Olga Bortnikova is the CEO and co-founder of YouTravel.me. YouTravel.me is an algorithm-powered online marketplace for booking multi-day small group adventure tours organized by vetted travel experts. It offers a wide range of experiences, from yoga retreats to safaris. Launched in Europe in 2018, YouTravel.me is a global community of over 10,000 happy travelers and 3,700 travel experts offering 14,000 tours in over 130 countries around the world. In 2020, during the pandemic, the company doubled its revenue. Olga lives in San Francisco with her husband.
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Thank you for joining us today. Please introduce yourself to our readers. They want to know you, some of the background story to bring some context to your interview.
Olga Bortnikova: I started my professional career as a project manager. One of my first projects was a music festival in my hometown in Russia, where we created the largest event with performers from seven countries from around the world and tens of thousands attendees. Since then, I knew that I didn’t want an office job and I wanted to continue building my career in project management. I’ve taken on projects in PR and event planning across a broad range of industries. Now, I’m leading my own company – YouTravel.me, an algorithm-based online platform for small group adventure travel.
You are a successful entrepreneur, so we’d like your view point, do you believe entrepreneurs are born or made? Explain.
Olga Bortnikova: I’m confident that anyone can become an entrepreneur! The most important thing is to have a dream, have a goal, and move forward to bring it to life. Whether you have external resources or trying to make it happen yourself, as long as you have a passion for something, you can achieve it. To me, entrepreneurship is equivalent to achieving your goals. All you need is the energy to push yourself and your team forward.
If you were asked to describe yourself as an entrepreneur in a few words, what would you say?
Olga Bortnikova: One of the qualities that I take a lot of pride in as a leader, is my ability to make decisions, I thrive in challenging situations and have a growth mindset that helps me come up with optimal solutions in crisis. I know that I can build things from scratch and when it comes to further growth and scaling, I rely on my team.
Tell us about what your company does and how did it change over the years?
Olga Bortnikova: YouTravel.me is an algorithm-powered online platform for small group adventure travel organized by travel experts. YouTravel.me offers over 15,900 tours in over 130 countries around the world. Matchmaking algorithms connect travelers based on their interests, values, and past experiences. When we first launched the company in 2018, it was just my husband and my business partner, and me. Later on, we’ve added a few key team members, including our CTO. Now, we’re a global team of 40+ people and we’re continuing to grow.
I like to compare the lifecycle of a company with the growth of a child. At its infancy, you may not have much – you are just born and are taking your first breaths and first steps. Then, your company becomes a toddler, expanding its footprint, getting to know more tools, and participating in a broader range of activities. Then, it’s time to go to school – as a “student,” your processes become more diverse and complex, you interact with many more people, learn and continue to grow.
Using the same analogy, our company has just gone through puberty. We’ve recently raised a $1MM investment and now we have the tools and resources to take the company to the next level and continue our growth and development at a much higher speed.
Thank you for all that. Now for the main focus of this interview. With close to 11.000 new businesses registered daily in the US, what must an entrepreneur assume when starting a business?
Olga Bortnikova: Always try to get to the MVP – your minimal viable product – and launch fast to see if this is something that your audience needs. There’s no need or value in building something for a few years and then realize that this wasn’t of interest to your customers. Start small and then continue developing it, step by step. The key is to stay connected to your customers and address their needs.
You may have different business ideas, but not all ideas should become an actual business. See if it’s a viable idea first, before diving headfirst into a new venture and all of the paperwork that is associated with officially starting a new company.
Did you make any wrong assumptions before starting a business that you ended up paying dearly for?
Olga Bortnikova: We launched our company in March 2018 and in June we decided to hire our first CTO. We assumed that someone who has a solid background in technology would be a valuable addition to the company and that they would help us grow fast and scale. However, it turned out that while they indeed had strong tech experience, our values, vision, and work ethic didn’t match and it was challenging to collaborate and move the company forward. We had to part ways, which came at an expense – both financial and from the time and effort perspective. When we hired a new CTO at a later point, we felt the difference right away, as they helped us grow fast and were a cultural fit as well.
If you could go back in time to when you first started your business, what advice would you give yourself and why? Explain
Olga Bortnikova: We learned it the hard way through the experience with our first CTO, so now we don’t give shares of the company without a few months of working together with an individual. We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, so we read a lot, turned to external resources so that we could become knowledgeable on the subject matter quickly and start implementing these learnings and find new solutions. The most important part is to be honest with yourself and admit that you may not nothing something, Thats OK not to know everything, and admitting it to yourself will help you learn faster and move forward.
What is the worst advice you received regarding running a business and what lesson would you like others to learn from your experience?
