Where machine learning meets travel; The Untold Journal spoke to Tom Charman, who co-founded the app that wants to uncover the world.

Words: Emma Rosen (25 Before 25)
Images: Kompas App

Have you ever visited a city and wanted to go beyond the major landmarks and tourist traps, but not known where to start? This is the problem Tom Charman faced when he moved to Munich for a year.

He, along with co-founder Olivia Higgs, decided to start a blog about their exploration of the city and see what might happen. Six months and 20,000 followers later, they realised that they weren’t the only people who wanted off-the-beaten path suggestions.

Armed with that knowledge, they started KOMPAS to solve the problem alongside Doug Walker and Kurt Henderson, and they wanted to do it in a smart way.

Using machine learning through their tech-focused backgrounds, they created an app that “understands who you are, what you like to do, what you’ve done previously and gives you recommendations based on your personal interests.” No longer do you have to rely on the limitations of your friends’ knowledge and sift through terrible tourist board websites. The app is about finding “hidden gems and the places that offer something a little different – it’s exciting.”

Currently in London, Birmingham, Munich and Berlin, the ambitious team want to continue building the machine learning technology and, ultimately, go beyond the travel industry to become a “leading Artificial Intelligence (AI) company” over the next few years.

Tom tells us confidently about the milestones and successes that Kompas has had so far; there have been funding rounds, awards and even a TED talk. He makes it all sound very easy. Of course, it wasn’t.

“Myself and Olivia started Kompas before we left university, so had to juggle studying, exams and working on this as near to full-time as possible. Both of us constantly looked at each other and asked ‘should we defer a year, or even drop out?’”

It came to a head during final exam season, when Tom had to squeeze in a competition between two exams only days apart. “It was hard, but we finished our degrees and launched into running Kompas full-time.

Kompas app team
Kompas app team
Kompas app team

“The greatest challenge though, is the investment. The first investment round was gruelling; you feel like you’re going to fail one minute and if you’re lucky, the next minute the money is in your account.” The lack of certainty was terrifying. But coming out the other side of it, Tom says that “no matter how bad it gets, keep pushing and it will come through. You won’t get the funding until you are about to fail, as that’s the exact moment when you know how to graft, how to change things and how to adapt.” When you are near to desperate – that’s when you’ll be at your best.

Investment is always the main challenge, and this is especially so for young entrepreneurs, as often your age counts against you. “young people fresh out of university… don’t have the industry experience – you don’t have five years at McKinsey, for example. But if you can prove that you are the right person to do it, can build a minimum viable product and have the right technology behind you then the money will come. You’ve got to believe in your product and believe in your team; it’s about selling who you are, why you’re the right people to do it, as well as the product.” After you have done all that you can do, it’s simply a case of being patient and prepared to kiss a lot of angel-shaped frogs.

After a lot of struggle, KOMPAS had success with equity investment. “We wanted smart money as opposed to venture-backed; people who work with us, who understand us and what we are trying to do gives us guidance from those with industry experience.”

It has paid off. They are now at 60-70% growth each month and have grown to a team of twelve.

Tom believes that the best time to start a business is “before you have any ties – before you have children, a mortgage. You can afford to take the risk at that stage of life as if it goes badly no one is depending on you, you can go and get another job or take some time out. It’s the only real time when things are easy and if they all go wrong, it will still be OK.

“In your twenties, start a business and see the world.”

“You’ve got to believe in your product and believe in your team; it’s about selling who you are, why you’re the right people to do it, as well as the product”

Check out more about KOMPAS: | Facebook – KOMPAS | Instagram – KOMPAS | Twitter  KOMPAS App