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S2 Ep 8: Rod Cuthbert – The founding of a travel startup & finding happiness

Melbourne, Australia

Two setbacks make the founding of a company for Rod. The founder of Viator, who subsequently sold the business to TripAdvisor, began the journey of creating Viator when he was fired from his job as the Vice President of Marketing. Rod then went on to create an online system for a client, but the project fell through. Thus, he set out on his own and based on that idea, Viator was born. In this episode, Rod shares the story of his journey, and his thoughts on travel.

In this episode:

Beginnings of wanderlust

“Reading was the really big thing… I think that was really a thing that set me apart from the rest of my family was that I was just a voracious reader of anything that I can get my hands on. I can tell you those books weren't set in Tasmania; they were set in the rest of the world. I've thought about that question a lot about whether books – I know they inspire a lot of people to travel – (but) that wasn't the case for me. I was inspired by a book about travel much later on in my life. That was the book that the English philosopher Alain de Botton wrote called The Art of Travel, which just talks about the way we think about travel and the way we experience it and all the things that can do for us. That had a profound impact on me, and I think some of that fed back into the way we approach the market at Viator. So that had a big impact, but not until then.”

How did you start the business that became Viator?

“Well, it was luck and circumstance. I had been working in Sydney for a company…it wasn't doing well because the internet had come along, so private networks like AOL and compuserve and this particular business didn't have much of an outlook. They fired me. I was the VP of Marketing and they thought that I wasn't doing a very good job…some people are good employees and other people are not such good employees. I think I fit into that latter category. So I got fired, I think it was a Tuesday and on the Wednesday, I went to see a guy who I'd been having some discussions with, who wanted to build some online content…And it was through that connection that we were introduced to Sabre, and Sabre told us about a project that they wanted to build, which was essentially Viator for travel agents. They wanted to allow their travel agents to sell tours and activities, and they wondered if we can build a web-based system that would do that. They gave us a couple of a hundred grand to build that system, and we did. Here's the luck and circumstance part. Sabre had a big cutback they fired like 2000 staff, and the entire team that had been working on our project, in fact, had commissioned the project, were let go. So, there was no owner at Sabre of our project. Eventually, I found somebody there who said, ‘Look, we have no interest in this project anymore, you should just take it and do it yourselves.’ So, we had built a system to sell tours and activities for a client. The client said, ‘We don't need it,’ and we decided, ‘Okay, we'll just do it ourselves.’”

How did you get venture capital funding?

"I think there's a really quite humorous life or death moment that occurred in 2005. Barrie Seidenberg had come on board to help us take the company up to a new level. She and I were engaged in San Francisco in pitching the company to venture capital investors, and we'd had about 12 or 15 meetings. Whilst we've had lots of initial interest, there wasn't really an appetite for this particular sector of online travel at that time in the mid 2000s. We were running out of cash. We really needed an injection of funds, our investors from Australia had pretty much maxed out what they could put into the business. So, we really needed to convince one of these VCs and we were down to one last company that would see us, there’s a company called Carlyle Ventures. Carlyle is famous for investing in the armaments industry and oil companies, companies like Halliburton etc, but didn't have a presence at all in travel or online travel, so it was a bit of a long shot. In fact, the meeting ended fairly badly, or not badly, but it ended in the way most meetings ended, which was that the guy said, ‘Hey, this is great. Let me talk to my partners. If there's some interest, we'll get you back in,’ which is another way of saying you'll never hear from us again. So, we got up to leave, and I picked up his card and I noticed that his name was Danish, or I guessed his name was Danish. I said, ‘Are you Danish?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I'm Danish.’ I said, ‘Man, we're almost related. We should talk,’ and he said, ‘What do you mean we're almost related? You're not Danish,’ and I said, ‘No, but I'm from Tasmania,’ and he knew enough about what was going on in Denmark. He'd been living in the US for a long time, but the Crown Prince of Denmark, Prince Frederick, had married a commoner, a young woman from Tasmania, who actually was a receptionist in a real estate agency. They had met during the 2000 Olympics in Sydney; he had fallen hopelessly in love with her. She had moved to Denmark, learned Danish, married him, bore him a son and heir which is a very important thing for a royal wife to do, and was, without doubt the second most popular person after his mother. In Denmark, he was the third most popular, but Mary Donaldson, a Tasmanian, was the second most popular. And this guy, this venture capital guy who was Danish, did not know this story. He just knew vaguely about it, that it had happened. But I knew all of it. I knew intricate details and in fact, my cousins had gone to the same school as this girl, which to hear me telling it, you know, we were at each other's houses all the time. I was intimately connected to them [laughs], which was a slight extension of the truth. But we sat and talked for 40 minutes, at the end of it he said, ‘I really enjoyed this. Let's get together again in a week or two and see if I can get my partners into the room.’ So, you know, he just enjoyed the discussion more when we found some common ground.”

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