Olga Bortnikova: Leaders and entrepreneurs should be mindful that any external advice they receive won’t solve your problems. Only you – someone who is fully dedicated to your project – will know what is right or wrong for your business. It’s important to listen to your inner voice and make decisions based on your experience and insights,
If someone gives you advice, you blindly follow and don’t succeed, you can’t blame it on that person since you, as a leader, were responsible for the final decision. I’m a believer that there is no such thing as bad advice, there are bad decisions that are made by leaders who may not be thoroughly thinking external advice through.
In your opinion, how has COVID-19 changed what entrepreneurs should assume before starting a business? What hasn’t changed?
Olga Bortnikova: COVID-19 has allowed people all over the world to be within reach of each other and made communication and collaboration so much easier. However, there are still many processes that are not automated or digitized, and presents big potential for the future.
While our processes have changed during the pandemic, our values have not. But now, we have additional opportunities to support our values. For example, people now have an opportunity to fulfill their career goals by finding a project outside of their immediate residence – on the other side of the country or even the world. My advice to entrepreneurs, regardless of the industry, would be to ask yourself two questions – do people want to do something differently? The answer would most likely be yes. Did people’s values change? The answer would most likely be no.
What is a common myth about entrepreneurship that aspiring entrepreneurs and would-be business owners believe in? What advice would you give them?
Olga Bortnikova: The most common myth I hear is that you first need to build a product and then see if it takes off. You should build an MVP and start getting some initial interest before you invest more or build any further, It’s also important to build a business based on your customer need, and not the other way around.
There’s another common myth about making radical changes to the business during its early stages. In my opinion, all that an entrepreneur should worry about is making their business sustainable. The world is changing fast and if your business cannot withstand the turbulence of the changes, it will crumble fast.
What traits, qualities, and assumptions do you believe are most important to have before starting a business?
Olga Bortnikova: The three main traits that I believe are very important before starting a business or at any stage of your business lifecycle, are: the ability to make decisions, focus, and energy.
- Decision making: as an entrepreneur, you’ll need to make tough decisions all the time. For example, you may have a team member who is wonderful to work with, but hasn’t been performing well. By postponing the decision about parting ways, you only make it worse for your company’s bottom line and for that person’s career.
- Focus: If you have a specific goal in mind, you need to throw your resources into accomplishing that goal, without spending your energy and attention on other things that may not contribute to it.
- Energy: as a leader, you’re working with people and you need to lead by example, inspiring and motivating them to do their best work and push the company forward, Having energy is essential for that.
How can aspiring leaders prepare themselves for the future challenges of entrepreneurship? Are there any books, websites, or even movies to learn from?
Olga Bortnikova: Reading is very important to me, and I am excited to share a few book recommendations that helped me become a better leader and offered valuable business advice. For example, “Great at Work” by Morton Hansen and “The Effective Executive” by Peter Drucker are the books that made a difference in my career and approach to business.
Before launching a product, read the book “The Mom Test” by Rob Fitzpatrick. It’s important to understand the consumer’s needs first before you start selling your product to them. Always ask yourself what your customers think, what challenges are they facing? To get these insights, you must be in communication with your clients and use these insights to make more informed decisions on improving your product so you can cater to them in a more meaningful way.
As for the TV shows, I recommend Silicon Valley – while delivered with humor, it does show the real life of a startup and the challenges that startups are facing.
Challenges will arise, but it’s best to get into a mindset of accepting who you are and what your startup is at a given time. There are things you can’t change and you can’t please everyone around you. At the end of the day, you’re not in competition with other companies out there, but you’re in a competition with yourself – growing as a person, learning new skills, evolving from the person you were in the past. You have you and your startup. Will it be challenging? Yes, will it be great? Yes, if you believe in yourself and what you can accomplish.
You have shared quite a bit of your wisdom and our readers thank you for your generosity but would also love to know: If you could choose any job other than being an entrepreneur, what would it be?
Olga Bortnikova: I could’ve chosen a different project, but I think I would still be an entrepreneur. I love what I do now because I know that I’m changing the world for the better. The more people travel, the more places they are able to visit, the better and more educated they become. And our world would benefit from having more well-traveled people. I’m sure that if it wasn’t YouTravel.me, I would be running another travel-related project as travel is very close to my heart.
Thank you so much for your time, I believe I speak for all of our readers when I say that this has been incredibly insightful. We do have one more question: If you could add anyone to Mount Rushmore, but not a politician, who would it be; why?
Olga Bortnikova: I would love to put any person up there – not a celebrity or a public figure, but just any person, maybe even someone from my team. That would create a wow effect! People would start researching and asking questions about why that person made it to the mountain, who they are, and what is so remarkable about them. That would spark curiosity and through that, people may discover a lot of new things along the way. I think that getting people to be more curious would help build a better future and facilitate better connections between people.
Jed Morley, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Olga Bortnikova for taking the time to do this interview and share her knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Olga Bortnikova or her company, you can do it through her – Linkedin Page
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