Stuart Crighton Cleartrip Interview

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Kevin: 00:00 Hello there. Good morning. Good evening, wherever. You are. Welcome to another episode of how I got here. These are the inside stories as we know behind travel startups and innovation I'm Kevin May for Phocuswire. I'm joined as always by David Litwak. For this episode, we are really thrilled to be joined by Stuart Crighton who is the cofounder and CEO of Cleartrip which has its roots in India from a way back. It probably now seems, to Stuart, back in 2006, a online travel agency has done extremely well over the years raised around a hundred million. Which actually some might argue these days is a fairly modest amount of money given the the venture capital cash that's swimming around the industry these days, but yeah, 100 million since 2006. And the company's actually based in the Middle East where Stuart is and his spiritual home is in India. But the success of the company since it it took a focus into the Middle East operations is obviously why the company has shifted over to there. So thank you very much for joining us Stuart. And you're joining us from Japan today, but uh thanks for joining the show.

Stuart: 01:10 Yeah, it's great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Kevin: 01:12 Okay. Right. So with all of our episodes, we, we'd like to ask our guests to give us a kind of an answer to the question. Just tell us how did you get here Stuart?

Stuart: 01:23 Oh, okay. Well back in 1997, which is even further back I ended up in India for what was going to be a short spell in industry related to, to the energy sector. Spent a bunch of time there, sort of fell in love with India and the, the sort of accelerated story is got very interested in the travel opportunity there and ended up trying to get an OTA off the ground in the late nineties. Was very unsuccessful. Revisited that in about 2004 with my co founder and that, that was really the start of Cleartrip, which we launched in 2006

Kevin: 02:01 That's a, that's a brilliantly short answer. We usually get the ones that are a lot longer than that. So that's great. Now we've got more time for questions. Does 2006 actually feel like quite a long time ago now, given that, yes it is 13 years of course, but you know, that could feel like generations in internet years these days, Can't it?

Stuart: 02:25 Yeah. Well, yes and no. I mean, yes, every year we, you know, we have our sort of annual celebrations and you know, July the fourth strange enough is going to be launched in 2006. So I'm always I'm always running out of things to say about what it was like when we started cause it seems so far ago. But on the other hand, it's gone so enormously quickly and you know, you, you spend so much time completely immersed in what you're doing in the trenches, so to speak. But very, very rarely do you get a chance to put your head up and look over and see what's going on. So yes, as long in some senses but in, but in others it feels like yesterday really.

Kevin: 03:04 [Inaudible] Tell us, you've referenced there when you were giving us your, your, your brief spiel on how you got here. You said you, you tried to launch it on a traditional agency business a few years before. And can you just give us a kind of, some background and detail on that kind of first attempt, if we can call it that and what happened and what you can't, I guess what you kind of learned from that?

Stuart: 03:27 Yeah. Well, I think the first thing is I knew nothing about travel and myself and my colleague as he put a business plan together and it was called EzeeGo, which he may remember from sort of Cox and Kings days as of sort of over the last few years. And Cox and Kings were indeed a partner of ours and, and, and we wrote them and we tried to get that off the ground. Unfortunately, it was just sort of the backend of the, of the sort of first internet explosion if you like, in India. And I think more importantly, there really wasn't any infrastructure on the ground in India to support our type of business. It wasn't anybody mobile infrastructure, there was no banking infrastructure you know, the dial ups and et cetera were extremely choppy.

Stuart: 04:16 And, and so from that perspective, we really had almost like a storefront but a, a huge offline business model that was sort of being engineered behind the storefront to give the addition, I think, of being an internet business. And from that perspective it was a very, very tricky, but you know, that that wasn't unusual back then. Frankly, a lot of businesses were like that. But I think that, and the timing on the fact that we didn't know very much about travel property should go inside to make it a very unsuccessful adventure for us. At that point,

Kevin: 04:46 And I mean, who were you looking towards? I mean, around that time you had Expedia was probably off the ground in the U S and starting to make some moves on Europe and obviously, you know, Brent and Martha, what they were doing with Lastminute.com. Did you, with the first thing that you were looking at, did you have kind of one eye on those brands to see how they were doing it? Or did you think the market was so different in India that you had to have kind of followed your own path?

Stuart: 05:17 Well, yeah, I think they were definitely inspiration, but as I said, I think the, you know, the sort of infrastructure available in Europe and the US relative to the infrastructure that's available then in India were completely different. And as I said, I think we aspire to be like an Expedia or a Lastminute to some degree. And, and that was always our ambition. But the practicalities of trying to get it off the ground in India were, were very challenging for, for everything I, I mentioned earlier.

Kevin: 05:46 Okay. And so how long did you give it, the call? You kind of, if dare I say, gave up?

