How to Cultivate Resilience in Turbulent Times

If you’ve yet to visit Sri Lanka, imagine golden beaches, sprawling tea plantations, sparkling gemstones, and elephants – lots of them. Nicknamed Pearl of the Indian Ocean, it’s no surprise that Nishan Rajakaruna founded Total Travel Solution to share Sri Lanka’s incredible natural beauty and biodiversity with the world. 

In three years, Total Travel Solution became one of the top travel agencies in Sri Lanka catering to high-end European, American, and Australian travelers with its tailor-made tour packages. Soon Nishan was running a multimillion-rupee company (around six figures USD).  

But for several years, this beautiful country has suffered crisis after crisis, including terrorist attacks, ethnic conflict, coronavirus, and a deep economic recession. Like thousands of other citizens and their businesses, Total Travel Solution declined with each macroeconomic setback. Following in his father’s footsteps, Nishan didn’t want to abandon his passion for Sri Lankan tourism. So, he had to find ways to make his business resilient, minimizing the company’s overhead and diversifying its revenue streams.

Leaving Chemical Engineering Behind for Tourism

Nishan went to the Colombo International School in Sri Lanka to earn his A-Levels (similar to Advancement Placement examinations in American high schools). He then moved to the United States to complete a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering at Bucknell University, one of the top universities in the US.

After graduating in 2008, Nishan dreamed of becoming a chemical engineer at an American pharmaceutical company. Unfortunately, at that time, the US was going through the Great Recession. “I couldn’t get a good job, even after trying for an entire year. By December 2009, I realized it wouldn’t work out for me in the current economic climate. My parents pressured me to come back to Sri Lanka. So, I returned with my dream of becoming rich and successful as a chemical engineer shattered to pieces,” Nishan says. 

He returned to Sri Lanka to few friends and no money in his bank account and had to start his life over again from scratch. Nishan’s first full-time job was at a small travel agency, laying the foundation for his knowledge about Sri Lanka’s tourism industry. However, the salary was too low, so he left after three months. Nishan changed companies several times until he landed a job with a good salary at a big tea export company. He stayed there for the next four years. 

“During my training at the tea export company, I studied their marketing materials. In their official brochure, I read this sentence: We are your total tea solution. That made me stop and think. I considered the idea of launching my own company and naming it Total Travel Solution,” Nishan says laughing. 

“I wanted to use the basic knowledge about the Sri Lankan tourism industry I had learned from working at the travel agency and combine it with my father’s experience. He was one of the leading French-speaking national tour guides in Sri Lanka. Before I was born, he already had thirty years of experience in the industry. So, if I could combine his knowledge with my experience, I thought it would be possible to create a successful travel agency in Sri Lanka.”

In September 2011, at just 25 years old, Nishan registered Total Travel Solution as a private limited company. As a formality, Nishan also registered his father as a company director (two directors were required to form a private limited company in Sri Lanka back then), but the business belonged to Nishan. 

Without funding from external investors or friends and family, Nishan invested his savings – two hundred thousand Sri Lankan Rupees ($1000) – into getting Total Travel Solution off the ground.

The Pinnawela elephant orphanage 

The Rise and Fall of the Sri Lankan Tourism Industry

Nishan’s degree in chemical engineering didn’t help him in business, so he had to learn everything on the job. He didn’t formulate a launch strategy for Total Travel Solution. Instead, Nishan emailed foreign travel agents and hoped someone would bite. 

A big travel agent from Spain responded to one of his messages as they were looking for a partner in Sri Lanka. Nishan says, “It was pure luck. They were happy to sign a one-year contract with me, and we got to work right away. Our first booking came through them. That partnership changed my life and took Total Travel Solution to the top.”

At first, the founder’s goals were modest: getting one or two bookings a month was a success. After the first year in business, Total Travel Solution generated a profit of one million Sri Lankan rupees ($2,800). “While that might not seem a lot when you convert it into dollars, here in Sri Lanka it’s as hard to earn one million Rupees as it is to earn one million dollars in the United States,” Nishan notes.

Total Travel Solution was a one-man show for its first few years. Until today, the most challenging project Nishan has worked on was that partnership with the Spanish travel agency. The founder was still working at his full-time job and running Total Travel Solution alone as a side gig. Nishan shares that from 2012 to 2014, he averaged about four hours of sleep a night because he was always working.

