On a recent Thursday, Hipmunk's CEO, Adam Goldstein, laid out his travel plans. He'd just returned from London, but the following week would take him to New York, Los Angeles, home to San Francisco, then to Seattle, San Jose, and back to New York. "It's slightly more traveling than usual, but not that crazy," Goldstein says. On deck were meetings with airline and search-site executives, and plans to build strategic partnerships within the travel industry.
Back home in San Francisco, Goldstein's co-founder, Steve Huffman, who previously founded crowd-ranked news site Reddit, would spend most of his days writing code. The two exist in almost entirely separate planes. "We trust each other completely," Goldstein says. "We basically catch up on the phone or over e-mail every other day and see how it's going. It's very hands-off."
The pair came together just a year ago, when Goldstein approached Huffman with an idea for a radically simplified and painless travel search website. Huffman was game, so they rented an office in the old Hamm's building in San Francisco's Mission district and started building a flight search site that ranks results based on the potential agony a flight inflicts. Results show up in a visual-graph timeline. Until more deals with individual airlines are made, Hipmunk's "flight purchase" traffic typically goes to Orbitz.
The Hipmunk team—now 10 full-time employees—is confident they’ve built the easiest-to-use and sleekest travel-search tool on the Internet. The struggle now is moving out of a word-of-mouth driven user-base and into the mainstream.
"Growth is a completely different problem altogether, and we're still learning how to deal with it. Advertising in this space is completely non-economical, but users love us once they see us," Huffman says. "It's how do we get people to see us."
That's where Alexis Ohanian, another founder of Reddit and early investor in Hipmunk, comes in. After designing the chipper Hipmunk mascot, a smiling chipmunk sporting aviator glasses and a windblown scarf, Ohanian was brought on full-time as a marketing director. In that role, he’s directed campaigns such as the social-media Hipmunk Me project, which allowed Facebook fans to request hand-rendered Hipmunkifications of their profile photo. During it, the company’s Facebook fan base grew by more than 500 percent.
The team, which runs on its more than $5 million in seed funding and angel investments, is hoping to stay small while building its user-base and search structure. It also hopes to turn a profit soon, through collecting commissions for directing flight and hotel purchase traffic to airlines, hotels, and other travel-search sites.
"At this point company culture is a lot more important than growing," Huffman says. "We really just want to get flights and hotels perfect. So we've got a lot of work to do in that regard, so a big milestone for us is just making more money."
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CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is senior writer at Inc. @Lagorio