Friday, 19 June 2015

WHY & HOW I QUIT MY FANCY JOB TO SET UP A TRAVEL START-UP

There’s just so many of us these days – suffering from some mid-life crisis or just jumping off the run of the mill job train that I am a bit afraid that this post may end up reading like a me-too! Yet, this is one of those stories I simply have to share....

Let me not get on about how I was dying of boredom or how the money stopped mattering to me and how the corporate life was suddenly beneath me and my higher calling in life blah blah. I think many of us have been there at some point. Yes I was bored and yes I couldn’t see myself doing the same old thing, living that life another year, but I loved working with Globus and Cosmos (the world's largest coach touring company, where I held the post of Regional Director South Asia & Middle East for over 8 years). It is not ‘one of’ but ‘the very best’ company I have seen through my career spanning 20+ years. I even had an excellent boss (ya, how many of us can say that) and oh yes the money was pretty yummy too. But I had stopped growing and leaving that as the core premise of why I quit the big bucks, let’s move on the how I did it.

DO IT RIGHT
I did it right – for the company. I sat on the chair for all of one year and one month while my bosses looked for a replacement for me and in the end while I was at it, I even helped find someone and ensured a smooth transition. I didn't walk out at the end of my six weeks notice period and it didn’t hurt that it gave me the time to figure out what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it and the money tap kept flowing during that time. But the most important thing to me was not destroying what I had taken over 8 years to build and staying committed to 'doing it right'. 

IF NOT SKILLS, UPGRADE YOUR NETWORK 
While I was at it, I also used the last year in my very last ‘working for someone else’ job to sharpen my skill but more than that my thinking. I am entrepreneurial at heart and one of the reasons I loved my job for many years was that the company let me do things my own way, yet I went ahead and joined the MPEFB program at IIM Bangalore because 20 long years experience in the industry can be a huge asset but it’s also sometimes a liability as you meet the same type of people who say the same sort of things and have the same mindsets. It was like trying to expand my vision. This was a very useful opportunity for me to break my own 'mind' barriers and meet and interact with some very interesting entrepreneurs from different industries. I also got to meet many fabulous alumni members and I certainly took to some of them, even asking one of them to become an advisor on our board at a later point (read below)..

WHY TRAVEL?
Today the world is bursting with ‘travel’ being the in-thing, the industry to be in. As I look at young, nerdy people getting off the techie-bandwagon or their limiting management jobs and starting another ‘travel start up', I have a mix of emotions. On the one hand, I am impressed because I truly believe that innovation in our industry has come from very few insiders – rest of the time we have ‘outsiders’ like Deep Kalra to thank for the Make My Trips and other disruptions that changed the way the travel business is done. On the other hand every time I have a conversation on my new company and I hear people say ‘Yes travel is rocking, no brainer really that you quit your job for a travel start up!’ – I am amused because I joined the industry when it was not the hottest place to be. In fact even 10 plus years ago, we often got to hear – those who could do nothing else got into travel! So, here’s a confession – I started a travel company because you can't teach an old dog new tricks... After 20 years in the industry the only thing I knew really well was...... Yes, the travel business. And the reason I plunged into it 23 years ago was that there was nothing else that I would have rather done than this. It’s no different today. The reason I am in it is the same – that I LOVE the travel business, I LOVE to travel and even today there is no other place I would rather be than this industry.


With that being established, the question was - where and what can I do differently – to add value to the industry, to travellers and to most of all to myself. This was the core reason I looked beyond the conventional businesses of 'customized travel', or yet another online portal or app or market-place that maybe could have made me money much faster and much more easily.

Whether I have been wrong or right in choosing the path to establishing India’s first company to offer activity basedholidays is something that only time will tell. But I went about the decision and choice in a rather stupid way. I looked at the world from my personal narrow vision. I looked at everything that I was doing in my own life.




WHY I QUIT
Some years before I quit my job, I had taken up running long distances and I found myself travelling to other countries to run Marathon races. I would often add exploring places and sightseeing to those trips. Then, to cross train for my runs, I bought myself a bicycle and I also gifted myself a trek to the Everest Base Camp on my 40th birthday. That trip was almost a defining moment (if one can call a 10 day long trek a ‘moment’) in being honest to myself that I couldn’t really continue working with my old company. For one, there was a clear mismatch now because I was promoting coach tours, while in my own life I was holidaying differently. It was a bit like cheating, but that's not reason enough as many people do amazing things for a living that they may not enjoy doing in their personal lives. The truth was that the lack of challenge in my previous job meant that I had become mechanical about my job and that was not fair to the company. But even my dis-interested, low involvement performance wasn’t the reason – it was what being mechanical at work was making ME. It was making me mediocre and MEDIOCRITY sucks. 




