Origin Story Interview W/ Alfredo Seidemann, Viatu

Origin Story Interview W/ Alfredo Seidemann, Viatu

Brighter Future

 / 

Nov 8, 2022

#BrighterFuture #entrepreneurship #Sustainability #ClimateChangeSolution #originstoryseries #seekthechange #SustainableTravel #TravelWithPurpose #GreenTourism #ConsciousTravel #ResponsibleTourism #viatutravel

Brighter Future

Today, we’re thrilled to be joined by Alfredo, the CEO and founder of Viatu, a sustainable travel company that makes travel accessible to all.

Hi, Alfredo. Thank you for joining us today! We are thrilled to learn more about your sustainable travel company. Can you share a little bit about where you are from and the paths you have been on?

Hi! It’s a very interesting story. My mum is Mexican, and my dad is Swiss, so I had a multilingual upbringing, which fostered a curiosity for different cultures.

After my studies I landed in Argentina, where I worked for Rocket Internet, a well-known German venture builder. It was here that I was first exposed to the world of entrepreneurship in managing startups across Latin America.

Following that, I joined Google in Ireland, where I learned the ins and outs of digital marketing while also working for a company that I consider a leader in innovation. Working for Google was a game-changer for my career. Despite its size, the internet giant understands how to innovate at a global scale. It was always a goal of mine to work for a company that has shaped our everyday life in such a fundamental way - just think of all the services you use on a daily basis - Google Maps, Gmail, Android, etc.

After a number of years in Ireland, a good friend offered me a job in tourism. That’s how I ultimately ended up in Africa. I ventured down to the Cape and needless to say, I was blown away. I spent 5 years in Cape Town where I served as the CMO for Rhino Africa, one of Africa’s largest tech-enabled tour operators. I had a fantastic time and couldn’t let go of travel.

The pandemic was the perfect storm that forced us to pause and rethink our travel behaviour. At the time, it seemed like the ideal catalyst to start a new travel company centred around purpose and sustainability. We might have underestimated the duration of the pandemic, but I still think it was the right timing.

And here we are, two years down the road, and it has been wonderful. I love what I do.

Amazing! So, how did you decide to start a sustainable travel business? What piqued your interest in sustainability? How is Viatu making a difference?

Sustainability is inherently a complex topic. At Viatu we try to demystify it. The way we conduct our company is based on 4 pillars of sustainability. Namely, it’s the destinations we offer, the partners we work with, the travellers that we serve and how we manage our company’s footprint. We have a dedicated team cross checking all our partners, ensuring that booking a sustainable trip through Viatu ticks all the right boxes.

More and more people want to travel better. However, obstacles like a lack of information, clarity, the proper tools or just not having the right knowledge stop so many in their tracks. Our job is to make booking a sustainable journey as easy as booking an uber. You need to enjoy using our platform, or else you won’t use it.

So, whether you have a green mindset or not, you automatically use the planet positive solution over others. It becomes the easiest and most effective option and that’s what draws you to it.

As our launch continent, Africa made us realise that some of the most beautiful destinations in the world can be really hard to visit. That is illustrated by some mind-boggling statistics:  For instance, every year more people visit France than the whole of Africa. This is because it is perceived as a more complex destination. 1.4 billion people travel yearly, and only roughly 70 million go to Africa. That is crazy.

Bringing everyone to Paris, Venice or Thailand contributes to over-tourism, which results in the erosion of local culture and the destruction of natural habitats. In response to this, we chose a different path by showing people the places that are less accessible but have an incredible sustainable impact. We ensure the destination is off the beaten path, allowing people to experience wonderful places that give back to their communities, and as a result, have a planet positive journey. We strongly believe you as a traveller can be part of the solution instead of the problem. We offer new, unique destinations, for travellers from any walk of life or place on the planet.

Impressive! How would you describe Africa to a first-time traveller and why is Viatu the best option for an initial visit?

Now, that’s a very good question. First and foremost, we’re not an African solution; we started in Africa because we believe it’s where we can have the biggest initial impact. Tourism is a force for good that can offer people on the ground an alternative source of income that is aligned with sustainable values. At Viatu, we aim to help create the necessary structures for protecting nature, conserving wildlife and uplifting local communities. So, for now, Africa is just the starting point. We want to bring our solution worldwide from Southeast Asia to Latin America and beyond.

