Olga Bortnikova and her travel-loving husband had a few bad experiences with travel agencies before they decided to start their own. Poorly organized agenda’s, badly located hotels, tours that just brought groups to the biggest attractions and souvenir shops – it was not what they were looking for. But they couldn’t find an affordable, highly curated alternative, so they started their own, YouTravel.Me. They began offering tour packages in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East and South America. Bookings came pouring in, as did rave reviews from customers as Bortnikova expanded her team and relocated to San Francisco, California. Then the Pandemic hit. With travel at an all time low, sales nearly hit zero. Bortnikova put on her thinking cap and began researching how similar businesses had coped with past economic recessions and as the world began to slowly open up, she focused her tour offerings on a domestic basis. Today YouTravel.Me is back in full swing global travel mode and Bortnikova and her team couldn’t be happier.
Bortnikova’s story, as told to The Story Exchange 1,000+ Stories Project:
What was your reason for starting your business?
My husband Ivan and I used to travel a lot and planned every trip on our own. But one of our vacations in China proved to be a disappointment. Putting our trust in a tour operator, we bought a package tour and ran into many problems, from a 5-hour flight delay to the tour guide’s incompetence. After returning home, we decided to find a service with a more personalized approach to tours, but discovered that there wasn’t a good platform that could offer that.
A charter flight, several buses, tired people, no feedback — we were amazed how little the organizers cared about the tourists. Nobody was concerned if the guests liked the trip, everybody was just working their part of an assembly line. The hotel was far from the city, and if we wanted to go anywhere, we had to pay extra and plan it all on our own. The group walking tours mostly took us to the souvenir shops. As a result, we had to come up with our own itinerary and plan activities on the go.
So we learned that there’s a better way to do group travel — there are trips that are organized by travel experts, professional tour guides who assemble small groups for exciting trips anywhere in the world. However, there was no single aggregator for such trips, and we decided to create it on our own. We invested about $10,000 of our own money to set up YouTravel.Me spending it on site development and advertising.
How do you define success?
Success to me is the success of my team. My biggest goal is for my team to feel accomplished, in both their personal and professional lives. The more fulfilled they are in their lives, the more drive and energy they will have to accomplish business goals. I love to work with people who are passionate about what they do. If the team is passionate, it will lead to overall business success.
Tell us about your biggest success to date
Without a doubt, starting YouTravel.me is the biggest success of my professional career. We built a community of amazing people, who do amazing things – together, we built something that didn’t exist before. Without external investment, we created the biggest platform for travel experts and signature small group tours in Russia and Eurasian countries. We are on a mission to establish and grow our presence in the US.
What is your top challenge and how have you addressed it?
At the onset of the pandemic, our sales went down more than 90%, almost reaching ground zero. That was hard. Not just financially, but also the team morale was low and we had to find a way to motivate the team to continue pushing things forward and do their work with enthusiasm. It was hard to realize that it wasn’t only our platform that wasn’t performing, but also that the entire travel industry was in decline. I knew that as a leader it was my job to find a solution that could help us snap out of it and rise to the challenge. It took me about a week of research – reading up on the past to see what decisions had been made back in 2009 and 2014, when leaders also had to deal with crises and decline in economy. That’s when the idea to start an educational platform for travel experts called BeGuide came to mind and that was the time when we decided to shift gears and focus on the domestic market instead of international. Finding those solutions and shifting our perspective helped our team believe in our mission and made them realize that they are all working toward reaching big goals. Igniting the team’s passion and belief in our strength as a company was a turning point that has helped us to overcome the biggest challenges in the face of the pandemic.
The biggest challenge that we’re facing now is sales and marketing. This area requires a lot of work and takes up a lot of time, and there’s so much innovation and new tools to keep up with. While we have strong expertise in this field, new channels for growth and business development seem to appear sooner than we can implement them. But challenge is always good and it is driving us further and pushes us to aim higher and achieve more. The sales and marketing push goes hand in hand with our scaling efforts – we’re always looking for ways to grow faster while still offering the best experience and client service and keeping our financials in check.
On a more personal note, striking a perfect work-life balance has been a challenge as well. I’m very passionate about the work that we do, so I’m no stranger to waking up at 4:00am and diving into work. Of course, such a schedule doesn’t allow for a rich social life or being too engaged with family and friends. So, I’ve recently started to take one day off work a week to focus on personal time.
Have you experienced any significant personal situations that have affected your business decisions?
Relocation to the US has made a significant impact on how I’ve been looking at the business, my decision making process and re-evaluating many of our existing processes.
What is your biggest tip for other startup entrepreneurs?
Before launching a product, read the book The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick. It’s important to understand the consumer’s needs first before you start selling your product to them. Always ask yourself what your customers think, what challenges are they facing? To get these insights, you must be in communication with your clients and use these insights to make more informed decisions on improving your product so you can cater to them in a more meaningful way.
Take small steps to reach your goal but don’t spend a lot of time preparing for the “big moment.” Move quickly, make decisions fast. Any mistake is a result of activity and moving forward. By adopting this mindset, you can learn not to be afraid of mistakes and that will help you go ahead and do things, without the fear of not making it right.
How do you find inspiration on your darkest days?
I’m the type of person who finds opportunity and thrives in the darkest and the most challenging days. The less is known, the easier it is for me to take next steps. Challenging situations always open doors to unexpected things and for me, making the right decisions.
Who is your most important role model?
I don’t believe in role models. Every person has their own path, with their own successes and shortfalls. I try to educate myself in a broader sense instead of focusing on specific personalities. I love reading, watching videos and listening to podcasts that keep me interested, well-versed in the current conversation and help me grow as a leader and a business person.