The Gray Hair Speaketh

Advice that is largely Unsolicited.. – a personalized travel planner

Deepankar Biswas, co-founder and CEO, asked me to review his startup,

What is it about? is a personalized travel planner. It assists users to make their travel plans, by suggesting places of suitable interest, then allowing the user to select the places, give information on travel time from one place to another, recommend the time required to be spent at a place, and in doing all that, enable a traveler to plan her travel itinerary.

What more?

At this time, is equipped with data and information of destinations in Karnataka and Goa only. They mention that more states are coming up soon, on the site. Destinations have been classified well with lot of details. So you can find places, for example, with temples, monuments, waterfalls, theme parks, zoos, national parks, forts, jungle camps, etc. Likewise, while planning a holiday, you could potentially give information like whether you wish to go on a romantic holiday or an adventure trip or a picnic or a pilgrimage or a corporate holiday. In other words, a variety of different options for making travel choices, are offered.


Other Observations:

You can’t do much, nor can you get a feel of what you are getting into, without registering. That is a big problem. Not everyone wants to divulge her information, without knowing first, if the site / service is what she is looking for. So a free tour or a more elaborate service detail can be useful. I ended up searching for other links before registering, and found an ‘about us’ at the bottom of the page.

Unfortunately, like many other links on the site (which you get even after registering), the ‘about us’ link opened in a new window. Once in a while, if some specific link opens in another window, it is fine. However having a host of links opening in new windows, is actually quite an irritant.

The other challenge with the ‘about us’ link was that it opened with a different brand name and a different look-and-feel. If Yoplr is the business, a critical link like ‘about us’ for Yoplr, cannot suddenly bring up a new name. That adds to the confusion for a user. Moreover, the fancy software implemented in the ‘about us’ sections, is actually not smooth flowing. The links open up slow, and the navigation is not smooth. If I was not in the process of reviewing the site, I would have lost my patience and exited long before.

My final observation in the ‘about us’ sections is with regards to the key team. While there is a lot of technology and management experience, and also consumer Internet experience that is visible, for a critical vertical play, I did not see strong industry experience in travel. I would have been happier to see that.

Wisdom Nuggets:

1. As a type of business, this falls into an interesting segment that can be ported well, to the Internet. Where, ordinarily, a high quotient of personalized service is required, where putting that entire cost of personalized service on to the customer’s plate is not possible, and yet, ideally, that service is necessary. Personal financial planning falls into this segment. Personal travel planning also falls into this segment, and which is where Yople is focused.

In such services, it is definitely a good option, to convert all the intelligence into a self-serving algorithm, and enable people to help themselves, via an online interface. However converting a service that would normally require a lot of personalized responses, into a pre-emptive self-service model is not an easy task.

Although Yoplr has tried to cover many variants that are likely to get encountered, unfortunately, personalized travel planning really calls for a far higher number of permutations and combinations! And the distance required to be covered by Yoplr, then, is still significant.

2. A self-service model of this type will have a user navigating across the site, on her own, and based on her choices, for a long time. The user interface, then, becomes very critical. Every single word used on the screens, the location of each message, the colors used, the options offered at each stage – everything has to be well “designed”. And it is important to recognize here that this “design” is not graphics, it is not visualization, but it is PRODUCT DESIGN. Something that may require a detailed customer understanding, understanding of the travel planning process, understanding what colors invoke what emotions, understand where the eyes go on the screen, etc. In short, I would recommend a good NID designer working with a travel specialist to significantly improve the interface. I was lost several times, as I tried out the service.

3. Yoplr needs to figure out who its market is. Very clearly. And then understand that market’s characteristics. Of all the people who travel, many prefer to take a no-effort package tour, still others have a destination and number of days in mind and would just hand over those boundaries to a travel agent, and let the travel agent work out the tour details for them. That leaves a small number of true enthusiasts, who want to do their own planning. Perhaps Yoplr can assist them and take some of their pain off. But then the travel enthusiasts are also familiar with other Internet resources, and for them to use Yoplr, they need to see the clear value addition. Yoplr’s intelligence should be higher than what they can reach on their own, for the enthusiast to be convinced. Moreover, for the enthusiast, part of the fund of travel, is this planning effort. To see a host of choices, to compare and then pick one, etc. They do not really want spoon feeding. Can they get the same kind of “high” while using Yoplr’s services? That needs to be seen.

