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The travel entrepreneur who beat the market downturn not once, but twice

Aloke Bajpai, co-founder & CEO, Ixigo
Luck has mostly not favoured Aloke Bajpai, the co-founder of travel booking app Ixigo. Twelve years years ago, just when he started work on the company, the 2008 Lehman Brothers crisis hit. That led to at least one investor pulling out the term sheet. Now, in the pandemic year, travel is one of the most, if not the most, affected business industries and Ixigo is in a tough spot.

In the early months, March to May, there was a complete halt on flying, and bookings had dried up on Ixigo. As nobody was travelling, hotels were shut too. These two categories are the primary revenue streams for Ixigo. Like other consumer start-ups, Ixigo had to slash salaries – the founders took 100 per cent cut – but its recovery has been unlike other start-ups.

“We have not let go of any of our employees and as business recovered we reinstated all salary cuts in July,” Bajpai said. Ixigo, which employs about 150 people, has also granted a discounted employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) to some employees to compensate for the pay cuts.

The business has recovered to pre-Covid levels and things are looking up but the Covid-19 crisis was a hard one, said Bajpai. The employees were uncertain about their jobs and, as staff moved home, there were instances of exhaustion and fatigue. “There is where I believe in honest communication,” said Bajpai, adding that the management had multiple all-hands-down meetings with employees to allay fears and figure out the future course. “This goes a long way in building trust and loyalty.”

A similar thing happened at the time of the 2008 financial crisis, when Ixigo had all but 20 members. “As our funding fell through, it became an existential crisis. The choice was either to shut shop or work without salaries. At the time too, because we were upfront, the team agreed to work without pay for six months and we were out of the mess soon,” recounted Bajpai.

Bajpai said his humane approach to entrepreneurship comes from growing up in a small town. He grew up in Kanpur and later got admitted to Indian Institute of Technology in the city. From there he went on to work as a software engineer before he went for an MBA at INSEAD in Singapore.

“I borrowed some money from my father to go to B-school,” said Aloke. IIT-Kanpur is also where Bajpai met his future co-founder Rajnish Kumar, who leads product and tech at Ixigo. After starting Ixigo there was also a time where Kumar was in need of money for family exigency and Bajpai arranged it from friends and family. “The ups and downs have been aplenty.”

But for Ixigo, there have been a lot more ‘ups’ than downs. It has raised funding from Sequoia Capital and MakeMyTrip Group, among others. It has built out a first-in-class airline fare prediction engine, which uses big data and artificial intelligence to predict when air fares for any particular routes will be lower. Ixigo now claims to route as much traffic to airlines as MMT, or GoIbibo.

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