Posted on: 06/28/2017

Devon Tivona of Pana - Combining a Travel App & In-App Virtual Assistant to Solve Travel Problems

Devon Tivona

CEO, Co-Founder - Pana


Podcast Summary

Devon Tivona of Pana discusses how Pana combines mobile app technology and virtual travel assistants to make travel easy. Although Pana is for business travel, I used it on a recent vacation and loved it. Recently Pana added features for corporate recruiters to make coordinating candidate travel simple.

Podcast Transcript

Scott Orn:

Welcome to Founders and Friends podcast with Scott Orn, and before we get to a fantastic podcast from Devon of Pana I wanted to just give a quick shot out to first of all Kruze Consulting, the best startup accounting firm in the world, started by my wife Vanessa Kruze and we have 160 clients. We do taxes, we do monthly accounting, we do evaluations, anything you need in startup accounting you can find at Kruze Consulting. And secondly, I'd like to give a shout out to Gusto, Gusto has just announced this week that they're supporting R&D; tax credits; that's huge, Gusto is going to let startups submit R&D; tax credits which we prepare, and get a ton of money back on their payroll taxes. So shout out to Gusto, I think that they're the only payroll system that's doing this for payroll taxes, the R&D; tax credits, so Gusto great job, tip of the cap from Kruze Consulting. And now, onto our awesome podcast with Devon, I think you're really going to like this one, and thanks Devon for coming on. Welcome to Founders and Friends podcast with Scott Orn at Kruze Consulting, and my very special guest today is Devon Tivona of Pana, welcome Devon.

Devon Tivona:

Thank you so much, I'm excited to be here.

Scott Orn:

Yeah. So I am a huge fan of Pana, it is maybe the greatest travel app, this is not even a hyperbole, I've told you this. By the way, we work together at Kruze Consulting, but I actually started using Pana the product when I went on vacation and I emailed you when I got back and I was like holy smokes this is like life changing for travel. So can you come on the podcast. So maybe just kind of give your quick background and how you came up with the idea for Pana?

Devon Tivona:

Yeah definitely. So I'm CEO here, I'm actually technical by background, I went to school for engineering, my first five years of roles was as a coder, as an engineer, and then as a product of lead, and most recently as a CEO of this company. But the last company that I was a part of was a travel technology company out here in Denver, and when we sold to MapQuest in 2013, I started looking for the next travel technology thing that we wanted to build. And we went through this really intentional exercise of customer discovery, talking to a bunch of people before any lines of code were written, and we were focusing on frequent travellers, because I felt like, my previous company was a leisure travel company, and was interested in corporate travel, interested in frequent travel, and so I just talked to a bunch of travellers, my co-founder and I did. And overwhelmingly, we heard two primary pain points- the first one was all of this technology that has been built in the last 15 years is great, but you know 15 years ago I could just send an email or send a message, or pick up the phone and call my travel agent and they would take care of all this stuff for me, and I kind of miss that. I become my own travel agent in a lot of ways, we heard that phrase a lot. And then, the second pain point that we heard is after I get my stuff booked on Expedia or Priceline and I need to make a change or I need to make a cancellation or something is going wrong, it's almost impossible to talk to a real human being who will give me a real human interaction and fix my problem for me. Which everyone can empathize with, you know, we've all been in that travel situation. So we set out at the onset of Pana about two years ago, to create the twenty first century version of the travel agent to solve some of those problems. And our vision was a scalable yet human and personable travel technology, personal travel assistant that can take care of you wherever you went, whenever, twenty four seven. And we didn't want to build like a boutique travel agency where you could do that still today, we wanted to build a scalable internet business. That's really where Pana started.