With Viatu we’re offering people a one-stop shop for sustainable travel. So, how does our platform work? On our website, you find trips curated by our experts that you can customise safely to your liking. Be it your travel style, budget, timeframe, vibe, the places you want to see and the things you want to experience. For instance, it’s up to you to pick and choose, swap things or add something on. Say you’re in the Namibian desert and you want to add a hot air balloon ride, a private safari or stay another night - all of it is quick, easy and designed by you.

Our team thoroughly cross checks all of our partners, taking the guesswork out of sustainability and leaving you with a seamless travel experience.

Some keyways that we achieve this is through a comprehensive sustainability framework that prioritises transparency along with actionable community and conservation interventions. We check how our partners implement sustainability with a comprehensive scoring system that fits in line with strict global standards, so that you as a traveller don’t have to do any heavy lifting. Some specific examples include; female empowerment, local management and wildlife protection initiatives - to name a few. Lastly, we offset your carbon footprint on your behalf through a project in the destination you visit. I mean, there’s no point planting a tree in India if you are travelling to Africa. This way, you are matching your CO2 emissions to a specific local project and thus, creating a direct impact.

Interesting! So, what would you say is the most rewarding thing about your work?

I would say there are two aspects to it: one is internal, and the other is external.

At an internal level, I’m incredibly passionate about waking up daily, having a purpose and working with smart people. I have never had a dull moment over the past 15 years. I feel like I’ve found a way to be a part of a meaningful pursuit that connects people and protects beautiful places. It may sound like a bit of a cliché, but I do believe that helping others is the best way to help yourself.

In an external sense, I believe Viatu has meaningfully contributed to someone’s memorable experiences, which is genuinely precious. At its core, travel allows people to create a long-lasting memorable experience and at Viatu, we help our travellers create these memories as well as have an impact through their travels. We’re also working in an industry full of incredibly smart and passionate people who strive to create a real positive impact on people and the places that they love.  

You mentioned that you are half-Mexican and half-Swiss. You also said you have a knack for languages. So, side question, how many languages do you speak?

Well, I would say that I can comfortably speak probably four or five languages. I grew up speaking German, Swiss-German and Spanish. At School we learned French and English, then at University I took a keen interest in Italian - not sure why - perhaps it’s the great food. I also picked up a few languages during my adventures; an example of which is the Afrikaans language in South Africa. The same applies to Norwegian; my fiancé is Norwegian, so I’m eager to improve on it.

Wow, that’s amazing! So, tell us, what about your travel experiences inspired you to start Viatu? What things have your adventures helped you realise?

Booking a trip to London or Paris is easy. You only need a smartphone and a credit card to organise everything. However, most destinations across the globe are far less connected. These are usually the ones off the beaten path, the ones with awe-inspiring nature and wildlife. It’s those destinations that we want to bring closer to our travellers.

You would never be able to travel to Southeast Asia, Patagonia, or Rwanda this easily, you’d need to be prepared ahead of time.

Did you know that up to 70% of those destinations are still dominated by brick-and-mortar travel agents, where you are either on the phone or sitting down with someone who laboriously plans a trip for you? Viatu is here to offer you a better solution.

Millennials will be the largest traveller group by 2030. They don’t want to walk into a travel office, sit down with a consultant and wait 2 weeks to get an offer back. Millennials value efficiency and transparency paired with a great user experience, which is exactly what Viatu provides.

And frankly, we haven’t seen another company out there that does what we do. You can use booking.com, but that won’t work if you want to go on a Namibian safari. Booking.com won’t ensure you arrive on time, have the right visas, vaccines, meal plan, etc. In short, the big OTAs are a great solution if you are booking city-trips but not when you book complex itineraries in remote destinations.

It sounds like Viatu is different in so many positive ways. How did you notice these differences? Did you experience some of these things, or how did you get these ideas?

I understood there was a gap through my own experiences of travelling through Africa and my previous work experience in the industry.

Booking remote travel is inherently difficult. Typically, this process can be very inconvenient, involving agents and long delays in processing the holiday.  Then at the end of it, you get a Word document or PDF with all the details. I always felt there had to be something inherently smarter and less cumbersome, that doesn’t require you to spend days talking to someone. There are plenty of statistics out there that indicate how many millennials seek a much more flexible and predominantly digital solution.

Was there a time with Viatu when you took a different approach from what you originally planned?

