Forming an Advisory Board that doesn’t suck

In my last monthly company update for Hitlist, I asked for advice on how to form an advisory board. Here’s a distillation of the feedback I got.


  1. Not too early. “Advisory boards are super helpful (and cheap) if done right, and an expensive (in equity) waste of time if done wrong.” – Josh Elwell, a partner at ValueStream Labs, a FinTech accelerator. “Asking someone to become a formal advisor in the early stage of your company’s growth might be overkill. You can gain many of the same benefits through lunches or phone calls every couple of months – something most can commit to.” – Kerrie MacPherson, Principal, Financial Services Office at Ernst & Young (h/t to Betsy Mikel of Women 2.0 for pointing me towards her post).
  2. If you’ve raised an angel/seed round without a lead investor. “The problem and the challenge with not having the board after the Seed round is that there is no outside, non-executive perspective on the company. There is no higher level accountability for CEO, there is no regular milestones, and no regular check-ups… great boards help keep the business healthy and help accelerate it” – Alex Iskold, managing director of TechStars New York (h/t to Brittany Laughlin of USV for pointing me towards his post).


Via Chris Thorpe, director of engineering at EMC:

  • Advisory board members are people who can either make introductions to key people (former travel executives, for example) or solve hard problems but you don’t need them full time.
  • Ideally look for people who have been on “real” boards and/or have been CEOs or C_Os of companies that you admire.
  • I see executives hire “big names” to advisory boards and it looks good on your website but if they never read your emails or make intros then it’s just marketing. So you should reference check people.

Via Tim Peek of Peek Disruption:

  • While it’s important to have people in your industry on the board, I also believe that diversity of thought and experience is even more important for a disruptive player like Hitlist. So, I’d look for people in “adjacent” industries — areas of business that share some attributes with the travel industry but also are different or perhaps already experiencing what you hope to create in travel. What other industries have followed a trajectory similar to the one you hope to create in travel? Look for people from there to advise you.
  • Culture. I do think culture is the major differentiator for businesses in this century. In my experience too many startups are solely focused on execution (makes sense – there is a lot to do, not much time, and not many people to do it) and culture grows unnoticed. They end up with cultures that ultimately are unsustainable — I believe this is why so many startups don’t survive or have a deep “sophomore slump” and can’t come up with an effective 2.0 product or strategy once they are off the ground. So, what businesses have cultures which are successful and which you want to emulate — get those folks on your board.
  • A leadership advisor specifically for you. Someone you believe can take your leadership to the next level, support you in finding solutions to tough questions, and help you keep your head above the rising tide of daily business to focus on the big questions and direction.

Again from Josh Elwell:

  • Try to get at least one person who is “friends” with lots of people you want to know (investors, partners, customers, etc). Warm introductions are valuable, but that person pushing on “friends” from behind the scenes is even better at getting things done quickly.
  • Try to get at least one person with a “big” exit who fully understands the strategic process of getting a business sold (the second part is critical, because lots of entrepreneurs were lucky, not strategic). I get the best advice from people like that because they think about the end goal and how little decisions made now can help later.
  • Those might be the same person.
  • Relevant industry experience is nice, but I find that people with it aren’t as helpful as I had initially expected if they don’t have 1 and 2 (apart from just using their names for credibility).
  • I have an advisor who used to be a senior level management consultant. He is super helpful with lots of stuff even though he doesn’t have 1, 2 or 3. He always asks the right questions, cleans up all our pitch decks with ease, and is just generally a great person to get rapid feedback on new ideas.

Again from Alex Iskold:

  • Include 2-4 people plus the founders.
  • Recruit one or two of your top angels + other experienced operators/mentors.


  1. Commit to talking to each board member every 4-6 weeks and meeting with the whole board every 2-3 months. People can dial in if necessary, but in person is ideal.
  2. “Don’t be afraid to swap folks out if it turns out to not be a fit.” – Iskold
  3. Set clear expectations for commitment. “Board members will only rise to the level of performance articulated to them and expected of them, so as a board, it is important to clarify expectations with potential new members from the beginning.” – Sarah Najarian and Caroline Page of Robin Hood (h/t to Betsy Mikel of Women 2.0 for pointing me to their post)

More from Thorpe:

  • Grant up to 2 years for your advisory board’s stock grants (typically 10–25 basis points, in my experience, depending on their contribution and experience), but then have it renew by mutual agreement every quarter and vesting happens quarterly. If someone isn’t helping you or they get busy, then you simply don’t renew them for the next quarter.
  • Building the right culture around your board is paramount and it’s one of the things that’s really hard to do when you’ve never done it before. In my opinion for a new CEO, it’s ideal to have a friendly “chair” who can help you manage the rest of the board. This is ideally a former CEO who shares your cultural values, is busy with other things, and doesn’t want your job.
  • Practice building your communication skills with them, talking about issues, presenting company strategy, cash flow, income, creating a plan and showing your progress against the plan (and how the plan evolves over time – it’s a startup, not a public Fortune 500 company). Make a habit of calling your board members in advance of your meetings and making sure they understand what’s going to happen and that you have a chance to answer their questions and address their concerns.
  • At some point investors will want to take a board seat or have formal board meetings. That’s why it’s important to have already established strong relationships and board culture that work well for your company, so that your existing board members can keep meetings in line with that culture. Culture helps prevent unproductive habits like board members ordering you about what to do, regularly showing up late, talking directly to your employees, or going “off the ranch” to others outside your company. A good maxim is “eyes on, hands off” (or “fingers out”). And you kind of need to see people in action for a while before you know. Do they support you as CEO in the board meeting and prepare you ahead of time with their issues? Do they seek to support you when bad things happen, or do they surprise you in the middle of a board meeting with a hostile question? Do they work through you, not around you? Do they ask you hard questions that make you defend your decisions and understand your assumptions better, even if you don’t change your mind? Do they respect your deep understanding of the landscape more than their own brilliant insight from 30,000 feet? Etc.
  • Board meetings can turn into a lot of work, so try very hard to limit the amount of work to just the amount needed to keep you accountable and get strategic and tactical advice. I’ve seen a lot of startups spend way too much time preparing detailed analyses and predictions on the basis of data that are too limited or early stage to be of much predictive power. Understand what you can reasonably know and not know, and what you can reasonably predict from that knowledge. Don’t be afraid to say “this is the best we can say given what we know today, and we’ll update it as we learn more.”
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How we got to 200,000 users with no marketing spend

First thing I need to say: there is no single thing that will get your app to 200,000 downloads with no marketing spend. It takes a versatile team, a ton of work, and more than a bit of luck.

But in Hitlist’s year-or-so of existence, we’ve managed to gain over 200,000 ‘free’ users from the most valuable channels of all: word of mouth and earned media. We’ve never paid for an install, we barely touch our social channels, and we haven’t used any conventional ‘growth hacking’ tactics.

However, there’s one thing Hitlist has done that I haven’t seen elsewhere, and it’s been such a huge boost that I wanted to share it and hopefully inspire others to do the same.

What’s our one silver bullet?

Hitlist has a tiny core team, but we’ve been able to leverage hundreds more through a simple device: consistent, concise update emails. I send one a month, called ‘The best update ever from Hitlist‘, to a list that now numbers in the hundreds.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the support we’ve gotten from the people on the mailing list has saved us over $100k that we might have spent on marketing, PR, hotels, conference fees, and countless other goods and services that have helped get us to this point. Here’s a small sampling of things that people on our email list have helped us achieve:

  • App Store feature in 40+ countries that resulted in nearly 100k downloads
  • temporary housing in New York, San Francisco, Zagreb, Berlin, and London
  • features in the New York Times, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and… a major Greek blog that drove nearly 10k downloads
  • >$500k in investment

Here’s what I try and include in every update:

  • Last month’s focus, and how you did. As Mark Suster once put so well, investors invest in lines not dots. Your readers are investors, in a sense: they’re dedicating time to reading your email, and you may be hoping that at some point they’ll invest something else (money or expertise or references). Give people a sense of your arc, and show that you consistently deliver on the goals you set for yourself – or if you don’t meet them, explain why and explain why you will next time.
  • This month’s focus, and an ask: let people know where you’re going and if they can help. They’re already reading your email, so chances are they like you and might like to contribute if they can. Give them an opportunity. If you don’t ask, you never know what’s out there. (If you haven’t seen Amanda Palmer’s ‘Art of Asking’ TED talk and have 13:40 minutes, watch it now, or read this great summary from Maria Popova). Make it specific: not ‘we’re looking for marketing help’ but ‘we’re looking for a senior marketer who has experience optimizing social channels for customer acquisition at a consumer-facing startup’ (know anyone?)
  • Something they don’t get elsewhere: you’re asking a lot of your readers, and some of them will understandably be thinking (in Noah Kagan‘s words), what have you done for me lately? Try and include something educational or access to something cool. Remember that not all of your supporters speak ‘tech’, but they’re probably curious about it. Imagine you’re writing all your emails to your great uncle Bob who is an artist. If he wouldn’t understand what you’re talking about when you mention MAUs, then spell it out.
  • Shout-out to a person/product that’s helped you out. If there’s a product that’s saved you lots of time, or a team member who’s been a hero, make sure to give them a hat tip. I’m a huge fan of Click to Tweet, for example.
  • Validation: any outside press, milestones, or accomplishments that can help show your reader that they should care about you and want to be part of your success.
  • Why we’re doing this: the ‘we’ here can refer to your team, or to you and all your readers. Why should they care? Why should they continue to invest any time in you? What are you adding to their life?
  • Something amusing: make yourself personable. Some call it unprofessional, but I like to include a GIF. For example, this illustration of Hitlist’s preferred sorting algorithm.

KEEP IT SHORT: 500 words or less.

This is the formula I’ve developed over a year’s worth of updates (you can see the archive if you like at, but I’d love to hear tips and what’s worked for you if you in the comments.

TO RECAP, the core elements of an engaging update:

  1. Last month’s focus and how you did
  2. This month’s focus and an ‘ask’
  3. Something educational or exclusive for your reader
  4. Shout out to a person/product that’s helped you out
  5. Outside validation that you’re worth anyone’s time
  6. Why we’re doing this
  7. Something amusing

If you find this useful, consider sharing it using the conveniently placed buttons around the site.

And as always: check out Hitlist on iOS or Android, please one click tweet about Hitlist, Like us on Facebook, and follow us on Angellist!

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Weekend project: Vamoose

One of my favorite things to do over the weekends is to take a sidestep from full time development of Hitlist, my startup, and poke at other ideas that we’d love to eventually address within the travel space. In 48 hours I get to meet new people, learn about the latest technologies, and build and hopefully validate a feature that we might eventually incorporate into Hitlist.

This weekend I teamed up with Matt Duran, a student at University of Maryland Baltimore County; Dan Zhang, who is doing grad work at UT Austin; Drew Desautels, a Boston-based transport industry consultant; and Brian Shaler, a vagabond programmer (and teammate from the Playover project at the Mashable hackathon) to build VAMOOSE, a flight/hotel/car search plugin, for the Amadeus HACK@1050 in Waltham, MA.

The idea behind Vamoose is pretty straightforward: we wanted to create something that would make it easy to check how realistic it might be to travel to places that you’re reading about/investigating online. So we built a simple chrome extension that allows you to check air, hotel, and car rental costs without leaving the page you’re on.

Screen Shot 2014-11-09 at 11.41.12 AM

By far the coolest thing about this is the NLP work that Brian Shaler put together. It parses the available information on the page you’re viewing – text, metadata, etc – and tries to guess which location is being discussed, then fetches the prices automatically, so it’s one click to get a snapshot of your overall trip cost. Compare this to the process of opening a new tab, going to, typing in your origin, destination, picking a random date that might not be optimal, and waiting for the flight search results… then doing the same on and

How this works:

  • the app used Readability to parse the relevant article text out of the page,
  • then used Node Natural to extract the root words in the piece (ie to identify ‘Chile’ from ‘Chilean’ and ‘Santiago’ from ‘Santiago’s’),
  • then looked for matches in the City Names 1000 data set, an open source database of all cities with a population of >1000 people.
  • When there are duplicates (as in the case with Portland Maine / Oregon, Birmingham Alabama / UK, etc), we default to the city with higher population, which is not the most sophisticated way to handle this but hey, it’s a hackathon. With more time we might have searched for other context on the page, or tried to use browsing history to inform the prediction.
  • Once we have a city name, we use the Google places API to get lat/lon coordinates, which we then plug into the Amadeus ‘nearest airport’ API to figure out the destination airport. We use the individual’s IP address to predict the origin airport, and then plug both into Amadeus’s ‘inspiration’ API, which returns low fares for random dates (drawn from a cache of recent searches called from the Amadeus API). If for some reason the inspiration API doesn’t return anything, we fall back to the Low Fare API, which requires a specific date – we arbitrarily picked a week long trip two weeks from the current date. Again, if we’d had more time, we would have tried to make it easier to adjust the dates and built a settings page where you could pre-select dates that you were interested in traveling.
  • We also plug the destination city into the Amadeus hotel search API and the car rentals API to get an approximation of the costs for both.

If for some reason Vamoose isn’t able to detect the location you’re considering, you can alway manually enter the location you’re looking at. We use Google Places Query Autocomplete to get the city name, then the same process as above to return your results.

Screen Shot 2014-11-09 at 11.23.26 AM

Dan Zhang also built a very cool plugin for Facebook that automatically scans the page for place names and inserts a small symbol, Screen Shot 2014-11-09 at 12.01.36 AM, right next to them so you can find the nearest airport. So when you’re looking at pictures of your friend’s cute kids that you’d like to visit – or the wild beach party in Mexico you want to join – you can find out where you’d need to fly without having to leave the page. It takes the place name and plugs it into the Google Places API and then the Amadeus nearest airport API, as above. We wanted to link this up to the the other search function so that it would also show flight, hotel, and car rental prices with one click, but we ran out of time.


And because it wouldn’t be a hackathon if we didn’t have a little fun, we attempted to address the ‘sustainability’ challenge by introducing a new way to measure carbon emissions: Camel Count. Put simply, no one knows what a ton of CO2 really is. You can’t envision it. Camels, on the other hand, apparently emit 42 kg of CO2 per day, according to this article which posits that Australia should get carbon credits for killing feral camels (#notanonionarticle). You can understand, sort of, what someone is saying when they say that a trip from New York to Paris will do the same damage to the environment as nine camels will do in a day.

The code for the hack can be found on github here:

If you’d like to install the hack, you can:

  • download a ZIP file from github (at the bottom of the column on the right) and unzip the file
  • go to the hamburger menu at the right end of the search bar in Google Chrome > Settings > Extensions > Load unpacked extension
  • Select the ‘ext’ folder from the unzipped github file
  • You should notice a blue circular Chrome logo at the top right of your search bar and the Vamoose logo next to locations on Facebook

It was a huge pleasure to play with the Amadeus APIs and meet such awesome people. And the judges seemed to like us too: we were awarded the ‘Entrepreneurial Prize’ as the overall winner.

Vamoose logo

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Hitchhiker’s Guide to Travel Startups

You’re thinking of starting a travel startup. Congratulations! You’re joining the most competitive, saturated market in the startup universe, or as Y Combinator partner Garry Tan terms it, “the most common bad startup idea.” According to PhoCusWright, 750 travel startups have collectively raised $4.8bn in the last eight years (’05-’13, so that doesn’t even count AirBnb and Uber’s massive raises this year). But hundreds more have failed to raise funding and/or gain traction.

