New Tohula website offers customized way for families to explore the outdoors
By NATHAN URETA
Redmond Reporter Contributor
February 8, 2013 · Updated 12:14 PM
Families in the Seattle area have a new way of finding things to do outdoors thanks to a Redmond-based startup company.
Tohula is a new online service that recommends outdoor activities to families, like hiking and cycling, and nearby places to try them.
“Just like Netflix can recommend videos, we understand the families and we can recommend great things for them to do outdoors,” said co-founder Sebastien Fouillade. “We’ll look at the weather, we’ll look at the distance from you and we’ll show you great things to do this weekend.”
While adventuring, families can participate in “quests,” ranging from scavenger hunts to taking themed photos. Those who complete a number of quests can receive rewards from partnered organizations like Ice Breaker, a New Zealand-based clothing company that uses compostable material for their products.
Users can share their accomplishments and photos with each other through Facebook.
“As parents, we all love to share pictures of our kids,” said Tina Schwien, family adviser for Tohula. “We can potentially create postcards or trip journals of cool things we’ve done with our family.”
Tohula’s services are available free of charge. Its funding at this time comes through its partnerships.
Tohula began as two separate companies. While still working at Microsoft in 2011, Fouillade founded GeoBongo, which had the same focus on outdoor family time as Tohula. At around the same time, co-founder Matthieu Lefort began working on Weekenture, a similar service geared toward outdoors enthusiasts.
Lefort piqued Fouillade’s interest after receiving an email through the Founder Institute, an organization dedicated to accelerating startup growth.
“He looked crazy,” Fouillade recalled. “But it was a good kind of crazy.”
After weeks of communication and two days of backpacking in Andora, a small country nestled between France and Spain, Lefort and Fouillade decided to merge companies into one. They called it Tohula: “tohu” being the word for “guide” or “point out” in Maori and “là” being the word for “there” in French.
Tohula was founded with the idea of families spending time away from technology to reconnect with nature.
“Parents have that responsibility,” said Lefort. “I have a bunch of friends complaining about how they have their kids on PlayStations, but who bought the PlayStation in the first place? It’s easy to blame the kids.”
Tohula’s website is updated weekly with recommended locations based on factors like accessibility, distance and safety. One of the latest areas to be recommended, the Redmond Watershed Preserve, exceeds these requirements with its well-maintained trails and close proximity to suburban areas. It is also listed as a “rookie” trail on Tohula’s difficulty scale.
“You can enjoy nature on different levels,” Lefort explained. “We’re trying to provide the right information that most people lack today.”
Parks that don’t meet Tohula’s requirements may be placed on a blacklist of sorts. In the near future, Fouillade and company will approach parks and recreation offices to find ways to improve them.
Fouillade’s goal is to branch out to Oregon near the end of the year, hopefully reaching as far as Northern California. But for now, Tohula is focusing on the Seattle area.
“(We want to) get a good number of customers, have good reviews, ensure that their experience is great, and have a system that scales up to another city,” Fouillade said.
A smartphone app is also in the works, which will use GPS signals to help families navigate while on quests. Fouillade likens it to a compass: something to be used periodically that shouldn’t distract from the experience. The app is planned for later this year.
Until then, Tohula will keep its weekly update schedule, even during the winter months.
“We probably picked the worst time of the year to launch an outdoor activity site,” Fouillade said. “But it’s probably the time when people need it the most.”
Nathan Ureta is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.