How I secured funding for my travel startup during a global pandemic

Updated: Sep 9, 2021

FreeGuides has recently become the recipient of investment by Scalare Partners and has not only redefined FreeGuides but my life as well. Although my life didn’t start with FreeGuides, it started in a very different place. When I was young I wasn’t what you would call athletic, far from it actually, but I was phenomenal at hurdles. No, not the ones you find at the track and field events at your high school sports carnival, but the ones life throws in front of you. From the fire of the starting pistol, my first hurdle I overcame was my difficulties in reading and writing. Books and studying didn’t come easy to me, predominantly because of the way it was taught never sat well with me. I was a visual learner so Youtube and other similar platforms allowed me to learn differently. I loved cooking videos and that inspired my cookie making business Cookies R Us!

Don’t confuse me with someone at the end of their race waxing lyrically about the past. When I look into the horizon all I see are more hurdles, but I’m eager to meet them. Thankfully I’m one that enjoys the hands-on elements of life, of creating something that I can say is my own, call it my entrepreneurial spirit if you want to use buzzwords like that. When I was 14 I started making cookies at school to sell them, naming my business Cookies R Us. I guess it's a blessing the toy store of a similar vein isn’t around anymore. I overcame hurdles of distribution by hiring out lockers from other students, making trips to the staff rooms to sell directly to teachers, and created a supply chain operating out of 3 different kitchens. My first investors were family, parents and grandparents, all helping with the purchasing of equipment and wholesale ingredients, and keeping my overhead costs to nearly zero. The pitching process was easy, as they were all very excited to help me become a young entrepreneur. I'm sure that when I first pitched Cookies R Us to my grandfather to buy an industrial meat slicer to cut the cookies, he did not imagine that I would be calling him, a decade later, to tell him about my first large scale investment in my most recent startup FreeGuides. Hurdles are easy when you have a direction of where you want to go.

While still at school learnt another important lesson in my life. There’s a saying that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, but it was never a single step for me. There were always people by my side helping me along the way. My learning difficulties at school were overcome with the help of my teachers and parents. Despite understanding the world in a distinct way, I think they saw this as something to be nurtured, not fixed. Different doesn’t mean broken.

To describe me, I would say that I am a collection of my failures, of the hurdles that I’ve overcome, of the race I have run. My first apps were all failures, in almost every sense of the word. Almost being the keyword there, but we’ll get back to that later. I tried creating an app to self mediate noise levels, I tried creating a game, I tried creating a parking spot sharing app. I learned that just because the hurdles start getting bigger, it only means you need to jump higher. I remember a pitching competition at UTS, where the critique from the head of Google Marketing was that whilst he felt like he was being pitched to by Steve Jobs, the product was an awful idea. It was OK though, I know you only truly fail when you learn nothing from your past mistakes, and every lesson I learned in the development of these apps were put into FreeGuides.

Some of the best parts of life come between these hurdles. The little reprieves that give you a moment to appreciate where you are now. Two of these reprieves for me were the Creative Intelligence degree at UTS, and Tank Stream Labs. Creative Intelligence changed my perspective. I began to appreciate theory, as there was a practical rationale behind it. I wasn’t studying Shakespeare to pull out stuffy quotes at a dinner table, or learning math for reasons I couldn’t fathom. But UTS and Creative Intelligence offered something different. A spark, an inspiration, a reason for me to study as it offered a look at my horizons and gave me practical skills to get there.

Following my university degree, I was fortunate enough to be offered a position as the intern’s intern at Tank Stream Labs. Not the most glorious position, but a foot in the door of where I wanted to see myself. Tank Stream offered a level of practical experience, unlike any opportunity I had in the past. I was able to learn not solely from those senior to me in the company, but the whole host of start-ups, scale-ups and businesses who grew in Tank Stream. Whilst I learned to manage logistics of running multiple different facets of the same space, my spare time was spent observing these emerging companies and taking in all that I have learned. I can honestly say that without Tank Stream Labs I would not be in the position I am in today.

America is often cited as the land of opportunities, inspiration. When I visited I too found inspiration there. Firstly from NYC, where I discovered my love for digitising a concept, in this circumstance free walking tours and in San Francisco, I learned of the market for self-guided tours after talking to an already established tour guide. When I returned to Sydney I attempted to bring the same energy back, creating an app that would encourage guides to take people on experiences through their city that only they knew about. I created a small team with my brother Cameron and a recent UNSW graduate Raj, and we immediately found success in contacting tour guides across the world and encouraging them to join our service. But, that FreeGuides was very different from what FreeGuides is now. Like many companies, we had to change our service model to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic turned out to be another hurdle, one which we scaled and from which we picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off and surged ahead. People no longer felt safe to travel in large groups around a city, so the model of having a guide take you physically on a tour had to be adapted. The self-guided model grew out of this. It allowed passionate individuals to create unique journeys which could be followed by anyone who had a phone, this fundamental change allowed us to scale and began to spark interest in the investment community.

It’s strange to think, but this pandemic helped us immensely in terms of finding a new direction to better take advantage of a niche market. This pivot I believe is what inspired Scalare Partners, an early-stage VC firm based in Tank Stream Labs, to jump on board with us. I am eternally grateful that they took a chance on FreeGuides and with their invested capital we are excited to be able to grow by hiring developers and a growth team. Additionally, we plan to expand from Sydney to the rest of Australia by Christmas. I would like to thank everyone who helped me along my way, to overcome the hurdles I have found throughout my life. I would like to thank my family, friends, teachers, UTS, Tank Stream Labs and Scalare Partners. I would not be where I am today without the support from all of you, and so with that, I thank you and please download our app.

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