Tripbirds is gorgeous, but can social travel fly?

When I first met Tripbirds founder Ted Valentin at a group lunch a few months ago, I scoffed a little bit at what he was doing. A social travel site? Really? Surely the world has had its fill of them, I said. Travel is one of the most over-populated areas of the consumer web, and social travel — recommendations for places to go and things to do that are filtered by your friend network — is stuffed with startups who all seem to do the same thing without ever finding much real success.
Valentin, unsurprisingly, disagreed. And now he’s trying his best to turn my assumptions on their head by building Tripbirds into a beautiful, smart and highly competitive entrant into this difficult space.
As far as features go, the site — which is going into open beta on Tuesday — doesn’t particularly stand out from rivals like Wanderfly, Trippy or Gogobot. It takes your social network data (that includes Facebook, Foursquare and Instagram so far) and builds a gazetteer, a tip directory, and a Q&A site all into one place.
That means if you enter an upcoming trip — or even the idea for a trip — you can ask people for advice through a simple, easy to use process. I plugged in a quick visit to Cannes that I’m making later this month to judge the MIPCube Lab video startup competition, and the site immediately gave me some feedback on places to go, and offered me the chance to connect with existing friends, or people already on Tripbirds who had visited the area.

But rather than add a vast number of bells and whistles, the Stockholm-based team of seven seems to have concentrated on making a service that feels restrained, careful and considerate. Where other sites feel noisy and flashy, Tripbirds is focused: something that I think could be a massive selling point. It’s still in development, so things are limited — and features like being able to push questions into Facebook, or integration with Tripit would be really nice — but there are many things in the pipeline.
Still, the quiet design means that all in all, it’s a little reminiscent of my favourite social travel startup, Dopplr, which ended up being purchased by Nokia in 2009 so the Finnish handset maker could bring CEO Marko Ahtisaari on board to head up design. Ahtisaari is making his mark at the company, but Dopplr quickly became a ghost town.
The opportunity and approach has been enough to convince a strong team of investors to put their faith in the company. London-based Passion Capital, Nordic VC Creandum and European A-lister Index have all joined Tripbirds’ seed round, as well as a list of angels that includes Soundcloud’s Alex Ljung and Eric Wahlforss, former Spotify CTO Andreas Ehn, Gidsy backer Peter Read and Path’s Dave Morin.
Don’t read too much into that list, however: travel sites have a habit of picking up seed money from globe-trotting investors who visit new places regularly and obsess about the places they go.
Valentin, who has spent the last few years creating local listings sites — micro-Yelps focused on things like Swedish sushi restaurants, for example — outlines precisely what is so appealing about making travel social, but also what makes many businesses weak.
“The center of gravity is shifting from search to social, from Google to Facebook: if you’re doing travel research on Google now, it’s very bad.”
“There have been lots of social travel services, but they have failed to get critical mass. We are hoping to solve that problem by bringing in data from Facebook, Foursquare, Instagram — services where people are already getting content. We can add a travel layer on top.”
Perhaps not the most revolutionary approach, but there is one simple reason there is so much activity around travel: there are many established routes to making money. The most common is the affiliate deal — find a hotel on our service and we get a small cut of the money you pay. And that’s precisely what Tripbirds is doing in the first instance. Over time it may expand into other streams, but Valentin says there’s no need to reinvent the wheel.
“The nice thing about that is it’s a proven business model, and to the user it’s useful,” he says. “It’s not interfering with the experience.”
Whatever the case, this proliferation of services surely can’t happen forever. Companies with a different take on what “social travel” means, like Airbnb or TripAdvisor, seem to be doing well… but those tapping the social graph for a layer of tips and recommendations seem to find it hard.
So is the reason nobody has won social travel because — essentially — there isn’t anything to win? Valentin hopes not.
“The thing about Tripbirds right now is that it’s still in beta; it’s a product for early adopters… We’re making it even easier to use,” he says.
“The vision is for people to start thinking socially when they think about travel. As it is, people are already doing this stuff, but they’re doing it on Facebook, or by email. We want to organize that.”
Photograph of Ted Valentin used under Creative Commons license courtesy of Erik Starck