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Unpacking Tripooly’s Business, Strategy and Ambition and The Future of Travel: An Interview With Rafi Mustafa, CEO, Tripooly

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Mar 14, 2018
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Tripooly started its operation two and a half years ago as an online marketplace for all sorts of travel deals with an ambition to become a One-Stop-Travel Shop for travelers. Things started pretty well, but as the company grew, challenges around customer experience grew too due to lack of control over different components of the service, forcing Tripooly to rethink its model which eventually led to a pivot to OTA model. Although Tripooly has not launched its full-fledged OTA platform yet, it has been operating at the intersection of offline and online for a while now.

We have been following Tripooly from the beginning of its journey, we first interviewed Mr. Rafi Mustafa in 2016 - you may find that interview here. Like all the startups, over the past years, it has seen its share of ups and downs. However, since its pivot from marketplace model, it has evolved significantly. It has managed to reboot its entire service delivery structure that ensures a seamless customers experience and as a consequent, a consistent organic growth driven by referrals from its existing customers. The team has grown. The business has been seeing a steady growth month on month. Now, Tripooly is plotting a further growth push including a regional expansion.

Travel is a $7 trillion dollar industry globally. In Bangladesh, it has been seeing a steady growth over the past couple of years, an increasing number of Bangladeshis are now traveling overseas (formal outbound travel expenses was $436.4 million in FY16) and the industry is just getting started, in every meaning of the word. Put that together with OTA, the future of OTA business can only go one direction and that’s exponential growth.

In this fascinating interview, Future Startup’s Ruhul Kader sits down with Rafi Mustafa, Founder and CEO, Tripooly, to learn about the developments at Tripooly over the past years and to pick his brain about the strategy of Tripooly going forward, the state of its business and product today and ambition going forward, his take on competition and his biggest lessons from his journey so far as an entrepreneur, future of OTA and travel-tech in Bangladesh and contemplates what future may bring for the travel-tech industry in Bangladesh.

Future Startup

Thank you for agreeing to do this interview. First off, please give us an overview of Tipooly. How much has tripooly evolved over the last two and a half years? We’d also like to know about your operation, size of your team now and the services which you’re providing.

Rafi Mustafa

First of all, thank you for writing about Tripooly when we launched, and always supporting us.

As you know when we launched two and half years back, we were the sole online marketplace in Bangladesh for all sorts of travel deals. The idea was to be a One-Stop-Travel Shop for travelers. The initial response from our clients, the startup community, and media partners was brilliant.

Since trust, correct pricing and a lack of trust were some of the main issues related to travel agents/tour operators, we worked hard to source and partner with well-reputed travel agents and operators for our marketplace model.

A number of agencies not only came on board but went out of their way to guide us as well. However, as we began to grow, we realized that it became more and more difficult to provide an amazing experience to travelers across the platform (inbound and/or outbound) for several reasons.

This business has a number of variable factors - all active at the same time. Flights, Hotel Bookings, Visa, Tours, Transfers and special arrangements in case of a honeymoon or anniversary trip. Also, a certain amount of time had to be dedicated for educating a majority number of partners regarding the online marketplace model for travel agencies/operators, how it worked, commission, how it could benefit them by reducing overhead and the need for the highest level of ethical business practice, standardized pricing etc. Mind you, we didn’t raise any money and thereby the business HAD to fund itself by being profitable. I was always adamant about this one factor - the business must fund itself.

After a year of working with this model, we realized a few things:

1. We could not grow at the pace we planned to and kept on missing our business goals

2. We could not be profitable due to lack of transparency when it came to certain variables which weren’t in our control and we couldn’t bring them into our control since we ran in a marketplace model

3. Although we arranged some amazing trips including group tours, we still couldn’t control a majority of the variables involved in this business thus hampering customer satisfaction and our overall growth as a travel tech company.