Don’t let that discourage you. There’s a reason we all keep trying to disrupt this multi trillion dollar industry: planning, booking, and making the most of travel could be improved in so many ways. The tools to try and create something new have never been so accessible. Gigantic funding and and a strong existing brand can actually stifle innovation.

T-Rex tries to chart exponential growth

T-Rex tries to chart exponential growth

Here’s a list of resources I’ve found valuable in the course of building my own travel startup, Hitlist, which might help you get further faster. I’ve tried to make this as comprehensive as possible, but it’s naturally informed by my own experience. Therefore the information below is most relevant to US-based startups working on technological innovation (as opposed to building a brand/lifestyle business). I’d LOVE feedback/edits – leave them in the comments or you can contact me on twitter @gillianim.


  • PhoCusWright is the default industry body for research and analysis. Subscriptions and buying individual reports are out of most startups’ budget ranges, but there are useful tidbits online. See if you can make friends at more established companies that can share reports with you until you’re grown up enough to pay for your own.
  • Tnooz has long been the rag of choice for intra-industry gossip, analysis, and breaking news. With a distinguished list of contributors and an active community (as seen through the comments on most articles), it’s worth a daily read.
  • Skift plays in the same space as Tnooz, but is a few years younger (and has some ex-Tnooz writers on staff). They generally don’t feature outside writers but do have sponsored content. The newsletter is excellent and they’re entering the conference game with their own ‘Future of Travel Forum‘ in October.
  • ThinkwithGoogleeMarketerMarketWatch, and HUGE have also put out some interesting travel industry research.


  • David Ambrose of Steadfast VC has put together a fantastic list of angel investors and VC funds that have invested in travel companies in the last few years.
  • Skift crowned Erik Blachford, Sam Shank, Hugh Crean, Brad Gerstner, and Rich Barton ‘The Five Angel Investors who rule the world of travel.
  • In the VC space, General Catalyst and Thayer Ventures are well known for their focus on travel. Sequoia deserves special mention for, characteristically, getting into almost every major success in recent years (ITA, Kayak, AirBnb). Accel and Insight have also made a number of notable investments in the space.

Side note: as far as I can tell, the only woman represented on any of these lists – and the only woman I know of who has led any part of that $4.8bn invested in travel – is Sonali De Ryckr at Accel in London. Granted there are fewer women in venture capital in general, but they also seem to be disproportionately uninterested in travel investments.

CONFERENCES/EVENTS: this is not meant to be comprehensive – these are the conferences that fellow travel founders have found most value for money. H/t to David Litwak of Mozio, Alex Bainbridge of TourCMS, and Paige Brown of Dashbell for their insights.

  • PhoCusWright (various US locations, November, from $3499). The research company remains the indisputable king of the travel conference game. Its annual conference, held somewhere in the US, has historically attracted the who’s who of the travel ecosystem. The price tag is steep and so it’s important to go only if you have a clear agenda on what you’re hoping to get as your ROI from the three day event. There’s a smaller European edition in Dublin in May.
  • ITB (Berlin, March, 60 euro). Bring your walking shoes if you plan to go to this massive trade show. It’s very similar to World Travel Market, in London in November, but for some reason seems to attract more notable industry people. Expect lots of exhibition halls with every facet of the industry (from baggage handling systems to Disney tours) represented. A great opportunity to learn and network at any of the hundreds of coffee/cocktail hours. Hot tip: the LGBT pavilion has the happiest happy hours.
  • The inaugural Skift Global Forum (October, New York, ~$1200, with a much appreciated discount to $440 for startups) was a sell out smashing success: one commenter called it the ‘TED of Travel’. More intimate than the other conferences, and packed with good people to know.
  • Web In Travel (Singapore, late October, from $2000) the premier travel conference in Asia.
  • GBTA (various locations, July). The Global Business Travel Alliance holds a number of satellite conferences around the world but the annual Convention in July is the most effective for networking and BD.
  • Airline Information (various locations, main conference in December in New Orleans this year, from $599) geared towards airline ancillary revenue, cobranded credit cards and loyalty
  • HITEC (various US locations, June, from $645) geared towards the hotel and hospitality technology industry
  • WTM (London, November). Slightly smaller version of ITB (see above).
  • Many of the major companies (Amadeus, Concur, Datalex, Sabre, etc) throw their own conferences which can be high value.


  • Hackathons can be an amazing way to connect with other people intent on building the next big thing in travel. Tnooz sponsors a few throughout the year, and Mashable and Emirates Airlines have also done travel-related events in the past
  • PhoCusWright’s Travel Innovation Summit offers an opportunity to present to the who’s who at the conference in November – but at a cost of $15k ($6k if you get a scholarship)
  • BTN Innovate has an ‘innovator’s lab‘ where ten startups get to present
  • the Airline Information conferences have a ‘Lion’s Den’ which sounds like Shark Tank with less obnoxious judges
  • Web In Travel has a startup competition – would love more details from anyone who’s done it in the past


  • Travel Massive (various locations) is the most established meetup of travel industry folks. It’s a little different in every city (they’re active in more than a dozen, listed here) but tends to be heavier on bloggers/travel agents than on people involved in the technical side of the industry.
  • Travel 2.0 (New York, Boston) puts on educational and networking events specifically for aspiring or current travel founders.
  • Young Travel Professionals and Millennials in Travel are both networking groups that throw events in a number of different cities (mostly NYC & LA).

INCUBATORS/ACCELERATORS: if this is your first startup, you may want to consider one of these 3 to 6 month programs that typically provide seed funding, office space, mentorship, and an opportunity to present your company to investors at a ‘demo day’ in exchange for a nominal amount of equity (5-10%). The right accelerator can push your startup to achieve in 3 months what might take others 3 years.

  • Y Combinator (Silicon Valley, 3 months, 2x/year) has a rich legacy in travel startups. AirBnb is the obvious standout success, but Hipmunk, Flightfox, Airhelp, FlightCar, etc have also worn orange.
  • Startup Chile (Santiago, Chile, 6 months, 2x/year) loves to fund travel startups, but typically doesn’t provide much value add. Unless you count a subsidized six months in Chile as a value add. On the upside, they don’t take any equity in the company.
  • TechStars (various locations, 3 months, one starts nearly every month) has a decent legacy in travel. FlexTrip (Boulder), DealAngel (Boulder), Wander (NYC), have all been acquired. Dashbell (Boston) and others have raised subsequent rounds.
  • RunUp Labs (Bloomington, Indiana, 3 months, 1x/year) the ‘first dedicated travel startup accelerator’ just had its first demo day on August 1st. Unclear where they’ll be going from here.
  • Traveltech Lab (London, no set term) offers free office space and opens January 2015. We’re excited to hear more about it – applications are open now.

BOOKING APIs: if you want to allow users to view live pricing on your site/in your app, you’ll want to either build or connect to an API that can provide live pricing and availability information. These can turn into revenue streams for your app in two ways: either you will act as a travel agency yourself, earning a commission off every ticket booked through your app, or you will send your traffic to a booking partner in exchange for a lower referral commission. Becoming a travel agency is much more involved: you will need to provide merchant services (customer service, insurance, etc). Depending on how well funded you are or how agile you want to be, it might make sense to refer to partners at least until you prove your business model.


  • Skyscanner has a robust, well documented API that is offered for free to select partners. You can try emailing them but networking your way to an introduction will be more useful.
  • Orbitz / Cheaptickets (same parent company) offer an affiliate API, but I’m not sure what kind of commission they provide.
  • Expedia, Priceline, Travelocity, and Kayak have all offered flight APIs in the past, but most won’t anymore unless you have a very strong ‘in’
  • Sabre, Travelport, Amadeus, and ITA all offer paid APIs, but you will need to provide end booking services or link to another partner if you want to make a commission.


Tours and Activities

  • Viator has a white label program, widgets, and direct API for selling their tour & activity inventory on your site
  • TourCMS also offers an API for tours and activities, but you will have to make commercial agreements and set specific commissions with your booking partners
  • Excursiopedia has an XML API, “smart” widgets and simple deeplinks for content websites to distribute their inventory of >30k tours & activities with a simple flat commission of 6%
  • Festicket has an API for – you guessed it! – festival tickets


  • Rome2Rio has a number of very useful APIs for everything from geolocating to the nearest airport to navigating from, well, Rome to Rio.
  • for car rentals
  • Mozio offers an API for airport transfers
  • Airports/airlines: the official Airline Coding Directory is sold by IATA for $519, but OurAirports and OpenFlights offer free alternatives
  • Wcities offers a reasonably priced API for basic city information
  • Sabre has a number of APIs and caches of old data for analysis

MAJOR COMPANIES TO KNOW: by market cap (source: Skift)

This Quora post of the largest travel startup exits goes into more detail on the movements of big companies in this space.

  • Priceline ($65bn)
  • Las Vegas Sands ($60bn)
  • Disney ($47.1bn)
  • Galaxy Entertainment ($36bn)
  • Delta ($33bn)
  • American Airlines Group ($29.4bn)
  • Carnival Corp ($28.3bn)
  • Hilton Worldwide ($25.1bn)
  • Wynn Resorts ($21.3bn)
  • Southwest Airlines ($20.5bn)
  • Marriott ($19.3bn)
  • Amadeus ($19.1bn)
  • United Continental ($18bn)
  • Host Hotels & Resorts ($17.4bn)
  • Starwood Hotels ($15.2bn)

NOTABLE TRAVEL STARTUPS: Diego Saez-Gil of WeHostels has compiled a great Quora post with the major exits in the travel space in the last decade or so. Some of the biggest travel startups (defined loosely as those that haven’t yet reached an ‘exit’ – either by IPO or acquisition) are listed below – I’ve tried to highlight all the ones that have raised over $10m, and also some notable up-and-comers. Douglas Quinby at PhoCusWright also issues a ‘State of Travel Startups’ report every year which is packed with interesting insights.

VOCABULARY: if you’re not already in this industry, it’s important to know the distinction between the basic tiers of the travel booking/distribution system, as follows:

  • OTA = online travel agency (Expedia, Priceline, Orbitz, Travelocity) – online retailer of travel products
  • Metasearch engine (Kayak, Skyscanner) – aggregator of OTA content, drives warm leads to OTAs and direct to airline websites in exchange for a referral fee. The important distinction from an OTA is that you do not make your end booking on a metasearch engine. Metasearch engines make lower margins than OTAs but usually make up for it in volume.
  • GDS = Global Distribution System (Sabre, Amadeus, Travelport, ITA) – centralized repositories of fare and availability data for flights, hotel rooms, car rentals, etc. GDSs sell this information to OTAs and, increasingly, metasearch engines (Amadeus in particular has made strides in developing search as a service).

IF YOU THINK THIS IS USEFUL please share it with your friends. And remember, as this GIF illustrates, if you can roll with the punches and move fast, you may be able to make the competition fall on its face.

The power of startups

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Weekend Project: Playover

This past weekend, I teamed up with the amazing Tadhg Pearson, Brian Shaler (also known as doge_js), and Kyle Kahveci to put together a hack for Mashable’s Travel Hackathon sponsored by Emirates Airline and hack/Reduce.With only seven hours, there wasn’t much time for polish, but we pulled together Playover, an app that helps you intentionally search for trips with 6+ hour layovers. Why, you ask? Because layovers suck, but they don’t have to. Oftentimes you’re flying through great cities like Paris, Munich, London, Istanbul, or New York. Rather than moping in the airport, or planning a separate vacation to Paris, why not just schedule a long layover to at least get a taste of the city?

We didn’t have time to knit the back end and front end together as we’d wished, but the core of the app is live if anyone wants to play around with it at
Tadhg mastered the back end, Brian was responsible for the front end, Kyle did design, and I attempted to bring together the necessary APIs and ensured that no TV crews got in the way of the gentlemen doing their work.
We took second place but are all winners because, you know, we learned a ton. And supposedly Mashable is sending us sweatshirts.
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Finding and Hiring Talent at an Early Stage Startup

I was recently asked what I consider the hardest part of founding a startup. The answer, of course, is that it’s all hard: finding the right idea, prioritizing, executing, and evaluating when or if to change course.

But if I had to choose the hardest piece of all, it’s finding the right people to work with. It’s tempting to shelter your baby startup from all outside influences. As long as you and your cofounder(s) are the only ones working on it, you’re in control. Ceding some of that control to new hires can be terrifying, especially if you don’t know them well. But if you really want your baby to grow up and be a self-sustaining or, ideally, world-changing business, you need to allow others to help shape its development.

So the following are some tips which I hope might be helpful as you embark on your search for employees 1, 2, 3 and… well, that’s as far as I’ve gotten, so when I know more I’ll try and report on that.

Finding People Worth Hiring

AngelList is probably the best job board to find startup-minded talent, but there’s a lot of noise to sift through. I use AngelList the same way many people use Tinder: I ‘like’ anyone that looks vaguely interesting, and if they ‘like’ me back I delve into their profile and see if they’re actually worth pursuing.

– Use your trusted networks. People often overlook things like their facebook timeline, their college’s job board, their floor hockey league email circular, etc. It’s like they’re ashamed they’re hiring. There is nothing wrong with being in a position to hire talent. Shout it from the rooftops. Put it in your email signature line. You never know when your mom’s friend from church has a son who happens to be sick of his job at Zynga and wants to move back east. And connections, even loose ones, help ensure that you don’t get stuck with a psychopath (more on that later).

– Be visible in the community. Present your startup at meetups and conferences, or try and get press. If you can’t get on a panel somewhere, organize your own event. If you can’t get press, publish a blog post or an infographic others might pick up. Answer questions on Quora. Be active on social networks, especially Twitter. If you were a talented startup-person, would you rather work for a respected, contributing member of the tech community or an MBA who has never built a business before?

– Poach! The people you really want to hire probably aren’t on the market: they’re already doing good work at a successful company. But their souls might yearn to be at an early stage start up. Help them achieve inner peace. Look for startups that have really taken off in the last 2-3 years, and identify the people that have been there from the early days. They obviously had and probably still have interest in working at a smaller company. Also, just as importantly, they’ve vested into most if not all of their equity (assuming standard 4-year vesting), so have less reason to stay in their current job. Woo them. You have something in your arsenal that is, to the right person, more attractive than money: the opportunity to build something new and innovative, or at least have fun trying. 

The Interview Process

– Letting the interviewee talk, rather than badgering him or her with questions, can surface the most interesting responses. Without being too awkward about it, try and leave enough time after an interviewee gives an initial answer so that he or she can add more. Example of a conversation I had once:

Me: what do you consider a good work-life balance?
Him: I think if you’re really concentrating, you can pack a really good day’s work into about four hours. And if you’re producing good work you’re going to be concentrating so hard that it’s difficult to perform well for more than four hours. So I really try and optimize my time, and of course I’m on call for more than four hours a day, but that’s probably what’s sustainable to consistently put out really good code.
(at this point I’m thinking that he’s probably right and this is pretty reasonable, but I wait just in case he wants to say more)
He continues: also at the end of the day I’m really quite lazy. I like my free time. I basically want to work the minimum amount possible. Fortunately as a coder I can usually get things done pretty quickly and no one really knows how long they should take so I can kind of set my own hours.
Me: …….

Needless to say, I’m not sure why this guy thought that was going to make me want to hire him. But I’m glad I waited and got the full picture.