Stuart: 05:53 Yeah. Well, fortunately it wasn't that long. We spent probably about a year maybe a little over a year really focused on, on trying to make this work. Yeah. And we also, I mean, we raised, we got involved with an investment bank. We went out there to try and raise capital and you know, the, the conversations with, with the investors and et cetera back then was very odd. They were kind of looking at us like, we're a little bit crazy. We were two foreigners in India trying to make this work, which was even more, you know, amusing to most people. So there's a combination of things that just meant that we were really not going to be very successful, I think. And that turned out to be the case. Right.

Kevin: 06:36 And, and this, this, this was this with Matthew that you did this one with?

Stuart: 06:40 Yeah, yeah, it is. So Mackie was the chief operating officer of Cox and Kings back then. He had a great sort of offline understanding of how travel was in the UK and India. So yeah, I relied on him tightly to, to explain all the

Kevin: 07:00 Well, the complications with their own travel. So he would, he was great. I know, obviously they fit the experience of that first one. Didn't kind of put you off each other because you know who you are, I guess, what, 20 years later after little Turkey trip and you're still working together.

Stuart: 07:18 Yeah. Well he, he, he sort of moved on from Cleartrip many, many years ago and he, he set up a, a really impressive thing called Magic Box, which is a very large NGO in our part of the world. But yeah, look, he's, he's, he's a great mate and, and you know, very fortunate to work together. So, yeah.

SNIPPET 1: Stuart discusses the deregulation of the Indian air market, the rise of LCCs in India.

7:39 - 11:09

David: 07:39 Stuart, David here. First of all, thanks for joining us today. I had a fairly simple question, could you elaborate on what some of the key differences between operating in India versus, you know, someplace like Europe or America? And I imagine there are issues around cash payment, you know, level of rail penetration and you know, Mozio operates in mobility and I know there's a bit of a long distance taxi industry that exists in India that doesn't exist in many other places. So I'd love to, we could delve a little bit into a kind of how you thought about how to attack the market in India versus elsewhere.

Stuart: 08:11 Well, I think the main focus for us certainly in the early days was, was two things with the air market, domestic air market and the sort of domestic hotel markets. So this is also going back for 2006 to 2008, the air market went through a, I guess, deregulation by the government. And we saw this in a very accelerated increase of, of low cost carriers come into the market. And up to that point they had really just been a sort of an AirIndia and a JetAirways story that had been playing out so that the air market completely transformed. The usually thing is that the expansion was really being led by, you know, the air pack. And the SpiceJet and Indigo guys later on, et cetera. And there were a number of others that are no longer here as all these airlines were coming on.

Stuart: 09:01 They were, they were not using the GDS and so you had a very fragmented market in terms of how you're accessing this content. You know, the, the, just the, the construct and architecture of how the market was being built. I think that in some contexts it was quite different from Europe. The, the combination market was, was the wild West. I mean this was a completely fragmented over a very, very large areas such as India, no technology infrastructure on the ground. And so it was a very complex Mason industry that we were trying to organize and bring on at the same time as organizing a very rapidly going, growing and rapidly transforming endmark. So these are the two focus areas. I mean, later on in Cleartrip, we got involved in, you know, a bunch of other things, activities in transportation and buses. Rail is always quite unique.

Stuart: 09:55 It was always something that we, we were very keen on. But obviously being a government entity was not an easy thing to bring online. It was largely operated and, and monopoly in that position. What we did with rail with we said, look, we'll, if we can't get the booking functionality because of it, just, just the, the evolution of that product in India, what we could do was build what we thought was a really seamless search experience for, for users out there. And I think Cleartrip had done a great job on that with, with other products. And so we built rail from a perspective of search and discovery. And then it was later on that the, the government opened it up and we were able to get the APIs and plug book into rail. But, you know, even then it was always a fairly difficult product to build out. Just given some of the complexities that, that, you know, were involved in working directly with the government and how they wanted to run the business. So we were always terribly excited about it. But it never really fulfilled the potential that we thought it had in our business. And I think to be fair in most others competing businesses as well. So it's a, it's a product that, that still has a lot of potential in my mind that hasn't quite been quite be realized.

Kevin: 11:09 It's true. It's quite interesting. I mean, I asked you whether you were, you know, what you were looking at so that, you know, the Expedias of this world and things like that. I mean, you had another, you know, MakeMyTrip that had launched in India? I mean, was there anything that they had done that you kind of learned from or you thought maybe we should do slightly differently given that they you know, they were the other kind of major competitor?

