How Culture Trip CEO Kris Naudts made the ultimate career pivot

Courtesy Culture Trip

Before Kris Naudts started inspiring travelers from around the globe, he was an unfulfilled psychiatrist from Belgium looking from more out of life. His passion for literature and creation webbed into one before launching Culture Trip, the go-to app and website designed to help you find destinations off the beaten path.

The London-based website started in 2011 and quickly has attracted Millennial audiences with its articles, photographs, and videos designed to make travel more accessible. Culture Trip, which recently expanded into accommodations and experience, plans to tackle more ground like booking flights, to make it the one-stop place for all travel.

Naudts, the company’s CEO, recently sat down with Ladders to talk about his love of literature, his transition from psychiatry to creative content, to even how participating in counseling to learn more about himself and as a CEO.

(This interview was redacted)

You were in medicine before transitioning to an entrepreneur. What influenced the professional shift?

“I always felt like an entrepreneur and a founder who happened to do something temporarily medical or scientific, so to speak. I was good at math and science and went into that industry. Before you know it, you’re living the life of someone else which is obviously something you start to get tired of. I always wanted to build something — build something creative, that wasn’t full of suffering in the way psychiatry was. That I always knew and when these two drives coincided and pulled me away from medicine and psychiatry, it helped push and pull me to that thing that I felt I had to do. That’s what brought me about and I’ve never really looked back.

“That doesn’t mean you stop championing mental health issues and medical causes, but the real passions sets in entrepreneurship and creativity in particular.”

What have you brought from your time in psychiatry to your role as a CEO?

“A lot. I think psychiatry and medicine and the research I did was extremely multi-disciplinary. That’s very much the mission of Culture Trip because it’s unique at something, almost an insane multi-disciplinary nature that makes it intellectually a very rewarding company to work at and also a very challenging one to work at because you need to bring yourself down a little bit to take in expertise that you might not have at all and make it into a reality that we are. That’s straight out of psychiatry and being the CEO, in my case, I feel like the chief translator at times. We tried to create an experience between multi-disciplines that is exciting and interesting. The other thing that you do in that situation if you’re a psychiatrist, you obviously have a heightened awareness of somebody’s emotional state, which I find more a blessing than a curse because I cannot apply the same tools to make a person feel better, necessarily you can’t skill psychiatry — it doesn’t really work.

Does it ever harm you being that you were a psychiatrist and having you know those skills?

“It takes energy. For example, unbeknownst to you, when I walk in this room, I still also check you — it’s second nature. Who is this guy? What’s he about? What’s this guy feel, wear? That goes for everyone. But even so, I would know a variation. Maybe if someone gains weight or loses weight, I would notice that and I would definitely wonder why that is. It’s neither my business or my problem but you can picture what that does to you when you have 300 people.”

Personally, where did this passion for creating travel content come from at Culture Trip? Were you a big traveler growing up?

“I was most definitely not a traveler growing up. Maybe I went to the neighboring countries [around Belgium] before I was 18, maybe three trips in total. One to France, one to Holland, and one to Germany. Actually, there was one to Switzerland – four trips prior to when I was 18. But I always ferociously read. I still make that distinction – with travel mentally as much as physically. You can get quite far from intellectual travel and reading. That was always there. When I started, I was traveling a minimum once or twice a year. But intellectually, I was traveling all the time. Almost anything I did or studied or learned, I was always interested in the location and the people behind it. For example, an uninteresting psychologist from Ukraine is still from Ukraine, even if he’s not as interesting as a colleague from Ukraine. I don’t eve really talk with anybody unless there’s something interesting or entertaining. If it’s neither, I rather think or sit by myself.

Is there a book that you’ve experienced this intellectual travel with?

“One book I often refer to is “Giovanni’s Room” by James Baldwin. If you’ve ever been to Paris, especially Paris in your 20s and you catch that kind of twilight hour at 5 AM. You’re a bit groggy from the night before and you see all the weirdo’s coming out. You’re there but you’re not meant to be there, you know what kind of scene? He captures that like right on. You’re always interested in that kind of scene, whether it’s in Paris or someplace else.”

How does this intellectual experience translate to Culture Trip? Is it specifically designed to attract a Millennial audience?

