Rafi Mustafa is the Founder and CEO of Dhaka-based travel-tech startup Tripooly. Rafi has an interesting career trail. Prior to starting Tripooly, he worked for Groupon and Amazon and co-founded another ecommerce startup in Dhaka.
In this interview, Rafi reflects on his love for travelling and how his passion inspired him to start a travel-tech startup, discusses extensively Tripooly and his future plan for the startup, shares his idea of growing together and taking over an industry and importance of building a great team.
Future Startup: How Tripooly came to exist?
Rafi Mustafa: I love travelling. I personally travel a lot. One of our family businesses is a travel agency. It has been around for about 28 years. You can say that travelling is in my blood.
When I returned to Bangladesh three years ago, I came to see that buying (travel) packages is a thing here. Everyone buys packages. When I was abroad, things were simple. You go online, you see a flight, you see a hotel, book your thing and you’re off, but in Bangladesh, it’s (travel) packages.
I thought let’s give this thing a try. I got two deals. I bought one for India and another for Thailand. I went to both of the countries before, but I felt like travelling again. This was also an experiment with the package thing.
So I travelled to Thailand and India with two travel packages. The experience was mixed. Some of the things written on the deal were just brilliant and some of the things didn’t match. I returned thinking that there are some gaps.
That’s when I thought that something needs to be done. Travel agencies traditionally sell tickets. We have been doing this for 28/29 years at our family travel agency. For the last 3 years, we’ve been doing a lot of visa processing as well. So I was aware of many aspects of travel agency business.
Top of that, there’re a few things I realized living in Bangladesh. The first thing, of course, is that traffic is part of our lives. Along with the issues of travel packages, I realized that this, buying travel package and traffic, is also an issue.
I thought - imagine you don’t have to go to travel agencies to travel agencies, tour operator to tour operator in this traffic in order to find a travel package. If I do (go to) three a day, I’ll be exhausted and I’ll have to take a day off from work (laughs).
Almost everyone is on Facebook nowadays. And there is a Facebook page for almost everything, but the problem is there is a limit to how many Facebook pages you can check. Then you’ll have to verify the authenticity of the pages!
This is almost 2 years ago. I thought why not create a platform, an online marketplace for tour operators and travel agencies. My team and I will build a platform where we can host all these deals and anyone can find and choose from a long array of deals.
Once we started to dig deep, we found that almost 90% of travel agencies don’t have an online presence. 5-7% of them do have an online presence but they mainly operate offline. But everything online is going up every day in Bangladesh.
That’s when I decided to create a platform, a marketplace. I have the background. I’ve worked in the online businesses for 16 years. We have travel agency business back here (Bangladesh), and I love travelling. So I thought let’s turn this hobby into a profession.
I was still busy with ZumZum. In fact, I’ve built the platform. But continued working on this travel marketplace on the side. I went and talked to a lot of local partners and foreign vendors.
The idea was to provide an amazing platform and brilliant service. First of all, there will be no grey area, everything will be transparent. If you buy a package you will exactly know what’s going to happen on Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3. Which hotel you are staying, when is the check in and checkout time? Is the wifi free, and so on? Everything should be there. That’s a lot of work and I didn’t have time at that moment.
I was still doing ZumZum full time. My father used to tell me, whatever you do, give your 100% to it and be dedicated. He was a freedom fighter and a businessman for 39 years. Who else’s advice would I listen to? So I told my father, I have a project at hand now, once I finish that only then I will be (start) doing this travel marketplace.
Finally, sometime last year I decided to go full time with Tripooly. I told my brother to look after the (family) business as I have to focus on Tripooly. It is a big industry, so I spoke to my partners’ at ZuumZuum and told them I needed to focus on Tripooly. They understood.
I launched Tripooly with 2 people initially - a developer and a sales guy along with me. Very quickly, I understood the need for a graphics guy. Online is a different universe. One of the key things to understand about online is that it is not tangible. You cannot touch thing but you can inspire people with a great design. For me design is everything. So I hired a great graphics guy. That’s how we started.
After the launch, what were the few things you focused on? And how did you approach your product development?
RM: Building a team is very important to me. I personally believe in the team effort. So, the first thing I put importance on was building a great team. Then we started to work on building a culture. At Tripooly, we don’t call anyone employee, we are team members. We are like a family!
