Rajnish Kumar, Ixigo
Ixigo CTO Rajnish Kumar co-founded the travel marketplace in
2007. The platform provides price comparison and booking for flights, hotels,
trains, buses and holiday packages. Ixigo now has 90 million app downloads
and 21 million monthly active users and is funded by Sequoia Capital India, Fosun
RZ Capital, MakeMyTrip Limited and others.
For our November theme, PhocusWire talks to technology heads
on the challenges of their roles and the rapid pace of change in travel
technology and distribution.
challenges have you had to address as Ixigo has grown from one million bookings
in 2008 to 110 million bookings this year?
We have gone through some very interesting technology and
consumer behavior shifts in the last 10 years, and at Ixigo we have been at the
forefront of iterating to solve for them.
The first big shift was mobile. In 2013, it was evident to
us that our future would be mobile, so we pivoted our entire thinking as a
company to mobile-first. We asked all our senior developers to learn Android or
iOS development and launched multiple apps in quick succession, two of which
have now become the market-leading apps for train travelers and flight bookers.
Our dual-app strategy has allowed us to be relevant to the most evolved Tier 1
travelers and the aspiring middle class and Tier 2, 3 and 4 travelers at the
The other big shift in thinking has been our bet on artificial
intelligence/machine learning and voice. We realized many years ago that as a
meta platform, our biggest advantage versus online travel agencies was our
product and tech intensity.
We took bold bets on building a research team that
worked on AI and data-driven predictive use cases such as train seat
availability prediction, flight fare prediction and automated seat selection.
Today these advanced algorithms and the millions of data points we feed into
them every day ensure that our users get better information for making buying
decisions than any of our competitors.
Lastly, and most importantly, we have realized the long-term
potential of the next billion users by taking a deeper bet than incumbents on
categories such as trains, where Ixigo is the market leader in terms of usage,
with millions of Indians from smaller towns relying on the Ixigo train app for all
sorts of information related to their journeys.
We invested in local language
capabilities and had to rethink the entire app strategy from the lens of
app size, whether it works offline and the simplicity of the design and user
experience so that even a 65-year-old user from a village can use our app. This
helps us build trust without spending millions on marketing, and then over time
many of these users start booking other products such as buses, hotels and
flights with us too.
In terms of technology stacks too, we have not remained
wedded for too long to any particular stack or database type or framework and
have been fairly versatile and iterative in trying out new stuff if it solves
the problem at hand better than the legacy implementation.
co-founder and CTO
And what about the
challenges of combining the price comparison service with the booking service?
Moving from a metasearch to a marketplace with
instant-booking capabilities on all our major flight booking partners was quite
challenging but necessary. The meta-redirection process is full of friction and
leads to large drop off since users have to fill in their passenger details
We innovated on this front and have had to built OTA-like
capabilities to manage itinerary failures, cached fare changes, payments, trip
management, cancellations, etc. We now even provide one level of automated
customer support. With every OTA partner or airline partner, there has been
some custom development to enable a seamless booking experience without
becoming a merchant of record. This means months of development effort for each
With Ixigo Money, our loyalty program across all our OTA
partners, we have become the world’s first meta-book with a loyalty program on
top. We have had to go two levels deep with our partners, first to enable
meta-book and then to allow our users to use their Ixigo Money credits to get
an instant discount on their next booking. This was even harder to implement
since it essentially meant that our OTA partners accept Ixigo Money as a virtual
currency for part payment of the ticket, and it needed major custom development
effort at their end.
How has India’s
booming tech startup scene impacted Ixigo and your ability to attract talent?
Well, because of the startup boom, the quality of talent and
experience available in India has definitely improved, but of course tech
talent has become much more expensive. Hiring is never easy, anywhere in the
At Ixigo, attracting the best talent has never been a problem, since we
have one of the best cultures in the Indian startup ecosystem, and we believe
that the best people don’t work only for the money.
