The founder and CEO of Culture Trip reveals how the startup has raised over $102m in VC funding and what’s next for the company
After committing to a 12-year psychiatry PhD, you’d think taking a risk as an entrepreneur would be the last thing on Kris Naudts’ mind. Still, he’s now the CEO and founder of Culture Trip, the travel advisor that with its $80m round in April has raised over $102m in total. “I think I was always an entrepreneur who happened to be a psychiatrist rather than a psychiatrist who became an entrepreneur,” Naudts says. Indeed, it wasn’t difficult to conceive the idea for a travel advisor given the parallels he draws between the two sectors. “Psychiatry is a career in which you help people and care about people,” he says. “With the sort of stuff we do, which is exploring differences between people, places and cultures around the world and using creativity and technology for that, in my mind, that leads to a better world.”
Although, approaching VCs was the furthest thing from Naudts’ mind when he launched Culture Trip in 2011 as a part-time online book and film store. “It was a labour of love,” he says. At first, developing a simple algorithm sorting texts and movies by country was enough entrepreneurial thrill for him. “The initial ambition wasn’t as powerful as it later became,” Naudts admits.
It wasn’t until Culture Trip’s team began writing its own stories on the site that the vision widened. “We then saw that people came more to the articles than to the store,” Naudts explains. Recognising the potential of growing this part of the platform, Cultural Trip went through a few years of experimentation where the written content gradually increased. This also meant trying to refine the stories to what visitors the platform actually wanted to read about. “It was a smaller idea at first with a smaller ambition that just kept growing bigger and bigger and bigger in the last two, three years or so in particular,” Naudts summarise.
While tinkering with the idea meant demand for Culture Trip’s service grew, it was also a very costly exercise. “We constantly ran out of money,” he says. Over the first four years the entrepreneur managed to raise roughly $1m in total from angel investors. Even though Cultural Trip was forced to replenish its coffers every four months or so, it didn’t prevent it from hitting milestones such as a million monthly visitors and impressed the right people. “Investors noted that we are clearly frugal and resilient,” Naudts says.
His grit paid off when Culture Trip raised a VC-backed $2m seed fund in 2015. To Naudts, it marked the true beginning of the company and what the startup describes as its “hyper growth story”. “I could actually build a team because until then it had been me and a bunch of freelancers,” Naudts explains. With the money safely in the bank the startup was able to establish a team of about ten people and I could afford a few engineers, which are based in Israel. This in turn enabled the company to take its website off third-party hands and give Culture Trip more independence. Moreover, it also finally convinced Naudts to give the startup his all. “2015 for me was the big year where it all fell into place, where I literally realised there’s nothing else I wanted to do,” he says.
Having proven Culture Trip’s potential, the seed round was quickly followed by a $20m series A in 2016 and a $80m series B round in April 2018, both led by PPF Group, the investment fund. “We went from 12 or 13 people to now just under 200 and we have a contributor base of about 300,” summarises Naudts. As well as accepting more CVs, the latest fund saw the company open stateside offices in New York. “The last 18 months has been an incredible ride,” says Naudts. “With users going up from four million a month to 15 million, a billion and a half major reviews, a million app downloads, the statistics have been amazing.”
Following a rebrand and relaunch, Culture Trip’s next goal is what has always been the startup’s main priority – recruitment. “We can scale our engineering workforce really dramatically now,” says Naudts. “So we'll probably go up to four or five hundred in head count and we can have probably about a quarter of that to be engineering and technology related, so I think that will be very exciting.” Although, just like anyone with ambitions he will be facing his fair share of challenges. “In many ways we still have a lot of work to do to improve the current user experience and the value proposition and that will get a lot of attention now,” he describes.
Naudts’ story shows just how difficult it is to shake off the innovation bug and why sometimes you really shouldn’t, no matter how much work is needed. “These last three years were tough, hard and they made me even more resilient than I presumably already was before I started this out,” he says. While this grit has seen him raise millons of dollars and create an international powerhouse, he tends to downplay it. “I don’t make much fuss about it, I just mentally get on with stuff,” he concludes.