How I Bootstrapped My Travel Gear Company To $20M In Annual Sales While Travelling The World
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Raj Mahal, and I am the founder of PlanMoreTrips, an AI travel app that finds the absolute cheapest prices on flights and hotels. Before PlanMoreTrips, I founded TRVL MORE, a travel gear company for backpackers. I bootstrapped TRVL MORE from $0 to $20,000,000 in annual sales, and it is now one the top sellers of travel accessories in the world!
I am obsessed with traveling, and all my previous companies have been in the travel space. I have flown over 2 million miles, lived in 7 countries, and traveled to 65+ countries as a digital nomad.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
In university, I majored in International Business and was fortunate to have completed 4 study-abroad programs in France, the United Kingdom, Mexico, and China.
Those amazing cultural experiences opened my eyes to the world and I wanted to travel more but as a broke college student, that was difficult. So after I graduated, I started learning about frequent flyer programs to figure out how to fly as cheaply as possible.
I graduated college in 2009, but unfortunately, that was the peak of the Great Recession and it took me over 1 year of searching until I finally landed an entry-level finance job at a Fortune 500 insurance company. While the job paid well, I quickly realized that Corporate America didn’t suit me, as my brain is just naturally wired for entrepreneurship. After a few years working for someone else, my 2012 New Year's Resolution was to start a side project that I enjoyed working on and hopefully turn into a full-time job.
With my deep knowledge of frequent flyer miles, I decided to start a travel blog called Frequent Flyer University, where I shared all my tips and tricks on how to earn frequent flyer miles so broke college kids like me could travel more. I initially started the blog to easily explain to my friends the step-by-step process to earn miles, and it slowly started to gain traction from there.
The great thing about starting a content company is that there was no overhead cost except my time, so within a few months of burning the midnight oil between my real job and my blog, I was approved to advertise affiliate links for Chase & American Express credit cards.
In 2012, those credit cards were offering huge 100,000 miles bonuses to new card members, so on my blog, I would write posts explaining how to leverage those 100,000 miles into amazing free trips around the world.
Based on my advice, people would sign up for those credit cards and I would get anywhere from $100-$500 per sign-up. By June 2012, less than 6 months after starting Frequent Flyer University, I was making more money per month than at my normal corporate job, so against the advice of everyone, I went out on a limb and quit to focus full-time on the blog.
I continued to grow the blog, and by the end of 2012, at the age of 24, I had around 30,000 readers a month and was making $30,000 a month with $0 overhead. Things were going well until Jan 1, 2013, when I got an unexpected email that the affiliate programs were downsizing, and just like that, 95% of my revenue dried up overnight.
I tried to continue blogging, but it was almost impossible to make money without affiliate revenue. Looking back, this was an important lesson in my entrepreneurial journey because I learned that you have to always be prepared for the unexpected.
After the affiliate money dried up, I took some time off to figure out what I wanted to do next. I was interested in working at a startup but, unfortunately, had zero technical skills. I started attending some Chicago startup meetups and by chance, I came across a coding boot camp called Starter League, where they promised to teach you the actual coding skills needed to build your own app.
I enrolled and by the end of the 9-month program, I had enough programming skills to start working on my next idea, a collaborative travel planning app called Tripsy.
Thanks to my earlier travel blog, which was still active, I was able to promote Tripsy and got some early traction and users. I also applied to the startup incubator, TechStars Chicago, and out of thousands of applicants, I was able to make it to the final round of 30 startups who got an in-person interview.
While the in-person interview went well, Chicago is a fairly conservative VC town, so TechStars Chicago passed on it. I saved the email as future motivation because I knew they were making a huge mistake.
We also applied to TechCrunch Pitchoff, and to our surprise, Tripsy was selected out of thousands of applicants to fly to Seattle and pitch our travel app in front of 1,000+ people and a panel of VCs.
We continued to make great traction with Tripsy and even signed a deal to integrate with SAP Concur, one of the largest business travel management companies in the world, but in spite of all of that, we eventually had to shut the app down because we couldn’t get any funding and ran out of money.