Stuart: 11:37 Well, I think in some sense it's probably everything, right? I mean, they had been in the U.S. and, and you know, focused on that market for, for five or six years. They pretty much got out the door a year, a year and a half earlier than us and the domestic market in India and, and you know, obviously Deep Kalra and gang. Has done an amazing job from our perspective. We, we always felt that the product was the, the primary focus. And I think that's what Cleartrip kind of got known for. The, the experience, the user experience specifically for the kind of the kind of I suppose innovations that we brought into the product. We always saw that as being very, very different to some of our competitors out there at the time and of course, and MakeMyTrip without their, we had Yatra coming out at the same time as us, we had a brand like Travelguru, I don't even remember these guys and a few others that were coming out at the same time. And, and you know, many of them had, we used to be, you know, strong venture backing. So it was, it was a, a different approach in terms of the product and how we wanted to build. We want it to be 100% online. We didn't want to go offline. There were a lot of hybrid models that were being built out of that time. So from that perspective it was very different. And then on the other side you had this this huge influx of capital coming in not only into businesses like online travel, but I mentioned earlier the, the sort of new airlines and, and the explosion of the low cost carrier industry in India as well. And that was bringing in enormous amounts of capital. So you had this sort of a carpet bombing for want of a better word of India in terms of marketing. They're just driving new consumers online it or in some capacity to at least search online and maybe end up booking offline. And so I always felt that the product experience kinda got left behind in the search for, for eyeballs. And that's something that I think at Cleartrip we always felt quite focus on and hope you, that's reflective in what we ended up building

SNIPPET 2: Stuart on rejecting the Hybrid Offline-Online models and Cleartrip’s first (in-person!) customer.

13:46-20:25

David: 13:46 There is I wanted to quickly just ask a follow up there. You said you guys are, is it becoming a hybrid model? And I know Uber had to change a lot of the way they operated when they entered India. They couldn't be fully digital. They had to accept cash in some form or fashion. You know, how did you weigh a kind of meeting the market where it was versus forcing the market to move, move with you?

Stuart: 14:09 Yeah. For us that was quite easy because we just took a completely a negative view on the offline market, right? So we all be with that offline market was coming online, there was, there was a significant amount of investment being made to bring people online, whether that's, you know, as they said through to supply or through competitors or through other emerging digital businesses. And our job was to really serve those customers in an online environment. Now that doesn't mean that we discriminated against other people. It's just saying that that was the focus of our product and we felt that if there were more than enough people catering to that sort of hybrid online, offline challenge in India, for us it was very much about once are online, then they become a target customer trip. And that's how we, that's how we focused on it. And we did this, we've got not like, we didn't try, right? We had agents, we've done a whole bunch of stuff, right? We had agency models out there. We got a variety of different sort of corporate models out there. You know, cash as a payment, et cetera. You know, a whole variety of, of different sort of payment options, EMI, et cetera, et cetera. But for us, the thing that's always worked is just that very rarely give a singular focus. And the online customer in and working with them directly

Kevin: 15:27 Now are still, I'm not entirely sure of my kind of search engine history when it comes to India. I know a lot about how Google is a kind of concert of four in, in, you know, North America and Europe, of course. I mean, what was your, can you talk us through kind of customer acquisition back in the early days when you were, you, you see a consumer facing business, so how, how were you trying to get people in through the front door? Was it through traditional search engines or a search engine or were there other methods that you used?

Stuart: 15:59 It was in the early days, very heavy in traditional offline. I remember. So when, when we, when we launched the day we lose, we took out a full, a full page ad in the times of India. And for those that don't know, times of India as a massive is the largest thing that is speaking newspaper in India. And it was literally sort of launching a Cleartrip and it was also heavy, heavy one scene at that time. So, and you know, we, we I think by three or four o'clock in the morning, the site hadn't gone live. We were coding and trying to get this thing up because largely because this full page ad was coming out, you know, literally an hours time and every, every times of India across, across the country. And, you know, we, we managed to get it out by that five 30, exhaustive from sort of 48 hours of just trying to get this stuff off the ground.

And then nothing happens. Literally nothing happened. And then we thought at that point, that was job done, right? Take out big ad, put sites up to Mary with each other and everyone will get it. And nothing happened and that, that, that went on for about six hours. And then we got a knock at our door. And we, we were really living in a very obscure place in, in Bandra a up in a certain part of Bombay. We've got some knock on the door, bear in mind that it was flooded outside pouring with rain and this new guy. So we open it. There's some guy standing there wanting to buy a ticket and just, you know, I just said everything to me it's like, it may be, there's an awful lot we still don't know. But anyway, we, we did our first customer was an offline customer who literally paid cash based on seeing an ad in the newspaper for clear check, which was a pure online model.

