A Q&A with Nezasa co-founder and CEO Manuel Hilty. The Zurich-based startup, which offers a travel booking platform that includes customizable itineraries and recommendations from locals for specific accommodations and activities at travel destinations, announced at the start of June that it has raised $800,000 in new Seed funding. Investors include Paul Sevinç, Myke Näf and Gregory Gerhardt. It was founded in 2012 by Hilty, CTO Andreas Furer, and Devon Perry, and previously raised $370,000 in initial Seed funding back in August of last year.
SUB: Please describe Nezasa and your primary innovation.
Hilty: Nezasa provides a convenient platform for travelers that combines the service of a travel agency with the availability and price structure of an online portal. With suggested routes put together by destination experts, customers can easily adjust their travel itineraries to their liking and book everything all in one place. Our customers also have the peace-of-mind that the entire experience is supported by a local tour operator.
We are the first ones to cover the full end-to-end process—from inspiration through planning and booking to the actual travel experience itself—through a smooth online planning and booking tool, combined with the local support from our partners at the destination.
SUB: Who are your target markets and users?
Hilty: Our target market is global, but as our website is only available in English so far, we’re mainly targeting markets which are native English-speaking or have a very good average level of English—such as Scandinavia, for example.
Our users are people who want to travel individually, but still need their trips to be organized and with local support. Before Nezasa, they might have considered going to a travel agency, but now they can enjoy the ease and convenience of the online process.
SUB: Who do you consider to be your competition, and what differentiates Nezasa from the competition?
Hilty: We have three main types of competitors.
Curated package sellers: Companies like Evaneos, trip.me, etc. They’re probably our closest competition. They have the same underlying business model as a platform through which local operators can sell their services. What differentiates us from them is that we offer much more interactive planning capabilities via our website instead of relying heavily on email communications to plan the trip.
Online itinerary planners: Companies that allow you to plan an itinerary online and book all the components in it—flights, hotels, activities—through various platforms. What differentiates us from them is that we have local operators working with us. While this limits us from expanding our destinations quickly, this does allow our customers guidance in planning, plus the peace-of-mind that someone is responsible for their whole trip in the destination country and ensures it works out well.
Offline travel agencies: They provide good service and advice, but we’re available anytime/anywhere, have a leaner cost structure, and can later provide added services such as mobile apps on the go, etc.
SUB: You just announced that you’ve raised $800,000 in new Seed funding. Why was this a particularly good time to raise more outside funding?
Hilty: To be honest, it just had to be around this time, because the initial funds that we raised would have come to an end at some point. We could not really choose the timing, but rather had to raise a fresh round of funds by necessity and luckily succeeded in doing so.
SUB: How do you plan to use the funds?
Hilty: The funds will be used for market penetration, and for further extending our offering to more Asian countries and into Africa as well.
SUB: Do you have plans to seek additional funding in the near future?
Hilty: Right now, I’m enjoying a few months off from fundraising, being able to fully focus on the business at hand. But we’ll most probably be looking for growth financing in 2015, which is why the topic will come up again after summer.
SUB: What was the inspiration behind the idea for Nezasa? Was there an ‘aha’ moment, or was the idea more gradual in developing?
Hilty: One of our co-founders, Devon Perry, had this idea when he was still working for a large European tour operator. He saw the gap in the offerings between the offline world and the online world and realized that there was no existing service that could fill the gap. He was convinced that there was a way to fill it, but within that large corporation, he never got the chance to work on such a project.
One day, after he had left that company, he came to me and two other friends and asked us whether we could help him realize his idea. That’s how it all started.
SUB: What were the first steps you took in establishing the company?
Hilty: First, we started it as a side project of my old company, Acrea, which is a service company. After developing a first prototype and drafting a business plan, we decided that it was time to found a separate company for Nezasa.
After that, we set up the initial team, evolved the prototype into the beta offering, started to onboard partners, and launched the public beta in May, 2013.
SUB: How did you come up with the name? What is the story or meaning behind it?
Hilty: ‘Nezasa’ is a sub-species of Bamboo, a segmented grass that once fully grown is one of the strongest and most flexible materials on earth.
The name Nezasa was chosen as it represents our core offering—components pulled together into strong, cohesive products. In addition, bamboo evokes images of exotic locations and adventure, which are reflective of Nezasa’s aim to provide clients with unique experiences beyond the normal confines of pre-planned travel.
SUB: What have the most significant challenges been so far to building the company?
Hilty: Out of the three biggest challenges in our case from an initial perspective—getting the product working, getting partners on board, and cutting through the noise on the consumer side; the first two have been effectively solved and the third is the one we’re still working on.
Consumer travel is a very competitive market and even though we’ve got a differentiating product, it’s a tough job to get through to our target customers.
SUB: How do you generate revenue or plan to generate revenue?
Hilty: As we have a transactional business model, revenue generation is built into the model. The hard part will be to cut through the noise and get many bookings.
SUB: What are your goals for Nezasa over the next year or so?
Hilty: Over the next year, we’d like to get conversion up to a level where we can scale profitably. Furthermore, we’re planning to cover another continent beside Asia, probably Africa. Last but not least, we want to make a lot of customers very happy and, in the meantime, enjoy the journey ourselves.