4. In this context, it may also be noted that focusing on the ‘enthusiast’ (a natural fit for what Yoplr is offering) restricts the market size. Also because ultimately, money is to be made by making the user also ‘buy’ the travel services from Yoplr, it may be noted that the enthusiast will also have access to travel services and will research to get a best deal, on his own. So conversion rates could be lower, with enthusiasts, unless Yoplr offers best deals each time. Then, with those constraints, is it right for Yoplr to target the enthusiasts only or even make the enthusiasts, their primary market?

5. If not the enthusiast, then who? Perhaps the middle category of travelers, who are clear about their constraints, and who are otherwise willing to leave the job to a travel agent. They do not spend a lot of time, in the intricate travel planning. Once they see a tour “made” for them, and they broadly like it, they go ahead and book. Can this market be addressed by Yoplr? What does it take to address that?

a) In addition to the elaborate personalized travel planning, several “ready” packages to offer. Creating many options of ready packages, but being able to take inputs from busy travelers, and then pushing back to them, packages, that are likely to be close to what the travelers concerned, may like, and could work out well. Either keep these as ready packages, or have software intelligence that pieces together a few tour packages on-the-fly, once the traveler has given his set of constraints.

b) The other option is to be manually involved. Not the best of options, but like many other services which mix automated self-help with some manual effort, if travel constraints are taken, and then a manual tour package is worked out and offered, that may also be worthwhile. This busy traveler, who still wants some personalization (does not like package tours, say), may in fact, be a high-conversion business opportunity for Yoplr. Because the traveler is busy, if he sees a good personalized package, and also sees travel costs that are close to his ballpark budget, he will not necessarily shop around for a better deal, and may transact quickly.

It may help Yoplr to identify this target base, and focus interface and services towards this demography.

6. Between the above two points, if there is a clear understanding that the overall market is large, and there is good money to be made ultimately (from the transactions), Yoplr will need a lot of funding to get there, I suspect. It is a typical Silicon Valley type of venture, where there is potentially, high value being created, but which demands a lot of effort / resources. Until it reaches a certain threshold point, the service does not offer adequate compelling value. And there is no money being made till then. And maybe even after. People are not only planning travel in Karnataka and Goa. So more destinations, more states need to come in quickly. And I am sure that to do a comprehensive job, there is massive effort that needs to be put in, for each state that has to be added. And there is need to continuously invest in the interface design, in updating travel destinations, in updating road and travel time information, etc. And there is really no serious money to make in between. So whether it is funding from other businesses that the same company is into, or external one, it is clear that the project needs funding to create a great product. As the key to success is the quality of information, it may not be workable to leave it to user generated content in Web 2.0 terms. Moreover, a Wiki kind of public content building can only work when the user base is very large, and can collaborate and correct quickly. That not being the case, a user generated content approach is not a suitable alternative here.

7. After helping a user plan her itinerary, Yoplr offers to give them an offer for the actual travel bookings. And I guess, the actual travel bookings are where the money is being made. That being the ultimate revenue opportunity, it will hinge completely on the fact that Yoplr can offer good options and great deals on the actual travel requirements. It is easily possible that a user uses Yoplr’s great tips, to plan out the itinerary, and then takes the plan to some other travel agent, who can offer better deals! Then, for Yoplr, it would become only a labor of love. So back-end effort to ensure travel tie-ups that generate best value for money for users, also need to be put in place, so that most travel planners also become travel customers, for Yoplr.

8. Lastly, a small point. Like many other startups that I have seen for this blog, Yoplr has also not paid enough attention to Search Engine Optimization. When a new hotel is being built and they want some trees and vegetation, as a part of their ultimate look, they plant trees, even as the rest of the hotel building construction is happening. Because it is a fact that trees take time to come up, and they cannot sow the seeds, once the hotel is ready to start. Similar is the case with SEO. It is imperative to get the fundamentals right on day one. So that the crawling and the search engine linkages start building up, at an early stage. Especially for a content rich product like

In conclusion, I would say that assuming an adequate market size for Yoplr’s offerings, Yoplr is in the right business, and can be a great success. It is a long haul though. Patience will need to be high, focused development with commitment and dedicated resources will be necessary. That is the IP that Yoplr could build for itself, and which will also be a huge entry barrier. If a thing is tough to do, and you do it, that becomes the reason for your success. Easier things may get you started soon, but will enable competition to pass you by, also quickly.

Focus on good content creation, pre-emptive interface building, having quality travel specialists on board, and clear understanding of target customer profile, are the key requirements for Yoplr to address.

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March 9, 2009 Posted by | Startup, Travel | , , , , | 6 Comments