Pack Up + Profit: The Story of a Successful Pittsburgh Startup

by Alyssa Calloway, Point Park University

Most twenty-somethings who quit their jobs to travel around Europe do not end up the CEO of a successful business mere months later. However, most twenty-somethings are not Lillian Rafson.

Lillian Rafson is a Pittsburgh native who founded her own travel company, Pack Up + Go, a surprise travel agency, in September of 2015. This unique idea is already popular in Europe, and Lillian’s time there inspired her to bring the trend to America.

Pack Up + Go follows a truly innovative business model. After customers complete a survey indicating their budget, travel dates, preferred mode of transportation, and preference of activities and lifestyle, Lillian and her team start their work. First is choosing a destination. So far, Lillian has sent customers to 47 different cities in the US, but is always working to come up with new destinations. Then, working with the budget constraint set, she books the hotel and the airfare (if necessary.) Finally, she comes up with travel itineraries full of various restaurants, bars, museums, sites, etc.

For the customers, the destination remains a surprise until just a few days before they are set to leave, when they are sent their plane tickets and their itineraries. Lillian finds that while some clients follow her itineraries exactly, others veer off to find their own adventures.

Creating a profitable and sustainable start-up in today’s world is undoubtedly an impressive feat. However, “legally speaking, starting a company takes about 10 minutes,” claims Rafson.

Lillian sites Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup as her main guide in beginning the process. Most of the initial funding for the company came from winning $3,500 in an all female pitch competition.

Despite the fact that the money came from a source dedicated to helping women succeed, which some might say makes it easier for women than for men, “the biggest challenges have had nothing to do with my gender. They have had everything to do with my age,” states Rafson.

Getting banks to issue credit with no credit history is nearly impossible, and with a company that has to book flights and hotels, credit is desperately needed. However, luckily for Rafson, her company requires no overhead costs. Besides her phone, computer, and brain, there are really no other capital needs. Except, that is, for human capital, which Rafson invested in this past June when she hired Eric Johnson, who also happens to be a childhood friend, as the Director of Business Development.

“I have such a huge amount of respect and admiration for Lillian. It was a much easier decision for me to join the team than I’m sure it was for her to decide to start this whole thing from scratch. A lot of people have great ideas, but not everyone has the determination to realize their vision, and she did just that at such a young age. It’s been so inspiring to see her navigate the entrepreneurial world, which is all pretty new for her, with such grace and professionalism. It’s truly an honor to work with her,” said Johnson.

Lillian generously shares her story with others, as she did this October to a group of Point Park students as a part of the School of Business’ Women in Industry speaker series.

Paige Beal, a Point Park University School of Business Professor who knows Lillian through her father, who is also an entrepreneur, was very excited that Lillian came to speak to her students.

“I wished she had clarified that just because she personally didn’t face issues due to her gender, doesn’t mean that is always the case,” said Beal, in her one critique of the evening’s discussion. Other than that, Beal loved that students got a chance to learn from Lillian.

One of those students was Wanda Mantovani, a graduate student originally from Mulhouse, France. Since surprise travel is already popular in Europe, “I was glad to see she has successfully brought the idea to the states,” Mantovani said.

In order to keep the company growing, Rafson started creating partnerships with local businesses in cities that get visited frequently so that customers can get discounts at certain places. For example, the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh. In terms of growing to include international destinations, Rafson would rather keep it national for now.

“As a startup that did so well in the beginning, you feel a pressure to accelerate as fast as possible, however, I am most attached to the personal relationships I get to have with customers, and that will be the most sacred thing to lose if we expand,” Rafson said.

Rafson is serious about the personal relationship aspect of her company, and firmly believes that it is the most important. Trips are planned by an actual person reading the customer’s survey results, not just by an algorithm scanning data. Each customer even receives handwritten notes by Lillian herself. This is the ultimate proof of how much Lillian cares about her customers, and the success of her business.