I had gotten to know Duffel as a super cool, stealth travel startup a little while ago. Headquartered in London, their vision to re-build travel infrastructure from the ground up was terribly promising (those of you who work with clunky flight booking systems — Duffel changes all of that). Thomas and I eventually got to speaking with Nicholas Foo (Nicfoo), Head of Partnerships at Duffel.
He had started in a grad role with the Singapore Tourism Board — working across Singapore and India. Then a stint launching a new business with Grab in Indonesia, a creative side hustle as a ‘story-grapher’ — which eventuated in an exhibition of travel stories and soundscapes from his time in India — and startup advisor. His story was one I was curious to dive a little deeper into.
Not to make assumptions — one has to throw out assumptions.
One lesson I learnt, especially from India, is that you don’t try to survive the city, or survive the market. You need to thrive in those markets, especially when you’re there for business. So throw out all of the assumptions that you bring with you — in terms of culture, people, behaviour, work ethic — because they don’t apply.
To borrow an Indian word, it’s to learn to be ‘desi’ —to learn to be local. Once you’ve ripped apart all your pre-conceived notions, you can then start adding your layers of global perspective, to make your time there more thrilling and fulfilling.
Life has been a series of opportunities that I’ve decided to act on. I moved to India just 1 year into my professional career - I wanted an overseas posting with the Singapore government, but I had thought New York, or London! So when I was told New Delhi, I thought “Not really my dream.. but why not? Go for it.”
I’ve always had a predisposition to be cautious, so instead I try to counteract that with bolder, wilder decision-making. With London — my wife and I just said, let’s move. There was no strategic timing.
I remember arriving in Piccadilly Circus in London for the first time — it was phenomenal to see different scenes you were used to on the TV screen! All these weird emotions. I found myself a different kind of person, with a different perspective and mindset when in a place that I’m a stranger to — and that was a nice feeling. My senses were heightened. I liked the self I was when I was in different places with new people — I was bolder.
At Duffel, we saw that getting access to flights was a challenge for any travel business to get started. We’re building the infrastructure for anyone to buy and sell travel easily.
We’re grateful for the pandemic buying us extra time. Being early stage, we’ve got the flexibility to adapt, focusing on three things: build product, build team, build relationships with customers and thought leaders in the industry. Like in Sequoia Capital’s black swan memo — to hunker down and build product.
We do see a slowdown from the airlines in their NDC (New Distribution Capability) work — however, we also see ~11% of airlines strengthening their work in NDC. This shows that finding new distribution channels for their product is very important — to get to businesses who are actually selling their product for them, cutting out the middleman.
We have seen in the news the big players who are struggling. But for those who aren’t, they are doubling down, finding ways to strengthen themselves post-COVID. For travel businesses that are well-run — they are preparing for recovery, not just weathering the crisis.
The industry needs to rebuild confidence. Travel was growing pre-COVID, and a lot of companies were milking this growth, but not preparing for a crisis like this. So the first thing will be fairly un-sexy. To clean up house, make sure fundamentals are solid to prevent a second wave.
I think we’re also starting to see the return of tours and packages. There was a period of time where the western world was moving towards the free and independent traveller — who were no longer buying outdated packages, where the cool, hipster stuff was left out. How might this trend continue, but shift towards a concierge type service towards the modern traveller — mobile, instantaneous?
Back to Europe! This time in a car with the family. And a cycling holiday in Spain — 3 days, sunshine, food, countryside.
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