French startup Capitaine Train wants to improve the cumbersome process of booking train tickets online and on your phone. It’s not yet another travel agency, it’s an alternative to popular European ticket booking services with an emphasis on efficiency.
“We want our clients to leave the site as soon as possible,” co-founder and CEO Jean-Daniel Guyot told me in an interview. The company is betting everything on customer experience. Booking a train ticket should be faster, simpler and more pleasant — you don’t want to see any ads if you’re already paying for a ticket. But developing this kind of service is not as easy as it sounds. Capitaine Train had to negotiate with very large companies who are not used to talking with young and fearless startups.
From 2002 to 2009, there was an ongoing anticompetitive practice in France. France’s main railway company SNCF was found guilty of disadvantaging online travel agencies in favor of its own solutions, Voyages-SNCF and Expedia. Three days after the sentence, Capitaine Train was born.
But Capitaine Train didn’t want to become a new travel agency, and the SNCF didn’t get that. At first, the startup got a travel agency license. It wanted the same direct access to the ticket reservation system as the SNCF.
Eventually, the SNCF had to grant access to the reservation system — it was a legal obligation. But it dragged on. Guyot told me that the company was calling the SNCF every week to get a meeting. Every time, the railway company found a new excuse to postpone.
In June 2010, Capitaine Train had no choice but to talk to the press about the difficult negotiations. Many media outlets picked up the news. Oddly enough, the SNCF agreed to meet two days after the public outcry. Six weeks after the meeting, Capitaine Train had a deal in place. But it took more than a year to get there.
Slowly but surely, the startup continued its expansion plans. It signed a deal with Deutsche Bahn and other European railway companies. The startup raised $5.4 million (€3.9 million) over two rounds from Index Ventures, CM-CIC Capital Prive and business angels. It released an iPhone app with the same well-designed user experience. Capitaine Train’s key advantage is not its sales team (it doesn’t have one), it’s its engineers.
“We nearly hit all our growth goals so far,” Guyot said. He didn’t want to share exact numbers just yet. Things are doing well, but train ticket booking is a very big market. Before communicating on revenue, the startup wants to own a significant chunk of this market, like The Train Line in the U.K.
Capitaine Train now has 170,000 users. More importantly, 70 percent of people who make a purchase will book another ticket in the next twelve months. Around 50 percent of train tickets in Europe are still not sold online. Capitaine Train has the opportunity to capture this untapped user base. They will want to use the best website to order tickets. All the startup needs now is to go mainstream.