How it all began - the Story behind Pilgrimist

by Lukas Juhas on

It was back in 2016 when my girlfriend Friederike and I got ready for a trip to the US. This was going to be a big outing. For a month, we had planned and researched, saved our pennies and negotiated time off with our employers to make this happen.

Travelling was something we had enjoyed together for some time, but our busy schedules mainly allowed for shorter trips around Europe, mostly city breaks. Exploring the US (at least partly) was a dream of mine for some time, and I was full of anticipation when we finally boarded the plane to NYC.

The rough plan was to spend a few days in New York, then fly to LA to visit friends and rent a car (yes, a mustang convertible) to start road tripping through the national parks, stop by in the Bay Area and cruise back down along Highway 1. Before heading back home, we would visit Nashville too.

Our mustang in Joshua Tree Somewhere in Joshua Tree National Park.

The detailed plan, however, was a bit more complicated and had emerged, as mentioned before, from a month of reading guides and magazines, getting lost on Instagram, friends and family recommendations and blogs. So many places we wanted to see and things we wanted to do. As a software engineer, I naturally saved all the places digitally - Google maps suddenly had a lot of pins. Friederike (not such a keen technology enthusiast as I am) took the analogue approach- she wrote catchphrases on small pieces of paper, which were later organised by days.

The Analog Trello Document

The system of organising her paper notes Friederike had come up with basically resembled the popular productivity tool Trello. Instead of an app or a website, it was done using paper, pens and colour stickers to categorise stuff.

A sheet of A4 paper separated into four equal rectangles. The rectangles were headlined with the corresponding day of the week. Now we could easily move the small, colour coded (food/restaurants green, landmarks red, museums blue etc.) catchphrase pieces around until they made sense - grouping points of interest that are in the same area, Museums that are only open on certain days, shop opening hours- but also creating a timeline for each day. There is a lot to take in and consider when planning a trip as detailed as we like to do. The more you want to see and do the more organised you have to be.

This analogue board, once created, ensured we spend all our time exploring NYC smoothly with no significant disappointments, or missing out on something we wanted to see. It was so handy, and we could adjust our plans after each day, swap things around in case we did not manage to see something, or we changed our mind.

So far, so great. Until on the third day of our trip, we lost it!

Analogue Trello The "Analogue Trello" from one of our trips to Copenhagen.

"Ultimate Trip Planner"

Nevertheless, the paper document sparked the idea of converting this concept into a digital format, as there was nothing out there that would work the way we wanted it. At the time, there were apps like Google Trips, but they were quite limited in regards to planning an actual trip and timelines.

Even today, more and more travel companies releasing new products that are supposed to be trip planners, but very often, they are restricted to their offerings. You cannot personalise your trip beyond their own, limited product.

Initially, when I built and soft-launched Pilgrimist, the tag line was "Ultimate Trip Planner". When I made the first MVP (Minimum Viable Product), it had the "Trips" feature only, not the "Places" product that it has today. So, you were able to add cards (Places) onto a trip board and do everything you can do now with the current version of Pilgrimist.

It was a pretty good start, and I was pleased with the look of it.

To put the MVP to the test, we planned an upcoming trip, funnily enough to New York again, where the initial idea for Pilgrimist was sparked almost three years before. I gathered feedback (Friederike is a tough customer) and test various features and come up with some updates that improved the overall experience.

New York Trip Our trip to New York that we planned together with Friederike on Pilgrimist.

By this time, I had also invited a few friends to give Pilgrimist a go on their travels to gather more diverse feedback, before launching it to a broader audience.

Places

After years of working on Pilgrimist, spending any spare moments and long nights in front of my computer I felt comfortable and excited to finally soft-launch Pilgrimist in February 2020. Unfortunately, as we all know now, this was the beginning of a global pandemic. Suddenly no one was travelling, at least not for pleasure and no one was planning trips either.

Now, that's what you call bad timing. But this new reality got me thinking, and I started analysing my product again, realising that I had a massive gap in Pilgrimists' offering. People might find a tool like this useful; however, it is only of interest if you plan to go somewhere. The majority of people don't travel as often as Friederike and I do. Which features could I provide the potential user that would keep them engaged in the community during times when they weren't (able to be) travelling?

Then it hit me. In the course of one day alone, I discover various inspiring articles or Instagram posts mentioning impressive landmarks, scurrile museums, breathtakingly beautiful natural wonders or ground-breaking architecture. Up until now, I tried to remember these places by saving it into the notes on my phone or bookmarking the pages. I ended up with a pretty disorganised mess, and many notes slipped through the cracks, or I couldn't find them anymore by the time we were planning a trip. So I was like, why not create a feature that makes it possible to save places into Pilgrimist and use them to plan a trip? The "Places" feature was the solution I came up with as a result. It allows you to save all these places you come across randomly during your day into Pilgrimist and utilise them later when planning your trip.

Even better if the saved place would organise "itself" by country, city, etc.? So, I got onto building it straight away and "Places" became the core product of Pilgrimist. Ever since its release, I use this product daily myself. Clearly, I need to cut down my Instagram consumption.

Places dashboard Places dashboard.

Save any place on earth, and Pilgrimist will automatically organise it by country, area and city. Later, when you are travelling to a particular country or city, you can fall back on your accumulated notes, add all these places you found interesting and wanted to see to your trip.

Building a crowdfunding business

My initial motivation to start building Pilgrimist was to create a useful tool for Friederike and my own personal travel planning. But even back in the early days of this project, I intended to eventually make it available for everyone, to generate a platform for like-minded people and help foster a community.

I knew from the get-go that I didn't want to seek funding from VC investors or create a paid product, simply because I wanted to build a more open and accessible platform. The idea to take a different approach, to support and help run Pilgrimist financially through crowdfunding, was in my head since the early days.

I've chosen Patreon as the crowdfunding tool. Going forward, the ambition is to run Pilgrimist from the goodwill of its community.

Pilgrimist started as a side project, being put together piece by piece during countless late nights and weekends, almost three years in the making. But I am anticipating that eventually, I will be able to be working on Pilgrimist full time, hire staff and build even better products and tools to help travellers all around the globe to make travelling more comfortable, more organised and generally to help explore the world more.

I want it to be THE ultimate travel companion and foster a community of like-minded people who love to travel like Friederike, and I do.

- Lukas