– for a startup it’s important to ask the question: ‘If the company hit hard times, what would you do?’ If they say ‘I have student debt and/or a family to support and couldn’t take a reduced salary’, or something along those lines, they shouldn’t be disqualified. Nevertheless, it’s important information to know, and better to have that kind of conversation up front rather than when you’re against the ropes. Startups are so sexy these days, and lots of people interview for jobs at startups without really appreciating what that means: low pay, low job security, little to no benefits, all for the sake of an upside that is 90% not going to pan out.

– always hire people smarter than you, as long as they respect you and aren’t earning such a high salary that they’ve got no skin in the game.

Closing the Deal

– So, psychopaths. They exist, and they can ruin your company. Do your due diligence. Try and find some connection in the network of the person you’re hiring. I don’t actually like asking candidates to volunteer a reference, as I’ve always found that to be a pain when I was interviewing for jobs. I usually inform a potential hire that I’m going to try and reach out to people in my network who might have worked with him or her (it’s important to mention this so he doesn’t feel violated if he hears you’ve been snooping, but he should also understand that this is completely reasonable thing to do). I search LinkedIn for the previous company, see if I have any first or second-degree connections there, and reach out. Blind hires probably have a greater likelihood of working out than your average blind date, but that’s not saying much.

– when hiring I’ve always started people on a 60 to 90 day contract at a fair price (usually above what ends up being their salary, to compensate them for the fact that they’re not yet getting equity or in a long-term position), then negotiated ongoing salary/equity a month or two into their contract. Locking in a salary or equity number before youve worked with the person for at least a few weeks is like raising a seed round at a valuation rather than a convertible note: okay if necessary but preferable to postpone the valuation till you have more data.

– have hires (if you follow the above they’re contractors to start) sign a standard contract and agreement off Docracy if you’re too early stage to afford a lawyer. If you have less than $100k in the bank you are too early stage to afford a lawyer. I like Gunderson Dettmer’s standard consulting agreement.

– Read Founder’s Dilemmas by Noam Wasserman. So much wisdom.

In Conclusion

If we can learn one thing from Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp, it might be this: that no matter how smart or dedicated you are, you probably need at least 54 other people to build a $19bn company in four years. Don’t let yourself become an overprotective, smothering parent to your baby startup. It takes a village to raise one of these things right. 
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The Complete Guide to NY Tech – ABRIDGED!

A few months ago, Steve Schlafman of RRE Ventures put together an exhaustive overview of the NYC tech landscape. It’s great, but at over 100 slides, it’s a lot to wade through, especially if most of the names are new to you.

So here’s a hopefully more digestible version, loosely modeled after Rob Go’s excellent ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Boston Tech Community‘.

New York has always been a center of innovation. But when it comes to the kind of internet-enabled, venture capital-fueled innovation we call ‘tech’, the Big Apple was long considered a bit of a backwater, the kind of place a good programmer would only move if his/her significant other was trying to be an actor. Less than ten years ago, people were more likely to consider Boston or Chicago America’s second tech city.

How things have changed. New York is now the world’s fastest-growing tech hub. We can’t compete with Silicon Valley for sheer scale yet. But Foursquare, AppNexus, Tumblr, Meetup, Makerbot, Shutterstock and Buzzfeed have shown the world that NY tech is more than just fashion and finance (though Gilt, Warby Parker, and Kickstarter are also great). If you don’t believe me, read Venrock partner Nick Beim’s fantastic, data-packed analysis of ‘The Rise and Future of NY Tech’.

If you’re new to town or new to tech, here are some places to kickstart your journey into the NYC innovation community.

Mailing lists/events listings

– NYC Startup Digest
Gary’s Guide: probably the most comprehensive, but it can be hard to figure out what’s really worth going to. On the upside, often has free goodies/discount codes
This week in NYC Innovation: well curated by VC Charlie O’Donnell
Bonnie Halper’s ‘SOSList’
Kate Kendall’s ‘The Fetch’

Coworking spaces (many also have good mailing lists)

WeWork (multiple locations): slick, professionally run, and affordable
AlleyNYC (37th and 7th): high traffic, good roster of events
Fueled Collective (SoHo): founders of the successful app development shop rented out a floor of Foursquare’s space and tricked it out like the set of a GQ shoot. Magnet for clever people who all seem too cool to really be in tech
Projective Space (SoHo): minimalist decor, solid events, mostly dudes
Wix Lounge (Chelsea): free! So often crowded. But free
New Work City (Chinatown)
Secret Clubhouse (Williamsburg): the hipster coworking space
– a more comprehensive list courtesy of Mark Birch here
– and the Complete Guide to Coworking from AlleyWatch


NY Tech Meetup: with close to a thousand attendees, it’s a madhouse and you’re not likely to run into a Big Dog (successful/famous founder or investor) in the audience like you used to in the old days. However, the presentations are usually high quality and it’s worth checking out at least once
Ultralight Startups, Entrepreneurs’ Roundtable: monthly event with 4 or 5 startups pitching a panel of VCs and getting feedback. Instructive.
PandoMonthly, Startup Grind: fireside chat-style talks with notable startup founders
House of Genius: amazing invite-only event (you can apply) where anonymous panelists give feedback to two growing companies
Amusemi: ‘dining club for entrepreneurs, designers, and friends’
NYC.js: smaller than the NYC Javascript meetup, but higher quality events. They aggressively screen for recruiters, so come only if you’re genuinely interested in learning about the tech
– generally, just comb through the mailing lists and search for things related to your specific domain (edtech, health, maps, design)
– as a general rule, things being hosted by General Assembly and at AppNexus tend to be quite good

If you’re starting a company

– Startup Weekend ($125), Lean Startup Machine: 54 hours to build a business. Pitch your idea, if it’s selected form a team, and present how far you’ve gotten two days later. Mentors—investors, experienced founders, etc — coach teams on best practices and award a winner
– Test Tube ($5): usability testing speed dating-style: spend five minutes with someone trying out your app and then do the same with theirs. Repeat ~6 times. Great way to get a real sense of your products’ appeal. You can go with just an idea and it’s a great way to get feedback from strangers, which is much more valuable than feedback from friends
Strategy Hack ($650): one day workshop to hone your marketing strategy
NYC Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC): lots of government resources dedicated to helping small businesses grow, notably Take the HELM ($250k grants)
– accelerators: TechStars, AngelPad, DreamIt, and Entrepreneurs’ Roundtable: in exchange for 6-10% of your company, receive $20-40k investment, work out of a shared office space, and gain access to a community of mentors who help you accelerate your startup’s development. Competitive admission. More comprehensive overview from AlleyWatch.
– or try and pitch at Ultralight or Entrepreneurs’ Roundtable (free, see above)

If you might like to work at a startup

General Assembly‘s job boards (on the wall at 902 Broadway, 4th Floor… how retro)
The Muse
– Christina Cacioppo’s job board
Made in NY job map
– Jobs at Union Square Ventures-backed startups:

Educational resources – the last few years have seen an explosion in Tech Education. Some might argue that successful entrepreneurs learn by doing, not paying $12k for a coding course. But the paid schools below have built up impressive alumni networks and also help with job placement, which may justify the price depending on your own networking prowess.

General Assembly: everything from $20 evening classes to twelve week $11.5k web development immersives
Flatiron School: twelve weeks, $12k, and arguably the best coding education you can get outside of a good university. Competitive admission.
Startup Institute: $5250 for an 8 week course with a ‘core curriculum’ and optional specialization in different startup-centric tracks (web development, UX design, etc)
Codeacademy: it’s free. Online. Started by NYers. Bloomberg apparently uses it, bless his heart
Dash: a sexier but less developed competitor to Codeacademy, also free online. Made by the General Assembly folks


TechCrunch Disrupt (early May): the tech blog’s second conference gets an appearance from most of the current Hot People in Tech. Can be useful to try and rub shoulders, but don’t pay full price for a ticket
Maker Faire (late September): take Medieval Times and replace the jousting with robot jousting. Really!
NY Tech Day (late April): quite obviously not the World’s Largest Tech Event, as they bill themselves. Still a decent overview of who’s making what
– Capital On Stage (November): one day conference where venture capitalists ‘pitch’ to entrepreneurs
– Google search ‘NYC Hackathon’ (what is a hackathon?) as these are constantly changing
*these events are often pricey, but there are always hacks to get in for free or a reduced rate – participate in the Disrupt hackathon, for example, and you get two free tickets to the $1995-a-ticket conference

Scenesters – not the ‘best’ entrepreneurs and investors, but the people that go most out of their way to be accessible and welcoming to new startup-minded people + the ones that consistently generate good social media content. Sorted by descending sum of Twitter followers, more or less.

Arianna Huffington: no explanation needed
– Gary Vaynerchuk: prolific angel investor, just launched a seed fund
Mayor Emeritus Mike Bloomberg: presided over NY’s transition to tech powerhouse, continues to be a champion of the community
Jenna Wortham: NY Times tech reporter
Anil Dash: NY tech old guard. Serial founder, prolific tweeter. blog
– Fred Wilson: Godfather of Union Square Ventures. blog
Baratunde Thurston: seems to be a staple at tech events though it’s unclear why exactly
Chris Dixon: VC@ Andreesen Horowitz. blog
Joel Spolsky: founder of Stack Overflow, but best known for Joel on Software, his coder culture-defining blog since 2000. Blogging for 14 years!!
Alexis Ohanian: Reddit founder, Y Combinator’s east coast ambassador, angel investor, book writer
Kate Kendall: Melbourne transplant, media maven, founder of The Fetch
Esther Dyson: prolific angel investor
Rachel Sklar: founder of the, an email list for females in tech, ‘Change the Ratio‘ champion
Jonah Peretti: founder & CEO Buzzfeed
Jason Saltzman: founder & CEO, AlleyNYC
Bre Pettis: CEO Makerbot. blog
David Tisch: scion of the family with their name on half the buildings in NY. Formerly found of TechStars NY, now investor at Box Group
– Charlie O’Donnell: formerly of First Round Capital and Union Square Ventures, now leading his own $10m fund, Brooklyn Bridge Ventures, which has had early successes in Tinybop and Canary. Often arranges lunches & dinners for the NY entrepreneurial community
Cindy Gallop: advertising exec turned founder of friendly porn site Force of nature
Trevor Owens: runs Lean Startup Machin
Andy Weissman: Union Square Ventures. blog
Howard Morgan: First Round Capital. Most active 60+ year old tweeter in tech?
Ben Lerer: Lerer Ventures, Thrillist founder
Christina Cacioppo: formerly USV, now building something?
– Phin Barnes: First Round Capital. blog
Courtney Boyd Meyers: The Next Web, Wired, Daily Beast writer
– Kathryn Minshew: founder of the Muse, WSJ contributor, poster woman for Women in Tech
Alyson Shontell: Business Insider
Erin Griffith: formerly PandoDaily, now Fortune
Joanne Wilson: ‘The Gotham Gal’ angel investor, blog
Kelly Hoey: founder Women Innovate Mobile accelerator
Steve Schlafman: formerly Lerer Ventures, now RRE
Shai Goldman: Managing Director at SVB, formerly heading up the NY branch of 500 Startups, Dave McClure’s global empire
– Matt Brimer: one of the founders of General Assembly, prolific party-hoster
Rameet Chawla: co-founder of Fueled, insanely well dressed
Ryan Matzner: co-founder of Fueled, insanely well dressed. Yes, both of them.
– Frank Denbow: curator of NY Startup Digest and founder of NY Startup Weekend, staple at hackathons. Knows everyone
Murat Aktihanoglu: founder Entrepreneurs’ Roundtable Accelerator
Chris Velazco: formerly @TechCrunch, now associate editor at Endgadget
Mark Birch: serial founder, blogger, man about town. blog
Niamh Hughes: former community director @General Assembly, now at Shutterstock; Sandbox network ambassador for NY
Tom Limongello: columnist @PandoDaily, abortive creator of fail whale pillows
David Teten – ff Venture Capital, HBS Alumni Angels, frequent judge at startup competitions
– Christina Wallace – director of NY Startup Institute, super connector

Getting investment

– SVB’s Shai Goldman has helpfully compiled a spreadsheet of funds raised in the last two years, which are by definition the most likely to be actively making investments today
15 NY-based Angel Groups for Your Startup to Consider from AlleyWatch

Big NY Startups

– Meetup
– Foursquare
– Thrillist
– Etsy
– AppNexus
– Fab
– Tumblr
– Stack Exchange
– Shapeways
– Return Path
– Kickstarter
– Buzzfeed
– RapGenius
– Warby Parker
– Gilt
– Artsy
– Squarespace
– Vice Media
– Sailthru
– Refinery29

Concluding Notes

– General Assembly runs a great free 1-hour ‘orientation’ class every few weeks that gives a good overview of things and people to know
– Is this comprehensive? Hell no. That’s the point. Still, please let me know of any glaring omissions or falsities in the comments, mail g at or via the social network of your choice.

Sources: Steve Schalfman’s ‘Guide to NYC tech'; SVB, CB Insights, and Orrick’s ‘Venture Capital Almanac';  Brittany Laughlin @USV; anecdotes; hard won personal experience

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Afghanistan Part I: Scariana

A bit delayed, I’ve decided to publish bits of my recent trip to Afghanistan. 

August 6th, 2013

Flight Istanbul-Kabul
Goodbye friends, hello war zone. It’s my first time intentionally flying into a place like this, but I don’t feel unsafe. Experience has taught me again and again that the majority of people are well-intentioned. That, or the majority don’t care enough about strangers to try and do them harm.

Plus I’ve had a number of friends working an living in this area for years. I’m going to be connected to someone who knows the lay of the land from touchdown to wheels up on my way out… I think. 

The Air Ariana flight has so far been uneventful. Only a few of my Istanbul-based journalist friends are poor enough to have to take Afghanistan’s national carrier, affectionately known as ‘Scariana’, over the more convenient Turkish Air or Emirates flights. But the plane is generic, in as good condition as many flights I’ve taken in the US. 

As far as I can tell, I’m one of only two Westerners on the plane. The other is a woman just shy of middle age wearing cargo pants and a long-sleeve T shirt. I wasn’t sure what was appropriate and so am dressed in linen trousers and a blue and white linen kaftan that hits just above my knees. I have a scarf for when I land, but for now there doesn’t seem to be any reason to wear it. Many of the women on the plane don’t have their heads covered, though they are conservatively dressed. There are only two female passengers wearing head-to-toe black abayas.

The passengers are probably 90% men. The flight attendants are mostly men in dapper pilot’s uniforms, but there are also three women flight attendants: one wearing an abaya, and two wearing slacks, collared shirts, vests, and an elegant scarf/hat combo that half covers their heads but certainly couldn’t be considered mosque appropriate. 

The two men in my row, Najeeb and Mohammed, are Afghani, from a northern province near Mazar-i-Sharif. They’re studying civil engineering at Yildiz Technical University in Istanbul. Najeeb hopes to continue his studies with a master’s somewhere in Europe, but has no question that he’ll return to Afghanistan when he can – ‘it’s too beautiful to stay away.’ Their studies are in Turkish, but their English is decent – they said they have some French and German friends and so it’s easiest to communicate in English with them. They pointed out the Hazar Deniz (sea), which marks the border between Turkey and Iran, and we all remarked how gorgeously turquoise it was.

