January 09, 2017
“Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.”
- Steve Jobs
There are two types of individuals in this universe. One who first learn and afterward choose to try something new. Second, who simply begin accomplishing something and learn simultaneously.
When I was given the opportunity to write an article as part of my research, I started thinking. All my friends and classmates around me were picking up glamorous business role models and focusing on a rags to riches kind of story. However, what piqued my interest was a start-up. These days, a start-up is really common and the Indian market is being flooded with them.
However, Ithaka intrigued me. The concept of this start-up is quite different to the others. Two IIT Bombay graduates are simplifying travel experience in Thailand with a chat based personal assistant application. Now isn’t that something that piques your interest?
Through this medium, I shall be sharing what start-ups are in today’s world, their significance and impact in general. I shall also try to elaborate on how different Ithaka is, its very concept and how it all began and their journey thereafter. As I enter the beautiful and cosy office of Ithaka, I am greeted by an enthusiastic bunch of young people who are all smiles. The office is located at Sakinaka in Andheri in Mumbai.as you enter the office, you slowly realise you are amongst a bunch of Harry Potter enthusiasts. Quite evident from the fact that they refer to themselves as chat wizards. I slowly start interacting with them and start gaining an insight into their mind. The zeal and energy around the whole office is so contagious that you can’t help but admire their passion.
The founders of Ithaka, Ameya Sahasrabudhe and Rahul Singh, alumni of the very prestigious IIT Bombay, dreamt of creating the world’s first ecosystem for travel and today, they are living that dream.
One of the first questions that I ask them is why did they choose to begin a start up?
According to Rahul, it is the joy of creation that motivated them to go ahead with a start-up. The feeling of creating something new, building it from scratch, and then watching it grow, is a feeling which cannot be explained. If you do something that you love, even if you’re overburdened and the workload keeps piling up, it does not really matter and you don’t really feel the stress.
“People want to solve a problem and that is why they start something new, we wanted to start something new, so we found a problem that we thought needed to be addressed."
Ameya said that one is really close to attaining his personal potential in an environment like that of a start-up.
“Why did you choose the travel industry?”
One of the key elements of a start-up is the idea. The strength of the founder's idea might seem to be the biggest factor responsible for a business’s success, but it’s really only a small element of how things might turn out.
Travel is a common passion for both Rahul and Ameya. Traveling has the ability to change who one is for the better. It brings out the best version of a person and helps an individual gain confidence because they have tried awesome things and helps in broadening their perspective. One starts to appreciate the small things and learns to fall in love with life again.
Traveling teaches a person more about the world and the people in it, and also about the world within. One can conquer some of their worst fears while travelling, and can learn to get out of their comfort zone.
We were just randomly jotting down problems related to travel. We spoke about the common problems faced by travelers. We firstly thought about travel planning. However, on further research we found that there were a lot of players in the market already and there was no unexplored aspect, Rahul recounts. All this researching started around mid-2014. The Ithaka chat application came later. Earlier, it was a market place for activities. You just come online, take a look around certain activities and just book them.
Normally, like for example, if you are planning to visit Thailand, if you go for booking any tours online, those packages are extremely cliché and just include day tours, temple visits etc. We wanted to provide activities which are unconventional and what actually interests the travelers like local tours like bicycle ride tours, scuba diving, snorkel, island hop, rock climb and all such unexplored things.
“To travel is to take a journey into yourself, and we wanted our customers to have an amazing experience.”
Why did you start off with Thailand?
The founders say they chose Thailand initially as the travel destination because of it being one of the most popular destinations in SE Asia for travelers from India and abroad. Both Rahul and Ameya are genuinely passionate about South East Asia. They feel it is extremely under appreciated. They feel that there is a lot of diversity in a very short space. There are a lot more cultures, a lot more languages than any other place. Thailand is an ancient cultural land, from temples, to palaces and ancient ruins one can never run short of a chance to learn from the traditions and customs of this incredible country.