MONEY MATTERS
Romantic as it sounded, I thought that I would rather be broke and grow, than be extremely comfortable and uncreative. I remembered my younger days when most material things in my life revolved around ‘next month’ – yet it was when I was broke, pushed against the wall, that I fought the hardest, thought the hardest and worked the hardest. I clearly did MORE with myself. I know it’s kind of stupid to work all the way up to the top position where you earn a fabulous work-life balance and then look back and say those crappy early days were your happiest but that’s exactly how I felt. And from where I am today, let me tell you that a great work-life balance, money and a corporate status are all wonderful things to have... unless the feeling in the pit of your belly is so strong that it renders all of it meaningless, giving you sleepless nights. So some unsolicited advice here would be to not quit your well paying job if you are not ready to DIE (or come close to it is what I really mean) for your passion! The road I have taken is hard, the road most entrepreneurs take is hard..

Most people who say money doesn't matter usually have a good amount of it tucked away somewhere. Van Gogh survived because his brother funded his art and even social entrepreneurs for whom money is not a motivation, need it to realise their mission. So please don't get fooled by jazzy headlines that say I  gave up the money to follow my passion - they make great headers and get eyeballs and that's the purpose of those lines. It is true that I gave up the money and it is also true that I am following my passion but my stand on this is that if you want to earn thousands, you need to stop loving your hundreds. If you want to earn lakhs stop loving your thousands and if you want to earn crores you're gonna stop loving your lakhs. Quit the good for the great. Quit the big for the bigger.


Now giving up the lakhs doesn't guarantee that you will get to the crores, but if you don't try - guaranteed that you will stay where you are. It is also very uncomfortable to downgrade your lifestyle but I was ready to do that in the short to medium term. I have done it. In fact I started way before I quit my job. I scaled back on my lifestyle cutting out many meaningless things that cluttered it - eating out, fancy clothes blah blah.

And even then it is not the love of money that attracts money, it is your love for what you do plus some real hard work and a smart execution of your idea that is more likely to do that.

When standing on the cross-roads, asking myself what I should do. Like for many of us, I had quite a few choices - as a published author I could earn through writing more books, today even google pays people who keep jamming content on their blogs (and mine has had close to 2 million views in case you haven't noticed). I have been offered thousands of dollars for my FB page and even been paid for speaking assignments at events. But many of these things I consider hobbies. Not to say that others can't make a living from hobbies, I know many who do - it's just that my work from the travel industry is what I consider as my main 'source of income' and the combination of my experience and expertise just made it a much better calculated risk. 



I like that sort of risk. It was the same reason I proposed to a stranger 15 years ago without ever having met him even though I was just out of a 4 month old marriage with someone I lived-in with for two years (read that story in Wise Enough to be Foolish). I have a simple way of assessing these things - I ask: What is the worst that can happen? The answer was losing some money and maybe a hand to mouth existence for some time and that's not so bad in the larger scheme of life. I knew the worst case scenario would never be that I can't earn myself three square meals, pay my bills and most important continue to travel. And so that was that - I decided to quit my job right after I returned from the Base Camp. 

THINKING INSIDE OUT
Anyhow, as I looked on for what my options could be, I found the gap in the way I was living my own life – traveling to run, travelling to trek and hike and travelling to cycle. That’s how I came up with the idea of marathon touring, cycling tours, hiking and trekking tours etc. Its not a new concept to the world but it is new to India and the reason the others have not taken it up is that it is a super-niche and sustaining an entire business on something so specialized is very hard. But if you haven’t guessed it yet – I like the difficult. And it made perfect sense for me to combine my experience in the travel business and my passion for travelling differently. The fact is that no other travel style has given me as much opportunity to experience places differently as one can really get behind the scenes, engage with the locals. Adding this value to the lives of discerning travellers is good but even more rewarding is knowing that you are playing your part in keeping the local communities going by bringing business and economic support to their lives.  

In some ways thinking inside out is a mistake because one tends to think that most customers are like themselves and I have realised they are not always. Many more would rather save that money on getting a cheaper holiday or even not do the things one is so passionate about but the advantage of thinking that your customers are like yourself is that you go that extra mile to do all those little things that make your travels different because you are servicing your travellers the way you would service yourself and I think that is a good thing and a ‘sustainable advantage’ that you can build through your team. I have often dissuaded people from doing things that can earn me a lot of money because I don't think they make the best experience and most appreciate it.  

REALITY SHOW BEGINS
Anyway all those romantic feelings of the challenge when you are broke disappeared rather quickly as I did really go broke – within a matter of months. What I was expecting is that one-tenth of India’s population would queue up outside our office to get on our unique, experiential trips. What I was finding was travellers coming up to us and saying 'Do you do Disneyland?' or ‘I love the sound of it but I don’t know how to ride a cycle.’ (jeez what were you doing when you were 8 years old?)

