In conversation with Julia Mallaby

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Recently I spoke with Julia Mallaby, female entrepreneur and co-founder of Bimble. The Wall Street Journal has described the app and social platform as ‘The Spotify of Travel’. Although only launched in 2020, a new place is added by users every two minutes, the app has over 210,000 downloads, and over 330,000 locations are listed in total.

First, Julia and I discussed what it is that the app actually does. Julia described it as a means to “track all the places you love… you create ‘placelists’, a bit like playlists of music on Spotify, where you can list all the places you want to hold onto, whether that’s bars, restaurants, clubs, boutiques, beaches — any place. Because everyone is creating them, you can explore other people’s ‘placelists’ and discover the great places that they love. You can follow your friends, see where they’re going; there’s sort of a social side to it.”

When I asked who Bimble is targeted towards, Julia explained that it’s for people who wish to deviate from the tourist traps that typically dominate our travel stops. “The core of our audience is people in their twenties, but Bimble is for anybody that is interested in finding the places that are not the most standard… it’s for people who want to hold onto independent, unique spots. It’s more about people looking to find intriguing, niche places than for those who want to visit chains”.

I queried how the information on Bimble differs from what you can find on other platforms, like Google and TripAdvisor. Julia responded that ‘Bimble is different because we do not have any ratings and reviews. We don’t think it’s very useful, especially as wherever you look basically everything’s rated 4.5. We prefer a space where people are only listing the places they love, which is naturally positive. Rather than filter according to the highest ratings, on our system it’s all based on your taste. If you love a particular little café in Durham, for instance — I seem to remember there’s a nice little coffee place called Flat White? — you’ll go onto Bimble, say you love Flat White, find all the other people who love Flat White, and then you’ll see what other places they love. It’s all about shared experiences and shared tastes, just like with Spotify”.

We deviated off topic for a moment as I asked where the word Bimble derives from. I was told that it’s “not a very widely used word, but means: to go for a wander, a leisurely stroll. Because that’s where we feel you find the best places, when you’re just wandering about”.

Next, we reflected on how Bimble came to fruition. Julia mentioned that it all started when her co-founder, Francesca, “was working at a travel company and she was finding that it’s very easy to find suggestions for people when they go on holiday to go to classic tourist things, but really hard to find the interesting, little places that locals go to. Where is the bar that all the young people go to and has the best live music? That kind of thing is really hard to find. So she thought, wouldn’t it be great to have a space on the internet for people to share these things. And how could we encourage people to do that?” And so that’s what gave rise to this space with all these curated lists of places. Julia explained that at Bimble they “think that it is those little places in neighbourhoods all over the world that make those neighbourhoods special. We want to find those businesses, and help them thrive. We want to give them a space that celebrates them”.

It is those little places in neighbourhoods all over the world that make those neighbourhoods special

Indeed, when our conversation flowed onto what the next step in Bimble’s growth is, Julia emphasised how they want to make the businesses shine through. “We aim to develop really bespoke services to help the businesses communicate with the audiences we’ve collected for them. We want to hear the story behind a specific bar — are they sustainable? Do they treat their team well? What were they inspired by? We don’t normally hear the stories of the businesses and they don’t really have a space to express these stories”.

Next, as any conversation tends to do in this day and age, our chat drifted towards the impact of the pandemic. Julia joked about the “dramatically bad timing” that the app was launched at, just “three weeks before the first lockdown. An app all about visiting places launched in time for a pandemic, crazy! Nonetheless, it was really interesting as still during that period we saw people signing up, listing places, and making wish-lists and plans. So we still grew strongly during that period”.

Another challenge that the Bimble team is still facing is that their tech team and programmers are all Ukrainian, based in an office in Kyiv. “All but two of them were in the country when the war began, and only the women are allowed out of the country, so we still have a majority of our team in the Ukraine. That has obviously been very challenging, since they live in such a difficult situation. They’re incredibly resilient people, and determined, and keen to make the most out of everything they can. After a couple of weeks finding their feet they actually all decided to continue working remotely, which was amazing. We’re a very close-knit team, and it’s just made us even closer really”. 

Really believe that what you’re doing is something which will add value to the world

When I asked whether Julia had any advice for students about creating a social platform from scratch, she replied that “the main thing is to be super resilient, really believe that what you’re doing is something which will add value to the world. If you’re flexible and open to adjusting your course, then you’ve got what it takes. It’s hard work, so you shouldn’t go into it thinking it will be a breeze, because it’s not. But it’s really rewarding and exciting. It’s really interesting to work in technology because of how reactive it is. If your customers are behaving in a certain way, or have feedback for you, you can constantly and immediately change your course”.

Julia expressed how much she would encourage young people to explore careers in technology. “We are a female co-founded business, in our office here in Oxford we are all women. We would encourage people to work in technology — you don’t have to be trained in it to work for it; as well as roles in programming there are also positions in marketing, storytelling, community building, every kind of role you can imagine”. She went on to mention the “week-long internships that Bimble offers for students. We generally put together groups of five or six students at a time. It’s just work experience, so it’s not paid, but it is fun: it involves writing an article, creating a video, doing research about places to go, using the product, and giving feedback.”

If you are interested in getting touch with Julia and Francesca for one of these intern spaces, feel free to email them via hello@bimble.com 

Image credits: David Fisher

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