20VC How Founders Can Really Get The Most Out of Their Board, Why Culture Fit At The Board Level Is Not Discussed Enough & Why Growth and Culture Are 2 Sides of The Same Coin with Avi Meir, Founder & CEO @ TravelPerk



In this episode of 20 Minutes VC, Harry Stebbings interviews Avi Meer, the founder and CEO of TravelPerk, a startup revolutionizing business travel management. Avi shares his journey from a software developer in the Israeli military to entrepreneurship, founding Hotel Ninjas and eventually selling it to Booking.com. He highlights the importance of solving a real pain point, which led to the creation of TravelPerk, aiming to address widespread dissatisfaction with corporate travel arrangements. Avi also discusses the significance of having a balanced board with industry experts, well-connected individuals, and fresh perspectives. He emphasizes the challenges of maintaining culture during rapid growth and the necessity of hiring the right people to sustain it. Additionally, Avi touches on the strategic choice to raise a Series C round shortly after Series B, driven by the company's proven unit economics and the opportunity to partner with influential investors like Kinnevik and DST Global.

Summary Notes

Introduction to the Podcast and Guest

  • Harry Stebbings introduces the first Founders Friday episode of 2019 on the 20 Minutes VC podcast.
  • Avi Meir, founder and CEO of TravelPerk, is the guest for this episode.
  • TravelPerk is a one-stop platform for booking, managing, and reporting business travel.
  • Avi Meir has raised over $73 million for TravelPerk from various investors.
  • Avi's previous ventures include Hotel Ninjas, acquired by Booking.com, and VP of product at budgetplaces.com, acquired by Palomon in 2011.
  • Harry thanks various individuals for their question suggestions for the episode.
  • Harry introduces sponsors Ladder (life insurance), Pilot (bookkeeping services), and First Republic (banking services).

"And I have to say some episodes, they're just more fun than others to record. And this one really was a huge amount of fun."

This quote expresses Harry's enthusiasm for recording the episode with Avi Meir, indicating a positive and engaging conversation.

Avi Meir's Background and Entry into Startups

  • Avi Meir is from Israel and has a technical background.
  • His interest in computers and software development began at a young age.
  • Avi served as a software developer in the Israeli military.
  • His passion for technology and travel led him to the intersection of both at TravelPerk.
  • Avi's previous experience includes managing flight operations for an airline in Paris and founding Hotel Ninjas with a business school classmate.

"I think it found me for me, Israel, I'm technical by background, like many Israelis, started coding when I was very young and always was fascinated by computers and understanding how software works."

Avi Meir explains that his career path in technology and startups seemed to naturally find him due to his early interest and background in coding and software.

The Aha Moment for TravelPerk

  • Avi Meir recognized a significant pain point in business travel dissatisfaction.
  • The inspiration for TravelPerk came from the realization that most people are unhappy with their company's travel arrangements.
  • TravelPerk aims to solve the real and significant pain of unsatisfactory business travel experiences.

"So when we created TravelPerk, we made sure that we are actually solving a big pain for people."

Avi Meir emphasizes the importance of addressing a genuine problem in the market, which in this case is the widespread dissatisfaction with business travel solutions.

Lessons from Hotel Ninjas Experience

  • Avi Meir learned the importance of choosing a market with a clear and significant pain point.
  • Hotel Ninjas provided modern SaaS for hotel management, but hotel owners were resistant to adopting cloud-based solutions.
  • The experience at Hotel Ninjas highlighted the challenge of selling a product that most potential customers did not believe they needed.
  • The key takeaway for Avi was to identify and solve a real pain point in the market, as he later did with TravelPerk.

"It was very frustrating to build something that 95% of the people you talk to do not need."

This quote from Avi Meir reflects the frustration of creating a product that does not align with the market's needs, underscoring the lesson of market demand in startup success.

Importance of Industrial Experience

  • Avi Meir believes that having fresh and up-to-date industrial experience around the table is essential.
  • Advisors, investors, or board members should be open to changing their minds and not be anchored to outdated industry practices.
  • It is crucial for industry experts to be receptive to new ideas and not dismiss them based on past experiences.

"You have to handle it in the right way. And what I mean by that is first I think that it's helpful if the experience is fresh."

Avi Meir discusses the value of having advisors or board members with current industry knowledge, highlighting the need for fresh perspectives in guiding a startup.

Open-Mindedness in Advisory Roles

  • Successful advisors and board members must be open to the possibility that their past knowledge may not apply to current and future changes in the industry.
  • Avi Meir highlights the importance of fresh experience, citing the CEO of GetYourGuide, Johannes, as someone who provides timely and relevant advice.
  • Board members and advisors should be willing to change their minds if their opinions are no longer pertinent to the challenges the company faces.

"And I can give you an example. I mean, we have Johannes, who is the CEO, founder of GetYourGuide... and I think they comply exactly with what I said before, meaning that very fresh experience... both of them are very open to change their mind if their opinion is not relevant to the problem we're solving at the moment."

