2013-2014 Startup Internship Award winner, supported by the Wharton Entrepreneurship Advisory Board
How did you find the position?
Peek.com, a one-stop shop for finding and booking amazing activities, posted a job listing for a business development intern on the eClub’s jobs board. I was looking for a business development role at a technology startup in San Francisco, and had been working on a similar venture specific to the surf space, so the role was ideal for me. I applied and subsequently found out that my prospective boss had been a fraternity brother of a close friend of mine at Wharton. Because I was convinced that this was the perfect fit, I asked my friend to make a call on my behalf. I highly recommend using connections to make inroads with startups.
What was your motivation for working at a start-up this summer?
Prior to Wharton, I spent 6 years moving around the U.S. working on political campaigns. During the 2010 race, I got interested in job creation. Because it was clear that startups are the country’s primary drivers of job creation, I decided to leave politics to work in, and eventually found, startups. In addition to their social impact, startups appeal to me because they afford the opportunity to work on a team focused on a common purpose to create new products and services. They offer an environment in which you can move quickly, try new things, and invent processes as you go.
What advice would you give to students interested in working at a start-up this summer?
1. Develop criteria to narrow your research early. For a while, I felt overwhelmed by the possibilities. It was helpful to know that I wanted to be in a business development role, in San Francisco, at a tech company, with a product about which I could get excited. Having clear criteria (and I didn’t for a long time) saved me time because I was applying selectively. It also helped me genuinely express my enthusiasm for Peek.
2. Know that startups recruit late and try not to stress yourself out in the spring. I got my internship on May 17th and had an incredible experience.
3. If possible, go to a startup co-founded by an MBA. Your skillset will be more valued.
4. If you are a nontraditional student, don’t underestimate or undersell your skillset. If you need help pitching your skills to startups, ask a second-year who spent the summer interning at a startup for help crafting your story. I was surprised by the things the CEO valued – the ability to hustle, the ability to execute on ideas, resourcefulness, and shamelessness – and would position my non-traditional career prior to Wharton differently (and more confidently) had I had a better understanding of what startups value.
5. If you have any inclination to join a startup, spending the summer interning at one is a riskless approach. Building something from scratch is a Kabuki dance — founders must get good at faking it until they make it. They need great hires in order to make the company successful which can make it difficult to get real answers about how the product functions (is it buggy?), how the team works together (do they like each other? do they have efficient processes?), and the status of external players (what’s customer adoption like? Are investors happy?). Spending the summer at a startup allows you to see under the hood. If the company is solid, you can feel comfortable returning after graduation. If the fundamentals are flawed, you’ll know how to ask the right questions in future startup interviews.
Peek.com is a one-stop shop for travelers and locals to find and book amazing activities. Peek launched in San Francisco in October 2012 and currently operates in 19 markets in the U.S. and Europe. Peek’s investors include Jack Dorsey, Eric Schmidt, David Bonderman, and Ron Conway and it has approximately 20 employees. For customers, Peek provides a bookable travel guide with vetted activities, high quality photography, convenient booking, and Perfect Days from celebrities and local tastemakers. For vendors, Peek provides a free and sophisticated set of tools which allow activity providers to reach a larger customer base, show real-time availability, implement dynamic pricing, and track customer behavior. When the company began its primary focus was cultivating supply – getting vendors to agree to be featured on the platform prior to the website launch with no proof of value-add. By the time I joined, eight months after the website launched, the primary concern was demand. How do we drive bookings? We were aiming for 100% month-over-month growth. Through the initiatives of the marketing team (SEM, SEO), business development team (distribution partnerships, corporate accounts program), and public relations team (Peek got incredible press), the bookings grew dramatically over the 10 week internship at which point we turned our focus to servicing the growing customer base in a scalable way.
A summer spent at a fast-growing company with a smart, nimble team led to countless lessons about how to start and lead a company. I’ve divided the most memorable lessons into three categories below: brining fragmented industries online, making ideas happen, and it is all about the people.
