This engineer's love for photography helped him get a Toehold in the travel experience segmentVishal Krishna
Jayanth Sharma’s Rs 8 crore business offers photography enthusiasts the chance to discover varied destinations such as the among through their cameras.
Travelling turns you into a storyteller, and the stories are best told through photographs. Keen to combine adventure, travel, and storytelling, engineer Jayanth Sharma gave up his IT job to start Toehold, India’s first travel-and-photography company, in 2010.
These are not your regular travel experiences. If you want to swim with a great white shark or a humpback whale, spend an entire day in the pursuit of tigers at Rathambore, or gaze at emperor penguins strutting in the Antarctic, Toehold is the place for you.
Founder Jayanth Sharma aims to make Toehold a one-stop shop, to help thousands of people discover the joy of travel and self-expression.
He now curates packages that will take you to places where your home freezer feels like summer. Think about the Antarctic, where winds blow with speeds more than 80 kilometres per hour and temperatures plunge below -50 degrees centigrade.
“If photography is your passion, you will do it,” Jayanth says. He adds that it is “not too bad” because summers in the Antarctic are pleasant - the temperature ranges between 0 degrees and 5 degrees! Is that normal? For most people, it is not, but Jayanth isn’t worried. He is optimistic about all things, more so when they are on the other side of his lens.
In the beginning
Jayanth founded Toehold with a few friends in 2010 as a photography workshop business for enthusiasts. It eventually became a website for curated adventure and lifestyle tours with packages for photography enthusiasts. The unique business model, where every tour group is guided by a professional photographer, fetched the company Rs 8 crore revenues in the year 2016-17.
But he didn’t start off as a photography enthusiast.
Jayanth began his career like most of us do. He passed out of engineering college in 2001, in Mysore, and found himself a place as a software engineer at Accenture.
But he had a tougher tutelage under his father when he was younger. His father, an archaeology photographer, also owned a photo studio in Mysore.
Jayanth reminisces about a time when his father would make him sit at the cash counter and talk to waiting customers. By talking to customers and sitting in the store Jayanth learned their requirements, the type of shots they wanted and the camera lens used to do the job. But this was never meant to be a career option.
While at work in 2002, he befriended a bunch of wildlife enthusiasts and began visiting national parks around Mysore. A love for photography developed and Jayanth began studying the use of digital cameras.
“I realised software services was not a job I wanted to do. So for the next seven years, I kept learning photography and sending my wildlife photos to magazines and papers,” he says.
It was in 2007 when he won an award for best photography from Sanctuary magazine that he realised he could do something else.
Setting up the business
Jayanth quit his IT job in 2009, quickly registered a company called Toehold and began operations in early 2010.
“We started off as a photography training company for enthusiasts,” he says. In 18 months, he realised that if he wanted to create a business, he needed to take photography enthusiasts to places where they could learn photography practically.
He soon added tour packages for learners; he would advertise a tour on his website and take online registrations.
“Certain tours are dangerous and we do check if the person is capable of handling extreme temperatures by seeking their medical history,” he says.
Once the customer makes the payment online they are flown to their destination where a renowned lifestyle or an adventure photographer is their teacher and guide.
“These packages are premium because they are unlike other tours,” Jayanth says.
Toehold also rents out high-end cameras and lenses as most enthusiasts cannot afford to buy them. The company’s business lines include corporate tours and individual tours.
“With us, photography is the main theme of the travel and learning. We will not entertain our guests to travel like other vacations. However, we have launched a programme for returning photographers who bring their families along; that is a pure travel business,” he says.
Majority of their business comes from the B2C segment, which allows enthusiasts to rent cameras and travel the world to learn photography.
The competition for Toehold comes from adventure tour companies like Aquaterra and PeakAdventure Tours. The niche experiences that Toehold offers are much like another startup Wandertrails, which focuses on the history of the property and the heritage of the area.
However, none of these travel firms focus on photography.
“We are a photography learning company at heart,” Jayanth says.
V Ganapathy, CEO of Axilor Ventures, says: “Any business that can scale by identifying the need and finding paying customers will make money.”
So far Toehold has investments of Rs 50 lakhs, which is self-funded.
Focusing on the future
According to the Indian Brand Equity Federation, the travel industry’s size is estimated to be $40 billion. The industry is 90 percent fragmented and operated by mom-and-pop tour operators.
Jayanth says that corporate business is picking up and he expects his business to hit Rs 25 crore in 18 months. The 24-member team focuses purely on creating the best tour packages and forging a global network of photographers who can do workshops during a tour.
Narayan Menon, co-founder of Wandertrails, believes that “experiences are the future of the travel industry”.
And as long as people have a love for nature and adventure, Toehold will do well. Their future plans are to focus on taking individual photography enthusiasts with their family members to adventure spots. "This will double our revenues and make us a pure travel company focused on adventures. But we are not going to break from our core, which is photography," says Jayanth. Toehold has served more than 4000 individuals.
In a nutshell, Toehold offers adventure photography, photography workshops, camera rentals, workshops for kids and merchandise on the website.
A photograph tells a million stories and Jayanth has thousands of them to share, be they about leopard seals in the Antarctic or emperor penguins that protect their eggs in the extreme cold of the winter.
Toehold aims to give budding photographers a step up as they explore the world through their camera. And it’s doing it, photo by photo!