How online travel aggregator Pickyourtrail showed grit and resilience to emerge stronger from COVID impact
The Covid-19 outbreak posed unprecedented challenges for many businesses, including the travel and hospitality industry. This meant that all that was built over the years had come down to zero.
In March 2020, Chennai-headquartered online travel aggregator (OTA)was staring at an empty space and did not know if it would survive another day as the government announced a nationwide lockdown to combat the pandemic.
“Everything got wiped out just like that. As a founder, I have always prided myself in building an organisation,” says Hari Ganapathy, Co-founder, Pickyourtrail.
It was here that the sheer grit and resilience of Pickyourtrail came to the fore. The startup was founded in 2013 as a bootstrapped venture and remained so for another five years before raising its first round of external funding.
For any travel related business, the period between October and March is the busiest, and it was no different for Pickyourtrail. Between late 2019 and early 2020, the startup was really busy executing the orders, generating revenue, and hiring people. One must also keep in mind that in the travel business, the percentage of cancellation is just 2-3 percent, which means that revenue is generally very assured.
Once the lockdown was announced, the company faced zero business, and hence, the founders reached out to their investors for support.
The investors gave the founders a cryptic advice, which was puzzling at first, and to a certain extent, discouraging also.
“We do not want to be bad parents, but go figure it out for yourselves,” they said.
Hari did not understand the actual meaning of what the investors were saying to them then, but now he recalls with gratitude for this valuable advice as it forced them to really grow up.
It would have been easy for the investors to provide some money for Pickyourtrail to tide over the crisis, but they waited, and in hindsight, it bought out the best out of this startup.
Pickyourtrail had to go back to an empty whiteboard and figure out what to do next. There were two options available to them -- one was to downsize the organisation and pay remaining employees 100 percent of their salary, and the second option was to take a huge pay cut.
“It was literally a house of death,” says Hari.
The founders took the second option, where they presented to their employees a 63 percent cut in the salaries. This meant the startup would have a bank balance for another 8-10 months just to hang in there.
Naturally, there was a lot of disappointment in the organisation and it was no fault of anybody as it was triggered due to an external factor.
“We were very transparent with our employees and told them about the situation as it was,” says Hari.
It was a mixed bag during this period with an employee base of around 230, and some of them left because they had their own commitments to meet while others stayed back due to their faith in the organisation. The team could also not honor some of the job offers it made to fresh college graduates.
“Earlier, I used to take it very personally when somebody left the organisation. But during this period, we celebrated when they were leaving for another job,” says Hari.
Pickyourtrail also created an outplacement team, which was managed by the founders themselves and helped many of their team members find another job.
They had instances where some individuals who had put in their papers earlier chose to remain in the organisation or an individual who got admission in an overseas university extended his stay by another six months.
Preparing for future
This was a time when the startup completely re-engineered itself with the belief it would be better prepared when things would turn around.
“We started building a product and our tech team had a purpose while our sales people got involved in SEO,” says Hari.
Pickyourtrail started to tweak its algorithms and invested in SEO, where its Instagram followers grew from 5,000 to over 100k, and its product was truly global. This meant American travelers can book their holidays for Greece facilitated by this India headquartered startup.
Pickyourtrail usually did 100 percent outbound destinations. But during the lockdown and the resultant work from home scenario, it realised that “staycation” was a big opportunity and started to work on this.
The startup also started to negotiate with its extensive group of partners where it came to an agreement and told them that if there is delay in payments, it would return it once the business improves. Many of them agreed.
“Being vulnerable and honest with people actually pays off more often than not,” remarks Hari.
Once the first lockdown was lifted, there were sure signs of business picking up where they did their sale in July 2020. Hari gives an example of Maldives as a destination where their market share prior to the lockdown was around 0.8 percent, but now it has reached five percent.
“For all OTA players, the lockdown meant that everybody had to begin again from the starting line,” says Hari.
The steps undertaken during the initial five-six months once the lockdown was announced started to pay rich dividends for Pickyourtrail. It was no more about a single destination as they started catering to multiple places both overseas and domestic.
The heartening aspect for Pickyourtrail was that the investors came back to them and asked them how much capital they would require. Hari claims that they put in money at a higher valuation.
“Our relationship with the investors also matured as they saw how we were squeezing every dollar to extend the runway,” says Hari.
Pickyourtrail has till now raised little more than $3 million in funding from prominent angel investors such Girish Mathrubootham, Kumar Vembu, and recently from Kunal Shah, among others.
This was also an important lesson for the founders as it drove home the point that entrepreneurs really need to have the skin in the game and the worst of the crisis can bring out the best of the people.
“We are now 2x of the revenue of what it was prior to the lockdown and it has come at one-fourth of the spend,” says Hari, and this also meant that it would register its highest ever revenue.
Pickyourtrail now registers on an average around 12-15 percent month-on-month growth, which goes up to 20-22 percent during the peak season.
The startup also faced challenges during the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, but they knew that if once this passed, things would turn out for the better.
The online travel market in India has got players such as MakeMyTrip, Cleartrip, Expedia, Booking.com etc.
Hari believes the runway ahead is quite clear and it has built a culturally stronger organisation with much wider reach in terms of customer profile.
Today, the biggest challenge in front of the founders is their ability to execute.
“There is so much pent demand that it is a matter of running fast and how hungry we are in execution,” says Hari.
The startup also has an interesting challenge ahead, especially in terms of hiring.
“We have set the bar so high with the high intensity shown by our people, and the challenge now is how does one hire non-transactional people going forward,” says Hari.
There were quite a few key learnings for the founders in this two-year odd journey. Hari believes Pickyourtrail is more of a product-led organisation with higher degree of transparency to have solid teams and most importantly the risk taking ability has increased.
On a personal note, he says, “There is a lot of virtue signaling that happens from outside, but one needs to be in peace with oneself.”