4. Even though we had online payment via card/mobile banking etc available from day one, payment was always an issue. Most travelers in Bangladesh would like to visit an agency/operator’s office before settling their account. This created another layer of operation for us since we were a new company trying to operate a travel marketplace model whilst branding our partners and ensuring top-quality service across the board.

At this point, we had to take a step back and reevaluate ourselves. I decided to hit the pause button and decide if we’d delve further into this model or pivot. We hadn’t raised any money; I did meet a few investors but since I wasn’t convinced nor happy with the data in hand, I decided not to go for a raise at that moment.

We realized we needed more control over the variable factors mentioned earlier. This would increase efficiency, offer transparent pricing, allow 100% customization when it came to trip planning and most importantly, truly be a one-stop-travel-shop for our clients by reducing the layers of communication and thereby living up to our tagline of Travel Simplified!

The pivot began with us deciding to be an OTA - Online Travel Agency. The first goal was to build up our offline foundation before going 100% online. We spoke with a number of partners who helped us during our initial days, industry leaders and tech partners. I decided to go all-in, sold my shares in the stock market and injected a sizeable amount of fund into the business.

We began with restructuring our team, investing in training and certifying certain team members, focusing on the operation side of the business, outsourcing our branding and marketing, partnering with companies across the globe to build our own inventory of hotels/tours/transfers etc.

The idea was to build - a sustainable, customer focused and flexible, go-to-travel brand - offline which we could morph into an OTA. At this point, we had to create our own USP.

Market survey told us that majority of folks traveling overseas either booked online via popular online hotel booking sites such as booking.com or agoda.com or booked whatever was included in any package. We decided to not only offer over 800,000 hotels across the globe but offer round the year guarantee of beating any rate shown on those websites. A client simply had to take a screenshot of their chosen property and either email/Whatspp us or visit our office and we’d offer a better rate on the spot.

Thanks to an amazing array of campaigns organized by our digital marketing agency, combined with guaranteed price beat, we began growing at an incredible pace. We began implementing certain milestones and at every milestone, we introduced a new service.

At present, we are able to offer a complete travel solution to solo travelers, couples, families, corporates and large groups.

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We realized we needed more control over the variable factors mentioned earlier. This would increase efficiency, offer transparent pricing, allow 100% customization when it came to trip planning and most importantly, truly be a one-stop-travel-shop for our clients by reducing the layers of communication and thereby living up to our tagline of Travel Simplified! The pivot began with us deciding to be an OTA - Online Travel Agency. The first goal was to build up our offline foundation before going 100% online. We spoke with a number of partners who helped us during our initial days, industry leaders and tech partners. I decided to go all-in, sold my shares in the stock market and injected a sizeable amount of fund into the business.

Future Startup

How big is your team now?

Rafi Mustafa

At present, we are a team of 14 people and growing every month. In fact, by the end of this month, we will become a family of 20 with offices in Dhaka and Chittagong. However, as mentioned earlier, our internal company motto is “one team, one vision” and therefore, we consider our overseas partners as team members as well. After all, our service/product to a client remains active from the moment they enter our office to the moment they arrive safely back in Bangladesh.

We must thank SSLCOMMERZ for being an incredible payment partner. These days our clients can pay from anywhere in the world with their local credit card or debit card and pay via online EMI as well thanks to some amazing range of products introduced by SSL.

Future Startup

Can tell us about your growth over the past months?

Rafi Mustafa

Since the day we pivoted, we’ve been growing every month on multiple fronts. We’ve received an amazing response from the travelers' community and number of clients has been increasing at a steady pace month on month. We’ve also been achieving all our goals and thereby have been able to introduce a new service or product every month.

The number of client-referrals has been growing at a steady pace and we must thank our clients for being so supportive.

We’ve also been focusing a lot on branding and building a trustworthy travel company. At present, we service clients and organizations across the board with our client base ranging from solo travelers to couples to families to corporate getaways or group tours.

We’ve built up an internal model to have a grasp over customer satisfaction by assigning dedicated relationship managers to our clients and thereby giving them one single point of contact as opposed to a generic hotline.

