In this wide-ranging interview, we sit down with Ahsan Rony, Founder and CEO of Travel Bangladesh to learn about his path to entrepreneurship, the inner workings of Travel Bangladesh, and the lessons he has learned from his journey so far.
We talk about his motivation for pursuing an entrepreneurial life, the origin of Travel Bangladesh, the early days of building Travel Bangladesh, putting together the team and resources together, going into the market and convincing the first handful of users, and overcoming the challenges of beginning from scratch. We talk about the state of Travel Bangladesh’s business today and ambition going forward, the importance of setting the right priorities, and much more.
Could you please tell us about your background i.e. your education, early career and your path to entrepreneurship, and what you are doing today?
I graduated from the University of Dhaka with a major in Mass Communication and Journalism. I was an active member and organizer of several organizations such as Badhon, Dhaka University IT Society, Dhaka University Photography Society, Dhaka University Film Society, etc. I also founded a new organization called Dhaka University Cultural Society. DUCS started its journey in 2015. Today, it is one of the important cultural organizations in Dhaka University and has been recognized both home and abroad. As part of my work at DUCS, I represented Bangladesh in many international events and traveled quite a bit throughout my university life. That’s how I fell in love with the idea of traveling Bangladesh and the world.
In most countries I traveled to such as Nepal, Srilanka, or Bhutan, tourism is a well-organized sector. You have online and offline places where you can access all necessary information. I realized Bangladesh didn’t have many such platforms. And that’s how the idea of starting Travel Bangladesh came. I always wanted to do something new of my own. I tried that a bit in founding clubs and organizations while at university. Travel Bangladesh is the result of my passion for doing something new and travel.
During my masters, I started to think about what I want to do in life. That’s how I thought to follow my passion to solve an existing problem where I could also serve my country. The initial idea was to launch a website where travelers can find any information they need to travel Bangladesh. Initially, I did not plan to turn it into a business.
I first started working on this idea in September 2017. I created a Facebook group to understand the needs of people. The first six months I spent doing some research. I organized small events to gather feedback from people. All these initial work led to building a one-stop-platform for travel information in Bangladesh, a website where you could find anything and everything related to travel and tourism in Bangladesh
A number of things influenced my decision to become an entrepreneur.
As a student of Journalism, I contributed to Ittefaq and Prothom Alo regularly. I met many new entrepreneurs and learned about new startups while writing about them as a journalist. That experience inspired me a lot and played a role in my journey to becoming an entrepreneur.
Second, before starting working full time at Travel Bangladesh, I worked at Chaldal managing their PR for one and a half years. It helped me develop expertise in branding, promotional activities, and an understanding of how startups work.
Our Facebook group saw excellent growth within a short time. Within a few days, 10,000 people joined. All of it was quite organic growth. We were surprised. We mainly used the group to discuss various travel-related topics. Through my previous experience as a journalist, I knew many travelers and travel companies. We spoke with these people as well. Through all these discussions we learned that lack of information is a major challenge in the sector.
We eventually launched travelbd.xyz towards the end of 2018. The initial goal was to provide information to travelers and relevant stakeholders in the sector. We also prioritized building a sustainable business model instead of depending on investments. More like bootstrapping.
We focused on publishing good content consistently, which helped us to attract good traffic from the early days. After a few months into launch, our website became quite popular in the space and we started to get good responses from readers. We have invested in content writing and built an excellent content team from the beginning. We did not have a monetization model from day one. However, we eventually figured out a demand for promotional services and support among travel-related organizations. There were no dedicated platform offering services to these companies catered towards their needs. We decided to create customized services for travel-related companies to help them reach customers and address their various challenges. That’s how our agency business was born.
We started small by working on paid articles and content. Initially, we pursued all kinds of projects small and big. After working for some time, companies in the space started to pay attention to us and we started to receive steady work. Over the past few years, we have worked with a long list of companies in the travel industry from Bangladesh Biman to Novoair to managing the social media pages of many travel companies. We now provide paid content solutions, promotional videos, event management services, and a number of other solutions specially designed for travel companies. We have worked with clients from across verticals from travel agencies, hotels, and resorts, airlines, etc.
