First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Mercedes Martínez: We are adapting to the situation. Following the very logical rules not to infect or get infected. Frustrated about Spanish politics and very proud of our health workers and the health system. Working hard to manage the economic crisis we are suffering and trying not to be scared as panic paralyzes, which is scarier than the virus itself.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded dothegap.
Mercedes Martínez: I was born in a little village in the Northwest of Spain. Even as a very small girl, I wanted to travel and interact with other cultures. At that time, the only way to enjoy a cultural exchange was paying for a training course abroad & a family to host you, which was not affordable for my family and not the experience I was looking for. So, I had to find other ways to enjoy these activities. Once I finished university, I started to work for multinationals, the last 10 years as E-Business Manager. I also become a mother of 2 wonderful girls, and, surprisingly, it was 2015, and I realized that the offer to live and exchange had not changed at all over the years from the time when I was a young girl. After 23 years working for big companies, I decided to quit, launch my startup, and fulfill this important gap in education: “normalizing cultural exchanges.”
We promote and participate in two of the Sustainable Development Goals outlined by the UN as part of its Agenda 2030. The SDG 4 “quality education” and SDG 10 “reducing inequality within and among nations.”
How does dothegap innovate?
Mercedes Martínez: We transform the cultural exchange into a real immersion in the other culture at no cost. Democratizing these activities will help us to build a plural and diverse society, promoting respect and understanding for all kinds of realities. Stereotypes and prejudices disappear when we have the opportunity to interact. We are not talking about being a tourist; we are talking about being a guest. The host will show you his/her culture and customs plus respect for his/her environment. Dothegap.com is the community to meet people worldwide, to organize your own cultural exchange when, where, and with whom you want to. No intermediaries. No extra cost. No limits. We promote sustainable and responsible travel.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Mercedes Martínez: First of all, we are disruptive as we introduce a new concept, “organize your own exchange for FREE in all kinds of disciplines,” so it needs time. Secondly, an exchange means “traveling,” which right now is something we cannot do. Consequently, we are growing slower than we would like to.
But, an exchange organized privately is not only a real immersion and a cheaper experience, because if you consider the sanitary measures, it is also safer than sharing spaces with a big group.
We are introducing our platform to education ministries, universities, students’ associations, and companies. As shown on our website, the sponsors help us fulfill this common objective of “democratizing cross-cultural activities.”
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Mercedes Martínez: We did not have to change our business model as we are building a digital community. It is not so relevant when our users travel to do the exchange as we do not charge any commission on the trip. The problem is to convince our users to register & launch an exchange proposal when they have in mind that they cannot travel. As I said before, we cannot be waiting to see what happens; we must go on. Why not become part of a digital community to meet people worldwide and start planning the next exchange for FREE?
My father was a farmer, and I learned that it does not matter if a storm ruins your harvest. The next day wakes up very early in the morning and sows again because those who sow will reap. And this is what I do every day.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Mercedes Martínez: Managing your own business is not easy at all; the ups & downs are quite strong, so to get a balance, I walk down the beach 7 km every day, very early in the morning. This is the best time to think and come up with new ideas, also to relativize whatever has happened. I also go to the gym 3 days per week to train in Aerocombat and Zumba, both sports directed by the trainer and loud music, quite good to stop thinking. Before I go to sleep, I love reading to avoid dreaming about my startup J. By now, you should know that I love traveling and that I am a very sociable person, but, right now, I cannot enjoy either of these two things.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Mercedes Martínez: My business and that of our competitors show some differences. It’s not only the focus but also how we manage the community. For the user, it is good to have different platforms to choose the one they like better. I know how to run my business and the quality of the service I want to give to my users, which was exactly the service I was looking for, and I never got.
Your final thoughts?
Mercedes Martínez: When I decided to quit a comfortable salary and risk everything to launch my startup, I did not know that it would be so difficult and gratifying at the same time. One month ago, we received an email from APESCI (Association of Spanish Teachers from Ivory Coast). Can you imagine? 3.000 teachers & 500.000 students of Spanish that have never had the opportunity to live an exchange. For them, Dothegap.com means the opportunity to do it. This is the reason why I wake up every morning thinking that I can do it, I can introduce this important change in education, and I will not be alone doing it.
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