Yes, in fact, more times than I can count. It’s one of the things that come with building a start-up. You must be prepared to change your plans often, and although this is challenging, sometimes it’s for the best. It’s good to stay flexible. Ultimately, our mission doesn’t change. Only the way we execute things changes.

The most impactful parts were during the COVID pandemic. We are a travel company that started in 2020; how foolish, right? But you can’t blame us. Initially, like everyone else, we thought COVID would be over quickly. When the pandemic started, we assumed this might take six months or a maximum of nine months. So, we thought this was the perfect time to build a company because no one was travelling and loads of wonderful people were available to help us create an exciting product. We assumed by the time COVID ended, we would be fully ready to start, but the opposite happened. COVID consistently messed up our plans, even when we were expecting it.

Then the new wave hit and it impacted people’s willingness to book, and our fundraising process. During the pandemic, investors would rather invest in companies with less exposure. At the time, no one was interested in investing in something as ‘risky’ as travel; instead, people would say, “You know what? Let me invest in AI, B2B SAAS, NFTs or something that’s a little less risky.” Investor and customer decisions were changed by the different waves; another wave of lockdown hit us again when we were ready to welcome customers, resulting in everything shutting down. Then, Omicron was another huge blow to our business. Because of all of this, we ended up having to extend our budgets and adapt our narratives.

From a customer's perspective, COVID cancellation policies were one of the biggest hurdles as people didn’t want to book far in advance without knowing the regulations.

That being said, we always look on the bright side. It made us stronger from the get-go. We were the first company to offer very, very flexible cancellation policies for trip-based travel and that’s just one example of how the pandemic forced us to become better, quicker.

It must have been a lot to deal with, especially during the economic recession. Was that the only challenge Viatu faced?

Viatu has faced and overcome so many challenges. It’s really hard not to face some difficulties as a start-up. Personally, I think these hurdles are what moulded Viatu into what it is today.

The first one was when we launched our websites that were past MVP. We went out big, and our launch was like, “Come and book your sustainable adventure.” Then, the Delta variant happened. However, we were quite lucky. Despite regulations and restrictions that were changing almost daily - making our job really tough - we managed to help our travellers have incredible experiences and we didn’t have a single cancellation!

There are a couple of ways that we managed to do this. On average, you have three to four people attached to the bookings, so we had to move them around and ensure people had a great experience. This is the most important thing to us; we always want to offer people the best experience and external factors should not hinder them from getting their money’s worth. We were fortunate enough to have suppliers who were flexible on payments until our clients reached their destinations. This helped us manage our cashflow and help clients where needed.  

Giving our travellers the best treatment is our utmost priority. However, we also need to consider the suppliers who count on revenue and have to pay staff. If we had too many cancellations, it would be terrible for them and their families, besides affecting funding for conservation efforts. Thankfully, despite the pandemic, we managed to move many of the bookings we didn’t have to refund, which meant the revenue for those communities was not lost.

Thank you for sharing that with us! Can you tell us when you decided you wanted to tread the entrepreneurial path? When did you discover yourself and realise you wanted to start your own business?

I’d say it was probably in Argentina. Rocket Internet hired so-called “entrepreneurs in residence”— a job where you get an internet-based business model to go and execute in an emerging market. So, you get to safely play entrepreneur because you are assigned a budget; your salaries are covered, and you get a guidebook. Coming up with a novel idea and raising funds are usually taken care of, but you still have to hire people, develop strategies, adjust those strategies, and it comes with a lot of stress and lack of sleep. It was an amazing journey; I loved every bit of it. It also helped me learn the ins and outs of this world quickly and think on my feet. You learn how to be innovative with few resources and high stakes.

Later on, I also loved being in a more corporate environment at Google, it was a fantastic place to work and learn. Google really knows how to manage culture and processes in tandem. I incorporated a lot of what I learnt there into my following jobs.

Wow, impressive! It’s great you discovered yourself and decided to go for it. You must have made some sacrifices to get your business to where it is today. Can you tell us about the biggest sacrifice you made?

I think relationships are the biggest sacrifices you make when establishing a start-up. Combining looking after your partner, family, loved ones, and friends while running a start-up can be very hard. In addition, starting during a pandemic with a completely remote team didn’t make things any easier.