Closing Tripsy felt embarrassing and depressing, especially after spending a year on it and feeling like we were so close to getting funded. After paying for coding school and self-funding Tripsy, I was close to broke. Everyone told me to go get a full-time coding job at another startup but at that time, I didn’t really have the desire to get a job helping someone else build their app.
Even though I had less than $2,000 left in my bank account, I decided that before getting a real job working for someone else, I would go backpacking in Southeast Asia for 3 months until my money ran out.
If you are reading this and are lost or think you need a change, I strongly recommend going traveling by yourself. It is scary but has the power to change your life.
I booked a one-way ticket from Chicago to Hanoi, Vietnam, without plans or a guidebook. This was one of those hail-mary moments that made no sense at the time, but I knew deep inside that I had to do it or I would regret it all my life.
That experience of traveling for 3 months with basically no money was one of the most important lessons of my life because it taught me that money doesn’t make you happy. Even though I was sleeping on hostel bunkbeds for $5 a night, I still managed to have the best time of my life.
Once it clicked in my mind that money doesn’t actually make you happy, I realized it was far more important to focus on doing things I actually wanted to do even if they didn’t pay well, as opposed to only trying to make money and potentially be miserable.
By pure chance, towards the end of my 3-month backpacking trip, I was on a 2-day hike in Myanmar and met a 20-year-old Canadian guy who had an eCommerce startup. He had just arrived from China, where he had gone to prototype some new products for his business.
He told me about Alibaba.com and how easy it was to go to China, visit some factories, and start selling things online. I was blown away by this because I had never heard of anyone doing this before (remember, this is 2015).
During our 2 day hike, we chatted nonstop and randomly started talking about travel gear and how most of it is designed for hiking and not specifically for travel backpacking. During that 2 day hike, we sketched out the entire business model, including the name, product line, eventual expansion plans, etc.
We called the company TRVL MORE because that is exactly what we wanted to do, travel more. To this day, TRVL MORE is still following that basic plan sketched out during that 2-day conversation 8 years ago.
After my 3 months in Asia, I returned back to the US as a new person with a strong purpose of what I wanted to do, which was to inspire people to travel more.
Take us through designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
After returning to the US after my Asia trip, I hit the ground running and started my company, despite having literally no idea what I was doing.
The only thing I knew was that 3 months of traveling in Asia had given me a pretty good understanding of how current travel gear products could be improved for backpacking.
Initially, my big idea was to sell a backpacking bundle that had everything you needed for traveling. This bundle included a backpack, luggage locks, a travel adapter, a travel wallet, packing cubes, etc. The thinking was that if you were a new traveler, you wouldn’t have to do all the gear research because it would have done it for you and picked out the best stuff.
I immediately started researching products and ordering samples of different items from AliExpress and prepared for my launch. Even though the margins weren’t great from AliExpress, I knew the most important thing was trying to get some sales even if I broke even.
I also didn’t have many funds to play around with, so this also made me very methodical in what I spent money on because I literally couldn’t afford to make any mistakes.
Describe the process of launching the business.
I first made a Shopify store for TRVL MORE to prepare for the launch. Since I still had my travel blog, I again used that to test my travel bundle MVP by writing a post explaining my new company. Although I didn’t yet have my branded backpack, I drop-shipped some competitors' products to test market demand.
The day after posting about TRVL MORE on my blog, I woke up, and to my shock, I had done over $1,000 in sales! I thought I had hit the jackpot and that this was my big break, but as the days passed and the sales stopped, I realized that this initial success was just a lucky start from loyal blog readers supporting my endeavor.
I quickly realized that the real hard work was about to begin, as I would have to try and get sales from people who didn’t know me.
The most important lesson I can share from my entrepreneurial endeavors is to make sure you have a real plan to acquire customers BEFORE you launch because you can have a great product but still fail because you can’t get customers. After the initial launch of TRVL MORE, for 3 months, I tried to do SEO and run ads to drive traffic to the Shopify site, but it wasn’t cost-effective, and I had no revenue.
