Darja Gutnick is an expert new kid in town: this Russian transplant by way of Germany speaks more languages than I can count on one hand and has lived on four different continents. She also has a masters in psychology and was on her way to completing her PhD when she got sidetracked (or maybe just redirected?) by the startup siren.
Citibuddies is Darja’s brainchild, and her big goal is to make you feel like a local, no matter what city or country you find yourself in. And as anyone who has every lived in a major city will tell you, acting local is essential: no one wants to look like a tourist. Darja knows firsthand what’s it like to land in a new city and not know what’s going on, so she created citibuddies to help you out.
Darja and I sat down for a chat about what’s going on with citibuddies, the behavioral psychology behind getting people do their best work for you, and her dream to create a surfer/artist/entrepreneur haven. Check it out.
Give me your elevator pitch. What is citibuddies?
Citibuddies is a marketplace for experiences in any city you find yourself in. Basically it’s a personalized online tool.
When you log into citibuddies we analyze your Facebook likes, your Twitter hashtags, and now we’re now working with Foursquare API. We do this in order to create a profile based on your interests that is dynamic and changes over time that you can manually correct, and that gives us an idea of what kind of activities you may be interested in.
We’re also a place where vendors in experience industries – other than accommodation – that are related to leisure meet buyers that are more highly interested to buy these things or join these activities because we select them based on their interest profile.
Where do the activities come from?
We have two sources for deriving content. One is the technological solution, which is building crawlers for the most relevant URLs in a city. We can rate them so that we have one designated person who’s actually creating the activities so we can make sure that the descriptions actually fit the content and you can tell what kind of onda you’d get if you joined the activity.
The other part is the vendors we acquire with business development. We’ve currently signed more than 30 vendors that are posting activities on our site with business development. We have a part time business developer who is local and working with us who was able to reduce our costs to two and a half dollars.
Right now we’re building a strategy and deriving conclusions from the experiences we’re having to build a scalable strategy to combine technological solutions to derive content and enrich them with curation while at the same time work with business development to grow the base of vendors that are actively posting content.
What about pulling from your members?
Like user-generated content? Yeah, that’s a possibility. Everyone on the site is able to create content but we’re not pushing it just because we learned in the first couple of weeks that the real value actually already exists.
The activities that people like to join already happen. The problem that we’re solving is that it’s really hard for you to find them within a limited amount of time. When you come to a new city, when you move to a new city, when you’re generally just bored on a Sunday afternoon and you’re an explorative person who wants to do something outside of your routine, that’s the problem we want to solve.
At the same time we look at the possibility of user-generated content but we don’t want to rely on pushing people on our website to post their projects or activities. How we solve this problem is we pull Facebook events and that’s exactly what we’re accessing. When you sign up, we have access to your data for a limited amount of time, including all of your likes and events that are public. We can pull the events that are public off of our users, put them on a database, curate them, and show them.
The immediate issue that came up for me when you said you were pulling from vendors is that it’s likely that people have already heard of those events. If the goal is to expose people to what the “locals” do, how does this method do that?
Well, think about when you first arrive to a new city. What do you know?
I can’t even think of what I do, actually.
Exactly. We’re playing on that feeling that people get when they move to a new city or when you’re in a place for a limited amount of time. You may notice that we’re catering to an expat kind of community but not expats only in terms of professional expats but also and primarily exchange student expats that actually stay for a longer time and are more explorative.
I had that exact thought when I moved to New York City, right after college. I remember thinking, oh man I just want to be a local. I just want to know the city.
Exactly, I didn’t know there was so much stuff going on.
Yeah and it really frustrated me because I knew I needed to be there for like, five years before that would be the case.
Before you would have that feeling, yeah.
I mean, even travelers certainly are an interesting group for us. At the moment we are not looking at them because they are really hard to acquire. It’s really hard to gather really access to travelers. But it’s definitely a group that has the same needs.
Whenever you go somewhere on a vacation or just on a trip and stay around two weeks it’s always the last days that you may like to do things. You actually think, if I had known this I would not have gone to those three other places.
Where are you from?
I was born in Russia, I grew up in Germany mostly. Then I lived in the U.S., China, and then Hamburg.
So this kind of site makes a lot of sense for you, then.
Yeah, I was inspired of course by my own experiences. Not in a way that I was looking for that solution. At one point in time when I was traveling, I was in the third year of my PhD. I was traveling quite a lot to conferences and just generally visiting friends in different countries.
