Voyagu founder shares how he started a travel startup during Covid, its challenges, growth, and more.
Hi Ivan! What's your background, and what are you currently working on?
I have ten years of experience building tech companies and eight years in the travel industry, which includes working with both European and American travel agencies. My initial areas of action were sales and operations, but I later transitioned to tech products.
Right now, my main focus is building Voyagu, a platform that connects travelers and travel agents. Think of it as the Uber of travel.
What's your backstory, and how did you come up with the idea?
I first studied economics and worked in the banking sector before swiftly transitioning to journalism. It was then that the entrepreneurial bug hit me. My desire was quickly fulfilled, as a friend was launching a travel agency and invited me to join in. After we started working together, I began to notice all the challenges that the travel industry was facing and thought they presented an enormous opportunity.
Looking at the market, the first clear fact is that there are many direct-to-consumer (DTC) platforms. This gives customers a wide range of choices for booking and managing travel. Therefore, to have an opportunity to compete, travel agents should be significantly faster, more accurate, and incredibly effective in the value proposition they bring to the client. Because, more often than not, they can't match the speed or prices of big brand platforms, they end up losing revenue, even from their most loyal customers.
This is partly because advisors do not have access to fast and agile tech infrastructure. Legacy systems from host agencies are sluggish and inflexible, and slower service undermines customer confidence and results in them booking with platforms that can provide the speed they need.
However, DTC platforms still don't offer all the services customers desire, leaving ample space for targeting other segments. Surprisingly, no one has integrated agents and clients into a single system using technology, and I believed this could be an opportunity.
My confidence is that technology takes care of repetitive routine tasks, leaving more time for quality customer interaction, providing the agents with the necessary speed and competitiveness, and, as a result, bolstering the growth of their earnings while increasing their efficiency through automation.
That's when I thought of Voyagu.
How did you build Voyagu?
When creating tech products, my main focus is always on the users' pain points. The whole product life cycle is centered around this. With Voyagu, we have two users: the traveler and the travel agent. So, we needed to understand their interactions. Why do people use travel agents? What problems do agents solve for customers? And what challenges do these agents face? Having worked in the agency business, I quickly formed some ideas, but I wanted factual proof to build an amazing product.
We ran a research study and spoke with a large number of agents. Our findings were that 60% of travel advisors don't believe it is possible to boost their income, particularly because of the lack of necessary tools. This is despite the fact that more than half of the surveyed advisors, including not only younger generations but older ones as well, believe that technology will be a key driver for increased revenues and business growth.
Collecting more and more insights, I, along with our brilliant head of engineering and head of UX design, began crafting our first prototype. From there, it was a by-the-book process: based on user pain points, we built features in the most cost-effective way, released them to the market, and collected feedback.
Which are your acquisition channels?
Initially, because all of my entrepreneurial experience was linked to online ventures, I only believed in digital acquisition channels. However, looking at the success of tech giants like Airbnb and Hopper, I saw how branding could play a huge role in creating a success story. Since then, I've put more emphasis on raising brand awareness, investing in design, communication, and positioning.
Most of all, we prioritize client satisfaction, which significantly contributes to our reputation. When both travellers and agents are pleased, we are paid back with positive word of mouth and get a good share of referrals. Because of this, we reached a 54% repeat booking rate in Q3 2023. Additionally, we have an SEO-driven strategy to bring more visitors to our platform, a targeted seeding strategy to grow our brand awareness, and generate organic traffic from PR activities.
What are your goals for the future?
I'm building Voyagu to bring the benefits of technology to a sector that desperately needs it. Through technology, we can simplify the complexity of planning, booking, and managing travel and make it cost-effective for both the client and the travel agent. In this way, we can create both unforgettable experiences for travelers and booming businesses for travel advisors.
By leveraging ML technology, we can enhance the traditional travel sector and rapidly scale our company. Our target is to achieve 1 billion in gross bookings per year. While 1 billion sounds like a lot, it's less than 1% of the global travel industry. The plan is to keep improving our product and continue to grow. Also, to have a strong brand, an outstanding product, and create value for travelers and travel agents alike.
What were the biggest challenges you faced and obstacles you overcame?
In the beginning, I chose the wrong CTO, which led to two subsequent changes in my engineering team. This caused me to lose two years and $600,000. I understood what the product should be like, but also the importance of its implementation speed. It was necessary to find a compromise and balance between building the final product and something intermediate to keep up with the market demand and be able to launch right now.
I eventually built a team that delivered on every promise, and we successfully deployed our backend within two months. This remarkable pace enabled us to develop our search engine, complete with our platform and client portal, in just 18 months, defying expert predictions that had initially estimated a project timeline of three to five years. So, a significant lesson here is that the right team is a company’s most valuable asset.
After the pandemic, the travel industry started to shift even more. A tremendous demand has emerged. At the same time, travelers now want a different product - one that's more flexible, with transparent pricing. The old methods of harsh price discrimination don't work anymore. Travelers don't want to pay for the empty seats next to them in business class.
For all travel providers, there's a huge challenge to ensure maximum occupancy of planes, hotels, and cruises while offering a product that gives the best value for money. Different strategies are being used to tackle this. Some are revisiting their sales channels, while others are rethinking the product itself. My task is to catch these changes and build a product for the future, not the past.
Which are your greatest disadvantages? What were your worst mistakes?
One of my main internal struggles is with my analytical side. I delve deeply into the context of a situation before making decisions. When faced with a 'blackbox' or when I have to operate with insufficient information, as was the case during the pandemic, I find it difficult to make a decision.
However, I've developed a method that works for me: I analyze all the known factors, identify the unknowns, outline the risks and potential rewards, and after weighing all the available information, I make my decision. The downside to this approach is that it takes time. And when you're building a tech company, time is of the essence.
Technologies evolve, the competitive landscape shifts, and you need to be ahead. However, I found a solution in Ray Dalio's book "Principles'', which advises documenting all decisions and the subsequent outcomes of those decisions, thereby automating and speeding up the decision-making process for similar situations.
If you had the chance to do things differently, what would you do?
I wish I had started building Voyagu a few years earlier. I began at the onset of the pandemic, and during the first year and a half, when the travel industry was virtually non-existent, our progress wasn't as swift as I would have liked. I'm certain that had I started, say, two years earlier and with different people on the team, we would have made much more headway. All the challenges we discussed existed in the travel industry before the global health crisis. However, the pandemic acted as a catalyst, amplifying these issues and making them more pressing than ever. The accumulated technical debt and limitations in inventory management became even more pronounced in a world where travelers sought flexibility and transparency in their bookings.
On the flip side, investing in travel during that period was a bold move. While it posed substantial challenges, it also served as a rich source of learning and growth. It forced us to innovate, rethink our strategies, and develop solutions that could meet the evolving needs of travelers and travel agents, as I had no doubt that there would be a significant boom right after the borders reopened.
What are some sources for learning you would recommend for entrepreneurs who are just starting?
I have two main recommendations. The first one is books. In conversations with many renowned business coaches, they often recommend books as one of the primary tools for acquiring knowledge. While books might not have answers to my specific questions, they do contain solutions to challenges faced by people with similar businesses or backgrounds and discuss how they addressed those challenges.
The second is an international network and coaches. I love meeting people and learning from them. This curiosity is perhaps why I initially got into journalism. Now, these traits help me gain firsthand knowledge from others and apply it to everything I do.