Wanderu Heads to SXSW, Wants to Be Like Kayak for Buses & Trains
For those of you lamenting the end of an era—the Fung Wah bus era—fear not. For there is Wanderu to help you find another way to get where you’re going on the ground.
Boston-based Wanderu is on a journey of its own this week, as it heads down to the South by Southwest festival in Austin, TX. The startup is competing as a finalist for the SXSW Interactive Accelerator award in the “innovative technology” category on March 11. Guess how the team is getting there? Yep, by bus and train.
Wanderu is “taking an old antiquated technology and bringing it to a new demographic,” says co-founder and CEO Polina Raygorodskaya (pictured above).
The company’s site lets consumers enter their starting and destination addresses, and then shows them a list of possible itineraries across different bus and train lines (see screenshot of the new design below). Clicking on a search result takes you to the provider’s site—sort of like what Kayak and other meta-search sites do for air travel.
The most interesting part of this approach (in North America at least) is buses. There are hundreds of bus carriers in the U.S., and most don’t have online registration systems. That makes it a pain, especially for people who plan things on the go, to book tickets for popular routes and times—or to find ground transportation in unfamiliar locales.
Raygorodskaya and her co-founder Igor Bratnikov (they both grew up in Newton, MA) found that out the hard way. In the summer of 2011, they took a road trip across the U.S., intending to travel entirely by ride-sharing. (They started a blog called GreenXC and built up a community around the trip.) But when one of their rides had to bail at the last minute, they got stranded in the middle of nowhere, Virginia. After searching on Google and other sites, they couldn’t piece together public transportation to get to their next stop (Indianapolis), so they had to rent a car. “That was a very sad part of our trip,” she says.
Afterwards, they became “obsessed” with creating a consumer site to search bus and train lines in a faster way, she says. The first version of Wanderu was ready by April 2012, but it has since gone through an overhaul to handle more transportation data and provide a better user interface (see landing page below).
The site has been up and running in private beta in the Northeast, with 10,000-plus signups. The public rollout is still a couple of months away, and the company is currently working on a mobile app. Wanderu plans to expand down the East Coast all the way to Florida, rolling out a new region (e.g., the Southeast) every quarter or so, Raygorodskaya says.
Meanwhile, taking buses seems much more fashionable than it was, say, 10 years ago. And air travel has become more of a hassle, especially for short-haul flights. Wanderu is riding those trends, particularly among the younger set. The company says there were some 750 million bus travelers in the U.S. last year, as compared to 730 million in domestic air travel.
Of course, other companies have tried (and are trying) to compete in ground transportation search. And in general, travel-search startups are a dime a dozen. But Wanderu says its competitors are more about aggregating and displaying data, not about simplifying the whole search and booking process—and integrating directly with bus partners, as Wanderu is doing.
Raygorodskaya, for her part, is a former model who founded a fashion production and PR firm called Polina Fashion in New York. She gets a lot of attention for moving from a world of glamour to the unsexy business of ground transportation and bus conferences. “Being a woman in the bus industry is interesting,” she says. “I’m much more excited about buses than I was about fashion. I love solving a real problem.”
Like any sector, the bus industry has its own politics and old ways of thinking, she says. In the end, being successful will depend on both Wanderu’s software and user experience and its partnerships with bus lines like Bolt and Megabus. “It’s really about the relationships,” she says. “But without the technology, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do either.”
Wanderu is currently working out of the PayPal incubator space in downtown Boston. The startup has a team of eight people, half of them full-time. So far it has raised seed funding from angel investors. But all of the above could change, depending on how much of a splash it makes at South by Southwest Interactive—and beyond.