Every startup has a story to tell — an inspiring journey to share. Peecho sat with Polarsteps Co-Founder & Creative Director Niek Bokkers, who shared his experiences and insight into the creation and success of one of the most popular travel planning and tracking apps out there.
Key learning about early stages: Niek Bokkers embraced the philosophy that even the best idea needs time to grow, initially working on the Polarsteps app as a side project until he felt it was ready to be shared with the world. An innovative, well-developed product soon led to strong organic growth. To maintain and increase this growth, Niek and his team took the leap and went full-time, allowing them to tackle early challenges head-on and create an app that people would genuinely love.
The idea behind Polarsteps was born in 2016 out of passion and personal necessity — "I was on a sailing trip over the Atlantic and wanted to keep my family up to date with my whereabouts," Niek tells Peecho.
To do this, he wrote a small script that allowed him to send his GPS coordinates to a server in the Netherlands via satellite phone. The server would then plot the coordinates on a map every night, allowing family and friends to follow his journey and message him.
The transformation from this original creation to the final product didn't happen overnight — a few years passed before the idea to develop the technology took flight and, with another business to run, when it did happen, the project was still part-time. However, with the possibility of funding on the horizon, the rate of change accelerated — with significant improvements to the technology and the first profiles activated by family and friends.
Once up and running, Polarsteps soon began to acquire users through an organic growth loop: "There was a real buzz," Niek says. "This was still a part-time project, but after just a few months, my team and I realized that our flywheel business model worked: when a user went traveling, they invited their friends to follow them on their trip. In time, those friends, excited about the app, would also become traveling users and bring their own followers on board. It was exponential growth."
Polarsteps' biggest challenge back then wasn't getting people to use the app but the fact that it was not easy enough to use once they were on it.
"The biggest challenge for us during the early days was getting the product, the UI, and the UX right," Niek confesses. "We hadn't mastered how the user interface should be when navigating a trip on the road, for example. The product just wasn't yet what we knew it could be. So, we started to completely overhaul the app." Among the key changes was moving the map to a far more central position and creating a folder that contained trip and step cards.
"Back then, we were still a team of just five or six (depending on the day), but now we were working on this full-time," Niek adds: "This meant that we finally saw a big lift in people's experiences with the app."
Key learnings about user retention: Polarsteps chose not to invest in extensive marketing campaigns, allocating time and capital to improve the end-user experience instead. While forgoing marketing might seem like a bold move, focusing on the app's value created happy users, which generated positive word of mouth. This was all the marketing the company needed. Meeting customers' requests and delivering the most demanded features kept users happy, engaged with the product, and spreading the word.
Today Polarsteps has about three and a half million users worldwide. Yet, the company's approach to marketing thus far has remained the same — with very minimal paid advertising and no large marketing campaigns.
"When we launched, the one thing we did was go live on Product Hunt – here we actively asked people to try out the app. Happily for us, we were also picked up by a few national media outlets. From that moment on, we just kept on building.
Users came of their own accord. I think that's kind of unique. We had one philosophy: if we make the app lovable enough, people will use it and continue to use it, and they will invite their friends."
Niek's advice to other entrepreneurs who want to keep their users coming back? Simple: create the best product you possibly can.
"This might not be what people want to hear, but, at the time, we didn't believe in big marketing campaigns," Niek says. "Are you going to spend your time on a lot of marketing, or are you going to spend all your time building an amazing app? That's what we did. That's what we continue to do."
Polarsteps rejected the idea of growth fueled by marketing spend, instead focusing solely on their product. But the question remains — why not do both?
"It's a matter of priority. And what your priority should be depends on where your company is in its journey and what resources you have," Niek replies. "The fact is that your marketing, however fantastic, doesn't matter if you don't have a solid product. And if you're a small, streamlined team, then having key members taken away from the job of adding actual product value is simply running before you can walk.
I've seen a whole lot of companies doing marketing prematurely in order to grow, and they ended up not making it. This is simply because their product wasn't mature enough. I'm not saying that this is the only way. I'm saying that this is our philosophy, and it works because of who we are. We want to work on the product before all else."
Evolution. Polarsteps continuously delivers new and improved features, with those changes guided by user data, user feedback, and Polarsteps' own vision for its future.
"We continuously build the best product we can," Niek tells Peecho. "And, fun fact, the Travel Books — the reason we're sitting here with you — were requested by our users. We had built a support system with ticketing in the early stages, and we got so many requests for Travel Books that we finally decided to implement them."
Key learnings on monetization: Consistent with their philosophy to focus solely on the product, Polarsteps did not consider monetization a primary objective. On the contrary, Niek and his team concentrated on building a growing company with a high level of monthly active users, believing that the opportunity to monetize would reveal itself at the right time. Meanwhile, with their growth and metrics speaking for themselves, Polarsteps successfully secured investors despite their lack of profitability. Monetization came along later, with the implementation of a highly demanded feature: Travel Books. This is when the partnership between Polarsteps and the print-on-demand service Peecho began.
Polarsteps' early philosophy was growth, not monetization. Faced with the option to spend time on the company's bank balance or increasing their number of users, Polarsteps chose the latter.
"If you want to inspire other entrepreneurs, share with them that monetization is a choice. Do you want to go for immediate financial gain, or do you want to go forward with patience? Not generating revenue straight away may come with additional risk, but it can deliver bigger rewards in the long run.
For us, the choice between growth and immediately chasing profit was an easy one: we knew that we wanted to build a growing company with a high level of monthly active users. And we did that. Then with monetization, it was simply a question of when."
Polarsteps had built an app users loved and kept coming back to by this point. "It is because of user feedback that we started exploring monetization in the first place," Niek says. "We thought long and hard about it because we valued our brand identity and our philosophy as to what kind of company we wanted to be. But satisfying your users is part of your success. So, we thought of printing as a runway extension to our business."
"Creating Travel Books with a very premium feel was mandatory for us," Niek says. "And that's where the printing services of Peecho came in."
With barely any integration effort from their side, Polarsteps uses Peecho’s print API to fulfill printed travel books globally. Once users click the “Buy Travel Book” button on the app, they complete a checkout resulting in a digital file getting automatically generated and sent to Peecho. At this point, Peecho creates the order, sends it to a printer, and delivers it to the user.
Before building their own checkout, Polarsteps made use of Peecho’s customizable one. On top of a that and of a fuss-free printing integration and premium quality, Peecho also offers Polarsteps local and global shipping and customer support for their users.
"You're never gonna get proper investment if your growth metrics aren't good," Niek says. "So either you get an investment because you're making some revenue and there is a year on year growth of X percent, or you get it because you have a proper vision for the future.
We had a very grand vision — being the number one travel app in a matter of years. And our growth and use metrics spoke for themselves. That is how we successfully raised funding multiple times: we showed investors that our metrics, such as user acquisition and monthly active users, consistently went up. The monetization that our Travel Books offered was just an added extra." Now, with Travel Books up and running, Polarsteps has added LTV and conversion to the metrics they show potential investors.
Are you excited to bring your business idea to market? Would you like to learn more about Peecho's print-on-demand services and premium products, like our premium print on demand books? Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org. We would be happy to help you grow your business!