Startup Social: Fortnighter @ Above Allen

Why doesn’t anyone launch a startup in a dive bar? Is every startup really best represented by a fancy hotel bar? Granted, Fortnighter — a place to order custom-written travel itineraries for $100 and up — is best represented by a fancy hotel bar. In this case, it’s Above Allen at the Thompson LES hotel. I double-checked whether it really cost a hundred dollars to get anything from this site. It does.

On Fortnighter, which soft-launched three weeks ago, you fill out a questionnaire with sliders, checklists, and open text boxes about the types of restaurants, hotels, and activities you want. Then the site picks a travel writer from their network to write you a custom itinerary. One of the co-founders, Justin Kalifowitz, claims they’d already gotten feedback from users saying they got so much for their hundred bucks or two, they felt like they should have paid much more.

I don’t understand this. I do not understand the concept of feeling you have underpaid for information. I didn’t understand it in college when I paid $200 per world-unlocking textbook, and I sure as hell don’t understand it this week, when I freaked the fuck out at a one-hour Wikipedia downtime. My free information was NOT AVAILABLE. I complained on Twitter.

But the real sign you’re smart is knowing how many people are richer and dumber. Or, hell, just richer and busier. At some point it must actually make sense to hire a writer to custom-assemble an itinerary, right?

I never much thought about the economics of this until a stint I did at Gridskipper (then edited by BlackBook’s current editor) around 2007. At the time, Gridskipper was Gawker Media’s travel blog, aimed at jetsetters and written by poor freelancers. The reviews were thus either unhelpful, lies, or revealed the writers’ poor financial habits. Most opinions were stolen from Yelp reviews.

What a perfect moment in the great media switch. At one point, it made sense to pay someone to go on a trip just so they could write about that trip for others. But now you can ask people who went on the trip anyway to write up the experience for free.

So why do it any other way? Why hire writers for custom projects? To make people feel special? That’s probably why you hold a party in a fancy hotel bar, right? Because the guests wouldn’t normally just head to a hotel roof and pay $12 a drink, but you’ve bought out the bar for the first two hours?

Only at some point the open bar ends, and you get to watch people decide whether they care enough about you and your company to pay the $12, or watch some BlackBook freelancer order a seltzer water and see if he blinks when he gets charged $5 (though you don’t have to watch to see if he bitches about the cost to your other guests, because that never doesn’t happen).

The party was friendly but ultimately like all other startup parties: serial startup consultants Rex Sorgatz and Rachel Sklar showed up, as did several members of the ad agency Barbarian Group — where Colin Nagy, one of Fortnighter’s founders, also works. All four founders — Nagy, Kalifowitz, Noah Brier and Alex Basek, who I want to make clear are lovely, smart, confident but self-effacing young men — are just moonlighting with this thing (though one hopes to turn it into a full-time job). Justin and Noah were surprised to find I’d just asked my way into the party; everyone else attending was a friend or a friend’s plus-one, which probably proves that the same ten people are doing everything in New York startup-land.

They handed out sample itineraries at the party. And, well, they read like typical guidebooks. The New York sample is broken down into destinations, which seems less helpful than the walking tours in a Lonely Planet. A sample paragraph:

Take a breather back at the hotel before contemplating your evening out, or relax at the smash-hit Eataly, the sprawling, many-splendored Italian food hall brought to the U.S. by Mario Batali and his partner Joe Bastianich. From reasonably-priced wines and great salumi downstairs to the fantastic new beer garden up top, you can’t really go wrong for a fun happy hour. Mind the locals wielding shopping baskets as weapons. (200 Fifth Ave.)

I’ll ignore the quality of the writing, because it’s a travel book, not a short story. But most of that info is in a free Zagat article from March, except for the beer garden and which floor the salumi’s on. Public travel sites, blogs, Wikitravel, and Yelp make most any paid travel guide ridiculous. My girlfriend planned an entire trip to Switzerland by asking questions of locals and previous travelers on TripAdvisor. Buy a $30 travel guide just to have an easy-to-browse physical anchor, but anything more seems unhelpful, until these custom guides actually get individual. Of course, that logic won’t kill this startup any more than the logic of free seltzer water.

Startup Social evaluates new tech and media startups based on their party-throwing prowess.

(Photo: Maya Baratz)