Saki Kobayashi is the co-founder & COO of LCO-Creation – a startup tech company in Singapore that creates a mobile backend travel software – Traveldoor – focusing on B2B clients and services.
Human Asia eagerly spoke to Saki recently.
Tell us more about LCO-Creation.
Saki: LCO-Creation is a Singapore-based Mobile Backend As a Service (MBaaS) company and is the creator of TravelDoor – a travel app for Japanese tourists that contains offline city guides for over 50 cities around the world.
Utilizing this technology, we provide a mobile app and backend solution “TravelDoor for Business” to B2B clients across the globe including tourism boards, airlines, hotels, publishers, and financial service institutions. We not only help businesses reach out to travelers via custom branded mobile apps but also help them tap into big data analysis by offering them access to our marketing system, which enables them to efficiently analyze customers’ travel patterns and spending behaviors.
Why made you start up Traveldoor?
Saki: During my college years, I backpacked across Asia and Europe. I also regularly visited remote villages in Cambodia to conduct research and to test-market products for the water and sanitation organization I was running.
Every moment and every interaction with the local community was inspiring to me, but having absolutely no access to wifi, I faced difficulties getting around. On one occasion, I visited a remote village in central Vietnam. The village was trying to boost its local economy by promoting sustainable eco-tourism. I had a memorable time with my host family, cycled through the beautiful nature, and visited local shrimp farms and handicraft makers. The concept of eco-tourism was fascinating, but something was missing – a tool to reach out to a wider audience to attract more foreign tourists.
Yuki Hiraki, my co-founder, has also traveled to over 30 countries in Europe, North America, Asia and the Middle East during his college years. While backpacking in Cambodia, rural China, and Eastern Europe, he learned about the local people, their daily lives, and their culture by exploring off the beaten paths instead of cliché well-known locations. These experiences led him to want to disrupt the way people travel by creating a service that encourages travelers to step out of their comfort zones and visit new places while also providing a sense of safety and comfort. He ultimately wanted to help promote sustainable ecotourism that would preserve the local culture, generate employment, and support the local economy.
Later when I met Yuki in NTT Communications, we started to exchange our backpacking experiences and the idea of TravelDoor was born.
What differentiates Traveldoor from other travel app startups out there?
Saki: The main difference between us and other travel apps out there is that we focus on B2B services. We dedicate ourselves to providing not only easy-to-use front-end solutions (mobile apps) but also a comprehensive backend system for B2B clients.
When we first launched TravelDoor, we were purely focused on offering a B2C mobile app. But one day, a well-known travel publisher approached us and asked whether we were open to licensing “TravelDoor” technology to them. They had very compelling and high-quality travel content written by a pool of in-house local content creators who were experts in the field. But they lacked a method to digitize their content. That was when we realized that there were gaps in the industry. There are incredible travel service providers out there wanting to reach out to travelers in real-time. There is a wide range of travelers, from young backpackers to families to retired seniors who want to purchase travel services through mobile apps while traveling overseas. But there were few services to connect these companies and travelers.
We have also come to realize that we can reach out to a far greater number of users by licensing “TravelDoor” technology and offering OEM travel apps, together with our own SDKs and APIs, under our clients’ brands. My co-founder and I have always agreed that our fundamental vision was to empower every single traveler, including first-time travelers, and for us to accomplish this vision, it was vital to reach out to end-users through different brands.
The strategy to focus on B2B solutions was a success. Businesses were seeking a one-stop solution to manage their travel content, conduct marketing activities, and most of all, analyze user data. Large companies started to approach us. Today, some of the apps which are constantly ranked among the top travel apps are actually run by us but under the name of our B2B clients.
What challenges did you face initially when building this business?
Saki: Since we are focused on B2B solutions, we distribute our technology through strategic sales partners.
We initially hired our own sales team. But since our goal was to expand globally, we faced the challenges of building a direct sales team that is accustomed to each country’s local business culture, practice, and language. We also knew that building a close relationship with clients was essential to work with them extensively and long-term. But it was physically difficult to visit our clients regularly, especially regional tourism boards and Destination Marketing Organizations (DMOs), because they were located in different countries and cities. In the case of financial services clients, sales cycle took longer due to their internal decision-making process.
To strengthen our sales channel, we now work with strategic sales partners worldwide. These partners include public listed companies in Japan (Rakuten, Digital Garage, and Shobunsha) and Asia Pacific-based multinational media and marketing companies. For example, Rakuten Travel sales team is based nationwide across Japan and they are able to keep in close contact with regionally based clients. We conduct sales training for their team from time to time to update them with our latest technology and use cases.
Aside from partnerships, we frequently join industry conferences and events as speakers and presenters. Various companies, including our current partners and clients, approached us after we began to share on stage our marketing insights, success stories, lessons learned along the way, and even our mistakes. This has been a great way for us to be “discovered” by potential clients.
Have you received any investor funding?