South East Asia as a travel market is very much unstructured. So there is a lot of scope in the business industry. Thailand is home to some of the most pristine beaches in the world. Even the numbers are phenomenal. SE Asia receives 25 percent of the global tourism traffic with Bangkok being the second most visited city in the world. Bangkok city alone has 3 times city number of international tourists arriving than the whole of India. So, it made complete sense to choose Thailand, for us.
“How did your own personal life and experiences play a role in shaping up the idea of Ithaka?”
Rahul graduated from IIT Bombay and then worked with GulfTalent as a hands on job analyst. Then he started working as a product manager.
“My Dad always wanted to do something of his own but couldn’t due to family responsibilities. So from my early childhood, I always heard that from him. So somewhere, subconsciously I picked that up and it stuck with me. I also went to a college that has nourished a very thriving entrepreneurship culture. And while I was in college, there were multiple start-ups coming up. I spoke to a lot of my seniors who had done their own thing and they used to share their experiences and insights. So, this do-your-own-thing was an extremely deep rooted subconscious thing probably. Right from my childhood to the environment around me, everything added value to my decision.
After graduating from IIT Bombay, Ameya worked for three months in Schlumberger and then he also worked for a start-up called Retailnav for a year. He believes in trying out different things. So much so, that he even learnt how to handle snakes. He also believes that when they came up with the idea of Ithaka, the time was extremely ripe. The time was appropriate, the ecosystem was extremely vibrant at that point of time. Timing is important from a competitive perspective, and it’s led many businesses to prominence despite a chaotic and busy market at their time of entry. When YouTube came on the scene, for example, there were already dozens of video-streaming platforms. But because YouTube launched at a critical moment -- after high-speed Internet became the norm but before any other streaming service had risen to prominence -- it enjoyed radical early success.
When I asked Ameya the same question, he said,
“I believe there is a spark inside each of us, but life has a way of smothering it with a multitude of pressures. Thankfully, I got lucky. Just out of the blue, I received an email from a dear friend with a link to the Zen Pencils adaptation of Cavafy’s poem Ithaka. There was a simple note with it: Life should be spent in pursuit of something greater than oneself.”
The poem came unsolicited and like a magic spell. Something in me just came back to life. It was my spark.
I quietly finished the project I was working on and quit my job the following week.
I cannot imagine that happening if I didn’t receive that email from my friend and saw the Ithaka comic. I learned that the journey IS the destination, and suddenly felt an inextinguishable thirst for travel, one that lives with me today.
I initially taught high school physics in order to save money for my own Ithaka journey. With the money saved, I backpacked across South-East Asia for two and a half months: Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia. Quite simply, it was the best time of my life, and not just that, it gave me the direction in life I had always been looking for. Somewhere along the trip, I understood the full significance of the lines from the poem “May there be many a summer morning when, with what pleasure, what joy, you come into harbors seen for the first time.” During my trip it dawned on me that this was all I really wanted to do: Travel.
Within, the next three months, Rahul quit his job too but unfortunately, he had to serve a six month notice period. Interestingly, the title of the poem was Ithaka. Ameya’s decision was extremely impulsive whereas Rahul’s decision was a much more calculated one. However, their motivation was the same, as both of them wanted to start something of their own. Rahul felt that it was the correct time to start his own thing. He had spent three years working for GulfTalent in Dubai and he had learnt a lot and gained immense experience.
“I believe the time was appropriate, any time later than this would have been too late and before this I wasn’t ready, so the time was right.”
There was not one particular moment of motivation, it was a sequential course of things. While talking, we discovered that travelling was a mutual passion and we both had faced a few problems while travelling so then we thought why not focus on those problems and try to find a solution to them.
Travelling had a lot of problems especially in South East Asia. So that’s how it all started.
