IT STARTED WITH a plug. Dee Lee and her husband John were travelling through east Africa three years ago, making the jaunt from Tanzania to the island of Zanzibar.
Many buildings on the island used a different plug socket than other places in east Africa, Dee says. It was a small inconvenience – but also one that was easily avoidable.
“The amount of work that I had to do to get the simple things like visas, the vaccinations, the plugs was actually very time-consuming,” she says.
“Why is this so frustrating? How are all the other travellers finding it? That’s how the whole thing started, from a plug.”
That personal frustration eventually led to the creation of CultureMee in 2016.
The app – recently nominated in the national startup awards – is designed to curtail culture shock by helping travellers compare customs and lifestyles in different countries with practical travel advice.
While both are avid travellers, the couple’s backgrounds are in accounting and investment banking.
Dee spent years working in investment banking while John was group business controller at CRH’s European office in the Netherlands. Both careers took them around the world to meet clients.
John, who speaks six languages, recalls a mentor in CRH comparing different cultures in countries where he was carrying out M&A deals.
“He could then tell, before he’d even spoken to the person, these are the things I need to watch out for. Dutch people can be very direct, but some cultures, like Ireland or the UK, are much more indirect. We don’t like confrontation, for example,” he says.
“We felt that was something hugely missing in the market. There’s a massive gap,” Dee explains.
Culture is one of the main reasons people travel, John adds, so after some research “it really jumped out at us”.
With savings and a windfall from selling their apartment in Amsterdam, the couple and their infant daughter Rosa spent six months travelling around Asia to begin creating the content for what would become CultureMee.
‘Big bet’ on content
The duo worked with Dutch app development firm Lizard Apps to build an app to present in-depth content. So far, it has collated data on 76 countries.
“First of all you’ve got our CultureMee content, that’s our own content, our own research,” John says.
“Particularly the culture content took a huge amount of time. We basically had to interview thousands of people and a lot of it came from our experience.”
The company also creates graphs for users to compare countries against each other while allowing users to upload their own content like videos.
“The last bit is the social content and that’s quite interesting as well,” John says.
People are able to see where their friends and other people have ticked off their bucket lists.
“If you were trying to go to Rwanda for example in the morning, and you wanted to find out which of your friends had been there, how would you do that now? You’d probably go onto Facebook and put out a shout-out on Twitter,” John says.
“We want to make it easier to connect with other people. Not just on a cultural perspective, but socially so you can ask them for advice.”
The content was a big undertaking, but the Lees have committed to the bet in the hopes of building a distinct product in CultureMee. They have spent the last three years researching and creating that content.
“The big bet for us, is the content going to pay off?” John says.
To make the product pay, the couple are pitching their idea to travel companies that need unique content for their services. Licensing content would open up a key revenue stream for the company.
In one example, a user booking a trip or a room would get a taster of CultureMee’s content about the destination and its customs, followed by a link to download the app.
“It offers scale and revenue but we need to pick the right partners,” John explains.
The “win-win”, he says, gives travel companies content and CultureMee a new avenue to attract users. Another integration may involve baking in the services of a travel insurance company. CultureMee is also considering advertising as a future revenue stream.
With their corporate backgrounds, Dee and John know that these partnerships can take a while to hammer out but they expect to close one in the coming months.
The company doesn’t just need partners, the couple add, but also mentors and investors, but staying true to their wanderlust tendencies, CultureMee hasn’t got a permanent base yet.
The company is registered in Limerick but the couple and their daughter are currently living in Leitrim, where Dee is from originally.
The startup plans to score an investment round first before it settles on a more permanent home and starts making any hires.
“Our plan is to grow the team from a content perspective and a growth perspective,” Dee says.
It will be a tough market to nudge into. UK-based travel tech company Culture Trip, for example, closed an $80 million Series B in April, but John and Dee say that their primary focus on content will make them stick out.
“There’s a huge attraction in this particular space and content is how we really differentiate ourselves but also having an app that people love to download obviously,” John says.
“You look at Trump, you look at Brexit, while they’re putting their barriers up, there’s never been a (better) moment to break down these barriers, and we feel culture is the vehicle to do it.”