The world of joining a startup is often glamorised and more and more of us are leaving conventional routes of employment to join them, attracted by the promise of excitement and huge rewards in exchange for hard work and resilience. Culture Trip is a fast growing startup that focuses on travel, media and entertainment, creating stories that reveal what is unique and special about a place, its people and its culture. As it stands, this is ‘the startup success story’ we can all only dream of, with the company securing a $20M series A funding in 2016 and then a further $80M in April of this year. The website alone attracts 18 million monthly unique visitors every month and their social media channels exceed well over 7 million. Culture Trip’s video content has generated 2 billion views in just two years and they have been dubbed one of the UK’s fastest-growing companies by Forbes. Impressive right?
But just what does it take to join a startup right at the beginning of its journey and to be present throughout all its its trials and tribulations as it goes through a period of hyper growth? Isabelle Pitman (Isi) was part of the original 12 employees first hired at Culture Trip by Kris Naudts, the Founder and CEO. Over the last three years 25 year-old Isi has seen the company grow to over 250 employees and has bore witness to all of its huge successes; as well as its growing pains. We wanted to chat to Isi and understand just what it has meant to work in a startup such as this one and what comes with wearing as many hats as she has. For those that are keen to know what to expect when joining a startup, Isabelle gives a great insight into just what you could anticipate along the way…
Isabelle (Isi) Pitman
What is Culture Trip and when did it launch?
Culture Trip is a fast growing startup focused on travel, media and entertainment which creates stories revealing what is unique and special about a place, its people and its culture. We inspire people to go beyond their cultural boundaries and connect with the world around them. We bring the world to everyone and bring everyone closer together.
Role in Company:
Currently Chief of Staff. I joined Culture Trip in the summer of 2015 as one of the first handful of employees. After a series of promotions I became Chief of Staff in March this year, supporting the Founder/CEO across a range of critical business objectives.
Years spent in company:
Just over three years – I joined in August 2015.
You went straight from university to working at Culture Trip. What initially drew you to working for Culture Trip?
My relationship with Culture Trip started when I was at university. I was aware of the company even though it was still fairly small and I really loved reading the stories it was producing and its vision to bring the world to everyone.
When I graduated I was lucky enough to go straight into Culture Trip. I studied English Literature at Exeter University and I always thought I would end up in editorial. I joined in more of an editorial role in the summer of 2015 just after we raised our seed funding and we were operating out of a tiny office in London Bridge. As such, I was there for the days before the serious funding started coming in, when it was all very hand to mouth and all hands on deck. It was a time of immense hard work and grit but also tremendously exciting. That hard work and collective ambition was also a huge driver for me.
How many people were in the starting team when you joined?
I was one of the first 12 employees – mainly young graduates – brought on board by Kris Naudts, the Founder and CEO. Kris founded the company initially as an online bookstore, born out of his frustration of not easily being able to find or buy books by non-Caucasian authors.
The company has evolved since then with entirely new functions from Marketing to Product and a unique global network of contributors – including writers, filmmakers, photographers, illustrators and animators – creating inspiring stories.
Working in a startup often means you have to wear lots of different hats. Has this been the case for you?
Very much so. I joined as a Communications Project Manager – my role was essentially working on outreach to organisations that we featured in our articles. Exploring the world is at the heart of what we do at Culture Trip, and I was really lucky to have the opportunity to go travelling around South America for three months and then return as Newsletter Editor.
After we raised our Series A funding I was then promoted into an Operations Manager role which I loved. Going through our crazy growth stage it was very much a case of having to chip in and just do what needed to be done.
As well as operationally supporting the content and social media teams and providing them with the tools they needed to create the content, setting KPIs etc, I was also co-ordinating recruitment, building and managing the illustration and animation teams and even building desks!
Some of that work in core operations then led me to my current role as Chief of Staff. This is in some respects an operational role and there are also aspects of internal communications. The role involves working even more closely with Kris and being part of the senior management team, ensuring I am aware of company priorities, managing projects and ensuring Kris has whatever he needs to focus on the overall strategy for the business.
How has Culture Trip expanded as a company since you joined?
The company was founded in 2011. I joined in 2015 just after we had our seed round of funding and the Tel Aviv office was opened. 2016 was a momentous year as we secured $20M series A funding and also opened an office in New York. Things have really just exploded in the last couple of years with hyper growth across the business and the Series B funding of $80M in April this year.
Headcount has grown from 12 in 2015 to a total of 265. Similarly, our freelance creator community has gone from 20 people to more than 300. These figures are still rising.
But it’s our audience figures that are really phenomenal. Culture Trip has been dubbed one of the UK’s fastest-growing companies by Forbes.
Our website attracts around 18 million monthly unique visitors website every month – up from around 5m in Jan 2017 – and we also have a social media following exceeding 7 million. Our video content has generated more than 2 billion views in just two years, the app has been downloaded 1.5m times with a 4.8 Apple Store Rating and we have a fastly growing newsletter following.