It looked like I would have to close the shop and get a real job, but by chance, someone suggested I look at how to sell on Amazon. At the time, it was still a bit complicated, but I started looking into it and began consuming every article and podcast on how to do FBA. I launched on Amazon in June 2015, but instead of selling all my items in a bundle, I listed all the items individually.
The Amazon sales started off slow because I had no reviews. I wasn’t sure what to do to stimulate sales but then I was reminded of my experience in UI/UX design, where we were taught to “think like a customer” to improve our products.
I noticed that all my competitors were only selling 1 pack of black luggage locks. From my backpacking experience, I knew that black color doesn’t really stand out on the baggage carousel. Also, most travelers have a carry-on bag and a checked bag, so, at a minimum, they would need 2 locks. If they were a couple, they would need 4 locks, and a family of four might need 8 locks.
With this insight from my travel experience, I re-packed the luggage locks and started selling them in 2 colors, black & bright orange color. I also started selling the locks in packs of 2, 4, and 8 locks. It is hard to believe, but those 2 small changes really resonated with customers and shot TRVL MORE to the top of Amazon for luggage locks.
By the end of the first 12 months, I was on track to hit $1,000,000 in sales!
While the business trajectory was looking great, I barely had any money, and financing the Amazon business was tough because there was a long lead time of 90 days (45 days for manufacturing & 45 days for boat shipping from China) before you could turn a profit. I started using credit card balance transfers to finance the business to get more liquidity.
It was extremely risky, but in my case, I knew that for every $1 that I “borrowed” to buy inventory, I would get $3 back in profit once I sold the items in 90 days. I kept doing that for a year until the orders got too big, and we switched to services like Kabbage and Amazon Lending to provide bridge financing.
While TRVL MORE was about inspiring other people to travel, it was also about me traveling more. So within 2 months of launching TRVL MORE, in June 2015, a Dutch friend I met while traveling in Asia invited me to live in Amsterdam for the summer. I still had no money or real idea if TRVL MORE would work out, but backpacking in Asia taught me to live in the moment, so I decided to risk it and move to Amsterdam. In my eyes, the worst-case scenario was that TRVL MORE failed, and I would have to return to Chicago and get a real job.
While I was in Amsterdam in the summer of 2015, I was working on TRVL MORE 7 days a week. I was so broke that I couldn’t even afford a co-working space, so I either worked from home or in cafes. I was selling frequent flyer miles to pay my rent.
If you currently have a real job, then my advice is to first start a side hustle or weekend business and learn the ropes while you have the safety net of your main job.
It was a grueling schedule, but by the end of 3 months in Amsterdam, sales were finally ticking up so much that I thought it was time to go to China to visit the world’s largest trade show called the Canton Fair.
Again without a real plan, I booked a one-way ticket to China. I lived at the Lazy Gaga Hostel in Guangzhou, China, for 1 month while I was visiting the Canton Fair, different factories, and potential backpack suppliers. It was one of the most challenging months of my life because I was alone in a foreign country where no one spoke English and was behind the Great Internet Firewall, which efficiently cut me off from the Western world.
However, by the end of 30 days in China, I had a working prototype of the travel daypack I wanted to sell, plus I had found some other travel items to sell. I also made some friends who I still talk with to this day.
By the end of 2015, it looked like the Amazon sales were finally semi-sustainable and we were on track for $1,000,000 in sales, so I decided to become a full-time digital nomad, and for the next 3 years, I continued to build TRVL MORE while I traveled around the world. During those 3 years, I visited 65 countries and lived on 6 continents, all while working full-time in hostels and cafes.
In the Summer of 2016, just 1 year after founding TRVL MORE, we launched the TRVL MORE Daypack on Kickstarter. We did zero advertising yet sold 3,000 bags and raised almost $50,000!
The backpack was a success, but the coolest thing was 1 year later, I was living in Sydney, Australia, and standing in line at a grocery store and saw a random stranger in line wearing my backpack!
