Today he’s the CEO and founder of TravelPerk, the business travel booking platform, but his time serving in the Israeli army and selling his previous venture to a titan like Booking.com has given Avi Meir a very unique perspective on entrepreneurship
Military service is guaranteed to be a life-changing experience for all who enlist and this was no different for Israeli entrepreneur Avi Meir, the founder of $73.5m-backed TravelPerk, who was called upon to perform his national duty and serve when he came of age. "The army is the most extreme environment I’ve experienced,” Meir admits to Elite Global. “Looking back it’s amazing to think I was only 18. The elite units are designed to push you to your limit and then push you even further teaching you that you can achieve anything and deal with everything.” To that end, he believes that’s a huge contributing factor behind the many startups and founders that launch out of Israel. “It’s a great mentality to acquire but getting to that place is incredibly hard.”
Over the five-year period he was in the army, Meir worked alongside strategists who started off as nothing more than a team, though this changed as he came to regard them as “a kind of family.” “You learn to work together, trust each other and create something much more powerful than the sum of its parts,” Meir explains. “Yes, I learned to push myself to my limits as an individual but also to become a true team player. That means empowering and trusting the people around you to achieve more and overcome challenges.” Having followed his childhood interest in tech, Meir started coding when he was just 12-years-old and was able to secure a position as a software developer for the army’s intelligence unit as a result, which led him to later become a special forces team sergeant.
As his time serving came to an end, it was clear Meir had acquired all the essential tools necessary to become an ambitious professional and his first post-army position was in operational management in Paris at Charles de Gaulle Airport. “I didn’t get to use much technology but it let me discover the travel world for the first time,” he says. “Working for the airport showed me just me how much room for modernisation there was in the travel market.” From that point, he sensed an opportunity to “combine my lifelong love for tech with my newfound interest in travel” which made entrepreneurship a natural progression.
What came next for Meir was business school to enhance his knowledge rather than head up creek without a paddle. “I really wanted to do an MBA and got into IESE, which meant I was rubbing shoulders with world-class entrepreneurs and executives,” he details. “It was then that I settled on the idea for my first company – HotelNinjas.” A web-based management software provider for hotels, HotelNinjas achieved an enviably quick exit following its launch in 2012. “After two years, I sold the business to Booking.com and by that stage I already knew my next challenge was to tackle the huge gap in the business travel sector – to bring an easy-to-use, consumer-grade experience to this £1.3tn industry that was crying out to be disrupted.”
While he makes it sound quite matter of fact but launching a business that becomes successful enough to achieve an exit in just two years with a household brand behind the takeover is no mean feat. So how did he manage it? “The truth is that as an entrepreneur’s reality changes, plans change and you never know how and when things will play out,” Meir shrugs. He went on to admit: “I didn’t think we’d grow so quickly nor that we’d get acquired so quickly.” Although Meir was enjoying developing the business and his team and seeing both grow, it was ultimately a no-brainer to sell the company. “We were successful and I could see all of the things we could do next,” he says. “However, when one of the biggest and best businesses in the leisure travel industry comes knocking, you have to examine your options seriously.” Meir emphasises that plenty of thought went into the decision and he went over the details with a fine toothed comb. “But it comes down to whether you can build something big by yourself or if choosing the right partner will allow you to go further,” he says.
Having sold his first enterprise, Meir knew the business travel industry was a beast yet to be tamed, which presented the route for his next business – TravelPerk, the business travel booking platform he founded in Barcelona alongside Javier Suarez. “The travel sector is giant but what most people don’t know is that business travel is as big a market as consumer leisure travel,” he says. Meir notes that “companies like Airbnb and Booking.com are killing it” but the problem is companies are just adding new business-centric tech to preexisting consumer services which keeps “business travel stuck decades behind.” “Corporate travel is still an industry dominated by traditional travel agents with little or no technology – in spite of the fact the industry is set to generate £1.3tn in the next few years,” he adds.
With TravelPerk there is “gigantic potential” declares Meir and his hunger is palpable. “I’m growing the company to become an industry leader – a really big company without thinking about any short term exit scenarios,” he says. “The recent large funding rounds show exactly that.” Indeed, at this point TravelPerk has raised $73.5m over five rounds since launching in 2015, from seed right up to series C – the latter of which took place in October 2018. “We’re onto something big here, have proven a rare product market fit and business model and at this point I would say – it’s ours to lose.”
The main goal for Meir and Suarez remains as true now as it was in the beginning and that’s “to reinvent business travel” to work for the companies doing the travelling. The key issues are the inefficiencies, expenses and inflexibilities that causes real frustrations to the team, according to him. And that’s where TravelPerk comes in. “We’ve integrated a complete business travel management platform – bringing everything from expense management to itinerary creation and financial reporting to travel compliance all into one place,” says Meir. This is bolstered with 24/7 support from the TravelPerk team to ensure no stone remains unturned. “I’m really proud of this team,” he says. “They’ve built themselves around the ideal of seven-star support and I think it really shows if you’re ever in a situation where you need to reach out to them. I think the result really is a whole new standard for companies that travel worldwide.”