This quote demonstrates the value of having advisors who are currently active in their fields and who are adaptable in their thinking.

Balancing Expertise and Naivety

  • A mix of industry experts and newcomers ('newbies') in board discussions can lead to a more comprehensive understanding of the business and its challenges.
  • Newbies ask questions that can provoke deeper thinking and learning for the entire board.
  • The balance between knowledgeable experts and fresh perspectives is crucial for a well-rounded advisory board.

"I think it's great to have the newbies around the table as well... They might be experts in other industries, but kind of newbies in business travel... through answering them, you learn more and then you evolve your thinking."

This quote emphasizes the benefits of including individuals who are not entrenched in the industry, as they can offer new insights and help evolve the company's approach.

Assembling an Effective Advisory Group

  • Avi Meir suggests selecting one or two people from three categories: industry experts, individuals with fundraising networks, and former operators with time to assist.
  • Industry experts can help avoid mistakes and open doors through their network.
  • People with fundraising networks, especially successful entrepreneurs, can facilitate warm introductions for investment opportunities.
  • Ex-operators can provide day-to-day mentorship and leadership advice.

"I would go for one or two in each of the three categories. First being industry experts... I would go for one or two people that have the right network into fundraising... And the last category, I would say, is one or two ex-operators with time to help."

This quote outlines the three types of individuals Avi Meir recommends for building a supportive and effective advisory group for a startup.

Qualities of Exceptional Board Members

  • The best board members offer support during challenging times and push for better performance during successful periods.
  • They understand their role is to support, not to run the business, and they help with introductions and hiring outside of board meetings.
  • A cultural fit with the board is as important as with the team to ensure efficient board operations.

"The best board members are very supportive in bad times... But also they need to be pushing you in good times... They really keep pushing me to the right direction... great board members understand that they are not running the business... Cultural fit... that's extremely important."

This quote captures the dual role of board members in providing support and motivation, their understanding of their advisory role, and the significance of cultural alignment.

Assessing Cultural Fit

  • Avi Meir assesses cultural fit by interviewing potential investors or board members about their values and asking for examples.
  • He conducts reference calls and reaches out to portfolio companies to gauge how individuals behave when things do not go as planned.
  • Treating investors and board members with the same rigor as potential employees is crucial for ensuring a good match.

"I would sit with them and ask them about the values... I do reference calls about my investors... they need to be screened, they need to be referenced and they need to be interviewed."

The quote describes the process of thoroughly vetting potential board members to ensure alignment with the company's values and culture.

Pitfalls for Board Members

  • Board members who panic during crises, optimize only for themselves, or engage in political games can cause issues for founders and the company.
  • Avi Meir advises against such behaviors and emphasizes the importance of maintaining a supportive and non-political environment.

"Some of them are just one off kind of thing. But here, repeat in a bad way is first like board members who panic... Maybe also trying to optimize only for themselves... also playing political games... Try not to be political, just trying to get stuff done and work in a great environment."

This quote warns against the negative behaviors that can undermine the effectiveness of a board and the success of the company.

Managing the Board as an Entrepreneur

  • Avi Meir emphasizes the importance of regularly reminding board members of the company's mission and current objectives.
  • He suggests the value of social interactions with board members, such as dinners or tours, which can lead to valuable insights outside of formal meetings.
  • Avi Meir notes the need to be strategic about negotiating terms such as the option pool during fundraising.

"I would make sure to remind them what I'm trying to achieve right now, all the way from high level mission to even kind of quarterly goals." This quote highlights Avi Meir's strategy of ensuring board members are always aware of the company's immediate goals and overall mission, which is crucial for maintaining focus and alignment.

"Most of the value came outside of the boardroom. Most of the value for him and for the rest of us came from this social interaction." Avi Meir reflects on the benefits of informal social interactions with board members, as these can lead to deeper understanding and stronger relationships beyond formal board meetings.

"I need to be more strategic about it and have a better understanding of what we're trying to achieve in terms of recruitment in the next 18 to 24 months." Avi Meir recognizes the importance of being strategic when discussing the option pool with investors, ensuring that it aligns with the company's recruitment goals and avoids future complications.

Fundraising Strategies and Investor Relations

  • Avi Meir discusses the effective use of his network to connect with the right investors, which helped avoid the need for aggressive fundraising campaigns.
  • He acknowledges the importance of being more strategic in negotiations, particularly regarding the option pool in term sheets.
  • Avi Meir expresses satisfaction with the quality of investors attracted in the C round and the strategic alignment with their long-term vision.

"So use your network. It's something that I did in the past, and I think it was very helpful." Avi Meir advises on the importance of leveraging personal and professional networks to find well-aligned investors, which he found to be an efficient and effective fundraising strategy.

"I would use that opportunity to push more on the option pool side." Avi Meir identifies the need for a more strategic approach to negotiating the option pool during fundraising to better support the company's future recruitment needs.

