Bookaway offers ground transportation options for travelers in developing countries where content is fragmented and few suppliers have made their inventory available online.
During his honeymoon in the Philippines, founder and CEO Noam Toister had the idea for Bookaway after he became frustrated with the offline process for booking a bus to a local tourist destination. Founded last year, the Israel-based startup recently raised $1 million.
Describe both the business and technology aspects of your startup.
Bookaway is an online ground transportation booking service (bus, train, ferry) for travelers in developing countries. Unlike buses and trains in North America and Western Europe, ground transportation in the developing world is a fragmented market where 95% of inventory is sold offline, and the vast majority of suppliers have no digital presence. Bookaway’s technology supports any type of integration and makes it easy for small and medium size suppliers to go online, helping them scale and reach more customers around the world. Travelers use us to plan in advance with the confidence they will have a great travel experience. We operate in more than 20 countries around the world, and run more than 2000 different transportation lines.
What inspired you to create this company?
The idea behind Bookaway came to CEO and founder Noam Toister, while on honeymoon in the Philippines. Trying to book a route from Manila to a popular tourist destination, he realized there was no way to reserve his desired bus online. After missing the fully booked bus, he decided there needed to be a better way.
In an era where you can book a hotel and flight in minutes directly via mobile, it’s crazy that you need to go to a local agent to buy bus or train tickets. Bookaway solves this problem by bringing hundreds of offline suppliers online and making it easy for travelers to access them.
Give us your SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis of the company.
- Team: We have an experienced team with deep knowledge and experience in the travel space as well as in ecommerce.
- Content: We view transportation as more than getting from a to b - it’s an important part of the entire travel experience. So we provide superior content, including images, descriptions and reviews so that consumers know what they are actually getting when they book a ticket.
- Flexible: We know how to connect to any type of supplier, from the most tech savvy to “pen and paper” suppliers. Each market present different challenges and we’ve proven to adapt quickly and find solutions to any market.
- Data Driven: With boots on the ground and robust BI, we understand our customers and suppliers and make relevant and smart decisions.
- Because our market is mainly offline, we need to educate our suppliers and potential customers to go online.
- Due to the nature of our product, customers look for it when they are already in the country, during their trip, and often with a very short lead time (sometimes from today to today). Therefore providing a high level of service can be a challenge.
- Our technology is very ‘young’. Our minimum viable product was released three months ago with a small team. While we already see massive growth and great traction, there are still a lot of features and products that need to be developed and will boost our performance, as well as many marketing channels we have not yet utilized.
- We will deepen our relationships with local suppliers and help enhance their online capabilities.
- B2B channel: providing our inventory to partners (OTAs) that can distribute our product in their own channels (e.g. booking.com, Agoda, etc.)
- We are expanding quickly in many geographies worldwide.
- Transportation is the last untapped vertical in the travel industry. Industry giants such as Booking Holdings, Expedia and Ctrip might shift their focus to this segment.
- Our direct competitors can reach our suppliers before us and create barriers to enter the market.
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What are the travel pain points you are trying to alleviate from both the customer and the industry perspective?
Today travelers already book flights and accommodation online. While they would also prefer the comfort of booking ground transfers online and in advance - rather than spending time looking for a local agent and reliable information about the service - they are not able to do so in most of the developing world. This makes it difficult to plan a trip properly.
Furthermore, when travelers book a train or bus ticket, they may not know any details about the service. For example, does the bus have a toilet or wifi, and how many stops does it make en route? We provide a combination of pictures, descriptions, and reviews, so customers know exactly what they are getting.
Travel suppliers, on the other hand, are small to medium businesses, which often do not have online capabilities. When they work with Bookaway, they get a chance to scale, reaching thousands of new customers.
So you've got the product, now how will you get lots of customers?
In the past year we relied heavily on SEM, meaning reaching the users only during their booking stage. These days we are expanding our reach and aim to meet the traveler during the inspiration or research stages. We will do that by focusing on SEO and content marketing. In addition, we are making huge progress with our product, with new marketing features soon to come (invite a friend, loyalty). We are also excited about our upcoming new app release.
Tell us what process you've gone through to establish a genuine need for your company and the size of the addressable market.
We took two different approaches to answer this: Firstly, we collected all relevant data from previous studies done in this field. Secondly, we mapped all the relevant suppliers and then made estimations based on number of companies, routes, departure times and available seats per country. Take, for example, the city of Sapa, Vietnam, which is not accessible by air and receives around 2.7 visitors per year. We calculated that if we could grab 10% of market share just for this city alone, we are talking about $8.6M.
How and when will you make money?
We are already making money. We charge consumers directly and take our share before passing the payment to our suppliers. So far, hundreds of thousands of travelers have already enjoyed our services, and provided great reviews.
What are the backgrounds and previous achievements of the founding team, and why do you have what it takes to succeed with this business?
The team has deep knowledge in the travel space as well as a personal passion for travel. Noam Toister, our CEO, a seasoned startup founder, has worked in the ad tech space, and managed a large travel community in Israel. Our marketing and product heads were former VPs at Hotelbeds, the biggest wholesaler in the travel industry.
What's been the most difficult part of founding the business so far?
Scaling. In the beginning we advertised only 20 lines and we mastered these lines and knew every relevant detail about them. Once you start scaling, however, maintaining this type of knowledge becomes more challenging. Four months ago we re-organized our product and content teams to ensure each would be focused on a specific territory and maintain expertise on the suppliers in those countries.
Generally, travel startups face a fairly tough time making an impact - so why are you going to be one of lucky ones?
We take inspiration from other travel verticals such as hotels, flights and activities which had the same problem of low online penetration rates several years ago. For hotels, the process of moving to digital started 20 years ago, while for activities it was around 5 years ago. We believe that ground transportation is the next travel domain to go through this digital migration and we are well placed to both lead and benefit from this transformation. In addition, our impressive traction is evidence that we’ve tapped into a real gap in the travel space.
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