On the topic of team, TravelPerk has already hit the 250 employee milestone this year – just four years after launching. Surely, there must be some sort of secret formula to reach such scale. Ultimately, it’s crucial to ensure the right team has been appointed. That means finding staff who buy into the culture and recognise the company goals, so they’re all on the same page. “When I set up the company I came to realise that the real product we’re trying to build here is the team – one infused with culture and values that drive success,” says Meir. “I spend over half of my time on hiring and there’s a real reason for that.”
It’s interesting that Meir has mentioned time. After all, time is something of serious significance to him, which he achieves quite simply through “constant focus on managing my time effectively.” “I’m not tracking every minute but I always filter my priorities based on what will have the most impact to the business and what actually needs my time,” he says. “It’s a value that permeates the whole business – impact over effort.”
The idea behind this is that he gets to lead a life outside of work, unlike the fetishisation of long working hours by so many tech bros. It’s a practice he also instils within his workforce. “Staying past 8 pm doesn’t have any correlation to your productivity,” Meir declares. “It’s a vanity thing. I want a culture that enables my team to come in and do their job successfully and effectively. Having company values like impact over effort and trust the experts, make sense to overall business success – as well as empowering the individuals that work at TravelPerk.” He concedes that continual innovation and company growth, at speed, take a lot of work – but it’s important to recognise the team is made of people, not robots. “To deliver the best work you need happy, rested employees,” he continues. “They need the headspace to focus and to dictate how they will achieve success personally and for the business.”
It’s unlikely anyone would question the company’s success at this point, of course. With almost $75m raised, the money has been put to good use – building a foundation in the market, product revamps and pushing customer growth. “In 2018 alone, we saw 700% year-on-year growth, opened new offices in London and Berlin, grew our team from 65 to 180 and drastically enhanced product features and service offerings including adding self-service apartments and private accommodation to the platform via Airbnb,” Meir details. And while TravelPerk is a tech company, Meir has no intention of losing that personal touch offered by real people, which so many businesses appear to have abandoned in favour of machines. “As booking volume grows customer support has to grow to match,” he says. “In this industry scaling means high operational investment that goes way beyond having just a nice app, so we’re also aggressively scaling our team to maintain that seven-star customer care experience that’s helped us build our reputation to this point.”
As Meir touched upon, the business has opened in the UK and Germany. But before that, Barcelona was its only fixed premises and clearly the place has a lot to offer. “We have this built-in network of companies in a similar growth phase to TravelPerk,” he says. “This translates into communal support, a solid network and an exciting energy as we all work toward becoming household names.” Having said that, the Catalonian capital doesn’t have everything. For example, securing staff in the city isn’t always straightforward as it isn’t considered an “obvious destination” for jobseekers to flock to when compared to others – although the weather, beaches and mountains allow Barcelona to “sell itself” when recruiting. “The talent pool in cities like London, Tel Aviv and Berlin is bigger, so we often hire new recruits from here and around the world,” Meir says. “Because of this, we’ve built a really diverse team. We’re made up of nearly 30 nationalities.”
Building on that global outlook, the UK is actually the largest, most essential market for TravelPerk, which would explain why London marked the company’s first office opening beyond Barcelona last year. “London is probably one of the world’s most important cities when it comes to global business travel – it has been historically and is even more so today,” Meir says. “It is the number one most travelled destination according to our data.” As a centre point between Asia and America, one with the English language and its roots in business and finance, choosing to launch in the Big Smoke was “a natural decision.”
Occupying an office in Liverpool Street, Meir calls the location “a dynamic area for business” as it houses startups that are rising quickly as well as established ones. “It’s an interesting mix of ideas,” he adds. With a lot of customers in the area and the opportunity to forge a strong on-the-ground presence, it was an easy choice for “developing a truly localised experience and DNA that will help us to accelerate our growth significantly.”
While everything sounds smooth as can be, with few challengers in the marketplace to rival what TravelPerk is doing, that in itself is a difficulty to overcome. “Our biggest competition is actually nothing, meaning companies with no proper managed travel solution in place,” says Meir. “They don’t always have an awareness of the cost and eventual chaos that having no travel solution can bring to businesses [and] so, aren’t prioritising business travel.” Then there’s the added problem of convincing companies TravelPerk should be their choice rather than the longstanding giants and travel agencies of yesteryear who are “doing things with less of an innovative and technology-led approach.”
With four years under his belt so far, looking ahead at the next four years, Meir is ravenous for even more acclaim. “We’re already taking the lead in business travel in Europe and in four years we plan to be the dominant European player – so we’re maintaining a constant focus on growth,” he says. “We’ll be growing our global footprint and continuing to redefine the business travel market through new technology and innovation. Wherever we are by 2022, we still want to be delivering seven-star service to our customers, we still want to enable the experts to drive impact and I still want to see everyone having fun being part of the TravelPerk team.”
There may be bumps in the road but, when the tough gets going, Meir revisits his past. “Trust me, there were more than a few dead-end moments [along the way],” he confesses. “And it is at those moments that I take myself back to that 20-year-old officer who discovered that anything is possible.”