Jason Seagle doesn’t come off like the typical tech CEO. He’s reflective, not reflexive, when answering questions, feeling his way through a response without the brash confidence of a serial entrepreneur.
The quiet Atlanta native needs that sensitivity for his work: Although he’s building a tech platform that will ultimately require the cold logic of scalability and network effects, his product is personal interaction across cultures and borders.
Vayando (a play on the verb “to go” in Spanish) is a website that lets global travelers book on-the-ground experiences with local entrepreneurs in emerging economies.
The platform aligns incentives: Travelers quench their thirst for something memorable and impactful, like fishing off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica or exploring alleys of Kigali, Rwanda, with a street photographer.
The local entrepreneur gets paid, supplementing income from their actual trade without undercutting it.
“We always say that we’re not looking to create tour guides,” Mr. Seagle told Global Atlanta in an interview earlier this year.
Vayando is creating real business transactions, he said, but with the “double bottom line” vital to all social enterprises.
“It’s not aid, it’s not a handout, it’s not ‘voluntourism,’” Mr. Seagle said of the transaction. “The value you’re bringing is that you’re demonstrating to this local person that their time and skill set is valuable and marketable, and you’re paying a fair wage for that.”
A former Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador who helped the national agriculture ministry craft build an apiculture (beekeeping) cooperative and institute technical training, Mr. Seagle is intimately familiar with the challenges of building sustainable business in the developing world. He’s also worked on the ground for other aid groups in South Sudan and Uganda.
At some point, it became evident that he could create a tool that would help workers at non-governmental organizations fulfill their mandates of fostering sustainable local development.
He doesn’t point to one “Aha” moment for the business, just a steady drip of ideas, mostly gleaned from his experience working with farmers in El Salvador who had skills and experience but didn’t know how to access markets.
He had also talked with a college roommate who ended up joining daily deals pioneer Groupon early on and learned about the value of an online platform. Mr. Seagle blended these insights with his passions for photography, travel and storytelling.
“I like photographing people and just understanding their life story on their terms.”
“I like photographing people and just understanding their life story on their terms,” Mr. Seagle said. “You can focus on the negative, but I like focusing on the pride that people have.”
As he and co-founder Scott Wilhelm began to formalize the idea, they gravitated toward where they’d met: The Peace Corps. The organization has 7,000 volunteers on the ground in 70-plus countries at any given time. Some have become Vayando “field partners,” helping the young company scout trustworthy entrepreneurs who can provide vetted experiences for short-term visitors or even expatriates living in the target country.
The East African nation of Rwanda, with its stable government and heavy economic emphasis on tourism (mainly through the sale of gorilla viewing permits) seemed like a great proving ground. Mr. Seagle traveled there early on in the venture, making connections at the tourism ministry and beyond.
Now, Vayando offers experiences in five countries overall: Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda in Africa, along with Costa Rica and Nicaragua in Central America. Rwanda remains the place with the largest density and variety of experiences, with 32 online at latest count. They range from traditional art to night fishing to making sandals from leather and used tires.
The level of sophistication among Vayando’s entrepreneurs varies, creating both opportunities and hurdles for the young company.
On one hand, the more remote the entrepreneur, the harder it is for paying travelers to reach them. On the other, far-flung areas where people have little English ability and less online connectivity are often where the spending is needed most.
Vayando’s partners range from artisans with little formal education to founders with advanced degrees and overseas capital. A coffee and cupcakes experience with Haute Baso, a Vayando partner with a cooperative of female artisans in Rwanda, is more about how to run a business in emerging Africa than it is about doing beadwork.
Mr. Seagle is insistent sustaining the economic impact piece, believing that this will distinguish Vayando from AirBnB, Viator and other competing platforms.
“We literally have people on the platform that if they book one person per month they are doubling their income,” he said.
Justin Hill, Vayando’s CTO and a travel tech entrepreneur himself, says Mr. Seagle’s secret sauce is being able to scare up connections in an instant with people in the most off-the-grid locales, largely through his extensive personal networks.
“That’s the real value of Vayando. It’s not the technology; it’s the community we’re building,” Mr. Hill said.
But knowing every person on the platform can create issues with getting to scale, they both conceded.
The company is working to retain its hands-on sensibility without its CEO having to send personal messages via WhatsApp to connect travelers with entrepreneurs, most of whom Mr. Seagle knows by name.
Automation will be key at many levels. Currently, Vayando collects payments from travelers on its website, then funnels it to the entrepreneur’s bank or mobile-money account via SMS using WorldRemit.
“That’s been the conversation — how do we scale this thing and keep it personal and keep our quality up?” Mr. Hill said.
Vayando certainly hasn’t been without help at its downtown headquarters in Switchyards, one of Atlanta’s thriving co-working hubs.
After an initial friends-and-family crowdfunding campaign of $15,000, Vayando became a regular at pitch competitions around Atlanta and the South, garnering acclaim from judges.
In 2016, the company took home $5,000 as a finalist in the Atlanta Metro Export Challenge, and it recently participated in the Atlanta International Startup Exchange, a sister-city program with Toulouse, France.
It also took home the GLOBE Award from the state of Georgia in 2017 for expanding exports in the previous fiscal year, a nod to its increasing focus on selling its experiences overseas.
Learn more or book experiences at www.vayando.com.