Reflections
Comments 31

Things I Learned From Running and Selling My Travel Startup.

This morning, with an argile (shisha) by my side and the sound of the Muezzin’s call to prayer in my ears, I signed off on the final transfer-of-ownership documents of India Untravelled – the responsible travel startup I co-founded in 2012. My shaded courtyard on a hill above the old city affords me an uninterrupted view of the barren cityscapes of Amman, reminding me why I decided to sell: In the three years of running India Untravelled, traveling for two weeks with little to no connectivity, like I did in the surreal desert wadis of Jordan, was out of the question.

The irony is that I had started India Untravelled for the same reason that I decided to sell it – to live like a nomad. Here’s what I’ve learnt from my brief entrepreneurial journey:

Starting up is not as hard as they tell you.

startups india, women entrepreneurs india

Unlikely virtual offices of India Untravelled!

I spent half my time in college learning how to write the perfect business plan, pitch for venture capital, do SWOT analyses, bootstrap, draft marketing strategies and press releases, and network effectively. Then much like everything I learnt in my pre-travel days, I tried to unlearn it.

India Untravelled started like it ended – with an epiphany. The first happened on a farm in Punjab, where the gap between responsible travel initiatives in the country and travellers seeking authentic travel experiences gaped at me. We wrote no business plans, attended no entrepreneurship networking sessions, wrote no jargon filled strategies – but brainstormed hard and worked smart, and within the first month of unofficial operations, we scored our first big clients. We registered as a private limited company, found a trustworthy CA (after meeting some dodgy accountants), set up a current bank account and just like that, we were running our own business! We went on to be featured as one of YourStory’s most popular startup stories of 2012 and in national media outlets like The Times of India and Mint. We kept our expenditures low, hired our first employee in the second year of operations, grew our revenue considerably in the third, and received our first (surprise) investment offer just before we decided to sell.

Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t start your own company without an MBA, years of corporate experience and a ton of cash. If you have an idea you are convinced about, know your market well and have the skills to execute it, go experiment. Starting a business is like skydiving; if you never jump, you’ll never know if the parachute will open!

Revenue and passion are unlikely companions.

startups india, entrepreneurship in india

Unlikely companions.

Whoever said you should never mix work and pleasure must have been an entrepreneur. India Untravelled was born purely out of my love for travel and passion for supporting small community-run initiatives in the hinterlands of India. We never expected to make much money with our revenue-sharing model, but when the cash started pouring in, it fueled our passion for the company as much as it stifled it.

Our mission was no longer just to convince people to go off the beaten path and give responsible travel a chance, but to compel them to do it with our company so our cash flow continued to increase. Maybe this is the first thing they should teach in entrepreneurship classes. You can’t start a business unless you’re really passionate about a concept, but you can’t sustain a business unless you’re equally passionate about the revenue it generates – and that is the conflict I hated most.

You are either an entrepreneur or not.

women entrepreneurs india, startups in india

Just a girl who travels 😉

When I started up, I thought that the appetite for risk was what set an entrepreneur apart – and I found plenty of appetite in me. But along the way, I realized that an entrepreneur needs much more – financial prowess, the thirst to scale up and an unwavering commitment to the company. I went out of my way to avoid investments that would dissolve our vision, and constantly questioned all our decisions.

In the end, I was just a girl who liked the idea of having her own company, not an entrepreneur.

Running a business offers less freedom than working in a cubicle.

how to start a startup in india, entrepreneurs in india

24×7 job – running a startup!

I can’t say I hadn’t been warned. But like many people who look at entrepreneurship as a ticket out of the cubicle, I didn’t believe it. Starting a business meant I could choose my working hours (and days), travel for “work” as long as I liked, determine my own pay, and be the boss. Guess what? I didn’t get a single day off work because this was my baby and I was constantly ridden with guilt for not giving it my all. And my paycheck depended on more variables than I could control.

