Dr. Kris Naudts, psychiatrist-cum-entrepreneur, is walking "the hot coals of hypergrowth."
His company, Culture Trip, is fueled by $100 million in investments, and while the entrepreneur in him is not complaining, the residual psychiatrist notes that his current, accelerated state of activity "is not normal. It's not natural."
His story -- his company's story -- is a textbook example of how an inexperienced business person, following a passion but not wedded to a specific concept, can find success in a world dominated by Stanford MBAs and formula-minded venture capitalists.
Culture Trip was born out of Naudts' passion for reading fiction set in various locations. Happiness for him was associated with being in a bookstore, and although he began his career as an academic focused on ethics and neuroscience, he soon wanted a change.
He licensed a bibliographic database containing "all books in existence," restructured it around the books' geographic setting and put it on the web. His business model was to use the site to sell books, but he found that "people weren't buying them, at least not in sufficient numbers."
When he decided to create original content connected to books and writers and integrate it into the database, traffic built slowly. He expanded from books to include film and art that was strongly linked to a geographic setting, though he admits he "was still very snobbish" about what he considered "culture."
Four years passed, and a solid revenue stream was still elusive. He expanded his perspective on what constitutes culture, and after he began including articles about gastronomy, traffic shot through the roof.
Dr. Kris Naudts
"The web wasn't as saturated with food content then," he said. But although he soon had a million monthly unique visitors, "we were dying, running out of money."
He decided to pursue investment from Silicon Valley but had no connections there. He Googled "venture capitalists" and got names from Wikipedia. He guessed at email addresses, sending out his CV and a 60-page business plan.
"They did reply," he recalled. "They did not invest, but in my delusion, I considered a reply of any kind as encouragement."
He did get actual encouragement from investor Gordy Crawford.
"It took two years before he took a meeting," Naudts
said. "I just kept emailing him bar charts. Relentlessly. He invested."
That validation opened the gates to further investment. ("We went from nine in 10 people thinking it was a stupid idea to one in 10 with reservations.") A 2016 Series A round raised $20 million.
The Culture Trip website today is a robust travel-planning guide with a significant number of "best X" lists, though the content can actually range from "The 10 Best Restaurants in Ulaanbaatar" to "10 Female Mexican Artists You Need to Know About." The blend reflects what anthropologist Grant McCracken defines as fast culture and slow culture.
In research that Culture Trip released earlier this month, the company defined fast culture as "food fads, latte art, nightlife, destinations trending on social [media], influencer taste-making and popular entertainment." It defines slow culture as "language, storytelling traditions, history, even nature and geography."
The site currently pulls 20 million monthly unique visitors and has 300 employees in London, New York and Tel Aviv. He has traffic, funding and a formidable organization. To monetize these assets, Naudts is pivoting again, both in terms of content and purpose.
The funnel for selling travel has traditionally been portrayed with inspiration at the top and transactions at the bottom. Not much attention has been paid to the middle, and Naudts believes there's an opportunity for someone willing to escort the traveler all the way from top to bottom.
"The midfunnel is for orientation and the actual trip planning," he said. "The big online players in travel are focused on getting you to book. They may have some top-funnel inspirational information, but it's a frustrating experience for the user because the top and bottom are not integrated. Online, no one's in the middle. But we can map it out. We have the data. We can populate the whole funnel."
To do this, he's in the process of building "an avalanche of good content at the top of funnel," including original animation. His research identified a strong link between globalization and the experience economy that opens an opportunity for Culture Trip to sell experiences connected to the content.
He does see a formidable competitor in Airbnb's Experiences product, but he believes his content gives him an advantage.
Naudts' goal is for Culture Trip to be a multibillion-dollar company, a household name. While traversing the hot coals of hypergrowth, it might comfort him to remember that Amazon, the largest e-commerce retailer by online revenue in the world, reached that position after initially positioning itself to sell books but similarly found that people weren't buying them in sufficient numbers.
Hypergrowth might not be a normal or natural state, but if Amazon-scale success is the goal, the key apparently rests in not resting.