YogaTrail was founded in 2012 by a husband-wife team who just happen to both be named Alex. They are joined by German partner Sven Ernst, Managing Director of Buzzwoo!, which has operations in Thailand under the BOI company setup. They’ve seen steady growth in their user base since launching last year, and will turn a profit beginning this month. Last week, I had the pleasure to meet with all three of the company founders and got to ask them about what it’s like running a startup business in Chiang Mai, along with their future plans for YogaTrail.
Tell us a little bit about YogaTrail, how it works, and what it does differently or better than other competing platforms.
Alex K: It’s a yoga directory—kind of like how TripAdvisor is a directory for hotels—where we have yoga teachers, studios, and yoga retreats and teacher training centers. It’s different from other platforms like Yelp or TripAdvisor because it’s all about yoga and just yoga. We also have reviews like these other websites, but we ask certain questions from people who leave reviews that are unique to yoga and are important for people who do yoga. The diversity of yoga is huge. We have certain questions in our reviews like “Is this more spiritual or exercise oriented?” So we paint the personality of the teachers or the studios, and for now that’s what distinguishes us.
Sven: Also we have more features that distinguish us—like you can promote and publish events, which is something that you can’t do with these other platforms. Besides the whole review process, there are other facets, like you are specifically able to search for yoga styles, beginner, advanced… On Yelp you can only search for “yoga in Chiang Mai” for example, and that’s about it. But with our platform if you want to go deeper and make your search more specific, that’s possible.
Alex K: For yoga teachers in particular, typically a teacher will work at several yoga studios. And they’re generally not allowed to tell the students in their class that they can also be found at another studio. And so on our website, a yoga teacher can associate themself with different studios, and you can see on a map that the teacher can be found here, here, and over there. So that’s very useful for people who generally like to take their classes from a particular teacher or perhaps two or three teachers.
Alex J: So maybe to summarize, we’ve thought about the whole experience from the point of view of the person who wants to find yoga things—not restaurants and hotels and whatever else you can find on Yelp, but only yoga. So the whole platform is designed to be useful just for that subset of people who are looking for yoga.
How long has YogaTrail been live, and what kind of growth and active user numbers have you seen?
Sven: Basically we launched in March of last year, and it was invite-only until August. We currently have 25,000 users of the platform with 60,000 profiles. Profiles include studio listings, teacher listings, events, teacher trainings, retreats, and member profiles. And we currently grow by about 20 percent per month—that’s the growth of the member rate. And we’ve started pulling in money since about four months ago. Our business model is based on freemium, so you can create a listing for free, but you can pay to upgrade your profile and get certain premium features. We are right at breaking even…so almost self-sustainable.
Alex K: This month is the month.
Sven: Basically, we’ve doubled our monthly revenue for the past four months. Of course it will be hard to maintain that level of growth. But it’s going well, I think.
Why did you decide to create YogaTrail, and why did your chose Chiang Mai to base yourself in?
Alex J: We decided to create YogaTrail because of personal experience trying to find yoga and find something specific…
Alex K: Because we spent a year traveling…
Alex J: And even when we weren’t traveling, when you’re in one place and you want to find information without spending half an hour on Google every time—so we thought, OK this needs to be done. An authority site on yoga needs to happen, because there are a lot of yogis, there are a lot of yoga providers, and there are a lot of people every year who are more interested in starting yoga. So that’s how we chose the project.
And there was nothing really like that before?
Alex J: Very dysfunctional.
Alex K: There’s a lot trying this kind of thing, but they…suck. Most of them restrict themselves to one geographic region. Our biggest competitor I guess is yogafinder.com, they’ve been around a long time. But if you look at that site, you get a little paragraph to describe yourself as a yoga provider, that’s it.
And the Chiang Mai part…Alex and I were expecting to stay here a week. That was two and a half years ago. On the third day we went to look for an apartment, and we haven’t left. The city is great on so many levels.
What are the pros and cons of starting up a business in Thailand?
Alex K: The pros is it’s very cheap, there are a lot of startup type people—people who want to be digital nomads. But the cons are that they’re small in number compared to the people trying to do startups in Silicon Valley or the East Coast.
Sven: I’ve been here for ten years, so I can compare how it was five or six years ago. And there’s more of an ecosystem now, but it’s still very much small scale, it’s still fragmented.
Alex J: But at the same time, we get lifestyle perks being here that we couldn’t get anywhere else, that allow us to work and spend a lot of time working on our project. You don’t have to do your laundry or go shopping—all these small things that make life extremely easy. You can work, not spend much money, and still have an extremely enjoyable lifestyle.
Alex K: We wouldn’t have been able to do YogaTrail if we weren’t here. We had some savings and bootstrapped for two years. That would’ve lasted two months where we were coming from in Boston. And like Alex said, when you wake up you can work—we don’t cook, we don’t clean, all these things that you often have to do in the West…you have to drive to work for an hour. We don’t even get any mail where we are.
Alex J: Everyday life is just a lot easier.
Alex K: But part of the con is part of the ecosystem is not here. The investors are not here. There are some in Bangkok, and Southeast Asia is becoming an interesting place, but it’s been mostly in Singapore and Hong Kong.
You recently applied to take part in the Y-Combinator accelerator program, and you made the initial cut to give a pitch in person, but were not selected in the end. Can you tell us a little bit about what that process was like?
Alex K: It was 25 hours on airplanes and in airports for me to fly out there. And their interviews are ten minutes long. They ask the questions, and you hope to get across the key points you want them to get, and then later that day they decide if you’re in or out.
