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21-year-old's travel start-up THE TARZAN WAY is going places

A LOT CAN HAPPEN OVER COFFEE. Conceived over cups of sizzling hot coffees at Cafe Coffee Day, The Tarzan Way was aimed to revamp the entire traveling experience with an idea to make it more streamlined and customer friendly. Celebrating the uniqueness of every traveler and recognizing their independent needs, it took a step forward by proffering authentic, immersive and personalized travel experience to globetrotters around the world. Started as a backpacking idea, TTW has moved on to the hostel phase and finally, working on experiential travel programmes and our AI-based personalized travel platform.

Starting from 1.75L to reaching a turnover of more than 50L has been one journey full of ups and downs. The Tarzan Way's founder Shikhar Chadha tells us that story. For surely, a lot can happen over coffee.

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Let me begin saying that I am your regular 21-year old, who keeps getting different and crazy ideas every day.

I, along with with my friends (disclaimer, all of them have left now, started this venture when I was 19. We had this vision and we wanted to see that materialize. But what we didn’t know was the amount of hard work it demanded. This is the second makeover of this company. Started as a backpacking idea, we moved on to the hostel phase and finally, working on experiential travel programmes and our AI-based personalized travel platform.

A huge chunk of people believes that startups are based on ideas. However, on the contrary, I feel startups are based on journeys, rapid problem solving, quick adaptation, and a strong vision. Somehow our journey gave us our idea, the problems we saw in the travel industry and our longing to solve them.

Starting from 1.75L to reaching a turnover of more than 50L has been one journey full of ups and downs. In that journey, we have crossed several milestones, faced several problems, gained loads of experience but in the end, I can say that it has been completely worth it so far.

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THE BEGINNING

Over a sizzling cup of hot coffee at CCD, our idea was conceived, where a friend mentioned about experiential travel. Soon, two more friends joined in, and rather than going with the original, idea we took a small loan and started The Tarzan House, our backpacking homestay, and we did not know what was ahead of us since we started quickly without planning the challenges ahead.

Having hosted 1,000+ travelers, from 2016 to 2017, we had a lot of fun. We started enjoying our journey with travelers across the world. The Tarzan House was a lot like a home; we slept on mattresses, there were power cuts, we used to live like a family. It was a small space for 40 people and there have been people from 80 different nations as a part of our family.

Sooner or later, we saw loads of problems which travelers faced, like one boxer from Australia. The moment he entered India, he was cheated, he was duped and he got INR 1 as an exchange rate for a dollar; Another one, where a couple was convinced to pay INR 20,000 for a cab ride from Delhi to Agra. There were many other stories, stories where we felt that somehow travelers were not exploring the culture, and the travel packages they got were outdated and way too expensive. We realized we needed to change the system itself.

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CRISIS TIME

Unfortunately, we closed down The Tarzan House by the end of 2017, since we were spending a large amount of our time in the logistics and operations of the homestay. Moreover, two of the partners and 4 interns had also left the startup. Though we were sort of content that they left since we (Aryen, my co-founder and I) were more comfortable with each other. To add a depressing icing on the cake, we were not returned any amount from the landlords or the brokers and we were stranded with a loan of INR 1,75,000. Yet, we did not lose hope and on the contrary, my co-founder Aryen dropped out of college as well. Then we started meeting at CCD every day for the coming 5 months, spending 10-12 hours at the coffee shop and the remaining hours at each other's place.

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THE RESURGENCE

We pivoted the homestay idea since we felt it was not scalable without huge capital, be it a loan. Finally, we decided to go ahead and start with experiential travel programs, something like "Life of a Villager", where a traveler gets to experience the lifestyle of a local village community or "Volunteer and Travel", where a traveller can volunteer along with local NGOs and schools.

We even built our first design for an AI-based app where travelers can get tailor-made travel plans, bookings, and 24/7 live concierge with 100% transparency and flexibility.

