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The thrill of flying thousands of miles to a friend’s wedding in a remote Indian village was always going to be a stimulating experience for MBA student Johannes Koeppel.
What the Swiss-born former aid worker did not expect was to hit upon a start-up idea for a boutique travel management platform that he has since been developing from facilities at his alma mater, California’s Haas School of Business, into a global tech company.
One wedding and an idea
Prior to the India trip, Mr Koeppel had experienced the pain of managing groups of travellers during a stint with the Red Cross in the former Soviet central Asian republic of Uzbekistan, where in his spare time he organised private tours for visiting Europeans.
Despite the administrative headaches of collecting money and gathering all the necessary paperwork, he clearly enjoyed the experience of running what was in effect a small business. “It was a great distraction from visiting detained political prisoners,” he recalls.
Between the ceremony and the speeches at the Indian wedding, Mr Koeppel got talking to a local guide leading a group of Swiss travellers. When he realised that his Uzbekistan experiences were not unique he was struck that there might be a global market for what he had been doing as a sideline.
One destination for many tasks
“Organisers like me always battle with the same pain points before embarking on a trip,” Mr Koeppel explains. “We all spend countless hours collecting information, such as passport information and meal preferences, and collecting money [from the travellers] is socially awkward, since an organiser normally has to do it twice, first for the deposit and then to collect the full amount.”
Why not create a single place online where tour organisers could advertise trips, sign up guests, manage payments and all the other administrative details, Mr Koeppel reasoned. The concept for Wetravel was born.
Business school paves journey to start-up
The idea was fresh in Mr Koeppel’s mind when he arrived at Haas two-and-a-half years ago to start his MBA. Here he had access to resources, such as the school’s incubator office space, to develop the business plan.
“The classes at Berkeley Haas around entrepreneurship have helped me to avoid countless mistakes I would have made if I just started Wetravel on my own,” Mr Koeppel says, picking out for particular praise the seminars Haas offers on the lean launchpad methodology. This advises founders to start small with a minimum viable product and develop it from customer feedback.
Another key benefit of attending business school was the access to a network of well-travelled like-minded individuals, including the people who became Mr Koeppel’s two co-founders.
Between them, the founding team speak 15 languages and have a wealth of experiences, but were united by their interest in entrepreneurship.
An entrepreneurial mindset helps
The sales head, fellow MBA student Zaky Prabowo, had been an aide in the office of the president in his native Indonesia before moving to the digital entrepreneurship capital of the San Francisco Bay area to study at Haas.
“I came to Haas because I wanted to experience start-ups,” Mr Prabowo says, noting that he chose to join Wetravel over an offer to be Indonesian country director at a “multibillion dollar” US-based technology business because he was more excited about growing something from scratch.
The entrepreneurial mindset of people at Haas and the surrounding start-up community makes launching a venture easier, Mr Koeppel explains.
“In Switzerland, I would have never found such talented people willing to take the plunge into entrepreneurship,” he says. “Good developers, for example, are just much less willing in Switzerland to join a start-up that is statistically likely to fail. At Berkeley, and in the bay area in general, people do that.”
Wetravel now has a staff headcount of 11. The co-founders raised $30,000 from family and friends 18 months ago and added around $30,000 to this pot from competitions, scholarships and grants.
They recently got their first outside investment from renowned venture capital firms Foundation Capital and First Round Capital’s Dorm Room Fund. Rob Chandra, the team’s mentor and lecturer of the entrepreneurship class at Haas, who acts as a senior advisor at private equity firm Bessement Venture Partners, also came on board as an angel investor.
“We are only passively fundraising, talking to investors who approach us,” Mr Koeppel insists, adding that they will start looking for further backers in earnest in the autumn with a target of raising $600,000.
Growth and expanding horizons
The Wetravel platform provides several services useful to tour organisers prior to their group’s departure, such as co-ordinating the details of those joining and collecting money. To date, they have helped over 50 tours organising trips worth $500,000.
The plan is to add more elements, but already the technology can enable processes that previously took 40 hours to complete to be finished in under five, Mr Koeppel claims. The team also want to turn what is currently just a website into an app that tour guides can take with them.
“We will move from being a productivity platform for the organisers to something much bigger,” Mr Koeppel says. “By providing organisers a useful productivity platform, we are building up an incredible inventory of unique group tours. Wetravel will leverage this inventory to become the marketplace for unique group tours in the years to come.”