By Nicole Zito, Managing Partner Travel Startups Incubator
From the age of nine, I knew I would be a business owner. After all my name Nicole, of Greek origin means “Victory of the people.” Actually, my mother named me after a character on her favorite Soap Opera. I always envy people who know exactly what they want to do from an early age. My cousin has known from high school, she wants to be a Speech Pathologist. My goddaughter age 17 is going to be a doctor. My husband, Matt Zito, will tell you I believe in destiny and signs. This is true, I always have believed it was my destiny to marry Matt.
In February of 1989, little did I know I would meet my future business partner and love of my life. I was studying in Fenwick Library at George Mason University with my roommates. We always studied behind the table of Betas, a Greek Fraternity at GMU. The library scene was all about being “seen” and not really studying. As we were receiving spitballs from the Beta table, a Beta Pledge appeared at the end of our table and introduce himself. ” Hi, I’m Matt, I just transferred in from Purdue and I’m pledging Beta”. He went on to say he was looking to meet some new people and offered his phone number to us. I was stunned. He appeared to be genuinely interested in making friends and he was so bold in handing out his number. I thought to myself, this guy is really a piece of work…. like any of us are going to call him.
I never called Matt, nor did any of my roommates but our paths kept crossing for the next two years. Mason was mainly a commuter school back then, and the students living on campus all knew each other pretty much. It rained a lot in Northern Virginia, Matt was the only guy on campus who wore a London Fog Trench Coat. I passed him many times and he always said hello, but it wasn’t until nearly two years later, I would actually have a long conversation with him. While at a Beta Frat party, he sat down next to me and handed me a postcard. It was actually a promotional invitation for a Georgetown Pub called Winston’s where Matt was bartending. I told him I didn’t have an ID and he said no problem, bring your friends and I’ll get you in and so began our relationship both business and personal.
Soon my roommates and I were helping Matt fill his buses to Georgetown and handing out flyers for him. The university even approved, as he was preventing drinking and driving, so the buses were allowed to depart and return from campus. Matt negotiated a percentage of the revenue from the bar for those nights the buses came in. This was my first unofficial business partnership with Matt. My friends and I road the buses, paid no cover charge and got free drinks. Little did I know what I was getting into.
It’s now 26 years later and the partnership endures in both love and business. Matt is a serial entrepreneur, he can’t stop, won’t stop so to speak. It’s in his DNA to create, execute, and persist. Since, 1992 we’ve shared the same office. In the beginning it was tough. I had a inventor on my hands who created unorganized chaos at times. We needed to find our roles as partners in business. As we merged our personal and business lives into one it became very clear to me what those roles would be. Matt would be the front lines guy and I would be the behind the scenes operations. Think Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Matt is good at being fearless, bold, and all business. I’m good at being organized, personal and keeping financially stable. The life of an entrepreneur is one of feast or famine at times. I like to operate lean with low overhead.
Travel Startups Incubator is our 3rd official business venture together. I think we both became very interested in investing in Startups long ago after reading about the Grameen Bank Project, an action research project to examine the possibility of providing banking services to the rural poor. By extending banking facilities to poor men & women, the Grameen Bank was able to create opportunities for the vast majority of people in rural Bangladesh. I was amazed when watching a segment on 60 Minutes, how many of the loans were given to disadvantage women from the poorest households. After watching this segment, both Matt and I became intrigued by how such a simple concept with very little money being lent could empower these women to change their lives. It was something we both talked about for years. We decided at some point in our lives we wanted to do something that really impacted people.
In the late 1990s, our opportunity to dabble in the financial world of investing reached an all time high with the crazy IPO market. While traveling through Maine one Summer, we saw a sign on the side of the road that read “Stuff 500 Feet”. We enjoyed stopping at these roadside flea markets of sorts, looking for old fly fishing rods, reels, & creels for our Flying Lodge/ Bed & Breakfast. We pulled over and to our surprise, we met a lady named Irene, selling $900 dolls along side a lot of junk. Matt asked her who was buying these dolls. She explained she was selling online to buyers from Japan on a site called eBay. Now, we both were quite interested. She explained how her friend listed these dolls online and most her buyers were from Japan. The buyers from Japan, would send cash wrapped in aluminum foil inside an envelope. Well, another chapter of our life developed right in that moment.
