Five years ago, four Dalhousie University engineering students went online to book a European vacation, with multiple cities and plenty of air travel in mind. They had no definitive itinerary, just a list of five cities that they wanted to experience, in no particular order.

While it sounds like the beginning of a rom-com or action-adventure movie, for Andres Collart, Brett Ziegler, Rob Dumont, and Julieta Collart, it was the beginning of something much bigger – it was the start of a very unique business venture.   

“I just wanted to be there and get a good deal on my flights. But, if you start researching and switching the different order of the locations, with a five-city trip, there are 120 different ways of doing it,” Andres Collart, CEO and Co-Founder of Trip Ninja, said. He added that if you searched any online travel agency at the time, you would need a spreadsheet, several documents and plenty of time to research the various flight options to find the most cost-effective route.

“Really, that’s not how people search for flights – you’re not going to create a spreadsheet to figure this out. So you’ll search two or three different changes, then just buy that. It’s not the cheapest,” he said, adding that price differences were anywhere from $1,800 to $8,000, depending on how the user inputs their desired destinations.  

“That amount of money, someone could actually spend in those destinations, and have a better experience because the budget is now being used more effectively,” Collart said.

So after going to Europe and enjoying their vacation, the team came back and asked some friends about their travel planning habits to validate their business idea and better understand their ideal customer profile. Most people, they learned, didn’t care where they travelled first, as long as they had the opportunity to fly between cities at a reasonable rate.

“We started down the road of [having] this flexible booking tool for multi-city travellers – a very niche market – and wanted to create a business to consumer (B2C) booking flow,” he said. “If you’re trying to market to multi-city travellers that are flexible in their route, it’s really, really difficult.”

So, they continued to work full-time during the day, and picked away at their travel tech idea anytime they could muster.

Eventually, Collart knew it was time to take the full leap into entrepreneurship. He quit his full-time, salaried job, started attending relevant conferences, and became a Network Member here at Volta to immerse himself in startup culture and build the product in our Co-Working Space.

He also enrolled in the Starting Lean course at Dalhousie University, and was accepted into the Propel ICT Program. Collart said that the Propel ICT program not only helped hone his pitching skills, but it helped fine-tune their business idea and communicate its value more effectively to respective audiences.

“We were still kind of B2C and B2B, but by the fall we were exclusively B2B. We decided that B2C was not something that we could tackle and we needed to really focus our efforts,” Collart said. “We didn’t want to be a marketing organization, and most online travel agencies are really marketing organizations.”

Expedia, for example, is one of the most well-known online travel agencies, and they spend about 40 per cent of their budget on marketing; that’s billions of dollars per year.  

“I don’t know a whole lot about marketing, because that’s not my passion. My passion is the backend algorithm, so we decided to focus on that stuff,” he said.  

So they continued the customer discovery process, and brought online travel agencies in on the conversation about their product and its potential. Those discussions seemed to validate their refined value proposition as a B2B platform, and really directed their approach. Insight from potential customers also gave them a leg-up on the integration process with the online travel agencies’ existing technologies, and helped improve their algorithm’s speed and success rate.

“Around that time, we applied to Volta Cohort,” Collart said.

Up to five chances to win $25,000 in investment, mentorship, office space for one year, and extensive resources at Volta, had just been announced as part of the inaugural Cohort event, and the call was out for applications. For entrepreneurs to be successful, it came down to effectively communicating their business idea in a three-minute pitch against other companies at different stages of business and product development.

“There’s a lot of preparation involved,” Collart said, adding that he had pitched once before, but there’s a lot of pressure to explain your business in only a few short minutes.

Most pitch participants spend weeks rehearsing, practicing repeatedly and receiving feedback from anyone who will listen. They create and edit their pitch deck over and over again, until finally, it’s time to stand in front of the judges and present their idea.

Those very few, short minutes can change absolutely everything for an entrepreneur.

No pressure, right?  

“It also really dictate[d] what we [could] do in the next six months to a year. So when you’re waiting to hear the names of the winners, you’re just waiting there in the audience, wondering if you’re going to be one of the companies whose trajectory is going to be significantly changed,” Collart said.

And then it happened.

The pitches were over; the judges made their decisions and were ready to announce the winners. You could sense the excitement, and really feel the anticipation in the room – $25,000 changes everything, not to mention the other perks.

“It was definitely nerve-racking, because it’s a lot of money to give a small company,” he recalled.

Of the 45 applicants and 15 pitches during the November 2017 event, the judges announced Trip Ninja, OnBook, MyMem, Clockk, and Rovault as the first-ever Cohort winners.

“It’s definitely a huge feeling of validation. To hear that not only do [the judges] believe that this is a good idea, but that the team that you have assembled to carry that out, is a team that in [their] experienced view, have the abilities to carry this out,” Collart said. “It’s awesome validation and you then need to figure out how to deliver on those promises.

“The Volta Cohort money – from the investment terms that we have received – is probably the best money that we have ever been given from an investment standpoint for our company,” he added.  

Collart noted that more than a year later, Trip Ninja has launched two products (Fare Structure and Flex Trip) and has grown significantly; they continue to partner with online travel agencies and help them identify mark-up opportunities for multi-city trips using their existing inventory.

And where Trip Ninja began with only the original, four travellers (Andres Collart, Brett Ziegler, Rob Dumont, and Julieta Collart) working part-time, evenings and weekends, Andres said they are thrilled their team is growing with one part-timer, eight full-time team members, and three more full-time employees who will be hired in April.

He also noted that, since they have the ear of some of the largest online travel agencies, Trip Ninja is serving much like an Innovation Outpost for those companies, by acting as the go-to source for new product development. The companies communicate their pain points and TripNinja creates the software that resolve those issues.

The biggest win through all of this so far though, Collart said, is that, “We’re actually making money now – so that helps.”

The next Volta Cohort is taking place on May 22. The deadline to apply is Wednesday, April 3; submit your application at voltaeffect.com/cohort today.

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