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The Singaporean travel writer who co-created a travel app

Firef.ly aims to “illuminate journeys” by helping travellers plan and remember their trips

The Singaporean travel writer who co-created a travel app

Firef.ly creator Shawn Low in Lofoten, northern Norway, which he recommends as an underrated travel spot. (Photo: Shawn Low)

Singapore — You can say that Shawn Low is a Singaporean who is abroad a lot. The former writer-editor at Lonely Planet (who authored 14 titles on various topics from Australia to the Trans-Siberian rail) and host of National Geographic’s Roads Less Travelled has made a dream job his career. He is now the co-founder of Firef.ly, a new travel app that aims to “illuminate journeys” that was launched earlier this year in April. “We have made several updates since and are now at version 0.6.1. We’re not 100 per cent there yet but the app currently gives you a sense of what we are trying to achieve,” explained Low, adding that embedded within the app is a curated set of city guides, which tries to match user interests with recommendations. Low, who is currently shuttling between London and Norway for work, concedes he misses Singapore from time to time. “If I could vacuum-pack any item, I’d pick local coffee. Otherwise, I would love to be able bring pork floss or instant cheng tng.”

 

Q: How is Firef.ly different from all the other apps out there?

A: Most travel apps are quite niche or singular in what they do: You use an app to book a hotel, you use another one to take photos, you post the photo on Instagram, look for a restaurant via Yelp. None of these apps really know you nor give you a holistic approach to travel. Firef.ly is a smart travel journal and personalised guidebook. It captures trails of where you’ve been, letting you overlay that with richer details such as photos, notes, videos, and creates an intimate travel diary. And we also want to help travellers re-live their journeys by creating mementoes such as posters and photo books—features that will be coming soon.

Q: The travel industry is notoriously known to be tough for travel start-ups. How has the journey been so far?

A: Tough. Jokes aside, it’s been quite an amazing journey. Of course, there are really challenging moments in a competitive space that has incredible potential. The plus points are: we’ve built a great team, made a lot of meaningful connections and on top of building Firef.ly, have had a chance to travel. We are currently looking to close another round of funding to give us more runway to build out our vision of helping illuminate journeys.

Q: Why start Firef.ly in Britain and not in Asia, considering that it’s the region where both travel and user base are booming?

A: A couple of reasons. You go where your contacts and networks are: my co-founders are UK-based and we managed to secure our seed round of US$1.09 million there. Having said that, we did incorporate our business in Singapore and have looked into funding and operations here, that didn’t quite pan out. Further, while travel in Asia is booming, the region is divided by many languages, making it harder for an English-app to make an impact there. Firef.ly does work and have content across both Europe and Asia so we’ve actually got that covered.

Q: Having traversed quite a bit of the world, where are some underrated spots you would recommend travellers?

A: I particularly enjoy exploring the more remote parts of China: I explored the Qinghai province, near Tibet, earlier this year. Fabulous Tibetan hospitality, monasteries and hiking. Northern Norway is another region that’s underrated. Aside from the Northern Lights, there are beautiful fjords to drive along and cute little seaside towns in Lofoten to just kick back in. I’m off to Beirut, Lebanon in early November and will report back!

Q: You must have also encountered a lot of travellers. So what annoys you about them?

A: When travellers don’t even try to explore new places. The world is an amazing place with much to see, learn and share. I love it if people just stretch themselves to find a new place to see instead of going back to Bangkok (again!) for more shopping and cheap massages.

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