When you travel to a new city what’s the first thing you do?
If you’re like most of us, you probably pull up Google and stake out the highest-rated restaurants, bars, and attractions, and plan each day around them.
But after days of slogging from one overcrowded highlight to another, you probably feel like you’re missing something. These tourist-packed areas are not where a normal person hangs out every day. You ask yourself, “Have I really experienced a different culture?”
Akheel Ahamed, 21-year-old COO of Thrillark, believes he knows exactly what it takes to find genuine experiences while traveling. He and his travel-loving family teamed up to create a service connecting travelers to authentic experiences wherever they go. But they started right as the pandemic wiped all thoughts of travel (and revenue for their business) off the map.
Pulling $4.6 million in revenue in 2019, they went down to zero revenue in 2020 and cut 80 percent of their staff only to make it all back in 2021. Here’s how Thrillark did it – all successfully bootstrapped.
A Not-So-Normal Trip to Germany
As an Indian raised in the UAE, Akheel knows just what it’s like to be between cultures and nations.
“Since leaving India my father has been in the UAE for 26 years working at a lighting company,” he says. “He has worked with many major development companies in the region. While my family has ties to India, I was raised entirely here.”
Despite being from an international family, Akheel says they did not travel so much in the first half of his life. He traces his family’s love of travel to a trip to Germany in 2014, their first family trip outside of the UAE. It was notable to him because his family went the extra mile to make sure this trip was a bit “off the beaten track.”
“We landed in Berlin, rented a car, and drove out to a farmstead in the countryside,” says Akheel. “It was amazing because we didn’t have a hotel. We stayed with locals at a farmhouse. We didn’t even have wifi at the place. There was an agricultural tour as well where they showed us all of these farm techniques they use in Germany. We got to experience what the locals do in their day-to-day life and it was inspiring to say the least.”
Akheel believes the experience was life-altering for himself in his formative years – but finding such an experience even as recently as 2014 was difficult.
“My father did weeks of research to find the place we stayed at,” says Akheel. “He found it on TripAdvisor and did all the correspondence through email. We couldn’t find the farm on major sites so of course we also couldn’t pay by card. We needed to do a wire transfer and everything.”
Akheel’s family has a strong entrepreneurial spirit. They quickly realized this was a market opportunity. So while Akheel was still in high school, he, his father, and his cousins – who’d noticed this market need as well – got together to create a travel service that would change how we experience cities.
The Tour Industry Isn’t As Online As You Think
According to Akheel, only 21 percent of tours are booked online today. He describes most tour agencies as SMEs without an online presence. He and his cousin, Fazil Musthafa, wanted to make a service that brought these disconnected agencies onto an online platform so people could arrange these unique experiences remotely.
“We want someone to leave a city feeling as fulfilled as we did after that vacation,” says Akheel.
Akheel’s father, Parakkat Babu, and Fazil – a former travel industry worker selling flights and hotels – founded a business called Tripx Tours in 2017 alongside Akheel and Fazil’s brother, Firoz Musthafa.
Akheel describes Tripx as their minimum viable product acting more like a booking site for travel agencies rather than a platform. Knowing little about Silicon Valley or the tech scene, they built their website from scratch completely self-taught.
“The whole tech startup happened by accident,” says Akheel. “We didn’t have any idea about technology, but we were hearing about it. We had a strong belief that we could solve any problem with technology.”
Unlike their large competitors in the industry who focused on western nations, Tripx Tours targeted their travels to the Middle East and Northern Africa. They initially focused on the cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
“We became an agent for companies selling unique experiences as well as flights and hotels,” says Akheel. “No technology, just organic reach outs. We would package flights, hotels, and experiences together into single packages. Six months later we realized it was not working out.”
Business trickled in. Tripx just couldn’t seem to keep up with other booking sites. The team decided to get to the bottom of why customers weren’t leaping onto their platform.
“We spoke to our customers,” says Akheel. “Members of Gen Z and millennials we spoke to told us they wanted great, unique experiences in every city. They knew about Burj Khalifa and the Eiffel Tower. They wanted to know how to connect with locals, see real local things, and eat real local food.”