“There are a few different answers to that. I would say yes, for my love of literature, I would say first and foremost the mental travel. That’s why they love books and we created content around that. We gradually became more visual because more people wanted that. We stuck food in there because the food industry shot off.

“To your point about Millennials, I think it’s nothing more than the fact really that they have no pre-attachments to legacy brands. That to a business is important because you don’t need to change the Millennial’s mind to not travel with Thomas Cook. They’ve never traveled with Thomas Cook. In a business sense, it makes sense to start with young, digital folks. In addition, they market it for you. It’s nothing but commercial reasons to that choice to focus on [Millennials] because we know how to speak with them, we have a large workforce, we understand they have no legacy attachments, and we are fully aware that they are fully digitally native. There’s a very strong rallying cry in the company to go beyond their cultural bounds to connect with the world around them that the Gen-Z and Millennial generations feel really inspired by.”

What makes something worthwhile to Culture Trip in terms of picking a location to cover? What’s this selection process like?

“This has evolved a lot over the years. In the first three years, all the articles really came out of my mind. That was mostly an obsession to showcase cultures typically less in the mainstream. We literally spent hours and hours in bookstores to find writers or Argentinian architects that nobody’s ever heard of and then I would get somebody to write about it. I was kind of curious and it did work because nobody did it. We mostly got messages from people who are from those countries asking about how we knew about their country when I didn’t necessarily know their country. If you’ve made onto an English bookshelf as a Korean author, you’re probably a reasonable name, therefore, the locals immediately trusted the brand. That was the first years really.

“A critical point was when I took it beyond my own interest. I’m not interested in food – I eat it and I enjoy it, but I don’t read about it. But as an entrepreneur, if you don’t break out of your goal or vision, you have to be able to take in what goes on around you… When you start to write about food, the food traffic shot right through the roof because it’s such a cultural democratized need. You don’t need to be reminded to eat three-times-a-day, at least. When you think of food, the content is there to meet it immediately.

“I then realized we needed to start with visual context and come out of our ivory tower and seeing the traffic grows with that. The last two years it’s become more scientific where we’ve built dashboards that really analyze data because we know, for example, what all Ukrainians over the last five years have looked at [on Culture Trip]. We can create that existing need.”

What do you make of travel today? There seems to be a need for vacationers to broadcast everything they do? Has society lost some of that cultural experience?

“It’s interesting because there’s a lot to say to that. You could say it’s not correct because it sits in the way of experiencing things properly. Maybe the individual that chooses the selfie isn’t experiencing it properly and he or she stands in the way of experiencing it properly. It’s a lose-lose. That said, I’m hesitant to be too judgmental about it too… We’d love to say we have a look of things before we stand there with a selfie-stick. Cultural shifts I feel are very interesting. If you asked me about the future of travel, I cannot answer that without talking about China. That is the trend in travel and change. By observation, if you see how people of Chinese origin travel, the selfie-stick is definitely here to stay. Quite frankly, there’s nothing wrong with it.”

Do you encourage your employees to travel often?

“Yes, there’s a lot of inter-office travel. When [employees] join, they introduce themselves to the whole company about why they’ve come to Culture Trip and where their favorite destinations are. The subject matter and conversation always goes there. It’s also a value – food and travel are two pastimes that are incredibly valued today by most people… We have two things that you can put under that umbrella. One is we have a pretty generous leave package. Employees have 25 days of annual leave, which is neat.

“As a founder, you’re going to be driving at people because things need to progress and you know the opportunity becomes smaller if you hesitate or at it. The natural inclination of many founders is to impose yourself more, but you really need to do the opposite.”

Has that been a struggle as a founder and CEO?

“For sure. You really need to learn that. In the beginning, everything moves because you need to push but when you have 200-300 people, you can’t. Things don’t work the same. Empathy doesn’t scale. The empathy that you feel here, the human interaction, doesn’t scale – I can’t do that with 300 people. You struggle with that and you figure out a way to deal with that.

“As opposed to imposing more control over people’s time, I took a completely different direction and went for a radical work-for-home policy. Employees can work-from-home as much as they want. They can work 365 days from home, in theory, they can at Culture Trip. I don’t think that’s ideal because they won’t have as much face time and interaction, but it’s an interesting point. It helps with work-life balance and it’s a great leveler between the genders. Childcare, parenting – anything becomes easier if there’s nobody there expecting you to be there. It changes everything. It’s not all rosy because you still need output, but I feel very positive about that. We are learning how we can make such a radical policy work. That would allow people to work from Thailand if they wanted to.

