As the tourism industry takes a huge hit in post-revolution Egypt, now losing an estimated $1 billion a month, according to the Egyptian Tourism Ministry, it may not be surprising that an Egyptian travel company is now expanding into the Gulf market.
Wild Guanabana, an alternative travel company named for a fruit hailing from Central and South America, recently announced the launch of new headquarters in Dubai, in a move to diversify its market from the ailing Egyptian tourism sector. The travel agency, founded by Egyptian adventurer Omar Samra, and staffed by a team of trailblazers who mostly hail from Egypt, promises highly personalized “life-changing” journeys to destinations all around the world, with a focus on sustainability, as the region’s first carbon-neutral company.
Their story is, in a sense, a classic startup tale- Samra founded the company after realizing that his passion for travel and sustainability exceeded his passion for finance. As the company reaches further into the Gulf, Wild Guanabana will have a chance to see just how many travelers share his goals. Promisingly, the company doesn’t have many competitors; a few global alternative travel companies promise access to “The Real Middle East,” but none in the region offer truly carbon neutral travel. Perhaps as the UAE pushes for a new image as a sustainability capital, high-end consumers following the trend will take a bite into Guanabana.
Wamda asked Omar Samra about his experience founding the company.
1) How did you decide to start Wild Guanabana?
I spent several years working in a successful financial career, while travelling and climbing mountains in my free time. But during a year-long solo travel adventure around the world, I recognised the power of travel to transform lives. This experience inspired me to leave my job and refocus my life around my passion for adventure travel. I founded Wild Guanabana with the intention to use travel to inspire others to pursue their passions as well.
2) What were the most important decisions that you made in your company, or what was a key turning point in your approach?
The most important decision we made recently was expanding our operation to Dubai to better serve the United Arab Emirates and wider Gulf market. Not only is the market promising, but geographic diversification is becoming important given the political instability in parts of the region.
3) What is the biggest problem that you faced (or are facing) in your company, or what were the biggest mistakes you made as an entrepreneur?
The Middle East travel sector is focused on mass-market tourism and is very unsustainable. We’ve set out to create a more ethical way to travel. Changing a culture isn’t easy, but we’re making progress- we’ve sent over 150 people on journeys all over the world and we’re just getting started.
The biggest mistake we made was trying to do everything ourselves. We wanted to make sure everything was done properly and we didn’t want to pay for additional services. But we soon realized that it was optimal to outsource all work that isn’t our core business, even if it came at a higher cost. Ultimately the results are far better and we can focus on what we do best. That doesn’t mean we don’t try to barter and negotiate the best deal every time!
4) Do you see your market as local, regional, or global? Do you plan to expand? How?
Wild Guanabana has a strong online presence that is well-supported by social media channels, so we receive travel inquiries from around the world. Yet currently we’re focusing on the MENA region- we see ourselves as a homegrown regional company delivering a fresh concept of travel to the region. As I mentioned, we are expanding into Dubai and the Gulf.
5) How long did it take you to get funding?
We were quite fortunate to get the opportunity to receive funding before we knew we really needed it. When it happened it forced us to think about how much faster we could grow if we put extra capital to use. The funding process itself took around 6 months.
6) If you have partners, how do you manage your partnership?
I founded the company on my own in the middle of 2009. Our partners, Sahara Global Investments, came on board in early 2011 to help us grow the business regionally. They play an extremely supportive, non-executive role and believe in our vision to revolutionize travel in the region.
7) What is one technical tool that you cannot live without?
The cloud! Or more specifically, cloud-based applications. From CRM to newsletters to basic accounting we have managed to use cloud-based solutions effectively. These applications have not only saved us a lot of development money and time, but they are very easy to use, which has reduced the resources we need to spend on training our people. We have found that the right solutions are the ones that are customer-centric and are constantly improved and updated to better fit our needs.
8) What does your spouse or family think of your company?
Initially, my family could not understand why I would leave a stable finance career to start something completely different at the age of 30. They had certainly become more accustomed to me taking risks - from climbing Mount Everest to traveling the world for 370 days, yet they tried to talk me out of it. Then they suggested I pursue it alongside my finance job. However, I always felt that it needed to pursue this fulltime from day one. If you are committed to a goal, I believe you need to put all of your time, heart and soul into it.
As for my wife, that’s a fun story! We met less than a year ago when she inquired to climb Mount Kilimanjaro as part of our Wild Guanabana’s charitable initiative. We ended up meeting to discuss the trip, climbed the mountain together and the rest is history as they say! She loved the company so much she quit her corporate job and is now our Marketing Director and Resourceful Guanabana.
9) Have the recent revolutions affected your approach?
I started Wild Guanabana at the height of the world’s biggest financial crisis and named it after a tropical fruit, so I guess you could say we’re more comfortable with uncertainty than most. Just like a new business, the revolution needs commitment and sacrifice. We understand that this has had an impact on our business. It has certainly made us put more energy into expansion outside of Egypt.
10) What are five pieces of advice that you would give a fellow entrepreneur?
1) If you have the passion and an idea or opportunity, start the company and write the business plan later.
2) Bootstrap. Your starting cash is your lifeline - don’t spend it on anything superfluous and barter whenever you can.
3) Use every Internet cloud-based tool (CRM, Newsletters, Accounting) available. People spent a lot of time and money developing them so why re-invent the wheel. Plus they’re cost effective.
4) Commit to your values in every decision you make - big or small. That is the only way to build a strong brand that people can relate to.
5) Hire a team based on their values and passion - those are the things you can never teach.