Bringing Fragmented Industries Online
While the tech space is exciting and rapidly changing, the consumer internet has been around for over two decades and the easy stuff has been done. Industries that can easily be moved online are there. Many of the new opportunities are in more complex and fragmented industries. In the travel space, customers have long been able to book flights and hotels online through websites like Expedia, Kayak and Hotels.com. These industries are concentrated — there are a finite number of airlines and hotel chains – and have relatively limited product variety. For example, hotels had an established star rating system prior to online booking and differences are limited to star ratings, number and size of beds, and slight variation in a standard set of amenities. This stands in contrast to the activity industry where there are thousands of providers in each market and the needs of a skydiving provider and customer differ dramatically from those of a wine tasting provider and customer. While it is challenging to meet the needs of diverse providers and customers, the seamlessness of planning in other spaces has led to an expectation that things will be easy to find and book online. This presents exciting opportunities.
Do things that don’t scale
Markets that are technologically behind are behind for a reason — it is hard to bring them online in a profitable way. Until you get to scale, some of the processes will be manual. That is okay but it is important to make that the company’s problem not the customer’s. There were times when Peek’s customer service team made a half-dozen calls to accommodate a customer’s changing needs. While the long-term goal is to make make every transaction turnkey, it is okay and necessary to use manpower and creative problem solving to build a loyal customer base in the interim.
Part of Peek’s value proposition is to make it fun and easy to find things to do. To make this possible, Peek employs photographers, copywriters, designers and account managers to create a standard, navigable site. When you are building out your supply, reducing friction for vendors, by taking all of this work off of their plate, is the right approach. However, as you scale, rolling out more activities, in more markets, more quickly, it is imperative to find ways to empower partners. Peek was constantly looking for these opportunities. For example, the engineering team created a feature to allow activity providers to upload high resolution photos directly, rather than emailing photos to account managers. When a market launch features 100 activities with 5 photos each, this small change freed up a meaningful amount of the account managers’ time.
My biggest takeaway from the summer was that CEOs need to be shameless about promoting their company and asking for things. In every interaction, you should imagine the very best case scenario and ask for it. Although Peek was less than a year old, in negotiations with airlines and hotel chains, the CEO assumed equal footing and was not afraid to walk away from agreements that would benefit the company in the short-term but not long-term.
It is startup 101 but it was incredible to witness a company so committed to testing. Peek tested ideas quickly, threw resources behind the ones that work, and used the data collected to tell stories. If you treat new ideas like potential tests, rather than permanent strategic choices, it is less frightening and easier to move quickly. Peek tested everything. The engineers conducted an AB test on the placement of a calendar that resulted in a significantly higher conversion rate. I was also surprised how useful this testing ethos was when negotiating with potential distribution partners. It is much easier someone to pitch a pilot program to higher-ups than it is for them to pitch a long-term contract.
Turn everything into a story.
Every decision you make or piece of information you collect can be turned into a story that supports the company’s overall narrative. This can be anything from the credentials of your board or employees (no matter how junior) to the % results of an email marketing test you run (no matter how small).
Find a tech co-founder
Making the product work the way it should is the minimum threshold for investors and customers but takes incredible time and dedication. You need someone with the right skillset and stake in the product to make things happen as fast and well as they need to happen.
It is never too early to emphasize company culture.
At a fast growing company, it is easy to fill every minute of the day with must-do tasks. Peek distinguished itself by carving out the time to establish a world class culture. The company pillars were clearly defined: be passionate about travel, have fun, be playful, work hard, practice humility, take initiative, and be a team player. I was part of an MBA class of four; we had a two-day onboarding process, biweekly meetings with the CEO, and participated in a team retreat. Long work weeks were punctuated by Taco Tuesdays and Peeknics, picnic lunches featuring guest speakers like Jack Dorsey or presentations from team members, like a Photoshop tutorial by our designer. The emphasis on culture had a number of advantages. First, the team got along remarkably well which allowed for efficient problem-solving without turf wars. Second, people willingly put in more hours – it is much easier to work long hours with (and for) people you like.
Don’t be afraid to fire people.
Startups move quickly and require employees to make sacrifices. If someone is destructive to the company culture or slows down progress, you shouldn’t be afraid to fire them. It can feel like a failure but having the right people is essential.