Kevin: 17:46 That was the experience. So you had the, Oh, you have the office address on the ad or was it on the site and then he'd looked on the site and come to you physically or,

Stuart: 17:58 Yeah. Yeah, I think probably both. I mean, as I said, there was so much, we didn't know the recipe of know how not to launch your business basically.

Kevin: 18:08 So fascinated by it then. Yeah, what did work. Obviously that wasn't that successful. I endeavor,

Stuart: 18:18 Well we made ourselves really hard to find after that.

He knows we could've, we could've, we could've been wildly successful in the first year, but no one could find it. So eventually people were forced online to try and find us, I think.

Kevin: 18:33 So at that point you did consider just opening bricks and mortar travel agency for those wastes and Australia's who wanted to come and give you cash for a ticket.

Stuart: 18:43 It was discussed. It was discussed in last very long. But yeah, there was a, I remember, yeah. Most of our conversations needs to happen in the wee hours of the morning and I'm pretty sure that was discussed.

Kevin: 18:52 So just so you did this one adds in the times of India, then what did you do? Did you just wait for a viral effect or did you suddenly realized that maybe you should try out the message?

Stuart: 19:05 You know, we we dug, this wasn't just us as well as I mentioned earlier, there was a lot going on in India at that time. And so we had a, we had a pretty comprehensive relationship with the offline media. We invested quite heavily in things like TV at that time. You know, if you go back on YouTube because he used some of our first sort of TV commercials, but it was an expensive process building, you know, these types of businesses back then and obviously later than, you know, on online and search marketing and everything else become much more prevalent. But I would say the first few years it was very dependent on partnerships and those partnerships are everywhere, right? I mean, at the time you had all these new airlines coming in that wanted to partner with people like ourselves to, to, to just drive their own stories. So from that perspective, there was an awful lot to talk about in the offline media world, and it was quite interesting. But then you just kind of got incredibly creative. I mean we had ads that, you know, people were winning cars, you know, they booked on Cleartrip and all sorts of strange things going on and, and they didn't seem to be anything off limits in the first few years in terms of how to promote your business in India. So it was a, it was a very odd time

Kevin: 20:25 In a way that does kind of mirror the history a little of Lastminute.com they, Brent and Martha were very much into their kind of doing things slightly differently to raise the profile. I'll keep playing, you know. So I suppose because you had other competitors did, was that a deliberate strategy to do things slightly off the wall back?

Stuart: 20:46 I would like say yes to be honest, we were all probably doing something quite similar. I haven't said that. That seemed to be the only way to reach out to customers back then. So I think we had a very, we kind of mirrored a lot of what was going on in, in the offline print, in TV and everything else. Like I said, I think the distinction between Cleartrip and others really came too when people came online, the kind of product experience we had in all this was the very simplistic you know, all we obsessed about at that time with getting people through the purchase path as quickly as possible. As I said, the internet infrastructure was very choppy. The payments infrastructure was very choppy and so we wanted to create as you know, as minimal, as limited failures in that experience as we could.

Stuart: 21:33 And that's why we had this very sort of pure interface that was very functional and it's like a utility in, in, in, in probably a better term than some of our other competitors out there that were very intimidating in their experience. Right. The, the sort of flashing ads and colors and everything else. And I think in hindsight, I think Indian consumer probably responded more to, to the muscular, if you like, that was available on lots of these sites. Then there's sort of this sort of clean, pure functional site that we had. We would get emails basically asking us whether we had finished building it yet. That's how out of touch we were in some ways. But then later on I think he became, yeah, USP, but early on it was, you know, if I book on your site, will it work? Because you know, there's isn't colors on it or anything. Almost compelled to put a Kobe ad on there or something that's quite crushing it away, isn't it? Someone says to you, have you finished building it and this is your shiny new toy. Yeah, yeah. But by that time we'd been battered so much that really we were somewhat immune to the types.

David: 22:45 Yeah, no, I have a pretty simple question. Do you have any other lost in translation moments like that? And I feel like these are, these are great gems than I feel like one of the reasons we're doing this is because so many travel founders can't imagine parts of the travel industry that aren't derived from their backpacking around Europe and college or, you know, or parts of the world that they haven't lived in.

Stuart: 23:09 Oh, good. Put me on the spot a bit here now. I mean, I, I, I get back again to those early days and I think once we once we got our first round of funding, so we raised the first round of funding in about September, 2005. And the first thing we did was we said, right, we've got to there was no really strong technology on the ground in India at that time. So we thought, well, the answer to that is to go and get sort of best in class technology from the US so, which is what we did. So we, we, we partnered with 'em, I won't say the name will end up horribly, but we partnered with a technology provider in the U S that was being quite successful in providing to airlines and travel businesses. But we were so irrelevant that we were the last thing on their priority list.

