Lizia Santos: Founder of CityCatt – Ep. 103

About Christina Merrill

Lizia Santos is the founder of CityCatt, a tech start-up that provides more unique and authentic travel experiences.

Lizia switched careers from journalism to start-up founder, all while raising three children, making her accomplishments all the more impressive.

Her unique perspective on life and travel all led to her founding a better way for us to get connected using technology and explore new destinations.

She’s been featured on CNBC and was recently ranked #33 in a list of the 100 best CEOs disrupting tech, so here’s Lizia Santos, founder of CityCatt.

Full Unedited Audio Conversation:

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5:20 – “I graduated in journalism back in Brazil and my dream was always to cover international news. That was what I wanted to do for life. So I moved here. I moved for love, actually. I got engaged. I met my husband when I was on vacation here. So I ended up coming here, and I got my master’s degrees here – I have two – in public relations and in applied communications. My husband jokes that I have more degrees than a thermometer.” 

*6:05 – “Being an immigrant – it’s hard to explain because you become this person in between. You leave your country behind so you lose a lot of that but you also never become the culture that you’re being a part of. So I’m not fully Brazilian anymore, I’m not American, so I’m in between in that. That makes you always try to find something and you’re always going around and trying to find things to identify with. So you become this explorer naturally – and that’s something that’s common to all immigrants. If you talk to any of us, you’ll find out that it’s this journey that we have to always try to find ourselves wherever we are. So we’re explorers by nature.” 

7:01 – “Everywhere I lived, I was trying to find things to do that were different. When you move to a new city, you’ll do the touristy things for like a month and then you’re sick of it. So you’re trying to find other things, other reasons to love that city, right? Because you have to adapt.” 

7:37 – “The thing with Brazilians, more specifically, we are very friendly. Everybody knows that about us. And we’re always hosting people, friends of friends, people will call, ‘hey, there’s a friend of a friend that wants to visit Orlando or Boston,’ where I lived before, even Kentucky, where I lived before. And I would host these people that I never knew, I never met before. And I was always trying to introduce these places to people. And if I got a dollar for every time I heard people saying, ‘I never knew this existed, you know, I Googled this destination so many times before and this place that you’re showing me now, I never heard about it.’ And so I always heard that, and I always had that in the back of my head.”

11:23 – “I had the idea – tech and travel and journalism and sources of information and destinations and off the beaten path – everything came together in my mind. And then the journalist-Lizia, the mom-Lizia, the travel-lover-Lizia, they all came together. And that’s when I found my passion. Because now, you know, as a mom, I could do something that’s family-friendly, that’s safe, that introduces my kids to the world as it is. As a journalist, I get to open the doors for authentic and relevant information. And as a travel lover, people now can explore destinations at another level. So that’s when the first idea of CityCatt came to be.”

*14:09 – (Ross) “You have this desire, if you’re a good traveler, to find the things and embrace the things that are good and better about the place that you’re at. Because one thing that we know leads to unhappiness, just in general, is trying to apply the template from where you left behind to where you’re going. And when I saw a bunch of Americans in Europe, I was always disappointed that they constantly compared everything back to America: ‘I don’t get free refills here. This sucks. The cars are too small. This sucks. Nobody’s coming over immediately to give me drinks at the restaurant. This sucks.’ They just keep comparing: ‘I can’t wait to go back to big roads and big cars and Thanksgiving dinner.’ And they’re always comparing and I think, ‘but have you ever thought about what’s better here? Not everything that’s different is worse.’ And I believe that no matter where you go, there’s always something that’s better…But if you don’t look for it, you’ll never find it.” 

15:53 – “Our parents, the Gen Xers, and before that, travel was more of a packaged thing – you buy a package and you expect certain things. And those packages, they sort of accommodate the culture of the people coming. As you said, Americans, so their package is made for Americans traveling to Europe and they sort of accommodate the needs of Americans and the expectations of Americans so they’re not lacking those things. They’re not complaining about those things. And that’s how the industry thought before. But now we have the millennials who are the parents now, right? We’re the ones that are organizing the trips. We have the kids and we have our parents joining us in trips. And we’re the trip planners and we’re this very unique generation that grew up without technology. So we know how to play outside…we can use our imagination. And somewhere between, like in our teenage years, we had technology. So we’re tech, but we also have this need for human authentic…We want introduce our kids to something that goes beyond what they can experience in their hometowns. And we do that through travel.”

*18:26 – (Ross) “What I find to be fascinating is these things at the beginning are a little bit different from what they evolve into. When Uber was new, people didn’t know how they had to interact. There wasn’t an established pattern. Uber drivers say, ‘Do I give you water or chewing gum? Can you charge your phone? Should we talk? Should we not talk?’ Everybody had to figure out what that relationship actually was. Now it’s just ‘get in the car’ or whatever…And when Airbnb was new…and nobody really knew what it was supposed to be, I booked one in Ohio near Cleveland somewhere, and this guy and I’ll never forget him. His name was Andrew Samtoy. He’s still out there, a really good guy. He was my first Airbnb experience. We arrive at this house and he’s still staying at this house, he’s living there, and he’s got a wall of maybe 200 whiskeys and bourbons on the wall. And he says, ‘Welcome to Ohio. Let’s start by you sampling every single one of these.’…His idea of being a host was: let me show you all of the stuff. And then he went so far above and beyond, he drove us around and he said, ‘Let’s go check out Amish country.’ So he drove us to Amish country, went to an Amish store, and then he was showing us these markets and this fare, all this stuff that he didn’t have to do because he was proud of his town and he really wanted to show us around.”

