Founders often don’t want to talk about their failures, but Hai Ho, co-founder of Triip.me, is very open about how his travel startup, which was originally about linking up travelers with locals, was on the brink of being shut down in 2014 and 2016.
Local tours, local guides: Just enough to survive
Registered in Singapore and operating out of Ho Chi Minh City, Triip.me was founded in 2013, three years before Airbnb rolled out its Experiences division in 2016. Both offer unique encounters for travelers, particularly for those who want to go off the beaten path with knowledgeable locals. The tour guides on Triip’s platform are referred to as “creators,” as they each craft their own tours. The company’s mission is to change the way people travel worldwide, create jobs for local people, and help cities preserve local cultures.
Triip’s team was hoping to grow its localized tours for a long time. But things did not turn out as planned. In 2014, despite having a presence in ten countries and listing 300 experiences, the startup was running out of cash, with GMV only reaching USD 20,000 that year. Hai Ho had to sell his only house to bootstrap the venture.
Even after Gobi Partners backed the startup in 2016 with USD 500,000, the company spent a large chunk of the investment on digital marketing, but Triip’s focus on offering localized tours still did not take off. The numbers just did not add up.
“The competition in this travel industry is just absolutely fierce, especially for small guys like us, as most will eventually die after burning investors’ money on marketing efforts,” Hai Ho said during an interview with KrASIA in Hanoi.
The painful experiences of burning cash on Google and Facebook ads turned Hai Ho and Triip’s team to a new mission: They wanted to challenge tech giants by tapping personal data in tourism using blockchain technology.
It is an ambitious idea that confounds even some tech enthusiasts.
In essence, Triip wants to build a marketplace where users can get paid if they choose to share data about their trips, their travel preferences, and in turn support hotels, restaurants, and other service providers in mining new tourism insights and data for targeted advertising without having to rely solely on SEO marketing.
Pivoting to blockchain to pay users for data
Hai Ho has extensive experience in developing tech products, with previous stints at firms building payment gateways, wearable hardware, as well as community apps. The team also has Kent Nguyen, a former head engineer for Grab Vietnam, as their CTO.
The startup took two years, from 2017 to 2019, to research applications of blockchain technology in tourism, and then officially relaunched its app this year. While the app still offers localized tours guided by normal folks around the world, one of the breakthrough additions is TriipMiles, which can be allocated to users for sharing details about their upcoming travel plans—such as their destinations, hotel bookings, and other preferences—and in exchange users can use TriipMiles to offset the cost of bookings made using the platform.
Third-party service providers that partner with Triip can also use TriipMiles to buy the data directly from users, and then use that data and other insights for targeted advertising. TriipMiles is different from normal rewards or loyalty points because, according to Ho, the whole process is facilitated by blockchain technology, which means pieces of user data are spread throughout a network of devices, ensuring the security of the details that users share with the company.
To do this, Triip moves “consumer data out of the hands of technology mega corporations and gives it back to the client,” according to a white paper written by the Triip team to explain the concept.
“With the blockchain infrastructure that we are using, data of users can only be unlocked and sold to third-party service providers through smart contracts that even our coders cannot change,” Ho explained. “The whole idea is that we no longer just focus on the local tours but offers a marketplace, facilitated by our technology, for all stakeholders in the industry.”
Triip aspires to build a marketplace or portal for travelers to locate and purchase travel services, and also receive benefits for sharing their data. Travel firms can also have direct access to travelers’ data, but only if permitted by users. They can also sell add-on travel services in this marketplace to Triip’s community of users.
Ho said Triip is the first B2B2C blockchain travel startup in Asia, possibly the world. And the business model, in its current form, can be extended to other tourism-related areas such as like F&B, shopping, and entertainment.
According to Ho, the new app has attracted 122,000 downloads and the startup aims to reach the benchmark of having 1 million users soon. The platform maintains a network of 6,000 tour guides and users from 133 countries. Triip also recently bagged USD 500,000 in funding from a local investor to bolster its growth. Before relaunching the app, Ho said revenues from offering local tours and travel packages to exotic destinations already topped USD 1.4 million in 2018. He hopes that the TriipMiles feature will lure more users to the platform.
Notably, Triip has secured partnerships with important players in the travel industry such as Booking.com, Agoda, and cloud-based ticketing platform GlobalTix. Ho said this allows travelers to access all the inventory offered on these sites while racking up TriipMiles by sharing their user data if they choose to make bookings on the Triip platform.
For example, by integrating with Booking.com, Ho said with each reservation on Triip, Booking.com will share part of its commission with Triip. (Normally, Booking.com charges hotels about 20% for commission.) Triip will then disburse part of the commission back to partnering hotels and users in TriipMiles, or convert that to cash if requested.
The plan is also to build similar apps for other organizations that can also benefit from participating in this tourism marketplace. Triip also has partnerships with tourism authorities in Hoi An, Vietnam, and Catalonia, Spain, for sustainable tourism initiatives. The startup has pledged to contribute 1% of each booking made on Triip to a fund that supports sustainable tourism and environmental protection.
Ho admitted that some people might be skeptical about the application of blockchain in tourism, but he is confident that partnerships with reputable players in the industry can weather such skepticism. “The big players like Booking.com are awaiting to see what we can achieve with this technology,” Ho said. “Everything is still wide in the open.”
This article is part of KrASIA’s “Startup Stories” series, where the writers of KrASIA speak with founders of tech companies in South and Southeast Asia.