Since we have an independent platform, we can promote these videos through both our website as well social media channels. Clients can promote from their platforms. As a result, our work usually gets an excellent reach. That has encouraged a lot of travel companies to work with us.
We currently have around 300,000 monthly readers on our website. We grew completely organically without spending anything on promotion and marketing. We are expanding our platform. We are in the process of launching the English version of our website, which will help us grow further. We have both text and videos. We have added detailed information of 64 districts of Bangladesh including tourist spots, local cuisine, accommodation, and experiences of people who visited each district before.
In the future, we plan to launch a travel marketplace where you could find and avail all travel-related services in one place through our partners. Anyone can go to our website, find the relevant service provider and buy the service.
Since our launch in 2018, we have worked hard to solve the information problem people face when traveling across Bangladesh. Today, you can find comprehensive information on our website from location information to transportation to hotels and so on.
Now, we are looking to take this to the next level where our users will be able to access travel services from different travel service providers. We are working on our new website which has these new features. We aim to become a destination for travel services and solutions for travelers in Bangladesh.
What went into building the initial operation of Travel Bangladesh i.e. how did you put together initial investment and other resources to get started? Please walk us through what the first few months to one year of Travel Bangladesh and your journey were like.
As I mentioned earlier, my earlier experience of working in several organizations helped me in putting things together in the early days of Travel Bangladesh.
Once I had the idea, I shared it with a web developer friend who agreed to build our first website. I did not have a proper budget. As a result, our collaboration was not straightforward that made the entire thing an unpleasant experience. He took quite a while to complete the website. As a consequence, we lost some precious time. I was not happy with the outcome and the whole experience. I learned some important lessons from that experience. Free comes with a lot of hassles. Your relationships when it comes to the business should always be straightforward. Later I worked with a professional web developer, who is currently our head of IT, to create the website.
In the beginning, I invested my savings in launching the business. Two of my friends, who are avid travelers themselves, made an investment that gave us the initial runway. They are still with us. We also raised a small angel investment from my maternal uncle. That’s how we started our journey.
We invested that money in developing our web platform, producing content, and building out our initial operation. We engaged a group of excellent writers. We engaged travelers who shared their experiences and stories. We organized several competitions to encourage people to write for us. These initiatives helped us build an excellent writer base who agreed to write for us for free. These early initiatives continue to help even these days.
Initially, we did not have any revenue. We mostly burnt cash to keep the operation on. We tried several things to figure out a revenue model. Eventually, towards the end of 2018, we launched our other services to generate revenue. Initially, we had to push a bit. Since then our agency business has been growing consistently. We also received a grant from Startup Bangladesh.
Over these years, we have developed a scalable business model. While we have started in Bangladesh, we aim to go international. We plan to launch an international website as we gear up to launching in other markets.
We have been using challenges to grow our business. Whenever there is a new problem, we see that as an opportunity. For example, throughout the coronavirus pandemic, we received a lot of airlines related queries. Many Bangladeshis who live outside and came before the pandemic, got stuck in the country. To address that, we introduced an airline hotline number in collaboration with a travel agency where you can call and get all your airline-related questions answered. We also added an air ticket booking option through that helpline if one needs such support.
Over the years, we have the ambition to expand into other areas such as community tourism. We have many festivals in different areas of Bangladesh. We are now working to develop a service where we will collaborate with local organizers to offer these experiences to international tourists who want to experience local people and culture.
We have received several recognitions as a platform. We were among 12 startups selected for the Asian Resilience Summit organized by UNWTO and PATA in 2019.
We have started working with local people in various parts of Bangladesh. For example, we’ve launched a Travel Ambassador Network where we have a team in every district representing their district. Each team is responsible for giving travelers local experiences in their district. Suppose you went to Khulna, our local partner team will take you to a famous local tea stall that no travel agency can give you. Our goal is to give people these experiences. We are working on the details, trying to build a model that can be implemented and scaled across markets.