Stuart: 23:56 And of course, the time difference meant that every one of our conversations was happening pretty much three in the morning, India time. And so, again, within, within months of partnering with these guys, we put off for us requesting for sort of changes in taxation and various other things. And yeah, we, we just, we just basically got kicked into touch and then we, we got all stroppy and that almost ended up in our first legal encounter before we even got off the ground. So I don't think that's ever really been resolved. And then we came back to India and said, you know, we can't solve it using technology from a more sophisticated market, maybe something in India, you know, so we found a B2B product that you know, was there, but really that wasn't scalable in a consumer terms.

Stuart: 24:42 So we ended up rearchitecting all of that. And that then lasted for about three months. And then we just threw everything out and said that we just try and build this from scratch ourselves because, you know, it's the only way forward. And I'm glad we did that, but we then we then took the great decision to build everything in LISP as a coding language. And what we didn't know at that time was literally only about three lists of engineers and the whole of India. So after we had that story about getting, getting the business off the ground and putting it out there for that launch, and that, that, that newspaper ad that was coming out, you know, we then tried to scale in this, literally, we, we already had all of these three engineers.

Stuart: 25:23 So every day we would come in and say, don't you have any friends? What do you do? I'll say, your friends, right? And they would go, yeah, but nobody likes lists to intellectual or whatever. So that, that, that ended very badly. So we don't have to throw that out and then rebuild again in something that was ultimately was the bedrock of what we did. So my point is for the first year we were a car crash of mistakes on how to build out the sort of, you know, the technology and the functionality as everything else is going on. Right. And in this crazy, crazy environment anyway, there's a lesson of what not to do, I think.

Kevin: 25:57 And when did you decide you did it to code everything in something else? Was it, there were no more people that you could hire to help you?

Stuart: 26:05 No, literally that was it. That was it. I mean, either we were going to have to set up a university for this, right. And, and, and subsidize all of these new people coming in, which seems like a very, you know, a big departure from the business model that we set out to do all we were just going to have to throw in the towel and [inaudible] and try and build something a little bit more sensible. So yeah, that was, that was it. Right.

Kevin: 26:28 So tell us, you do price a 100 million. I talked to this a little bit about the differences from those early days when you were talking to investors about, you know, the Cleartrip story and how easy, perhaps not as easy as it’s been in more recent years when you've been talking to investors, obviously you've got growth and you've got expansion, stuff like that. But you know, the market around you is always constantly changing as well. So I'd imagine the investor questions are different as well. So can you give us a sense of the early days and what has been a little bit more like recent?

Stuart: 27:01 Yeah, so I think back in 2005, 2006, you know, you could have largely been selling anything online and raise capital for it because I think at that point it was only one story and that was this gargantuan opportunity of this billion plus population that existed in India. And I think investors at that point were very we're very keen to, to, to get into that story, although none of us really understood that sort of billion population and what it translated to in terms of transactions or uses or anything else. It was just a very simple headline. And so raising money at a, at the start, when I look, think about that series a, B and C type environment was generally quite straightforward. I put of course it was nothing like the scale of series a, B and C that you see today. You referenced earlier on, I mean, the off series A was three and a half series D was eight or so.

Stuart: 28:00 And so we see with a little more, but there, but fast forward to sort of 2008, 2009 and, you know, you'd seen this first wave of internet businesses in India, you know, the bars use of the world that got filled onto eBay, et cetera. And I think investors started to get a little bit more, had a lot more clarity as to what the Indian market was, where it was going, how long it would take to build, and that, that put a massive and of course, you know, that that coincided with a lot of stuff going on outside of India as well. So that had a real impact on, on the, the scarcity of funding. And then I think the next round of funding wants, you know, the world corrected itself a little bit, became a lot harder because I think there was, there were a lot, many different choices in India.

Stuart: 28:48 It wasn't just travel. Now this time, there were other businesses that were opening up that presented an opportunity. So there was more competition for resources. And I think investors the second time around were much more thoughtful around the kinds of investments they were making. And so you have to be able to demonstrate a, a sustainable and an interesting business model specifically in businesses like ours that had been out, out operating for a few years. We will no longer necessarily just the idea which you can take a big bet on. You know, we had, you know, should go up for bid. I said revenue, you know, [inaudible] sort of stories playing out and that, that had an impact on, on capital raising. Yeah.

Kevin: 29:32 Well, would there be any kind of more pressure on you to perform and grow given, you know, there was, yeah, the BRIC economies I think was the phrase that was often uses in Brazil, Russia, India and China and the [inaudible] super high growth countries that are going to fuel the next wave of the world's economics and things like that. Do you think investors were expecting you to perhaps perform better than they would have done in other markets because there was this sudden focus on the, the BRICeconomies?

