How Trainman was able to drive 10 million organic app downloads & remain profitable by enabling travel booking for Bharat

For Trainman, the website is a critical touchpoint for users. “There were no second thoughts on the domain extension we wanted to build on. The .in domain extension had a clear product-market fit for us.
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As per the pre-Budget survey tabled at the Parliament in 2020, the Indian Railways carried 120,840 crore passengers in 2018-19, making it the world's largest passenger carrier in the world. A more recent data pointed out that passenger traffic in the railway sector amounted to over eight billion across India in FY 2019-20. Surveys have shown that the railway network transported over 22 million passengers everyday in the pre-pandemic times. And, enabling millions of these passengers to book their tickets, get updates on their booking and more is Trainman.

The platform enables IRCTC passengers to check the PNR (Passenger Name Record) status, predicts the possibility of getting a confirmed seat in case of a wait-list and also provides real-time updates on seat availability, running status, time table, coach position, fare calculator etc.

Building industry-first features

“Prior to the onset of the pandemic, two million people logged in to the website and another two million logged into the app everyday, says Vineet Chirania, Co-founder and CEO. He adds the app has nearly 10 million downloads and does an annual travel booking of Rs.75 crore. Vineet explains that Trainman was instrumental in launching many industry-first features that solved pressing challenges of train travellers. This includes a feature that predicts the possibility of converting a waitlisted seat into a confirmed seat allotment.

“Five years ago, once you booked your tickets and if you ended up on a waiting list there was no way to predict if you would be able to get a seat or not until the day of your travel. There have been instances, when you are on a long waiting list but still get allotted a seat and many other times even when the waitlist is short, you still didn’t. All this made it a harrowing experience for those who found themselves on the waitlist. I saw the answer in AI and big data to arrive at a solution,” says Vineet. He teamed up with his former IIT Roorkee batchmates Karan Kumar and Mohammad Amir to work on the solution. “By leveraging AI we were able to address the challenge and launch a prediction feature that today predicts with 93 percent accuracy,” he says. He claims Trainman was the first startup in the country to launch the feature that could predict the possibility of conversion of a waitlist ticket.

Another use case where Trainman’s innovation stood apart was in the area of providing real-time information offline. “In 2016-17, it was common for passengers to switch off their data to conserve their battery. This meant they had to keep a lookout for the train stations so that they wouldn’t miss the station they needed to get off. Seeing this gap, we launched a feature on the app which would give real-time status of the train movement even when they were offline,” he explains. The platform also crowdsources information from users to ensure that the information on trains are updated and correct in real time. “We have a massive user base. These users can update us on the change in the train platform for arrival or departure, in just two or three steps. Our backend then makes sense of this data and once we are able to verify, the information is updated. This feature again is extensively used by the users,” says Vineet.

A steady organic growth

The co-founders say that success of Trainman’s customer focus can be found in steady organic growth, right from day 1. “On the first day, we launched the website in 2014, even before we could do some social media promotions, 100 people had signed up. By the end of the year, we reached 10,000 daily active users. We continued to witness steady organic growth because the features on the app were solving real pain points of daily train passengers,” says Vineet.

A key highlight was when Trainman was invited by the Indian Railways to understand how they built the seat confirmation predictability feature. When one of the world’s largest employers calls a young startup to ask how to build a specific product, you not only feel validated but motivated,” says the CEO. The startup earns its revenue on three fronts - commision from IRCTC as an official train ticket booking partner, ad revenue from the website and app and commission on cross-selling of products of some of its partners.

Challenges and stops along the way

The startup faced numerous challenges, akin to any other growing business - on both technical and business fronts. The technical challenges were relatively easier to address since all the co-founders had a strong tech expertise. “The most challenging question we found difficult to address was - how do we turn the customer-winning product into a great business. And, this was a learning and unlearning experience for us at Trainman,” says Vineet.

However, the biggest blow to the business came in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic. “With the lockdowns and train travel coming to a complete halt, our revenues instantly came down to almost zero. With the ease of restrictions, we began to see an upwards curve from September 2020 and now thankfully we have doubled our pre-pandemic numbers. We are hopeful that the worst is beyond us,” he says.

Reflecting on Trainman’s journey, Vineet believes that if there was one thing that they would have done differently, it would be raising funds. He explains that the startup decided not to raise funds because they were witnessing steady growth and were profitable. “ It was the pandemic that helped us realise the need to raise funds, because we could have addressed the dip in the finances better, if we had investments to back us up,” he reflects. That’s why trainman is now looking to raise funds and drive its growth story forward. The startup is now working on disrupting the tier-2 and tier-3 cities travel market just like social commerce apps (Meesho, Glowroad, Mall91) disrupted the traditional e-commerce space. “​​The mobile internet penetration and discretionary spending of people in tier-2 cities and beyond is increasing at rapid pace but these users primarily need some form of assisted commerce to help them book their travel.” says Vineet.

The digital journey

For Trainman, the website is a critical touchpoint for users. “There were no second thoughts on the domain extension we wanted to build on. The .in domain extension had a clear product-market fit for us. We were building something for India and .in was the way to go for us,” says Vineet. He explains that right in the initial days, they ensured that the platform had presence across all digital touchpoints. “This is something that really helped us and in fact for any startup building a technology business, they need to have touch points across the digital ecosystem. It isn’t enough if you have an app, a website becomes equally critical. And, vice versa,” he says. The other ingredient to Trainman’s success has been building in-platform distributing features. This really makes it easy for users to share and thereby builds organic growth.” And, he adds that both these aspects don’t involve cost yet provide a strong ROI for B2C products and solutions.

The ‘Shaping India Inc's Online Growth’ series chronicles the journeys of startups and SMEs in India and how creating an online presence on the .in or .Bharat domain powered their success stories.


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