Why we invested in Easol.
I wanted to understand how a travel SaaS business could be growing so fast during lockdown and I realised that what we’d found would fundamentally change the direction of thousands, maybe millions, of lives. This will end up being something much more than an investment for me.
Easol is the first of its kind; an all-in-one ‘experience commerce’ platform which is built to support experience businesses globally across all sectors including festivals, wellness retreats, food and drink, as well as sports and adventure packages, by giving them complete control of their business to drive more direct sales, retain more revenue, own their data and run their business on their terms.
Easol was founded by former festival founders, Lisa and Ben Simpson, in 2017 after the husband and wife team endured challenges and frustrations first hand while setting up and growing their own experience businesses including Rise - Europe’s leading snow sports and music festival and Beyond Adventures - a series of adventure travel experiences in remote locations such as the Sahara desert and the Swedish Archipelago.
Kam had been working with Ben and Lisa for several months pre Covid-19. We closely follow about 300 start-ups at any time and have a more nurturing type of relationship with about 100 of them and this included Easol. I wanted to finally meet them when Covid-19 hit for two reasons...
Firstly, as a contrarian investor, I was looking for opportunities that would capitalise on the downturn where I fundamentally believed in the vision and the mission, but where the impact of Covid-19 had devastated an industry and where I could say "don't worry about revenue - just build an amazing product so you can capture the entire market when it returns". Like all investors, I'm driven by the allure of capturing the entire market (well the majority of it).
Experiential travel is a trillion dollar market with no underlying joined up tooling to fuel its scale. Creators delivering experiences have really terrible tooling available to them from generic horizontal software prodivers. The ability to build an entirely new category leader with Easol is profoundly strong - a platform where you can sell experiences online, not things, such as a surf camp or a retreat . The internet has become incredible at selling THINGS. It's been terrible at selling what people are truly passionate about and the experience that's wrapped around this passion economy.
Secondly, the business was continuing to pick up new logos at such a high rate, which made no sense given the context of the market conditions in travel. Despite having a few dozen highly active customers, the demand for the Easol platform appeared to be unaffected apart from a few weeks in the summer. As we were closing the round, the pipeline was doubling each quarter and bigger companies were entering the pipeline, companies that were significantly bigger than the existing customer base.
Since closing the round and being all in, this heightened demand has taken full effect and the customer base is doubling each quarter, whilst the trading environment for travel and hospitality is at its bleakest for an entire generation of dedicated entrepreneurs.
So why this investment? What was the magic? And why not one of the other companies we were nurturing, in a sector positively impacted by the pandemic?
I have thought about this a lot and I think it stems from the founders and the deep insight they have about the people and market they serve, as well as the years they have on the clock in building experiences themselves and now delivering the tooling for an entire passion-driven sector in experience commerce. It’s all about the mission they are on.
When I was talking to Lisa, I noted that there is no authority for experience commerce and she agreed. I then noted that there were very few inches of reports or research and also that A16Z were one of the only VCs of note to have taken a bigger view on the passion economy, for example, and again she agreed (with a patient smile). I asked her what was it that I'm missing? What's going on and why is this market invisible?
She told me that's because the history of e-commerce has been all about selling THINGS. Actual things. Often cheaper and cheaper. She went on to say "our customers don't sell things, they provide amazing experiences. A great experience is deeply personal to those who provide them and those that receive them. A great experience cannot be cheapened".
Ben chimed in "our mission is to make Easol an experience commerce platform that puts the technology, ownership and possibilities in the hands of 1000s of experience creators who deliver billions of special moments to millions of people". He then cut through with "we are the only people delivering software for key moments, not things. The lives of our customers and their millions of their guests is what matters. That's our moat".
At this point it’s worth noting that, in the year before investing in Easol, I'd cycled 3000 kilometers from St Malo in France to Lisbon in Portugal alongside 4 friends - an unbelievable experience. I have a 500km city to city cycle trip every year and have done for more than a decade. So, I am a super user of experience travel and spend a small fortune every year, tangling more and more people into my passion for travel and cycling. The realisation that few software developers or VCs were invested in experience, and that the internet was all transactional and all about things, hit a raw nerve.
I went for a walk, called Kam and said “I'm all in”. When he asked me why I said "these are very special people, with a unique understanding of a totally underserved trillion dollar market. They’ve built rails for the entrepreneurs who take you on your paragliding trips or the people that take my group of 20 cycling every year. The creators of these experiences haven’t previously been put at the centre of the design process so relatively invisible to software developers and venture capital but now they're finding Easol and that's why they have so much demand. The pandemic will never stop them doing what they love, it’s who they are and Easol enables them to do more, not less".
Why Notion? A note from the founders…
We couldn’t be happier that we chose Notion as an investor and partner in Easol. When we first met Chris and Kam it became immediately apparent to us that they were ambitious and fearless - this got us excited.
Our ambitions for Easol are as big as they come. We believe we’re at the very beginning of the experience economy boom and that by creating the operating platform for every experience creator globally to run and grow their business the growth potential for Easol is astronomical. It became apparent to us very early on in our conversations that not only do Notion share this vision, but they share our ambition for what Easol can become and this as a combination has created a partnership that is very special.
Notion’s formidable SaaS expertise made them the right partner for us at the right time. As experience experts, together Lisa and I have created 10'000's of experiences from parties at university, music festivals in the French Alps, adventures to remote islands in Sweden through to curating experiences for some of the largest brands in the world. It’s because of this deep understanding of our customer and their pain points that we’ve been able to grow as quickly as we have and create a new category of experience commerce. With Notion in our corner we’ve been able to lean on their decades of SaaS expertise and further accelerate our growth.
When the pandemic hit - our revenue at the time was 99% transactional (meaning we went from profitable to zero revenue almost over night). Notion were not phased by this at all and in fact they leaned into it and were proactive in trying to be helpful. They understood we needed to run a fast and efficient process and before we even agreed terms it felt that we were working with a true partner we could be sure was ready to get in the trenches with us when they needed to.