#Founderofthemonth: Charlotte Zhu and TripCell

The effect triggered by the spread of the Covid-19 virus, as far as tourism is concerned, is in front of everyone’s eyes. Amid closed borders and rain of cancellations all over the world, travel came to a virtual standstill.

Although a range of protocols, covering the new normal, for providers such as airlines, shops, hotels and restaurants, traveling remains still an issue. And so any business floating around it. Even worse if you just started, in 2019. That’s the story of Charlotte Zhu, originally from Shanghai, and currently based in Amsterdam, co-founder and product owner of TripCell.

What brought you to Amsterdam?

The first time I came to Amsterdam was 2015. A choice, mostly dictated by the exchange program I joined but also by the strategic position of the Netherlands, allowing you to travel around easily. So, back in 2015, I arrived as an exchange student. And literally I fell in love with this city, I just felt home in such an international context. I felt free and unjudged. Once the exchange program finished, I had to go back, but two years later I decided to do my master’s in strategy and organization at Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam. Since then I have been based here.

What triggered you to launch TripCell?

During my stay in Europe, I was also a traveler and I have been to almost 50 countries. I think travel is my life, it isn’t just a hobby. While traveling, I have been always trying to connect with locals, as a way to experience and get closer to the local culture, without being simply a tourist. But that wasn’t always easy, especially if you are introverted. So along my trips, I met other travellers, sharing similar problems, among them my co-founder. Together we started conceiving our business idea, about building a platform for global travellers to connect with locals. I did extensive research throughout my master’s degree. Once I graduated, we started our company. TripCell was launched in 2019.

How does the platform work?

At the beginning, given our origins we decided to focus on China and Amsterdam, since we both are based here. We started working on those two communities, finding locals willing to connect to travellers and reply to their questions. TripCell, indeed, is a Q&A platform, where travellers can ask questions directly to locals. The communities, both the travellers and locals, using the service – which is entirely free – were growing. Everything was going well, until the pandemic hit in 2020. A challenging time started, all of a sudden there were no international travellers anymore.

Despite the difficulties of the pandemic, you have been able to circumvent and find a new direction for your startup to continue existing. How does TripCell look today?

At first, we were thinking about whether to wait, hoping that it would be over soon. But what if it would go on for years? So we started pivoting, adding a new perspective to TripCell. Local businesses were suffering as much as we were, no tourism meant also no sales for them. So in 2021 we opted for a more niche direction: helping out local hand crafters and creators, promoting their business by showcasing their stories and their passion behind their work. Most of them do not have any business skills, their first thought isn’t selling, but creating. So at this moment we are focusing on that and one of our latest projects has been developed and it will be soon launched. So that’s how TripCell evolved throughout these last two years.

Starting a business, in a country where you aren’t a local, must not be easy. How was your experience, and which advice would you give to someone, being in similar situation?

It’s like building a house, without knowing where to start. It was a hard time, because I was still studying while focusing on my business plan. I just had an idea, but no idea where I should get a network, where to register my company even less where to find an accountant or lawyer. But people around me were really friendly. Whenever I went to KVK, I have always been helped out with filling in the necessary paperwork. Today, of course, I have my own team, my own business advisor and lawyer helping me out. And today I am more

aware of organizations such as StartupAmsterdam or We Rise, ready to help you and guide you.

Starting a business is definitely more challenging than what it appears, especially as a foreigner. I suggest doing comprehensive research and having a back-up plan in mind, but overall I suggest to seek opportunities and initiatives out there for non locals, such as the Startup Visa Program*, as well as reach out to organizations, to name a few StartupAmsterdam, We Rise or TNW, that can provide you guidance.