But all his hard work paid off in revenue growth. Between 2016 and 2018, Total Travel Solution was at its peak as a multimillion-rupee company doing between 20 and 30 bookings per month.

Total Travel Solution offers travelers the perfect balance of heritage, nature, and wildlife.

Unfortunately, that success didn’t last. But it had nothing to do with how the founder ran his business. In 2019, Sri Lanka was the victim of terrorist attacks called the Easter Bombings. On Easter Sunday, three churches in Sri Lanka and three luxury hotels in the capital, Colombo, were targeted in a series of coordinated Islamist terrorist suicide bombings. A total of 269 people were killed.1 The country suffered, and along with it, its tourism industry. 

Then in March 2020, as we all know, Covid brought the global tourism industry to its knees. For the two years that followed, nobody was allowed to travel outside of their country. Total Travel Solution’s bookings reduced to zero.

At the end of 2021, travel was slowly starting to pick up again and Nishan hoped Sri Lanka’s tourists would be able to return. Instead, an unprecedented economic crisis and political turmoil have all but wrecked tourism in 2022. According to the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority, the number of tourist arrivals decreased by 60 percent.2 

“That’s four years where the tourism industry in Sri Lanka has been drastically impacted. Ninety-nine percent of the people working in tourism here have been in trouble. I’m lucky that Total Travel Solution is in that one percent of businesses still surviving,” Nishan says.

How to Survive a Business Crisis

How did Total Travel Solution make it through all those difficult years? Nishan says that his secret to success was getting the basics right. He, personally, was involved with all the details of the business, making sure it prioritized profits over expenses. 

“My business strategy is to minimize your overheads to maximize your profits. Even at the company’s peak, I never employed more than five people. Not only was this to keep the business profitable, but it also gave me peace of mind. There’s no point in making millions if you’re not happy. I studied Lord Buddha’s teachings, trying to attain the balance between inner peace and success,” he says.

Buddha statues in Sri Lanka

This approach to business has allowed Nishan to survive the difficult years. “During the seven best years of business, I saved a lot of money. With those savings, I’ve been able to survive the past four years and turn my focus to other projects. Now, if Total Travel Solution does two bookings per month, we consider that a success – just as we did when I launched the business,” Nishan says. 

During the pandemic, the founder had a lot more free time. Nishan became intrigued by famous success coaches and their teachings. He sought guidance from Dean Graziosi, one of Tony Robbins’ mentees, who inspired Nishan to start his own coaching business under the brand Coach Carter. 

Nishan is now a recognized success coach himself, having already mentored a hundred students. While this brings in additional revenue, Nishan isn’t just doing it for the money. He’s passionate about helping young Sri Lankan entrepreneurs grow a business as he did. With his Coach Carter brand, Nishan has been featured in world-class magazines, including Bucknell Magazine, LMD business magazine, and The CEO Magazine Sri Lanka.Alongside Coach Carter, Nishan has further diversified his company to make it more sustainable. Now, TTS Holdings has five brands: Romanticize, Total Realtor Solution, Total Photography Solution, Total Rental Solution, and Coach Carter. Nishan is focusing on the latter, while he awaits the return of the tourism industry.

Despite myriad obstacles, Total Travel Solution has remained at the forefront of inbound travel agencies in Sri Lanka as a trusted partner of TripAdvisor’s Viator. In total, the company has booked over 800 trips and generated $2 million in sales revenue, making 2,000 clients happy touring Sri Lanka. Nishan hopes the Sri Lankan tourism industry will pick up again at the beginning of 2023. And when it does, don’t forget to add Sri Lanka to your travel bucket list.

Sources:

1Sri Lanka Easter Bombings

2Sri Lanka Economic Crisis: Lucrative Tourism Industry Bears Major Brunt


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Andrew Gazdecki
Andrew Gazdeckihttps://microacquire.com
Andrew is an award-winning serial entrepreneur with three exits. He’s the founder and CEO of MicroAcquire, the world’s most founder-friendly startup marketplace, and its rebellious child, Bootstrappers, which gives voice to the entrepreneurial underdog. When not building businesses, he writes for Forbes, Entrepreneur, and now, Bootstrappers.

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