Startup Stories

From Minimal Viable Product To Diverse Workplace: CEO Johannes Koeppel Explains How WeTravel Is Disrupting Travel Industry

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Travel industry was one of the first to be impacted by the pandemic. However, when countries began to open their borders for leisure and tourism, the travel industry rebounded in a resounding fashion. In fact, one study shows more people interested in international travel with all the savings done during nearly two years of lockdown.

If this trend sustains then the multi-day travel industry is set to see a newfound interest in our cultural zeitgeist. For this industry to succeed, it will need the collective efforts of small and medium-size companies in this space. WeTravel, a San Francisco-based startup with product HQ in Amsterdam, is solving a common pain point: payments.

As a vertical SaaS or integrated payment platform, WeTravel is helping all businesses in the multi-day travel space. It is doing so by charging them less for each transaction and offering tools that are integrated into their business. The co-founders of WeTravel have travelled to over 100 countries and they are now looking to disrupt it, one solution at a time.

From idea to minimal viable product

Johannes Koeppel, CEO and co-founder of WeTravel, says the idea for WeTravel “sparked well before the company was founded in 2016.” After university, Koeppel says his work with small communities and local travel businesses around the world for RedCross made him realise how disjointed “the booking and payments process were for multi-day travel businesses.”

He explains that use of traditional methods like mailed cheques and Excel spreadsheets to collect traveller information and transact payments led to delayed or missed payments. “I believed technology could better the system and provide an all-in-one solution to help local businesses and communities operate more effectively to increase revenue and reduce logistical issues,” he adds.

After his MBA from UC Berkeley, Koeppel met Garib Mehdiyev, who had extensive experience and technology working for Azerbaijan’s largest bank. The duo launched WeTravel for student group organisers in 2014 and relied on Koeppel’s network of MBA classmates to test the product.

The platform, Koeppel says, processed more than $600,000 in transactions in its prototype phase. After seeing the demand, WeTravel expanded to the wellness segment and enlisted the support of Zaky Prabowo, a UC Berkeley classmate of Koeppel, to help with further expansion.

Fast forward to 2022, Koeppel is the CEO, Mehdiyev is the CTO, while Prabowo is the CMO, but they are rooted in their mission as co-founders. They began expanding the platform from a small office under a highway in San Francisco. From this small office, the WeTravel team expanded its prototype to the wellness industry and then launched into all segments within the multi-day travel industry.

Koeppel says WeTravel evolved its “product to become vertical SaaS and FinTech solutions for any multi-day travel company.”

Meeting the demands of travel companies

After WeTravel debuted its minimal viable product (MVP), the platform saw many sign up from users but not all of them were processing transactions. Koeppel says they initially struggled to distinguish the commitment of users to its product. Since it was free, the co-founders reworked the product to fit the industry, while ensuring revenue streams.

Entrepreneurs like to huddle and the cofounders of WeTravel did too. Even when it expanded to other group travel segments, the platform was not sophisticated enough to act as an all-in-one tool. “Through listening to customers and asking questions on how to evolve the MVP, the business chose to rework its SaaS and FinTech solutions to meet the demands of travel companies,” says Koeppel.

This renewed vision allowed WeTravel to shift its focus from group travel planners to multi-day travel companies. These small and medium sized companies always needed this product and WeTravel addressed the problem of an industry that was long dependent on traditional tools.

In simple terms, WeTravel merges SaaS and fintech solutions to handle needs of multi-day travel business’s booking and payments in one platform. WeTravel is now being used by more than 3,000 multi-day travel businesses and trip organisers and Koeppel says it saw many enterprises moving to its platform last year.

SaaS and subscription for growth

WeTravel is one of the many companies impacted by the pandemic as people were forced to cancel their travel plans and WeTravel users were not transacting. However, the business model of WeTravel was rooted to succeed in the long run. WeTravel charges the industry’s lowest processing fee for all of its verified and transacting clients.

It also offers a subscription product in the form of a Pro account that offers enhanced features and benefits for a monthly fee. The additional features include “catered account management, API access, and WeTravel payment processing as low as 1 per cent per transaction.”

Most startups would go for the software-as-a-service model but WeTravel is unique with its dual SaaS and subscription business model. This model, Koeppel says, helped the company during the pandemic. “For Pro clients, our free refunds and comprehensive disputes policies helped increase customer satisfaction and reduce over-laborious tasks,” he elaborates.

After a significant decline came the best year in terms of transaction volume for WeTravel since its founding in 2016. WeTravel is forecasting to triple its transaction volume in 2022, which will act as a testament to its business model.

Expansion on the horizon

WeTravel has raised $2M in the form of SEED funding since its inception and it has big expansion plans on the horizon. Co-founder and CEO Johannes Koeppel says the vertical SaaS and fintech startup has 89 global employees across five continents and it plans to further increase the headcount by more than 30 per cent by the end of this year.

It has nearly 65 per cent of its clients in the Americas and is planning to expand the product to EMEA and APAC markets. To support this expansion, WeTravel is looking to hire talent in the field of engineering and product team while also making key hires in sales and marketing functions.

The startup has also launched an “Engineering Tech Internship Program” to offer paid opportunities to applicants who may not have a traditional tech background. The three to twelve month programme announced in May 2022 will see successful candidates paired with a WeTravel engineering team to learn front-end, back-end, or full-stack engineering.

The successful interns will also be offered a full-time role at the startup upon completion of the programme. “The business’s first internship cohort filled within one week, with all applicants identifying as women,” Koeppel adds. “The applicants are based in four countries, and none have traditional tech experience.”

WeTravel plans to open another cohort upon completion of this first “Engineering Tech Internship Program.”

Diversity and inclusion to succeed

It has become common for tech companies to talk about diversity and inclusion but very few excel at that goal. WeTravel is actually making major strides in creating a diverse and inclusive work environment.

As a tech company for the travel industry, Koeppel says WeTravel wants to reduce the gender gap in both tech as well as travel industries. It plans to address this by reducing inequities internally and externally. The startup has also created a free WeTravel Women in Travel Academy to provide free educational resources to better support all women and girls in the industry.

Koeppel says, “The platform’s resources are created in collaboration with those who identify as women in the industry speaking to subjects around equal pay, parental leave policies, inequities in supply chain, and decolonization and better representation in travel.”

Some of the efforts by WeTravel are not just claims but deliver actual results. Nearly 50 per cent of employees at WeTravel identify as women and it has more than 20 nationalities represented with 15 per cent being parents.

“The business has implemented a comprehensive DEI policy for its hiring practices, including unbiased training, application portals for anonymity and GDPR compliance, and gender decoders. In addition, the business has created opportunities through paid internships and global, remote roles for applicants from diverse backgrounds to grow with the company,” Koeppel explains.

Challenging the status quo

WeTravel’s journey, like its name, is centred around inclusion and travel. It has created a workplace that is diverse and inclusive and one that aims to help people grow with the company. It is also challenging the status quo of traditional payment giants like PayPal and Shopify.

Koeppel explains how PayPal is the most commonly used platform for global payments but many booking platforms don’t handle payments. Similarly, he explains that there are booking software and traditional web page builders capable of handling the organisational needs of travel operators.

WeTravel stands out distinctly for its ability to handle the organisational needs of travel operators as well as supporting them with a payments platform. By being the only all-in-one booking and payments platform for the multi-day travel market, WeTravel is making lives easier for consumers as well as multi-day travel operators. Next time when you travel, don’t forget to ask if the operator relies on WeTravel.

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