Vikas Rana graduated from IIT Delhi in 2002 and joined Trilogy as a software developer. He worked there for five years before his love for travel and the kick to startup led him to venture out with MustSeeIndia. His batchmate Sanjay Goel who was working with Tribal Fusion at that point joined him and Vikas's Trilogy colleague Karan Nahata also joined hands.
MustSeeIndia was started with a simple goal - to be the one stop travel guide for tourists in India covering all facets of travel from destination research to transportation to hotels. Maintaining a very lean team for the first three years, they raised a seed round of INR 1.5 crores from K.Ganesh of TutorVista fame in 2011. The company has scaled since then and is venturing out into more resource soaking (and also revenue making) areas for which it is in the process of raising fresh funds. We got in a conversation with Vikas to learn more:
YourStory: Can you take us through the growth curve of MSI and the current state.
Vikas Rana: We started in 2008 as travel information portal with a simple goal - to be the one stop travel guide. All this while, we tried not to recreate the wheel - we leveraged existing platform and tools as much as we could, partnered with many companies, implemented tons of APIs. Our focus has always been to create a layer above the existing infrastructure and plugging holes wherever we felt the need. We categorized and classified existing data for destinations and attractions into Must See, Popular and Unexplored for better use and created multiple tools around it.
We are all techies and understood the online space very well. We reached half a million users within 18 months and reached a million users by 2010 end beating HolidayIQ. Some of our tools like Weekend Getaways and PDF guides became very popular. We are currently at 5 million visits per month.
In 2011, we started focusing on holiday packages space. We realized that tech could be a great value addition to this sector bringing in lots of efficiency. The current process of trip planning is very complex and time consuming - people spend 12-15 days on average planning a 3 day trip. There has to be an efficient way out there. All travel agents including OTAs have been trying to avoid this problem by giving out fixed packages. But the fact is majority of the people do not want a fixed package, they want to customize it to their needs. Package customization has been the elephant in the room that nobody is ready to talk about which ultimately is hindering the growth of Indian tourism industry.
We have addressed package customization by giving users the ability to create dynamic packages. All our packages are dynamic packages - users can play around with them creating multiple versions and book the one that suits them best. Dynamic packaging gives the power in customer's hands and gives them more flexibility creating a win-win situation for everybody. Currently, we are the only company to allow dynamic packages but I am sure others will follow this soon. (available for a few selected destinations mainly in South India currently)
YS: How have you sustained the business? Which are the revenue streams you rely on?
VR: We have three revenue sources - ads, lead generation and package sales. All our traffic is organic, not a single rupee was spent on marketing which made us profitable within three years. Currently, package sales form bulk of our revenues.
YS: How has the team grown over the years? How big is MSI currently?
VR: We like our team lean. We started growing only when we jumped into holiday packages. Our first hire was 3 years after we started. Currently, we are 45 people strong, large part (90%) of which is focused on operations.
YS: How have you financed MSI?
VR: We started off with an initial capital of INR 5 lakhs each and we became profitable very soon and the money was sustaining the small tech team we had. Then we raised a seed round from K.Ganesh and hired people on the operational front. Holiday packages business is looking good and to build on it, we're currently in the process of raising a series A as well.
YS: What is your motivation? What keeps you going?
VR: By 2011, we were already the largest travel information website in India and were contemplating our next step. We had offer from almost all OTAs for M&A. Only one problem: Given our success with information portal, they basically wanted us to continue on the information path, expanding in more geographies. However, we were super clear that we did not want to become only a SEO driven content company. That's not what we had in mind when we started Must See India. We started with a goal of solving pain for travellers in India and our heart was not in creating similar websites for other geographies. We wanted to solve some "real" problems in domestic travel market. By that time, we have more insights into travel space and holiday packages seemed the natural course.
YS: Challenges in the space.
VR: Our challenges are two fold - consumer side and the fulfillment side.
With internet becoming more accessible, there are more and more people that are looking to book their package online. Many of our customers have already spent hours and days preparing their plan before coming to us. They come ready with their itineraries. They would know which hotels are good and priced how much. This segment of people have been growing over last few years but unfortunately, not fast enough. There's still a large chunk of our consumer base that sees us as a replacement of their next door travel agent on whom they can trust - blindly. They expect us to know who they are, what they need, and plan their trip accordingly. These people won't question our selection of hotel or bus operator. They just expect us to do the right thing. After all, that's what their next door travel agent has been doing for years. Now they are looking to expect same level of service from the comfort of their homes. Our goal is to be that next door travel agent who can be trusted.
Other issue is the lack of technology or structure in the rest of the industry. We deal with lot of hotels and vendors and their way of working is pretty old school. They are as much tech savvy as your grandma. This makes it very human dependent and scaling difficult.
We have been working on both fronts. We select the best hotels in each budget range, comparing them over 7 different parameters. We tie up with the best vendors, even if that means above market rates. We have been working on technology to make interaction with vendors efficient. It has worked beautifully so far. However, it's a complex product and space, and we have a long way to go.
YS: What is the core strength for MSI.
VR: We have a huge focus on simplicity and quality. Our strength lies in taking the complexity out of holiday packages and make it as easy as regular ecommerce, just like buying a flight ticket or ordering a book online. Booking a package doesn't have to be this complex and we are going to make sure you are able to do it in a easy and reliable way.