We were offered small funding of INR 25L for the homestay idea, but we rejected the same since we were confident we can build our product on our own. Imagine two 20-year-old guys, with a loan of almost INR 2L, it was a highly stressful time, but we stayed because we believed in our vision and we believed in each other.

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THE INCEPTION

We started by selling the remaining assets we had from The Tarzan House; We even started giving some home tuitions to earn money, and we started launching our first experience Social Travel: North India on our portal which luckily got a decent response.

We further went ahead with launching more experiences and shifted from CCD to our new office in Punjabi Bagh West, with a space of 15 people. We hired a few interns, a few left on the first day as well, but some remained.

Soon there was a new struggle to find a CTO (Chief Technical Officer) for The Tarzan Way, and after 8-10 failed meetings we were able to find Shivaank, who believed in our vision, connected with us and we immediately knew he was the right person. All three of us used to live in the office and work there as well. A lot of times, we used to sleep at 5 am and we had to wake up at 7am since it was an office for the interns.

It was a beautiful journey, and things were going great; We cleared out all loans on us, and we achieved a turnover of more than Rs 20 lakhs. Soon we shifted to a bigger office space in Noida, with space for at least 20 people. And soon some problems started to arise.

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THE BREAK-UP PHASE

My co-founder, who I had been living and working together with for the past 2-2.5 years started facing some personal problems, and due to depression, he had to step down as the COO of The Tarzan Way. I've not yet expressed it to him, but those 2 months were completely devastating for me since at some point he stopped responding to our messages and calls as well. He was one of my best friends, and this sudden development hit me really hard. Those few months were a disaster, things took a 180 degree turn for us and soon, the interns left as well. A lot of times in the day, I was alone in the day (since Shivaank was also working elsewhere), and I used to sit in front of my screen, thinking about the old days.

I was really unsure about myself, and I couldn't even express it to Shivaank since I did not want to bring down his energy as well. Finally, I went to Chandigarh with Shivaank to meet our advisor, who was not aware of the situation and he told me to immediately start building a team. Both of us went home and had a long three- hour discussion, after which we decided to move on.

I started meeting new people, showcasing our plan to many, and finally, I was able to cut down to four people who became a part of TTW's core team. Together we started focusing a lot on earning revenue since the last few months hit us hard financially.

Within three months, we finally reached a decent position by creating experiential travel programs for colleges, startups, women communities, LGBTQIA communities and so on. Currently, we're a team of 70 people, with the majority working to build the first phase of our product, and the others focusing on handling the current clients through our manual processes.

Since then, things have been amazing and The Tarzan Way is growing like never before. Our platform will be launched by April 2020 and together we aim to leave our dent in the travel industry by empowering travelers from around the world, by offering transparency and flexibility and working with small local communities around the country to ensure they've apt amount of employment opportunities.

This has been a rollercoaster journey so far, and from a point where we had no money, and we were giving home tuitions to cover up a loan of almost 2L, to reaching a point where our valuation has crossed more than 1cr, from a point where we were 2 guys with just a couple of ideas, to a point where a team of 70 is working and executing those ideas, I feel proud of our vision and this venture.

There is plenty more to achieve, and I look forward to the successes and failures, ahead.

chaayam_poster

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How did the idea of a travel startup take shape, especially when the sector is packed with multiple players? What were you offering different?

Whenever we think about travel, we don't have a favourite company in our minds. As a matter of fact, most of the users go with the cheapest they can find. The lack of trust in the industry has been due to a lack of transparency, unique experiences and personalization in the industry. Most of the websites are offering information, but nowadays there's so much information that is difficult for a traveler to process. All in all, we focus on the customer journey, by curating and personalizing options for the user and offering 100% transparency. We are trying to empower the traveler, as well as the local communities from around the country to fulfill our vision of innovating and simplifying travel.

How tough were the early days, especially with no brand name whatsoever?