We are also extremely customer centric. I often tell my team members that externally if I give you a ranking of 1 to 10. Where does customer fall? 1 to 10-all customers, nothing else is as important as customer.
Internally, I will give you 3 attributes and the order is this: company, team and yourself. This applies for me as well, always. Externally and internally, customer is everything. Building that sort of a culture is a tall order. If you are trying to do that in a company, building a team is very important.
We have also been doing all these sales, trying to educate vendors, tour operators, and travel agencies. I tell our vendors and partners that we are here to make your life easy.
Tripooly takes care of your marketing, takes care of your graphics, takes care of your sales call, takes care of your payment, and takes care of the pre and post customer service situation. All you have to do is provide us great deals.
I have domain expertise in the online sphere, you are an expert in the offline industry and we are not in competition. We are never in competition. Tripooly is another sales channel to grow your business. I have a team who are “travel consultants”, another that is working on graphics, and another team for sales. We are doing all of that. All we are asking from you is that provide us quality deals.
We started small because we wanted to be the best in quality and service. It is easy to get 100 or more vendors right away, but we would rather get five, ten or fifteen good vendors over 100 who are not so good. We will grow slowly but our background will be strong.
Whoever we are working with, we know that they are the best of the best. In the last couple of months of our operation; so far we didn’t have any single refund or bad review. We are a marketplace but we can also help you with your flights. We can do your visa processing, we can sell your cruise, and we can do your hotel booking. We can customize as well. We do superbly customized deals. We have done it before and we are doing it.
At Tripooly, our business is to simplify travel for everyone. You don’t have to go to multiple agencies. Imagine, Tripooly is your personal travel concierge.
Briefly, what Tripooly is? And how it works?
RM: Tripooly is your one-stop travel shop. We do everything from flights to visa processing to hotel booking and to amazing deals to anywhere in the world. As I said, Tripooly is your one-stop travel shop. You never have to go anywhere else. We will find the best deals for you. That’s what Tripooly stands for.
We aggregate deals from best tour operators, top travel agencies and put them in one single place, on the Tripooly online platform. All you do is search, compare and buy. You can buy offline as well, come to our office and pay cash.
Payment is one of the key problems in the travel sector. I thought if we are going to simply travel with all these products like travel service, visa processing then why not payment. From day one we have all sorts of payment facilities available. You can deposit payment to our bank account or you can go online and pay with your local debit or credit card. Or with your international credit card or with bkash, m-cash, q-cash; you name it.
We also thought about mobile. We have a mobile app but we are not promoting it. We are in the process of making it better.
Briefly, tell us about your growth. How many agencies are using your platform?
RM: Let me put it this way, we have achieved our target for six months in the first six weeks. That validated our assumption that there is a demand for the service we are offering and also that we are doing something right.
We now work with over 20 vendors. Some are on the platform and some aren’t. We have a growing list of vendors on the pipeline. You may say, 20 is not a big number but the number is small for a reason. We maintain a pretty scrupulous process when it comes to onboarding agencies.
We have a quality check system. Every vendor has to go through it before going live on the platform. We are very careful. We are a platform, right? The customer has to be happy that we are providing them with great deals. At the same, our vendor has to be happy that we are bringing them customers. In order to connect both ends successfully, QC is very important.
How many deals have you served so far? How do you make money?
RM: We have served over US$ 75,000 dollars’ worth of deals so far. We charge vendors a small commission on every deal they sell on the platform. I can’t share the commission we charge but it reflects the service we provide.
We do not charge our customers an extra cent. We only charge vendors. We are providing vendors sales, marketing, customer service, payment handling and everything. Imagine, you are a tour operator, all you do is creating tours, great tours, and then you go to Tripooly. At the end of the month, you get a check from us!!
So far, our vendors are happy across the board.
Tell us about your team.
RM: We are just over 10 people and growing! We are looking for great people. If I want to provide quality service to my clients, if I want to do quality business with my vendors, then I need quality team members. When you have great people in the team, great things happen.
We are careful when it comes to hiring people. You must share our passion for providing the best possible service. You have to be passionate, you have to think outside the box. If you are a little weird and passionate then we are more than happy to have a chat with you.
