Photoshoot location: Compagnie des Vin Surnaturel
While dancing on top of speakers, Susan Ho and Leiti Hsu met at a nightclub in Shanghai. The story is now part of startup lore, but it’s more than just a good icebreaker at parties. Although they didn't know it at the time, this chance encounter was the first seed in what would eventually grow to become Journy, an online personal concierge travel service the two entrepreneurs created in 2015. I mean, who better to help you plan your dream trip than two adventurous women who play by their own rules and push the limits of everything they do to 11 when everyone else’s volume dial is stuck at 10.
Of course, you don’t create a startup that’s landed Ho on Forbes' “30 Under 30 in Consumer Tech” and the company on Travel+Leisure's "Best New Travel Apps of 2017" list without laying the groundwork first.
Starting with her degree from University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business and followed by gigs at Fab.com, DigitalOcean, Blue Apron and LearnVest, Ho’s track record set her up for success. But it wasn’t work that inspired the idea for Journy. It was, fitting, vacation.
The first was a good one—a weekend in Paris with friends that taught her more about herself than acing her heavy Ivy League course load. The second was a disaster—a vacation to Buenos Aires during which she spent more time in the hotel Googling what to do instead of doing it.
It took a lot of effort to bring her vision to life, but toughing things out has always been a part of who Ho is.
Tasty food. Exotic locales. Boldfaced names. One peek at Ho’s Instagram, and it looks like she’s living every traveler’s dream. But the fruits of her labor come from a lot of hard work. “Put your nose to the grindstone” is a lesson she learned early and truly took to heart.
When her family emigrated to the U.S. from China when she was 3 years old, her dad took a job as a busboy and her mom worked as a waitress to put themselves through graduate school. “When my mother got her MBA, I remember seeing her up until 1AM studying and then again at 6AM to get me ready for school,” she says.
This laboring away paid off, as her dad now runs an 800-person company that builds factories for BMW and Boeing in addition to building and maintaining Disneyland in Shanghai. “My parents really lived the American Dream, and it just goes to show how far hard work and investing in education goes,” she remarks.
While she says that her parents’ hard work allowed her the opportunity to attend great schools and start building her dream company, it’s more the lessons she learned from their industriousness than the opportunities it fostered that truly gave her the leg up to make Journy a success.
For example, though she hated playing the piano growing up, her mom forced her to persevere. By age 10, thanks to years of practicing, Ho took the Royal Board of Music’s level six theory exam, and passed it playing a level seven Bach invention.
“Playing the piano is surprisingly one of the things that’s most responsible for Journy’s success, because it gave me grit, taught me not to give up, and equipped me with the motivation to power through the parts of running a business that can have a steep learning curve and be super not fun,” she explains. “I taught myself HTML and CSS to code the first version of our site. If it wasn’t for that confidence I built from playing piano—to be able to tackle and learn anything even when I really hated the subject matter—I wouldn’t be here today.”
Another time there was the opportunity to take the easy way out was when Ho faced sexual harassment in the workplace during her time in Silicon Valley. To save her job and avoid the spotlight that came with exposing the bad behavior of very powerful men, she could have kept her mouth shut and not rocked the boat, but that wasn’t in her nature. Instead, she persisted.
“For over a month, my cofounder Leiti Hsu and I debated whether to speak up,” she remembers. “Ultimately we knew it was the right thing to do after hearing from half a dozen women that this behavior had been going on for the last decade from this unchecked VC.”
Though they knew they had the moral high ground, they also prepared themselves for the consequences. “We definitely thought we had just dropped a nuclear bomb on our careers,” she explains. “But we also realized that if anyone we were looking to raise money from would be put off by the stand we took, that they weren’t the right people to work with us anyway.”
Ho and Hsu did raise the money they needed, but it took time. And yet, they never gave up on their dream because it was more than a business to them. “It’s because of my own personal experience that I know that Journy is a product that needs to exist in the world, and that’s helped me push through some very tough times,” Ho says. “For instance, two years ago, I had only $50 in my bank account because I put it all into my business.”
Putting their own time and money into this business taught Ho and Hsu many valuable lessons—including not dedicating all your focus and time into an entrepreneurial endeavor if the incentive is purely financial; it must resonate on a deeper level. “If you don’t have a personal connection to what you’re working on, when things get tough, you don’t have the incentive to push forward and power through,” she reasons.
The personal touch comes through in Journy’s trip planning model as well, which is grounded in carefully curated information by an impressive collection of local experts. But it’s the personalized, bespoke planning that really sets it apart from other traditional travel sites and services. Ho was able to hone this part of the company by building itineraries herself in Journy’s early days. “The customization came from manually planning over 70 trips myself with our first customers,” she notes. “I realized that there’s no ‘formula;’ travel is so incredibly personal, and everyone is different.”
Having seen companies grow too fast, Ho has always been adamant about prioritizing high-level customer service over blindly chasing profits. After all, she never wants to lose sight of the initial goal of keeping an intimate connection with clients—something she believes will be the key for Journy’s long-term success.
“At Fab, we started as this great marketplace where people could discover unique products that you couldn’t find anywhere else,” she explains. “Instead, Fab went from 1000 to 10,000 SKUs overnight and we lost the curation that made it so compelling to customers in favor of trying to compete with Amazon.”
Taking care of customers is one thing, but Ho and Hsu have also gone out of their way to make sure Journy fosters a positive work environment focused on the individual. They’ve taken it upon themselves to be role models. “You lead by example. It’s your job to treat everyone with respect, build psychological safety, and actively call out behavior that’s not in line with the culture you want to build,” Ho advises.
Despite her own experience, she doesn’t believe that gender is the defining element in leadership. Instead, she focuses on bringing everyone together no matter who they are or what demographic they fit into. “There’s been toxic cultures at mostly male companies, and there’s also been some toxic cultures at mostly female companies,” Ho pronounces. “I’m striving to create a culture that’s incredibly collaborative and cross-functional, where everyone’s ideas are heard, and where there’s ownership without territorialism.”
You’ve probably guessed that Ho doesn’t really ever take it easy— but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t understand the importance of downtime. It’s something she’s come to appreciate after going nonstop to get Journy off the ground.
“The last few years I realized that, in working a hundred hours a week, I was burning myself out,” she explains. “When you’re building a product that’s never existed before, there’s no playbook to follow. You really need to be creative, experiment, and prioritize the right things to test. That doesn’t happen if you’re working all the time.”
Still, while she fits in trips to the gym and wine boot camp classes at Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels during the week, relaxing for Ho doesn’t exactly mean putting her feet up and watching The Bachelor. She’s way too much of a “go-go-go type person” for that.
“My definition of unwinding is cooking a multi-course dinner at home for friends or doing a kitchen trail at Bar Uchū, a Michelin-starred Kaiseki restaurant in New York City, from 1PM to 1:30AM,” she says. “The only time I’m maybe properly unwinding is when I’m at a wine bar drinking grower Champagne.”
Given her inability to fully kick back, it’s probably good that her job conveniently lets her do what she loves while never really being off the clock. “At this point I’ve made my passion for travel my business, so travel is always a mix of business and pleasure,” Ho acknowledges.
With that in mind, she’s already planning to turn what is supposed to be a holiday into a “business trip.” “As a super food lover, I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t yet been to San Sebastian!” she exclaims. “But I have a trip planned in July timed with a wedding in the South of France so I will finally get a chance to eat the amazing steak and carabineros at Etxebarri.” Hey, it’s hard work but someone’s got to do it.
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