The RMs are always available (or as we say - 20 hours a day since we need to sleep for 4 hours) via phone/email/WhatsApp/Viber etc and are in constant touch with their clients pre-flight, during the trip and arranging a post-trip customer feedback. I believe this has also helped our growth by building client confidence whilst giving us the opportunity to increase the positives and fix the negatives.

Since the day we pivoted, we’ve been growing every month on multiple fronts. We’ve received an amazing response from the travelers' community and number of clients has been increasing at a steady pace month on month. We’ve also been achieving all our goals and thereby have been able to introduce a new service or product every month. The number of client-referrals has been growing at a steady pace and we must thank our clients for being so supportive.

Future Startup

What is your business model now? So far I know, OTAs usually follow one of two models – merchant model and agency model and some go hybrid. In merchant model, hotels usually sell rooms in bulk to OTAs which OTAs then sell to their customers through their platform; this offers greater control over profit but requires upfront investment. On the other hand, merchant model is where you allow hotels to list their property on your site and you get a commission for property sold through your platform. There is the hybrid model which is basically a mix of both models. I mean, you have this collaboration with Airlines, Hotels, and others and when I book through your website, am I booking directly a room in a hotel or is it like that you have booked the hotel room in some form and now selling it through your platform.

Rafi Mustafa

We’re continuously working with our partners to create the right model where it’s a WIN-WIN-WIN for everyone involved. We want our clients to win by receiving an amazing deal (which they could customize as per their budget/requirements) and travel experience. We want our partners to win and we want to win ourselves by being able to offer amazing travel products/services to clients across multiple demographics and countries.

As mentioned previously, our aim was/is to build a solid offline foundation before offering the same online. This - I strongly believe - is imperative and an absolute necessity, if we are to build a sustainable, credible and go-to travel company. We have not done much renewing our online platform of late. We aim to launch a fully operational platform by the fourth quarter of 2018.

At present, we are using certain attributes of our OTA platform offline and thereby ensuring all team members are accustomed to it. We will be testing this further on both macro and micro level before launching a beta version. We’ll most certainly keep the readers of FS updated.

Future Startup

As you have mentioned, you made mistakes in the early days, made difficult decisions like pivoting and then you have worked hard to build a sustainable business. This is not a common thing and everyone can’t do it. From your experience, what are a couple of mistakes that early-stage founders should remain mindful of?

Rafi Mustafa

“Multiple mistakes” - but I’m glad to say we’ve learned from them, corrected ourselves, implemented proper business processes and accountability with a phase by phase plan till 2020.

I’ve recently done an internal auditing and plan to do so on a regular basis.

I think it’s important to realize when you’re headed down the wrong path or the direction being taken is not the right one for your organization, folks working there, stakeholders and clients. Being able to realize, accept, re-strategize, plan and execute. Doesn’t matter if you’re the owner of a corner shop or a startup.

As a CEO, it’s important to have an open mind and promote a company culture where everyone’s voice is being heard. I can only comment from a solo-founder's point of view and I’d begin by saying - get a co-founder or someone equivalent. I tried to play multiple roles and although you’d think it’s the way to go, it’s best to have a 2ic (second in charge). At present, we’ve got a GM and I’m interviewing for a COO.

We’ve also looked at remuneration, company benefits, bonuses etc. Since Tripooly never raised any fund, during the initial stage I had to be stringent regarding overhead and other operational expenses. However, since our pivot, we’ve introduced above-industry average salary, 3 annual bonuses including end of year bonus, a generous commission structure, employee benefits such as laptop, smartphones for everyone with unlimited internet and talk time, lunch, snacks, monthly team activities, all paid overseas vacation to the best employee of the year etc. The increase in efficiency, client-first, team player mentality, productivity, employee retention (which, in fact, has had an amazingly positive effect on client retention), leadership across the board and other attributes has been tangible.

