Every year, €70bn worth of train tickets are sold in Europe. However, given that the continent’s rail system is split between a multitude of rail operators, currencies and countries, the industry is fragmented and ticketing is a complex affair. And with the European Commission pushing for ever more competition, the direction of travel is clear: more choice for the consumers, more complexity for the distributors.
The more fragmented the market is, the more an independent distribution platform makes sense —a fact that was recognized early on by Jean-Daniel, Martin and Valentin, the three co-founders of Captain Train, an online booking platform and a mobile app that allows customers to book train tickets without any hassle and at the best price.
Launched in 2009, a couple of weeks after France's competition commission officially liberalized international rail transport, the company slowly but surely established a unique strategic position for itself at the forefront of a powerful long-term trend. Today, the company covers 19 European countries and combines the offers of a large number of rail companies.
Relentlessly focusing on creating the most delightful user experience
It wasn't always obvious that the company would get there. When we first met Jean-Daniel and his team, they shared their commission with so many intermediaries that they lost money on every ticket sold. And their only supplier at the time, France’s national train operator SNCF, also happened to co-own Voyage-SNCF, the website they were bound to replace.
However, the team was smart enough to enroll Jean de la Rochebrochard—better known as France's best sales person—as one of their fundraisers. He helped the team focus their pitch on two essential areas: the product and the market. The market is huge, with tens of billions of sales every year, and the product they were developing was going to be first class, unlike anything else out there in this category. Convinced by this, we decided to lead Captain Train’s Seed round alongside CM-CIC in June 2012.
The team has delivered. They relentlessly executed on their vision of building the most delightful user experience to book train tickets across Europe, while assembling one of the continent's most talented product and tech team. Patiently, they built up a base of hundred of thousands of customers so loyal that they would make the business behave like a subscription service rather than an ecommerce platform.
Captain Train’s exceptional retention is demonstrated by "smiling" cohorts of customers -- that is, those who have been passive for a while will often come back months later when they need train tickets again.
This single chart is what made the company: in the early days, it is so much easier to build from a small but fanatical user base than a large uninterested audience.
Betting on the long-term
According to Peter Thiel's "secret" theory, successful entrepreneurs know something unique about where the world is going to be in the next 10 to 20 years and this allows them to build outsized long-term value. The Captain Train team had a unique insight into the future of the rail market, and pursued their vision without flinching. That’s why we’re delighted to see Jean-Daniel and his team’s perseverance and dedication to their “secret” pay off.
Joining forces with Trainline
This week, Trainline announced that it has acquired Captain Train in a cash and shares transaction. As part of the deal, the Captain Train team will lead Trainline's expansion in continental Europe, while Jean-Daniel and I will join Trainline's board of directors. With the backing of Trainline's resources and marketing know-how, Captain Train will have the platform it needs to become a household name as the default train and ground transportation booking engine in Europe.
Their story is an ode to the power of talent, conviction and perseverance, and we want to thank the Captain Train team for letting Index play a small part in it. We look forward to further working with them and the Trainline team as they fulfill their mission of using the best technology to make travelling in Europe a joy.
Published — March 15, 2016