Role of Mentorship for Entering the Travel Industry

Our second episode is a conversation with Vikram Chheda, co-founder and Chief Experience Officer at Custom Holidays. We talk to Vikram about the difficulties of entering a brand new industry where he didn't know anything nor know anyone and the steps that he took to thrive in the business. We also discuss the importance of mentorship and how it can create lasting impact for an upcoming business.

Custom Holiday's Website
Vikram Chheda's LinkedIn

If you're a new company and you want to enter an industry, there are so many hurdles you face because you have to build trust, not just with the customers but also with the suppliers. What would you say to somebody who is entering the travel industry or any industry for the first time? What would your advice be as somebody who's gone through this struggle, and who has learned over the years?

Vikram: I think the simplest approach as an outsider when you're entering an industry which is well defined and been around for a very long time, is patience. You may have an eventual goal of where you want to reach in terms of relationships or trust or scale or whichever the case might be. But you need to understand that you aren't going to get there on day one. I think, even myself, at some point, I made that mistake, believing that I should get certain trust or suppliers to work with me or clients to work with me, primarily because what I was offering as a service or even the benefits I was offering were well worth it. That doesn't work.

You need to start working on a much smaller scale than what you know you can deliver because people aren't going to trust you with big things. When you keep doing the smaller things right, maybe 500 times, is when they start opening up and giving you the bigger orders or bigger experiences or trust. That's the first thing that I think every entrepreneur should do.

Secondly, one of the biggest challenges that I think that entrepreneurs face in today's day, and I could be very, very wrong about this, is that we've been actually coached by business schools and tonnes of material online is that a team is what makes it and you need to have the great people. But sometimes, as the entrepreneur, the founder yourself, there's no one better to articulate your vision to your clients or your suppliers to kick start that journey of trust and relationship then yourself. And somewhere when you get down to enough people who are doing that, you're going to find someone who's going to eventually become like your champion and your mentor, whether it's from the supplier side or from the client side, because they finally found someone where their vision of travel matches. They've been around for probably 10, 20, 30, 40 years and they found somebody like a younger version of themselves and they are going to take you under their wings. I've seen that happen in most industries that most entrepreneurs, that they eventually found someone who can basically mentor them through in the initial stages especially. So, I would say these two things are very, very critical to build a solid foundation and take it from there.

Finding mentors in a new industry, that's extremely critical. And the only way you can potentially do that is being authentic, being genuine and having that curiosity to figure out new things. And along the way you end up meeting someone who can see that spark. And they can see that fire in you and say that I'm not going to let you make the same mistakes that I made and I'm going to help you in this journey. That's extremely important when you're entering a new industry of having a mentor who's done this before. Otherwise, it's extremely difficult.

Vikram: Yeah, absolutely. And I was blessed with some of the people I met because I was a cocky person and that is rubbish. When I entered the industry, I thought that because my service and my product was so good, I should be getting trust. I've had some funny incidences along the way with people who eventually have opened a lot of doors for me.

How did you go out and find mentors or what was your experience with finding these mentors?

Vikram: I think networking is something that every company, businessman, entrepreneur needs to keep doing. And when I say networking, it's not just meeting a large pool of people for the heck of it. I look at it is a large group of people who you're closely engaged with - that for me would be networking. It's not a small group of people, a large group of people that you are at some point engaged with. When it comes to my journey in terms of finding my mentors, I don't think I've ever actively gone and tried to make someone a mentor or aspire that X Y Z person should be a mentor. I think it's just a bit of a natural flow where you will click with someone and that person may be a senior in the industry. You might bump into them at an organization, you may bump into them at an event that's been organized by someone, you could meet them at a party.

The idea is that you just get talking and you realize that you share a common goal or a common vision and it just starts the steps from there for your mentorship. I don't think it's a very formal process. It just happens by the way of you growing and communicating with each other. One of my mentors is a lady from Bangalore. She's a senior in the industry. She has been in the travel industry for about 20 years now. Prior to that in Cox & King's, prior to that worked in some of the biggest luxury hotels in India like the Taj and the Leela. It happened that I was on a work trip in Germany and she was a part of that trip. And we've just got along very well, because our ideas of travel going forward matched very, very well. And we've been regularly in touch since then.

