I Started The First Online Travel Agency In Bangladesh And It Now Makes $18M/Year

SALMAN BIN RASHID SHAH SAYEEM
$1.5M
revenue/mo
3
Founders
60
Employees
Flight Expert Ban...
from Dhaka, Bangladesh
started March 2017
$1,500,000
revenue/mo
3
Founders
60
Employees
167K
alexa rank
5.96K
followers
1.41K
followers
market size
$5B
avg revenue (monthly)
$759K
starting costs
$283K
gross margin
32%
time to build
360 days
average product price
$200
growth channels
SEO
business model
Software
best tools
Google Drive, Google Sheets, Instagram
time investment
Full time
pros & cons
24 Pros & Cons
tips
7 Tips
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Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

Hello, I am Salman Rashid, Founder & CEO of Flight Expert. It is the first-ever online travel agency in Bangladesh. Our uniqueness was to build a state-of-the-art online travel agency with services focusing on Bangladesh primarily. This country has never before enjoyed taking assistance from any online travel agency.

We started selling air tickets & hotel reservations from our b2c website flightexpert.com from March 1st, 2017, having 20 airlines & a handful of international hotels.

In 2021, we are connected with all Bangladesh-bound airlines, including local hotels, and the count stands at 700+ airlines inventories and one million-plus hotel worldwide connectivity, including self-contracting and aggregator onboarding.

In 2018 we started our b2b portal targeting travel agents using flightexpertagent.com to assist them with their desired services providing better technology.

After launching for 12 months, we hit our breakeven point and started earning money with steady growth. Our fundamental goal was to make investments and invent the new service area until Covid hit this industry.

However, the best part is that we achieved 50% more revenue in October 2021 than our pre-covid highest number on sales in a month, interestingly, and we are aiming to hit breakeven by March 2022 if all goes well in the market.

i-started-the-first-online-travel-agency-in-bangladesh-and-it-now-makes-18m-year
Flight expert launching event on 1st March 2017 at BICC, Dhaka

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

Our family business is a travel agency and all its related services, and my father has been running a travel agency business since 1992. We have all travel-related licenses, including airlines direct connectivity via IATA, recruiting licenses, Hajj/Umrah licenses for Muslim people, Money Exchange licenses, Embassy visa licenses, etc., to cover all travel-related services.

Always remember, don't stop providing great products or services to your customers. If you do, then you have already dug the grave of your company.

I was studying in Canada and returned home in Jan 2015 for a holiday. I sat with my dad, and he was talking about his business revenue. He was upset with its revenue decline due to new competition.

Also, as it was an offline-based business loads of employee-related corruption took place. My dad was not earning what he deserved and he asked for help on what to do in this case.

I suggested starting an Online Travel Agency (OTA) where customers can come directly to his website to buy air tickets or other services. I showed him Makymytrip / CheapOair, etc., but I was not sure that was it. He decided my fate on that day and that he would bring me back to my country Bangladesh after my graduation. I was unaware of his thinking.

After 12 hours of my final exam on undergrad on April 20th, 2016, my father booked me a one-way ticket from Canada to Bangladesh before publishing my final exam result. I had to sell or give away all the stuff that I couldn't take back to my country and jumped into a future where OTA was unknown by this country. All my friends stopped me and suggested that I stayed in Canada for PR or a passport, but my fate was written in my homeland.

I came to the travel agency world in Bangladesh, where 95% of agents used to calculate their accounting on paper and pen and were unaware of the technology. I felt like I came in the pre-internet era inside the travel agency world as in Bangladesh, things were significantly different than any developed country could have imagined.

Selling air tickets online was a dream for people before we launched. Most people thought it was not going to be successful, including my father's travel agency employees who were not tech-friendly.

I had no professional experience, nor did I know travel agencies' businesses or people in this sector to guide my online business. At that time, Bangladesh was not ready for full online payment for air tickets as people did not have credit/debit cards or did not know how to use them for online transactions.

Also, 90% of banks were not supporting e-commerce transactions back then and were worried about card fraud, etc. I was afraid, but I was hopeful things would change. The only better option was to explore and jump into the travel tech business: where Technology has driven this industry as it has happened to all countries.

Most travel agencies had significant flows that customers knew the reservation agent personally, and if that employee moved to another travel agency, he took their client.

Additionally, those agents were primarily focused on selling tickets. I saw that once customers had to re-issue or had to take a refund for their tickets, it was a nightmare to chase the agents.

Also, late-night or holiday support was a dream to have for customers. At that time, I was worried a lot about changing this aspect by taking employees from travel agencies or even my father's employees who were not suitable for us to excel. Everyone was thinking of their profit, that entire system was messed up, and corruption was at its peak.

