The insecurity of starting a company in the travel industry

matsonblogDo you remember how you felt the first time you ever flew in a plane? That sinking feeling when you first took off, unsure of what further sensations you should expect (and incessantly chewing gum because someone told you to)?

Most startup founders experience that feeling on an almost daily basis – whether it’s pitching to an investor, sitting in a boardroom at a big corporation, or hearing about another startup that could be competition.

The failure rate of startups has taken on mythical proportions, with most sources estimating around 90 percent across industries and closer to 96 percent in travel. A recent study by Harvard Business School professor Shikhar Ghosh found that 75 percent of venture-backed startups never return cash to investors, while 30 to 40 percent liquidate their assets at a loss.

The reality is that startups are “brutal,” as Emadri’s Chubi Nwagbara shares:

“Emotionally, the times alone can be brutal. Whether you are dealing with your product not being where it needs to be, your company not getting the user or investor traction, etc. You need to be ready for these tough emotional moments. Plural, because there are many of them.”

Doing a startup in travel can be even tougher. Legacy technology, a tight-knit business community and an operationally intensive industry make for a complicated landscape to navigate. This landscape is why you get a similar answer when you ask most travel startup founders for advice. They offer the not-so-cryptic recommendation: “Don’t do it.” Of course, tenacity is a quality of most entrepreneurs, so if this doesn’t faze you, you’re not alone.

Margin’s Tristan Mace, who is on his third startup after two in travel, laid out the three core sacrifices founders make “for creating a venture in arguably the hardest industry”:

  1. Friendships
  2. Relationships
  3. Financial freedom

Trill’s Eric Shepard echoes these personal challenges, which are magnified by the structural challenges of the industry, saying:

“Running any startup you have tons of emotional, financial and professional insecurities –  but even more so in travel. Travel is one of the hardest sectors to succeed in. Especially for consumer travel platforms, which must spend billions of dollars to compete with the large players.”

In order to deal with the insecurity of founding a travel startup, focus on the following strategies. That way you stay sane while building a product you’re proud of – and that creates value for yourself, any investors, and your customers.

Focus on relationships

Relationships are a significant driver of business opportunity. As Shepard considers what advice to give aspiring travel founders, he points out that it’s the relationships that fuel a complete understanding of the opportunity:

“Do your research on the competitive landscape. Solve a real problem that multiple people or companies are having. Build the best and most relevant team you can for your startup.”

Once you’re building your product, don’t neglect existing relationships in favor of a myopic focus on your to-do list.

Will grabbing coffee with a former colleague move your business forward more than spending another 15 minutes on that mock-up or email? Maybe not. But getting some perspective – and reminding yourself that you’re human – has greater value beyond any business development opportunity.

Another pitfall is diving so deep into your project that you forget to develop relationships in the travel industry. Go to conferences, connect with colleagues, and be where the action is. Visibility is important, especially in a close-knit community like travel!

Focus on yourself

Physical and mental health have always been challenging for company founders. They’re generally the first things to go when time is tight. But when you don’t regenerate your energy, you’re far less likely to foster a creative mindset that reveals fresh takes on existing problems.

Remember that one of the key reasons for doing a startup, rather than building a similar approach within an existing company, is the ability to quickly implement new ideas. If the well is running dry, then the startup initiative flounders. You’ll end up without new ideas, and no energy to execute the ideas you already have.

Take it from a TED Talk by Wendy Suzuki, there are some real brain-changing benefits of exercise. Taking care of yourself keeps your mind sharp and your body strong. Your wellness is a fundamental fulcrum for being a successful startup founder.

Focus on the future

It’s easy to slip into catastrophic thinking. When things aren’t going exactly as planned, the imagination can run wild with worst case outcomes. Rather than dwell on the “what ifs,” focus on the future. Mace understands that keeping one eye trained on the horizon helps the other eye focus on what’s in front of it, recommending:

“Entrepreneurship is a process. Stay the course. Enjoy the good moments – and quickly pass the bad moments.”

When it comes to building a startup that lasts into the future, Chubi Nwagbara, Founder of Emadri, offers a reminder that insecurity is a fact of startup life, saying:

“There will be insecure moments, which are absolutely okay. It is a process, and there is no right or wrong. Embracing those moments is part of what helps us understand if we are startup founders or not, and if we can push through.”

Nwagbara also describes the professional insecurities that arise from choosing to risk it all on building a company that may or may not last.

“I went to a prestigious Ivy League school, so every day you see your friends and colleagues with new fancy titles at great companies, and you worry a lot about being left behind. Again, it tests your character and true desire to chase your dream. We must decide to either stay in, or jump out and join our friends.”

Like success, failure is human

While failure is painful, it’s commonplace. It’s part of our shared human experience. Everyone has their successes and their failures. What sets the successful founders apart, is that they’ve learned how to accept failure, process the pain, and eventually move on to the next project.

As Shepard reminds us, keep a positive mentality. The future is bright, no matter how dark today may seem!

“Surround yourself with positive people throughout your startup journey. Advisors, mentors, anyone you can to help you through the ride. The key is staying positive, hungry and thinking about all of the small wins you have accomplished.”

One comment

  1. Hey John great article I’m the founder of based in Austin found your article to be inspiring. Everyware provides two way text messaging solutions for travel companies. Are you in the new HQ in Dallas?

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