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
The one thing that has given us the edge in attracting and retaining customers is our amazing customer service. We have a no questions asked lifetime warranty. If the product you order doesn’t work or breaks, we replace it free of charge. This has gotten us tons of 5-star reviews, which helps us sell more products.
We also have an extremely passionate base of users who love our products and share photos on social media.
Our primary marketing channel is Amazon ads, where we spend around $300,000 a year. The ads are highly effective because the Amazon customers who see the ads are looking to purchase travel accessories, so the ads convert like crazy. We have tried Google & Facebook ads with mixed results, so we primarily focus on the channels that work.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
I have stepped back from day-to-day operations at TRVL MORE, but our team is still continuing to grow the brand into “The North Face of Travel”. TRVL MORE has been profitable from day one and is 100% bootstrapped. Between TRVL MORE & its Dutch subsidiary, we do around $20,000,000 in sales a year.
Once TRVL MORE was stable and growing, I decided to relaunch my travel planning app Tripsy after a 6-year hiatus.
In 2019, we rebranded Tripsy as PlanMoreTrips, and after 1 year of re-coding the app, I moved to San Francisco and re-launched it in January 2020 on ProductHunt. We made the Top 10 for the day, which was a huge accomplishment but little did we know that January 2020 was going to be the worst time EVER to launch a new travel startup!
Just like with Tripsy, we had a strong launch and were gaining traction, but by early March 2020, things were looking ominous as countries were starting to close their borders due to covid.
Being a travel nerd, I noticed airfare prices starting to crash and was shocked that you could fly to Hawaii for $25. I sensed there might be an opportunity in the chaos to organize all these covid flight deals into an email newsletter for all the new covid remote workers. To test this idea, I made a meme and posted it on Reddit, where it went viral.
Even though PlanMoreTrips didn’t actually offer this newsletter service yet, based on the feedback from Reddit, I decided to create a landing page and started collecting emails to build the newsletter on the fly.
Within a few days, word started to spread about our covid flight deals newsletter, and it started getting picked up by the mainstream media. Then to my absolute surprise, my tiny little travel started PlanMoreTrips, which looked like it was about to die due to covid I GOT COVERED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES!
That New York Times coverage created a crazy viral loop that got even more free coverage in Fox News, Seattle Times, Reader’s Digest, and ABC. All that publicity allowed us to collect thousands of email addresses which led to us creating an actual cheap flights newsletter business for PlanMoreTrips. It is great because the free newsletter acts as a funnel to get customers for our main AI travel planning app.
The one important takeaway from this experience is that in business, you always have to be ready to adapt because the only thing constant is change. In the case of PlanMoreTrips, I had spent 1 year re-working the code, and then as soon as we re-launched in January 2020, covid hit, which meant people weren’t traveling anymore.
The easy choice would have been to give up and say it was impossible for a travel startup to survive in those conditions, but instead, we adapted on the fly and found the one thing people were interested in (cheap flights). By pivoting to that (even though we didn’t have a real product), we were able to get PlanMoreTrips worldwide press coverage that was truly priceless.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Starting a business is extremely hard. There are a lot of people on social media who make it look glamorous, but the truth is that it is an absolute grind with no certain path to success. However, as someone who has successfully launched 3 startups and failed countless earlier ones, I can say that the extreme challenge of trying to get something off the ground makes the process so rewarding.
Just know that as an entrepreneur, you are going to fail and hit walls; that is an absolute guarantee. Successful entrepreneurs are the ones who fail over and over again, learn from those mistakes and make the necessary changes, and then keep getting back up again until they succeed.
The other extremely important lesson that I try to tell every potential entrepreneur is that it is extremely difficult to sell stuff. 99% of people have never sold anything in their life so they come up with a business idea and spend thousands of dollars building it out, only to launch and realize they had no real sales strategy.