At one point in time I realized how lucky I actually am to have all these connections and to have all these friends. Of course there was a cost to pay, if you live a very nomadic kind of life. At the same time I am very thankful that I had the possibility, and I actually have so many friends to make me feel at home no matter where I go.
I realize that most of my friends and most of the vast majority of the population doesn’t have the same access yet. At the same time our economical and sociological involvements move in a direction where frequent travel will be not only a minority phenomenon, but will grow as it does right now more and more. We will have more and more needs for actually moving places very smoothly.
I think that’s very interesting. How many languages do you speak?
Actually I was learning Chinese when I was in China. I don’t speak anything anymore outside of thank you. I speak Russian, German, English, Dutch, Spanish— well that’s my weakest probably because I came here a couple of months ago and I didn’t know any Spanish. I did a little bit of basic courses but not very much. Right now I’m good enough that I can actually pitch my project in Spanish, and communicate with parts of my team in Spanish because they are local.
What else? Hebrew a little bit, but more the small talk kind of stuff. Yeah, that’s it I think.
What did you study?
Before I started citibuddies, I was writing my PhD on creativity under pressure.
Creativity under pressure?
Very relevant. [Laughs]
Indeed, indeed. Yeah. In the end, a psychologist after all. I also notice when we have private open sessions and I always look at things from a user experience point of view, and try to figure out the incentives of behaviors on our site as on others. It’s like, why would people do this? How can we incentivize behavior that actually already exists? How can we use that for what we’re building?
So you’re trained in psychology?
Yes, I have a master’s in psychology. I worked as a creativity consultant for a design agency in California that was part of the BMW group, works in the similar areas IDO.
I also had the feeling I need to learn business… I went back in order to learn about business. I went back to Germany and joined a strategic business consultancy; super classical with a lot of excel and a lot of night work… I worked there for a little bit over a year, then went to China to just be in China and understand their new future rising market.
Then I started the PHD. I really had this strong question in my mind of why I was working in two completely different contexts. At Think Tank in California you could go surf whenever you need to go surf, but you have to stick to deadlines, obviously. The German kind of atmosphere where you have very strict deadlines, and even your lunch breaks are regulated to a maximum so that you have only 15 minutes and you can only eat with the team. You cannot escape any kind of structure.
In both cases, I was creative and successful. I could perform. I know that in both cases people that were actually not able to do so. I never got rid of the question I had, which is what factors depend on whether you could actually deal with pressure. Does it make you really, really creative and really well-performing or do you crack under the pressure?
What did you find?
As always, it’s mainly about social resources. It really depends on the culture and on the leadership style that you deal with. I think that the lessons that I had, I tried to put into practice in my own team.
I think trust is a very, very important component, and really strict target orientation. Whenever you work with people, it has to be super clear to them what they are actually achieving. Whether the target is on a very macro level or micro level depends on the level of skills, expertise, and personality of the people you deal with. You need to actually be able to communicate the targets clearly and then trust in the ability of the person to be able to reach these targets and correct them along the way on the check-up points.
This is a very, very strong resource that a lot of my supervisors did not use as much as they should have. I think if you have high-level employees – that you usually have in startups – you have to do this or they don’t survive.
What’s something you could see yourself doing if you weren’t doing citibuddies?
I never had this thing like “Where do you see yourself in ten years?” or whatever. Actually, right now I do have one idea… I really love to surf and I love the sea. I was never able – despite of all the cool experiences that I got along the way – to really make this dream come true to live by the sea for a while.
The more I travel the world and the more I experience, I have the feeling like I want to have a really cool place to rent or buy, anywhere in the world on a really cool coast where I can surf. Then I want to give that place to people that work on creative projects, startup projects, artist projects or whatever and connect them to the network that I’m building right now through my own experiences, give them the kind of support – maybe also financial support – that they would need to get out of there.
Basically I want to connect their lives for three, four, five days where they can actually really progress on their projects and combine that with a very specific atmosphere when you are by the sea and you’re all focused.
Like an artist’s retreat.
Sort of, but I would combine it like artists and entrepreneurs. Those kinds of scenes, I think they make a lot of sense, with South By Southwest being a really good example. I am actually seeing something like that at one point – certainly not now – but at one point in time I think that would be something that long-term, sustainably makes more sense to me.
Well Darja, it’s been a fascinating conversation, but if I let myself keep going, this interview is going to be like 10,000 words long. Thanks so much and I’m looking forward to citibuddies coming to my town!