Much of the land we’re flying over is raw mountains. Occasionally, a road snakes around the side of one, or a green smear marks a river between the ranges. Very little of it is inhabited. About halfway into the flight, clouds have blocked sight of the ground except for occasional points where the mountains break over them, like islands in a bleached sea. These mountains must be gigantic.

Afghanistan sits at the nexus of so many civilizations, and it’s easy to notice this on the plane. Some of my fellow passengers are undoubtedly Turks. In a tribute to their relative Westernization, they’re the only ones on the plane with any fat. The rest are harder to identify. Both Najeeb and Mohammed are from the Hazari ethnic group, who are known (depending on who you talk to) for being relatively peaceful compared to the majority Pashto. (The Taliban are mostly Pashto). But they don’t look similar at all. Najeeb has the smooth, high cheekbones and fine features of an Iranian. Mohammed is stockier, with tough-looking skin and a dark complexion – he looks Mexican more than anything else. One woman has the pale skin and heart-shaped type of face I associate most closely with Georgia. Others look Mongolian or Chinese, with jet black hair and and dark eyes that narrow towards the tips.

Many years ago, perhaps even before September 11th, I came across a story about Afghanistan in National Geographic that featured a picture of a young girl with light eyes and hair. She had a slightly testy look, like a child who’s just been told she can’t have a McFlurry. I thought it was so strange that this western-looking girl actually lived in a country somewhere in the middle of Asia. 

I tore out the picture and put it on my wall, where she watched over my struggles with high school chemistry homework. My decade-plus fascination with this country began. And it’s time to return our seatbacks and tray tables to their upright and locked position.

later that evening
Arrival went smoothly. The woman who had been wearing cargo pants changed at some point mid-flight into a shalwar khameez. My headscarf is on. A bus ferries people from the terminal building to the parking lot, through a number of concrete barriers and switchbacks. Anyone trying to attack this airport would have a lot of battles to wage with blocks of concrete. 

Apparently I was supposed to get an ‘arrival card’ from some office at the airport. My friend instructs me that if customs gives me trouble on the way out I should just tell them that they had run out of cards for the day on the day I arrived. Oh, how I love senseless bureaucracy. 
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On Starting Startups

(originally published on Medium)

5 Days to Decide if You’re Ready to Found
A step by step process to evaluate your idea and, more importantly, whether you really want to be an entrepreneur

You have an idea that could grow into a world-changing, money-belching company. So you’re thinking of founding your first startup.

The trouble is that there’s no obvious path to becoming an entrepreneur. In the US we have exams to tell you you’re qualified to dispense prescriptions, trade securities, or educate our schoolchildren. But how do you know you have the skills to start a successful company?

You probably don’t. No one is born knowing how to build a winning startup. But that shouldn’t hold you back from trying. Skills can be learned! If you’re seriously considering taking the leap, here’s a checklist, designed to be carried out in as little as a week, that will help you make an informed decision on whether or not you’re ready to found.

1. Read Founder’s Dilemmas by Noam Wasserman.
Time to complete: ~8 hours

What are the costs and potential benefits of founding your own company? What resources (human, financial, and other) should you be assembling? Founder’s Dilemmas has answers to most of the questions you don’t even know you should be asking. A lot of popular startup books (like the classic ‘Do More Faster’) focus on case studies, which are interesting. But I really appreciated Wasserman’s systematic longitudinal studies of 1000+ startups, and the facts he drew from them. For example: the average founder has worked for 14 years before starting his or her first company, but the standard deviation is 9.8 years. So there really is no ‘right’ age to become an entrepreneur.

2. Read Venture Deals by Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson.
Time to complete: ~4 hours

Chances are you’ll need to raise money at some point. Do you know what options, convertible debt, and carry are? Are you sure? If yes, go buy yourself a popsicle, and then read this book anyway (the rest of you do just the last part).

Convincing someone to give you money is an art, not a science. But for deciding how much equity to give up, what terms to be flexible on, and what kind of person you want to take money from — it doesn’t hurt to learn from the experience of those who have gone before. Plus it will probably help save you a lot of money in lawyer’s fees.

3. Attend a Startup Weekend/Lean Startup Machine weekend workshop.
Time to complete: 48 hours

These happen all over the world — Startup Weekend and LSM are the most well known, but many clones exist. They tend to follow the same pattern: on Friday night, everyone (typically 50-100 people) shows up and pitches ideas. Attendees vote and the top 10 ideas are selected for further development. Even if your idea isn’t chosen, you’re expected to join a group and work on turning one of the 10 concepts into a ‘business’ for the next 48 hours. Mentors—investors, experienced founders, etc — coach teams on best practices. On Sunday afternoon, each team demos, and the mentors choose a winner.

If you find in the course of the weekend that you’re frustrated by the challenges of building a team, fighting for your idea, figuring out how to make something work with less time or other resources than you’d wish, or releasing something that isn’t perfect… that might be an indication that you won’t enjoy doing this for a living.

(Some of these are free, some aren’t; the paid ones may have better mentors and thus, potentially, more useful connections.)

4. Connect with the ‘community’.
Time to complete: minimum 2 meetups, 4 hours total

Most cities will have some form of startup networking scene. These are generally easy to find via, an online organization that allows people to create special interest groups and publicize their events.

Show up to anything that looks interesting, eat some pizza, and tell people about what you’re thinking of building. Eventually, as your idea and product refines, you’ll want to target key players rather than the admittedly hit or miss crowd you’ll find at an average meetup. But at the beginning you should just get feedback from as many people as possible.

Meetups are also a great way to meet potential teammates. You’re not going to build a billion dollar startup on your own, and even if your idea and abilities are Zuckerbergian you’re not going to have people beating down your door to work with you at the very beginning.

There are almost always some interesting people at every startup-focused event. If you can find them, hey! You might be good at this.

If there aren’t any meetups in your town, you can engage with the startup community online through forums like Quora, Hacker News, and Stack Overflow, to name just a few.

5. Find role models and ask to meet with them.
8 hours to set up and have 4 meetings

Chances are you have some entrepreneurs in your network of family, friends, and former colleagues or classmates who will be happy to listen to your idea and provide some initial feedback.

If you’re interested in a specific industry, don’t be afraid to seek out the leaders in your field. I’ve cold emailed CEOs of some of the biggest companies in my industry and every single one has replied (though not all agreed to meet the first time). Entrepreneurs tend to be generous with their time and advice. We’ve been where you are now, and we’re happy to do some shepherding just as we were once shepherded. That being said, you’ll do yourself and them a favor by learning a bit about the startup landscape before you reach out. Read Founder’s Dilemmas first and then make the most of your meeting by coming in with specific questions.

You don’t need to follow this list. I’m in no way an authority on what it takes to build a successful company (we’ve still got a long way to go at TripCommon). But if you’re thinking of investing a substantial portion of your life in a startup, a bit of due diligence can’t hurt.

Ultimately, no one’s going to be able to tell you when you’re ready to found your company. You need to be passionate. You should be able to convince at least a few other people that your idea is worth building. But beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess whether you have what it takes to succeed. The only way to find out is to try. Good luck!

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Istanbul here and now

My friend Alev is keeping a fantastic blog chronicling the day-to-day developments of the protests in Turkey. If you have time for only one entry, this email she wrote at the beginning still rings very true.

Dear everyone,

I hate these kinds of emails but what’s happening in Turkey is important. I have seen the situation being misconstrued in the international media (and ignored completely by most Turkish media). I got worried calls from my parents long before my Turkish friends did, because on Friday many Turks outside Istanbul knew nothing about the protests. Now they have spread to 67 cities, thanks to social media. I don’t have a clue what is going to happen, I can only guess, but I am here so I can see what’s going on now.

Basically, this is what happens every night since I have been here (from Saturday until today): protestors gather and march, gathering pace towards nightfall, chanting for the resignation of the government. Police blast them with tear gas (more on that later) and water cannons, often at very close range. Sometimes the gas is dropped by helicopter over large areas, like last night. The protestors get angrier and more determined. Around 5AM the die-hard stragglers go home, leaving barricades blocking the road so police vans can’t follow. The protestors clean up in the morning: debris, discarded masks, paving stones, etc. Around 8PM it all starts again.

The President (Gul) tries to calm things down. The Prime Minister (Erdogan) insists that we are all extremists, alcoholics, foreigners (fair point) and anti-democratic. He is now in Morocco, which has actually calmed the situation a tiny bit.

The whys and wherefores can wait. Right now, these are the important facts:

If the police left, there would be no drama whatsoever.

Despite the scaremongering images of smashed shop fronts etc, the proportion of hooligans among protestors is actually very small. There are inevitably angry kids from the ghetto who come to these protests to throw rocks around, and they don’t care why they are there. The last few nights, I have seen protestors calming them down and getting them to put down the rocks, put out the fires, stop swearing at the police. However, the hooligan element has scared the conservative demographic – Erdogan has made much of the dangerous nature of these protests.

There is an amazing feeling of solidarity on the streets. People hand out masks, water, lotions for the tear gas, lemons to strangers. When there is a sense of panic, and people start running, a general cry of “Yavas, yavas” (slowly, slowly) calms everyone down. Football supporters wear the colours of rival teams (unheard of) and link arms, cheering each other on. I have seen two things in the past two days I have never seen in my two years in Turkey: friendly football fans and people picking up rubbish. These are both happening during a quasi-revolution – impressive.

A word on tear gas: I don’t think anyone has explained yet how debilitating it is, and how demoralising. I am so impressed that protestors have been persisting with not only sustained but increased energy, because the effects stay with you the next day in the form of a severe hangover-like grogginess and headache. Also, most protestors are on about 3/4 hours sleep.

At the time, tear gas is like a wall of pain. People have asked me what is smells like. It is not smell, it is pain. A warning note of bitterness is immediately followed by burning of any exposed skin, throat, nose and stinging tears. You cannot see and you panic. You run, you just want to get away. It is extremely effective, and so much of it has been used recently that even my friends with industrial-style gas masks cannot proceed sometimes. There is no air, just gas, so the filters in the mask are useless.

After running and returning, running and returning, hearing helicopters circling overhead and canisters being fired somewhere unseen in front, you begin to feel defeated. You feel like this could go on forever, and you wonder why you are still here.The fact that people continue their chants and their efforts to push forward is unbelievably impressive, and I am frankly humbled by the determination and spirit I have seen. I do not have the stomach for front line stuff, and I am in awe of those who do.

Please tell everyone what is going on.

The most important message is that Turkey has woken up to what it wants, or rather doesn’t want, and that is a wonderful thing. The next few days will be crucial, it’s up to the government now, but I can only echo what I saw graffiti-ed on a wall this morning: “Nothing will ever be as it was before.”


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Working Women in Arabia

Grad student asks: were you comfortable as a woman working in the Middle East?

Yes, I was. In the Levant (Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, and Jordan) I didn’t dress or act differently than I would have anywhere, and I’m not conservative by most measuring sticks. I’ll discuss below some slight changes I made while working in the more open Gulf countries (Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, and Oman). If you’re going beyond those boundaries, I refer you to the advice of the Unaccompanied Lady

In the Gulf (except Saudi Arabia) normal businesswear is fine, including skirts; on the evenings and weekends I covered my shoulders and legs to my knees. But aside from that, very little separated my experience in the Middle East from any other business interaction. Occasionally more conservative men would put their hand on their heart and bow rather than shake my hand, as they didn’t wish to touch a woman not related to them. 

The women I interviewed usually wore headscarfs if not a full abaya, but I didn’t feel any pressure or judgment because I was dressed differently. 

However strange it may seem to my fellow Americans, people in the more conservative parts of the Middle East really seem to believe that many of the customs we find objectionable are ways of protecting, respecting, and/or empowering women. They don’t think women are stupid or incapable. They just consider being a woman and leader of a household as more important than career paths outside the home, for the most part. 

I did meet women at all rungs of the corporate ladder, from receptionists to government ministers. There are few, if any, professions that are limited by gender. (I didn’t meet any female taxi drivers, though I’m not sure if that’s legislated.) In fact, women are generally considered more competent and reliable employees, and are more likely to have gotten a higher education degree than their male counterparts.

But how does this shape your experience as a western woman in the ME? Fundamentally, you’re a foreigner, and they don’t measure you by the same standards they do their ‘own’ women. None of my interviewees seemed nonplussed to meet an unaccompanied, college-educated professional woman. A few times the men I met even said they hoped their daughters would grow up to be educated and independent like me (a huge surprise!). Yes, there were a few guys who wanted to ‘continue the discussion over dinner’, but all you have to say is no. And it’s not like that doesn’t happen in the Western world as well. 

I’m not going to say there was zero harassment on the street. There were occasional cat calls, whistles, or more often simply staring, but again no more than most other cities. (I also lived in China, where people would occasionally come up and stroke my hair because they’d never seen anything like it. So maybe I’m desensitized to these kinds of things). 

In a different field, or if you were planning to live and work there full-time and climb the career ladder, the differences between how men and women are treated might become clearer, but as an analyst who seldom spent more than two weeks in any one location I never felt compromised in my ability to do any work.

So if you have the opportunity: go! The Middle East is gorgeous. It’s the cradle of civilization. The food is incredible. Most of the people you meet will be as generous as they are proud of their heritage.

Most importantly, your visit, work, or time spent living in the Middle East will transform the way you look at the news. You’ll return to your home with stories of a land rich in history, hospitality, and hummus. Tell these stories. The western world needs to hear more of them. 
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How to charter a boat in Croatia

Chartering a yacht in Croatia: it’s something for the Prince Edwards, Elizabeth Taylors, and Jim Clarks of the world, not us mere mortals, right?

Actually, it’s not that hard. And if you were planning on spending 100 euro/day or more on your European holiday, cruising will almost certainly be cheaper. You don’t need to have any sailing experience. You will see more gorgeous things, natural and man-made, than you would in almost any other setting. You won’t need to unpack and repack bags. It’s even eco-friendly.

The stretch of coast from Istria in northern Croatia to Dubrovnik, close to the border with Montenegro, has been a popular cruising destination for millennia. There are three UNESCO world heritage sites, well preserved Venetian cities, and remnants of Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian occupation. Add in a thriving culinary tradition, some of the best nightclubs in Europe, crystal-clear water, and four months of almost uninterrupted sunshine from mid-May to mid-September, and you can see why people don’t tend to visit just once. Go before it becomes overrun…

GETTING THERE: Dubrovnik, Split, and Zadar are the most popular places to pick up your boat. All have airports with frequent connections to most European hubs. See more details below.

THE COST: 500-2000 euro/person ($660-2600 in the summer of 2012), depending on the level of comfort you want on your yacht, plus airfare.

Here’s a breakdown.

Boat rental: varies widely depending on boat size/quality/age and the number in your party. Plan on 1800-7000 euro, to be split by you and your fellow boatmates.
Standard yachts sleep 4-12 people.
You will pay a flat fee for the boat, so it’s generally cheaper if you have a full boat and so have more people splitting the price.
In most cruising yachts, the dining table (‘saloon’) will fold down to form a bunk for two people. Therefore, yachts are generally advertised to sleep 2n+2 people, where n = the number of cabins. If noone in your party wants to sleep in the saloon, you should subtract 2 from the number of people the boat technically sleeps.
Any chartering company will send you the basic details of the boats they’re offering. You can google the model of the boat to find all the specs, detailed pictures of the inside and outside, and floor plans that show how many bedrooms and bathrooms each boat will have.
If you plan to have 8 or more on the same boat, for the love of God make sure you have more than one bathroom. Toilets have a tendency to get clogged.
Keep in mind you will have to account for sleeping space for your staff, if you choose to book any. It is fairly standard to have the staff sleep in the saloon.
Staff (optional)

Skipper ~ 150 euro/day ($200). Unless you’re a very experienced sailor, you’ll want to make this investment. He/she will take care of all navigation and boat handling, though you are of course welcome to help. Occasionally you’ll also get lucky and have a skipper who covers the duties of the hostess (see below)
Most reputable companies in Croatia now require formal qualifications for people looking to rent a boat, so if you plan to go without skipper you should make sure you have a license (RYA preferred).
Hostess (who keeps the boat clean and prepares meals) ~100 euro ($130)/day. Usually the skipper + hostess are a couple.