What she's done for me is introduced me to international organizations or events or opportunities, which I wouldn't even know existed because they're so niche, but they're fantastic organizations or events. And, you know, because she's been a part of them for so many years. And there have been a few situations where, probably on my own merit, I would have had a little difficult time to convince those people to give me an entry or an access to them. But a word from her that I know what this person is doing and you can bank on me that the quality of work that this company will do is going to match the ethos of your organization or the event that you're hosting - this has actually opened those doors for me and in turn given me access which has helped me become a better company and deliver better products. Mentors basically help you connect with the right people, stop you from making stupid decisions and open certain doors, which otherwise be a lot harder to open.

Finding mentors or having mentors is not a one-way relationship. In some way or form you have to give back to them. How do you figure out what you are contributing to your mentor's life and do you do this actively, do you think about this or is that something that happens over the course of time?

Vikram: I don't think you can actively decide beforehand what you want to give back. I think it evolves with time. And one thing I know for a fact from the people who've helped me getting there is that, you need to be honest time after time after time to the core. What they first saw in you, I think that's the first thing you can give back to a mentor is to be honest and not change who you are and what you want to do. When you are at point one, and when you reach a point 10, I think that once you grow should not change and that's, that's the first thing because they really appreciate that you stayed true to your core.

Second thing is that mentors especially love people where they can find something of themselves. I feel, and that's my personal belief, that they see a certain amount of themselves in you. And as long as you can help them relive some of those things or just feel that that earlier part of themselves, they feel great.

As I am growing, I am helping the mentor also grow because they are realizing what more they can also do in their individual careers. As we discuss ideas from a different perspective, a much younger perspective, as well as how what they learn can be again reapplied to me and that's a constant learning curve for them as well.

I think these three things, in my opinion are what mentors broadly appreciate when they invest time and energy with someone.

Sometimes, with a mentor, you end up stopping yourself thinking that I'm asking for too much or I'm asking for too much help. Is there's something that you do in terms of just regular updates to these people saying that, "Hey this is what I'm up to, you know, nothing, no help required right now, it was just sharing what I'm up to and what Custom Holidays is up to."

Vikram: I don't think a mentor is somebody who you touch base with once in a few months. If it's someone who you're touching base with once in a few months, this is just someone who's in your ecosystem who you could reach out for help, and you're not sure who whether they might or might not help you.

For me, a mentor is someone you're a lot more in regular touch with. How I approach it is that if I know that I want somebody as a mentor, I make the expectation a little more clear to the person as well when we're having these discussions, "I like where this is going, will you be able to mentor me on this situation, and this is what I would like to get from you." So, that expectation I personally set beforehand. I do a lot more in terms of a constant update because I think as an entrepreneur in a company if you're updating your mentor once in a few months, you're working too slow. You're not quick enough to survive in the marketplace. And for someone like me, I'm probably bouncing off three or five ideas a week with my mentor, getting shot down probably 95% of times that you got really stupid ideas. But what I'm doing is that I actually come up with random ideas. And it's just a WhatsApp you know, what do you think about this, but I think it's very important for your mentor to be accessible to you a lot more frequently than once a few months.

Do you think that sometimes the age of your mentor and the fact that they're from a different time when the industry was very different, holds you back from growing. The fact that maybe these crazy ideas they might work because of the age that you're in, but because they see the world slightly differently, they are shutting down your crazy ideas.

Vikram: It could happen. I wouldn't be naïve enough to say that it's never going to happen. But I think that's the beauty of the evolving relationship with when a mentor and a mentee where maybe at the initial parts, you're going to have to listen a lot more to their ideas, because you're in that phase where you're not strong enough to make too many mistakes and the mentor is probably protecting you a lot more and just making sure you're doing the right things to grow to a certain point.

And then once you're confident, I think you both need to realize that it's okay if you make mistakes. I think it's something that will evolve with time, my understanding is, is that they do at some point, bring in that weightage of a slightly different perspective which can slow you down or put a brake on an idea which you think is great, but that eventually boils down to the entrepreneur themself that you aren't answerable to the mentor, you are using the mentor to guide you and in the end, it's still your decision to go ahead with something or not.

If you feel, even after a mentor says that this is not a great idea, that I am going to do this and then knowing that I'm going to do this, you can ask them what's the best way to do it? Let's discuss that. So, then you change the entire context of the conversation that I'm not taking no for an answer. Now that I'm going ahead with this, let me use your wisdom to see how I can reduce my pitfalls and make the most of this.