We have created an
environment where freedom and flexibility is maintained and it’s OK to fail
once in a while. This has allowed our “Ixi-gems” to be more proactive, take
more ownership and come up with creative solutions to problems. We have been
extremely selective at hiring, interviewing 50 candidates for every one we
hire, but that’s also one of the reasons folks work with us. Who doesn’t like working
with the smartest people?
What single bit of
advice would you give an experienced technologist from another sector
considering a move into travel?
It’s going to be hard - but hard is fun!
Travel is one of the few sectors where all data and information
flows in real-time from supply to consumer, with time-sensitive delivery of
information and transactions. There is very little room for failure or delays
since they invariably lead to negative customer experience. I can wait for an
hour for my e-commerce delivery, but I am unlikely to wait more than 15 seconds
for the ticket to be generated once I have paid.
Everyone talks about personalization, but no one has done anything meaningful on it.
Consumer expectations on
speed, reliability and accuracy are very, very high, and the margin for error
for a product manager or developer on your team will be very low. In addition
to that, there will be several third-party outages, slow response times and
business logics that will impact your user experience, and you have to handle
all that in real-time. Building robust systems that can handle millions of
events per second is also very challenging. We handle hundreds of millions of
events every single day at Ixigo.
Finally, there are very hard user experience problems to
crack. When you think of hotel bookings for example, you need to constantly
keep experimenting with new ideas to improve UX, and yet even now no one seems
to have cracked the problem of plenty in an elegant manner yet. Travel is
definitely a domain that will keep you on your toes, and there are still tons
of obvious and unsolved problems staring at you in your face every day.
technologies do you think will have the biggest impact on your business in the
We think AI, voice and virtual reality will have a massive
impact on the travel industry.
For the next billion internet users in India, we are certain
that they will not use keyboards but use voice as their primary user interface.
Are travel companies prepared? No!
We demoed TARA, our AI-based voice assistant
for travel at last year’s Launch at Phocuswright and were runners-up. Now we
are building TARA in local Indian languages and expect to take it live next
year across Hindi and English. TARA already handles 75% of our customer
interactions on email and chat independently and has deep learning capabilities.
Google Assistant, Alexa and Siri will help make voice mainstream.
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If you think about the inspiration and research phase, VR
can let you sample and be at a place before you actually choose to go there. In
the foreseeable future, when VR becomes mainstream, travel can get massively
disrupted with it.
Everyone talks about personalization, but no one has done
anything meaningful on it. We expect personalization to be a lot better on OTAs
and metas within the next three years. We’re on it!
If you could talk
to travel tech vendors, what is one thing you’d want to tell them?
Stop sending spam, do more research before reaching out to
your prospects and build a better understanding of where technology is headed
What are the
greatest challenges of your role?
Hiring great engineers and product/design-thinking folks.
Balancing the daily hustle and chaos with the really deep long-term bets we are
taking. Keeping teams aligned and focused on the most critical priorities at
all times. Did I say hiring?
What's your view
on big consumer brands (Apple, Amazon, Facebook) and their impact on travel
The large consumer brands have massive reach and are sitting
on a lot of data about user behavior. That gives them a massive advantage for any
service they choose to sell.
However, travel-focused brands have built trust over the
years and have developed very deep insights into traveler behavior, from
research to planning to buying and experiencing, which gives them some
advantage at least in the short term. We believe that the bigger consumer
brands currently play a great role for OTAs and metas for discovery and
customer acquisition, and we would be watching closely on how these roles and
relationships evolve over time.
Will there ever really
be a seamless traveler experience?
We are surely hoping that there will be, and TARA and other
such forms of AI-based assistants should play a huge role in it.
Do CIOs/CTOs in
travel companies now have the standing they should with the CEO? Do you see
those partnerships working effectively generally in the industry?
In new age online travel/mobile travel companies, the CTO
and CEO play an equally important role, and at Ixigo, being a co-founder as
well as CTO, we have a very effective and equitable partnership in shaping the
joint vision of our company.