Au Soriano and her journey in founding PinoyTravel
While PinoyTravel was set to make transportation more convenient for bus and ferry riders, the mobility startup had its own roadblocks.
“There were many times that I wanted to give up because things weren’t working,” co-founder and CEO Au Soriano shares.
PinoyTravel was launched in 2013, when the Philippine startup ecosystem was still ramping up.
It was a time for optimism, but not naiveté.
“I knew of the hardships that could happen, I knew that it’s going to be difficult, so the question was what if we didn’t?”
What they didn’t know defined PinoyTravel’s early years.
“We didn’t know that it would take that long to get traction. At that time, we thought that on the third year, we can exit, things will be okay, but now, (we’re) on our third year, and we’re not even there yet.”
Three years since launch. Au could’ve lived a different life.
Au was already at the executive level in a telecommunications company, one of the highest paying industries in the country. She had all the financial gains she could wish for, but entrepreneurship somehow drew her in.
“The whole time I was an employee, there’s that something inside me that kept wishing that I was doing something else. I said, ‘am I going to live this life doing just this?’”
Au believes her knack for entrepreneurship comes naturally to her. A look into something and her mind would run wild on how to capitalize on it. Years ago, she was already selling cookies and doing wedding and food photography on the side. “To me it was (for) personal fulfillment. Salary-wise, I was doing well, but I wasn’t fulfilled.”
She still kept her day job to sustain her. Leaving a high-paying job for all the little businesses she was doing entailed a great risk.
“Very early on, I knew that doing your own business is difficult and can be financially challenging — but very fulfilling.”
Cancer and the seven-day gap
In 2004, Au was diagnosed with breast cancer. From the diagnosis, Au had a seven-day gap before finding out what stage it was and whether she had a chance to live.
“…For seven days, I thought: ‘if I’m gonna die soon, have I done everything I wanted in life?’ I have a great family, a wonderful husband, wonderful kids, I’ve traveled all over the world. And yet there was something missing.”
Suddenly, life was fleeting, and cancer brought her to a point of clarity.
“We all know we’re gonna die, but all of us go through life as if we’ll live forever. That’s when I realized, what was missing was me doing something great, leaving a legacy, at least in this country.”
She had to fight with cancer tooth-and-nail for a shot at building that legacy. She prevailed.
PinoyTravel and the toll of starting up
In 2013, she resolved to tackle the daunting problem of public transportation. To her, the provincial travel industry stagnated for decades that it was easier to book a flight to New York than a bus ride to Baguio.
They built PinoyTravel around insights from their own bad experiences at provincial bus commuting. In hindsight, Au wished they listened to the customers better.
“We didn’t really understand the general market at that point. We only found out what the bus companies wanted, what the market could bear, that the market doesn’t understand online too much, (and) that there’s a lot of hand-holding that we need to do.”
This turned out to be a small bump in the road. PinoyTravel began selling before building the actual product. So when customer feedback made the need to pivot obvious, it wasn’t that painful.
“We didn’t spend a lot of time and energy selling a product that would fail anyway. We failed fast and cheap.”
But on their second year, they faced a hard truth- it will take longer than expected to get more customers.
“We’re not making enough revenues, but there are employees that we have to pay. There were times where we were paying more than what we were earning and we couldn’t get funding. So where will we get the money?”
The team had to make their own sacrifices to extend their resources. Au advanced a lot of the company expenses from her personal savings.
“You have to have deep pockets, because even if there are investors who are interested, the money doesn’t materialize until months and months. So what do you do? Do you stop right there and then? Do you leave your market?”
Au was able to manage, but not for long. “My husband told me many times, ‘Do you still want to do this? You’re sacrificing too much and you’re not sure if it’s going to happen.”
But she won’t just give up yet. “I’m very good at shutting down all the clutter that I hear and just focus on what I wanted to do. Of course there’s risk to that. I could be chasing something that’s not going to happen.”
Lessons to learn from
Au believes other entrepreneurs can learn from her experience. “They don’t need to go through what I went through. The important thing is that they know what they’re getting into and they have to be prepared.”
Presently, PinoyTravel has seen the tipping point of its growth hockey stick since January of this year. It has started earning revenue consistently, while securing partnerships with most major bus companies, and even extending its services to booking ferries.
“We’re (still) far from what we want it to be,” Au continues. “I’m just hoping I’m on the right path, and that what we’re trying to achieve is something worthwhile.”