One to Watch
ZenMap, the travel start-up you need to know about
Lisa Sorensen is the founder of ZenMap, a visual search engine for travel blogs which helps people plan their trips by offering all the best travel tips from bloggers and influencers in one place. Users can access ZenMap on their phone browser, explore an interactive map and save cool spots to create itineraries. Lisa shares her experience of developing the concept without a tech background and how living between Amsterdam and San Francisco has supported the early stages of bringing her business idea to life.
ZenMap sounds like a fantastic concept, where did the inspiration for your business idea come from?
I had the idea for ZenMap while travelling alone through South and Central America. I loved the freedom and flexibility of solo travel, but also felt overwhelmed by planning my trip and creating itineraries for so many countries. I started speaking with other travellers and discovered that we all shared similar frustrations with researching and filtering travel information online.
I’m creating ZenMap to solve a gap and need within the travel industry, and also because it’s a way for me to create the freedom I crave for myself. I’m a nomad at heart; I’m Norwegian with a Singaporean mother and I grew up above the Arctic Circle, yet always felt a strong connection with my Asian roots. After graduating, I moved to Shanghai and from there to London, Singapore and now Amsterdam. I prefer spending most of my time experiencing different cultures and corners of the world, rather than being in one place.
What solution does ZenMap provide?
To shape the ZenMap concept, I have discussed travel habits with hundreds of people and interviewed young travellers about their needs and pain points. Most rely heavily on online searches to plan trips. I wanted to make this deep-rooted habit more efficient and enjoyable.
ZenMap helps structure and organise the overwhelming amount of travel tips and photos shared by travel experts online. Travellers can navigate a world map of photos and personal tips shared by bloggers. It’s a great way to discover new bloggers and insider knowledge!
Travel bloggers can mark their favorite places on the ZenMap map and link these locations to their content to encourage deeper engagement with their blogs.
Around 180 people have signed up for our soft release, and I’m now concentrating on the blogger community. To share their content in ZenMap, bloggers can submit their sites for review on our landing page. We only invite bloggers to apply who have a website and write quality content.
How hard/easy has it been to find developers to work with in order to bring your idea to life?
For non-technical founders, this can definitely be one of the steeper learning curves, especially for first time founders. I’m still learning! To help make technical decisions for my company, I’ve created a support network of technical experts to help guide me. These relationships have been incredibly valuable, especially when I’ve had to review workload assessments or negotiate costs.
Founding a tech startup has been an exercise in trusting and taking leaps of faith. I have experienced some difficulties finding the right developers and undergone team changes along the way. I’m fortunate to work closely with a female developer named Jeyashri Natarajan in San Francisco. She is an incredible support. We collaborate with contractors and are on schedule for our soft release this summer.
Are there any specific struggles you have found within the APP building space?
Choose the tech stack that fits your current product stage and business needs before finding developers to work with. A soft launch or Beta test requires a lighter solution versus a more scalable future product. It helps to speak with third-party technical experts before making this decision. While not always the case, I’ve noticed some developers tend to recommend solutions or languages they favor. Some solutions can take longer time to implement. It’s important to always ask the question: is this solution the best to achieve my current goal?
We started off as an iPhone app, however, in my research I noticed travellers complained they had too little storage space on their phone to download apps because of all their travel photos. I changed course and roamer is now a web application, which does not require effort to download or take up space on your phone.
You’re currently based in Amsterdam but spend a lot of time in San Francisco – how do the startup communities in these cities differ in your experience?
The two cities serve quite different purposes for me on my startup journey. The startup scene in the Netherlands is a far cry from the crash course in entrepreneurship I’ve experienced in San Francisco. In San Francisco, I attend networking events, meetings and conferences every week. I’ve met a large amount of impressive founders who inspire me and created a board of advisors that helps keep me on the right path.
It helps that the weather is good in San Francisco most of the year. The climate for fundraising also feels better in Silicon Valley. I’ve found it easier to get warm introductions to potential investors there. For now, I have put all investor conversations on hold in order to focus on launching Roamer and driving growth.
In contrast, while I do attend networking events and meetings in Amsterdam from time to time, my time in Amsterdam is focused on diving deeper into managing my business, working on research, design, product development and focusing on marketing efforts. Amsterdam is where I get the work done! It’s a great balance for me.
How do you plan and utilise your time in San Francisco in terms of supporting your business strategy? Do you have specific goals for each visit?
I’ve made trips to San Francisco during different stages of my business. Each trip has therefore served a different goal. When I first took the leap to fly to San Francisco, my motivation was to investigate the idea and learn more about launching a startup. I mostly attended networking events, conferences and meetings with technical experts or other startup founders.
Since then, I’ve travelled to San Francisco with a specific purpose in mind, such as appointments with designers, advisors and tech collaborators to get the product ready. During my latest visit, I met with several investors. Besides the meetings and conferences I schedule up front, San Francisco is a city full of surprises! I always return to Amsterdam with more than I bargained for.
Can you tell me more about your experience as a non tech founder in Silicon Valley?
There is a giving mentality within the San Francisco startup community that I really appreciate. I find it very easy to make connections and most are happy to make time to help other founders. To me, this creates a strong community spirit and inclusiveness. I’ve met incredible technical experts and startup advisors who help me bridge some of my knowledge gaps.
As an observation, I must admit that men are most of the time over-represented at events and conferences I attend in San Francisco. I would love to meet more female founders who are in the same situation over there. Some of the most inspiring founders I’ve met are female!
The most important thing I’ve found is that our own internal beliefs ultimately define our experiences. These can manifest as self-confidence or become our main limitations. There will always be someone with an opinion about you and your business. I’ve reached the stage where I feel more secure in the founder role and less concerned with following a specific formula for success.
You’re currently bootstrapping your business, do you have any tips for surviving the bootstrapping journey?
Invest your money in yourself as well as your business! I’ve noticed a correlation between my personal state of mind and the health of my business. I make it a point to treat myself to things I love that improve my wellbeing. It doesn’t have to be luxuries or an expensive vacation. My favorite investments in me include healthy meals, coffees and drinks with friends, yoga lessons and ballet classes.
Before gaining traction, it’s also worthwhile exploring more organised funding methods. Depending on where you live, governments and private organisations offer various grants and subsidies founders can apply for. I’m exploring this option while we complete the product before speaking to investors again after the summer.
See zenmap.co/ to sign up for more information and notifications