I’m proud and happy to say, at present, we’re attracting some amazing talents and folks with a vision to Tripooly. Your team members must be proud of where they work, who they work with, who they serve, what they sell or create, how they work and it’s my job as the CEO to create the base/environment for them to flourish.

Don’t be scared to delegate. In fact, delegating will create leaders internally and thereby build a much stronger and experienced team. Whilst doing so, ensure your finances are being dealt with properly and if you can’t afford a good accountant, outsource it! We’ve got a great external firm who does our auditing and internally we use an international accounting software to ensure everything’s above board and reflecting the real-time financial health of the company.

Last but not the least, have a vision, a mission, phase by phase plan, short-term/long-term goals, conduct internal auditing, get feedback from all parties concerned (team members, clients, stakeholders etc). Focus on building a sustainable-profitable-client focused business.

I think it’s important to realize when you’re headed down the wrong path or the direction being taken is not the right one for your organization, folks working there, stakeholders and clients. Being able to realize, accept, re-strategize, plan and execute. Doesn’t matter if you’re the owner of a corner shop or a startup.

Future Startup

As you mentioned, you had to endure a lot. How do you deal with challenges and stress?

Rafi Mustafa

From being a company with one table surrounded by 6 chairs, taking 500TK home after paying everyone’s salary to winning TOP 100 Startup in Asia Award at Echelon Singapore and being granted awards by Facebook to being written about (both on national dailies and international publications) to being a fully sustainable business offering a wide range of services to clients in Bangladesh and overseas and growing from one table with 6 chairs to a brand new office with - about to be - 20 team members and offices in multiple locations - it truly has been a crazy ride so far!

You must accept the stressful moments with a smiling face, expect challenges, learn to react quickly and execute efficiently.

At Tripooly, we aren’t just another travel agency. We truly believe that our job is much more important than just booking your flights or hotel rooms. Traveling is inspirational and spiritual. Traveling creates memories and friends for a lifetime.

Every trip begins with a client’s dream of experiencing something new. It could be a newly married couple planning their dream honeymoon or a son/daughter’s dream of sending his/her parents to an all paid holiday to a solo travellers dream of seeing a new city, meeting new people, eating new cuisines or a music fan's dream of seeing his or her idol performing in Bangkok or Singapore.

Our job is to work hard, diligently and ensure that dream comes into reality in the most beautiful possible way. We’re focused on building a community where travelers will explore, share and inspire others to explore.

There are some amazing and active entrepreneurs/companies, creating waves of disruption (both in the tech sector and travel industry) in Bangladesh. It’s always an inspiration when we find ourselves working together to create something new, be part of something special and doing it together - for Bangladeshis - by Bangladeshis - in Bangladesh!

At Tripooly, we aren’t just another travel agency. We truly believe that our job is much more important than just booking your flights or hotel rooms. Traveling is inspirational and spiritual. Traveling creates memories and friends for a lifetime.

Future Startup

What are the plans for Tripooly now?

Rafi Mustafa

Our current plan is to offer some amazing travel deals for the upcoming Eid holidays. As mentioned earlier, we’re opening our office in Chittagong to offer a more localized and personalized service to our port city clients.

Moving towards the 3rd and 4th quarter of this year, we plan to open our first overseas office and launch the beta version of our brand new website as we morph into a full-fledged online travel agency offering flights/hotel bookings/tours/transfers/travel packages and much more.

By 2020, we plan to have a physical presence in 4 countries serving travelers across multiple countries.

I’m also confident about our current path, financials, growth and the foundation is being set. Therefore, we’ll actively look at raising funds to assist our growth - both in Bangladesh and contribute towards our plan for 2020.

We’re continuously working on our brand with Bengal Beats as well. As a travel company, we believe it’s our job to provide amazing travel-related contents via digital media to our clients and be an active member of the travel community.

Honestly speaking, we’ve been very fortunate (and grateful) that our clients and the travel community, in general, has allowed us to experiment with different travel-related content - be it our destination videos or gifs or monthly travel quiz.