Scott Orn:

And the good news is you did it, and it totally works and I'm sure, when you're talking to those people who were talking about like kind of fifteen years with the technology, but the big thing now is that we're all carrying these pocket computers around with the mobile phones and even like cell coverage and all of the countries you're travelling in, and things like that is so easy now, or internet coverage I should say; that I found myself when I was on vacation pulling out the Pana app and just hey I want to go to dinner tonight, or I need a train ride to the next city, we actually did this, our hotel unfortunately it was just like in the super crazy part of Barcelona, the Ramblas, was and we needed to switch hotels because we were like on vacation, not on you know some super crazy, high achieving tourists situation, we wanted something relaxing, and the Pana team through the app is able to execute on all this stuff, it's totally wild, like I really recommend people just download it and just try it at the very least because it's like this mind shift of exactly kind of what you said at the beginning; instead of executing on all my own travel stuff through the internet, which is way better than it used to be, now I get to work with someone who can execute on it for me through the internet, it's just like this really nice second step in the process.

Devon Tivona:

Yeah. I give this talk which is called the "Phones are for talking to people", and it's all focused around this stuff, but I think everyone in the tech space had seen at this point. A study done about a year ago that looked at what are the most successful apps in the history of the app store, essentially like the winners of the iPhone and it's crazy how four of the five top ones, I think I'm remembering this stuff correctly, are all chat apps, they are WhatsUp, Facebook Messenger, I think Skype is up there, SnapChat is up there. And it's crazy to think, we have millions of different apps that we can install into our phone, but the ones that everyone are using most often are the ones that are designed to talk to people. And I think that there's a lot behind that, but one of the key insights are that's what that screen size is really good for, sending messages back and forth. And I think that's part of the popularity of everyone's talking about the conversational commerce, how chat is going to change the way that we buy things. I think part of the reason for why Pana is working the way that it is, is because we take a complex interaction, say like hey I need to extend my trip in San Francisco an extra day and turn that into a text message instead of pressing around on fifteen different buttons, calling five different service providers, instead its one step.

Scott Orn:

You're totally right, I mean for people who don't know, you have this, you open the app and there's like this little- it's organized per trip you're going to take or have taken, and then there's like you click that and there's a chat interface, and there's a bot that greets you, I forgot the bot's name.

Devon Tivona:

Crosby.

Scott Orn:

Yeah, Crosby, And then you just start telling Crosby what you need and then the aha-moment is like a human being I'm pretty sure a human being responds back, and asks you some clarifying questions and gets the contacts of the situation and then executes. It's really well done.

Devon Tivona:

Thank you, thank you.

Scott Orn:

Yeah and I think the other part that I like is there's another kind of, you guys have like this swipe right swipe left kind of situation in that, it's your navigation technique, where I can swipe to the right and see my itinerary and that's really helpful to have it in app, and be able to see like oh my plane leaves at 9.30 a m tomorrow, or I need to check in for my flight or whatever it is, and then, you swipe back left and you're talking to your virtual travel agent again. So, it's all kind of in one place and by pulling, I think you guys must use some sophisticated algorithms to pull that stuff out of gmail or something like that, the trip stuff, but it just simplifies the experience so nicely, it's really well done.

Devon Tivona:

Thanks, it was an early design decision that we made Pana 1.0 had all of your conversation on one thread and all of your itinerary, it's kind of all over the place. And to bucket everything together in that trip, where you're like in that mindset of I'm in San Francisco right now, or I'm in New York right now, and to have both the chat and the itinerary, and coming soon some more things, all bucketed in there, I think yeah, I'm glad to go that that's working well.

Scott Orn:

It works beautifully. How do you find the people who are answering these questions and what's their profile, are they ex travel agents, or they are travel agents in their spare time, or you know how do you staff that, because it's impressive how efficient they are and they ask the right questions and it's actually really- I was imagining, I have no idea, but I was imagining travel agents from all across the world being able to like almost like Uber where they plug in to Pana and do a couple of hours of work, and then they go do whatever else they are going to do- is that how you staff it or what do you do?

Devon Tivona:

Yeah, it's a great question, because that's one of the areas where on the outset when we're thinking about building this business, we didn't realize we'd have to become experts in, and we really have had to become experts in training, in hiring, in quality control on the very human product, And I think the biggest surprise for me there is that it's been our easiest role to source, everyone wants to be a Pana travel agent, in fact I think, I haven't pulled numbers lately but last time I looked, in the short two years that we've been around I think we've had over 8,000 people apply for that role.

Scott Orn:

Oh my god, are you kidding me, that's amazing!

