ROCKVEGAS: Central Queensland's answer to Silicon Valley for startups
Published on 23 April 2021
A lot of people say you must be in the big cities or Silicon Valley to run a successful tech-start up, but one small business owner is trying to prove those people wrong.
Smart Hub Business Manager Elize Hattin recently caught up with Karan Joon (aka KJ), founder of Accommodation Booking Platform Voyak, to discuss how he grew a tech startup from Rockhampton, without any business skills or programming know-how.
ROCK SOLID BUSINESS FOUNDATIONS
Voyak is a new online accommodation booking platform, created by KJ to address the issues associated with foreign owned companies operating in Australia, which have majority market share.
KJ explains Voyak has a dual purpose for accommodation operators.
“It's about lowering business costs to the point accommodation providers can actually make money, which is not happening now, and, to offer a new platform where guests never have to experience an inconvenience when they book accommodation online.
“Often things go wrong when you book accommodation, and then people must take time out of their holiday to fixing the issues like overbookings.
“You don't want to be inconvenienced when you're going on holiday, so that's the most important thing we want to solve.
“We built this in Rocky a hundred percent from the ground up,” says KJ.
Two weeks before Christmas back in 2017, KJ was at a cafe, drinking coffee when he overheard a couple discussing their holiday booking.
KJ overheard them say they had booked their holiday with a company, but it did not go very well, resulting in them losing all the money they had outlaid, without any refund.
“They sounded really frustrated. I went back to my room in the house I was renting and started thinking maybe I could build a new travel and tourist platform.
“Something that did all this, but you didn't lose any money if something were to go wrong, which was not through your own fault.
“Just say flights didn't make it, or say the accommodation booked out, you will get a hundred percent money back,” he explains.
With this core concept in mind, KJ started developing his travelling tourist platform.
At the same time, KJ said there were a lot of issues coming to surface from accommodation operators regarding foreign American companies, such as Booking.com and Expedia.
When Aussie entrepreneur Dick Smith launched a social media video that went viral, urging Australian travellers to bypass commission-charging online travel agents (OTAs) and contact motels direct prompted an explosion of in-person bookings, again KJ changed track.
“That was when I realised, back in 2018 November, let us drop the travel and tourist thing, and build a new accommodation booking platform which solves these issues.
“Three things happened which validated the idea for us.
“First was the media bringing commission-charging online travel agents to the attention of the public.
“Second, was coincidentally I was renting a house with a lady who was a manager at a motel. I asked her how do you find this booking site?"
“She was not happy, and said, "We don't like doing this, but we know we have to use them."
“I went to other motels in Rocky as well and asked them the same question, "What's the issue?"
“Thirdly, the Dick Smith campaign convinced me it was worth spending time building a platform.
“It was not meant to be an accommodation booking platform, we meant to build a travel and tourist company,” KJ recounts.
STAYING LOCAL SENDS MONEY OVERSEAS
KJ explains the problem with predominantly US-owned OTAs, is essentially a third of all the money spent on accommodation in Australia, is leaving the local economy and flowing towards the US economy.
“A third, literally, 30% of every hotel room that is booked in Australia, 30% of those Australian dollars are going to companies who are not owned by Australia,” he says.
This is part of the problem KJ is addressing through Voyak.
“With a 30% booking fee, if you book a room for $150$50 of your booking fee will not go to the operator or the owner of that hotel.
“It will go the US economy through the company that you're booking through. With the Voyak platform, that booking fee is way, way, way more affordable,” he says.
According to KJ, in 2017, more than $700 million went offshore as part of the accommodation business.
Currently, the average commission rate for booking is about 20 -30% depending on the site.
“What we want to do is lower the commission to the point where accommodation providers do not lose an arm or leg, but then also make money.
“So, we have brought the commission down all the way to 5%, and our overall vision for the next ten years is to get it down to 1-2%.
“We really want to ensure we can keep those costs low and keep pushing the commission rate down to the point Voyak is the cheapest and preferred platform for accommodational bookings,” KJ highlights.
IT ALL WORKS OUT AT THE GYM
Taking on the online booking behemoths is a brave endeavour enough; having no prior technical or programming skills presented more challenges and opportunities for KJ.
“I did spend six months of my life learning to program, but my mind is not set up to learn programming,” he admits.
So, being a non-technical founder, how did KJ go about building that platform without knowing programming himself?
He says that was an interesting story, dating back to 2018 at a time when programmers were hard to find, and there was no startup ecosystem.
“I thought about outsourcing the entire thing as other people do. I knew I could not continue this path; it is either give up or outsource.
“But in October of 2018 I went to the gym. I was so depressed about the whole venture. I was asking myself whether I could scrape anymore motivation to continue with this idea?
“I was at the gym working out, and I came across the familiar face, Sam Grumley. He did engineering at CQ before, and that is how I recognised him.
“I approached him and said I remember you did engineering at CQ. He told me he moved to Griffith Uni to do computer science programming.
“I was pinching myself - talk about a coincidence.
“So, I quickly pitched him the idea, and he brought on board three of his other friends to program this as well.
“We still needed one more program because the scope of the work, so I talked to one of my friends from New Delhi, who was also keen to work with us,” KJ said.
After finalising business documents, contracts and co-founder agreements in December of 2018, the founders wanted to build the platform quickly.
A lack of venture capital meant the process was slower than hoped.