What types of challenges did you face in the lead up to securing your first series funding?
These were the years of bootstrapping and drip funding. There was a tiny office in Elephant and Castle for a brief while alongside periods of working from hotel lobbies (and getting kicked out of them), operating with only freelancers with no actual staff or revenue – a time Kris describes as “one long stomach ache”.
Then in mid 2015 legendary investor Gordy Crawford participated in our seed round of $2m and we had our very first proper London Office and the beginnings of a Tel Aviv office.
I would say things really started to take off with PPF – an extremely successful fund which invests into multiple market segments. They invested $20m in Series A funding in 2016. This cash injection enabled us to increase our headcount and creator community significantly and to open an office in New York.
As a result of your success (securing funding), what did that enable Culture Trip to achieve?
The simple answer to that is : To scale. On all counts. Crucially, we were also able to build a world-class leadership with key hires from Facebook, Google, Expedia, and Spotify.
We are continuing to grow alongside monetising our content. We will soon be launching our online travel agent which will enable us to give users a full funnel experience for users from inspiration to booking.
What should people be prepared for when working for a high growth start up?
There is a highly romanticised view of startups, of beer coolers and ping pong tables. To succeed, especially at the beginning, takes a lot of hard work, grit and being prepared to deal with chaos and moving targets.
One of the challenges of hypergrowth is maintaining the company culture when you are growing so quickly – you have to work hard to build a unified culture as well as a strong brand.
When we were only 12 people you sat across from people, we knew what we are working on and it was easy to align and communicate. It becomes more complex as you grow and you have to work harder and pay more attention to how you articulate your values and the shared understanding of what it means to be at Culture Trip.
It also takes time to develop the internal processes and the functions that support our operation and our employees. This is something we’re investing heavily in, investing in our operating systems and creating an environment where we strive to be collaborate/open and continually evolve and develop. We are also looking at our social impact, what else we can do for our communities and making sure we are diverse and inclusive to reflect the world we live in.
Morale and motivation are also key. For me, I have always been motivated by the fact that we are growing – if you put hard work in you can get high returns. I could not be in organisation where I was just a cog in the wheel. At Culture Trip we are seeing movement each week, each month there’s a new milestone, something changes – to me it is hugely motivating to be in such a fast-paced environment where you can really make an impact. That said, it takes a lot of learning, experimenting and reinventing to get there.
All startups experience serious highs as well as lows- it’s the lows that can make a company appreciate their successes all the more. What was a low point experienced by Culture Trip that was felt throughout the company and how did you and your Culture Trip team overcome this?
There’s always ups and downs working in a startup. I have never really felt a real low point – a moment when I thought that we could fail. I think this is because I always had a lot of faith in Culture Trip. There are, however, often growing pains in building a company as Kris has.
For me, my career progression has been a plus point. The opportunity to make an impact and see your work become a reality in the company is really fulfilling. It’s amazing to have the new senior team in place, bridging the gaps we had before, but it’s also really empowering that Kris has the vision to see beyond age and experience.
As we’ve grown, the need for me to reinvent myself, better myself, learn faster is always there and it’s the same with the company itself.
You have worked alongside CEO Kris since the beginning. How has your relationship developed as the company has grown?
Initially, Kris was fundraising a lot of the time when I first joined the company and I was working closely with our VP Operations, Ben Shacham. My belief in our mission drove me to work as hard as I could and do the very best job I could. In my role as Operations Manager, helping scale the business and drive it forward, I built the foundations of that relationship.
How will Culture Trip continue to evolve and where do you see both it and yourself in 5 years time?
We are moving from a start-up to a scale-up phase and it’s now all about how we evolve and mature as a company.
As a content platform with creators all over the world, producing locally sourced, inspirational content will remain at the heart of what we do. We have creators producing an enormous breadth and depth of content and it’s about making sure the right content reaches the right people, and, that where users have a need, that need is met.
As we continue to innovate creatively and technologically, you should expect an even more useful, engaging product and inspiring boundary-breaking content across all our formats.
We will also be looking at more and more ways to market and sell the brand whether that be through partnerships, branded content or, as I mentioned, launching our online travel division next year. We’d also expect to expand geographically.
As for me, I love growing with Culture Trip and making it work. As long as I am succeeding in those things in some way, I will be happy.
What has been your best moment working at Culture Trip?
I was part of team that worked on the Series B round. The announcement of that funding coincided with moving into our new office space in Central London, our rebrand and hiring our new C Suite leaders. That was a really amazing and exciting time to be here. Those moments of intense work to pull something off and of working towards a collective aim are really fulfilling.
That said, I still look back very fondly on some of those moments when we were ten or 12 people struggling through and fighting over cupboards for a meeting room – some of the bonds and relationships you form during those times are incredible!