UX Case Study

Case Study: Brate. How I built a travel web app with 5M unique users?

Brate is a Polish web app that makes planning a trip easy. I founded and bootstrapped this project in 2019. Initially, it was a side project that I was developing after working hours. In 2022 it reached 1.8M unique users only in Poland (5M uu since 2019).

How can a side project become one of the largest travel websites in a country like Poland? Well, I am an experienced traveler, so I was curing my own pain points while establishing this venture. It was a great battlefield for me, the best opportunity to learn new skills, make hypothesis, validate them, iterate, and try over and over again.

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Brate

Problem

I love to travel. I have visited more than 80 countries on all continents besides Antarctica. Every time I was planning a new trip, I sat down in front of Google Maps and planned my itinerary. It was a long process. Reading blog posts and watching vlogs on Youtube was very time-consuming.

 

On top of it, Google Maps or TripAdvisor did not have reviews about cities. So if I wanted to visit Rome in Italy, I could find reviews about Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, etc. but not about the city alone, like a very brief summary to learn if a place would suit me or not.

Brate

The Idea

I came up with an idea, what if I would incorporate Google Maps and highlight the most interesting places in each country? On top of it, each one of these places would have reviews from users. What to do, where to go, what to avoid. Very simple and brief travel guide.

Brate

Sketching

I created the first designs and asked my colleague Alexander if he would be interested in developing the first MVP. He agreed. So while I was working on the design and the copy, Alex was developing the first draft. A few months later, we launched under ‘Zielonamapa’. In Polish it means “green map”. Later on, we decided to change it to Brate, as it had too strong an ecological connotation.

Brate

SEO

Over the first year on the market, we did not achieve much in terms of traction. We both thought about it as a side project, so there was not much pressure on us. Then I decided to learn everything I possibly could about Search Engine Optimisation. I went nuts. I even read Google patents. I am a perfectionist, so if I do something, I always go all in. I hired copywriters to write high-quality content. I learned how to write for the web, and what makes a great travel story.

Brate

First Traction

The result? 250K unique users in the first year. It was OK, but I was not satisfied. At that time, I found that the website built on WordPress is reaching its limits. We had to move to a more advanced framework. I am not a developer, but I did some research and found that React Native combined with WordPress Rest API would work in my case. We could use incremental server-side rendering where the common elements could be pre-rendered on the server, and only these dynamic parts, such as user reviews, could be rendered in a browser on the go.

 

It was not cheap. Developing a massive web app without any external funds from investors is very costly. I was bootstrapping while maintaining my job. After a few months, we had the new tech stack ready. The result? 1.2M unique users in 2020 (despite COVID lockdowns). So we grew almost five times even when the whole world stopped traveling.

Brate

UX

As a founder with a limited budget and resources, I had to take care of Project Management, HR, SEO, and Business Strategy as the CEO and UI/UX part. The latter one is where I feel the strongest. Over the years, I fell in love with agile methodology, where we build, test, make assumptions, iterate and start over again.

 

Unfortunately, there is no substitute for a hard-work. Success always comes with a tradeoff. Less time for your loved ones, more stress, endless to-do list. So in order to build a great product, you have always validated your hypnotizes and iterate over and over again. It takes time. So patience is key.

Brate

User Tests

I conducted weekly unmoderated user tests using Trymui. On top of it, every month, I went to a shopping mall and conducted moderated tests with random people. I approached strangers, smiled, and offered a great coffee in exchange for a 10 minutes time with me testing the UI. It worked pretty well. I learned a lot.

 

I found that there are two features within the product that users (70% female audience) absolutely love about. The map with highlights in each country and the reviews.

Brate

The Reviews

What was interesting about the reviews was the fact that we only had a few, but they were high quality. There are 8 075 reviews about Corfu Island on Google Maps. On top of that, there are more than 30 000 reviews about restaurants and attractions in Corfu. A way too many! We favored quality over quantity. We found that users are looking for negative reviews, as they could prevent them from going into tourist traps. Trust me, but Polish people can be really hard and direct when it comes to negative reviews 😉

Brate

The Design

I decided to go with a very clean, light, almost invincible design. The idea was to get people inspired by travel destinations. We had 15K high-quality images from 1650 places we wrote about in Europe, South America, and a few countries in North America and Africa. They were very colorful, so they could naturally bring some life into the design.

Brate
Brate

Traction in 2022

At the end of 2022, the Brate web app was among the most popular travel websites in Poland. It was a time when I decided to take care of the business side of it (monetization). We have built a great product, something that didn’t exist even in the English-speaking world. In 2023, Brate was visited by 5M unique users since the foundation in 2019 (out of 31 internet users in Poland). Vanity metrics, but looking at my limited resources (self-funded, having a full-time job at the same time), I think that’s decent.

Brate

Monetization

Since I was working in Web3, I came up with the idea of combining a travel guide with Web3. I have created the tokenization model, minted a token, and prepared whiteboards and pitch decks, but finally decided to focus more on the Web2 part.

In 2023, we launched subscriptions and finally reached the break even. I will share the results in another UX Case Study.

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