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Starting business in digital tech: “Connect with a developer”

Published on 06 January 2022 by NEOMA

  • Entrepreneurship

In 2017, NEOMA graduate Axel Guidicelli (MiM ’17) started Ulysse, an airplane ticket website. He understood that travellers often have a difficult experience buying tickets, so he simplified the process. Since then, his company went through the school’s incubator and is now making it way among its competitors. In September 2021, it raised 4 million euros. Here is a lesson in entrepreneurship.

Ulysse is a simple and reliable solution for plane travel. You had the idea while travelling around the world when you were still a student at NEOMA. What happened?

I had to book a lot of plane tickets and I found the experience to be very complicated very time I went through it. The prices vary all the time, the options are often useless, you end up with insurance that you didn’t ask for, customer service is not very responsive and when we talk with them, they rarely solve the problem. Today, Ulysse can be used to find and book your tickets and manage your trip on a single interface. It is simple and streamlined without any advertisements. You can enter all of your personal information, your profile and those of the people you usually travel with. The traveller experience is high quality, regardless of the airline company, and our customer service is very responsive.

So your customer service is not a chatbot that responds to your customers…

No. We are committed to keeping the human element in our customer service. When you contact our customer service, it’s a person who responds by email. Robots do not have a natural tone. On the other hand, to ensure problems are solved quickly, we automate the request processing. We spend half of our time creating tools. It’s what allowed us to keep afloat during the Covid crisis. The average number of messages increased by a factor of twenty. We were able to process them and receive a lot of positive feedback.

If the experience for the customers is simple, how is Ulysse organised to do this?

We are split up into four teams. One team is dedicated to customer service, responding to questions and solving problems. One team works on tech and products. They build the site and the customer service tools to solve problems as quickly as possible. There is a marketing team that communicates a lot about the current events in different countries, their openings and closures. A supply team handles the relationships with the airline companies. It’s important for us to be in direct contact with everyone to handle questions quickly, propose the best prices, and above all offer services that other companies do not like the option of selecting a menu on the plane, adding additional baggage or changing a flight for free.

The travel market is very competitive. Who are the major players? Where is Ulysse positioned among them?

There are two types of players as well as the companies that do the ticketing. On one side, there are flight search engines like Kayak, Liligo and SkyScanner and they offer a good service. And on the other, there are online travel agencies like Opodo, Expedia and Go Voyage. These companies are more than thirty years old and the booking and purchasing experience has not changed since the start of the internet. All of these sites have the same strategy: offer the best prices on the market. They invest a lot in marketing and not much in product quality. We wanted to create an alternative and invest in services so customers come once and continue to come back.

There are ecological concerns with airline transport. How have you incorporated these concerns?

Actually, we are the first ones to say that certain types of airline travel should not exist. Sometimes it is more expensive for me to go see my parents who live around Paris than to take a plane to Milan. Today, the question is how to travel better. We think it would be wise to do away with plane travel when there is a train alternative. We want for example to create a filter for selecting flights that are less polluting or those that have shorter routes. But we alone cannot have an impact on the planet. The most sustainable solution will come from the plane manufacturers.

March 2020, the planes were grounded. The Covid crisis paralysed airline transport. What happened at Ulysse?

In March 2020, we went from our best sales months to zero. Of course, we were inundated with cancellations. We had a contact rate close to 100% versus the usual 10%. Then we tried to demonstrate our resilience and show that in a difficult moment we could push forward. The tools we used in all our efforts to improve team productivity were then used to absorb the shock, and we reimbursed all of our customers. But we’re not going to lie. We are lucky to be a small company. We handle 20,000 tickets per year, not 200,000. We were able to position ourselves as a reliable actor and we gained quite a few customers, so much so that we had higher revenue in 2020 that in 2019.

In September 2021, you raised 4 million euros in funding. What are Ulysse’s development projects now?

Just like we invested a lot in research and bookings, now we are working on the post-booking component. The customer is abandoned on most websites after buying a ticket even though they still have a lot of questions about the boarding gate, vaccines, visas etc. So we’re developing an application for that.

And then we will continue to expand and test other markets, American, English and Spanish markets. Depending on the results, we will focus on one of them. Our goal in 2022 is to double or triple the volume of tickets.

You were in the NEOMA incubator. What did that provide to your company?

The incubator gave me solid support and the chance to find experienced people. From the very first days, we had mentors and advisors who helped us. When it wasn’t working, they said so.

 

 

Entrepreneurship: two mistakes to avoid according to Axel Guidicelli

1) Partnering up with a friend (who is still my friend). But it was a person who had a profile too similar to mine. Neither of us could offer additional value. You need the skills of a developer. Those are indispensable when starting out in digital tech. The best is to have a partner who knows that side of things. Since it is strategic, it needs to be integrated into the company. It’s hard to find someone like that.

2) Partnering with the first person you find. You need a partner that you have chemistry with. For Ulysse, I took my time and I didn’t make that mistake.

 

 

 

 

 

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