“But how to work hard, like really work hard, with the radical work-from-home policy is something that we’re still working on.”

What are you still learning about yourself as a CEO?

“I learn so much. It’s an interesting question because as a psychiatrist, I was never too interested in psychotherapy. I was more interested in understanding how the mind words and diagnosis, so much more diagnosis than treatment. You still have to do it, it’s part of your training but in order to provide psychotherapy or counseling, you have to take some yourself. You get through some crash-course to get to know yourself. You learn a lot. I thought that I knew myself. To a large degree, I did – but I didn’t know myself in this type of context, which is completely novel. In two years I’ll look back and think, ‘That was an interesting moment in transition’ but when you first hit that moment where whatever you are about, how you take and how you work, doesn’t work – that’s a very strange moment where you suddenly learn a ton of things beyond how work works but how you work. I’ve never respected it as much as I have in the past year.”

Was this a personal transition for you?

“I have a self-image for what I am and what I am about. I like people, broadly speaking. I like to know about people. People say the Dunbar Number — 150 people and onwards – that an organization changes because personal relationships cannot be the same. But I cruised until we started at 170-180 employees because I was a psychiatrist. By cruised, every adjustment I had to make felt fairly normal. I made mistakes, but I didn’t feel like I had to turn myself inside out. That’s what that starting feeling like from 180-onwards and to say 250-300. It’s really interesting and I’m still learning and working things out. But you have to embrace it as a challenge. I asked myself, ‘Why do I have to deal with this?’ I have a business to grow – you need to.”

What did you have to improve on the most as an entrepreneur?

“I always work more from a knowledge and information perspective. When I speak to people, my top priority would be that the information I want to import gets across. If you’re on a smaller team, you can do that and the people will still know the person and they’ll know you’re speaking information, but you still have empathy. With 300 [employees], you can’t do that. If you only focus on information, people need to be spoken to their hearts too. As a founder, you need to do that. You’re not going to inspire 300 people by metrics and by metrics only. You need to figure out how you want to articulate that and how to hone that skill.”

What are the next steps for Culture Trip?

“It’s been really interesting because we didn’t have money for a long time so you were constraint by resources. Mentally, you could expand but in reality, you couldn’t. We raised money and we expanded like crazy. You really need to focus and make the right choices. In order to make the right choices, we had to temporarily go very wide. So what’s next? It’s less – less and deep to really drive people to come to the website or the app when they are thinking of traveling to cities in particular. We have to get them to try to get them from inspiration to try to actually plan their trip and use it as a tool more than an interesting creative proposition. That will then result in booking and transaction. We’re good at getting users – we have about 15-20 million users each month. We’re so used to it now, but it’s not something to be blasé about. It’s such a bloody crowded landscape where 15-20 million people every month feel this is worth coming to. We should continue to celebrate that, but you don’t build a mega-business on the back of that. That’s not going to be enough. If we put all our resources into content creation, our audience would double or maybe triple. It’s a nice business, but we want actual customers. If we have actual customers and we get people to transact on our platform, all that money can go into content creation and you get a rewarding cycle. That’s next – focusing people on inspiration to actually booking their place to stay or experience with us.”

Back to books – how has reading shaped you as a CEO?

“Both intellectually and emotionally. I read a study recently that said people who read fiction are demonstrably more empathic than people who don’t read fiction. It’s an interesting one because fiction more than non-fiction makes you take perspective. On a subconscious level, it makes you impersonate another person. If you’re only reading factual stuff, you don’t necessarily need to do that. That’s influenced me hugely. There’s this post on LinkedIn that’s also true – if you want to know me, come to my house and look at my bookshelf. I look at it myself to understand myself sometimes. You go through waves. I read multiple books a week so you can literally see where at least my mind and a bit of my heart was…

“You have to find a safe space too. If you turn your passions into your job, everything becomes a passion because everything becomes a job. I couldn’t read anymore because I would think we would have to write about that or write like this… There won’t be a day where I won’t read – that doesn’t exist. It’s like brushing your teeth. Even after a party, if there are two hours of sleep, I prefer to sleep an hour. There’s no judgment if it’s not for you.”