Self catering is easy, with a choice between traditional markets or supermarkets. If you have a hostess, you will give her money to do the shopping whenever we put into port.
Dining on shore can cost whatever you want it to. Quaint restaurants with delicious fresh food are cheap (10-20 euro/$13-26) and ubiquitous. Many places you stop will also have higher-end options.

Dubrovnik and Split both have airports with seasonal connections to most European hubs (see list here for Dubrovnik under ‘Get in’)
Current prices from New York-Dubrovnik are listed around $1400, but I would expect prices to drop as more airlines list their summer timetables.
Once in Europe, plan to spend around 250 euro to get to/from Dubrovnik. You can get much cheaper if you are willing to fly budget airlines (easyjet, Ryanair, etc)
Recommended search engines for flights:
A taxi from the airport to the marina should cost 80 euro or so, and cheaper transportation can probably be arranged in advance
You could also take a ferry from Italy – there are daily services from Ancona and Pescara
Port fees

berthing fee at marina – 20-100 euro ($26-133)/day, depending on the place; 50% more for catamarans
anchoring in a natural bay – free
Fuel ~100-200 euro ($130-260)/week, depending on oil prices and how much you sail
Cleaning – most rental agencies will charge a one-time cleaning fee of 100-150 euro ($130-200) at the end of the week.
Selecting a company & paying:

The best option, of course, is a personal recommendation. However, keep in mind companies change from year to year, so unless you go with an established brand you may not be getting the same service your friends got in previous years.
The most well-known companies in Croatia are the Moorings (which is also strong worldwide) and Sunsail. Both are a little more expensive than what you’ll find with local connections, but are not unreasonable and are the easiest for first-time charterers.
Always negotiate the price of your charter. You should be able to secure discounts of at least 10% off the stated price, and if you book before March you can generally get up to 25% off.
Planning in advance is a good idea. Croatia has become such a prime destination that boats really do sell out and it’s unlikely you’ll find a good last-minute deal in season.
You can usually negotiate another 5-10% off the price if you pay in cash (via bank transfer) rather than a credit card.
Most companies tend to ask for a deposit of around 25% of the total cost when you make the reservation, and the balance a month before your trip.
Certain incidentals (such as the cleaning fee and the skipper’s salary, if you book one) are paid in cash.


Bookings begin on Saturday, but you usually can’t leave port until 5pm, as the chartering company will need to clean the boat after the previous group leaves. It’s usually free to stay in the home marina on your first night in case you have people arriving late.
You will have to be back in the marina either by 5pm Friday night or 9am Saturday morning – make sure you check this if you plan to have a full itinerary.
In some situations, limited marina space will compel you to raft up with complete strangers. This may mean you have strangers walking across your boat at any hour of the night or morning. Use this as an opportunity to make new friends and share the off-market Croatian booze that you mistakenly bought.
Croatian gin is terrible.
Croatian beer is delicious, in a lager kind of way.
Badel Croatian Cognac is this blogger’s favorite drink.

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Exploring Turkey

This is a quick overview of the main cities to see outside of Istanbul. It’s a follow up to the earlier posts on Planning a Visit to Turkey and Orienting Yourself in Istanbul. Like both of those, it was written in conjunction with Kate Bloomer.

Flights: Internal flights in Turkey are very reasonable. If you book in advance you’re looking at roundtrip for under 100 TL (US $65), but even last minute you’ll be able to get good deals. is an aggregator for internal Turkish flights, though it doesn’t always work. We’ve flown Anadolu Jet, Pegasus Airways, AtlasJet, Sun Express and Onur Air and they’ve all been legit (and much more comfortable than Easyjet/Ryanair).

Train: The train network in Turkey is slow and far from comprehensive, but that doesn’t tend to matter to people who are considering taking the train. There are apparently some lovely overnight options to Kayseri (near Capadoccia), Konya, or Ankara, though the former two do fill up so be sure to book a day or two in advance. There are also some slower, atmospheric (read: rather dingy) services to Van and Kars in the east.

Bus: most buses are extremely comfortable coach buses with a personal TV and attendants who will bring you tea and nibbles. Metro and Ulusoy often have Wifi as well. Since buses are mostly used by locals, it’s a great way to get a sense of the country outside the tourist enclaves.

Car: Highways are generally very good and international signage makes it easy to navigate. Car rental is quite cheap but gasoline is EXTREMELY expensive – count on paying more for gasoline than the car rental.
  • Cappadocia: This was the first place I visited after Istanbul and the first I’d recommend. The area has plenty to do for the active – from walking through the beautiful Ihlara Valley, visiting underground cities and rock cut churches, and wandering through the fairy chimneys. The Goreme Open Air Museum (15 TL, 8 TL additonal for the Dark Church) contains more than 30 rock-carved churches and chapels with amazing frescoes dating from the 9-11th century. I highly suggest staying in Goreme, and if possible at the Kelebek ( , where the owner Ali has a beautiful boutique hotel that’s actually built inside a fairy chimney (as well as a nice buffet breakfast included in the reasonable price). The view from a hot air balloon is supposed to be incredible, but comes at a (probably reasonable) price of around 120 euro. Fly or take the train to Kayseri or Nevsehir, where a hotel bus will pick you up.
  • Ephesus: Flights are available to Izmir, and from there you can take a bus or often hotels will provide a shuttle service to Selcuk (approx. 55 km), the closest town to these stunning Hellenistic ruins. Ephesus is a marvelous sight and well worth visiting – you can walk through in about 2 hours, it costs 20 TL to get in. In Selcuk you can also visit the House of the Virgin Mary (Meryem Ana Evi), 10 km south on the hills. As you might guess, this supposedly the house where the Virgin Mary spend her last days in Ephesus. The Vatican declared this place an official Catholic pilgrimage site. The Museum of Ephesus, which contains objects found in the excavation, is well worth a visit. The most famous of the camel wrestling matches also takes place in Selcuk in January. 
  • Olympos/Lycian trail: stretching along the Mediterranean coast west of Antalya (1 hr flights from Istanbul usually 70 lira or less) is a gorgeous string of ancient Greek and Roman towns, many with magnificent ruins. The ruins at Olympos are located in a national park (that includes a lovely stretch of beach), and it’s very popular to stay in bungalows or treehouses (literally, forts in trees – only recommended in the summer!) when you visit. Myra, about an hour west, features tombs cut into cliff faces, a well-preserved theater, and the church where St Nicholas was bishop (most people don’t realize Santa Claus was Turkish!). We haven’t been to Kekova, an island off the coast where you can swim among the ruins of a sunken city, but it’s supposed to be lovely.
  • On the other side of Antalya are the also-stunning ruins of Aspendos, Perge, and Sitra. They’re great out of season but can get a little overrun in the summer (apparently – we’ve only been in January). It’s easy to visit all three sites in the course of a weekend if you stay in the old city of Antalya and rent a car (which we did for 50 TL a day in January 2012). 
  • Cyprus is completely underrated in our book. Breathtaking Crusader castles, monasteries, Greek and Roman fortified towns, beaches and wild greenery – did we also mention delicious wine and seafood? See more details in the previous entry on Cyprus. Flights from Istanbul are absurdly cheap and frequent. 
  • The Aegean beach towns on Bodrum and Cesme peninsulas range from bucolic heaven to ritz and glitz to package holiday hell. In both places, having a car is probably sensible, as it costs about 50 TL/day whereas a taxi ride pretty much anywhere will likely cost you twice that (Bodrum peninsula is well served by minibuses, but they all connect through Bodrum town, which can be tedious). Only stay in Bodrum town if you are nostalgic for the days of sweaty frat parties or that trashy stag/hen do you might have once attended. Turkbuku, on the other side of the pensinsula, has some fun clubs, including the see and be seen Macikizi (rooms go for 400-800 euro a night here, but amazingly there’s no cover if you’re just coming to party at the bar). Cesme is more Turkish – better deals, more flavor, but ever so slightly more difficult if you aren’t tagging along with someone who knows their way around. The cobble-streeted, landlocked Alacati is definitely the jewel in Cesme’s crown, full of boutiques and excellent restaurants – a bit touristy, but gets points for being mostly undiscovered by foreigners. Plenty of nice beach clubs – or just undeveloped stretches of beach – are a quick cab or drive from Alacati.
  • Pamukkale: accessible from Izmir, this is the site of an ancient spa and hot springs used since the second century BC, and though you’re not llowed to swim in them anymore you’ll still be amazed by the naturally formed white calcium pools. The adjacent Roman city and Amphitheatre of Hieropolis are stunning. Day tours from Izmir are offered for around 45 Lira (as of January 2010) including English-speaking guide, entrance fee to Hierapolis and the travertines (this alone costs 20 Lira if you’re going independently) and buffet lunch.
  • Konya: How many cities are known for dancing but offer no nightlife? The important Muslim mystic, poet, and founder of the whirling dervishes, Rumi, settled here, and his lavishly decorated tomb (the Mevlana Museum/Mausoleum) is one of the more important pilgrimage sights in the Islamic world. Other attractions include the 13th c Iplikçi Mosque, where the final sultans of the Selcuks (the Turkic tribe which invaded Turkey in the 10th century and was eventually succeeded by the Ottomans) came to rest, and Ince Minare Museum, a 13th century madrassah. You can fly directly to Konya airport from Istanbul or take on a three hour bus from Cappadocia.
  • Kars/Ani: The city at the heart of Orhan Pamuk’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel wins no beauty prizes, but gets some points for its castle and a handful of architecturally interesting buildings. 45km east, however, is (to our minds) the most evocative and beautiful place in Turkey: the ruins of the ancient Armenian capital of Ani. Perched on the edge of a gorge at the border of Armenia and Turkey, the ruins (many of which are 1000+ years old) deserve at least a full day of exploring. Bring a picnic of the deservedly famous Kars cheese, honey, and some vegetables that you can pick up at any street market in town – there is very little tourist infrastructure. *Kars, and especially Ani, can be inaccessible due to snow in winter and very hot and dusty in summer, so best to visit in spring/fall*. Hostels in Kars run tours, but we’re happy we rented a car and had the flexibility to travel onwards to Doğubeyazıt, a city at the foot of Mt Ararat (where Noah’s Ark supposedly came to rest after the flood), where the splendid İsakpaşa Palace marks the junction of Turkey, Iran, and Armenia. Four hours further south (and served by its own airport) is the important regional capital of Van. Peppered with Armenian and Georgian churches, historic temples and mosques, the city was hit by a massive earthquake in October 2011 so I’m not sure how feasible it would be to visit in the near term.

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Istanbul Tips, Part V: Get Legal in Turkey

Here’s a quick summary on how to get a residence permit in Istanbul. It’s a follow up to the earlier posts on Planning a Visit to Turkey and Orienting Yourself in Istanbul. Because I assume that after you visit you’ll want to live here as well, naturally.
When I first got to Istanbul, it was common practice for foreigners to show up, decide they wanted to live in Istanbul, and never get a residence permit. They’d live in the country on a 90-day tourist visa, get paid under the table, and take a ‘visa run’ out of the country every three months to renew their tourist visa.
For better or worse, the Turkish government has started to crack down on its illegal immigrants. The good news is that it’s very easy to stay in the country legally. You can either get a long-term Tourist Visa or a residence permit. The only differences I can tell between the two are that 1. you must prove that you have $500/month you intend to stay for the former and only $300/month for the latter, and 2. the Tourist visa is only valid for up to nine months while the residence permit can be for up to three years and renewed indefinitely. The following are instructions for how to get your very own long-term residence permit, or uzun sureli ikamet tezkeresi, based on an email that Amanda Pearson sent me when I was first investigating the process a few years ago. I’ve updated it to reflect some recent friends’ experiences as well.
Unless your work is sponsoring a visa for you, the ‘uzun sureli’ permit is the most hassle-free to get. It assumes you are hanging out here not working or being a student, and have money in the bank to cover living expenses for the period of the permit. You’ll apply for the residence permit after you’ve entered Turkey on a standard 90-day tourist visa.
Here is the website where you can get information and forms and make your appointment to apply for the residence permit: You will need:
  • 1 color printout of the Declaration for Residence Permit form (İkamet Beyanname Form  (completed using typewriter or word-processor).
  • 4 passport photographs. (5 if this is your first application).
  • Original passport and photocopies of pages in passport showing your photograph and last entry stamp IN COLOR they will absolutely not accept it otherwise. You will not have to leave your passport there while the permit is processing (which takes about a week or less, my renewal took 24 hours), but you need to show it when you drop off your paperwork and again when you pick up your permit. 
  • Bank Statement showing savings of $300 per month you intend to stay (so $3600 for one year), or notarised Real Estate Deed. The proof of savings needs to be in the form of a notarised document from your bank – ie a printout, stamped by the bank and mailed to you (if a foreign account). If you have a Turkish bank account, you can pick up a stamped copy in person anytime during business hours, just ask. One friend said she just exchanged $3600 into Turkish lira and showed the receipt of this transaction to the authorities and that worked ok. I think she got lucky and it’s worth getting the official documents rather than risk having to go through the entire process twice, but for what it’s worth…
On the website you can see the link to the “e-randevu”, to set the time when you go in and drop your stuff off with an officer at the yabanci mudurlugu in Aksaray if this is your first application*. It feels really hectic and you can wait a long time, but the most important thing is to get up to the waiting room and get in line for a number. Take the number, which instructs you to see an officer and/or specifies the particular desk that you go to. The process has been different each time I’ve gone. 
The officer will look through your application and then send you downstairs to pay (the table showing prices is in the bottom right corner of the web page – currently for American citizens it costs $25 for the first month and $5 for every additional month you intend to stay, plus 149 TL for the residence permit book if this is your first application). You get a receipt and bring it back up, and then they staple everything together and you are basically good to go. They give you a slip of paper telling you when you can come back and pick it up.
On your form, if you’re getting an uzun sureli permit you’ll have to fill out the reason for your stay. Just write “Serbest” (= free/unemployed).
Sometimes the appointments get backed up and you have to wait up to 1-2 months to get in, but as long as you show that you APPLIED for the appointment before your most recent visa ran out, you are ok. This is shown on your official e-randevu slip which you must provide when you get to the station on the day of (when you make the appointment, be in a position to print out the receipt). Also, note that they require you to print out the application form in color (they definitely will not take it in black and white). Make sure that you are in a position to do that when you download it and fill it out.
Sometimes the appointments get backed up and you have to wait up to 1-2 months to get in, but as long as you show that you APPLIED for the appointment before your most recent visa ran out, you are ok. This is shown on your official e-randevu slip which you must provide when you get to the station on the day of (when you make the appointment, be in a position to print out the receipt). Also, note that they require you to print out the application form in color (they definitely will not take it in black and white). Make sure that you are in a position to do that when you download it and fill it out.
It can be sort of intimidating to go through the process, but as long as your docs are in order and you don’t have anything urgent to do that day, you should be fine. The peace of mind you get by having the permit makes it totally worth it in my book.
If you need to travel after your tourist visa has expired but before your residence permit appointment, you should technically be allowed to do so. Make sure you bring a printed copy  of your residence permit appointment details showing that you made the appointment before your visa expired. If you don’t have this document you may have to pay a substantial fine and may have trouble getting back into Turkey.
*If you are renewing your residence permit, the procedure is much easier because you can go to the much smaller and more efficient Yabanci Mudurlugu in your district – just choose this when you’re making your appointment online. The Beyoglu office is on Tarlabasi boulevard about halfway down and has a very charming and friendly guy on the second floor who speaks excellent English who will walk you through the process. Unlike the Aksaray office, you have to make your payment in a different building, the tax office in Sishane; even so the entire process took about two hours when dropping off and then less than ten minutes when I came back two days later to pick up the documents. I was also able to make an appointment for the next day when I set it up online. 
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Sometimes March in Turkey is gorgeous. This year, it was a wet, snowy mess. In other words, we had a perfect excuse to fly an hour south and explore the mythical semi-country of Northern Cyprus.