Throughout our journey, we faced a myriad of challenges. Every time we faced a challenge, we figured out a solution that helped us to move forward. As a result, when we now come across a challenge, we know in our hearts that we can solve it.
Money is critical for startups. Many founders focus on raising funds from the very beginning. We tried not to follow that path. Instead, we bootstrapped from day one. We were selected as one of the top startups in Robi’s R-Ventures, Startup Dhaka Incubator, YY Goshti. I’ve learned if you want to grow your business, first find product-market fit, and then build a customer base willing to pay for your service. That’s the most important thing for any early-stage company. Many early-stage founders overlook these realities and instead make raising money the most important thing. There is a rather untrue proposition, which has become quite popular, in the market that being able to raise investment is the success. When you do that you eventually suffer. Customers build businesses, not investors.
We never concerned ourselves with raising investment. I believe everything has a time. There is a right time for raising investment. The first thing founders should worry about is product-market fit. You think about growth and investment once you have product-market fit. If you focus on raising investment from day one, it will hamper your regular progress because raising money is a full-time job in itself.
We believe in building our strength first. For example, we have grown as a team throughout this pandemic. We have hired new writers. We have improved the English section of our website, etc. For us, the pandemic has been a good opportunity.
Many of our travelers could not travel due to the pandemic but they have enough time to write content to share their experiences. We are utilizing the time we have. Our content writers and video editors now have time to make better content. We have been working hard throughout these months because once the pandemic ends, Travel Bangladesh will come out stronger.
I have invested many hours in learning new skills. Whenever I faced a challenge, I would go online and learn. The main source of my learning is YouTube. I try to follow the guidelines of many successful founders.
Could you please give us an overview of Travel Bangladesh today i.e an overview of your operation, how your operation works, products and services you offer, size of the business, etc?
We have two teams: our full-time team and a team of freelance writers. We assign work to these writers and are paid based on work. We have around 80 freelancers.
We are a 24 people team. We have a video team consisting of videographers and video editors. We then have teams for HR, administration, events, collaboration, marketing, and promotion, etc.
As the CEO, my priorities are investments, marketing, and collaboration. My co-founder Dip Kundu looks after the operation. S M Shohag, sub-editor of our blog, takes care of our content.
Each section of Travel Bangladesh is independently sustainable and can function on its own. That’s how the business model is designed.
This is our team overall. We are expanding and adding new services. For example, we have partnered with Shohoz to bring ticketing service.
We are working on a few initiatives such as a nationwide helpline, building booths in every district for travelers so that they can find relevant information as well as guidance. aWe have a collaboration with the Bangladesh Tourism Board. We hope that with their help we will be able to reach every remote area of Bangladesh.
How are you doing business-wise?
We are operationally sustainable but we are not profitable as yet. Pandemic has negatively affected our business. Before the pandemic, we were not burning any money. We were not hugely profitable but we were not burning any money either. We have been investing and growing using the revenue we generate.
If the pandemic did happen, we could have become profitable within 2020. We hope in 2021 we’ll not only be profitable but also grow bigger.
What is your business model? How do you make money?
We have a B2B agency business where we provide paid content, videos, tech solutions, event management, and consultancy services to travel companies. Until now, our B2B services have been our main revenue source.
However, we are getting into B2C. As we build our marketplace, referral and commissions are going to be a substantial source of revenue for us.
How will the marketplace function?
We are launching Travel Deals for our users where companies can offer deals to our users. For example, if you want to travel in January, you visit our website, click on Travel deals, you see the travel packages including the prices offered by different companies in January. Once you book through our website, we get a commission from the travel company.
Do you have any plan to launch travel services of your own where people will be able to book tickets on your website instead of your partners, etc?
