How This Founder Built An 8 Figure Travel Startup In 2 Years

Published: November 21st, 2022
Ivan Saprov
Founder, Voyagu
from San Francisco, CA, USA
started August 2020
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Hi, My name is Ivan Saprov, CEO and founder of Voyagu, a San Francisco-based startup founded in August 2020. I have 10 years of experience in travel and tech.

Voyagu is a travel management platform, which I like to call “the Uber of trip booking.” It’s powered by self-developed machine learning-based technology with a new generation search engine for better, easier, more personalized travel booking.

Voyagu is a product for both travelers and travel agents. (You can think of it as a kind of “B2B2C” model.) On one side, it is offered to travelers for travel booking, planning, service, and support. On the other side, it is offered to professionals as a travel management platform with AI to back the work of travel advisors.

Our uniqueness is rooted in the fact that Voyagu is both a client-focused travel brand and a professional travel management platform rolled into a single product. We’re confident that this intersection of simplified travel tech and human travel expertise (plus the empathy and problem-solving that accompanies this expertise) is something that travelers want.

Voyagu has outstanding potential; we’re currently tripling our year-over-year growth and expecting to hit double-digit millions in gross revenue.

Have a vision, and define the purpose. It is so important to dream big and think of inspiring goals.

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

Growing up, I was always involved in technology and innovations. At the age of 12, I participated in building a website that had reviews for video games and movies, and we managed to sell it to a big gaming platform.

We were creating cool content and using SEO optimization, so we got into the top positions in search. Traffic was booming, and we became attractive to the advertisers and started to make money. That was my first online business experience. Getting more confidence in doing business, I had a small travel agency. Travel was very inspiring, and later, I joined a travel startup and gained more knowledge and insights about the industry.

In 2019, I attended an offline travel agent conference in New York. I saw numerous presentations about simple tools like CRM and calendars that were intended to automate workflows. It was then that I had the “aha” moment that ultimately led to Voyagu. I decided to invest in creating a modern travel management platform that would not only help travel advisors feel empowered to work faster and easier but also make the process smoother for travelers, too.

The platform significantly increases the quality of service while also reducing costs. It also provides two additional services that will have a huge impact on the industry.

The first is that travel suppliers will have the ability to offer new, exclusive deals to travelers thanks to a better, more customizable search engine. The second is that Voyagu facilitates easy entry into the travel advisor field, even if the person doesn’t have previous experience as a travel agent. There is a shortage of qualified travel workers right now, so this is an important tool to help close that gap.

My strong knowledge of technology and travel experience helped me shape the business vision and outline the product’s value proposition. I have been part of the travel industry since 2013 and have been building my travel expertise and network for many years. In the summer of 2020, I took ownership of the travel agency to pursue my belief in the launch of Voyagu as a tech-backed travel management platform.

The main principle of my philosophy is to use data and cross-check it with reality by speaking to real people (such as team members, clients, partners, suppliers, etc.). In my view, one doesn’t work without the other. Data is no good if you don’t have real-world experience to support it and vice versa. Once we had the idea for the platform, we moved to the MVP stage. We continued to collect data, meet with users to get feedback, and refine product development based on real-world usage.

The moment I became a founder, I reinvested the savings earned from my earlier business ventures and work into setting up a team. Our primary focus was building a strong engineering and product team to begin platform development. While this was happening, we invested additional resources into growing our sales team and digital marketing as we prepared to scale up the company for the launch.

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

Our product development process starts with an exchange of ideas coming from the management team and, of course, the product team. Once the idea passes screening, I get a relevant team together and initiate brainstorming for the identified problem, need, or collected insights and observations. The high-level concept brief goes to the design team for prototype development. Once complete, the design goes into testing. We test on prototypes because it is cheaper but gives us more or less the same insights. After a successful test, it goes to product development and we continue the cycle of testing, analytics, and refinement until we achieve our goal.

With Voyagu, our first design concept was done in three days. I am very familiar with the business and know the pains of travel advisors very well. Because of this, I knew which processes to automate and what kind of travel management platform would be a perfect “painkiller.”

We holed up in a rool with our head of engineering and the product design manager, and together we designed a multi-page web application. We showed the design to a couple of potential users and got positive feedback, so we started development. The first iteration was far from perfect, but it was more important to start MVP production as soon as possible so that we could get user feedback and refine the product more efficiently.

There were other areas of development, too. In our business, we are frequently doing patenting and registrations, but luckily these costs are not too high for our P&L.

Early website development:




Describe the process of launching the business.

There was a spark in launching the business. Quite traditionally, we did an assessment, developed a business model, and performed several preliminary calculations. As we were progressing, we collected more tangible information based on real data to redo our calculations and forecasts. It is very important not only to track the actual performance but to have the ability to measure it vs. the forecast. In addition, we were able to speak to our clients, which is a critical component of the launch process. We constantly request feedback to compare our forecast models with reality so that we can adjust as needed.

The same goes for the website. Our original website was nice to start with, but we did a new design based on actual performance data, and it is going to market now.

For the launch, it is critical to be brave. Don’t put the launch on hold; just do it. As Jeff Bezos said once, it’s better to have a poor product in production than an ideal product in prototypes and backlogs. Our philosophy is to launch as soon as possible and improve the product to be ideal on the go, based on real user experience and feedback.