The rest of our trip, Matt was determined on finding out more about eBay. When we returned home we found our answers. ebay was about to go public and Matt was determined to get shares. He started researching all about how to buy IPO’s, frequently talking with our stock broker B&B guests. They all told us the same thing, it’s was going to be very hard to get shares at the IPO price. Not one to be deterred, Matt dug deeper found a company called Wit Capital and bingo we started buying IPO’s. It was a crazy time, Wit Capital allotted shares randomly in small quantities. We had a couple of accounts and if we were lucky we would get 100 shares each of an IPO. We bought every IPO Wit allotted us and then finally eBay came. We didn’t get shares of eBay at IPO price. I think we did eventually get some at $27. We made a lot of money in a short amount of time. It became like another business for us. In fact, Matt wrote a book about it with his best friend from high school. John Wiley & Sons published Trade IPOs Online in both hardcover and softcover editions. Then the stock market tanked, but it was a lucrative and educational ride.
Matt & I have always invested equally in all our business ventures and each owned the same amount of equity in our companies. I get approached at conferences quite a bit about what it’s like to work with my spouse. My response is always the same, we work together by having specific roles and respecting the roles we each need to play in order for our business to be successful. That’s not to say that we don’t work together in some areas, but we each work to our strengths and collaborate in other areas. In addition, working together gives us a joint responsibility for our financial well being. Now we have come full circle in our vision to impact others, by investing in travel tech startups providing them the resources we never had starting out besides persistence. In the past few months, our persistence has been tested as we started seeking out investors for our next round of funding. It’s like we’re a black fish swimming upstream while some investors feel more comfortable sitting downstream. One of the more interesting comments we received from an investor was “I don’t invest in husband and wife teams”. One of the most successful husband and wife teams in this space started Y Combinator.
As I listen to Matt talk on the phone from my desk, I hear, GDS, APIs, Internet of things, etc. This language is foreign to most travelers and some startups. Matt knows the behind the scenes operations of the travel industry like David Beckham knows Soccer. Together we are still eager to learn more. Before Apple and Steve Jobs came out with the iPhone in 2007, we had built an OTA in the mid-1990s. Using programmers from India we designed an online booking engine for our ski travel company, that allowed STA Travel to log in and sell our inventory. There was no social media, smartphones, Uber or AirBnB, but we grew our business like the latter. We put heads in beds that we didn’t own. Our business was acquired in 2007, the same year Apple introduced the iPhone.
Looking back now, it’s amazing how technology has changed the way we do everything in life including travel. I remember in 2004, when I bought my first laptop after a 3 day stay in the hospital for an infection. I hated being in the hospital unable to work. So I came home, ordered a White Macbook Laptop and an Apple Base Station. For the first time since 1992, I was free to work on my computer from the couch. We owned a 100 year old 3 story Bed & Breakfast with our office on the third floor. Matt came downstairs, saw me on my laptop and asked what are you doing? I told him I was online working. He couldn’t believe I was connected to the Internet. Needless to say, we bought him a laptop the next day.
It still amazes me today, how Matt is so tech savvy about the travel industry but needs me to help him get Game of Thrones on Apple TV. When we go to the different Industry Travel Conferences for Travel Startups Incubator it’s almost like he is a celebrity at times. People rush over to talk to Matt, want his opinion on a startup. Matt’s flair for fashion hasn’t changed much either. I buy him black and navy sport jackets which sit in the closet next to his blue and purple seersucker jackets, and his white “Miami Vice” jacket. He is a right brain guy and I’m a left brain girl. The perfect partnership. I still remind him destiny brought us together.