When you work for someone else, you can tune out at the end of the day and on weekends, and have your own life. But when you work for yourself, the work becomes your life! I loved my work, but in the end, it wasn’t the freedom I had hoped to find. Go in knowing that a startup is 24×7 of your time, and then some.

Social media rules if you do it right. 

startup blogs, startups india

Getting social.

I know many travel startups in India who struggle with (and even abuse) social media because they have no idea what to do with it. But believe me when I tell you that almost 90% of India Untravelled’s revenues and press coverage came through Facebook, Twitter and blogging! My experiments started as a social media strategist at the Singapore Tourism Board, continued as a blogger and freelancer, and culminated with India Untravelled – and I’m proud to say we didn’t spend an actual penny (time and effort is money too) on building our company’s social media presence.

I’m convinced that a great idea and the right use of social media is the holy grail of a consumer-centric travel startup in India.

Delegating is a tough art to learn.

women entrepreneurs india, startup lessons

Learning to let go.

You win some, you lose some. We won social media, but we lost when it came to growing our team when it needed to be grown. And it was mostly me – I found it incredibly hard to delegate and gradually step away from the day to day execution of the company, to search hard to find the right people, to train and trust our team to take on more responsibility, and to scale up when we needed to. I felt too invested in the company, a bit of a perfectionist even when I knew there could be someone out there who might do it better, and convinced that no one had the incentive to be committed. And this when I was also trying to take my blog to the next level – a 24×7 job in itself. By the time I started learning the fine art of delegation, we were too close to the end of our journey.

Selling is not a failure… or maybe it is.

shivya nath, india untravelled

The spot of the second epiphany!

The second epiphany happened on a hammock in Guatemala – as the mist cleared to reveal the three active volcanoes on Lake Atitlan, so did the mist shrouding my mind! I realized I was being a fool to think I could be a professional travel blogger, and run a travel business, and travel full time – something that my partner in crime had been debating too ever since he enrolled in a public policy school. When I put out the note about selling India Untravelled, it felt like my Faustian deal with the devil to get my freedom back.

But just like we started unconventionally, so we sold. We wrote no business plan, pitched to no potential buyers, and ran no complicated growth projections. We put the word out on social media and wrote an honest note on our journey, vision, intangible assets and projected revenue.

I didn’t believe we would receive any offers, but we received four. One was big money from a big company that was sure to dissolve the vision of India Untravelled. The second was a lease-to-buy offer that wanted to hire me as an employee (like, WTF!). The third and fourth, though below our asking price, showed potential to keep our responsible travel vision. Ultimately we chose my friend who had worked for a few months with us and knew what she was getting herself (and her husband) into. Maybe we sold our soul, but atleast the buyer is not the devil!

The horizon of Jordan looks hazy from the dust of an unexpected sandstorm in Israel across the border, and after penning this post, my mind feels hazy too. Six months after the deal, a part of me still wonders, what if. But another part knows that this journey is over – as far as I can tell, I don’t want to venture into entrepreneurship again! I salute those who will.

Join me on InstagramFacebook and Twitter for daily travel musings.
Subscribe to my monthly newsletter to receive travel inspiration in your inbox!

Also read:

Advice for the Young and Penniless Who Want to Travel

How I’m Funding My Adventures Around the World Through Travel Blogging

 

31 Comments

  1. Dear Shivya,

    As you would have already learnt, meeting and parting is a way of life for people who travel. The key to keep going on is to remain detached and living in the moment. Better days would follow the blissful days you live today. It is a matter of joy that you lived your dream. And more beautiful dreams are yet to be lived. Keep moving. All the best for your future. Follow your heart.

    Like

  2. Kanika Gupta says

    Dear Shivya,

    I read your blog and to be honest my heart broke in the end when you signed off something you believed in… Perhaps in the larger scheme of things, it is not such a bad idea.

    I want to tell you that in the first half you had my spirits up when you shared how you just took the plunge (i am doing it too in a month) but as i read further down, the reality of it struck me! I am avid traveller myself and truly believe that this world has so much to offer that binding yourself with an entrepreneurial string will not make the cut.