21:06 – “That feeling is incredible. The feeling of, I get to see something and not just what’s on the map. And also, if you live in a place that has a lot of tourist attractions like Orlando is, where everybody comes to Epcot Center, Disney, whatever, you understand that most people are funneled into those things. I lived in Amsterdam for a couple of years and I witnessed the way that every single tourist would go to the Dam Square, they’d go from the Amsterdam train station, they would walk a single mile down one road and then they would come back to the train station. And that was their journey. But I also witnessed the fact that no Dutch person would ever set foot in any of those places, ever. They never went where the tourists went, ever. So there was just a complete disconnect.” 

23:16 – “I think founders, they do have to have a certain personality. Tech founders, more specifically. I am very hyper as a person, and when I’m happiest is when I’m busy. So I feel like to me it was important that I pursued something professionally at that moment to keep me sane, because as a mom of three little boys, it takes a lot of yourself. You become nobody. You’re just serving everybody at the same time. So to me, I needed something for myself and I needed something that wouldn’t take me away from the boys.”

24:46 – “It took me a while also to even figure out that what I was doing was a start-up, to be honest. I had the idea, was passionate about the concept, but I wasn’t familiar with start-ups and this whole world of scalability. All of these words weren’t in my vocabulary back then. So it started with me going after people and asking them, ‘Hey, how long do you spend planning trips? Hey, are you satisfied with your trips? When you come back from trips, do you feel 100% satisfied or do you feel like that little FOMO? You know, I’m a little frustrated. I know I haven’t experienced it all.’ And I asked these questions and I surveyed close to 700 people…more than 60% of people in my survey said ‘I’d rather experience authentic than spend more to upgrade a hotel,’ for example. And after I had some numbers like that coming back, like 85% of people said, ‘if I have a friend at my destination… I go for that friend instead of researching online, I call a friend, I text, because then I don’t waste the time trying to find out information.’” 

27:50 – “When I first had the idea for CityCatt, I knew that I needed to connect travellers with locals to create authentic trips. But I was thinking along the lines of meeting in person and guiding people in cities, and I needed an app for that because I wanted it to be just like Uber, where you see the car coming and it’s all like this safe experience. And I wanted it to be family-friendly, but when I had the fall, I realized, you know, maybe that’s not the most scalable thing I can do. Maybe I don’t even need an app to enable all of that. So we ended up switching to the trip planning stage of the trip, and now the idea has evolved so much more than that, always having technology in mind as the enabler to scale the processes. But knowing that my big thing here is the CityCatts, and not the platform itself.” 

34:10 – “We meet with these people [potential CityCatts] because we want to be sure that they’re also on board with our culture as a company because we’re not getting kickbacks from anybody, we’re not referring people and getting referral fees. We’re really just providing information that we get by going out and experiencing places. And that is never the same because tomorrow I’m going to have experienced something new. And you as a traveler, you might want something different from me because you might be traveling as Ross-the-dad now, but now you can be traveling to the same destination as Ross-the-professional. So these are different demands so the whole idea is that it’s never the same interaction.” 

*34:57 – “As a traveler, you get to the platform and you start by planning a trip. So the whole connection happens inside our platform, which is a trip planner. We wanted it to happen inside a trip planner so you could collaborate and get a deliverable right there. So it’s not something that you hire a Catt and they plan a trip and they send you a PDF and you’re not participating in the process. We wanted it to be collaborative. So the trip planner, you and the Catt interact on it as you’re planning the trip – just like Google Docs, for example, when you invite someone to edit a doc with you, that’s how it happens inside the trip planner. So you hire as you’re planning your trip, you start with the destination and we tell you, ‘Hey, we have these Catts at this destination and you can hire one of them.’ You can also choose not to hire – you can use the trip planner for free as well and plan your trip yourself. But if you choose to hire a Catt, you’re essentially giving the Catt added access to your trip plan for a limited time. And then the Catt comes inside and then you can exchange messages inside the planner, you ask the questions you want to ask, and then you provide the Catt with your expectations for the trip. And then the Catt starts planning. So they’ll start adding activities to your trip plan.”

36:38 – “In the future, you’ll also be able to have Catts on demand and text them throughout your trip – ask for help whenever. You have Catt rides, you have Catt photographers that will take photos of you on the trip because they’re influencers – they know how to take good photos. So there’s many other things that can come from the Catts. And that’s why I emphasize – my product isn’t the trip planner. The trip planner is an enabler. The tech part of it is just enabling the human connections, and that’s where the value is, because from there the sky is the limit.” 

38:51 – “We currently operate in more than 40 countries, 89 destinations, and we have 202 Catts. Our community of Catts is a curated community, so we sort of keep the growth under that – we have that in mind. We’re curating a community so we don’t want it to go too big in the moment, on purpose.” 

39:34 – “My vision is that we’re going to change the way people experience destinations and CityCatt will be this. When you think about CityCatt, you’re thinking about a trip that it’s at another level. You either go to a regular trip or you go with a CityCatt trip, which means you’re going to get to know the destination at its core. So we want to have CityCatts in every single destination. If you think about a remote island, there’s a CityCatt there for you. So there’s the friend for you wherever you go. A friend in every city…from trip planning to experiencing, we’ll be there for you. So you’re never alone.”

41:55 – “Do not expect things to be perfect before you try. Things won’t be perfect. It works for motherhood, for your founding journey. They will never be perfect. There’s not any sort of level of preparing that you can do that will get you there to perfection. You need people. You need feedback. You need to fall. You need to have people offering their hands to pick you up from your fall in order to learn lessons and open your eyes to things that you wouldn’t be able to see if you didn’t have those people around you. So as a mom, as a professional, as any role in my life, I now understand that it’s better to expose myself with something that’s halfway there and then have someone open my eyes before I go out there and try to launch things on my own perfection standards and sometimes it’s not what the world needs.”

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