Surviving a pandemic: from Non-essential to Scale-up in the Travel Industry
We are excited to have survived the pandemic so we can be part of the regeneration of the travel industry and remind people of the transformational power of travel.
In 2020 YouLi was poised to capitalize on 2 years of hustle and product development as a reztech/traveltech platform. We had clients who loved us, we had software that delivered value and we had a growing pipeline.
Jen, YouLi’s CEO and co-founder, headed to Argentina/Chile in March, 2020 for a vacation before things got too busy. She was in Patagonia when the world started to close and barely made it out of Chile on one of the last commercial flights leaving the country.
When she got home the relief at having avoided the worst-case travel scenario faded as she started to get the message: “You’re not essential”. The pipeline dried up, even the most loyal customers had to cancel their subscriptions. The world felt like it ended for all of us, but those of us in the travel industry were being told not only that we weren’t essential, but that we were causing the problem. It was our moral duty to stop operating.
Crises either bring you together or tear you apart. For Jen and Bron, co-founders of YouLi, the pandemic solidified their commitment to their partnership and to YouLi. After finding a way to survive the end of the travel as we knew it, we now have more confidence than ever. We can weather whatever comes!
The Dream of Sustainable Change-makers
When Jen founded YouLi in 2016, she was on a mission to make it easier for people to create unique travel experiences. She saw the top 10 lists on travel sites and realized that the over-tourism it created was no good for anyone. She believed we could build technology that empowered planners to think beyond the top 10. To achieve this, we help planners take people on tours tailored for their group that show them a different perspective, keep more money local and could even change the world.
All industries have their change makers, the people on the edges looking to make something new, to shift mindsets, the ones who are passionate about their WHY, in addition to building sustainable businesses. So we found them and nurtured them.
On some level, even in the darkest moments of 2020, we knew that travel had to rebound someday. There was an opportunity on the other side to remake travel to be better than it was. Much like a forest regenerates after a devastating forest fire.
We just had to survive long enough to be part of that regeneration.
Operating as a start-up is hard under normal market conditions, survival is the name of the game. We thought we had gotten through the worst of that phase by 2020. Thankfully, we had not started the hiring we had intended for that year, so our headcount was low and everyone on the team accepted a cut in hours. Some agreed to work for equity. We kept the platform running and fielded cancellation requests, trying not to focus on what we couldn’t control.
The experience reminded Jen of the mental challenge that summiting Kilimanjaro took. You can’t see the summit in the dark, you have no idea where you are or how long until you get to see the sun. So you focus and move forward, one small step at a time, until suddenly, the sun is touching your face and you can feel your fingers and toes again.
So we started running meetups every two weeks, making space for people to talk and process the changes sweeping their world. They were by far our best attended events to date. In some of those discussions we explored virtual experiences, and we even co-founded a virtual experience platform called Speakeasy, which we later sold in 2021 as we wanted to remain focused on our passion for real world travel.
In startup land, we talk about "pivots", and I guess that's what we did. While we dabbled in it, virtual experiences was not our successful pivot. Instead we took on web dev work to keep the lights on and dedicated ourselves to finding what mattered most to those who would rebuild the industry.
We understood that travel would be constrained for at least a year, so there was no point focusing on bookings. Thankfully, YouLi is more than a booking platform. It is a customer engagement platform specializing in gathering groups. So we set about finding the partners who understood the value of this as a platform to leverage on the other side of the travel restrictions.
We connected with many amazing partners, like:
Yasmine Grey - founder of Getaboutable.com - a social enterprise dedicated to mainstreaming accessible travel. YouLi now powers her marketplace, saving her the cost of building her own custom booking engine so she can focus on her WHY.
Dr. Sheri Rosenthal - founder of Wanderlust Entrepreneur - she is a beautiful soul who shares her experience building profitable retreat businesses with her community of retreat organizers. We partnered with her to create a custom Sales Page JUST for her community.
In October of 2020, we were accepted into the Microsoft for Startups program. It was a boost of confidence that we needed and it coincided with landing our first pandemic client. That’s when we realized that companies who planned to survive this, like us, saw it as an opportunity to invest in technology operations. A slow time in bookings meant their staff could work on those projects they could never make time for: like rebuilding a website, changing booking platforms, or transforming their tech stack to be more automated. We realized we were enabling digital transformations for our clients, and they needed us now more than ever.
We went through our own transformation, as Bron, our CTO, was able to migrate from AWS to Azure. Since we are built on .NET, it made so much sense to make the move, and you can see her talk on the experience here.
In 2021, we prepared for the recovery we knew had to be coming. Jen planned to head to the US to focus on that market as it was poised to bounce back faster than other regions. Our hopes of a boom faded as the lockdowns hit Australia (again) and Jen barely made it out (again). She spent 5 months travelling in the US, focused on relaunching the brand and establishing YouLi as a presence in the US.
Jen felt that, given the perception that the travel industry was to blame for the spread of the virus, it was essential to travel herself before restarting marketing that focused on a “relaunch” narrative. Extolling people to learn how to travel in the “new normal” while hiding in the safety of her home felt immoral.
She successfully travelled from California, to Washington to New York and to Florida plus many other stops, without acquiring covid. She spoke to travel companies finding their way out of the pandemic, hearing their tales of woe and tales of renewal. Upon returning to Australia a month after they re-opened borders to residents, YouLi experienced one of the best revenue months ever.
The new normal is messy and can be scary sometimes. But like all scary things, the more you face it, the more manageable it becomes. No, the pandemic isn’t “over”, but those of us who can are forging the paths for others to follow. That’s what our clients do for their travellers, they take a scary thing like Kilimanjaro and make it accessible; make it a challenge they can overcome. Now they are adding “covid-safety” to their list of skills they share with their clients. YouLi supports this journey through technology that ensures the travellers know what they need to do to be prepared and be able to travel in this “new normal”.
YouLi is back to consistent revenue and stepping into a scale-up phase. This is all thanks to the hard work of our incredible team and our angel investors (thanks Paul Boxer, Paul Baron and the Melbourne Angels). We are excited to have survived long enough to be part of the regeneration of the industry and remind people of the transformational power of travel.