Peek CEO Ruzwana Bashir Revolutionizes Travel Activities Industry
Since co-founding travel activities platform Peek in 2012, YPO member Ruzwana Bashir has guided her company from a tiny startup in a coworking space to a major firm that processes bookings for millions of customers globally. As the dynamic CEO of one of San Francisco’s most lauded startup successes, Bashir has come a long way from her roots in the rural English town where she was raised in a tight-knit Pakistani community.
The inspiration for Peek came when the British entrepreneur spotted an opportunity for disruption in the travel experience industry.
“The activities market is about USD150 billion globally and, yet, most of it’s still offline,” she says. “When we started over 80 % of merchants in America didn’t have any form of online booking. If you were a merchant 20 years ago, consumers might just walk up and find you or ask their concierge. But we’re in an era now when consumers are using their phones when they travel and they’re looking for things to do.”
Her idea was simple: get more tours and travel activities online to offer one-stop-shop convenience to customers and generate more business for tour and activity operators.
Peek in practice
Prior to moving to San Francisco to begin the Peek travel project, Bashir had studied at Oxford University, where she was president of prestigious debating society the Oxford Union. She then worked in private equity and investment banking for Blackstone and Goldman Sachs, followed by a stint as a student at Harvard Business School. She had an impressive resume but lacked the technical know-how to build the kind of sophisticated platform her idea required. The solution came in the form of Oskar Bruening, a German-born software engineer who would become Peek’s co-founder and CTO.
“I needed a great technical partner,” Bashir recalls. “Oskar was also looking for a business co-founder because he understood he was great on the technical side but not strong on sales, marketing and finance. We went for brunch, discovered we shared a lot of the same passions, and hit it off.”
The duo moved into a coworking space, worked after hours and together overcame several scary moments in the first few months, including a motorcycle accident that landed Bruening in the hospital for a few weeks.
“It wasn’t smooth sailing in that first year,” Bashir says. “We had to figure out what we cared about in terms of our team and the culture that we wanted to build.”
Fast forward to the present day and Peek has around 150 staff split between offices in San Francisco, New York and Utah. Over several rounds of financing, the company raised USD50 million in capital from influential investors such as Eric Schmidt of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Pete Flint of real estate website Trulia. “Pete’s been on our board for about five years and he’s been really helpful and useful, and given us incredible feedback,” Bashir says. “We had some great investors who are experts at what they do, and we’ve been fortunate that they’ve seen our opportunity and want to get involved in the business.”
Empowering travel operators
In 2019 Peek launched a partnership with Groupon to add to its existing relationships with the likes of Yelp and Google. It now does “a few hundred million dollars” of bookings through its platform, says Bashir, whether that’s directly through Peek.com or one of its partners. The company’s focus has shifted from selling to consumers through the Peek website toward getting more vendors using its technology and making sales through its partners. Peek offers its software to travel activity merchants for free and takes a small transaction fee from each booking that goes through its system.
For merchants, Bashir says, it makes financial sense to get on board. “It wasn’t hard for us to attract businesses to Peek because they could see that customers were demanding online bookings and that they were missing out on potential revenue,” she says.
“Businesses don’t need to have any upfront costs,” Bashir continues. “We help them bring in more revenue; the average merchant increases their revenue by 30 or 40 % when they start working with Peek. We also help them save time and money, by doing lots of things such as automating communication and removing the need for phone calls. We make their lives easier because a lot of things that people would do manually can now be done by our system.”
Peek bets on the value of travel experiences
Bashir is convinced that Peek is only just getting started. “There are hundreds of thousands of travel experience businesses globally and most of them still haven’t made the transition online,” she says. “We’ve had this tremendous traction, but we also have an opportunity to be much bigger and have more of an impact.”
It’s not all about building a billion-dollar brand, though. Bashir says that Peek’s primary mission is to connect the world through experiences that generate human interactions. “It’s about spending time with people you care about, or maybe learning something new, whether it’s a cooking class or going skydiving for the first time. A big part of my personal mission is to inspire joy and help people engage their curiosity.”