As a regular business traveler, entrepreneur Sylvia Brune had experienced first hand the frustrations of organizing flights for herself and her team around different global locations.
The logistical nightmare prompted her to come up with a solution of her own, initially making travel bookings for her friends via WhatsApp, and then teaming up with two cofounders to launch AHOY, a flight concierge app for business travelers, which is now being used by thousands of them across 134 countries.
Brune began her career in the corporate world as an executive assistant and came to startups completely by accident. “I didn’t know what entrepreneurs did,” she says.
When she lost her job at McKinsey, she spotted an advert looking for an unpaid events manager at Venture Cup was an awards ceremony celebrating startup ideas. Here she met so many entrepreneurs, whose passion and drive inspired her to want to join them.
Eventually, she was offered a job as a program fund manager at 88mph, a technology startup accelerator in Cape Town, with a fund targeting early-stage mobile web companies in Africa. It was launched in Nairobi in 2011 and over four years invested in 45 startups all across Africa.
“Those four years gave me a crash course in investing, startups, hiring, and technology,” says Brune.
Her role saw her traveling frequently across Africa, Europe and the U.S., which became a cause of huge frustration, as she spent an enormous amount of time flying the team around the different locations, as well as organizing travel for speakers, mentors, entrepreneurs, and investors.
“When we tried to find travel agents for support we struggled,” she says. “Equally, asking participants to book their own travel and then expensing it back was logistically challenging. Plans and flights were often changed or canceled.”
Managing her workload as well as all the travel arrangements for herself and partners became overwhelming. “I remember thinking there has to be a solution, not just for me but also for others in similar situations,” she says.
As soon as Brune moved back to Europe, she decided to figure out why business travel was broken and fix it. She set up a WhatsApp service for frequent flyers and sent her number to a few friends to trial it. Very quickly she found her number was passed around.
“My network of customers was growing at an unmanageable rate, and before I knew it I was fixing travel for Uber launchers, Buzzfeed reporters, CEOs and consultants from all around the world,” she says.
When a friend messaged her and asked how much the service cost, Brune realized that it could be monetized. “I made up a number on the spot, and soon people were paying a monthly subscription fee,” she says.
She spent the next few months in fear of messing up other peoples’ important travel plans and was frequently working into the small hours to support an expanding global customer base.
“A friend advised me that if I ever wanted to sleep again, I needed to shut the service down or hire tech people to build a product,” says Brune. “I’d exhausted my savings at this point, and didn’t want to try and raise capital to support the one-woman WhatsApp travel band initiative, so I decided to find cofounders.”
She was introduced to brothers Bart and Mike Hernas in Berlin. Over coffee, she explained what she had done so far and that she needed help turning it into a product. The following day they offered to invest and join as cofounders and AHOY was born.
The app was developed in 2016, trialed for a couple of years by some of Brune’s trusted customers, before launching to the public in September 2018.
Initially, Brune had managed to hack her travel booking service using various tools to give business travelers what they needed. WhatsApp was fast, uncluttered and immediate. For itineraries, she used Google Calendar to set up events with all the necessary travel information, Google spreadsheets to record bookings, invoices and expense reports, and Dropbox for airline invoices.
With her tech cofounders on board they found out which processes could be automated, and started integrating with partners and suppliers who could handle the most routine manual tasks.
“The experience I’d gained from booking manually and servicing all those users through chat was ultimately priceless,” says Brune. “I learned an inordinate amount about rules, practices, and the needs of business travelers which came in handy when building the app.”
AHOY is a flight booking and concierge app for business travelers. Being able to manage the uncertainty and disruption in travel with support 24/7, means travelers can focus on what matters to them, rather than the worries that frequent travel can create.
Most of the existing tools for booking, managing, and personalizing flights are either large corporate solutions intended to help manage budgets and ensure policy compliance or are price-focused engines targeted at tourists and one-off bookings with little to no support.
“We set out to capture that gap in the market,” says Brune. “Our users range from engineers flying around South America, to consultants traveling to and from Africa. Mostly they are people traveling last minute, or having plans that often change at a moment’s notice.”
To date, the business has been mainly self-funded. All three co-founders have invested their own savings in AHOY, alongside a few angels.
“Having come from the investment side of startups I wasn’t keen on raising from larger funds until we had a clear path to growth and scale,” says Brune. “I’ve seen how startups that raise too early can get side-tracked, focusing on what investors want, rather than staying true to the customer and creating a business.”
With turnover exceeding £1 million ($1.2 million) this year, the app is on track to claim a million business travellers by the end of 2020.
Brune says: “Technology is improving and standardizing, so we are increasingly able to give business travelers what they need, including the ability to book, buy, and cancel anything that they need to ensure their flying experience is smooth.”