Sevo Widodo tells us how Siliconbali uses the power of storytelling, technology, and immersive travel experiences to mobilize global participation towards the world’s most important topics and issues.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Sevo Widodo: My family is doing great back home in Indonesia; in fact, my parents just got vaccinated last week! This news gave me a little bit of relief, especially being far away from them, as I’m currently in Portugal to develop Siliconbali and unable to travel home.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Siliconbali.
Sevo Widodo: I am a cosmopolitan who has visited over +80 countries across five continents and lived in +10 of them, most recently being Portugal, Brazil, Canada, and Germany. I am a proud Indonesian.
Looking back at my journey, the most meaningful ones weren’t binge-travelling across countries and crossing off my bucket lists as a tourist. Rather it’s staying longer in each destination, immersing in new cultures, doing something meaningful, and contributing to what’s important for the local communities, being truly a part of a city and its way of life.
With a background of Innovation from Barclays Bank as an Entrepreneur in Residence and Adidas at the Global HQ, it’s now my mission to disrupt the unsustainable status-quo of the tourism industry with Siliconbali. My goal is to turn tourists into temporary citizens of a destination, just like how I experienced it myself, but to replicate it over millions of times so that we can truly be a driving force in the industry and the world as a whole.
How does Siliconbali innovate?
Sevo Widodo: Imagine helping Lebanese entrepreneurs rebuild Beirut after the blast, building solar panels to bring back electricity in the Brazilian Amazon, or mastering the century-old tradition of Portuguese pastries with a chef.
Siliconbali is a global marketplace for immersive experiences themed on the world’s most important topics and issues. We’re creating much more than a travel platform: a deep dive into ideas and issues shaping a particular destination by joining an activity that goes beyond tourism. Participate in global topics (like the East African FinTech World), choose one of 17 SDGs (such as the Zero Hunger project in Rio), or experience unique subcultures (like The World’s Largest Wave: The Rise of Portuguese Surfing Culture).
They are hosted by local experts, from artisans, entrepreneurs to organizations, not tourism providers. Each experience lasts an average of 2-3weeks, designed to fully immerse the travelers into the city, develop unique understanding and skills from the activity, and contribute back to the destination. Our startup aligns to SDG#17: Partnership for the goals by working directly with local communities to prioritize their visions and needs.
To summarize, we call our innovation ASAP: Which is As Sustainable as Possible, As Scalable as Possible, and As Soon as Possible.
– Sustainable because we’re creating travel interactions that not only take but also give.
– Scalable because we’re creating a tech-enabled marketplace, not an agency/ travel program.
– Soon because we’re the first one doing it. To turn tourists into temporary citizens at a global scale, not as a traditional travel agency.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Sevo Widodo: This was indeed the breakthrough for us to create this startup! At first, Siliconbali was born out of the market opportunity of post-pandemic travels, where travelers are going to demand longer, deeper, and more experiential travel experience, as well as my vision for more meaningful interactions in the tourism industry.
However, this all changed when the UNWTO awarded us two different awards in the last 4 months (check press release here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Ss5Rxpeud2P2Me46lsfjdnxMh2Hly_yDD5pQOiKUUzw/edit#). Out of +10,000 startups, we were chosen as the winner of the UN SDG Global Startup Competition, which is the world’s largest startup call aimed at projects accelerating global goals. After that, the founder, Sevo, was named the top 30 Global Innovator at the UNWTO Global Hospitality Challenge, which aimed to recognize entrepreneurs and projects who can restart tourism in a more conscious & sustainable way after the pandemic.
These achievements validated that the world urgently needs our solution, therefore giving our team a much bigger purpose than ourselves.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Sevo Widodo: Yes, we had to pivot to the current new business model and make changes in our team. It was hard because we’ve already developed great bonds & relationships with every single person in our team that went further beyond the project.
Changing the business model was actually the most difficult part because it meant that we had to kind of looked back at what we’re good at and focus on the essence, to pretty much redo everything from zero again. It’s like having a rebirth, which can be amazing, but it also means you have to build it again from scratch. We had to look for new partners & hosts and terminate some of the collaborations we’ve had in the past, as well as cancelling some future plans that were already previously set, like events, cross-marketing opportunities, and university activations.
The biggest lesson is that the world is constantly changing, and we have to always be ready for when the next pandemic or any major crisis hits all of us. We have to be ready to come up with a contingency plan and can’t always imagine the utopia. Right before the pandemic hit last February, we were a team of 13 people and just about to sign our lease to a new office space in the center of Lisbon (we thankfully didn’t :). At that moment, we thought everything was going great & smooth, until the following month when all activities were stopped.
We learned that the biggest challenge can be turned into the biggest opportunity as long as you have faith in it. We had to learn it the hard way, but thankfully it worked in our favor!
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Sevo Widodo: Our motivation came from within. But it changed when the UNWTO told us that the world urgently needs us for a more sustainable future; it gave us a new purpose that’s now bigger than ourselves.
Your final thoughts?
Sevo Widodo: We want to forever disrupt the way people travel, similarly to how fast fashion has been disrupted by sustainable clothing brands. People were moving from buying a lot of clothes from brands like Zara towards owning less but much higher quality pieces that will last longer.
For the travel industry, we’ve had the consumerism and mentality of traveling as much as possible and doing it as cheap as possible. But the pandemic reminds us that travel is now a privilege and that we shouldn’t take it for granted. Our mission is to shift consumer habits from taking less but much more meaningful and purposeful trips. This is our way to restart the tourism industry more sustainably.
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