Why Northern Cyprus?This pint-sized island rewards even a 1.5 day trip, though you’d be happier staying much longer. Crusader castles, monasteries, Roman and Greek fortified port towns, wild greenery, excellent wine, hospitable locals. It’s got to be the most gorgeous, safe, and compelling conflict zone you can visit.

More people should know about what’s going on in Cyprus and you can’t help but learn a little by going there. (The Guardian also thinks spending money there is a good idea.) The island is divided between a self-declared republic – recognized as an independent state by Turkey and Turkey alone – in the north and the EU member state of Cyprus in the south. The capital, Nicosia/Lefkosa, lies on the border, and walking over it (you’ll need your passport, but no other docs) provides perspective on the differences governance has on economic development. If you’d like to read up on the place, I recommend the Wikipedia summary and then the excellent work of International Crisis Group.  

Getting there: Flights from Istanbul to Ercan Lefkosa airport in the north are absurdly cheap and frequent. Turkish AirlinesPegasusAtlasJet, and Onur Air fly direct from Istanbul and a few other cities in Turkey. If you’re flying from Europe, you’ll land in EU Cyprus at Larnaca, Paphos, or Nicosia. Easyjet offers very affordable flights from London.

Getting around: Dolmus (shared taxis) go between all the major cities in the north, but you’ll want a car to be able to explore. The island is tiny: the road from Ercan airport to Girne/Kyrenia, the gorgeous coastal town where you’ll probably want to base yourself, takes about half an hour to wind over the spine of mountains that runs through the center of the country (view at right). If you rent a car in the north, you can only drive it through the Turkish Republic, but technically cars rented in the south can be taken all over the island. We couldn’t find anyone to rent one to us in the south for less than three days, but you might have better luck if you book in advance. We ended up sticking with the northern part of the island and paid 100TL (about 40 euro) for a two day rental.

What to see: The Crusader castle of St Hilarion ices the tallest mountain in the country. A contested site from the days of Richard the Lionheart’s invasion (1191) to the Turkish army’s (1974), it’s now a museum. It takes about 15 minutes to get there from the airport and at least a few hours to do it justice. Bring hiking shoes.

Other than the novelty of walking in and out of the EU, the capital Nicosia/Lefkosa doesn’t offer much to the tourist, unless you like gambling. The few historical sites are missable if you don’t have much time.

Bellapais monastery (pictured at the top and below) is mostly in ruins, but pilgrims sometimes hold impromptu services.

Still primarily known by its Greek name, Kyrenia,  the Venetian port of Girne makes a convenient base for exploration. There’s not much to see aside from the impressive fortifications, but the seafood restaurants, bars, and accommodation offerings are hard to beat. We stayed in a random hostel for 5 euro/night in March 2012. 

Farmagusta: we didn’t get a chance to visit, but apparently it offers much the same fare as Girne/Kyrenia. 

Nature: the entire northern coast seems to be one gorgeous sandy beach. Find a westward-facing spit of land and tell me it’s not one of the better sunsets you’ve seen.

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Istanbul Tips, part IV: So You Moved here.

This is fourth in a five part series of ‘Istanbul Tips': Planning a visit, Orienting yourself on arrival, Restaurant & Entertainment Highlights, Settling in for the longer term (this one), and Getting a residence permit

Here’s a list of some organizations that helped me find a job, apartment, and friends in September 09. I’m not terribly active in any of them any more, so the information might be a bit dated, but hopefully at least somewhat helpful.

– For finding & furnishing an apartment: Craigslist and its Turkish-language sister, easiest navigated using are the easiest, though of course you could use an agent (called an emlak – I have no experience with them). The Facebook groups Buy, Sell, Swap in Istanbul Turkey and Expat’s Saver @Istanbul have an eclectic mix of home goods, often at rock-bottom prices. You can also sometimes find things through Couchsurfing, PAWI, and the forums (see below).

– is a networking site for those that have graduated from universities in the US. It wasn’t around when I first got here, but I’ve been to some events subsequently as they’ve had very interesting high-profile speakers (Minister of Finance, the American Ambassador, Minister of EU affairs etc). Mostly Turkish, and sometimes the speakers present in Turkish, but if you don’t speak the language it’s still worth it if you’d like to connect with the professional Turkish crowd. Mostly a bit older (30s predominantly). If the job board ends up going active I would imagine would have very good listings. 

– has an online forum including job listings. It’s the grandaddy of the online expat networks and has a lot of great information on all sorts of things, from doctors to schools. There are also events listings for things going on in Istanbul, though there doesn’t seem to be any apparent curation, so I’ve found it of little use. Mymerhaba people don’t seem to organize events themselves (at least to my knowledge). Free, all ages

– Zero has reasonably comprehensive listings of concerts, exhibitions, and other happenings. A pocket-sized book is published every month and can be picked up for free at most of the ‘hip’ spots in Beyoglu. Along the same lines, lecool used to have excellent recommendations for the hot concerts/films/exhibitions, but it’s lately been very sparse – maybe a staffing/funding issue. The magazines Time Out and The Guide are hit or miss, but may be useful at the start just for the fact that they are so comprehensive.

– Professional American Women of Istanbul (PAWI) – if you’re an American/Canadian/Mexican woman. Free, but you submit an application to join. They organize seminars (‘how to figure out your taxes from abroad’ etc) and social gatherings (sushi night, walk in Belgrade Forest, etc) and have a pretty active Google Group which is a great forum to answer questions (where to find a cleaner, a good OBGYN, etc). I don’t usually consider myself a women’s group kind of woman, but this has probably been the best resource during my time in Istanbul and I’ve met some wonderful people. Monthly meetings, including an annual meet-and-greet with the US Consul-General at his/her house, plus a few social events. Age group is mostly 23-45ish.

– International Women of Istanbul (IWI) and International Professional Women of Istanbul (IPWIN) – same lines as the above but more international and fee-paying. IWI is very Junior League/Rotary Club-esque – from my limited impression it seems to be mostly trailing spouses (ie, those who came over for their husbands’ jobs and don’t work) and runs lots of charity events. Dues are around 100 TL a year and they organize events, day trips etc, age group is mostly 30s-50s. IPWIN (just a separate mailing list within IWI) has had some great events recently, offering networking nights with most of the top diplomatic brass, useful briefings (how to work legally in Turkey, how to incorporate a company, etc).

– The Sublime Portal ( is another online forum along the lines of mymerhaba with a much more active user base. Some friends that have gotten involved say it is quite cliquey and the one time I met anyone from the group in person – impromptu stop at one of their weekly ‘Thirsty Thursday’ gatherings – seemed to confirm that impression. Regardless the forum has a lot of insight into the expat experience here, organizes some events, and has an active job board as well. Free, all ages but the ones that show up at gatherings seem to be mostly 30s-40s long-term expat types

– Internations – a sort of facebook for expats, it’s along the lines of the forums but much more user-friendly. Despite the fact it is nominally for expats, it’s more than half Turks, including a fair few men who think it is a dating service and not a social network. However, they organize events at some really great bars/clubs and attract a decent crowd of professionals, generally 25-40 years old. Cover is usually 15 TL for events (which includes a free drink), or you can join for 3 or 4 euro a month to get free entry. I’ve generally found Internations events a bit too meat markety, and so avoid them, but some of my best friends met each other at Internations.

Friends of the American Research Institute in Turkey (ARIT) – . A dues-paying organization that  sponsors lectures (free, generally with a cocktail hour after), day trips guided by scholars (60-200 TL, with discounts for members), and academic-focused weekend to week-long trips abroad (650-4000TL), as well as scholarships for students. Their day trips are fascinating but the lectures can be hit or miss. The crowd is generally older professionals (my friend invited me by saying ‘we need more members under 40′; average age is probably 55), with a smattering of grad-school types, generally really interesting people who have been in Turkey for decades and so have wonderful perspective. Membership 70 TL for the year and you most definitely don’t need to be American – in fact I think it is more than half are British or Turkish. 

– Pub Quiz – is really popular among the 20s-30s English teacher/yuppie set. You can find the group on Facebook – quizzes are Thursday nights at 10, almost always at a bar called Funky Teras just off Istiklal in Taksim. The quizzes are usually clever, but I have also been to some terrible ones.  You can show up even if you don’t have a team – you’ll be added to one, so it’s a good way to meet people. Buy-in is 5TL and if you win you take the pot home. There’s another pub quiz at 8pm on Thursday nights organized by Internations people, but I’ve never been. 

– Square Peg Theater Troupe – ‘Istanbul’s premier ex-pat theater troupe’ puts on original comedy shows and is always looking for more talent. Performers are predominantly from the English teacher crowd, and the shows can be hilarious though decidedly not family-friendly. 

– is a great resource if you know how to use it: be open to overwhelming friendliness and be understanding of people that are just plain overwhelming. The ‘Istanbul’ group is very active and organizes drinks, day trips, etc, etc, and is a good place to air questions (‘good jogging route in Beyoglu?’). There are also apartment listings in the ‘IST – Flat/Flatmate…’ subgroup. The website is predictably dominated by hipster backpacker types (which is not a bad thing). Unfortunately, meetups tend to be dominated by Turks Who Want to Get In Foreign Girls’ Pants, who are tedious. Free, weekly meetups for drinks plus a ton of other impromptu activities like day trips and parties, age group 18-40ish (mostly 20-somethings)

– Foreign Press Club – if you can make an argument that you are a member of the foreign press, or actively trying to become one, you can email the head of club and ask to join the mailing list. Actually being a foreign correspondent doesn’t seem to be a stringent requirement, considering I’m a member. In addition to being the best way (short of personal recs) to find a fixer, translator, driver, relevant AV cable, etc in Istanbul, there are monthly drinks nights and occasional talks/conferences arranged just for the group.

Istanbul Modern and the Pera Museum have good weekly newsletters of their goings-on, including film screenings and exhibition openings. You can subscribe on their websites.

– there are about a billion blogs kept by expats which can be interesting/informative. and are some of my favorites. Yabangee is also great. My all-time favorite is Carpetblog, though she’s traveling so constantly it’s barely Istanbul-focused.

If you try any of these out and form vastly different impressions from me, I’m curious to hear how they are these days.

This article from The Guide: Istanbul (in which my brother and I are both profiled) has some additional tips. Also, my friend Kaan runs a Q&A forum called Atdaa that aims to be a comprehensive place to get answers about Turkey, both for visitors and those who live here.
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Istanbul Tips, Part III: Nom nom nom

Over my three years in Istanbul, I’ve answered a bunch of questions from people who wanted to visit or move here. Some I got so often that I decided to just write a set of Google Docs to answer them. Now that I’m leaving, they’re not going to keep evolving, so I might as well publish them here, in a series of ‘Istanbul Tips’. This was written in conjunction with the amazing Kate Bloomer. 

Istanbul Watering Holes: A Treatise

Lonely Planet recently put out a decent summary that you can find here. I agree with almost everything they say, except the reliability and price of taxis (much lower and higher, respectively) and the likelihood male travelers encountering a ‘friendly local who will take them to a mafia-run dive bar’ – I have never heard of this happening. If you’re a dedicated foodie, Culinary Backstreets (formerly Istanbul Eats) has the best advice by far. Anyway. Topics covered:

The Music
Upscale but Low-key
Late Night
Hidden Gems
Rough Around the Edges
***Our favorites are marked by asterisks (creatively)***