Ameya believes that one’s life should be a quest for something bigger than their own self. “For us, we define satisfaction as the joy we bring to other people’s lives. When someone comes back from a trip and pings us on the app and tells us that, “Guys, I had a great trip and it wouldn’t have been possible without your help” That is what brings utmost joy to us and we believe that we are doing something meaningful with our life.”
“How did Ithaka grow and evolve?”
Ameya was the one who looked after the sales side of thing and the Rahul’s expertise was more on the product side. In the beginning, Ameya went out to Bangkok and did some partnership with a lot of vendors. Meanwhile Rahul was still serving his six month notice period in Dubai.
“One of the major issues we faced was of trust.” People generally do not trust online transactions, especially with new platform in the industry. So, we faced a major setback there as people were really skeptical and required constant assurance to conduct online transactions.
Initially when a few of the customers were let in upon this idea, they displayed extreme enthusiasm.
One of the first lessons, which Rahul shared was, “Do not believe what the user’s say, because they might react totally differently once the product is in their hands”
Another problem was Ithaka was booking in destination activities. So once the traveler has already reached his destination, the number of options are enormous. The local guides are available and people prefer offline transactions more than online ones. Even if they have to pay a little extra, they prefer offline transactions rather than trusting online ones.
However, over a period of time, a strange yet quite interest thing happened. People saw Ithaka as a travel startup and they thought that people behind this idea were travel experts. So they started asking questions, not just related to activities but about different aspects relating to travel. They started enquiring about the best places to visit and what all to do and where all to go and started asking for tips to plan their trips well.
The makers started answering the questions. Gradually, the number of enquiries increased and Ameya’s whatsapp number was put up on the web page where people contacted them and asked those questions and doubt related to travel.
So what gradually happened was that the people would ask questions and we would answer them and at the end of the talk, they would book an activity. This worked extremely well and in Ithaka’s favor because once people understood that these people actually knew their stuff they would be more willing to book activities.
Then a small chat bubble was put up on the website. One day, they received a message from a woman, who was from Spain and was planning to travel to Thailand next month and wanted Ithaka to help her plan the trip. At the end of it, she was extremely happy and made all her bookings through Ithaka.
Rahul very interestingly describes, “The activities which we were booking were like a one night stand, people would come, look around and book if they liked it. However, the personalized chat was like a relationship. It’s like talking to your most trusted friend. You can rely on them to have your back.
While we are helping you plan a trip, we won’t just tell to visit this place or that place. We would first like to understand what you like and we would plan the trip according to your preference and taste. So the trip shall be totally customized and suited to your requirements. A relationship is created between the traveler and the operator. Be it budget constraints or time constraints, Ithaka would solve your problems.
The web page also evolved gradually. It started off with just a huge list of the number of activities that could be booked through Ithaka. Then a whatsapp number was put up for assistance and after some time a chat bubble was put up. Later, the web page was divided into two halves, either book an activity or speak to a consultant. Slowly, they started conducting 2-3 chats per day. Those were tough days as it was just Rahul and Ameya grueling hard every day.
In September, the application was launched. The makers had to shift their focus from just the activity part to the personalized chat thing as it was working much better and showing better results. Around September, the application for android had come up while for iOS it was in October. Gradually they started publicizing it on social media platforms like Facebook and twitter and word started spreading around. From September to December it was a great learning curve. For the first 2-3months they tried to understand whether this would really work and whether it was viable.
However, one thing they realized was that a lot of value was being created as there was great feedback from the travelers and there was no other player in the market which was working along the same lines. There were a couple of chat apps, some were catering to the needs of the business travelers, some connected the travelers to the locals, and however no one was a part of the larger picture.
There was immense market opportunity, we found that gradually. Like for travelling there is a funnel. Firstly, when you decide to travel, you zoom in onto the place, then you book your tickets. That is your first commitment that you’re planning to travel. Then you look at hotels and visa issues and all. Activities are practically at the end of the funnel. So we rose from the end to the absolute top of the funnel i.e. planning the trip. Activities still played a major role, however planning someone’s trip for them, creating a bond of faith and trust, was an amazing experience and we had great fun doing it.
