Be aware that that’s going to change. What you really have to be mindful about is the problem that you’re solving. Is that a real pain point for enough people that it justifies you starting that business? If yes, then you’re already halfway through it. If you’re obsessed about that, then the rest will follow. And that’s one thing that I think you should obsess on, it’s the product, the pain point. The other thing is the culture. I cannot stress that enough. It feels like it’s silly. Why would I think of culture before the product? If I don’t even have a team or anything. It sounded silly in the beginning being the CEO of nothing. I was the CEO of myself. But the thing is, if you don’t think that through, you will attract the wrong people or you will attract no people.
If you know what you’re building, if you know what kind of company and vision you have in mind, if you’re thinking 10 steps ahead and you know what it is that you want to get to, you will attract the right people. And you’ll also be aware of what you cannot do and the process of getting there. And then you’ll know who are the people that you have to attract, what kind of skill sets you need in order to make that work. That is my advice for you. It feels like it’s nothing right now, it’s just an idea but obsess about that. Think, what kind of company, what is the pain point? And then be open, be flexible to it changing through the process of building it. Because it will change. Who would’ve thought that a pandemic would happen and that changed the whole travel industry and all other industries too.”
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