We talked to Nithin Mathew, founder of Travalour about vacations and tours and this is what he said about it.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Nithin Mathew: This is a tough time. I live in Kerala, a southern state in India. While people here follow social distancing and mask-wearing, it is hard visiting my parents since my grandma who is over 90 lives with them. I visit them a lot less than pre covid times. Fortunately, none of my immediate family/ friends had serious trouble from COVID-19 so far.
Due to travel restrictions, I haven’t seen my fiancé since last March. She was working in Vietnam and since it is pretty much impossible for me to get a visit VISA to Vietnam at the moment, she recently moved back to Germany where she is from. We are trying to get VISA to visit her in Germany at the moment.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded Travalour.
Nithin Mathew: I completed my engineering studies from Singapore where I further worked for 4.5 years in the digital security field in an MNC before founding Travalour along with two friends.
The idea of Travalour was born during a road trip to Taman Negara in Malaysia during which we faced severe floods. We had to re-route and re-plan our journey which was a painful process. In the end, we had to travel about 600 kilometers further to a destination called Penang. If we had information about other nearby destinations and attractions, we could have spent lesser time on the road and more time exploring places and that is part of the problem Travalour is trying to solve.
How does Travalour innovate?
Nithin Mathew: Testing and iterating. We constantly look for what our users are doing in the app and the website. Are they using a feature? How are they using it? What is preventing them from using these functionalities that we think are super helpful but does not get that much attention?
Apart from the analytics from the app and website, we have super users who give feedback. They provide us highly useful perspectives that product teams miss. Our product team then quickly comes up with better solutions for this feedbacks.
Some of these analytics and feedbacks resulted in large pivots. For example, originally we planned to let users contribute all the contents but we learned that creating our contents helped us rank a lot better in google search. Similarly from another app of ours (TripPlanner), we noticed that a lot of people like planning trips. We incorporated trip planning functionalities in Travalour as well which is extensively used by the users of the Travalour app.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business and how are you coping?
Nithin Mathew: Being in the travel industry, and since we are a small startup founded by friends and family, we are one of the organizations which are hit hard by COVID-19. The pandemic has certainly derailed our plans and hit our revenues to the bottom but at the same time taught us to be frugal.
Since the beginning of the lockdown here, our team has been working from home and we realized that WFH works on a larger scale. This has in-turn lead us to rent a smaller space and let all of our staff work from home until the foreseeable future.
We also had to do a lot of cost-cutting, especially on the marketing until international travel picks up again. In the meantime, we prioritize content development. We already cover about 27 countries, mostly in Europe and Asia, providing information about places to explore in every destination in these countries. We are topping this number weekly when travel bans are lifted, we want our users to have access to even more attractions and destinations across the globe.
Did you have to make difficult choices and what are the lessons learned?
Nithin Mathew: We had to let go of some stuff which is always painful. The good thing was that we were able to give heads up a few months prior so that they had sufficient time to move to other endeavors.
The pandemic also opened to new ways of working and controlling costs which will certainly continue post-pandemic. When going get tough, we have to adapt.
What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Nithin Mathew: Zoom made the biggest impact. It is amazing how technology has grown in a manner that could entirely disrupt work culture. Our backend systems were also adapted to handle reporting efficiently. Everyone in the management team now has access to the key metrics anytime they need. Pre pandemic, weekly meetings used to take care of that. WFH also made a shift from 9 to 5 work culture as well. At the moment, work and home are intertwined so much so that we had to recognize the additional stress that comes when daily targets are set. There is a need for more time flexibility and in the past when daily targets were a thing for us, it has certainly changed to weekly targets. This helps our staff manage time efficiently while working and doing house chores at the same time.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Nithin Mathew: The travel segment has many major players. TripAdvisor is on top of the competitor’s list. The only way to stay in the game is to find the unique value we offer to our users and become the best in that uniqueness. We are getting there, two steps at a time.
Your final thoughts?
Nithin Mathew: Facing a global pandemic while working in a travel startup is challenging at its peak. But it is interestingly a period to learn a lot of new skills too. I learned to cook which I never would have otherwise. As a company, we learned to use our funds cleverly. We also found new work cultures. I believe the whole world will come out with new optimism and cleverer innovations past COVID-19.