“Help you travel more for less” is exactly what CEO of Hitlist, Gillian Morris, has set out to do – and accomplished – by helping travelers find the best deals for their next flight. In addition to being recognized as one of the 35 young leaders in the travel industry, Gillian has received many awards in the tech field, like Audience Choice at Women 2.0. She is passionate about all things tech and travel since her college years at Harvard. Her experience traveling abroad has helped her learn that by taking risks, there comes rewards, which has led her to her biggest reward to date, Hitlist. Read about Gillian’s journey creating Hitlist and the life as a CEO in travel tech.
Who is the ideal customer for Hitlist?
Hitlist is made for everyone, but especially for the nomads: those who have more stamps in their passport than pairs of shoes, who trust that venturing into the unknown holds more promise than a ‘just OK’ routine, and who love and respect the world’s diversity. We want to make it easy for you to travel more by highlighting the best flight deals.
Hitlist has been recognized by The New York Times, CNBC and TechCrunch. What makes this travel app different from others apps in the industry?
We’re rethinking the travel planning and booking process from the ground up. The leading flight search engines of today are all pretty similar: you ask them how much it costs to fly to a particular destination on a given day. If you’re flexible, you’ll have to do hundreds of searches to understand all your options – and of course the prices are changing constantly. At Hitlist, we think a lot of people are at least somewhat flexible on where and when they’re traveling: they might want to go to Europe this summer, but are interested in a number of different destinations, or they might want to visit their friend in Chicago, but willing to go almost any weekend. So we ask people to create alerts for trips – however defined or flexible they may be – and we alert them when there are cheap fares so they can book.
What experience did you have that made you come up with the idea of Hitlist?
I worked in a number of developing countries in the Middle East and Central Asia as a journalist and risk analyst. I saw firsthand how transformative travel was for both the local communities and people who traveled to more off the beaten track places. I also personally experienced the frustration of trying to book travel when I was flexible about destinations and dates. I felt like there had to be a better way, so I started experimenting with ideas at hackathons and startup weekends until we came up with Hitlist.
What are the biggest hurdles being a woman entrepreneur in the travel tech space?
I face the same hurdles every entrepreneur faces: acquiring users economically, getting investors and hires to believe in what we’re building, and facing a steep learning curve doing something I’ve never done before.
If you could start over creating Hitlist, what you would you do differently?
So many things! I would have concentrated my fundraising efforts on stage-appropriate investors (angels for the first round, not wasting time with seed firms who were happy to talk but would never place a bet so early). I would form an advisory board earlier on. I would fire underperforming members of the team earlier. It’s natural to have a bit of hit and miss as you try and build your team. I like to think I’m getting better at finding people who not only bring the right skills but have the right attitude.
You recently moved Hitlist from New York to San Francisco. Why do you believe this was a strategic business move for the company?
The depth of experience in consumer-facing mobile apps in San Francisco is unparalleled. We miss New York, and Hitlist was very much formed in NYC, but as we began to scale we found ourselves over in SF more and more often meeting with investors and advisors who have helped companies like us break out from a couple hundred thousand users to millions.
On the Hitlist site you have Wandertab. What is this feature and how did you come up with the idea?
Wandertab, our Chrome extension, shows a beautiful picture of a destination and how much it costs to go there every time you open a new tab. I originally conceived of the idea with a friend named Max Izmaylov, CEO of Roomstorm, who I met at a hackathon. We wanted to feed the sense of wanderlust most people have and help them realize that their dream destinations don’t have to be so expensive.
You went to Harvard for Government and Medieval Studies. How did you enter into the travel and technology industry?
I was lucky enough to be at Harvard when Facebook was just getting off the ground, and I had a number of friends start tech companies. I was always intrigued by the idea of ‘getting into tech’, but wanted to live abroad and work in international development. After a couple of years, I kept on returning to the idea of applying what I’d learned on the road to making a more efficient and user-friendly travel app.
You have received many awards including Audience Choice at Women 2.0, winner of THack SFO in 2012 and 2013, as well as being recognized as one of the 35 young leaders in the travel industry in 2013. Is there an accomplishment that you are the most proud of?
I’m most proud of building Hitlist to over half a million users worldwide and facilitating tens of thousands of trips (and many more to come!).
Describe your English teaching experience in China and traveling through Mongolia, Russia, Thailand, Afghanistan, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, and Turkey for five years after college. What did you learn from this experience?
I didn’t plan anything, so there wasn’t a unifying theme to my travels. The number one thing I learned from moving around like that was that the world is, on the whole, a very friendly and peaceful place. If you respect the local culture in places you visit, and are working on constructive things, people open up to you and better things than you ever imagined can happen. I’d say every risk I’ve taken has been rewarded – and that’s given me the courage to take the biggest risk of all and start this company.
What valuable information about the travel tech space would you give other women who wanted to become an entrepreneur?
Make sure you’re building something that has a real market, not just something for you and your friends. Validate through surveys, pilots, and studying other companies that have tried to do similar things.
Anything else you would like to share with our readers?
Please download Hitlist!
More facts about Gillian:
Personal Mantra: “We can!”
De-Stress Technique: Overnight trains never fail to put me to sleep.
Latest Gadget: None – I try to have as few as possible. Computer and phone are the only electronics I own.
Favorite App: Hitlist
Favorite Travel Brand: Hitlist. If I have to choose another one, Instagram.
Next Vacation Destination: Hong Kong