This is not to say that there aren’t advantages to working remotely but it comes with its own unique challenges too. As a completely decentralised remote team scattered across 12 different nations, being able to work flexibly from home was nice. But at the same time, the hours you clock daily don’t change, and you have to put in more effort to keep your relationships going. I’ve learnt a little from my previous experiences because I used to be way worse at that. Now, I’m much better at reminding myself to stay in touch with the people I care about. Other people might disagree, but I think my productivity skills have also improved. I don’t spend too much time checking my phone, and I think I’m way better now than when I worked at Google or Rocket Internet.  

So, you turned your sacrifices into strengths?

Well, I wouldn’t say strengths, because it’s only my opinion and the people in my life hold different ones. If you speak to my partner or family, they may say I could be better and more present. I could be more engaged. But I think it could also be much worse.

I’m not sure if many people have said this, but the lack of funds or income during this time was never an issue. I earn a much smaller income than before and it doesn’t bother me. Still, undergoing a tough financial journey helped me in some ways. It taught me a healthy spending habit, and I scaled down my expenses and learnt how to buy only necessary items. But I don’t sacrifice two things: good coffee and good wine. Both are rocket fuel for my spirit. I won’t sacrifice them.

Nice! So, how is your business thriving post-COVID? We know the economy is not back to how it used to be. How do you envision your business’s future?

As an entrepreneur, you have to be an optimist. I see us going to great places, and I see an amazing future ahead for Viatu. We are positively shaping our environment, and we are becoming one of those companies that will step up and change society for the better.

I’ve drawn great comfort and inspiration from Steven Pinker’s book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. In his work, Pinker posits that if we zoom out on humanity as a whole, rather than holding every tragedy under the microscope we can start to see that over time, things are generally getting better and there are many resources to help us improve. An example is technology; how it connects us and gives us access to a wealth of information which in turn increases access to education, health care, jobs and much more.

Statistically speaking, we are currently in an incredibly positive place. There are challenges, of course, but they are nothing to be scared of. For example, we have access to remote work. It has never been easier to work from home and be connected to amazing people, but civilisation has made it possible. We are optimistic about the future and will give it all it takes to get where we hope to be.

Your story is inspiring! We want to give you a chance to advise young entrepreneurs who are just starting or contemplating starting. What advice would you give to them?

My advice would be: don’t overthink or over analyse things. Believe everything will be fine, and you’ll overcome the challenges. If you’re still contemplating starting, that’s overthinking; you should put yourself out there and start. Step out of your comfort zone and stop worrying about failure; you are allowed to fail and often failure is just part of the process.

Failure teaches you plenty of lessons, and the risk might be worth taking because you will contribute positively to society when you become successful. You’ll create more employment opportunities, and the best part is you’ll be your own boss. In my opinion, that’s the best way to work. Although, there are some factors you should consider before starting. The first one is your mental health, then debt and budget. You can start after considering these factors.  

Can you share some of the things you find inspiring on your path as an entrepreneur?

Yeah, sure. The book I mentioned earlier by Steven Pinker gives entrepreneurs a positive perspective and promotes positive thinking. For inspiration, I also listen to Guy Raz from NPR’s podcasts. You have a lot of diverse audiences from all walks of life, and these books and podcasts will help you learn how to create and manage your business. They will also show you how other successful companies reached that level of success.

The last book I’ll recommend for entrepreneurs is The Culture Map by Erin Meyer. It’s very helpful for those who wish to start a remote workforce distributed across multiple countries. The author is brilliant, and she maps out how we, in different cultures or countries, react to various aspects of work such as leadership, decision making, teamwork and collaboration. It’s very well-written and has a couple of graphs showing the feedback delivery between countries. It helps to explain how best to relate to people from around the world.  

Last but no least, if you could tell the world one thing, what would it be?

It would be pretty straightforward: be a good person. Treat people with kindness and treat them how you wish to be treated; don’t take advantage of people and always pay it forward when you can. I’m not sure if “pay it forward” is a coined term, but what I mean is always do something kind and useful for people without expecting anything in return. When you expect something in return, it’s no longer an act of kindness but a trade. I have experienced it, too, and I am tremendously grateful for it

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A huge thank you to our wonderful guest Alfredo Seidemann for participating in this interview and sharing his start-up experience. It’s always exciting to delve into the mind of an entrepreneur who is having a real impact on the planet. If you would like to find out more about Alfredo and the amazing work he is doing at Viatu, you can find him at: www.viatu.com

To stay up to date with all of our latest content and interviews with amazing people like Alfredo, subscribe to the Brighter Future newsletter here.

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