Saki: Yes. We have received seed funding from the Singapore government’s National Research Foundation led by a Singapore-based VC called TechCube8. We have also received Series A funding from Digital Garage, a public listed IT & Marketing company in Japan. For us, pursuing Series A funding was not primarily for financial reasons, but more for strategic business growth and market penetration. We did receive multiple offers, but ultimately, the crucial factors for us were the significant business synergies and the opportunities for growth.
In terms of challenges, closing Series A funding took longer than initially expected due to an unexpected amount of paperwork. Negotiations also took longer than anticipated. There is no need to start raising funds unless you really need to but if you decide to do so, my advice would be to start talking to potential investors early on.
What are the most interesting features on TravelDoor?
Saki: In addition to our OEM mobile apps, SDKs, and APIs, our backend system is what makes “TravelDoor for Business” unique.
Our backend system, which was developed in-house, allows us to (a) manage content in real-time to keep information fresh and up-to-date, (b) send targeted push notifications (online/ offline) to increase user interaction, and (c) collect user and geolocation data to track and analyze “in-destination” travel patterns and consumption behavior patterns.
A user’s “in-destination” travel patterns and consumption behavior patterns have always been a black box for companies, despite the fact that travel expenditure is continuing to grow. Utilizing our backend system, businesses are now able to analyze and forecast “in-destination” user trends and behaviors.
Having a clear understanding of the target audience helps our clients personalize their services and solutions according to their customers’ needs. There was recently an interesting finding: One of our clients discovered through our heatmap that their end-users were not visiting certain parts of Taipei that were full of restaurants and shops that offered membership promotions. There were gaps between two locations – where membership promotions were available and where the actual users were traveling. This is a new approach for enterprises and organizations to make more informed marketing decision and make necessary adjustments.
What are your plans in the next few years?
Saki: We are looking into developing an AI concierge and a comprehensive booking system using blockchain technology.
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Saki, please tell us more about yourself.
Saki: My life-mission is to make a meaningful global impact through entrepreneurship and my ultimate personal goal is to alleviate poverty in developing countries during my lifetime.
During college, I majored in International Development and African Studies. I wanted to see and experience myself how international NGOs and social enterprises work in these fields, so I spent most of my time outside class working and interning for various organizations and companies.
I focused on International Development and BOP (Bottom of the Pyramid) businesses. It was during that time that I founded an organization on water & sanitation in Cambodia with other fellow students. We started from absolutely nothing, it was all from scratch. I was constantly running around, meeting people, selling our vision, drafting business plans and proposals, visiting rural villages in Cambodia to test prototypes and to collect feedback, and adjusting our plans (yes, every single day was trial-and-error). By the time I graduated from college, I was determined that my life’s work would be to alleviate poverty through business and entrepreneurship.
I also wanted to see how large corporations are managed and how they make a global impact. That is why I joined NTT Communications, a Japanese IT & Communications company, right after my graduation. During my years at NTT, I was able to engage with global projects, particularly in the Southeast Asia region including Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Vietnam.
I met my co-founder at my previous workplace, NTT Communications. He was entrepreneurial and had outstanding skill sets. Working together in the same department, we both knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Most importantly, we both had the same vision to make a positive global impact through entrepreneurship.
What was the one turning point that made you want to become an entrepreneur helping developing countries?
Saki: Having lived in the US during my childhood, I had always wanted to become an interpreter. One day during my sophomore year in college, I found a job posting on a bulletin board at a student lounge. A well-known international NGO, providing educational and emotional support for orphaned students worldwide, was seeking for Japanese-English interpreters who can join their summer camp for orphans from 30 different countries across the world.
Knowing that on-the-ground experiences are essential to becoming a successful interpreter, I jumped at the opportunity. I was appointed as a Japanese-English interpreter for students from Uganda who had lost their parents due to HIV/AIDS. Spending a whole summer with them changed my life view completely. Poverty and lack of basic human needs were no longer someone else’s problems. I had to dedicate my life to tackle these issues.
After working at NGOs, Bottom of the Pyramid (BOP) social enterprises, and starting and running my own organization from scratch, I became convinced that “entrepreneurship” is the key to make a positive social impact.
If you could add one entrepreneur in the world to your team at LCO Creation, who would it be and why?
Saki: I cannot name one. I would add a dreamer and a believer, and most importantly, a doer. It is not a matter of how talented you are or how well-experienced you are on day one. What matters the most is whether you can stay resilient and keep dreaming, believing and “doing” what you do no matter what happens along the way. Most of the things you need to know as an entrepreneur can be learned if are willing to face your mistakes head on and learn from them as well.
Have any other startups or entrepreneurs inspired your journey?
Saki: They may no longer be classified as a “startup” but I was inspired by Skyscanner, now a Ctrip company. I had the pleasure of meeting with the CEO and Co-Founder, Gareth Williams, over the last few years and was struck by how humble and down-on-earth he was even though he had achieved countless successes. Talking with him gave me a greater confidence in the belief that “staying focused” is the key to success.
What are your messages for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Saki: Believe in your vision and stay focused on your goals!
Traveldoor is a startup technology company based in Singapore.
You can visit LCO Creation at http://lco-creation.sg/
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