It was the twenty eighth of February, 2005. Two enterprising men in their twenties met in the city of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates to start a business together. The first, Sheikh Mohammed Al Thani, was an intrepid Emirati adventurer, who would later go on to conquer Mt Everest and complete the grueling Seven Summits challenge. The other, Sachin Gadoya, was a fun-loving Indian traveler, whom you would probably see at Times Square on new year’s eve and back at a dinner in Dubai by new year’s day. Their journeys were worlds apart, but they shared one thing in common – their love of travel.

Mohammed and Sachin

The school of hard knocks

It was that love of travel which led them to start their very own travel agency. They began with five people in a corner store, located off the main street in one of Sharjah’s residential districts. Now that may not seem like a problem at first glance, but ask anyone who works in travel and you’ll learn that the odds were stacked against the business. In fact, some would go so far as to say that they might as well have built a moat around the office – drawbridge, crocodiles and all.

The venture was bootstrapped and it taught the founding crew a lesson in the three pillars of our business early on. The first was the importance of revenue. It’s a pillar that’s often overlooked in today’s Internet start-up frenzy, but financial independence is not an option for a retail store – it’s a must. The second pillar was the importance of people. Mohammed and Sachin recognized that by investing in people who were passionate about travel, that they’d be able to deliver genuine customer delight and build a loyal following of travelers in turn. These weren’t just support executives and customers – they were brand advocates.

In the third and last pillar, the two men knew that despite their best efforts, the key to the company’s future lay in innovation alone. You see, 2007 was the end of what some would call the golden age for travel agents. Back then, the majority of airline tickets still needed to be printed by accredited travel agents on a special stock of paper tickets – you couldn’t just print one at home. However, with paper tickets riding out their last twelve months before a global transition to electronic tickets in 2008, the role of travel agents was now hanging by a thread – and so was the company’s future.

Three tall cappuccinos

I happened to meet Mohammed and Sachin over a cup of coffee at a Starbucks in Dubai in the summer of 2007. They were looking to innovate in travel and my years in digital advertising had begun to take their toll. We soon realized that online travel agencies – or OTAs, as they’re better known – had not yet taken flight in the Middle East. The business model was flourishing in the Indian subcontinent and speculation of IPOs was rife. There was a clear opportunity to be the first and we wanted it.

What followed was a stream of ideas scrawled on every paper napkin we had. In doing so, we joined the ranks of Harry Potter, Southwest Airlines and a dozen other ideas that started off on napkins too. We chose the name Musafir for our venture because it stood out from the usual suspects – the trip-pers, the fly-ers and the travel-ers. We may not have signed up to fly the planes, make the beds or drive the cars, but we didn’t want to be just another travel site. PS: If you don’t speak the language, Musafir means “traveler” in Arabic and Hindi, among several others.

I quit my day job that winter and kicked things off from a couch in my parents’ home on new year’s day in 2008. I needed the time to clear my head after four years at a desk before I could put a team together. It was the era of automation, so we knew that our first people had to be passionate problem-solvers and we were fortunate enough to have found them. After eight months of late nights with two engineers, we rang the bell for our first sale just a week before Christmas that year.

Our website in 2008

Coming of age

I’ll admit that our home page back back then may not seem like much today, but bear in mind that this was 2008 – Nokia was the world’s phone and Internet Explorer 7 was our browser. Musafir has come a long way since then, and we’ve been fortunate to have some very talented people join us on our journey. Through all the highs and the lows of growing up, we’ve realized that four factors shaped the company we’ve become today. Think of them as the four Ps of starting-up.

The first is agility, or in our case, the pivot of 2010. We were a fledgling OTA, starting up in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the 1930s. Travel was the last thing on anyone’s mind, unless of course, you’d lost your job and had a one-way ticket back home. Acquiring customers had turned out to be an expensive affair, so we road-tested the technology we’d built at a few companies to help them manage their staff travel instead. They loved it and that’s how our corporate OTA product was born.

Our journey from 2005 to 2018

The second is to persevere. It’s arguably something we should have done sooner, but we returned to our roots as a leisure OTA in 2013 after a three year hiatus, albeit now minus our first-mover advantage. It’s a part of our journey which always reminds me of Energizer’s TV commercial from the nineties – “never say die.”

The third is to constantly push yourself to challenge boundaries and see your vision through. In our case, we were fighting the myth that people weren’t ready to book their visas and holidays online – and it paid off. It isn’t easy to put on a suit of armor and battle complacency every single day. Pick the ones worth fighting for and give them your best shot.

The age of intelligence

The fourth and final P of starting up is to prepare for what’s coming next. It can be hard to see through the smokescreen of techno-babble on the Internet today, but two things are for certain. One: we’re becoming increasingly impatient and we’re making more spontaneous decisions. Two: the automation that propelled us through the past decade won’t get us very far in the next.

Take the example of travelling from the airport to your hotel. If you turn the clock back to just a few years ago, you’d probably have to book an airport transfer at least a week in advance and still scout for the driver after you land. Today, the likes of Uber can sift through the thousands of taxis roaming your streets and have a driver waiting for you in as little as a second. Why can’t the same be said of our flights or hotels?

Evolving user expectations

We’re overwhelmed by the choices we once craved for, and yet we’re looking to make better decisions faster. The key lies in intelligence. We’re in an age that calls for problem-makers, not problem-solvers; people who are willing to ask the difficult questions that we’ve shied away from in the past. “Why do I have to sift through over four hundred hotels to get to the one I want, when companies on the Internet know so much about me today?”

A parting thought

At the risk of sounding like a fortune teller, I’ll stop here and put my cards down to confess that we didn’t always get it right. For one, we should have updated our priorities sooner. Innovation no longer holds the key to our future alone, but it is the necessity of our present. I’ve learned many a lesson over the last ten years, but this one came late.

Our new business priorities

So if you’re sitting in a coffee shop, charting out the next big idea on a paper napkin, push yourself to ask that difficult question and innovate. Think of the people who are willing to stand by you on your journey as your family, and they’ll persevere along with you. Prepare for what’s coming, but don’t hold on to your dreams so tightly, lest you lose sight of an opportunity to generate more revenue or pivot.

You can see more of what I’d presented in my talk at the Amadeus #FlyByDigital 2017 conference on SlideShare. Photo by Bongkarn Thanyakij.