I almost lost interest until one day my mother took me to a nearby super shop, "Agora,".I wondered if she could have bought the stuff she was buying at Agora from a nearby known personal department shop. She could have just called that local shop and they could have sent the goods to our home. On the other hand, in that super shop “Agora”, my mother did not know the store manager or cashier or anyone and yet she still buys from them all the time. Then I realized the value of "Brand." People trust the brand.

That was when the "aha" factor hit me, and we started our company where the customer would only know the brand name. From the beginning, we took only fresh graduates from university. I decided that I would create this service culture from scratch. Clients don't need to know who is working behind the brand. All they need is the correct information and the right services on time.

This service is the only thing that we have to provide: we aren't the airlines or the hotel owner. We are the agents who are connecting customers with our suppliers and earning commission or fees. A customer comes to us for a better service only. So we started focusing on that part from that day.

My father helped me with 20,000 USD to 40 thousand to 80 thousand in the initial phase. Later he helped us by providing 700,000+ USD worth of bank guarantees to airlines for us to excel in this business. To date, the entire company is owned by us, and we do not have any external investors. We have grown up with our own money, but we seek external investors to take us to the next level.

As mentioned, my father has been in the travel industry for more than 29 years now. Before I joined this company, my father had all the active connections with all airlines and had all licenses to run this business.

So for the first time, we had to take money to build our website from an Indian-based IT company. Later we had to run employees and as we had to run 10 months for R&D and before launching there was no revenue stream so the majority of the money was spent for paying employee salaries, OPEX and IT outsourced costs.

However, till pre-covid, we had taken an investment of 1 million USD+ from my father where the majority of funds went to secure airlines with Bank Guarantee or line of credit to take inventories of them which we call "Airlines capping".

Additionally, after the covid hit we had to take another million funding to date to cover our losses that got accumulated due to OPEX, bad debt, etc.

Take us through the process of designing your first website.

As we were the first online travel agency in Bangladesh, back in 2016, there was almost no developer to make OTA, so we outsourced the Tech for our website from abroad, which is specialized for OTA business.

In the beginning, as I was not even an expert on travel tech. Actually, I was uneducated fully in the travel industry even as a person who just graduated. So my requirement was a website where people can purchase air tickets and hotel bookings. I was not even aware of API's or global aggregators at that time.

First I started looking at Google about travel tech and found a few Indian companies and in Bangladesh none was available. I spoke with a few local Bangladeshi IT companies and I could not trust anyone as everyone said they can make one but they don't have any knowledge about how to do it.

Then we decided first that we will choose only an IT company that had past OTA build-up experience. The initial idea was to test the business, not the tech development as at that time if we choose building tech then we could not even be here where we are now. So we started taking many quotations from Indian companies and we picked the max asking bidder.

It may sound foolish since other developers were willing to do the same work for 1/3rd or 1/4th of that price. But we went with them as that company is in the travel business. Their key business is not building travel tech. Their key business is an OTA in India and they were in the top 10 OTA at that time in India. So we quickly decided that as people are in business they will understand the requirement moving forward and we should only choose them regardless of their asking.

Now we are grown up and we are stuck with our IT requirements as the business is growing rapidly and demands are changing. So we need to build our own IT team that can develop the new version of our software.

I will suggest others build their own IT team and jump into business unless you are the first mover in your country and you are in an underdeveloped country. For us, it was an entirely different scenario as in 2016 we couldn't find any experienced people, and in 2021 it’s an entirely different story.

Currently, we are developing our website, and hopefully, by April 2022, we will launch our new website and mobile apps.

Describe the process of launching the business.

After ten months of extensive research about the market and its needs, we launched on March 1st, 2017. Our strategy was simple: to promote the website via social media and get big banks' endorsement. We had to wait for 17 days for our first sales on March 17th, 2017. The customer started booking from our b2c website.

It may be a bit complicated for readers in developed countries and easier to understand for readers in South Asia as it's the most common thing for travelers here.

My extensive research involved going into fieldwork, which consisted in taking my father's few ticket businesses to other travel agencies. So I took a few reservation requirements and the money to another travel agency and bought those tickets from them. This was a process of understanding what was missing in other travel agencies, which should be our key strength.

I found out that 95% of travel agencies are run in the same way. The actual owner earns on bulk tickets with a limited margin and employees take the maximum commission, misleading the owner. So we created a brand where customers come because of the brand, not the agents behind it. They can re-issue or request a refund by calling our call center or simply emailing us. It is that simple. Also, we studied loads of support related flaws which is our key strength now.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

As our budget was almost low, at the beginning we started with a 1000-2000 dollars budget of digital marketing for every month to promote our website. Our goal was to drive people to our website with actually minimal or no knowledge about online marketing.