In my opinion, I don’t fit the profile of the Stanford graduate American kid who has a big idea and a network of people in Silicon Valley. For whatever reason, they said ‘no’. And the feedback we received as part of their decision wasn’t terribly satisfactory. But it was a great experience because they paid up to $1500 for the flight. And I was able to meet Dave McClure of 500 Startups the following day.
Sven: We actually thought we had a pretty good chance because many of the companies who go and pitch there don’t have a product at all. Sometimes they don’t even have an idea. They go there, and they have an idea, but then they say ‘Your idea sucks—we like you guys, but you need a new idea.’ So they’ll spend the first few weeks just getting an idea. Or for a usual case, many just have a semi-working prototype. But in our case, we have a working product, we have some traction. For them the founders are important. It’s important to see that the people can work together. And we’ve proven that we can work together for two years now.
Alex J: But at the same time, only one of us was there. We couldn’t afford to fly all of us out there. So Sven and I were on Skype, but the connection wasn’t good, and we weren’t able to interact very much. So if it’s a matter of going there in person for them to get an impression of your team—then maybe we blew it because only one of us was there.
One of the main reasons that Y-Combinator gave for rejecting your proposal was that they thought you wouldn’t be able to beat out Yelp in search results. So how do you go about building your user base without much help from Google or from SEO?
Alex K: We wouldn’t mind help from Google, and we are working on SEO strategies. But the majority of our user growth is from invites. Users are being invited by other users on the site. That’s a really good strategy for us and we want to improve that.
Alex J: There are other ways besides SEO to get people to the site, and there’s one viral loop that has been working very well to get people in.
Alex K: For yoga instructors, we list the ones with reviews higher. So there is a natural incentive to get your students signed up to the site to review you. As a yoga instructor, you’re also incentivised to associate with your yoga studios on the site because you show up more, you show up at more places on the map.
Alex J: Our site is more about the yoga teachers, not just the studios. And if your a teacher you can’t create your own listing on Yelp. You have to have a physical address. So they’re still under-served. They would have to build their own website to have people find them. The idea behind the product is very different. Yes, Yelp has reviews and YogaTrail has reviews, but they’re different concepts.
What about social media?
Alex J: As the site was being built, Alex and I tried to build as big a social media presence as we could to build brand awareness. So we have over 100,000 people on Facebook, 30,000 on Pinterest, and 30,000 on Twitter. At the beginning social media was a bigger driver of traffic. But now the reach on Facebook is ridiculously small.
Sven: You can post cute pictures of cats doing yoga, but what does that do? How does it help your business?
Alex J: We have to think about more creative ways to funnel people from social media to the site.
If you could get investor funding, how would you use it to improve your business?
Alex K: We have a lot of development that we would like to get done. We have one feature in particular, which is a schedules feature. It allows yoga teachers and studios to list their classes. It completes everything that a teacher needs to have an online presence. And we’d love to accelerate by outsourcing development and at least hiring one more full-time developer.
(As of the time of writing, YogaTrail is currently looking for a hot shot Drupal Developer to come join them in Chiang Mai. If interested, contact here.)
Sven: I think marketing in general too. Besides hiring developers, it wouldn’t hurt to have a marketing person, maybe based in the States, because it’s not as easy for us to reach providers from here.
Alex J: There are a lot of maintenance tasks—admin duties, newsletters, that end up taking an enormous amount of time.
What future plans do you have for the company?
Alex K: We want to grow like crazy. We want to be the place that—if you’re a yoga provider—you have to be on. Just like if you’re a hotel you have to be on TripAdvisor, it’s a no-brainer. We want to be the place where people find their yoga. We’re thinking about booking engines and a market place.
Sven: So you could book your yoga retreat or buy a class pass.
Alex, you have a background in nuclear physics. How much of a transition was it to move to Southeast Asia and start up a company out here?
Alex K: Actually that’s an interesting question because it wasn’t that big of a transition. I went from being a scientist in academia to a scientist who did a startup and raised money for a private fusion effort, to then doing another startup in the yoga space. I was definitely turned on to the idea of starting your own company and doing your own thing before YogaTrail. Once you start that, you can’t go back to working at a crappy job, sitting at a desk and doing what you’re told.
Since the two of you both have the same first name, does that ever cause confusion?
Alex K: No. Presumably if I talk about ‘Alex’ people don’t think I’m schizophrenic and talking about myself.
And you still have different last names, right?
Alex K: Yes. I was thinking we should start telling people that instead of making our last names the same when we got married we made our first names the same.
What advice can you give to other couples who might be thinking about going into business together?
Alex and Alex (laughing): Don’t do it!
Alex J: It’s not always easy, because we have very different ways of working. He’s a scientist and I was an editor before. So the whole way of communicating is extremely different. For me it’s more about being friendly, and for him it’s more about just doing the thing.
Alex K: Before we did YogaTrail, we were married five years and never had an argument, ever. But since we’re working together, we’re both the boss or co-founders. And we’ve had arguments at least once a week. And because you’re married you don’t have a certain wall between you that other co-workers have. So in my case, there are times when I’ll allow myself to say something that I’d never say to someone I only know professionally. It’s tricky to have a professional relationship and be married at the same time.
Have you had any memorable interactions with people in the yoga community?
Alex K: We’re lucky to be in the yoga space because they’re all very nice in general.
Alex J: It’s the cliche that people who do yoga are more mindful, but they actually are.
Alex K: There’s lots and lots of memorable interaction because the diversity of people who do yoga is crazy. You get esoteric types who want to go and find themselves in an Ashram in India. And you get lawyer/executive types who do yoga just for some fitness during their lunch hour. And everything in-between.