Tell us about the challenges and difficulties you have faced.
RM: I’ve been fortunate that I’ve got an amazing team. Any business has issues that need to be solved; some are daily and some are on an urgent basis and some are monthly. For us, the main challenge is to educate an industry with a platform that was non-existent. Not as a company, but this platform, as a whole, was non-existent.
It takes a lot of efforts to explain our service to our users. We try to simplify this process of educating users by constant communication.
Moreover, asking a tour operator to use our platform is a tough call. For instance, you are an old tour operator and have been in business for 20 years or 10 or 5 years. How would you react if I ask you to join an online platform for more sales?
I’m asking that question to myself. How can I convince someone who has been in this business for years? We are working hard to answer this question well. We are trying to assure our vendors that we are not here to take away their customers; instead, we are a helping force. We take care of your online business and work like a spinoff of your business.
We question ourselves every day, how can we make our service better? How can we make it better, easier for our clients?
For now, the challenge is scaling. We have got here. Now, we need to scale this business. How can we get more people to shop from Tripooly, how can we get more quality vendors on Tripooly, how can you get more deals on Tripooly? These are the challenges we are trying to overcome now.
How do you measure growth? Is it the number of vendors on your platform?
RM: Well, the number of vendors is an important metric for us but that’s not the key. Quality and number of deals are the most important metrics. If we offer great deals, we receive fantastic response from our clients.
What is the next?
RM: For now, finding good people and launching the app. We have an android app right now; we want to make it better. We’d like to have an iOS app soon as well.
Product-wise, we want to introduce a couple of interesting features in the coming days like giving customers an option to create their own tour package etc.
What about funding?
RM: Right now, I’m funding myself. But we have been in conversations with a few investors. There are a couple of investors who are interested in Tripooly.
What do you think about competition given that there are a couple of travel-tech startups in the market? Where does Tripooly stand?
RM: I have a couple of points about the competition. A) Bangladesh is a pretty big market and it can accommodate a few platforms and businesses B) We are different; we handle everything. We are slightly different to a lead generation company.
As I mentioned before, we do everything including marketing, sales, payment, visa, and customization etc. We work with almost every top tour operators in the country. There is a reason why every top vendor in Bangladesh wants to work with Tripooly because we provide them with a 360-degree solution for an online platform.
Tripooly is like an online spinoff for their businesses. We are not collecting a lead and sending it to their office. We are dealing with the whole thing. Just like an online travel agency does and that’s what we are doing.
The way I see is that the online travel industry in Bangladesh is young. Instead of thinking about competition, we need to find ways to growing the industry together. I think competition is good but if you constantly thinking about your competitors when are you going to focus on your own business!
It’s a new sector, it’s small and you have to focus on building credibility. You have to focus on building trust, not just with vendors but with clients as well. Focus on the actual problems, focus on the actual lead. Think about those things instead of wasting time on the competition.
Please tell us about experience and challenges you faced, not business-wise, as a founder?
RM: I think the first challenge any founder has to go through is finding the right team. I’m fortunate enough to say that we have a great team and that solved a lot of problems and issues.
I used to work for big companies. I let all that go in order to become an entrepreneur. But founders go through a lot. Where will your next paycheck come from? Doing groceries for your home, where will the money come from? All these issues are sources of tension for many founders.
You could come from a solid background or whatever background. This is an experience that almost every founder goes through and lives through and prays that they don’t have to go through it again.
Then, there are doubts and confusion and fear. Whatever I’m doing, am I doing it right? Is it going to work? It is always in the back of your head. It is probably working but you are thinking; will it continue working? So I guess what I’d say to that is: keep innovating, keep challenging yourself.
When I first launched Tripooly, I didn’t have anyone as a travel consultant. I didn’t have anyone in sales, I was doing it all by myself. I used to wake up at 6/7:00 am in the morning and start taking all the calls and my last call would come in at 1.30 or 2am. I’d take all the calls. I was doing 80/90 phone calls per day, all by myself.
I could have hired someone but I had my reasons for not doing so. It saved me a little money and I was learning something myself.
That level of commitment has to be given. Once you do that, things start to make sense, it is more fun.
Note: Interview by Ruhul Kader, Transcription by Samiul Alam