Stuart: 30:07 I think there was always a, an expectation that that would be the case. I don't think I ever remember it being explicitly discussed. But you know, I think that the very nature that they're putting money into these economies suggests that, you know, they want to take advantage of that, of that, you know, opportunity that everyone saw and that, that, that, as I said, that translated into, into a lot of cash being available from many different sources. Yeah. I would say that probably in my memory that it wasn't, it wasn't, you know, so, so clear that that's what they were coming to do. But you know, the undertone was pretty evident I think. Yeah.

SNIPPET 3: Stuart on mobile, customer acquistion and how those factors motivated an expansion and refocus to the Middle East.

30:47 - 38:00

Kevin: 30:47 Yeah. Give us your details on the you know, the decision to expand and, you know, focus or not focus, but also give as much focused as you did in India to the Middle East, which is, you know, as we said in the intro, is where you live now and it's, you know, a lot of the, the company is based there. What was the thinking behind that given the, you know, some might say, well, there's a lot of potential growth in India is the second most populous country on earth.

Stuart: 31:16 Yeah. I think part of it was, was accidental and part of it was strategic. And so around this sort of time, but right about 2010, there was a lot going on in India. There was this, we started to see this, this shift into mobile and it was around that time that we put out, which was the first mobile product, which is a basic sort of HTML four point to point domestic air solution. And you know, we, we were very bullish on the future of mobile. And again, rightly or wrongly, we felt that a, an overwhelming product experience would be the obvious choice, right? Because people moving, especially the early adopters moving from offline to online or even from, sorry, from desktop to mobile, we're going to evangelize the, the high level of product experience. We started to see international brands now a lot more in India, across many different businesses.

Stuart: 32:12 So the benchmark product experience got elevated substantially. And so we started seeing a lot of usage on our mobile products and a lot of that usage was coming out of of the Middle East. And to some extent our desktop as well. And we never really considered the Middle East. We were very focused on what was going on in India. Anyway. We got to a point where the, there's the sort of transaction volume coming out of the Middle East with meaningful. So we said, look, let's just go in and set up a small team on the ground there that we could support those customers. And that's what we did. So we, we set up in Dubai. And then on the, on the sort of flip side in India, we started to see a, a new phase of, of hyper investment and hyper growth. And you know, rightly or wrongly, we just didn't have the culture within Cleartrip to be able to compete with what was going on in the ground in terms of you know, investment to, to acquire customers.

Stuart: 33:12 And I think in many ways what we saw over the last five, six, seven, eight years, we've just this huge investment in customer acquisition around things like accommodation and just, you know, specifically around accommodation and that that just made it very difficult for us to go toe to toe with our competitors. We had a set of investors that were I guess more conservative than others and you know, despite us for a period of time, sort of saying, let's not give up the opportunity that we've created. We weren't really able to do that. So, you know, we have a very pure product view on things. We had early signs of life coming from the Middle East. We had the realization that we didn't have the balance sheet, all the appetite amongst our, our investors to, to build off what we'd built in in India and go toe to toe because that was going to cost a lot of money.

Stuart: 34:05 And so all of those things kind of got us to have a, a bit of a rethink. So we, you know, we've built out finally all of this technology that, that we thought was unique. We built out a great set of products and features in our business stress tested on. They're very demanding Indian audience. And if we couldn't, if we couldn't expand in the Indian market in the way that we wanted to, we sort of said, well, look, is there an opportunity to take this technology product feature set into other markets that perhaps are not demonstrating anything near the sort of competitive intensity of India and, and use that as a growth engine rather than, than the very expensive growth engine in India. So that was really what led us into the Middle East. And once we got into the Middle East we realized then that there was a big opportunities specifically within the GCC and MENA generally we, we, you know, obviously the Expedias and the Bookings, et cetera, where we're there, but they will love largely servicing an inbound market into the, in today's markets. But within the GCC and within Mina, there was an enormous amount of travel going on. And of course there's enormous amount of travel from South Asia into the Middle East. So we started focusing on trying to connect the dots within the GCC and MENA, whilst leveraging the fact that our brands and the corridors of travel between South Asia in the Middle East was something that we were already very, very active in. And so it just made sense to, to, to, you know, build that out and take advantage of that.

David: 35:32 To clarify here. So it sounds like what you're saying is that the Middle East travel market was a lot more nascent than India. So you are kind of able to run somewhat the same playbook that you did in India, which is the product going a lot farther and being able to spend minimally on a customer acquisition costs through search engine marketing, et cetera. Is that a fair characterization?