Devon Tivona:

Yeah, we posted on like remote job boards, and we got like 300 job applications in the first hour. Which is great, and it enables us to be incredibly selected, and we do only hire under five percent of the people that we're screening, but it also means that we had to figure out very quickly what we were looking for when we were replacing that role. And we ran a bunch of experiments, we did hire former travel agents, we hired, I think like you said, one of the great things about that role is that it can be done from anywhere, they need access to a good internet connection and a good phone line, that's all they need because their dashboard is all web based. And that's one of the great things about the role and I think one of the reasons why it's so popular is because stay at home parents can apply for the role, recently graduated college students who are traveling abroad can apply for the role, people who want to work the night shift can apply for the role, people who live in Hong Kong but are American expats and want to staff for our travelers in Asia, they can apply for the role. So that I think is what enabled us to widen the applicant pool. But then, when we looked at the narrowing the applicant pool, figuring out who is the best fit we've actually found that the single greatest characteristic that we hire for is a natural ability and/or formal training in customer service. And that is for us far more important than formal travel experience, because what we found is I can train you in travel, like you can memorize airport codes, although our tool is designed for it, so you don't have to, but you can, you know, you can remember cancellation policies, you can understand how long it takes to get from terminal a to terminal b in LAX, but you can't train a desire to make a customer happy. And so agents that are successful have that inherent drive.

Scott Orn:

We've talked a couple of times about how we're in similar businesses and in that respect we call it the bedside manner, like a doctor right, because we're like doctors for people's money and diagnosing what's going wrong or what's going right, and giving them advice. And we find that like that's one of themost people don't understand accounting, and most people probably don't understand travel logistics, they maybe understand travel logistics better than accounting, but what they understand really well is your tone, your response rate, the fact that you ask the right kind of questions, the fact that you retain the context of the conversation. And so, we're like you, we look for the same exact stuff, it's amazing; some of our folks who are maybe like kind of definitely sufficient, but not like the most exceptional technically in accounting, but have the best bedside manner are our most popular with our clients, it's fascinating how human beings work like that.

Devon Tivona:

Yeah that's awesome. I love that, I love bedside manner, I'm going to use that. One book that we have everyone read, all agents read when they join Pana is Danny Meyer's book "Setting The Table" I think the subtitle is "The Transformative Power Of Hospitality In Business" I think it's what it's called. But essentially, it talks just about that, we are in a business to do a certain thing, but it's how you treat people that leaves that lasting impression.

Scott Orn:

I am so glad let you brought that up, I've had that in my kindle, I bought the book, I have a habit of doing this I'll buy books that I want to read and then I forget to read them. But I have been staring at that book in my kindle screen, I am going to read that in the next couple of weeks. There's another really good one that I'm blinking on, that Vanessa recommended to me, and as we're kind of talking I'll dig it up, but it's something, I think it's the book that Gusto recommends for all their people to read, because we've actually found, we work with Gusto so much it's ridiculous, and we call it that sometimes also the happy sandwich, that is one of their techniques which is start with a greeting, kind of say hello or how you doing things like that, and then provide a good response like the meat of the response and then end with something happy, and that actually works really well, it's great. The book I'm thinking of that Vanessa recommended is "The Customer Rules" and I'm halfway through that and that's really good too, so you can check that out.

Devon Tivona:

Yeah, I know, I'm the same as you, I've got this like stack of startup books on my bedside table, I actually buy the hard copy, because I think that that's going to convince me to read it. My partner says that my stack keeps on getting bigger and I'm not reading any of that.

Scott Orn:

Sometimes when you live in the startup life you're like I've learned enough lessons for today, I don't need to learn another lesson tonight at bedtime. The other thing we were talking about kind before we hit record was, you've had this really fascinating journey of developing the idea and then having that kind of search for product market fit, and maybe you could kind of share that with the audience because there's a lot of people who listen to the podcast, who are either working on that kind of concept or right in the middle of the search for product market fit, and maybe you can tell them your journey and how you did it?