Well, the early days have been tough and I'm pretty sure for every little success, we have faced 15 major failures. At some point, my friends as well as family used to take this startup as a joke, and I felt so heartbroken because of the same. Luckily, I had my co-founder to share the pain with me, and we could empathize, talk, plan and dream together. Moreover, I could see my growth as well as TTW's growth, whether slow or fast, I could see that we were making progress, and that was enough to keep me going.

How do you tie up with your hosts in villages and other rural areas? Also, how do you make sure the hosting place is safe and secure?

Initially, we personally went to a few places and collaborated with them. The plan is not just working on the root level with the hosts, but finding a specific community whose main focus is to empower the members of the community and then we collaborated accordingly. There are a lot of referrals and majorly works through personal contacts even till now. To give you an example, there's a community called Pahadi Society with the main focus to stop migration in the village, so we tied up with them with opportunities in tourism. Over the years, we've created a three-step process to make sure that the hosting place is safe and secure. First, we build upon the idea with the community's representative through Skype Calls, which is followed by an extensive process of creating an experiential travel program. Finally, we send a coordinator from our team to ensure everything is going properly.

What are the facilities The Tarzan Way offers now?

Currently, our platform offers a user to either select from our curated experiential travel programs, whether living like a villager or learning the traditional handicraft of a place, or the user can either personalize one of these experiences or create an experience from scratch by answering a few questions to get a tailor-made travel plan, all the bookings and 24/7 live concierge while he or she is traveling. We offer such detailed travel plans that the user can travel himself/herself. The best part is that there is 100% transparency and flexibility, i.e. the user knows exactly what he/she is paying for and we charge a small service fee starting from INR 200/-.

You are set to launch another platform in April 2020. What are the plans?

We're building an AI-based platform, through which we understand the users, their preferences, and we try to offer them tailor-made recommendations. Our platform will be highly flexible and personalized according to the user, starting from the home page. Users can either choose from our experiences, which we'll be aggregating in collaboration with local communities, travel companies, and individuals, or create a travel experience. Once the user fills the questionnaire, we'd offer a highly personalized travel plan in a second and the user can do all the bookings in one click. We'd make sure there is transparency in each case whether the user chooses or creates any experience.

We're also building our app for users who'd take our experiences, with video guides as well as audio guides, powered by AI and VR, with a completely gamified model to understand the place they'd be visiting.

How does the payment work? Is it the Airbnb model?

Not exactly. We focus on the planning stage for the traveler, rather than the booking phase. We try to give highly personalized recommendations to users, be it someone who wants to live in a home-stay of a village, or someone who wants to live in a five-star hotel, be it, someone who loves adventure, be it someone who wants to go for shopping. We are a one-stop platform for the users, where they get tailor-made travel plans, all bookings (accommodations, transfers and activities) in a click and 24/7 live support while they travel. Our bookings tab allows the user to check how much they're spending on each booking, and they can add/cancel/edit the same. For this, we charge a nominal service fee, starting from INR 200/-.

Tell us about those habits of yours
which you are proud of?

Well, I'm not gonna romanticize my journey by saying 'I love to wake up early' or 'I do meditation and listen to audiobooks daily', but a few major habits which have really helped me throughout the journey are -

  • A problem-solving attitude - Everything was just a series of problems, whether waking up early, giving 100-hour workweeks, finding a developer, designing. I kept solving these problems. Google has been a major support and I learnt front-end development, designing, management, marketing, HR skills, and a lot more throughout this journey. Whenever there's a new problem, I exhaust all my resources, read loads of books and keep implementing side by side, which helps me grow and also helps The Tarzan Way grow.
  • Persistence - This is one-key habit which I had since the beginning; I don't like to stop in the middle due to so and so reasons, I like to keep doing something until I'm perfect at it, no matter what happens.
  • Finding happiness in little things. Well, this was something which was hard to learn, I started celebrating little successes, since there were so many failures, and that is something which kept me going.
  • Finally, one last habit which helped me a lot was taking everything, whether success or failure, in stride and moving on.

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