We learned how to do marketing from youtube to run ads. (Now we have our expert CMO to run the show). During that time, our prime target was to take local banks as our partners, and they promoted our website, sending SMS/emails to their card base clients to buy tickets from us, even social media boosting, ATM screening, etc.

Our main goal was not to finish the money in one month rather than spend equally and grow steadily. We always wanted to grow steadily rather than jumping 50% every month for two months rather than falling 100% on the third month. We believe in the rabbit turtles' story where patience and willingness wins.

We steadily increased our budget promoting our website using Facebook ads or google AdWords primarily and targeting youth or people who use the internet. As Bangladesh had 50% more people in the country at 18-28, we mainly targeted 18-35 old airline flyers and tech-savvy people. We knew if we could reach those customers and let them purchase once from us, they would always buy from us due to our unique service method.

Don't overthink about past or mistakes; it will only slow you down with no financial or timely return

Due to our service assurance, they will even start word of mouth to their family and friends who might not even be in that age range or our target range. They will eventually buy the ticket from us. So the most extensive marketing from our end will be the support we will provide, which will take us to the lead position.

This method worked for our business, and we made it possible for customers to buy a ticket from us most of the time as they loved the uniqueness of our services more than other travel agents. They can purchase a ticket online and get support from anywhere in the world.

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Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

This journey of a flight expert taught my team and me many things, and we are still learning something new, something challenging, and something almost impossible to crack every hour. But we all are working our best to make the company the face of travel tech for Bangladesh.

We made many excellent and not-so-good decisions, but it was essential for us to take the decision first. What I mean and believe is that in our life- a critical 10% decision decides the rest 90% of our lives. So take your decision wisely for the 10%.

Imagine when my dad said to return to Bangladesh to start our online travel agency business; if at that time I said no and stayed back in Canada, then you wouldn't be reading this post of mine about this company. So, please take your critical 10% decision-making wisely as it will impact the remaining 90% of your life decision.

If you think in your career you don't get much time where you need to decide, something is wrong in your company. The more decision phases that come into your company, the more you can gain.

Please do remember one thing, "Don't overthink about the past or mistakes; it will only slow you down with no financial or timely return. If you or your team make a mistake, then work together to solve it first, then learn why it happened and make SOP's not to make the same mistake again and move on". Don't cry over that loss if it's even financial. That's the most significant mistake small companies make.

Also, I would suggest don't just think for the short term. Go for long-term planning with your team with a vision to achieve. For me, a Startup dies after a few years, not because of funding but rather because of a lack of proper SOP's.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

We use a lot of 3rd party software to run our business. Mostly related to airlines' software including Amadeus, Travelport, Sabre, Zenith, Zepways, etc., along with it, we use Microsoft Office as a whole, and for CRM, we are using bitrix. Additionally, we do have our own back office for sales records. For accounting, we are using QuickBooks.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

My most excellent idol is Steve Jobs. One thing I loved about his idea was to make a difference. People will pay the right price if they find the right product/services from you that they are looking for.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Let me tell you a story.

An uneducated guy in a village was selling Oranges to his customers. He was honest and dedicated to his business. Every morning, he wakes up and goes to the orange garden to pick only those oranges with great smells. The customer loved to acknowledge his great smell of oranges, which are always fresh, and his business was shining and growing. Then the recession came, but he was not aware of it, and no harm to sales or his business was happening. Then his educated son, who finished university and came to him, said, "Dad, the entire world is going through a financial crisis, and people are suffering from jobs/business losses, etc."

Later that night, the orange seller started thinking all night that if the world is going through a money crisis, then his customer won't even have money to buy oranges, so he has to reduce the cost of his oranges so they can buy. So onward from the next day, he purchased cheaper and more non-smelled oranges. People slowly stopped purchasing oranges from him, and his business turned into losses, and he had to close his shop. Then the man started believing his son was right. The world has no money to buy oranges, and that's the reason he lost his business.

So always remember, don't stop providing great smelly products or services to your customers. If you do, then you have already dug the grave of your company.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

We are actively looking for a CIO (Chief Investment Officer) or someone who can help us in our journey for fundraising as Bangladesh is going to be the next financial hub for the world. Also, we are looking for a CTO (Chief Technology Officer) who can help to build a better travel website. We are open to discussing the various options with the candidates who feel about joining us or helping us in our journey. If you think you are as excited as us please email me at [email protected].

Where can we go to learn more?

  • Website B2C
  • Website B2B
  • Facebook
  • Facebook Review (Our asset as you can see other OTA in our similar business kept their Facebook or other review closed where we never closed it because we know what we do and how we do it. This is our strength of trust and motivation to work more)

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!

-  
SALMAN BIN RASHID SHAH SAYEEM   Founder of Flight Expert Bangladesh
Pat Walls,  Founder of Starter Story

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