Devon Tivona:

Yeah, yeah, I'm happy to talk to that a little bit. It's definitely not a journey of doing everything right, in fact, a lot of mistakes are made along the way, particularly in the first year we were trying to figure out what kind of company we wanted to become, we didn't know whether we are going to be a pure leisure company, whether we were going to be a corporate travel company. And I think as a result, what ended up happening to us is we have some really great early press, Chris Messina posted us on Product Hunt, like the first week of us being around, so we had the huge influx of customers then. And then about six months later, we were picked up in a New York Times article and in the same month picked up in an Economist article, which totally made us prematurely scaled a lot of things, made a lot of customers happy, made a lot of customers unhappy, during that period. But our biggest problem at that point was the problems that was way too big, we had leisure travellers taking these massive trips across Southeast Asia and asking for all these features related to that, we had frequent travellers like you, that did a combination of business travel and a combination of leisure travel, and then we have some travellers that were at Microsoft and asking if we could like log in to their concur account and book travel through their concurrent account. And it was just such a wide gamut of personas that it made product development really hard and as a result, we were trying to please everybody and actually pleasing nobody. So about eight months in, my co-founder and I sat down and we had a conversation about what we wanted to become when we grew up, had a little a bit of that mission vision values conversation, actually a lot of intercoms writing on that stuff led a lot of our thinking there, because I think they do a phenomenal job there.

Scott Orn:

For sure, and they have like kind of, they were an agency, right, and then became a little bit more of a pure play software so they are in the same zone that you are in.

Devon Tivona:

Exactly yeah, they had the same kind of come to Jesus moment, and as a result, they have a very beautifully worded mission vision of values, Intercom thinks that the way that businesses communicate online is broken, and they want to fix that. It's such a clear articulation of the why they are around. Which I love and really respect. Gusto has got a great one too. So, we sat down, had that conversation, we looked at all the products that were on the market, trying to figure out what we wanted to build and what the market really wanted us to build, and the main conclusion that we walked away with was there's a lot of great travel products in the leisure and travel business, they're not all getting 100 percent there as far as where we think delightful products should exist. But the gap to delightful products in the leisure and travel space is so much smaller than the gap to delightful products in the corporate travel space. And it's not to say that there isn't innovation in the corporate travel space, a lot of really smart people are working there, but, there certainly aren't enough delightful products and products that people really want to use, want to talk about and share with each other. You know in the leisure space, Sam is building an awesome business at hotel tonight, you know, all you have to give credit where credits do you know, Kayak, Expedia, Priceline have built very well converting online booking flows, and so we realized that when we grew up we wanted to be a corporate travel business. So that was phase one of segmenting down, narrowing down the market to a place where we find a really narrow market segment, where we can make customers really happy, and then expand out from there, it's that that odd lesson that you learn as a startup founder that feels very backwards and honestly feels backwards from a lot of the things that you're pressured to talk about in investor conversations. But it is that focus on the most narrow market possible, and if you find people with a lot of pain there, you'll find subsequently as you move out further and further into new markets, into new use cases of your product, you'll learn how to make them happy too. But you can't boil the ocean.

Scott Orn:

I totally agree, yeah. We went through the similar thing way before we ever met, which was Vanessa started the firm doing LLCs and S Corps, and Delaware C Corps, and what we found was the Delaware s corps were just, if we focused on those 100 percent of the time, we could develop really amazing processes, whereas there's so much variability in kind of the LLC, S Corp, because those are like kind of an analogous to consumers, they really are kind of people running like the personal businesses. And so we could really build strong processes and not just build strong processes, but just absolutely nail what those people needed for those businesses; and so we did the same exact thing you did, I actually think I've heard Vanessa give this advice to a lot of startup founders, like focus on that narrow use case, and you actually mentioned this, like VCs they want to see the 10 billion dollar market in the slide deck and talk about how you are going to solve every person's problem, but it's because they're not the ones that have to go out there and solve those problems themselves, and deal with customer support and deal with the weird situations; that's just like them dreaming and being able to tell their investors that they're investing in a company that has this addressable market. But the people who are actually executing know that, getting kind of your recipe down for that narrow market is really the way to both sustainability, but also real long term success. So I agree 100 percent with what you are saying.

Devon Tivona:

Yeah, yeah and I think the sophisticated investor will want to see both. Where are you starting small and then where does this go to and, we've worked on that story and figured out what that path looks like. But you're totally right and I love the analogy of focusing on a specific type of company in accounting.

