This leg of The Asian Travelpreneur series, is slightly different from the rest. While one of the entrepreneurs featured in this story is from Asia, the travel business that they are running is in Europe and the entrepreneurial tale that they have is very inspiring.
Meet the founders of Tourboks – Uni Cui, who is a Korean-Chinese, and Chryssa Oikonomidou, who is Greek.
An unusual tale of running a travel-startup in Denmark??
Chryssa: I wouldn’t say it is unusual – does it sound unusual? Visit any startup in Copenhagen and you’re bound to find international employees from across the globe. Copenhagen has become a pretty cosmopolitan city and Denmark is famous for being the happiest nation in the world, with strong social benefits. Until a couple of years ago the local startup scene was very dispersed, but this has dramatically changed. Within the past couple of years Copenhagen’s startup scene and the local tech ecosystem has really taken off. Today there are several startup communities, events, co-working spaces.. And of course there are a lot of successful Danish startups that are attracting investors’ attention.
What I would say is special, and not really unusual, is that we are a very diverse team with 2 women founders trying to succeed in a competitive industry.
Denmark, isn’t supposed to be on the startup map in a big way when compared with other nations in the EU. What made you choose Denmark.
Uni: I did not actually choose to start a startup in Denmark particularly because it is Denmark. It is mostly because I have established myself here with my own tour operator company Uniko. I have been here for about 2 decades and I enjoyed living here. While operating my tour operator company, I realized the increasing needs of FITs (Free Independent Travelers), thus I found Chryssa and we co-founded Tourboks.
We commonly felt like there was a clear need in the industry for the tours and activities segment to be digitized and distributed online especially for Asian customers on a B2B and a B2C level. That said, I strongly believe that Copenhagen will be the uprising star in European startup scene. As Chryssa mentioned, things are evolving.
Pros/Cons of running a travel startup in Denmark.
Chryssa: Besides the above mentioned facts that make Denmark being a startup-friendly country, I would say the lack of bureaucracy is a very important benefit. Setting up a company in Copenhagen is very easy and you can do almost everything online. I would also put in the pros the fact that English is widely used in this country. Finally, on the pros side, the government is becoming very supportive. Before 2014 you needed 80,000DKK (approx. 10,700EUR) to register a company, whereas nowadays it is just 1DKK (10 cents).
On the cons I would definitely mention that, even if the welfare system is great, the money to support it comes from high tax rates, which lowers the profits of a company and makes it is super expensive to employ people.
One of the co-founders, Uni moved to Denmark about 2 decades ago. The initial period as you’ve mentioned was quite challenging. Take us through the days.
Uni: During my childhood, China was very poor. I remember days that my family couldn’t afford rice. Growing up with these financial difficulties, made me want to try harder. I had big dreams and I wanted to achieve greatness. So I decided that I had to go to Europe to explore the world and create a nice future for myself. I came to Denmark with all my savings and I remember immediately being disappointed. Copenhagen airport seemed so small that I thought I landed to the wrong country!
My plan was to study at a Business School in a city outside of Copenhagen, called Kolding, which is much smaller than Copenhagen, and find any kind of job to support myself.
I managed to find a job to deliver newspapers during my studies. I was waking up at 01:00, 02:00 in the morning, delivering newspapers and then going straight to school. After one year, I realized that if I wanted to achieve my goals and realize my dreams, I needed to move to the capital.
But I was out of money and I did not know anyone, I had no friends in Copenhagen. I arrived in the central station of Copenhagen and I stayed there for several days searching for a job and a place to stay. Eventually I found a job as an Assistant in a Travel Agency and I have been working in the industry ever since. After working in various agencies for several years I started my own company Uniko.
Everybody talks about success as an entrepreneur. Let’s talk a bit about failure – When was the time you felt you’ve failed in your initiative. Lessons learn from that experience.
Chryssa: Building a company from scratch is not easy. You will hear a lot of “No”s, you will struggle a lot, you will find a lot of obstacles in your way and you will battle with failure on a daily basis. At least I did and sometimes I still do! Managing a company comes with anxiety and responsibility. In our journey with Tourboks so far, we have experienced several disappointing or difficult moments.
One of our greatest achievements so far, was to convince our 300+ suppliers to put their trust on us, to use our SaaS and upload their products at Tourboks. It was very challenging to convince these companies to trust us and invest their time and products on us. But we persisted with professionalism and it paid off.
A failure I remember was also one of the most important turning points for Tourboks: our focus. In the beginning we tried to focus mainly on a B2C level and we were investing in SEM and Google Adwords. We quickly noticed that we had very low ROIs and very high Customer Acquisition Costs. We addressed the reality: the travel industry is dominated by giants and at the time, with our small marketing budget, there was no way of competing against these companies. We agreed that if we would continue like that we would fail and immediately switched our focus and energy on B2B sales and the creation of strong alliances with other companies.
From that day we saw our sales going up and our Customer Acquisition Costs drop.
The main lessons learnt from building a startup company and the “must” tips of what every entrepreneur should do:
· “Listen” to the results
· Be flexible & agile
· Admit failure & change when needed – do not be afraid of change!
You have a successful venture in the form of Uniko. What made you startup Tourboks.
Uni: Uniko is indeed successful and a very healthy company financially speaking. But Online is the future. First of all, the market size is there: Tours & Activities online market is worth more than US$ 26B. From this amount, US$ 11B are spent from Asian travelers an amount that is increasing tremendously fast by the years.
We also noticed that there is a gap between Asian and Western players: Western players are not tailor making for Asians successfully and they have a lack of understanding how Chinese or Koreans work. Thus we decided to brand ourselves as The Asian Partner In The West and offer an Open Gateway to Tours & Activities Worldwide to companies that want to resell online in Asian audiences.
The main benefits for our B2B partners are:
- Big network of western suppliers with whom we can negotiate easier, faster because of our positioning and therefore acquire more complete product portfolios at better commissions
- B2B Distribution Solutions that are Open & Available To All without any bureaucracy: our Chinese competitors do not offer easy “on board” processes for B2B customers
- Competitive Commissions for our Partners
Your 2 cents to those who dream of pursuing a travel startup.
Chryssa: Choose the right, niche target market focus on a small segment first to validate your concept. Find your Competitive Advantage: what do you have that others don’t offer already? Finally work hard and get ready for a tough ride!
About the Founders
Uni Cui: Uni came to Denmark 20 years ago, leaving her small village in China, and bearing the dream to succeed in the west professionally. When first arrived in Denmark, things were definitely not easy. She was even homeless for some period, but with persistence and hard work, she managed to get a job in the travel industry in Copenhagen and eventually established herself by starting her own business 7 years ago. She currently owns a successful inbound travel agency called Uniko, handling Asian groups in the Nordics with a turnover of more than 1 million euros per year. She realized the increasing needs of FITs and the potential of the online Tours & Activities market, especially in Asia, thus co-founded Tourboks with Chryssa Oikonomidou. Currently she is acting as an advisor at Tourboks.
Chryssa Oikonomidou: Chryssa is Greek and moved to Copenhagen 5 years ago. She has extensive experience in marketing and sales positions in multinational companies like the energy group TOTAL. She is acting as the General Manager of the company and she is pretty hands on, managing Tourboks operations, sales, writing specifications for Tourboks platform and much more.
The featured conversation is a part of ‘The Asian Travelpreneur’ series. If you are a travel startup founder from Asia, and have an interesting story to share, send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.