Luckily for me I learnt two lessons from this experience (of going broke) – First - that you can't run a business on romantic feelings – you need money and to earn money you need customers. The second lesson was that if you have built credibility and a professional reputation through your past actions – you will find enough people to bail you out. This is why history matters and everything you do in your professional and personal life matters. Doing it right does matter. This is Karma. No angel investor knows whether they will ever get great returns from anyone's 'reputation' but they know that they are putting their money on a horse who will run hard to try to win the race. We got the funding (and even refused some people) and we got back on the race track almost as quickly as we were about to get thrown out of the game. This was the time we roped in some fabulous advisors with both expertise and experience to help us with the future. This was also the time we wrote our mission statement.

To LEAD the Activity Based Experiential travel space and CHANGE lives by spreading the love by INSPIRING travellers to become adventurers... one holiday, one traveller, one community at a time!

WHAT REALLY MATTERS 
There’s a whole lot of new things out there in the business world - buzz words like scale, valuation, VCs, dilution, acquisitions and what not.. many of these can actually be intimidating at times. Technology is changing so rapidly that yesterday’s verdict is a thousand years old and unless you are a business that is driven by technology I would say – keep your eye on the ball and stay focused on your goal. It is so easy to get distracted by fads that keep cropping up everyday. But it is not those hashtags that are going to get your top and bottom line up. There are only two things that will do that – your customers and your team.

I cannot emphasise enough on the latter – particularly in India where quality talent is in short supply and also as a lone entrepreneur who started out by herself, with no one to share my ideas, challenges and options with. Bottom line is that you cannot implement and deliver the standards you have set for yourself and your venture unless you get this part right. I have really struggled. I have been amused with random co-founder applications who bring literally nothing to the table expect 'I love to travel' but despite the pain, I have often chosen to do it myself over having someone ‘half-way’ there to service our travellers. I have made it harder for myself by being extremely selective about people who want to become part of our team – often dissuading them with the cons than offering them the pros. It is important to me that everyone in the team is a passionate believer so they are in it to 'do what it takes'. It takes time, patience and a lot of good luck to get a dream team together and we are getting there  one step at a time. 

Keeping the eye on the ball is everything for us, and that ball in our company is the customer. We have engaged closely with them to hear everything that they had to say to fine tune our offerings – softening it with small group tours, tours based with ‘#dothedifferent’, food walking and other experiential holidays in addition to the cycling, trekking and marathon tours that we are so passionate about. We like to hear each traveller's feedback and we reward them for sharing it with us. To us they are the ultimate focus. We just love it when they come back and tell us how wonderful their holiday was. This week a doctor from Kohlapur who took an 8 day walking tour with us called to tell us how pale the big cities looked after they had seen the beautiful meadows and stunning villages and forests of Austria. That puts the biggest smile on my face – that we made a difference to someone’s life. We love that we make it possible for people to get on marathon races they can never get entries for. We love it when people tell us all their friends have been to Italy but they are the only ones why cycled through it. We love it when solo travellers say they met amazing people on our trips and the small size helped them forge meaningful relationships with other travellers. We love what we do. We are different and we want to make people see the world differently.

We haven’t been all perfect. We have made mistakes but we don’t just correct the wrongs, we also work on the okay experiences to try and make them GREAT. Because that’s what we want Active Holiday Company to be – a GREAT company that delivers GREAT experiences and we WILL BE THAT (we are already on our way there).


Oh AND ABOUT THE CAR
There have been some stories in the media about me being the girl who sold her Honda City for following my passion. There are two truths here – I did sell my car and a bicycle did replace it (and to cross train for my marathons). It is also true that I set up the Active Holiday Company to follow my passion but the real reason I sold off the car was because it was expensive to maintain. It was only logical that I started using the bicycle for commuting. I knew that my new life would need some serious financial adjustments (and I have made them) and since I don’t know how to drive, it made perfect sense to sell the damn car and get myself a brand new bicycle. After all only the one who lives actively can promote active holidays.

Maybe that’s not how everyone does it, but that’s how I am doing it.


14 comments:

  1. Beautiful piece

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  2. A very few people who have followed their heart have won the battle of life and your work and words have inspired me. ....salute you. ......superb. ...I would llove to read again and again

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    1. Thanks for reading it Prerna. I am glad you liked it - it will be so amazing if more people could really do what they love to do.. :)

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  3. A very few people who have followed their heart have won the battle of life and your work and words have inspired me. ....salute you. ......superb. ...I would llove to read again and again

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  4. A very few people who have followed their heart have won the battle of life and your work and words have inspired me. ....salute you. ......superb. ...I would llove to read again and again

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  5. Great article gauri... It was nice to read and be updated about ur trials and tribulations post IIM-B days

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  6. feeling great for you.
    an exceptional heart touching write up.

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