Scott Orn:

Yeah, and so you found like, it sounds like that corporate environment and then it sounds like the recruiting aspect has been just huge for you guys, it kind of makes sense, like that's something that maybe it really solves the pain point for people who are critical in the recruiting process. How did you discover that?

Devon Tivona:

Yeah, good question. So we went from that corporate travel angle, started building out some specific products and services there, seeing some moderate success but still not that ramp that you get when you feel that you have product market fit or at least inklings of product market fit, were, the numbers start growing faster than you expected them to. Numbers were still going slow, and one of our advisers gave this off handed comment in one of our conversations, about hey, take a look at all the times when someone is travelling but they're not paying for it, and I was like what you mean, and he was like well, like an onsite interview, when someone is coming in to interview they're not an employee so they're not going to use the corporate travel product that a company has, but they need to get there and someone's going to coordinate that for them. And I was like okay cool, interesting, it feels niche, , it was my initial reaction. So the first conversation that we had was with a recruiter to do a little discovery around that, and she just went on this, it was supposed to be a half hour call she took an hour and a half explaining how painful the process was, where she was essentially playing travel agent for all of the candidates that she wanted to fly on site for an interview with her company. And, one- it was not what she was good at she's good at finding great people, not coordinating their travel plans, and two- a massive distraction to her core job, and three- these candidates were so critical, she didn't want to be the person handling the travel coordination, she wanted an expert to be handling the travel coordination. So we built a very small subset of our products that we called Pana recruiting, and enabled you to invite a traveller to take a trip on the platform, you can specify the parameters of their trip, when they needed to be there, when they needed to leave. And then we would take all of that data reach out to the traveller, handle all the coordination with them, get everything booked, send the recruiter back the itinerary and then, day of travel, during their travel, we're checking them into their flight, we're sending them local recommendations when they land, all the stuff that you loved about Pana during your trip, we would provide for that candidate. That product had just taken off for us, it's been our fastest growing product, our nps scores for that product are off the charts compared to everything else. And it's really been amazing to see, I think the biggest lesson I learned here was, it wasn't a significant product change, it really was a market shift and an investigation into different problem sets that I think really helped us find some of this beach head product markets that they were going to build off of. And I think so many founders look at the product market fit problem that all series C to series A companies have to figure out and they say okay, what changes am I going to make to my product to make it fit for the market? And I don't think any of them realize, the smartest ones do that the easiest shifts to be made are the market shifts, and figuring out if there really is a different or adjacent market to what you're focusing on, that your product has better fit.

Scott Orn:

That is a ton of amazing wisdom there, I wish I could bottle that, I guess we can because we're recording this. But yeah, even if I just kind of take apart some of the things you said like first of all, it's like a sale when you're hiring someone you're selling them on your organization, so that is a critical sale, and what better kind of demonstration of professionalism and taking the candidate seriously, than giving them like their own travel concierge and helping them work out trouble, I mean, that is like, it's brilliant, and it's just like- I guarantee you guys are having like a meaningful impact on conversion for candidates who are travelling to those kind of meetings or those kind of interviews, so kudos to you. And then I think your point about aiming in a slightly different direction rather than rebuilding whatever you think you might need to rebuild is such a great point, because we have a 160 clients, I see across our client base kind of what people do when they don't nail product market fit on their first time, and often the easiest thing to do is focus on engineering and building something else, because it's something you control, it feels good to come to work every day and write more code or do whatever, don't you think- but actually going out and talking to different types of people than you've actually been talking to, or looking at a different market or looking how it could be applied differently, is uncomfortable because you may be told, first you have to admit that what you first built wasn't the correct fit, and then you have to go to those people and you may get rejected. And very few people can take rejection like that. And so, I give you a lot of credit for, it's like a maturity-willingness to kind of look yourself in the mirror and say we didn't nail it the first time, but I know the tech is sold and we just need to find the right person to talk to. And I'm glad you're having the success, that's really exciting.

Devon Tivona:

It's been fun, but the book hasn't been written yet, so there's still a lot of mistakes to be made.

