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One Malaysian entrepreneur's journey of lessons to discovery

Posted on 31 Jan 2012 at 20:18 pm by Corinne Wan

It is said that seven in 10 start-ups fail but even that cold hard fact was not enough to stop Jiun Kiew (left) from pursuing her dream more than a year ago - and she's certainly learnt a few lessons since. This is her journey.

Fresh from her studies in Australia, Kiew joined family-owned Marco Polo Holidays in Kuala Lumpur. There she stayed for 15 years. A well established, respected travel agency in Kuala Lumpur with a steady flow of business, Marco Polo gave her the right environment to try out new ideas and introduce new travel concepts to an otherwise traditional travel agency.

Her vision for the company, also her passion, was to create new individualised, high-end travel products that were then not available in the market.

However, it did not work out as she had hoped. The agency was focused on inbound and outbound, ticketing, incentives and related businesses and the scope wasn't there for her to pursue her passion.

She decided to strike out on her own. "I could not continue to grow something I had lost passion for."

Leaving Marco Polo was not easy because of the personal ties, as well as the close working relationship with her staff. In addition, starting a new business meant searching for new markets and new clients, but she was prepared to give it a shot.

Leaving Footprints, an online agency

In early 2010 Kiew launched her company, Leaving Footprints, on an entirely different model from Marco Polo. It was an online company with no physical office, and all business was carried out online.

She incorporated what she loved most about Marco Polo – Passports – into Leaving Footprints. She had created Passports, 100% customised and specialised tours that provided clients with a unique holiday experience. It had been launched in 2003 at the end of the SARS epidemic. People had told her the tours would not sell especially during such trying times. Despite the prophets of doom, the tours sold well and by 2006 a few agencies had jumped on to the bandwagon with private tours.

The online model, however, did not work. Kiew attributed part of the failure to low margins, compounded with the issue of online frauds, which put off customers from booking online.

"There were a fair amount of queries online from the US, Belgium and Africa. However, customisation of the products took up a lot of my time as my site was not fully automated. It took me about a week to attend to each query and customise the product with pricing. It was just too much time and work for very little business.”

She did not have the funds to invest in technology or what it took to build a truly automated and online business. She knew she had to pivot the business.

Journey of Discoveries, for the once-in-a-lifetime experience

Thus, Kiew reinvented the business into Journey of Discoveries (JOD) by focusing only on the unique experiences element.

As described on its website: "Journey Of Discoveries is about travelling for life enriching experiences that provide an opportunity to rediscover our world and ourselves. It is for real travellers; travellers who may have ‘been everywhere’ and yet are searching for more. Perhaps something more meaningful. Or perhaps more than just a destination."

It started operations in April 2011 on a different operating model from Leaving Footprints - as a wholesaler. It works with selected travel agents in Malaysia to market its products.

The criterion for the agents is that they cater to the high-end market, which wants niche, unique products. Her target is to work with about 15 agents in Malaysia.

Kiew takes care of operations and product development with the agents marketing the products to their high-end clients. 

JOD’s products are different from other luxury tours in they are not about staying in top notch resorts or having a deluxe escape in an island paradise, according to Kiew. She goes the total distance to give clients the “Wow” factor that they would not easily forget long after the holidays are over.

Examples: small, intimate cruises to Alaska in ships that accommodate only about 50 passengers, with opportunities to land on icebergs in a kayak or zodiac; flights in hot air balloons over Egypt’s Valley of the Kings; exploration of the North or South Pole in a Russian ice-breaker; a unique train safari through the heart of Africa.

Kiew is also going to the last frontier – space. JOD is working with a foreign company to market “space travel”  - a two-hour “near space” experience in a helium balloon to 35km above ground level that costs 110,000 Euros!

"It’s about the experience and not the journey,” said Kiew.

This model is working well for JOD and response to the products has been encouraging. Although the company has a Facebook fan page Kiew does not plan to dabble too much in social media to grow her business.  

"It (Facebook page) was just one of those things that people said I HAD to do. I actually do believe that it has the ability to help me raise awareness in the online world. I think people who are not likely to be a prospective end user would find it ‘wow’ enough to talk about it."

But one thing Kiew plans to do in the near future is to expand her reach to China. She is taking "serious initiatives" to break into the country and work with travel agents there.

She does not see the Euro crisis or the dire forecast of global economic instability affecting her business. "I think the rich still has the means to travel despite the economic downturn, and they will continue to travel."

Lessons learnt

Although Kiew is happy JOD is working out "based on what I want for my business and the resources I have", she admits that the journey from Marco Polo Holidays to JOD has not been smooth. .

"The lessons I learnt in the past three years have been very personal ones in that they applied only because of my own resource limitations. Someone else without the same limitations would not have had to go through the same experience. In a nutshell I suppose, the main thing was my bad judgement, not necessarily a bad business strategy because the same business strategy was very successful in Marco Polo Holidays.”

The lesson she learnt from Leaving Footprints: "In my perpetual pursuit to be different I had mistakenly pursued a business, which was hardly different from my ‘been there done that’ at Marco Polo Holidays. Only the method of delivery and distribution were sort of different but the backstage work and product was exactly the same.

"I was seeking more than that. If I were to put it into quantitative terms, I had tried to incorporate a 20% new (unique experiences) into an 80% same old same old (customised holidays).

"That did not work for me resource-wise and more importantly, personal-wise. I began to feel the same monotony and tediousness I felt in Marco Polo Holidays, dealing with the same problems (staff and clients!). So Leaving Footprints was effectively not different. I am fortunate to have recognised that very quickly, and reinventing it into JOD."

Photos courtesy of Journey of Discoveries

Tags: Journey , Discoveries , Leaving , Footprints , Marco Polo , holidays , customised , wholesaler , online , lessons , travellers , Jiun Kiew