Stuart: 35:52 Yeah, I would say in many ways it was probably a better market for us because there was a, a perhaps a, a slightly different type of user profile. There was higher spend. The unit economic story was better. The, the, the customer acquisition behavior was very, very different. Again, impacting the unit economic story. It was relatively well served in terms of the certainly core markets like the UAE in terms of penetration and how sophisticated the, you know, the, the online environment was and that that played into how, how we thought about, you know, customer acquisition. If we go back to India, it was reports offline. Very expensive, traditional media. You know, when we came into the Middle East, it was, again, it was very brand focused, but you were dealing with very concentrated pockets of customers. So, you know, we, you know, again in, in the things that's not to do, we, when we went into the UAE after about a year, a couple of years, we took out what I think and a bit of fact checking here at the time was the world's largest outdoor media space.

Stuart: 37:04 And basically we just put a wrap down this skyscraper on shake wide red saying, you know, Cleartrip and all sorts of things. Now that got a lot of strange eyeballs at the time, but it really helped propel us in those markets. And ketchup as a brand rather than just traveled as a search term became, became very active very, very quickly. And that had a whole, you know, a whole sort of impact on, on how we built out our online marketing and just basically the efficiency and performance marketing in the region that that was specifically for the UAE. How do you a very different market than some of the surrounding GCC markets had nuances of that. But yeah, it was all of those things. Right.

Kevin: 37:51 So could you say then that the banner on the skyscraper, there was your times of India moment for the Middle East?

Stuart: 37:57 Yeah. Although fortunately nobody came and found us.

David: 38:00 Everyone went on mine

Stuart: 38:07 Eight or nine years. We tracked it.

Kevin: 38:11 So give us some, so you've launched into the intended to the Middle East. How do you view the route country where it all started now? I mean, how do you kind of focus or divide the focus around the business? What are you doing in that sense, given that the Middle East has been a successful year?

Stuart: 38:31 Well, if I look at our revenue today, our revenues pretty much 50, right? So 50% of our revenue comes out of the Middle East with 50% of our revenue comes out of India. The Middle East is growing a lot faster. And so, you know, over the next few years that, that, that sort of relationship will, will change. But for us it's very much a part of a broader story. And I think, you know, the DNA and the, and the experience that we continue to have a building in India which is still very competitive. The sort of leadership position I think we've taken in, in the DCC and sort of said MENA is, is cost the story if you like. And I think when we, when we talk internally, we talk about its opportunity in emerging markets and for us that emerging market geography is the sort of India, Middle East and Africa is of the world.

Stuart: 39:20 And I think if we can so, you know, we're, we're, I guess we're two thirds of the way they are right now. So we can bring that technology, which is an emerging market architecture and internationalization of our platform, the products and features that I mentioned earlier, that we can bring that to customers at the right time in those developing markets. I think there's a huge opportunity for us because these products and features and technology are built in a way that that is I guess consistent with, with the evolution of these markets. You know, we very often see consumers in developing markets, leapfrogging technologies, right, and going straight into things that are perhaps much harder to, to drive and more sophisticated markets. So how you think about the evolution of your, of your business and your product changes a lot.

Stuart: 40:10 And so for us it's about making sure that we remain very relevant to the India, which is a very important part of our emerging market story. Continuing to build out on the leadership that we have in the Middle East and rather like the, the relationship with these corridors of travel between South Asia and the Middle East, which gave us a an entry point and a more efficient entry points in today's market. See how we can now take the combination of India in the Middle East and look at opportunities in, in, in Africa. I mean, today we've got 300 odd people that sit in Cairo that do a bunch of stuff relevant to obviously supporting our Middle East business, but also expanding you know, across North Africa and hopefully soon into into other parts of Africa as well. So that's really how we see it. So it's not a, it's not a pivot into the Middle East. It's, it's a combination of these, these, these strategies working together that delivers what we think is an interesting emerging market story.

David: 41:13 I just wanted to follow up on one word. Used there leapfrogging technologies. I remember the story of M-Pesa in Africa and how basically mobile banking actually caught on a lot quicker in Africa because they didn't have to deal with all of the existing infrastructure of banks and all that security. And I'm just curious, did you have something particular in mind that have to do with travel? Have you had to experience that or do you think you might have to experience with Africa shortly?

Stuart: 41:42 Well, I think payments is a great opportunity is a great example of that. Right. And we saw that in India. You know, I think in a more traditional sense, just the sort of leapfrogging of, of, of you know, fixed line communication into mobile and how that exploded in India is another example of that. I mean, I think today something like 80 to 85% of our, our search volume comes through all of our mobile stories. And so, you know, that's very, very different how, how our mobile web products were related to our app products, right. In specific markets, again, very, very different depending on the market you're in. You know, you look at the Saudi market, which has an enormously high social usage you know, things like Facebook, et cetera. It's got a very, very, very young population. But there is a real shift there from, from luxury to affordability.