Scott Orn:

Yeah, it goes back to that, I've learned enough lessons for today and I'll learn some more tomorrow kind of situation.

Devon Tivona:

Exactly.

Scott Orn:

You know, now that maybe not all your focus but probably a lot of your focus is going to that market, what new kind of features or what's the future look like for Pana?

Devon Tivona:

Yeah, I think we're really interested in looking at corporate travel and looking at all the different use cases of why is someone travelling for business. I think when you typically think about it, you think of the what's called in the corporate travel business transient travel, which is a traveller going from point A to point B to sell a product, or to go to a different office, or to go on site with a customer to fix something. But there are actually so many different ways, so many different reasons why people travel for corporate travel. You know, there is event travel, meetings and events, Salesforce throws dream force ever year, Hubspot throws Hubspot inbound, AirBnB throws AirBnB open. There's a huge amount of travel that goes into that, where there are specific workflows, specific processes that are best in class for those types of flows, in the same way that you figure them out for LLCs, what if we could figure that out for those use cases. We've done it for recruiting, I would like to believe that we are one of the best in the world and have journey mapped out, every single piece of the recruiting travel flow better than anyone else. So it's going to be getting better at that figuring out what specific products and use cases can be built to make specific product, specific features can be built to make that use case better. And then it's starting to look at some of those other verticals and saying how some of our lessons here can be applied there, and doing that process of again slowly moving out more and more, and finally, reaching that billion dollar total, 10 billion, 100 billion dollar total addressable market that you're showing your slide back on day one.

Scott Orn:

Yeah. Well also, like the recruiter at Salesforce, they may be talking to the person who puts on dream force and says hey by the way, this Pana app has just completely solved my recruiting problems, you should look at it for Dreamforce, and the same thing with Hubspot, there's a real nice synergy once you get one use case kind of locked down, because then other people instead of they start hearing about your success and how great you're doing in that one aspect, and then they start dreaming about how it can solve their problems, so yeah I mean like you said, the book is not written but you've taken a really big step and that's really exciting.

Devon Tivona:

Thanks, yeah don't give away my entire evil plan, but that's exactly it.

Scott Orn:

Sorry, yeah that was just pure speculation. That's how people operate, it's the friends telling each other they should use a new app or, whatever it is, it's the most powerful form of marketing and you used the word delightful or delighted a couple different times I'm sure you did that on purpose, because delighted customers really have a positive word of mouth and it just makes your life easier and everything.

Devon Tivona:

Yeah, we've talked about you guys quite a bit.

Scott Orn:

Well thank you very much that was very kind of you. Well, this has been fantastic and maybe you could just kind of tell the audience where they can find you, and just kind of whether they are a recruiting manager or maybe there's someone who is putting on a big conference that's listening, where they can reach out to you and how they can get a hold of you?

Devon Tivona:

Yeah, absolutely. They find out that at pana.com. pana.com/recruiting has a lot of the information about that specific solution, but if you're an individual traveller or you work at a company that does a lot of travel, there's a bunch of information on the site or shoot me a note directly, I'm just d@pana.com and I'd love to chat.

Scott Orn:

Awesome. Well Devon, thanks for taking time, again I can't recommend the app enough and when I say app what I'm really saying is the workflows and the amazing people behind the scenes. The one feature request, I love to be able to like recognize the agents who are the best inside the app like I was, you know how in imessage you can kind of click and like thumbs up a message or something like that- that would be an amazing feature to be able to give a thumbs up to whoever the best. Because I had a lot of situations where that weren't easy and the Pana travel agent like went out of their way and figured something out for me, and that would be a really nice kind of feedback loop, so maybe that's something the engineering team can build on in the future.

Devon Tivona:

I like that a lot, I'll take that back, that's a great idea.

Scott Orn:

Well and I got sidetracked, but anyways I highly recommend the app, it's awesome, great service and I use it for personal, but I think it's probably even more powerful for corporate travel. So check it out. And Devon, thanks for being on Founders and Friends.

Devon Tivona:

Yeah absolutely, happy to, thanks for having me.

Scott Orn:

Alright buddy, take care. Thank you.

Devon Tivona:

Thank you.

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