Air travel is frequently abusive and the train is hardly a bargain, so it's no wonder that intercity bus travel has doubled over the past decade. "There are more people traveling by intercity bus in the U.S. each year than there are flying, and 74 percent of bus travelers are Millennials," says Polina Raygorodskaya, co-founder of Wanderu, a platform that allows travelers to find and book bus trips to more than 85 percent of major hubs in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.
The company, which takes a percentage of each transaction--but isn't revealing how much--"‹has grown its revenue 400 percent per quarter since launching in 2012. Also since then, the Boston-based company has served more than four million travelers, a figure that's grown 200 percent each quarter, says Raygorodskaya. "We created both the middle-layer infrastructure for thousands of bus companies and standardized their data, as well as building out a very popular consumer search," says Raygorodskaya, a former model, who says she's now "more excited about the bus space than I ever was about fashion."
Ticket to ride
A Babson College grad, Raygorodskaya came up with the idea for Wanderu in the summer of 2011, on a cross-country trip with friends who wanted to encourage young people to visit national parks. "We thought we'd do it through ride sharing with strangers," she said. "But when we got to Jefferson National Forest in Virginia, our ride fell through and we needed to get to Indianapolis next." Trying to cobble together a possible bus-and-train route was frustrating and time-consuming, since there was no one place online that aggregated schedules from different bus lines as, say, Kayak does with airlines. "When we got back from that trip, I knew I wanted to solve that problem," she says.
As it turned out, it was a formidable technological challenge. Bus companies are not tech savvy, so Raygorodskaya and her co-cofounder, Igor Bratnikov, had to build the equivalent of Sabre--the computer reservation system for airlines and hotels-- for the bus industry. And then they'd need to convince bus industry execs that their product was valuable.
"We spent some time researching the industry, because we knew we needed to find someone who knew the industry to help us," says Raygorodskaya. That's how she found Craig Lentzsch, the former CEO of Greyhound who shepherded the ailing bus company out of bankruptcy. "I got an intro to him, and I called him up, " she recalls. "And he said something like 'who the hell are you and what makes you think you can do what you say you want to do?'"
Lentzsch concedes that he was initially skeptical. But after meetings at his office in Dallas and at Wanderu in Boston, he became a believer. "They had figured out the bus business in about a tenth of the time it took me to figure it out," he recalls. "They had the most exciting idea for this industry since the creation of the multi-passenger vehicle."
Old industry, new technology
Lentzsch signed on as an adviser and investor, and his involvement gave Wanderu instant industry credibility. With CTO Eddy Wong spearheading the technology build, the co-founders took a year and half to launch their initial product in the Northeast, and then partnered with bus companies such as Greyhound, Bolt Bus, and Megabus. "We've helped grow the market," says Raygorodskaya. "Twenty percent of the tickets we sell for our partners are the result of our routing feature, which travelers would not be able to find on the bus company's website."
Wanderu also includes train schedules in its platform, and Google Transit to get travelers from terminals to their final destinations. The company will eventually expand to Europe but says Mexico is next. "And we want to expand into areas that our users are requesting, like what to do once you get to your destination," says Raygorodskaya. "Our goal is to create a travel brand for Millennials."