SION was set up to help travel agents track and manage their commission payments. Its co-founder and CEO Irving Betesh previously founded IBC Private, a travel agency focused on luxury travel.
SION officially launched in May but has decided to provide the service free of charge during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Describe both the business and technology aspects of your startup.
SION solves a fundamental problem that has existed for travel agents/advisors for too long: at-a-glance real-time transparency into commissions earned.
Developed by travel agents for travel agents, SION is a robust SaaS platform with a simple, intuitive interface.
Through API integrations with the biggest GDSs in the industry, it allows agents to automatically generate invoices for bookings and to track the payment and receivable status throughout the life of that invoice.
Using SION’s platform, for the first time an agent can have a clear picture of and manage their earnings.
What inspired you to create this company?
One of SION’s co-founders, Irving Betesh, started his own luxury travel agency in 2012 and quickly discovered how difficult it was to track and manage his commissions.
The process, further complicated because of the relationship between the common set-up in the agency world of independent contractors and host agencies, led Betesh to believe there had to be a better way. The concept of SION was born out of Betesh’s personal frustrations.
Give us your SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis of the company.
- Strengths: SION is really the only platform of its kind. Most other solutions are part of larger agency management or CRM solutions, bogged down by features the agent doesn’t really ever need or want to use. SION’s power is in its simplicity and its user experience. Everything is clean, streamlined, and intuitive. People have often compared us to the simplicity of Google’s UI.
- Weaknesses: SION serves a large and fragmented audience. In the U.S. alone, the number of travel advisors in 2018 grew to 258,925, up 3.7% from the year before. It’s estimated that 70% of these agents are independent contractors, meaning they work for themselves, and whether they’re in-house or independent, some travel agents work part-time. SION’s solution works for travel advisors worldwide. This is to say that we will need to do a lot of smart marketing to effectively reach our total addressable market.
- Opportunities: The total size of our market also presents us with a huge opportunity. And with a subscription-based business model, we feel confident that once an agent tries our platform, they will not want to leave it so readily. It’s just too easy and too powerful to abandon.
- Threats: Right now, our biggest threat is the global pandemic that has brought travel to a standstill. We see the pandemic as part of our opportunity, however. We believe that as people begin to want to travel again, they are even more likely to turn to travel agents – their trusted advisors – to help them navigate what’s safe and appropriate for their families and their travel needs.
What are the travel pain points you are trying to alleviate from both the customer and the industry perspective?
We are a B2B solution. For travel agents, knowing when they’re going to get paid what they’re owed – or even how much they’re still owed and from whom – is a huge win.
All businesses need to understand their cash flow and their days of receivables to operate, and yet the travel advisory business has never had an easy or fully-transparent way to know this.
At SION, we’ve created a solution that reduces stress for agencies and advisors, improves their operational efficiencies, and can actually go a long way towards improving relationships between suppliers and advisors. With a solution like SION’s in place, everyone wins.
So you've got the product, now how will you get lots of customers?
This is the multimillion dollar question. For starters, due to the challenge created by the pandemic, SION has decided to give new subscribers use of its platform for free. We believe that once advisors see how powerful SION is, they will not only stay on the platform but inform other advisors. For as large of a market the travel advisor space is, it’s still a very small, word-of-mouth referral world.
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CEO Irving Betesh’s own personal network within the travel agency world strongly attests to this fact and will be utilized to help open doors. We are developing strategic partnerships and alliances with travel consortia and host agencies, which would help us reach their ICs as well, and we have joined or participated in events with relevant travel agency associations. We will also be deploying social media and content marketing strategies.
Tell us what process you've gone through to establish a genuine need for your company and the size of the addressable market.
Initially, we built a prototype platform, primarily for Irving’s own travel agency to use. After it helped him realize $25,000 in unreconciled commissions, he knew he might be onto something.
The early SION team then conducted extensive research with Irving’s travel industry contacts and colleagues to understand their needs and interest in a solution like this.
We also subscribed to research services to obtain market sizing data. SION identified and conducted deep dives into potential competitors and existing technologies being used in any capacity related to managing travel agent commissions.
During its time at the Virtuoso Travel Incubator, SION was able to access additional industry information and contacts to help validate its research.
How and when will you make money?
Our original intention was to start charging for our subscription upon our official launch, which we just did in May 2020. We are not certain now when we will begin charging, but our revenues will come from individual subscriptions, agency subscriptions, enterprise contracts with larger entities and TMCs, custom platform adaptations, and licensing.
What are the backgrounds and previous achievements of the founding team, and why do you have what it takes to succeed with this business?
Co-Founder and CEO Irving Betesh is a two-time entrepreneur. His first company, IBC Private, is a multi-million-dollar travel agency and advisory service focused on luxury travel and personal concierge services. SION is his second.
Prior to founding IBC Private, Betesh was a sales account executive, managing a sales division of a multimillion-dollar company and hunting/closing enterprise-level accounts.
Co-Founder and COO Alfons Musry has been an entrepreneur since age 16, when he founded a summer surf camp which he grew and ran for six years.
Prior to SION, Musry co-founded a furniture business and closed a half-million dollars of business in its first three months. Musry’s entire career has been in conceiving and selling product concepts at the enterprise level.
Both Betesh and Musry are the rare combination of big idea people who have the expertise to make big rain right out of the gate.
What’s been the most difficult part of founding the business so far?
Staying on track with our goal and true to our vision. We are always being pulled in tons of different directions from our users or potential users. It’s an ongoing challenge to be able to sift through what fits or works for our vision and the market, then to know what to say no to. And, of course, then we have to tell those people no, which isn’t always easy.
Generally, travel startups face a fairly tough time making an impact – so why are you going to be one of lucky ones?
Because long before we created SION, travel advisors needed a solution like it. We’re told that our customers have felt this problem has been ignored for too long. We get thanked daily by our users for creating such an easy tool to use. We know there’s a need. We know we have a great product. We know how to sell and how to sell it. We just need to have the entire world of travel advisors know about SION!
What question might we have missed…...?
Travel is one big supply chain business. You haven’t asked about how, up until now, in our portion of the chain, too much focus has been on the symptom and not the root cause. That is to say that tracking, managing, and collecting commissions has been a very difficult pain for agents, but to-date the entire system hasn’t made it any easier.
There are multiple layers between the supplier and the agent due the commission, and processes and technologies that have lacked transparency, are antiquated or just too clunky to work well. At SION, we have tried to detangle the complexity and reduce the obvious points of friction to bring clarity, simplicity, and control to the end user. This is an industry with big legacy systems and which as a whole is reluctant to change.
SION has created a solution that can work within those constraints but which brings a fresh easy way of solving for the entrenched problem.
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