what can pokhara's youth do in 54 hours?
Over a weekend in Nepal’s favorite vacation valley, 28 ideas were fi ltered and developed from scratch into three businesses. Startup Weekend Pokhara’s entrepreneurial business plans might very well bring Pokhara’s tourism industry into the present with its need-of-the-hour concepts.
There is no off-season in Pokhara anymore, not really,” the hotel manager said matter-of-factly as I commented on how hard booking a hotel in Pokhara was, even though peak season hadn’t started. I had arrived in Pokhara a day early for Startup Weekend, starting the next day, on September 28, and my hotel was at full capacity. Foreign and domestic tourists alike thronged the shores of Phewa Lake. New hotels seemingly pop up overnight here, many catering to the recent influx of Chinese tourists. The land of adventure sports and laid-back relaxation, the first step for many treks, clean and beautiful Pokhara was the perfect place to set a Startup Weekend focusing on tourism. Fittingly, September 28 was also World Tourism Day, and what better way to celebrate it than to create ideas dedicated to the topic?
The Weekend started with a bang. Literally. As the affable and jocular speaker for the event, Pravin Joshi, started to welcome us, the circuitry failed spectacularly; with crackles of electricity sparking, a resounding boom, and plenty of smoke. The hall at Hotel Anand was thrown into darkness. Dressed in our bright yellow Startup t-shirts, the participants and the organizers trickled out like a stream of Dijon mustard and milled around awkwardly. A rather ominous start, I thought.
Fortunately, that impromptu lightshow was the only major failure during the whole event. In fact, I was impressed by how tightly organized the three-day event was. This Weekend revolved around the tourism industry, The use of technology was seamless and intrinsic – we voted online, we registered online, products pitches were entered in an online database – and the stark contrast made me realize just how outdated much of the services in Nepal are.
Pitches were made, voted on, and then the best ideas were chosen to have teams form around them. For the next two days, these ideas would be pruned and perfected until they were judged and the final three chosen. In the spirit of entrepreneurship, the prizes were mentorship sessions and services rather than a lump sum of cash. I thought it was an interesting way to cut down on aggressive competition as well as ensuring that the best ideas got the support they needed before they hit the market.
Most of the 28 pitches at Startup Weekend Pokhara seemed to settle around either booking or review sites. As a hotel operator, I am constantly bombarded with similar sites offering their services, but since many of the participants were college-aged and inexperienced, they had not realized that these ideas were not as innovative as they thought. There were some gems though. An online directory of blood donors was an interesting idea, though not very tourism based. Another pitched a website that collated and organized the very fragmented world of home stay tourism. I hoped it would get picked; it was a great concept that was sorely overdue.
My own idea was (yet another!) review website, but one that focused on the niche of voluntourism in Nepal. Volunteers would rate and review the organizations they worked at, slowly building up a useful database that others could use to decide whether an organization was worth their time, money or skills. It would hopefully weed out fraudulent or disorganized groups.
My idea did not get chosen for the final nine, so I joined a team headed by Kajal Khadka, who had pitched a website called Best Price Rooms, where hotels could sell their unoccupied rooms for a discounted price. Since I already had experience in the tourism industry, I keyed them into what I knew: the myriad other websites that provided exactly what they did, realistic commission rates and the nightmare that was online payment in Nepal. Judging by the crestfallen faces of the other teams, they were also getting a crash course in reality from the Startup Weekend Mentors.
The Mentors and Coaches at SW Pokhara were amazing. They helped the teams through difficulties like planning a budget, or figuring out their niche market. Our team got valuable coaching on financials, since none of us had any business expertise.
I used my experience as a hotel owner to streamline Best Price team’s idea, picking out which of their features, someone in my line of work would be attracted to. We ended up with a booking system that heavily emphasized the ‘last-minute’ part and targeted domestic tourists, an underrepresented but growing market. Kajal and her team, Saugat and Sangharsha, were IT students. They fiddled with code and esoteric computer things, staying up half the night making Breaking Deals a reality. Using the symbolism of digging and breaking through to get the lowest price, I soon had a stylized cracked logo in a bold orange, a new name, Breaking Deals, and a new slogan “Last Minute Rooms at Rock Bottom Prices” all tied around this theme.
The teams around us were also acting to make themselves unique and useful products. One of the teams had formed with the idea of a website where people could complain about hotels. Realizing that there was little financial merit to public negative feedback, they tweaked it so they would actually be offering hotels an analysis of guest feedback and ways to improve service to avoid similar complaints in the future. By marketing it as a service that hotels would want, the team was able to make it financially viable by charging them for it. It doesn’t matter how great your idea is if no one wants it.
Figuring out if there is a demand for our products was an important part of Startup Weekend. So I went to Lakeside to survey hotels, while the rest of my team surveyed domestic tourists in and around Hotel Anand. Most of the hotels reported around 40-60% occupancy as a yearly average, and said they would appreciate being able to sell rooms that were left empty when bookings failed to materialize or cancelled. Our other potential clientele, domestic tourists, were also enthusiastic about a service that let them get rooms for a low price without the effort of negotiating with the hotel directly. It is always encouraging to see your customer base responding positively to your product.
Our effort was rewarded when Breaking Deals was actually chosen to be one of the three winning ideas that would get support to become a real startup company. The other winning pitches were Rentific, a service to rent things online, and the Homestay Nepal website that I had liked from the beginning.
50 participants and 6 organizers had stayed up till the eastern sun pinked the clouds, slept in makeshift living quarters and survived an event hall kept at the core temperature of a refrigerator. We also had a new understanding of the challenges in making a small idea into a viable business model, sell it to investors, and make it a real, ready-to-go product.
I’m already looking forward to Startup Weekend Global, where hundreds of teams from hundreds of countries are participating. I should better jot some ideas down.