“It's not like you can just take time off from work and spend all your day doing this. There's a thing called life, and you have to live, fund your life, food, bills, rent, utilities, and you have to work for it.
“So, we were only able to work weekends every now and then. Weekends or nighttime and then do this code up.
“We were meant to launch this in January 2019, we'd missed that date. Then we decided to December 2019, we missed that day too.
“Then 2020 pandemic happened, so it took us two years to get here with COVID included,” KJ reflects.
Since launching Voyak, KJ has secured six accommodation providers in Rockhampton to the platform and is currently releasing more improvements before they start onboarding more accommodations.
So, what advice does KJ offer anyone living in a regional area looking to start a tech business?
The first thing he says anyone should do is validate their idea.
“You should start a startup or a company on two bases.
“First, if you have a problem. If you have a problem, then chances are others also have the same problem and it is not being solved.
“The second is you may not have the problem, but you watch the market to find out what problems other people have. This was my case overhearing the issues the couple had had with their online booking.
“You need about three validations to continue before you sort of look in the idea, because we all get ideas but not all ideas are great,” he cautions.
From a lean startup methodology, KJ recommends talking to at least a hundred people who are in your target market or are experiencing that problem, to get a really clear picture of what the actual issues are.
He also encourages anyone thinking about starting a business not to be discouraged if they do not have a lot of business acumen.
“I studied engineering; I didn't even do business. I did not know a lot about business, but I read books through, I watched other people case studies what to do. So, if you are not technical, not a businessperson, do not let it stop you starting a company.
“Ask someone for help, say, a businessperson who may be a friend and ask them to advise you how to do something, if you don't feel yourself not that competent in those fields,” KJ urges.
RAMPING UP REGIONAL STARTUPS
KJ believes we need to build more startups, regionally.
“Ideas are everywhere, universities are bubbling with ideas. When I shared my ideas with other students, they also had tons of ideas too.
“What we do need regionally is, we need universities to really support regional communities, because that's where you can really access talent and competency.
“We need universities to listen and start offering those technical courses here,” he offers.
One of the benefits of starting a business in a regional area is the cheaper cost of living; a trend that is seeing some entrepreneurs living in the city, moving to regional areas.
“If I was in Brisbane doing this, I do not think I had the same feedback as in Rockhampton, because it's a community.
“Regionally, it's big. The chances of success are higher, but asset access talent is also limited,” he suggests.
KJ’s vision for the future of the accommodation industry is seeing operators reinvesting back into their properties.
One day, he wants to be driving to Rocky ten years from now and see motels that have been reinvented.
“I describe it as hotels 2.0, that people have made as their primary form of accommodation.
“At the moment, it is slowly shifting away from hotels towards alternative accommodations, such as apartments, short-term motels, Airbnb’s, that's becoming primary.
“Ten years from now, I expect to see Voyak has become a leading provider of online accommodations, and we've solved the problem for combination operators, where guests can book any accommodation and they know that they'll never have an inconvenience when they travel,” he predicts.
KJ is also keen to see more connected trips in future, too.
“If you are traveling from, say, Rocky to, say, Brisbane and you do not have a car, so you need a taxi…on Voyak you go, "Okay, well, I don't have taxi and I need to pick up." So, everything would program by itself, because if you say, if flights at seven o'clock, and your taxi will be at six o'clock outside your house, all by itself, no inconvenience, so that is what is we are envisioning,” he says.
KJ aspires to take Voyak to the globe; knowing that if the company can provide value to Rockhampton accommodations, they can provide value to accommodations in America and beyond.
“This problem is not just local, this is a global problem, because competitions consolidate between just Booking.com, Expedia. That's everywhere, so this is not a local problem.
“We see ourselves set up in the Capricorn region, Queensland, and then want to start expanding to other states, then to New Zealand.
“If you can make it work in Rocky, we can make it work everywhere,” he suggests.
KJ maintains ethics are important in business and says he does not really care if Voyak makes enough profit.
“Business really is, if it's done correctly, really does create win-win outcomes. Win for the business, win for the team in the business, a win for the customers, a win to the community,” KJ insists.
Despite a lack of business skills, and being unprepared for the startup journey, KJ says it was always meant to be his career path.
“The biggest thing is taking that first step. If you are concerned, put yourself in the shoes of your 80-year-old yourself, and think would you regret not starting?
“If I had not attempted Voyak, I would have been full of regrets.
“Think about what you would be like at the end of your life, there are no trophies when you get to the end.
“Whether you do well or whether you do not, it is all the same, you might as well do what you want to do.
“You might as well pursue your dreams, and reach for the stars, and do what you feel passionate about,” he encourages.
Karan Joon (KJ) is the founder of Voyak®; a practical approach to an Accommodation Booking Platform, built with an intense focus on serving Customer interests first before Company interests.
Voyak prides itself on conducting business ethically.
The company’s vision is to create an amazing accommodation booking platform where guests never have to experience an inconvenience while booking accommodation, and accommodation providers can focus on delivering a superior guest experience.
KJ is also SmartHub alumni. The SmartHub encourages entrepreneurs and business owners to adopt technology and modern based business practice to make the entire business journey more profitable, more enjoyable, more effective, and more efficient.
Being part of the SmartHub gives local business owners opportunities to meet with and learn from mentors, to help them learn the discipline required to succeed in business.
If you would like to learn more about becoming part of the SmartHub, contact us via the following channels:
Phone: 07 4936 8444