Many people think that their product or app is so great that it will go viral after launch, but that rarely happens. If you have an idea, first work on a sales strategy first and test it before building. Don’t think that after you launch, you will use SEO or Social Media Marketing to generate sales because that doesn’t always work.
The good news is that there are tons of amazing free entrepreneur resources like IndieHackers, ProductHunt, MAKE Book, and Entrepreneur Sub-Reddit. Lean on these free communities to help you and ask them questions because many people have been in your shoes and are happy to provide free guidance. These communities will help you avoid a lot of early mistakes.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Four-Hour Work Week - This was the first book I read that made me realize I was not alone in thinking that there was more to life outside of a corporate 9-5 job and that there were alternative paths to financial freedom.
How I Built This - Great podcast that shares stories from successful startup CEOs. The most important thing I realized is that every business starts from nothing, and all founders have the same self-doubts in their ideas at the beginning.
Diary Of A CEO - Similar to “How I Built This” but more in-depth.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
1) Go Travel By Yourself
It sounds super cliche, but honestly, it will change your life and outlook.
Most of us live in a bubble surrounded by family, friends, and societal pressures that cloud our true desires and dreams. This is why so many people are working in jobs they hate, in relationships they don’t like, and generally aren’t happy.
If you are reading this and are lost or think you need a change, I strongly recommend going traveling by yourself. It is scary but has the power to change your life.
2) Start Small & Don’t Go All In
In terms of entrepreneurship, many people think it is an all-or-nothing game and that to be a true entrepreneur, you have to quit your full-time job and start a business.
If you currently have a real job, my advice is to start a side hustle or weekend business and learn the ropes while you have the safety net of your main job. This approach gives you capital to invest in the new business, and if you make any mistakes, you won’t go out of business.
It also is a great way to see if you are truly committed to your new business. Are you willing to come home at night and work on it after a long day at your real job? Hopefully, by working on the side, you can grow it until you are at the point where you are making enough money to quit your real job.
3) Find Your Edge
There are an infinite number of ideas to work on, but if you want to stack the deck in your favor, then I recommend focusing on trying to solve a problem that already impacts you.
This could be an issue that annoys you at work, like “Why isn’t there a centralized place with real-time data from suppliers?” or an issue you notice in one of your hobbies, like “Why isn’t there a verified marketplace for vintage sewing machines?” It doesn’t really matter what the problem is. All that matters is that you have spent so much time on the subject or industry that you know way more about it than any normal person on the street.
This “information edge” makes you an expert and helps you develop a better product or service than your competitors because you know the exact pain point to solve.
In my case, I was an “expert” in frequent flyer miles, traveling, and backpacking gear. That allowed me to spot many issues in those industries that annoyed me and were fixable, like “Why isn’t there one place that easily explains how to use your frequent flyer miles?” or “Why are backpacks all designed for hiking and not traveling?”
The nice thing about “scratching your own itch” is that if you can solve your own problem, then more than likely, you can turn it into a paid business by solving that exact same problem for other people.
4) Just Do It
In the words of Nike, “Just Do It”. This means that there is no perfect time to do something. I think that procrastination usually stems out of fear of failure, so it is easier to keep pushing off your dreams until the perfect time. I’ve learned failure is part of the game and failed to start a business for 6 years until I was finally able to build TRVL MORE into a multi-million dollar business. Even with 15 years of experience under my belt, even now, I am still learning from my mistakes!
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are always looking to hire motivated people who love to travel and want to see the world. We care more about your drive than where you went to school or previous work experience. If you really want to work for us or intern, shoot me a DM on Twitter and explain how you can help us, and we will try to make a position for you.
Where can we go to learn more?
- Frequent Flyer University
- PlanMoreTrips Facebook
- PlanMoreTrips Twitter
- PlanMoreTrips TikTok
- TRVLMORE Facebook
- TRVLMORE Instagram
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
Get our 5-minute email newsletter packed with business ideas and money-making opportunities, backed by real-life case studies.
- 4,818 founder case studies
- Access to our founder directory
- Live events, courses and recordings
- 8,628 business ideas
- $1M in software savings