My name is Olga Bortnikova and I’m the CEO and co-founder of YouTravel.me.
YouTravel.Me is an algorithm-powered online marketplace for booking multi-day small group adventure tours organized by vetted travel experts. It offers a wide range of experiences, from yoga retreats to safaris. Launched in Europe in 2018, YouTravel.Me is a global community of over 10,000 happy travelers and 3,700 travel experts offering 14,000 tours in over 130 countries around the world.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
My husband Ivan and I used to travel a lot and planned every trip on our own. But one of our vacations in China proved to be a disappointment: putting our trust in a tour operator, we bought a package tour and ran into many problems, from a 5-hour flight delay to the tour guide’s incompetence. After returning home, we decided to find a service with a more personalized approach to tours but discovered that there hasn’t been a good platform that could offer that.
Take small steps to reach your goal but don’t spend a lot of time preparing for the “big moment.” Move quickly, make decisions fast.
A charter flight, several buses, tired people, no feedback — we were amazed how little the organizers cared about the tourists. Nobody was concerned if the guests liked the trip, everybody was just working their part of an assembly line. The hotel was far from the city, and if we wanted to go anywhere, we had to pay extra and plan it all on our own. The group walking tours mostly took us to the souvenir shops. As a result, we had to come up with our itinerary and plan activities on the go.
So we learned that there’s a better way to do group travel — there are trips that are organized by travel experts, professional tour guides who assemble small groups for exciting trips anywhere in the world. However, there was no single aggregator for such trips, and we decided to create it on our own. We invested about $10,000 of our own money to set up YouTravel.me, spending it on on-site development and advertising.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
We built the first version of the platform in a very scrappy way. We used the tools that were available to us back then, beautiful photos that we found. We didn’t spend a lot of time, effort, or money on the product itself but that was good enough to get started and get our first sales. Once we were selling one tour a day, we made it our goal to dedicate more attention, energy, and resources to the product. That was the time when our CTO joined and helped us develop the platform further to appeal to a larger audience. But it took us some time to get to the automated process - we’ve been operating manually at first. For example, when someone needed to change or cancel their booking.
Describe the process of launching the business.
That’s a great question! Our original idea - the one that we initially launched - was very different from what it is now. When we first launched, we started to ask friends and mentors for feedback and shortly after realized that we were not in the right space and were on the wrong path.
Within the next four months, we completely changed our business model, changed our landing page, identified the problem that we were trying to solve, and that helped us get our first customers.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Using a healthy mix of paid, earned, and owned channels have been working well for us. Also, we’ve understood the importance of building a community early on and it’s been paying off. As of today, we have over 50,000 engaged followers across our social media channels. And we know that many of the new followers convert and become our customers in 2-3 months.
When it comes to performance marketing, we’re laser-focused on segmentation and through that, we’ve been able to achieve high conversion rates. We’re constantly testing and once we find a segment that is working, we scale it quickly.
Travel is very personal and for many people, it has an emotional connection. So, being able to inspire our followers and prospective customers with compelling visuals is very important to us. We’re always experimenting with various tools available through social media platforms - for example, Instagram Reels has been helping us grow our audience and keep our existing followers engaged.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We recently secured $1MM in funding from Starta VC with the help of co-investing platform Liqvest.com and participation from Mission Gate, Bas Godska, and others. We’re planning to use these funds to strengthen our position in the US market, increase gross merchandise value to $2.7 million per month by the end of 2021, and enhance technology on our platform.
Today, we have over 1,000 clients per month and we work with 4,500 travel experts from around the world. At the beginning of the year, our goal was to grow our travel expert base 10 times compared to last year, and so far we’ve already achieved 75% of that goal.
At YouTravel.me, we believe that the future of travel is about building more human connections and we facilitate these connections through small group travel experiences. What we offer our travelers are more than just a trip and a sightseeing experience - we allow them to create long-lasting friendships, share the joy of travel and explore the world with like-minded people who eventually become friends. We also believe that tours led by passionate travel experts, those who love what they do and are great at fostering communication and relationships within small groups, are where the future of travel is.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
A strong team is everything! It’s important to have team members who are on the same page and who are driven and passionate about the work they do. As a CEO, I’m responsible for hiring and I have learned that the better I do my job of bringing great talent on board, the better our company’s performance will be. To be honest, we learned this the hard way. One of the key members of our leadership team left after a few months in the job, and while it was frustrating and energy-consuming to fill his spot, we realized that it was a good thing as he wasn’t a good cultural fit for our team.
I’ve heard business advice that says “Hire slow and fire fast.” We’ve found it very helpful in our business and always follow it. In general, we have a rule of three strikes. For a new employee, the first month is usually challenging as they are trying to get used to the new team and their new role, so if something doesn’t go as planned, we give the benefit of the doubt and move forward. If the KPIs are not met during the following months, that becomes a concern. If the situation doesn’t improve and underperforming becomes a pattern, then we have an honest conversation with this person and, if necessary, we part ways. It’s very important to be honest with employees so that there’s a mutual understanding of the role, KPIs, and expectations.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We have a team that is spread across many countries, time zones, and continents, so finding tools that help us work together effectively is essential. Also, we’re a technology-first company so the use of advanced platforms to streamline our workload and communication is a big priority for us. It’s hard to list all of the tools that we work with, but here are a few that we use everyday.
For communication, we use Slack and Telegram messenger. Both allow for fast, clear communication and file exchange between teams and individuals. When it comes to project management, we’ve found Jira and Planfix to be helpful as well.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Reading is very important to me and I am excited to share a few book recommendations that helped me become a better leader and offered valuable business advice. For example, Great at Work by Morton Hansen and The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker are the books that made a difference in my career and approach to business.
I haven’t gotten into the podcast culture just yet and there isn’t one thing that I religiously read or listen to on a daily or weekly basis. However, depending on the situation, I read and listen to content that can help me address a specific issue and help me educate myself on a certain topic.
An invaluable resource that sometimes doesn’t get the credit it deserves is networking. Through conversations with people, you can look at a specific situation through a different lens, get insights and hear a different perspective. That has been of great help to me and opened up a lot of new doors and opportunities.
For travel-specific information, I love Marketplace Academy - it’s been instrumental to us.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Before launching a product, read the book “The Mom Test” by Rob Fitzpatrick. It’s important to understand the consumer’s needs first before you start selling your product to them. Always ask yourself what your customers think, what challenges are they facing? To get these insights, you must be in communication with your clients and use these insights to make more informed decisions on improving your product so you can cater to them in a more meaningful way.
Take small steps to reach your goal but don’t spend a lot of time preparing for the “big moment.” Move quickly, make decisions fast. Any mistake is a result of activity and moving forward. By adopting this mindset, you can learn not to be afraid of mistakes and that will help you go ahead and do things, without the fear of not making it right.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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