How two founders with a combined net worth of no more than 20 lakhs built a company with a user base of over 170 million travellers

ENTREPRENEURSHIP 

An Interview with ALOKE BAJPAI, Co-founder & CEO, IXIGO:

Q. Tell us a little bit about your early career. What drove you to become an entrepreneur and venture into the travel sector?

I was working for a travel technology company in France, called Amadeus. I started my career with them. That is where I met Rajnish (Co-founder) as well. After that, I went to NCAD for my business school. At business school, I tried to get into consulting but got rejected by the big four, dejected actually, and thought of returning to India and doing something of my own. So I came back here, didn’t have any money, and at the time was working for a company which was into travel technology ERP. In 2006, one fine day, I sent in my resignation and decided it was time to take the plunge into entrepreneurship.

It looked like an exciting time to start something in the travel space in India, but we still had not figured out what. Rajnish was also excited about moving back to India and starting something of his own. When you work in the south of France, you need a lot of motivation to quit your job and move back to India, but we collectively made that hard choice and there was no looking back. We started working on the idea of ixigo in late 2006. It’s been 13 years now, since Rajnish and I started ixigo and it’s been an exciting journey.

Q. When and how did you come up with the idea of ixigo?

The idea of ixigo was born from our own pain areas as travellers, during our prior stint with Amadeus in Europe (a leading travel Technology Company powering major global airlines). We felt that though there were plenty of travel sellers online in the form of online travel agents or the airline/hotel/agent websites, there were not enough websites or apps who were solving for the real problems travellers faced, helping them plan their trips with better information, letting them compare and book the best travel deals from across all these sellers, and helping them manage their trips with them in control.

We launched ixigo in Gurgaon in June 2007 running on a 512 Kb DSL connection from our apartment. We remember being overwhelmed by traffic within the first few hours. We knew we were onto something, and over the next year, we bootstrapped and grew to hundreds of thousands of unique users every month finding the best flight deals within seconds.

Q. How much money did you start with? How did you fund your subsequent growth?

When Rajnish and I started ixigo with other co-founders, we did not even have INR 20 Lakhs of savings between us. We both had liabilities and responsibilities to take care of, so we also worked on freelance projects for others just to keep things going. We managed to raise a small seed round from a Singapore based fund in early 2008 and the Global financial crisis happened just while we were in the midst of our Series A process, leaving us with just a few months of runway in September 2008. We were lucky to have a small but very talented and supportive team right and they stood by us in difficult times offering to work even at steep pay cuts. We not just managed to survive those 3 tough years, but also came out with close to a million monthly users on the other side, and healthy growth in revenue despite the heavily funded OTAs spending millions of dollars every month on mass-market campaigns.

Those first 5 bootstrapping years taught us a lot – we grew our start-up to 1 million monthly users with less than 1 million dollars of capital and we did it the hard and old-fashioned way – relying on word of mouth (because our marketing budget was zero) and sheer product innovation. They helped instil frugality, perseverance and a growth hacking mindset in our culture. We struggled initially to raise money but eventually managed to partner with some of the best investor names in India.

Q. What was the hardest part in the early stage of the company’s growth? What has been the biggest challenge you faced until you established your business firmly?

During our journey, we learned that the biggest make or break for start-ups is not funding, not revenue, not market size, not timing, not even scale, but people. If you have the right people, you will figure out a way around all your problems, find what to build to grow faster, and do whatever is needed to survive in any situation. Building a hard-working, committed and passionate team, setting very high standards of customer excellence and product quality, and reacting fast to changes in the market allows start-ups to build resilience and strive for excellence. Even in extremely competitive markets, if you know your customers better than the incumbents, have a leaner and better team and culture, and if you can innovate on product and growth, you will end up creating a product or service users will love to tell others about, and you will keep growing faster than the competition who would be throwing money and people at their problems. So, treat your team as you would treat your family, and keep a very low tolerance for bullshit. Also – if someone tells you that you can’t do something, work twice as hard the next day and prove them wrong.

Q. What were your marketing strategies to grow your business? What are the most effective customer acquisition strategies an online business should rely on?

We believe in zero dollar marketing. For us, leveraging the power of content, videos and social media has been one of the most effective tools to drive more app adoption and brand awareness. Videos, social media, moment marketing and tweet jacking have the potential of reaching millions of people together, which is not possible with TV channels.

ixigo, today is the most used travel app in the country. Last year, we did more app downloads than all the other travel apps combined and we did it by spending less than 1 per cent of their combined budget. Some of the learnings for us were that you are able to build the product that builds an organic pull. Organic downloads are the most critical starting point.

Building a great customer experience is one of our growth hacks. At ixigo, we all are responsible for the customer’s satisfaction. I think more than the product, it’s the customer experience that matters the most.

We have also explored strategic barter deals that have allowed us to accelerate organic growth without burning a hole in our pocket. We have bartered with TV channels to promote our brand on television and we have done distribution deals with Flipkart.

Q. What advice would you give to those who have just started their companies?

Dream big and have faith in yourself. Don’t give up on your dream because of present constraints but take the plunge regardless. Finding the right co-founder is also the key when it comes to the first step and building a team that believes in your dream and vision just as much as you.

Q. The COVID has changed everything for the travel industry. How are you coping with the crisis? What is your revival plan?

Travel and hospitality was one of the hardest-hit sectors due to the pandemic. With everything on a standstill, the industry has suffered a lot during the 2-month lockdown. However, as India unlocks, we are amazed with the response we have seen in travel bookings post flights and trains resuming operations. A recent travel sentiment survey done by us shows that 68% of Indians are willing to travel amidst the pandemic. Recent trends show that fear and apprehension have slowly dissipated as travellers have learnt to live with the virus. Our booking data shows there is a rise in travel from non-metros to metros week on week and bookings across key routes in June have increased by 45-50% as compared to May last week when domestic flights had just reopened. This has given us hope that travel bookings will bounce back to pre-COVID levels sooner than expected.

The health and security of our customers is always our top priority and we have rolled out a slew of initiatives to help them fly more confidently given the current situation. As travel demand recovers, we want our users to feel confident and safe and give them a flexible, stress-free booking experience. We recently launched a special flight fare feature- ixigo assured- which guarantees a full refund up to Rs.5000 on any domestic flight booking cancellation. We conceived, partnered, developed and launched this product within a record span of 3 weeks, as soon as it became evident that travellers would increasingly face a dilemma while booking their next trip as soon as flights resume. We are raising awareness on the importance of maintaining hygiene while travelling and some common coronavirus myths and facts on our website, apps & social media platforms. We are also updating our users on the latest airline and state travel policies through our COVID-19 info page to help them plan their trips better.

 

 

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