  • The Golden Mile – If you want to go big in Istanbul, this is what you should see and where you should be seen. The Golden Mile is string of exclusive (and vastly overpriced) clubs along the Bosphorus. Located just under the first bridge, in Kurucesme, it’s really only accessible by taxi at the hours you would want to go (certainly not before midnight). Unfortunately traffic on the shore road is ghastly in the evenings as everyone is trying to get to and from this area, but once you’re there, you’re in the glitz and glamour among the Istanbul elite, with epic views of the waterfront. Most clubs are also restaurants. In order to avoid traffic and entry fees, it’s worth having dinner beforehand, then you can stay on and watch it fill up with labels. Arrive by boat for added effect. Reina is the most famous, otherwise it’s hard to keep track of what’s hot these days. Sortie and Blackk were big in summer 2011.
  • NuTeras (Pera) – A great club / restaurant that’s much closer to the center of the city, NuTeras is a rooftop gem which also has great views over the Golden Horn in Beyoglu. Drinks are still quite pricey, but the venue is great with an awesome glass dance floor that goes down about 11 storeys to the entryway below.
  • 360 (Istiklal / Galatasaray) – 360 is a well known restaurant that becomes a nightclub after the 10:00 sitting on weekends. The food is not terribly overpriced if you’re looking for a nice meal and again affords great views. It’s a bit of a tourist trap, as it’s been written up in most of the travel guides, but, well, the view really is nice. Service can be slow, so make sure to accost your waiter.
  • Ulus 29 (Ulus) – Located in Ulus, which also requires a taxi, this restaurant is one of the best in the city. The views are unbeatable, as it is set back from the Bosphorus on a high point so there’s great visibility. You’re treated like a star here, but you’ll be paying for it. On weekends this venue becomes a nightclub a la Reina after dinner.
  • Lucca (Bebek)- I’ve never been sure why the who’s who decided that the viewless, always crowded Lucca is the place to be. Maybe it’s the amazing mojitos.
  • Angelique (Ortakoy) – Angelique is known as “little Reina”. Located in Ortakoy, a quaint neighborhood along the Bosphorus, before the first bridge. Similar crowd, but this year touted to be a bit young. The music is loud, but on the outdoor patio you can escape to look out across the Bosphorus and the picturesque Ortakoy Mosque. It makes a great alternative to the Golden Mile as you don’t have to contend with quite as much traffic, but don’t expect a quick journey here either.
  • Suada (Kurucesme) – Located beyond the Golden Mile, this man-made island between Europe and Asia harbors a multitude of treasures, including a floating pool (80-100TL/day entry). Several of the big-name Istanbul restaurants have their sister restaurants here, including 360 and Fish. You get to take a boat ride there – so what if it’s only 30 seconds long. At night the pool is lit up and there’s usually a line up of well-known Turkish DJs on weekends.
The Music
  • Babylon (Asmalimescit) – Probably Istanbul’s best known music venue, not far from Pera. Performances from world-famous artists as well as some local stars. Its Istanbul location closes in the summer as the crowds migrate to Cesme on the Aegean coast.
  • Ghetto (Galatasaray) – Nipping at Babylon’s heels is the cathedral-ceilinged Ghetto, located just off Istiklal by the British Consulate. The performers aren’t quite as well known as the ones who end up at Babylon but there are a few headliners every season. Local act Baba Zula***, an excellent Turkish psychadelic electronica group, performs here often (bellydancer included).
  • NuBlu (Asmalimescit) – Opened by Turkish jazz composer Ilhan Ersahin, who started Nublu in New York, his location on native soil is a great spot for jazz, and is located adjacent to Babylon.  Catering to a younger crowd it is a bit snazzy for a jazz club, and upstairs they often have a techno DJ.
  • Nardis (Galata) – Nardis is another local jazz spot, with nightly performances starring good local jazz musicians and the occasional international headliner. The venue is small but atmospheric and it’s a great place for some chill music and a glass of wine.
  • Atolye (Galata) *** – Next door to Nardis, this bar doesn’t seem to have a set schedule for its live music, but generally Thursday-Saturday will find an excellent local jazz group tuning up around 10pm. No cover, cheap but good quality food and drink, and a great location make this a favorite.
Upscale but Low-key Bars
  • Leb-i Derya (Istiklal/Asmalimescit) – This small restaurant/bar is a favorite among expats and locals. The food is excellent, as are the views. There are two venues, one in the Richmond Hotel (not nearly as atmospheric, though the ovular bar is quite cool) and the second on a side street off of Istiklal called Kumbaraci Yks, which is much nicer. You would hardly know it was there if you didn’t see the small green sign outside the door, and you walk into a rather grungy looking hallway, however, once you arrive on the top floor, you’ll be thrilled by the views.
  • 5 Kat*** (Cihangir) – This was once Istanbul’s local gay hangout and it remains one of the most fabulous places in town. The decor is wonderful – red walls, purple chairs and fantastic chandeliers inside, and an outdoor terrace with less exciting decor but stupendous views above (only open seasonally). I’d call it more campy than upscale, but it remains one of my favorite places in town, and the prices are more reasonable that some other similar venues.
  • White Mill*** (Cihangir) – One of few green places in Istanbul, this Cihangir garden is incredibly picturesque and a wonderful escape from the business of the city. The outdoor restaurant is set amongst trees and feels like someone’s well-landscaped back-yard. Also a great spot for brunch.
  • Litera (Galatasaray) – This rooftop restaurant is located above the Goethe Institute (the German Cultural Society) just past the Galatasary High school off Istiklal st. It has good space and is a nice spot for a more quiet drink, again with wonderful views out over the Golden Horn and the Asian side. Easily accessible but not well known, it’s quite ideal if you’re looking for something chic but quiet.
  • Mikla (Pera) – Located at the Marmara Pera hotel, Mikla has hands down the best view in Istanbul (even better from the rooftop pool!) It is also considered to be one of the best restaurants in the city. I would highly recommend checking this place out, if only for a soda water and the view, since you’ll be paying top dollar for the venue. The hotel is one of the high points (literally and figuratively) in the Beyoglu area and can be recognized for the rather unfortunate jumbotron which crowns the skyscraper.
  • The Pera Palace (Pera) – Next door to the Marmara Pera is the Pera Palace Hotel, an Ottoman building which has been lovingly restored, reviving its splendor if losing some of its charm. The Orient Bar has a lovely, old world atmosphere and feels like the perfect place for a scotch on the rocks.
Late Night
  • Kiki’s (Cihangir) – Kiki’s is a small club that tends to get moving around one o’clock. It has a nice patio and dance floor, but the DJ can sometimes be a bit lackluster and it tends to get very crowded. Still, if you are looking for something that keeps going til late hours, this is a good bet.
  • Mini Music Hall (Cihangir) – MMH is one of those places that gets moving at 3 and chucks people out around 7 when the sun comes up. The music is always pumping, the air filled with cigarette smoke, and the walls covered with the most bizarre collection of backlit photographs and mirrors. As one of the few venues that stays open so late, it is always crowded and they charge a 20TL cover (but only 10TL until 1AM, and free before midnight). Make sure to get a doner sandwich on your way to bed in the morning. Located below 5 Kat in Cihangir.
  • Machine – Machine is a seizure inducing combination of strobe lights and pumping techno beats. Open till 5AM, and dance-til-you-drop or get out before you have a chance to absorb what’s going on.
Hidden Gems
  • Balkon (Asmalimescit) – Another rooftop spot in Beyoglu that is popular with the young local crowd. Arguably the best caipirinhas in the city. The rooftop is a little shabby but has a lot of charm with colored lights and usually a decent selection of well-known tunes over which it can be difficult to have a decent conversation. Can get over-crowded and has no space to dance, but a popular spot to start off the evening.
  • Buyuk Londra*** (Pera) – The Buyuk Londra hotel is pure kitsch, and an absolute favorite. The bar on the first floor has a wonderful collection of wrought-iron stoves, pastel chandeliers, and bird cages, and it’s a cosy spot for a winter evening. But in the summer, make your way up to the rooftop for sunset: magnificent views made all the better because the price of drinks won’t send you over the edge.
  • Journey (Cihangir) – A streetside Cihangir bar with a 70’s ski-lodge atmosphere, and the best free cerez (nuts) in town. A little on the pricey side but recognized for delicious fare and the opportunity to watch the Cihangir locals sipping cocktails.
  • ***Kafe17 (Cihangir) – Located just around the corner from Kiki’s, this camp extravaganza has been recently discovered by us… and practically noone else. If you’ve got enough people to create your own party, chances are you can play your own music and have the place more or less to yourself. The owner, Jasmine Highheel, is exactly the kind of person you would expect to oversee a glitter/leopard print/disco balled party den. This place is moving in on the space previously reserved for the Buyuk Londra in our hearts. *Update: at last glance the place had been discovered by Erasmus students, thus ruining its appeal completely. 
Rough around the edges
  • Line Bar – Live cover bands perform here all the time, some better than others. Cheap drinks, but avoid the vinegary wine. Great for getting your dance on, and open late. Located off of Istiklal near Taksim Sq.
  • Thales – A small rock bar off the top of Istiklal (near Taksim Sq) with unbeatable prices on drinks. Rather grungy, but nice rooftop, usually inhabited by smokers.
  • Novo – Located in Asmali Mescit, a winding warren of bars and restaurants in Tunel, at the bottom of Istiklal. Despite being the size of an affordable studio apartment in New York, the place consistently draws a good crowd – sort of a pain in winter, when it’s too cold to be comfortable when you’re squeezed outside.

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Istanbul Tips, part II: Istanbul Pocket Guide

This is second in a five part series of ‘Istanbul Tips': Planning a visitOrienting yourself on arrival (this one)Restaurant & Entertainment Highlights, Settling in for the longer term, and Getting a residence permit I wrote this in conjunction with the wonderful Kate Bloomer

This probably isn’t fun to digest in one sitting. I suggest printing this out and reading it on the plane ride over or keeping it as a reference to read when you’re stuck in traffic (because this is Istanbul, and you will be at some point). A concise version (no pictures) can be downloaded as a PDF here. Topics covered: 

Airport Arrival
Mosaics in Aya Sofya (Haghia Sophia)


  • Geography
  • Currency
  • Phone
  • Internet
  • What to wear
  • Language
Places to Go
  • Sights
  • Socializing
Getting Around
Turkish language basics
Exploring the rest of Turkey

Airport Arrival
  • Americans and Europeans will have to buy a visa on arrival – it’s just a sticker that you buy directly before you go through passport control. You’ll need $20 or 15 euro or 10 British pounds IN CASH handy to pay for the visa. Visitors from other countries will probably have to arrange a visa in advance.
  • There are a number of ATMs and exchange counters with near-market rates by baggage claim and after you exit customs, so no need to exchange money in advance. The currency is the Turkish Lira (TL).
  • Getting into the city will depend where you are staying (probably Sultanahmet or Beyoğlu/Taksim) and at which airport you arrive (Atatürk or Sabiha Gökçen).
    • Atatürk to Taksim
      • Fastest: a taxi will take 30-40 minutes barring traffic and should cost around 40 TL. ***Cabs are extremely unreliable, and love to take tourists on 100 TL+ joyrides around Istanbul instead of to their destinations. Make sure you know exactly where you’re going (a map printout would be useful) and discuss about how much it will cost beforehand.***
      • Easiest: Catch a Havaş/Havataş bus – these clean and comfortable coach buses are usually directly in front of you when you exit the terminal. It will take you to Taksim, the second and last stop, in about 40 minutes for 10 TL or 5€ or $8. From Taksim it’s easy to get anywhere in Beyoğlu.
      • Cheapest: You can take the metro to Zeytinburnu, catch the tram to Kabataş, and then the funicular to Taksim, for a grand total of 6 lira (you’ll have to buy a different 2 TL token for each stage of the journey). Unless you’re extremely tight on cash, paying an extra 4 lira for the Havataş bus is much more convenient.
    • Atatürk to Sultanahmet:
      • A cab shouldn’t cost more than 30 TL, though keep in mind the advice about cabs above.
      • Take the metro (2 TL) to Zeytinburnu and then the tram (2 TL) to whichever stop is closest to your hotel (probably Sultanahmet). You’ll have to buy a different token for each type of transport, so don’t bother getting two at the beginning. 
    • Sabiha Gökçen to Taksim:
      • Fastest & Easiest: Again the Havaş/Havataş bus, but it takes a little longer (about an hour) and costs 12TL/6€/$10. They run 25 minutes after the arrival of every plane.
      • Cheapest: E10 bus to Kadiköy and then a ferry to Kabatas for 4TL. This will not work if you are arriving at strange hours, but is pretty reliable outside of that.
      • A taxi will cost at least 70 TL, and possibly much more if you’re stuck in traffic. It’s no faster than the bus so I really wouldn’t recommend taking one.
    • Sabiha Gökçen to Sultanahmet:
      • Hotel shuttle is probably easiest – if it’s exorbitant take the Havaş to Taksim and cab it from there.

  •  Geography of Istanbul:
    Galata Tower
    • The Bosphorus runs roughly south-north between the Sea of Marmara (bottom) and the Black Sea (at the top). The Golden Horn, aka the Haliç, is a river/strait that intersects it at a right angle on the ‘European’ side and so divides the western half of Istanbul into Old Istanbul (also known as the Golden Horn, confusingly) in the south and modern Istanbul (Beyoğlu) above.  The main artery of modern Istanbul is a street called Istiklal Caddesi, which runs from Taksim Square southwest to the Galata Tower, near the southern tip of Beyoğlu. The Galata bridge takes you from the southern tip of Beyoğlu, across the Goldern Horn (body of water) to the Golden Horn (peninsula). From Taksim, a funicular will take you down to the edge of the Bosphorus at Kabataş, and the Taksim/Kabataş axis marks the top of Beyoglu. Further north, two bridges cross the Bosphorus to connect the European and Asian side, the Boğaz bridge and the Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridge – more commonly, less creatively, known as the First and Second Bosphorus bridge.
  • Currency
    • Roughly, $1 = 1.7 TL and 1€ = 2.3 TL and £1 = 2.8 TL
    • ATMs and money-exchange places are easy to find throughout the city – look for the sign saying ‘Doviz’ for the latter. Almost all of them have very fair rates – just look for something with less than 5 cents spread between the listed buy and sell price.
  • Phone
    • The country code is +90. Cell phone numbers start with (0)5 (drop the zero if calling from an international phone) and land lines in Istanbul start with (0)212 (European side) or (0)216 (Asian side)
    • It is difficult to pick up a Turkish SIM for a short stay – it takes about 24 hours to register, and then will stop working within a week (sometimes more, sometimes less) unless you go through an extensive registration process with your passport. SIM cards are also needlessly expensive (50 TL or more). If you have a phone with international roaming capabilities, it should work and is probably the easiest option.
  • Internet
    • There is free wireless in most cafes (though you may have to ask for the password).
  • What to wear:
    • You can dress exactly as you would in the US or Europe. You are a tourist, so you will be heckled no matter what you wear. 
    • To go into mosques, you must take off your shoes, so if you plan to do a lot of sightseeing you might want to bring something easy to slip on and off. Women need to cover their head, shoulders, and legs (leggings or skirts below the knee are almost always ok). Most mosques provide scarves and super attractive floor-length lab coats in case you come unprepared.
    • Istanbul is HILLY and has lots of cobblestone streets. Wear comfortable shoes!
    • The weather is pretty unpredictable – check before you travel to see if you’ll need rain gear, sweaters, or sunglasses.
  • Language
    • People in the major tourist areas generally speak English, but the majority of Istanbullus do not. This isn’t such a problem because Turks are incredibly friendly and will find you an English speaker if you need any help. See ‘Turkish Language Basics’ for a few key phrases.

 Places to go: In roughly descending order of our completely subjective preferences.

Sultanahmet, seen from Beyoglu: Aya Sofya to the left and the Blue Mosque to the right