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

Attracting customers is the most difficult task for any founder. There is good and bad news in it. All founders are struggling to get customers, and you need many stars to align. For example, the customer acquisition cost has to be lower than LTV. At the start, it is impossible to delegate this task, so the involvement of the founder in marketing is critical. The good news is that all founders are going through this, and you will not be alone. Study your competition and similar industries, do benchmarking, and don’t hesitate to seek advice.

For new client acquisition, we’ve been most successful by placing digital ads across all channels. This strategy is led by our performance marketing with strong, detailed analytics. The analysis “shapes” the flow of incoming leads to increase the conversion rate into sales opportunities and minimize the number of unqualified leads. It is done in a good, fact-based partnership with the travel advisor team to help understand actual performance and correct the deviation from the forecast.

My advice for founders is to use all possible channels with your target audiences! Experiment with different creative campaigns involving paid search, social media, PR, and SEO, and learn to calculate ROI. For example, there is a trend to advertise on Instagram, and we had big hopes there too, but after a few tests that cost us a couple of thousand dollars, we understood that we were not getting the target audience, so we stopped.

Remember, you have only one chance to make a first impression. Our travel advisors are doing a great job by providing amazing service from the first booking, and clients are coming back with repeat bookings. Because we have such high levels of client satisfaction, we’re not doing any additional retention activities right now. However, it’s part of our future plan to use predictive technology to find low-cost “secret deals” and use these as part of a proactive, personalized client engagement email marketing campaign.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

We are profitable and strengthening our financial discipline to effectively manage our costs and retain healthy margins as we scale up. In the travel industry, the average gross margin is less than 10%. With the help of technology, we are at least doubling our margins compared to the industry average.

In terms of operational priorities, we are focused on travel advisors and client service operations. Our business development team constantly works with suppliers to sign new contracts and expand travel inventory. We also devote considerable time and resources to support functions like ticketing and HR so that our travel advisors can do their jobs well and deliver a perfect client experience. This facilitates repeat booking and word-of-mouth referrals, so we get a big return for prioritizing these functions.

The current focus now is on the U.S. market’s premium travel segment. We are mainly booking and managing flights for our clients currently. In the future, we are considering expanding to new travel offers, such as hotels, tours, cruises, and new markets.

The inspiring numbers going forward are a triple-digit number of travel advisors and a couple of thousand clients with at least one repeat booking per year.

Long-term, we may consider going public.

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

It was a very hard step and a huge challenge to invest in new development during COVID, but I am glad I did it. To be honest, the lesson I learned is that I was probably too cautious and may have even lost a year.

A very good decision was to start building a stellar team from the beginning. Finding strong people and especially talented engineering resources takes time. I am happy to have our head of engineering. He is an absolute genius in ML with market-proven experience. Our product and the digital team are among the top-rated in Eastern Europe.

Despite being brutal for the travel industry, COVID gave us the ability to take some extra time to perfect our developments. The increasing post-COVID travel boom has helped us to launch the new product. It is a good time for the travel industry, and I am glad we have a head start going into it. It is a little reward for all the hard work we did to prepare for the launch.

I also learned how critical it is to define a smaller number of priorities to focus on. Our priorities are growth, client experience, and people.

We run a business with no BS attitude. No big presentations to impress or hide issues. Our culture is maximum efficiency, using facts to make decisions, taking responsibility, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes (just don’t make the same one twice!).

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

I am an analytical person, so Google Sheets is my personal favorite. Numbers never lie if you know how to calculate and read them.

For our team, our basic favorites are Google products (e.g., Docs, Sheets, and Calendars). For teams, we use simple task management tools such as Trello and Asana, and our platform gives us many tools for our work.

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

I prefer reading business books, reviews, and cases, but I get more inspiration from texts proven by time, so to speak. Among my favorite books is Art of War by Sun Tzu.
A famous quote from the book, “ Appear weak when you are strong, strong when you are weak,” is quite relevant for the startup. Startup companies have a lot of external pressure, and we have to be smart and strong to outplay existing established players while growing our business. We, as startups, are breaking industry stereotypes, creating technology, and developing innovative services and products.

Blue Ocean Strategy by Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne is another good read. From a more practical standpoint, I recommend Scaling Up by Verne Harnish. It is awesome with so many ready-to-use frameworks, tips on how to build a team, and guides for management.

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

Accept making mistakes and move on. As an ambitious person, I was probably focused on getting results more than understanding how we were doing it. There were mistakes, and my team was initially afraid to admit these mistakes. I pushed hard to kill this fear and be open to making mistakes, learning from them, and moving on, but not making the same mistake twice.

I often see a tendency not to go deeper. We all know about the importance of a root cause analysis. However, only a few have the guts and persistence to go deeper. Shallow answers give shallow results, wrong focus, and increase the risk of losing money.

Have a vision, and define the purpose. It is so important to dream big and think of inspiring goals. At some point, it feels like a mission impossible, but with your team, if you break it into milestones, enablers, and actions, you will be surprised at how clear the path becomes and how obvious the steps are to achieve your goals.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

We are strengthening our team with the following vacancies:

  • Head of data
  • Head of product
  • Senior retention manager
  • VP of Sales
  • Senior software engineers
  • VP of Operations

Where can we go to learn more?

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