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The Tohula founders on a brainstorming session in the outdoors.
The Tohula founders on a brainstorming session in the outdoors.

It’s going to be a gorgeous weekend in Seattle, and I’m already planning to get the family outdoors to enjoy some much-needed sunshine. (Mountain Loop Highway or Chuckanut Drive is the question?)

With Tohula, a new Redmond startup led by nature lovers, tech geeks and Founder Institute grads Sebastien Fouillade and Matthieu Lefort, I could chronicle my experiences and even win some rewards for doing what I already love (spending time in the outdoors).

I had my doubts when I first heard about Tohula. After all, when I head out on camping or hiking excursions, I try to put technology aside. (Yes, I really do!) So, I asked Fouillade, a 38-year-old former Microsoft program manager, about “gamifying” and “digitizing” the natural world.

“We actually have a rule that people shouldn’t be hiking around looking at their cell phone for safety reasons and also simply because you’re out to enjoy nature, not your phone,” said Fouillade. “The mobile app we’re working on is seen more as a tool, like a compass, that could assist you before and during your adventure. The rewards are simply based on how active you are, how many adventures you’ve done and so on. We’re keeping it rather simple as we’re not big fan of continuous screen time, especially in nature.”

Tohula takes its name from the Maori word “tohu” — which means to instruct or guide — and the French word “la” — which means there. And the company is very much rooted in that mission, guiding people to the places they love in the outdoors.

In May 2012 after connecting through the Founder Institute alumni network, the two entrepreneurs decided to discuss the idea on a backpacking trip in the mountains of Andorra. The two clicked, and  Fouillade later quit his job at Microsoft and Lefort relocated his family to Redmond.

Now, they are well on their way on the startup path, unveiling a new version of the site and a partnership with Clif Bar to provide snack prizes to members (through a unique scavenger hunt game in which a Tohula “rock” is hidden in certain parks around Seattle). We caught up with Fouillade to learn more about his journey.

tohula_v12_shadow_600px_greenExplain what you do so our parents can understand it: “Provide a service to help families find and enjoy great outdoor activities, rewarding them with prizes from eco-friendly companies them in the process.”

Inspiration hit us when: “Inspiration hit us two times: (1) When we were trying to find great outdoor local things to do with our kids and even simple things took way too much planning. (2) When we were hiking together in the mountains of Andorra and realized this was all about reconnecting with Nature and building an ecosystem around that.

VC, Angel or Bootstrap: “First, we bootstrap to validate our assumptions and test our business model. Second, we look for angels and crowd funding to expand our territory. Third, we turn to VC, when we need to step it up.”

tohula-screenOur ‘secret sauce’ is: “Combination of a purposeful vision, a strong multi-talented team (we all code if we have to), passion for what we’re doing. We love to hear from and meet with our customers.”

The smartest move we’ve made so far: “Having both founders full time on Tohula. Running user studies and trying different things out.”

The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: “Unfairly assuming that everybody else wants to move as fast as we do. When dealing with vendors, contractors, or other service providers, we often forget that not everybody is going at startup speed.”

billgatessmall11Would you rather have Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: “Bill Gates, as he seems to be the most focused on green jobs, economy and a green planet.”

Our world domination strategy starts when: “We have nailed the greater Seattle area market, have established strong partnerships and decide to expand Tohula to other states.”

Rivals should fear us because: “We’re all in.”

tohula-screen2We are truly unique because: “We’ve gone great distances to assemble the current team of full-time and part-time contributors. We’re relentless, we have a unique brand and we love what we’re doing.”

The biggest hurdle we’ve overcome is: “Launching two versions of the Web site, scouting areas all around Seattle, while having each member of the team in a separate location.”

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “Love what you do and be ready to go all in. This is not a sprint, this is not even a marathon, some days it will feel like an ultra marathon but don’t give up and enjoy the journey.”

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