YouTrip Co-founder and CEO Caecilia Chu speaks to Jumpstart about the company’s pandemic pivot strategy
Established in 2018 as a multi-currency mobile wallet for travelers, travel fintech company YouTrip entered pandemic-paralyzed 2020 on the back of 10x growth in 2019.
Based in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Thailand, the two-year old company had already seen transactions in over 110 currencies, when all of a sudden, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
For a traveltech company like YouTrip, the pandemic was especially bad news. The travel and tourism industry was one of the worst hit this year due to social distancing norms, travel restrictions and lockdowns.
International tourist arrivals plunged 65% in the first half of 2020, with Asia-Pacific hit the hardest. Further, the global travel and tourism industry saw pandemic-related international tourism losses five times those of the sub-prime mortgage crisis in 2009.
Faced with the possibility of being set back by months or years, or in the worst case, forced into bankruptcy like many startups around the world, YouTrip decided that it was time to shift gears.
“When we thought about our pivot at that time, we were really following where our users were, and when we found that there’s a fundamental shift in their behavior during Q1 this year, we immediately shifted focus across the company,” Co-founder and CEO of YouTrip Caecilia Chu tells Jumpstart.
YouTrip’s approach to pivoting
A pivot, in the startup world, can mean any change or strategic shift within the company. Given the breadth of this description, pivots can thus take many forms, such as changes to features, the entire product or platform, a switch to a different technology, or even a transition to a different revenue model.
At YouTrip, Chu says this took the form of a product-driven pivot based on COVID-19 era findings on changing consumer behaviors and preferences.
As a multi-currency wallet, YouTrip previously enabled travelers to benefit from the company’s competitive exchange rates when traveling abroad.
Post-pandemic, the company’s new focus was to build a next-generation app using 3D-secure payment protection that could enable users to shop online overseas. In line with the company’s mission to enable users to shop wisely, users can avail of attractive interest rates and zero additional mark-ups or conversion fees for over 150 currencies.
“When we were thinking about [the pivot], we really moved the entire company from front to back to actually serve users and stay relevant in the meantime,” Chu says.
The greater direction of YouTrip’s pivot was rooted in its purpose as a fintech service provider. Even in the process of transitioning from a travel ewallet to overseas ecommerce, the company stuck to what Chu calls the soul of the company–making financial services accessible.
“We started with the mission to help people save money, spend more smartly, to give them more accessible financial services through technology, and I’m grateful and proud that my team has been able to continue in staying true to our mission throughout all this time,” she says.
The approach seems to have worked to the company’s advantage–YouTrip observed a substantial 300% increase in transactions this year following its pivot, as compared to the same period in the last year.
On an individual level, Chu has also hit some new milestones during this period. She was recently named one of the Top 25 Financial Technology CEOs Of Asia For 2020 as well as the Top 25 Women Leaders in Financial Technology of 2020 by the Financial Technology Report.
Pivoting under crisis
Startups pivot for various reasons–to cash in on profitable markets, accelerate growth or break through stagnancy, or even due to pressure from competition.
Some of the world’s biggest tech companies, including the likes of Instagram, Shopify, and PayPal, have pivoted to become the companies that they are today. Netflix’s infamous takedown of Blockbuster by pivoting from DVD rental to an Over-The-Top (OTT) streaming service is startup lore.
Pivoting during a crisis is not very different from the norm, Chu notes, except that timelines shrink shockingly and rapidly, requiring companies to act quickly or risk losing their relevance to users.
“Never would have I thought people would have to change their behaviors so drastically overnight. For companies doing a pivot [during COVID-19], the speed to achieve that is so much more dramatic and fast,” she says.
Data in the pivot process
For Chu, data played a very significant role in helping YouTrip recognize the need to accelerate change during the onset of the crisis. The company already had elaborate data processes in place and picked up on the changes in consumer preferences and patterns as early as January, she says.
A part of this body of data was financial in nature, such as revenues and transaction data, but the company also had deep aggregate behavioral insights, as well as qualitative insights from its online and offline user events.
“Whether it’s transactions or the app usage, we do, on an aggregate level of course, know where the users are and where they’re buying from, whether it’s online or offline purchases, and what kind of channels they are buying from,” Chu says.
“From a behavioral standpoint, we also collect quite a good portion of aggregate level data that [helps us] understand where and how our users are changing their needs and also their patterns,” she adds.
Based on the data she was seeing, Chu subsequently took the call to diversify the company’s value proposition into a new avenue. YouTrip’s new avatar needed to keep the company relevant to its users while staying tied to its fundamental mission to be an accessible fintech solutions provider.
With the surge in online shopping, ecommerce was the clear choice. Global ecommerce retail sales jumped by 209% during April this year, as compared to the same period in the previous year. User ecommerce spending has increased by anywhere between 10% to 30% as well.
But what sealed the deal for Chu was the longer-term value of the switch to ecommerce, something she believes will cement YouTrip’s position as a leading travel ecommerce company.
“Post COVID-19, people are still going to do more and more ecommerce. It is a trend that is here to stay. So, to me, [the pivot] is a diversification in our product use case. It will make us a stronger company, with better financials and performance when the world returns to normal,” she says.
Lessons from the founder
The ongoing health crisis has presented unique challenges for every different company, regardless of whether a pivot happens simultaneously. For one, companies have had to grapple with a general trend of stress and anxiety due to health concerns and the mass migration to remote working.
Making such a shift in such incredibly volatile times unpacked a few lessons for Chu, the most significant of which was to recognize that supporting her team in adjusting to the pivot was a priority for her from a leadership standpoint.
People are central to Chu’s principles as a founder, and she believes they were invaluable to the company’s pivot journey as well. A priority focus of the pivot action plan for her, therefore, was to explain to her team why and how the company was going to execute the pivot.
But that was not the only thing she had on her mind at the time. A much deeper concern emerged out of the crisis for the company as well as for Chu as a founder–that of the company’s resilience.
“[From] when we first launched all the way up to pre-COVID-19 times, we have had great success. We’re essentially the textbook classic hockey stick,” she says. “Facing unprecedented level of challenges in such a sharp way… I kind of felt that it is truly the time where relationships were being put to the test; our beliefs, values and self-worth were being put to the test.”
She adds that what’s truly needed for companies to pull through the crisis is to have adaptability built into their approach. Crisis or no crisis, she says, it’s all about survival of the fittest.
“The definition of the fittest isn’t the biggest or the most well-resourced,” she says. “Survival of the fittest is about adaptability. It has always been about that.”
For YouTrip, this trait was thoroughly put to the test during the pandemic. Ultimately however, Chu notes that it was the team’s resilience and agility that shifted the balance to YouTrip’s advantage. This, to Chu, was the most important lesson to take away as a founder leading her company into a pivot during a crisis.
“My biggest lesson is really treating people well and showing care and understanding,” she says. “I know it sounds very soft, but I don’t think anything else is more important than this.”
These words reflect what truly tied YouTrip’s pivot together–Chu’s distinctive leadership values that kept the company hinged on its mission, relying on the unity of her team, and leading the company decisively through a global crisis.
Header image courtesy of YouTrip