Stuart: 42:36 And you know, it's just changing the dynamic I think of how consumers interact. And again, we're having to relearn everything. You know, you cannot go out there into these markets with these types of customers and you need to give them the same old traditional marketing story, right? You've got to develop very different types of relationships. We did for example, we in Saudi where we partner with through flying with the, the number one football team in Asia. And you know, it's how we interact with them and, and the social audience that, that drives a lot of that growth that we're seeing. So there's still a lot to learn, but I think these are unique things that we're seeing in our mock.

Kevin: 43:19 The last couple of kinds of questions from us, really. I mean, we've spoken to a lots of founders that have been around for five, six, seven, eight, nine years. How would you say, just personally, you kind of I'm trying to think of the right phrase, just kind of keep the entrepreneurial juices flowing. I mean, what kind of, what, why do you stick around in the job? Is it because it is your baby in inverted commas and you're, you're keen to just see how far it goes. I mean, it's, it's, it's, it's a tough ride sometimes online travel and especially when you're expanding, what kind of keeps you going?

Stuart: 43:59 Yeah, that's a, that's a brilliant question because, you know, we've been doing this a while. And, and I would say that we've, we were, we've been a startup in a number of different areas. So you know, that, that period of becoming a startup, whether it's in Saudi, whether it's in, you know, the GCC, whether it's in India, whether we're at what we're doing now in places like Egypt, et cetera, it's an exhausting process. But I think personally for me and, and I, and don't get me wrong, I've had periods in the 13, 14 years where I'd sort of said, look, you know, surely there's something else I can do or, you know, maybe it's time to bring in somebody that's a lot more competent into the role and, and you know, let them take care of your coordinating else. And I think on the last appoint, I think that what we've been able to do at kinship is build out a great team.

Stuart: 44:53 And so now I'm really excited working with that team, but I recognize that that may not, that may, there may be a time and maybe that, you know, maybe that's narrow or, or than we know, but where, you know, bringing somebody else into my role would be the right decision to take it on. For me personally, I'm still very motivated. Like, I kind of feel like there's unfinished business and this this, this emerging market opportunities I was talking about earlier and how we, the sort of internal narrative that we have a peer trip is something that I think we all feel very excited about. And, you know, as I said, I, I I am the team and it's very much the team. Just feel that, you know, we haven't quite fulfilled the potential of Cleartrip. You know, we have a responsibility to do that on a personal level.

Stuart: 45:39 You've also got, we've also got you know, over a thousand people sitting in eight different markets that there's a responsibility to, and you know, I think making sure that we, we put Cleartrip in a position where it can, it can, you know, continue to grow and exist and expand in a, in a logical and sensible ways is important from that perspective as well. But, you know, there are periods where you, you know, you need to check yourself in the mirror every now and then or you know, you need someone just to knock some [inaudible] to you. And that's happened less and less frequently I would say, but certainly has in the past. Yeah.

Kevin: 46:14 Just the last one from me then Stewart. I mean, do you, do you wish in a way that you were kind of starting a fresh now given that there are these kind of large pots of money that people are willing to give travel startups there? I mean, there is a, a a a fairly well known and fast growing India based accommodation company that seems to be making waves and you know, as we know Ritesh has done quite well in persuading people to give him lots of money. The OER, I mean, do you kind of look on enviously that you wish you'd had that opportunity back then or are you kind of pleased with the way you've done it?

Stuart: 46:49 Yeah, it's, it's a tough one that isn't it? I mean, I think there are periods when, you know, you look over your shoulder a little bit, MDs and some of the stuff that's going on. And you kind of said, look, if I had a fraction of that, what I could do within the business that we've built, given, you know, how we built it. You, it's just the reality. And you know, I think what Ritesh and gang are doing is extraordinary and you know, we'll, where that journey will go, no one knows. But, you know, we're watching with excitement. Yeah, I think I learned a long time ago not to, not to get too envious and jealous and just focus on what we have. And I think what we have, what have is a, you know, an interesting business. And if I, if I if I, if I spend my life looking over my shoulder, then I think my blood pressure would be through the roof. So now I'm, I'm, I'm healthy and happy and, and enjoying what we're doing.

David: 47:42 Well Stuart, I thanks for joining us today. I think this has been super fascinating. I think for regular listeners, they'll be able to tell. I've been doing a lot more listening on this podcast at once in the past. At this has been how I got here. Mozu and focus wire's podcast with Kevin May from focus flier and myself, David Litwak from Mozio. And thanks for joining us and we'll see you next time. Thanks to you. Thank you.

Stuart: 48:06 Right. Really enjoyed it. Thanks very much.

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