Travel needs innovators. Here’s our CEO’s advice to help them.
- Impala’s Co-founder and CEO Ben Stephenson recaps the advice he shared on stage at last week’s Travolution Start-Up Summit
Last week, I spent an inspiring morning at the Travolution Start-Up Summit, watching 12 new companies pitching their ideas to shake up the industry. One thing’s clear: talent, entrepreneurship and innovation are alive and well in the travel space. And that’s unquestionably a good thing, because when compared to other sectors, travel has huge untapped potential - and a lot of catching up to do - to deliver new consumer experiences.
I also had the privilege of being invited onto the stage to share some war stories I’ve acquired in the five years since starting Impala. And while I know it’s incomplete advice and heavily biased by my own experience, I wanted to present a few of the key points here - largely in the hope that it’ll prevent other founders from falling into some of the bear traps I did.
There’s huge value in choosing one specific area and specialising deeply
Get to know how little you know
I started Impala after getting frustrated working as an engineer at a travel agency. I realised the perfectly sensible things we wanted to build there just weren’t possible, because the infrastructure that underpins the industry is fundamentally broken. Around that time, other sectors - particularly fintech - were binning their existing infrastructure and starting again.
How hard could it be to do the same for travel? Well, my eyes were opened the first time I picked up the CV of someone super-smart, who’d spent four years at an Ecole Hotelière, and was still just starting out in the industry. I realised I couldn’t just read some blog posts and talk to a few people to learn the ropes. There’s huge value in choosing one specific area and specialising deeply.
The difference between a successful startup and one that fails is one that recognises those mistakes
Regularly check the pulse of the horse you’re flogging
Over the course of five years, I’ve made mistakes. Every startup founder in the world will know the feeling. But in my eyes, the difference between a successful startup and one that fails is one that recognises those mistakes and corrects them quickly.
And nowhere is that more important than in the product you’re taking to market. Speak to your customers. Listen to what they say. And look at the economics of what you’re selling. If your customers aren’t biting, ask yourself tough questions: are you fixing something that’s a real problem for them? Are you following the right assumptions? Be quick to decide and adapt.
Find people who believe in what you’re doing, rather than trying to convince those who don’t
Find investors that work with you
You might, like many startups, seek investment to grow faster. There’s a lot to know in the travel space, but I’ve always found that the best investors will look for people with enough experience to not fall into the obvious traps, but that aren’t so indoctrinated that they can’t see new ways of doing things.
That’s hard in travel, because so much of the tech is dated and hard to change. So rather than focusing on proprietary technology, it can be helpful to start by thinking about the unique business models and commercial opportunities you can unlock, and then work backwards to figure out the product. This means that when looking for investors, you’ll be clear on what you’re trying to do. Find people who believe in what you’re doing, rather than trying to convince those who don’t.
Disrupt and pick fights wisely
As we were getting started, we rather naively thought we could skate our way through the industry and convert everyone to our way of thinking, without worrying about the waves caused by our wake. But there’s nothing worse as a CEO than having to call someone you’ve commented on less than favourably, only to ask for their forgiveness so you can do business together.
While it’s a global business, travel is a pretty small and well-connected industry. It’s also one that is incredibly supportive and welcoming of new ideas. Don’t try to cut a dash - you’ll end up having to stop and clean up your mess.
Remember you’re in one of the last rock and roll industries
Travel is hugely exciting - everyone I speak to has an opinion and wants to learn more about it. That makes it super attractive for people to get in to, but just like rock and roll can look glamorous from the outside, it can also be terribly fickle.
Why? Well, one minute it can be on top of the world, but as soon as any crisis or downturn comes along, travel is typically one of the first areas to suffer. That can make raising money and finding the right time to exit very difficult, because you’re at the mercy of so many external factors. So enjoy the dizzy highs, but plan for the downturns and be ready to be flexible and resilient - they’re skills you’ll need when you least expect it.
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