We don’t. We don’t want to provide services ourselves. We want to build a marketplace where we will connect travel service providers with our users. We want to function through partnership. We see working with travel agencies is a better strategy for us. However, we might add services that our partner travel agencies don’t provide in the future.
What are the things that have helped you to grow your business and traffic on your website?
I’ve studied how to grow your audience and website traffic. My prior experience of writing content for newspapers helped in setting a quality standard and understanding the reality of content distribution.
Apart from producing excellent quality content, we have paid a lot of attention to content distribution. We worked hard to find out a large number of distribution channels so that we could reach as many people as we could. We then designed strategies for each channel and worked hard to achieve the best result from each of the channels.
We organized online events through our social media pages in collaboration with various partners to attract users. For example, we organized a competition where we offered a plane ride to the winner in partnership with a travel service provider. There were other lucrative prizes for the winners from our partners. We organized several quite successful online campaigns that helped us to grow our brand value. These campaigns helped us to get new writers and reach out to a large audience base.
Our Facebook group has also helped us to grow our audience. We also have a separate English language page to reach out to audiences who prefer English as a language.
We are constantly working on new ideas. For example, we organized an event where we asked participants to share their experience of local foods. Growth is a never-ending learning curve.
How did you develop your B2B business model?
Once we launched our website, it started to get some traction. People were sharing our content. We had some users. We were getting some attention on social media channels. Around this time a resort called “Neverland” reached out to us and asked us whether we would be interested in writing an article about them. We accepted and created content for them and they paid us for that. That was a pretty serendipitous event. Then we thought why don’t we take this to the next level. I tried to figure out how to do that. That’s how we have created our video team, content team, software team, and other teams.
In the beginning, we did not have many clients. We did some small sporadic work here and there. We then created a plan to grow the service and started to reach out to hotels and other travel service providers with our service such as content, video making, and promotional events, etc. Initially, we did not receive a lot of responses. But whatever small work we got, we worked hard to do them well. That eventually paid off. When we showed other service providers our work that we did for one company in one vertical, they saw that we do good work and they agreed to take our service.
We have an interview section where we interview prominent people in the travel industry. We also share our services with these people. Since our services are different, people usually show interest.
On top of that, we have a marketing and sales team who are working all the time on lead generation and business development.
How do your marketing and sales work?
Since ours is a B2B service, we mostly do direct sales. Our marketing team communicates with potential clients and shares our services and plans.
After working for almost two years, many people know about us and come to us and refer us to others. It has also been very useful in getting new customers.
Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous in the process of building Travel Bangladesh?
I have always taken the responsibility to learn things when I came across a challenge. I told you YouTube is my teacher. Whenever I face a problem, I search videos on YouTube and educate myself on it. I try to learn from successful entrepreneurs.
The internet has brought this incredible opportunity to access knowledge and the best teachers on earth. We all should take advantage of it. Being willing to learn when you get stuck is a superpower. We simply need to change our mindset and believe that there are solutions to every challenge that we face.
Taking on advisors can be game-changing for your organization. We on-boarded a few advisors who are helping us in various areas of our operation. We did not realize the need for advisers earlier but this has been a good decision.
What does a typical day of you look like?
I have a folder in the internet browser of my computer called “Pending”. On a typical day, the first thing I do is open that folder and finish my pending tasks.
There is another folder named “Full day routine”. All of my work from 9 am to 6 pm is organized in that folder sequentially. I didn’t do this in the past. But now I’ve realized that this is useful and critical to manage my time and work.
I spend some time daily learning new things and watching videos of successful founders.
What are some of the lessons you’ve learned so far from your journey?
Whatever idea you want to pursue, take it to the market. Often the market thinks very differently than how we might perceive our idea. The real world is different.
When you are just starting, don’t worry about funding or run after raising investment. Instead, work hard to grow your business.
Finally, take care of yourself. If you are healthy it will be easier to concentrate and work harder. If you are unhealthy, you will not be able to give your hundred percent.
Conversation and edits by Ruhul Kader, Prepared by Tithi Chowdhury