  • Sights
  • Basilica Cistern
    • The blockbuster sights are almost all in the old city: Sultanahmet is the name of the area (and tram stop) where you will find the Aya Sofya (20 TL / $13), Blue Mosque (free of charge)Archaeological museum (10 TL / $6-7)  (located within the gardens of Topkapı Palace (30 TL for entrance, 15 TL for Harem entrance), and the Basilica Cistern (10 TL). Everything’s quite well marked in the area, and regardless everyone speaks English so you should have no trouble.  Aya Sofya is unmissable – be sure to make it up to the second floor for the mosaics! Depending on how much you care about the dent in your wallet, Topkapi palace and its Harem are impressive and tremendously important historically, though the lines can be tedious. The Archaeological Museum has quite simply the best classical sculptures I’ve ever seen – blows anything you can find in New York, London, Athens, or Cairo out of the water. The Basilica Cistern is quite a magical place and a nice respite from the hustle of the city streets.
    • The bazaars: The Grand Bazaar (within walking distance of Sultanahmet, or just two stops up the line at Beyazit station) and Spice Bazaar (located near the Yeni Cami or New Mosque at Eminonu tram stop) are just plain fun. If you’ve only got time for one, the Spice Bazaar has just about everything you’ve seen in the grand bazaar and a better vibe. Always haggle for the price – offer half what they ask for and meet somewhere in the middle (never pay more than ¾ of what they first asked).
    • You could spend a week (a lifetime?) in the alleyways off of Istiklal Caddesi. I especially like the ones towards the bottom around Galatasaray and Tunel. Go more than two avenues to the northwest (right, if you are walking from Taksim) of Istiklal and you will be in a fast gentrifying but still pretty gritty slum called Tarlabaşi – an interesting place to visit during the day. The alleys on the left (southeast) of Istiklal have interesting junk shops and galleries, those immediately to the right are more full of cafes. 
    • I lived in Cihangir, a lovely neighborhood renowned for its streetside cafes and bars. It is a picturesque residential area that gentrified about ten years ago and is full of journalists, diplomats, and Turkish soap opera stars. If you wander the back streets you’ll come across antique and second hand clothing stores. It’s a great place to spend an evening. Journey Cafe on Akarsu Yks. and White Mill on Susam Sk. are favorite haunts.
    • Istanbul has a fast-developing fine arts scene. Istanbul Modern (12 TL), at the Tophane tram stop, is worth a visit, especially if you can have a glass of wine at the cafe without a cruise ship blocking your view. The Pera Museum (10 TL) is towards the bottom of Istiklal Caddesi and tends to have excellent exhibitions and a good permanent collection of 16th-20th century art as well. Istiklal Caddesi also has a number of new top-notch galleries, with SALT Beyoglu and Arter (both on the southern half of the street) being particular favorites. Tophane is emerging as a gallery hub – start at GalleriNON and roam from there. 
    • Prince’s Islands: Büyükada, or Big Island, is the most popular, but you can get off at any of the four. A ferry from Kabataş to Büyükada takes 1.5 hours, which is very pleasant if the weather is good (and still only costs 3.5 TL on the municipal ferry! There are also a number of private ferry companies that do the same route for 4-7TL). There are no cars on the islands aside from emergency vehicles and there are lovely parks, so it’s a great escape for a nice day (as long as you don’t mind the omnipresent smell of horse). You can ride around in a horse-drawn phaeton or rent bikes or go hiking or just eat some fresh seafood.
    • Ortaköy: a nice district a little ways up the Bosphorus, right under the first bridge. There’s a beautiful little mosque, lots of cafes, and a place to hop on a Bosphorus cruise (if you haven’t caught one from Kabataş or Eminonu). It’s probably one of the most photographed locations in Istanbul. You can catch a bus from the shore road (take any that say ‘Ortaköy’ on the side) or take an hour-long walk north along the Bosphorus from Beyoğlu. Along the way from the city center, you can visit Dolmabahce Palace, just north of the Kabataş ferry stop- it is an opulent European-style place whose decoration more or less bankrupted the Ottoman Empire. If you have an International Student Identity card admission is 1TL, without it is 20 TL. You’re required to go through with a (usually excellent) guided tour, included in the price, so budget at least an hour and a half. Lines can be long during peak tourist season and on weekends, and it’s closed Monday and Thursday.
    • Rumeli Hisari: This uber impressive fortress in the Sariyer area was built in 1452 to prevent aid from coming down the Bosphorus from the Black Sea during the seige of Constantinople. Amazingly, it was completed in a record time of 4 months and 16 days. My favorite brunch spot in Istanbul, Kale,  is located here, under the towers, with breathtaking views of the Bosphorus, and the swanky crowd who tends to frequent the area on lazy Sundays (; Also nearby is the Sakip Sabanci Museum (10 TL) which maintains a wonderful permanent collection housed in a stately home on the Bosphorus, as well as an interesting mix of temporary exhibitions. The restaurant on the museum grounds, MuzedeChanga, is a great date spot but probably too out of the way for short-term visitors.
    • Kadikoy: If you’re looking for an excuse to “go to Asia,” this is a pleasant way to do it. There are ferries every 15 minutes from Kabatas and Karakoy (right below the Galata bridge, cost 1.65 TL). When you reach the other side, walk towards the tall flag and Ataturk monument, then continue straight across the main road and you’ll find your way to the fish market and Bahariye Caddesi, full of shops and cafes. Nearby the fish market is a lovely (although a bit pungent) and the popular local restaurant, Ciya (, is a perfect place for a leisurely lunch, and is very reasonably priced.
  • Socializing – this so depends on what you’re interested in and willing to spend – but here’s our take on the most well-known options. For more details, see the next blog post.
    • Sultanahmet is full of tourist traps and places with little character.
    • Taksim has two main areas for evening fun: Nevizade (about halfway down Istiklal) and Asmalimescit.
    • Nevizade is a narrow and bustling side street that runs parallel to Istiklal. For an authentic meyhane dinner (much like Greek meze or Spanish tapas), this is the easiest place to go. It can be noisy and crowded, but it is atmospheric and often they play live music.
    • Asmalimescit is right at the bottom of Istiklal (just up the hill from Galata, adjacent to Tunel and Pera). Slightly more trendy (and definitely more expensive) than Nevizade but much less hassle.
    • The Golden Mile is a string of very ritzy clubs along the Bosphorus just north of the first bridge. They’re beautiful and full of pretty people. The music is variable and the drinks exorbitant; face control is not that strict (don’t wear sneakers, but also don’t expect to have to wait in line very long). Expect to pay a 50 TL cover, even if you’re a pretty girl. Reina, Supper Club, and Angelique are the best known. Not worth it for my money but if you want to see how the Turkish riche party then by all means..

Getting around
Istanbul’s public transit is reliable, cheap, and comprehensive. Taxi drivers are often clueless and the most likely people outside the Grand Bazaar to try and scam you. Try to only take taxis if you know how to get where you’re going or are traveling with someone who does, or if your hotel arranges it for you. If you have GPS on your phone, insist that the driver follows it (he will probably try and tell you that because of traffic you must go another way. You will be in traffic no matter what. Follow the GPS).
You will need a token for the tram, metro, or ferry, but there are vending machines just by the entrance, so no need to provision in advance. If you haven’t gotten a token before getting on the bus, you can give anyone that looks like a resident 2 TL and they will pay for your journey with their Istanbulkart. If you’re going to be taking a lot of public transit, it’s worth buying an Akbil, recently rebranded as Istanbulkart (the names are interchangeable), the Metrocard/CharlieCard/Oystercard of Istanbul (6TL), as the fares are slightly lower.  There are kiosks selling Akbils/Istanbulkart at Taksim and Kabatas.
Useful public transit links:
  • Hands down the best way to get in/out of the old city from Beyoglu (other than walking if the weather’s good) is to take the tram. To the Golden Horn from Taksim/Beyoglu, go down to the Bosphorus (basically take any road down a hill in an easterly direction) and you will run into the tram. Head south (right) for the old city. Sultanahmet is the stop for Aya Sofya, Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern, Gulhane for Topkapi Palace and the Archeological Museum and Cemberlitas for the Grand Bazaar and the wonderful Cemberlitas hamam. The northernmost stop is Kabataş, which is connected via funicular to Taksim and is also a key ferry terminal.
  • To go up the European Coast, go down to the Bosphorus and catch any bus that says ‘Ortaköy’ (charming district underneath the first bridge, Boğaz bridge), Bebek, Rumeli Hisarı, Istinye, Yeniköy. Lots of people say these districts are very pleasant – with the exception of Ortaköy I don’t think they’ve got much going on. Ortaköy has a beautiful, tiny mosque and lots of nice seaside cafes with shisha  and quaint, somewhat touristy shops.
  • To the Asian side/Prince’s Islands, go down to the Bosporus and walk north (left) until you hit Kabataş. There are a number of ferry terminals – go to someone official looking and say your destination (Uskuder or Kadiköy for the Asian side, Buyukada for the Prince’s Islands) and they will point you in the direction of the right one.

Language Basics
Turkish Pronunciation

C  = J so Cihangir = jee-hahn-gear and Cami (mosque) = jah-mee
İ = ee so İstanbul = Ee-stahn-bool
Ş = sh so beş (five) = besh
Ğ = not pronounced, so Beyoğlu = Beyohloo
ı = uh so Topkapı Sariyer (Topkapı Palace) is Tohp-kah-puh Sah-ree-yehr

Key phrases

Yes/no = evet/hayir
Teşek kurler = thank you
… nerede? = Where is ….?
Ne kadar? = how much?
1/2/3/4/5/10 = bir/iki/uç/dört/beş/on

Places to go outside the city: 

Turkey is a large, gorgeous, and SAFE country that is well worth exploring. Buses are usually the cheapest way to get around but flights can be cheaper (!) and are certainly a better bargain time-wise. More on this can be found in the doc linked at the top of this entry and will be written up soon…
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Istanbul Tips, part I: Planning a visit to Istanbul

This is the first in a five part series of ‘Istanbul Tips': Planning a visit, Orienting yourself on arrivalRestaurant & Entertainment Highlights, Settling in for the longer term, and Getting a residence permit

I could write a book on why you should come and see Istanbul, but enough people already have. If you already know you’d like to visit, this should answer some questions you may have and provide some guidance on how to get here. If you decide to come, you can find the link to an even more detailed document at the end of this one. Topics covered:

Where to Stay
Getting Around
Getting Here
Domestic Travel in Turkey


  • Istanbul is not as cheap as many people anticipate, but it’s still a degree of magnitude less expensive than most of Europe – with the unfortunate exception of alcohol prices, which are on par with London/New York/Paris. Ho[s]tels at all price ranges ($15 and up) can be found through all the regular channels, and there’s a rich selection of places on AirBnb. The main attractions can cost up to 10€ each, though considering their historical significance this hardly seems unreasonable.Public transport, Turkish food, scarves and ceramics are very very cheap. A cheap meal will set you back 3-5€; there are lots of pleasant restaurants where lunch/dinner will cost 15-20€, and the high-end stuff will cost 50-100€ per person.
  • Roughly, $1 = 1.7 TL and 1€ = 2.5 TL and £1 = 2.8 TL
  • There are ATMs and money-exchange places all over the place, including the arrivals hall of the airport, so no need to exchange money in advance.
  • Domestic flights within Turkey are very reasonable, usually under $100 each way and often much less. The bus network is also very comprehensive and cheap. In my opinion, you can comfortably cover Istanbul’s top sights in four days, so if you’re planning to be here a week or more, I’d definitely recommend getting outside of Istanbul. There are plenty of great trips that can even be done within a day, if you get the flight timing right, or more pleasantly over two.

Where to Stay

  • I used to live in Cihangir, near Taksim Square, in what is one of the best locations for both visiting and living in Istanbul.
  • If you’re in town for a very short time, you might want to stay in Sultanahmet, where the bulk of the blockbuster tourist sights (Aya Sofya, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, etc) are located. Everything from hostels to boutiques to five stars is an option.
  • However Sultanahmet gets old quickly and I’d recommend staying anywhere in Beyoglu, which is modern Istanbul’s historic downtown area. Taksim, Galata, Cihangir, Pera, and Cukurcuma are all good areas within Beyoglu, and again there are ho[s]tels in most all comfort and price ranges.
  • If you’re looking for luxury Ciragan Palace (Kempinski) and the Four Seasons on the Bosphorus just north of Beyoglu are the places to be. However, beware that the traffic between your hotel and almost all the sights will be pretty terrible, especially in the summer.


  • The amount of English spoken corresponds with how many foreigners tend to be in the area. In the tourist centers, you’ll be fine with zero Turkish. In Beyoglu, most people speak at least a bit of English. However, in most of Istanbul – and in Turkey as a whole – English is not widely understood. With about 5 minutes of effort, you can learn a few key phrases that will make navigation easy (all included in the document linked at the bottom of this one).


  • You shouldn’t have to change the way you dress. Shorts/short skirts will not be frowned upon except in the most conservative of areas (ones you probably won’t be going to anyway) and when visiting mosques.
  • To go into mosques, you must take off your shoes. Women need to cover their head, shoulders, and legs (leggings and skirts below the knee are usually ok). Men are expected to wear trousers, not shorts, though it’s not quite as strictly enforced. Most mosques provide scarfs and attractive floor-length lab coats in case you come unprepared.
  • Istanbul is not an overly dressy place and there are very, very few places that will turn you away based on what you’re wearing.
  • Istanbul makes San Francisco look like the Bolivian Salt flats. The hills are killer and there are lots of cobblestone streets. Comfortable shoes are a must.

Getting around

  • Public transport: Istanbul’s network of metro, tram, bus, minibus, shared taxi, and funiküler can seem confusing, but it is pretty comprehensive and very cheap.
  • Taxis are cheap IF you get an honest cabbie. Unfortunately, they are the exception rather than the rule. This is another incentive to stay in Beyoglu or Sultanahmet, where almost all of the sites will be within walking distance or easy public transport.

Getting here:

  • is reliable, but tends to have more options and allows you to search on flexible dates. It’s worth checking both.
  • Istanbul has two airports,
  • Atatürk and Sabiha Gökçen. Almost all discount flights go to/from Sabiha. No US carriers fly to Sabiha, but you could go there if you connect through Europe. Both have advantages and disadvantages:

    • Why Ataturk is better: closer to the city center (~40 minutes to Taksim vs 60-80 or more from Sabiha Gokcen)
    • Why Sabiha Gokcen is better: lines at passport control are usually shorter, airport as a whole is easier and quicker to navigate

  • From the US
  • Delta, United, and Turkish Airlines fly direct to Atatürk from
    New York, Chicago, DC, and SF, and dozens of airlines will give you connecting flights through Europe.
  • It may be much cheaper to buy a round trip to somewhere in Europe and then fly discount from there (see below).

  • From Europe:
  • England: Easyjet flies from Luton/Gatwick and is generally the cheapest. Turkish Airlines also sometimes has absurdly cheap fares, especially for students, and you get miles, aren’t charged for your baggage, and almost always arrive at Atatürk. British Air is the only other conventional airline to fly directly to Istanbul from London. Pegasus has a good Gatwick-Sabiha Gokcen line with competitive but not rock-bottom prices. Excellent Turkish carrier Atlasjet started a London Stansted-Istanbul Ataturk line in April 2012.
  • Sun Express is a reliable carrier from Germania (Germany, Austria, Switzerland). Condor flies from Germania, Sweden, London, and Barcelona. Pegasus is expanding quickly and has a great network of flights from Europe and also onwards to the middle east (Tel Aviv, Beirut).

  • Elsewhere:
  • Istanbul is a great hub for flights to/from the
    Middle East, Central, South and East Asia, and Africa. I hear the flights to/from India in particular are very very cheap.

Other Transport options

  • Seat61 is the best source of information on train journeys. I’ve taken the Bucharest-Istanbul and Sofia-Istanbul train with no hitches. Unfortunately the Thessaloniki-Istanbul line seems to be suspended until the Greek government has money again.
  • There are regular ferries from many places in Greece to the Turkish coast (Izmir, Canakkale) during the summer.
  • Dozens of overnight buses run from Sofia and they are generally quicker than the train.

Domestic Travel:

    There are many fabulous places to visit in Turkey, so if you’re coming all the way to Istanbul you might want to do some extra exploring.
  • Transport
  • Buses are cheap, comfortable, and comprehensive. They are usually the quickest ground transport between cities – you can get anywhere in Turkey in about 24 hours.
  • Trains are very slow (except the Istanbul-Ankara line) but can be scenic.
  • Domestic flights are absurdly cheap. Atlas Jet, Anadolu Jet, Onur Air, Turkish, Pegasus, and Sun Express will take you all over Turkey for $15-60 each way if booked in advance.
  • Where to go: oh, so many wonderful places to see. Check out Lonely Planet and see what appeals. The crowd-pleasers are generally Capadoccia and Ephesus, both of which I heartily recommend – though try to pick a season when Ephesus won’t be overrun with crowds. ** There are more elaborate descriptions in the document linked below, but a quick overview:** I’ve really enjoyed visiting the Mediterranean and Aegean coast (Olympos, Bergama, Afrodisias, and Pamukkale were highlights; Antalya was great out of season). Safranbolu, Amasra and Edirne were nice enough, but definitely second/third tier sights. The Syriac cities in the southeast (Mardin, Gazantiep, and Sanliurfa) sound fascinating. Ani on the Armenian border was my favorite site by far but there’s not much tourist infrastructure yet, so make sure you know at least some Turkish/have a phrasebook before you attempt this. 

  • Once you’ve decided you’re going to come for sure, you can find a lot more tips

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