As his company takes off, Azim Barodawala is up in the air a lot these days, but his strategies for reaching global customers are firmly grounded.
Atlanta-based Volantio makes software that helps airlines boost revenue, enhance customer service and improve marketing. Customers range from Qantas in Australia — where the Volantio started — to the flag carrier of Ethiopia, with many nations and airlines in between.
But Volantio’s big break seems to have come this summer, when news broke that it had piloted a new product for United Airlines in the wake of the carrier’s “passenger-dragging” fiasco.
United calls it Flex-Schedule, white-labelling a solution that Volantio calls Yana. It helps airlines fix miscalculations in their “booking curve,” the standard inventory-management model whereby flights are often more costly as the departure date approaches, Mr. Barodawala explained in an interview with Global Atlanta.
“Sometimes airlines can get that process off slightly,” he said. “If the flight sells out before they want it to — say, three days before departure — the people who are going to walk up and pay those expensive fares at the end are not going to be able to.”
That means lost revenue for the airline and potentially painful experiences for travelers at the gate. The default fix is to offer vouchers over a loud speaker, with waiting passengers forced into some uneasy economic psychology over whether to bite or wait for a sweetener.
“Nobody wants to be the sucker that stands up and takes $200,” Mr. Barodawala said.
Volantio’s software identifies potentially flexible travelers in advance and sends them a change offer via text message.
It can work at the gate (even in a sort of reverse “silent auction” format that can end up saving the airline money) but the notification can also arrive before the traveler even heads to the airport. Now the customer is being compensated for taking a leisurely breakfast at home rather than for spending hours in aviaton purgatory.
“Think about that experience, versus, you’re at the airport at 7:30 in the morning for the flight, and now they say, ‘Would you like to stay at the airport for an extra four hours?’” he said.
Mr. Barodawala calls it a “triple-win” for the airlines, flexible passengers and last-minute travelers who can now get where they need to go. In addition to vouchers, airlines can use Yana to offer seat upgrades, frequent-flier miles and more.
A flurry of press in outlets like Skift, The Economist and many more has kept the phone ringing, and Volantio’s momentum has been building on multiple fronts. Based in downtown Atlanta’s trendy Flatiron building, the seven-person company is hiring more software engineers and is slated to present at Venture Atlanta in mid-October.
A few months before that, it was selected as a semi-finalist in the Atlanta Metro Export Challenge, netting a reimbursement grant of up to $5,000 to boost global sales.
Given the wanderlust Mr. Barodawala inspires in his staff and the company’s international focus, they’ll have no trouble burning through that sum pretty quickly.
Global Business Lessons, Learned The Hard Way
Mr. Barodawala is no stranger to international business or the city where he now sees his company’s future.
After earning both an MBA and a master’s degree in international relations at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, he joined the Atlanta office of Boston Consulting Group, in part because he knew that here he’d get to work more with travel-related clients like airlines and cruise ships.
Born to Indian immigrants who’d settled in Buffalo, N.Y. — he still has the local Buffalo Times news app on his phone — Mr. Barodawala often went overseas as a child to visit family. The love of travel was solidified during three weeks in high school living with a host family in Costa Rica, where he found that his classroom Spanish actually had a practical use. He now speaks fluent Spanish and Portuguese.
In 2011, he left Boston Consulting to work as head of strategy for JetStar Airways in Melbourne, Australia. One of his duties was planning the expansion of the airline’s licensing operations throughout the Asia-Pacific region, bringing on new carriers in multiple countries that would adopt the JetStar brand and operating model.
He would leave JetStar to join Adioso, the Y-Combinator-backed company that would become Volantio.
Even with all this experience, plus an earlier three-year stint with a Latin America-focused travel platform in Miami, Mr. Barodawala as a chief executive has had to learn some lessons of cross-border business the hard way.
One of those came in Japan, when a faulty Wi-Fi connection and the lack of a translator ruined a client presentation. After that, he invested in international data roaming as a backup plan. At home, Volantio uses a telephone conferencing system that enables it to use local numbers in the markets where its clients are located.
“If you’re going to be doing international stuff, you have to be fully prepared and you can’t take anything for granted,” he said, noting that one shouldn’t rely solely on the Internet and apps like Uber when traveling abroad.
International sales trips have been intensifying of late, as conference calls don’t allow for much nuance across language barriers and fuzzy Internet connections.
[pullquote]”When you work with other cultures, it’s really hard to get a sense of whether someone likes what you’re showing them. It’s hard in person. It’s impossible over the phone.” [/pullquote]
“When you work with other cultures, it’s really hard to get a sense of whether someone likes what you’re showing them,” Mr. Barodawala said. “It’s hard enough as it is in person, because you don’t know their customs. It’s impossible over the phone.”
To date, in-person meetings have been key to closing deals.
“Every deal that we’ve ever done internationally has involved at least one face-to-face meeting, and usually more. We’ve never done a deal with anyone that we haven’t met. Never,” he said.
Learning to listen has paid off as well. Yana, the airline rebooking platform that has become Volantio’s main product, came from lending a sensitive ear to customers.
“I always feel like you get your best ideas from listening to the people you work with. I wish I could take credit, but it’s really these people who have years of experience in the industry,” Mr. Barodawala said.
Why did airlines not implement it first? They were tied up with a flurry of industry mergers while chasing easier revenue streams like baggage fees. Mobile adoption also needed to get to a certain rate to make the idea viable.
It wasn’t always self-evident that Volantio would come to Atlanta when Mr. Barodawala returned to the U.S., but the city had a few secret weapons.
While didn’t hurt that Mr. Barodawala had a house near the Beltline that he’d bought during his BCG days, it really impressed him that city economic development leaders from the Metro Atlanta Chamber and elsewhere banded together to offer the young startup the attention he just didn’t get in Silicon Valley.
“Even though we were small (four people at the time), they really gave us the time of day and treated us well. We never forgot that, and it was a big reason why we ultimately chose Atlanta [a year later]. When we visited Mountain View, no one rolled out the red carpet in such a manner. Their attitude was that ‘You should be thankful to be here!’”
Invest Atlanta enticed him with hiring incentives — the Flatiron is located in an “opportunity zone” in downtown Atlanta — but one prominent Atlanta resident really made the difference.
Doug Shipman, who helped bring Mr. Barodawala on at Boston Consulting before leaving to become the CEO of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, really made the city’s case. Mr. Shipman is now the CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center.
“We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Doug, to be honest with you,” Mr. Barodawala said. “He spoke about the cost of living and the ability to draw great talent. Best of all, though, he put me in touch with the right people within Atlanta who could make the case even better than him.”
Mr. Shipman insists he just made a few intros and that Mr. Barodawala’s selection of the city is just proof of an encouraging trend in the city’s life and growth.
“The more people that I see who are choosing to build the kind of Atlanta they want, the more excited I am to stay, and I just see a lot of that,” Mr. Shipman told Global Atlanta.
Mr. Barodawala has been heartened by discussions about Atlanta’s international future, but for fellow exporters in either goods or services he recommends caution before jumping into new markets.
“I’d be really hesitant to advise companies to go international simply for the sake of ‘going international.’ In my mind it’s much better to refine and grow your product in your home market first, before overextending and trying to go abroad. We did this initially in Australia, before we started signing up companies in other regions,” he said.