The team also realized they didn’t want to be a travel agent, they wanted to be a marketplace.
“We wanted to give our customers more control, and we wanted to bring it out to a digital platform. This was not a day-one solution but over the months we slowly learned what our customers wanted. We then decided to go with experiences only.”
Giving the People What They Want
So in 2019, the team pivoted Tripx over to a more specialized service, focused on a niche market for unique experiences. Less on the flights and hotels. Then things started to take off.
The new Tripx laid the groundwork for Thrillark. It was a “managed marketplace” where every experience was curated for quality. A place where customers could rely on getting a good deal.
“Before we put tours on our website, we sit down one-on-one with the tour agents to decide how to work together,” says Akheel. “We try to understand their experiences and see if there are any ways we can bring in our customer service to optimize them. If we’re happy after the talk, we go forward and add the experience to the platform.”
At this point, they knew the direction they wanted to go in but still lacked the technical know-how to code their webpage into a platform. Most of it was still run on spreadsheets and phone calls.
“When we sat down to brainstorm, none of us knew how to code. We figured out the technology by speaking with people and learned a lot. One of our freelancer friends helped code the initial website.”
Once the new version went live, everything changed. In 2019 Tripx hit a gross merchandise value of $4.6 million off a combined total of nearly 160 experiences in Dubai and one freelance coder.
The team thought they were finally making it, but then in 2020, the entire world shut down due to COVID. Tripx seemed like it may have been a pipe dream. The team could only watch as revenue went down to zero in six months and they had to lay off 80 percent of their 25-strong team.
“Many people were saying the world would never be the same at the time and international travel may never come back,” recalls Ahmed. “It was a stressful time.”
But Akheel and his family were undaunted. As things started to reopen locally they realized that while borders were shutting down, people still wanted to get out and explore what was around them. That’s when they decided to develop Tripx into Thrillark.
“We began thinking about what travel is going to be like post-COVID,” says Akheel. “We found out that with COVID restricting everything, people wanted to travel domestically with friends. Travelers today more than ever before want to get out there and have unique experiences.”
After the switch to Thrillark, Akheel claims they are growing at 45 percent month over month with an MRR of almost $200,000. They now have their own engineers and do business in Turkey, Morocco, and Egypt as well as in the UAE.
Working On A Startup With Your Family While Going to College
Akheel’s experience as a founder is unique. He not only opened a business with four other family members, including his father, but also while finishing high school and attending university in Leeds. He likes working with his family as it forces his team to remain open-minded and flexible.
“There are some generation gaps of course, but it’s fun overall,” Akheel says. “ I know lots of family businesses can involve clashes, but if you learn to think about things from other perspectives you can move forward. If you’re in a family business you need to understand the generation gap and keep moving forward no matter what.”
Only graduating from university in 2021, Akheel balanced his time as COO of Thrillark entirely during his studies. He says this was doable but not easy.
“It’s been hard to balance university and the product,” says Akheel. “In my third year, I had no free time.”
Regarding funding, Akheel claims that Thrillark never considered seeking venture capital, mainly because in the beginning they had no idea they could do it.
“We didn’t know it was possible,” he says. “The concept was to earn profits and then reinvest. We were self-sufficient and could fund our code. It’s great because right now things are relaxed since we don’t have any outside pressure from investors or shareholders. Many of our competitors aren’t self-sufficient because they are propped up by investor capital.”
Akheel has this to say to other young founders trying to start a business.
You should always make sure you are aligned with your whole team. Your team is what gets you where you want to be.
“Especially for young founders, just make sure to keep on learning because there is no end to learning,” he says. “Also you should always make sure you are aligned with your whole team. Your team is what gets you where you want to be. Finally, trust your instincts. When 2020 started people were telling us travel will never come back. We put our heads down and kept building and now our business is steadily recovering.”
Thrillark is a prime example of looking at old problems from a fresh perspective. Perhaps if Akheel’s family hadn’t started traveling abroad in 2014, they might never have noticed how odd it was that tour companies weren’t using the internet. They might have never even thought of trying to find accommodations via email. Can you solve a problem if you haven’t stripped it down to its roots?
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