American musician Marc Anothony had famously said, “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.”
Sound a great thing. But how many of us actually end up doing it?
Jaikanth Kumaran ( Jai) is one guy who has done it. And he is successfully living his dream. Let us hear his story.
Been there done that: A graduate from the Delhi College of Engineering (Now called the Delhi Technological University), one of the premier institutes for engineering in the country, Jai started working just at the point when the IT revolution was starting in India with a job in one the most sought after companies at that time. He spent about 15 years in the IT industry and played roles from a software engineer till senior management.
After 15 years of corporate experience dotted with multiple achievements, he came to the conclusion that this was not the purpose of his life. He felt that his skills and talents were being vastly underused.
Passion play: Fitness has always been close to his heart. Jai has been a runner since 1998 when he was in college. From the days when cycling was not yet in vogue, he used to cycle to work for the purpose of keeping fit. He has run quite a few marathons and a few ultra marathons and has also done multi-week, unsupported cycle trips in Ladakh and the Himalayas.
“To sum it, technology and fitness are two of my passions one which keeps my mind occupied and the other my body,” he says.
The birth of the idea: In 2016, while he trekking in the Himalayas, he had some chance conversations with a few local guides who were trekking on the same route. During those conversations he felt there was a need to help the people in those remote regions. “Technology has pervaded our lives in the cities but the locals in the Himalayas had not yet benefited,” he realised.
After a couple of days of his return, he started getting calls from the local guides requesting him to make websites for them. They were ready to pay for it. Being in touch with technology he knew that just making them a website will not help, as it would also need frequent upgrades and marketing. Being a trekker Jai also knew there was a need for trekkers to connect to good and reliable local guides.
That is where sherpafeet was born with an idea to help the trekking fraternity, the local guides and agencies, with a vision to make it a sustainable business. “My vision for the future is to develop the platform so it can be the #makemytrip for adventure, fitness and lifestyle activities across geographies,” he says.
While the business is related to trekking, technology is the key. “As sherpafeet is primarily a technology platform, the primary cost was developing the platform. My idea was to develop the platform using the latest and the best technologies available. We saved tens of lakhs of rupees because we developed this technology in-house, with the primary investment being the time we put in,” he says.
Getting started: Jai knew there was a need for the local guides to connect to trekkers as he was an avid trekker himself. Now that it is about six months since sherpafeet has launched, he has already seeing guides and trekkers benefiting..
Their plan is not to list everyone, but at least have 3 to 4 reliable and good agencies or guides from every region.
Till date they verified and certified about 25 local businesses and guides. They have covered every trekking base camp of Uttarakhand, from the Johar Valley in Munsiyari, the Pindari and Namik Glacier region, Roopkund and Brahmatal region, the treks around Joshimath, the treks around Uttarkashi, Gangotri Valley, Yamunotri Valley and the Tons valley. They have also covered the treks originating from Manali in Himachal Pradesh. They plan to cover Ladakh, J&K, North East and Nepal in the coming months.
“We have helped the guides on our platform make nearly 3 lakhs in revenue and more importantly given them a platform which can help them build their profile and reputation over time,” he says.
Solving problems: Every business starts with solving a problem. And going beyond it.
Typically in the hiking and trekking space, all the players are tour operators. They either run their own tours or they outsource it to a local company. Even the companies which run their own tours run it using the local guides. The companies themselves keep big margins and the local people do not making much. This has caused quite a bit of resentment amongst the local people. This is a festering problem which sherpafeet wants to solve using technology.
“We felt one of the reasons for the local people to lose out was lack of connectivity and access to technology. Our focus was to get trekkers connected to local guides and agencies, to build a platform of TRUST for the trekking fraternity. That has been our focus and continues to be our primary focus,” he says.
The other problem which played on his mind before starting sherpafeet was of conserving the fragile eco-system of the mountains. He felt supporting local people would directly contribute to the conservation efforts on a long term basis if he is able to tie it to their economic well being. So when he profiled the local guides, he also put down their views on conservation so it finds a prominent place in their minds and in the customers minds.
“I think sherpafeet has been able to create a niche for itself because its focus was on solving the above problems,” he says.
Matter of trust: Sherpafeet is able to work with the local communities because of mutual trust. They local community trusts them because they sherpafeet has been closely working with them for the past few months. They trust them because their platform is a transparent platform on which trekkers are able to contact the guides directly. In fact, now they are receiving requests from the local guides to handle all the requests for them at their end itself, as many times the guides are on the mountains and cannot handle the incoming requests.
“The trust us because, we have helped them earn income. I think that is the main reason why they engage with us more and more,” he adds.
Bang for the buck: The nature of the sherpafeet platform is such that a customer will get the best value for the price he pays. This is because it is like a market place but unlike a market place, the primary focus is on reviewing the service provided.
“We feel the open review system on our platform helps validate the value which is provided. We don’t believe that a lower price is always better. In fact we have refused to have multiple sellers with much lower prices, because we couldn’t validate the quality and safety aspects of those providers. So to sum it, we are gearing and developing our platform so it provides the best possible experience for a particular price and we plan to develop our review system even further to help this cause,” he says.
Customise your trek: On sherpafeet, a customer can get multiple itineraries for the same trek. He can customize the trek to his liking with the local guide. Also a local guide and agency are aware that their own competitor are also on sherpafeet.com with a possibly lower price, sherpafeet encourages the guides and agencies to up their service rather than lower the price.
On the same note, sherpafeet would be happy to partner with people who would like to bring in some standardisation in the trekking and mountaineering areas.
Creating value: The challenge they have faced in their journey is to start was to identify the good local guides and agencies. The next challenge was to build a relationship of trust. They learnt on their journey that if their intentions are correct, it was just a matter of time before things started falling into place.
“We have been experimenting with our business model to see what works best with the trekking fraternity and the sellers. This is an ongoing exercise. Our focus remains on building a platform which will be useful for the entire trekking fraternity from sellers to trekkers, to be able to provide value to them. Currently we have sufficient funds to build on our plans. For us it is important that we build on our vision and we are open to outside funding as long as it comes with no interference ,” he says.
Words of advice: It goes without saying that money runs the world. Use your time (which is also money) to build skills which can be used to build your business. Stash away your money to be used when you are ready to take the leap!
Photographs by author
Check sherpafeet.com for all details about treks and bookings
Jai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Want to share your food or travel entrepreneurship story with is? Write in to email@example.com and we will get in touch with you.