    Anyway, my point us, (talk about epiphany) that even though I think your blog gave me an insight that i needed from someone who is neck deep in travel, i will see it for myself of you can mix your passion and revenue! This is where i believe we differ a little.!

    Thank you for enlightening the likes of us with your amazing post!

    Keep traveling!

    Thanks
    Kanika

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Like

  3. Akash Jain says

    This post showed me the other side of entrepreneurship, that too from an ex-entrepreneur. I loved the way you let everybody know the reason behind your move to not venture that path again. I have always loved your blog and never knew you had a start-up as well. This was an inspirational piece of writing for me in a special way. Thanks and keep blogging.
    ~Akash
    A cubicle guy 🙂

    Like

  4. Hello Shivya,

    I have been following your adventures for quite some time now and recently I started working with a great company with a similar vision that you have, called Kabanitour, Kerala.

    I could very well relate to all your thoughts and opinion shared here, and I really wish you all the best in your future adventures and hope to read many more great stories from all across the world 🙂

    Sreejith.

    Like

  5. Really heart touching, read every letter.

    This post showed me the other side of entrepreneurship, that too from an ex-entrepreneur. I loved the way you let everybody know the reason behind your move to not venture that path again. I have always loved your blog and never knew you had a start-up as well. This was an inspirational piece of writing for me in a special way. Thanks and keep blogging

    Kes

    Like

  6. There was a sense of conflict in the entire post and evidently, this was a hard decision to make. But probably, knowing what we don’t want is more important in life, as I have learnt. Some very poignant yet practical thoughts there, Shivya. But yes, ‘you are either an entrepreneur or not.’

    Like

  7. tharinid says

    You have courage in stores and part of that courage is wondering what if?

    Something tells me you are even more distinctly aligned to your life and passion now.

    And this decision perhaps has a lot to do with being lost to be found and being lost not to be found. Good.for.you.

    Like

  8. I really liked this. I totally understand giving something up for freedom even if it’s the most precious thing. My friend also has a startup and thus can’t travel all the time with me, most likely i’ll be solo traveling again in 2 months…

    Like

  9. There are individual freelancers, artists and entrepreneurs. I think you’re more of the first two. 🙂 Love this post and I agree – it’s very very important not to be so busy that you can never press a ‘pause’ button on time. I get nightmares at times, thinking that all my life will pass by doing work I no doubt loved and enjoyed but work that will be just that and mean nothing when I’m no longer here. Living completely and fully means leaving sufficient spaces in one’s time and schedule – because those are the spaces that beautiful surprises seek. Or the importance of emptiness as stated in Buddhism (something I recently picked up). Anyway as always, your thoughts and ideas resonate with mine. Much love. 🙂

    Like

  10. I would love to roam around in Jordan.. and many other places. Work with the local communities. That’s my dream. Still have to find a way to self-sponsor it. Any suggestions?

    Like

  11. Kushagra singhal says

    Hi shivya

    I really enjoyed travelling virtually with you and in reality with india untravelled.

    Hats off to you for following your dreams – which is unravelling the hidden possessions of earth; exploring the unexplored

    Living like a nomad is no longer a misnomer

    I hope that to whomever you have sold this valuable organisation would keep up spirits behind it and take it to next level.

    Keep travelling and sharing your valuable insights

    Like

  12. Roberto Amaral says

    Miss having you at “India Untravelled” but happy to still have you around as family!!!

    Like

  13. Pingback: Every New Beginning Comes from Some Other Beginning’s End. | The Shooting Star

  14. Hey Shivya, you know what? in the recent Hollywood movie “The Martian”, Wadi Rum in Jordan was portrayed as “The Mars” in the movie! Hope you enjoyed seeing the planet MARS! Yesterday saw the movie and it was awesome!! 🙂 🙂

    Like

  15. Sadiya Yasmin says

    hi Shivya, this was your second blog post that I read and I can only say that I am craving to read more. I am absolutely inspired by you.

    Like

I'd love to hear your thoughts and feedback.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s