Ship Mate’s mobile app was the first cruise app to enter the App Store in December 2009 and has maintained a consistent spot in Apple’s Top Travel apps, but the brother duo that founded the service is now working on building a better platform and growing their user base with the help of summer accelerator program Startup UCLA.

How a fun family project becomes a top travel app

The app was created as a family project by brothers Mike and Jan Jirout to keep track of their 55 family members during their bi-annual cruise vacation. It started as a simple deck map, but other passengers were so interested in the app that the Jirouts decided to offer it for free in the App Store. They never expected the hundreds of daily downloads or user requests for more maps and features that followed its launch.

Ship Mate has since come out with 11 versions of the app for every major cruise line and hosts between 50,000 and 70,000 daily users. Usage dramatically increases during Wave Season, between January and March, with users connecting from the Caribbean, Alaska, and Europe.

The app’s active community of users sends in reviews on ports and ships. Other features include a roll call displaying when Ship Mate users board the ship, a chat room to message other passengers on your ship, itineraries, cruise countdowns, and information on available excursions.

Cruise line competitors catch up

Over time major cruise lines from Royal Caribbean to Celebrity have followed in Ship Mate’s foot steps and created their own mobile apps. However, co-founder Mike Jirout believes these apps’ focus on making money through mobile bookings and on-board purchases bothers passengers who are looking for more substantial information.

The brothers credit their app’s continual success to its humble beginning. The app was built by cruise passengers for cruise passengers, and has stayed focused on providing a consumer-friendly experience ever since.

They have purposely declined partnerships with major cruise lines to maintain their customer-driven service. Mike explained that he and his brother want to maintain Ship Mate’s unbiased review system and remain a place for people to talk openly about cruising.

Improving upon their product

Ship Mate is working on bringing the mobile app community to the web for users who want to browse ship pictures and reviews on a larger screen. They are also refining Ship Mate’s chat room to provide a platform for passengers to meet and talk based on the model of their ship, the dates of their trip, and the ports they are visiting.

Users cannot book cruises directly through Ship Mate, but are directed to their partner CruiseWise, a popular site for booking cruises. This allows Ship Mate to remain focused on providing pre- and post-cruise tools for individuals who have already booked their vacation.

Shipmate hopes to greatly increase their user community through a new partnership with travel agents who want to engage with clients after their initial cruise booking. The mobile app will be sent to cruise passengers with their agent’s name and logo and will connect both parties with a single touch.

Ship Mate’s usage should grow greatly from the partnership as Mike estimates around 68% of cruisers book through agents.

Founding brothers are ready to expand their team

Mike and Jan remain the only full-time employees, although they are currently looking to bring on programmers. Mike says one of the best aspects of Startup UCLA’s program has been the outside feedback which provides the close-working team of brothers with a fresh perspective.

They’ve never taken outside funding since they’ve had the rare startup blessing of being cash-flow positive from day one; however, they are now considering taking on angel investors to scale quicker and build faster.

The app is now available in the App Store $1.99.

Tags: apps, cruise