Daniel Senyard pitching Steve Hufmann at Capital Factory during SXSW, courtesy photo.

By Laura Lorek
Publisher of Silicon Hills News

Sometimes being in the right place at the right time during South by Southwest can create opportunity.

Daniel Senyard, founder of Austin-based Shep, got a text from Henry Yoshida, one of the company’s advisors, to get to Capital Factory’s first-floor auditorium because Joshua Baer, founder of Capital Factory, had just mentioned Shep on stage.

It so happened, Bear was interviewing Steve Huffman, CEO and co-founder of Reddit, who also started an airfare search engine site, Hipmunk, and Bear mentioned that Shep was based at Capital Factory.

Senyard had been squeezing in some work at his desk on the fifth floor in between attending panels, parties and other SXSW events. So when he got the text, he went to the first floor immediately to hear the talk.

Baer noticed him in the back of the room during the Q&A session and called Senyard on stage. He got to pitch Shep, his startup, to Huffman for a couple of minutes. Shep, formerly known as Compli.ai, is an online platform that provides policy guidance and reporting for business travel.

“It was a completely spontaneous opportunity,” Senyard said.

It’s those kinds of unexpected moments that can make SXSW a fruitful experience for startups looking to break through the noise and make connections, Senyard said. He’s been in Austin for 11 years and has worked at a few startups and served as Entrepreneur in Residence at Capital Factory.

“Now we have to take that opportunity and move it forward,” he said.

Here’s a Q&A Silicon Hills News did via email with Senyard recently for more information on Shep.

Q. How did you come up with the idea for Shep?

A. After three years of working for a travel tech startup targeting large corporate travel agencies in the US and India, I realized that while small to medium-sized enterprises (SME) don’t have a good way to manage their travel policy and expenses, they are hesitant to pay and feel that most travel management tools are excessive for small teams. To match millennial and SME behavior, we created Shep to focus on light-touch platform freedom (allowing you to book on your favorite sites) vs. a heavy-handed, better mousetrap.

Q. Who are your customers?

A. Our customers are “Unmanaged Companies.” This means any company that travels but doesn’t utilize the services of a corporate travel agency (like American Express Travel or Carlson Wagonlit) nor travel booking tool (like Concur). These companies typically spend less than $1 million a year on travel, so they’re usually under 200 employees. That said, we’ve come across teams of up to 3,000 who are unmanaged.

Q. Who is on your team?

A. CEO Daniel Senyard, CTO and CIO Rey Garcia are co-founders. Other roles include Product Manager, Customer Success, Software Development and Part-Time Marketing Coordinator and UX designer.

Q. Why are you the ones to do this startup?

A. Our team has worked together in various combinations and in travel tech for more than a decade. We’ve also lived the problem, both as a solution builder as well as a traveler. I recruited Rey to work for me in my last company, and after a year, we went our separate ways and then reunited, knowing that there was a better way to approach the corporate travel management problem.

Q. What challenges do you face bringing your startup into the marketplace?

A. Smaller companies often don’t realize the benefits of managing their travel spend before it becomes a problem — It just takes one person to book a business class flight because “no-one ever told me I couldn’t.”

Q. How do you acquire customers?

A. As we’re just launching our closed Beta, it’s currently through our network and word of mouth, but we’ll follow a pretty standard freemium SaaS model where we use content marketing, SEM and conferences to find customers who want to control their travel spend without forcing massive changes in employees behavior.

Q. What is the business model?

A. We currently offer a freemium model and will add a pro SaaS tier as we add advanced features and integrations that fit within existing workflows (Slack etc.) Q. How are the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far? A. Because we allow travelers to book on their favorite sites, we are beholden to websites we can’t control. For our extension to accurately guide and capture bookings on sites like Expedia, Hotels.com, Orbitz, Southwest, etc., we have to do a lot of testing. It’s a challenging but necessary evil to deal with “bugs” that we haven’t introduced – a site changes the position of a button, and we have to update our mapping of that site. But as we’re progressing, more and more of these sites like what we’re doing and are working with us as partners, so we aren’t caught off-guard.

Q. Are you bootstrapped or do you have angel or VC financing?

A. We’ve raised $1.4 million Seed funding

Q. What Austin resources have you found most helpful?

A. Capital Factory, various meetups (we run a travel tech one, called the ATX Travel Tech Meetup ourselves) and other local founders and mentors. Austin has been great as I feel the startup ecosystem has a real, “all boat rise,” mentality. When I started my first company, vivogig, another startup founder, Matt Curtin (with SocialSmack at the time), told me which books and blogs to read, which meetups to attend and he bought me coffee while doing it!

Q. What has been your biggest win so far?

A. We’re working on a pilot partnership with a huge travel company that wants to offer our solution to customers that are too small to be serviced by them. Also, we’ve been able to pull together an amazing group of connected and strategic investors who can get us in front of almost anyone in the travel industry.

Q. What is your long-term vision?

A. Our long-term vision is to get to a ‘policy of one,’ where your policy is not just a static set of rules that says that you can only spend $300 on a domestic flight. Instead, it’s taking into account the route you’re taking, who you are, who you’re visiting, the potential ROI of your trip, your past behavior, the market availability, whether prices will go up or drop. Essentially, we want to use data to create processes that increase trust and employee freedom.

Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to the company as Shep Travel, it goes by the name Shep.