"Partnering with these people is a really kind of next level play." Avi Meir values the opportunity to partner with high-quality investors who share a long-term strategic vision, seeing it as a significant advantage for the company's growth.

Growth and Culture in a Scaling Company

  • Avi Meir admits that maintaining and scaling company culture is a work in progress and one of the biggest challenges.
  • He emphasizes the importance of hiring individuals who are a cultural fit and empowering them to identify similar fits during the hiring process.
  • Avi Meir sees culture as a guideline for appropriate decision-making by employees, especially in the absence of founders.

"Culture is, the way I see it, is all about who is in the team and who isn't." This quote underscores Avi Meir's belief that the essence of a company's culture is determined by the people who are part of the team, making hiring decisions critical.

"Growth and culture are almost two sides of the same coin." Avi Meir draws a connection between growth and culture, suggesting that a strong culture provides the framework for sustainable growth and decision-making within the company.

Importance of Culture and Hiring in Growth

  • Culture is central to the correct growth of a company.
  • Hiring is the key to establishing and maintaining culture.
  • Investing time and energy in hiring the right people is crucial.

"So they go hand in hand, the way I see it. And for me, the key to growing correctly is culture. And the key to culture is hiring. So this is why we invest so much time and energy in hiring correctly."

This quote emphasizes that culture and hiring are intertwined, with culture being essential for proper growth and hiring being the mechanism to establish that culture.

Challenges of Scaling a Team and Culture

  • Scaling a team becomes more challenging as the absolute number of hires increases.
  • Maintaining quality and cultural fit is easier with smaller numbers than with larger ones.
  • There is no known way to scale hiring at a rate faster than company growth.
  • Employees, especially in management, must adapt and learn as if they are taking on a new job every six to twelve months.

"This is a challenge that grows together with your scale. And if you think about any other area in startups, you try to kind of optimize so it doesn't grow linearly with how fast you grow as a company. I don't know how to do it for hiring."

This quote reflects the difficulty in scaling the hiring process as a company grows, highlighting that unlike other areas in startups, hiring challenges grow linearly with company size.

Personal Preferences and Beliefs

  • Avi Meir's current favorite book is "Delivering Happiness" by Tony Hsieh.
  • Avi identifies as an ethical vegan, not for health reasons, but to reduce harm.
  • He makes an exception for eating oysters, believing it to be ethical even for vegans.
  • Avi applies trust in the team and teamwork, learned from the military, to business.
  • He does not believe in work-life balance but rather a work-life merge.
  • Avi believes Tesla has the potential to be a trillion-dollar company.

"Guess at the moment delivering happiness. The story of lapos. So I think it's a really good cultural blueprint for successful kind of positive startup."

Avi appreciates "Delivering Happiness" as it provides a cultural blueprint for a successful and positive startup environment.

Approach to Veganism

  • Avi Meir tries to be an ethical vegan, focusing on reducing harm rather than health.
  • He eats oysters due to a scientific reason he believes is ethical.

"Trying to be an ethical vegan, meaning that I don't do it for health reasons. I'm actually overweight, so I shouldn't be, but I am. So it's really about reducing the harm."

Avi's approach to veganism is based on ethical considerations of harm reduction, rather than personal health.

Military Lessons Applied to Business

  • Trust and teamwork are essential in both the military and business.
  • Being a team player is crucial for the functioning of the company.

"Trust in your team and both with capital t. So team is the most important unit of work in the army and the same here at Tropic."

The quote highlights the importance of trust and teamwork as fundamental lessons from the military that are applicable to business.

Work-Life Balance

  • Avi Meir believes in a work-life merge rather than a balance.
  • Intensity in work allows for intensity in life outside of work.
  • He rejects the myth of work-life balance for founders.

"I think it doesn't exist. As a founder at this, I think there is a work life merge instead."

This quote conveys Avi's belief that for founders, work and life are not separate but merged, and the concept of a traditional work-life balance is a myth.

Business Beliefs

  • Avi Meir believes that Tesla has the potential to be a trillion-dollar company.
  • His investment in Tesla is long-term, with the belief it could be as impactful as Apple.

"I believe that Tesla will be a trillion dollar company."

Avi expresses a strong belief in Tesla's future potential for significant growth and market impact.

Dealing with Crisis

  • Avi Meir goes into problem-solving mode during crises.
  • He lists problems and tackles them one by one.

"I just go into problem solving modes. So list the problems and go one by one and solve them."

This quote reflects Avi's methodical approach to crisis management, focusing on problem-solving by addressing issues systematically.

Future Priorities for TravelPerk

  • The next five years for TravelPerk will focus on growth.
  • Avi Meir emphasizes growth as the top three priorities for the company.

"We have three main priorities for next five years, both for myself and for travel perks. The one is growth. The second one will be growth. And the third one is growth."

Avi's quote underscores a singular focus on growth as the primary objective for TravelPerk's future development.

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