“We always wanted to disrupt travel”
Rahul says, “I personally faced a lot of problem while I was travelling. I did the second highest bungee jumping in Switzerland. It is one of the top things to do in travel. However, it is still not available for online booking anywhere. “I had to call them, provide them with my credit card information and then they generated an email booking” recounts Rahul. That is when we thought that something needs to be done about this. Sadly, in spite of all the technology that is still the state of travel in the world. The basic needs of a traveller i.e. discovery and ease of transaction is still not available.
So the problem remained the same. However, the approach we took was a tad different. The vision is to create a unified travel platform. The major problem with the approach of a lot of other companies is that they try to put everything together which is basically not possible. Travel is humungous, it is a multi-trillion dollar industry and therefore, it is not possible to have everything together, hotels, transport, activities etc. the strategy is to make it a unified travel platform. We had to start somewhere, so we started with activities. So we haven’t changed our goal, we just took a different approach towards it. And this approach was taken as it catered to the customer’s needs.
“What were the struggles that you faced initially?”
“The very first difficulty we faced was product building. For six months, we dealt with extreme pressure. We tried to get a lot of our work done from freelancers and also had to involve a third person for the product building. After the launch, traction was a major issue. Getting enough people on board was a problem. However, gradually all that was getting resolved. We spent six months in getting our product out. Most start-ups achieve it within 2-3 months. I was only partially involved in the remote work, so Ameya was burdened with a lot of work.” Rahul said.
“The biggest struggle we faced was to find a tech guy, somebody good to build technology, because in this day and age there is not really much that you can do without technology. Apart from that, there has not really been any such major problem. Everything eventually fell into place.” Ameya said.
“What kind of competition are you facing right now?”
“There is no direct competition as such. People travelling through packages is a hurdle though.
Travelling through packages is always cheaper because a package is made through economies of scale. However, there is no flexibility. Another major problem is that a lot of people prefer planning on their own, they plan it through blogs or through local guides.”
Right now, Ithaka is the only platform which is planning trips and viewing travel with such a perspective. However, Airbnb is also exploring this facet which might be a threat in the future.
“What according to you, is the biggest USP of Ithaka?”
The biggest USP of Ithaka is the personalization and the customization that you get. It is something you cannot get anywhere else unless you plan the trip yourself, of course. Here, you come and talk to us as a friend and we try to help you discover things that you would have had after a long agonizing research and even then you might not have been able to do that. Ithaka condenses all that for you. At the end of it all, you are still the decision maker, which is very important.
The most prevalent way to travel in India is travel packages, those typical four days three nights or seven days six nights’ packages. Those are proper set packages, the name itself says it all, and it is pre-packaged. You have literally no independence. There are not many things to choose from. You do not get to learn about the proper way of travelling.
Ithaka does not take preferences and spit out an itinerary. The founders say they believe in keeping the traveler intimately involved in the planning process, without the hassle of looking for information and over-thinking decisions.
“Travelling and going on a holiday are two very different things. When you are going on a holiday you aren’t bothered by such trivial things. Travelling is a lifestyle. It is a life changing experience.”
The next generation of travelers from India want that. You want to explore on your own and Ithaka helps you do that. The greatest USP would be that it is extremely personalized and a great discovery platform.
“It is put the traveler in the center of the experience and build an amazing experience around him. You can try to fit a traveler into a trip or you can create a trip around the traveler. So we do the latter.”
“What are the future plans for Ithaka?”
“Right now, we are focusing on improving our product. We are also focused on internal training and making our chat wizard’s more efficient. We are also planning on expanding to more countries. We have launched in Bali recently. In the next six months we plan to launch in Vietnam and by next year we envision to cover the entire South East Asian loop.
Our goal is to create an ecosystem for travel. We aim to build a platform to deliver a holistic, rewarding experience for travelers to span the globe.”