They’ve been very accepting and the response has been growing at an amazing level month on month. We’ll continue to work on current corporate partnerships. E.g. RANCON Group has been an amazing partner by giving us an amazing sponsorship deal on an exclusive basis during their annual employee picnic.

Moving towards the 3rd and 4th quarter of this year, we plan to open our first overseas office and launch the beta version of our brand new website as we morph into a full-fledged online travel agency offering flights/hotel bookings/tours/transfers/travel packages and much more. By 2020, we plan to have a physical presence in 4 countries serving travelers across multiple countries.

Future Startup

What is the state of overall OTA business in Bangladesh? How big is the market? What are the challenges? What do see down the line 4-5 years?

Rafi Mustafa

At present, there are only a few OTA businesses operating in Bangladesh. However, more are coming up in the new future.

Online Travel Agency is a relatively nascent business in our country since it’s in its infancy stage. The number of travelers is increasing on an exponential rate and over the past few years - both the government and private banks have been very active regarding credit card payments, implementing globally accepted security measures, increasing annual dollar endorsements, opening new routes and much more.

Bangladeshis are traveling more and far than ever before. In addition to the above, 4G is being launched soon and our attitude of adapting to anything new will significantly increase the overall penetration of internet, I STRONGLY believe that OTA will play a major role in the tech/travel sector.

Future Startup

Although a significant percentage of your business comes from offline, some payments are likely to happen online, what percentage of your payment happens digitally? How does your digital payment process work?

Rafi Mustafa

At present, 35-40% of our clients are paying via card. We’ve got mobile POS devices from both EBL and City Bank in addition to SSLCOMMERZ being the payment partner for our website and assisting us with some amazing products through which clients can pay via WhatsApp/Email etc.

Since our invoicing is done via our accounting software, any client wishing to pay with their card can request to do so and we’ll include a payment link in the invoice. All they have to do is click on it, choose their desired card type (or EMI option if they choose to pay via EMI) and hit pay! Tripooly also has a bKash Corporate Account and we’ve seen a growing number of clients paying via bKash as well (especially for domestic tickets).

However, I think a concentrated and combined effort (by travel companies, banks, government, policy makers, associations in relevant sectors etc) is required to increase payment via digital methods in Bangladesh.

We must work together to create and increase trust amongst card users, encourage them to shop online and make it safe via implementation of globally accepted security measures. BASIS, TOAB, ATAB etc are already working on awareness campaigns and one must thank them for being so active and relentlessly work towards a truly Digital Bangladesh!

Be a customer-focused business. Believe in it, work for it, build a company around that principal

Future Startup

What advice would you give to first-time entrepreneurs?

Rafi Mustafa

I’ll simply say what my father told me when I stepped into the world of entrepreneurship after over a decade and a half working for different companies across the globe.

1. Fall in love with what you do, therefore do what you love and work will become effortless

2. Be a customer-focused business. Believe in it, work for it, build a company around that principal

3. Pay your taxes!

4. Truly be passionate about what you do

5. Whatever you do must have a positive impact and make a tangible difference towards society

6. Don’t run after money. Look after your clients, build your business, grow your brand and everything else will fall into place automatically

7. Don’t be scared to take bold and risky decisions or be scared to hit the wall. After all, hitting the wall means you’re moving forward! You’ll find a way to break through.

8. e fearless but be humble. Be critical and accepting but be confident and always own your decisions.

At present, 35-40% of our clients are paying via card. We’ve got mobile POS devices from both EBL and City Bank in addition to SSLCOMMERZ being the payment partner for our website and assisting us with some amazing products through which clients can pay via WhatsApp/Email etc.

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Notes:

1. Interview by Ruhul Kader, Transcription by Md. Tashnim

2. Further reading on Tripooly including an interview with Mr. Rafi here.

3. Read our series future of travel in Bangladesh here.


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