Transforming Bus Transportation in the Philippines, with Aurora Soriano, co-founder of PinoyTravel

Aurora, please introduce yourself…

My name is Aurora Soriano and I co-founded PinoyTravel with Maui Millan. PinoyTravel is an online reservation service for long distance buses in the Philippines. Before our launch, it was easier to buy and airline ticket from Manila to New York than a bus ticket to a nearby city.

My family is from a small town in the northern part of Philippines called Bauang. I have 6 siblings and we mostly stayed in this town while my father worked in the big city. We didn’t have a car, so a good part of our lives were spent taking long distance buses for those school breaks and special occasions.

Worse, our town was so small, there was not a bus station. We would wait by the roadside hoping that a bus would come by to accommodate 7 young kids, a mother and a ton of luggage. We were lucky that our part of the road was cemented but I saw families waiting along dirt roads. This image never left my mind.

I studied Electronics and Communications Engineering in Manila and later started my career in the telecommunications industry. I started with technical jobs but later found my love for sales & marketing and spent the next 20 years in business development.

What’s the story behind creating PinoyTravel and can you explain what you do?

One Christmas break I saw on TV news people flocking in bus stations, waiting for hours, and to pass the time they were playing games on their smartphones and tablets.

That’s when I realized that devices and internet penetration is good enough to start an online bus booking service– just like they do in other countries. For funding we joined a competition by Ideaspace Foundation and won in April 2013.

We created a web application www.pinoytravel.com.ph and an android app. An iOS app is in the works.

PinoyTravel partners with bus companies to allow us to sell ticket reservations online. The bus companies charge their government-mandated fares and we charge the consumer our service fees and payment gateway fees. Customers can pay via credit card, debit card, or various over-the-counter payment methods.

How’s traction working out so far?

When we launched in October 2013, we were only able to sign up 1 bus company: Victory Liner for two northern destinations (Baguio and Tuguegarao).

Our biggest milestone was of course our very first customer, who booked a one way ticket to Tuguegarao. We were so overjoyed that we even met her at the bus station to give her some snacks and giveaways.

Our next milestone was signing up Genesis/Joy Bus in December 2013 for their Baler and Baguio routes. Baler proved to be our best-selling destination, given its popularity for weekend surfers.

In fact, even when March came in (which is the start of the low-season for surfing destinations), we were surprised that passenger bookings remained high – Baler was becoming a popular beach destination for everyone, and not just for surfers.

We were told that the convenient bus booking had helped encourage non-surfers to travel there. We thus count this as a very significant milestone, as our product is helping to push one of our advocacies; i.e., to promote non-traditional destinations and help build jobs in these remote areas.

The success of Baler also created enough traction and noise for us to be noticed by the public and other bus companies. By May, 2014 we were able to sign up 7 of the top 20 bus companies.

We continue to engage with the others and we intend to work even with the smaller players. I believe we are doing well enough to attract competitors, some of them foreign funded. But we continue to be the biggest and we seriously intend to keep it that way.

What strategies are you using to market PinoyTravel?

At the moment, traditional marketing is beyond our budget. We maximize free mediums like Facebook and partner with sites and blogs that talk about travel. We partner with big companies like mobile telco Smart Communications for placements in their mobile apps which allows us to tag along for free in their marketing campaigns.

Presenting passengers multiple ways to pay for the tickets is one strategy that’s been working for us. We’ve also started working with kiosk resellers where people without internet connection and bank accounts can just walk in and buy their tickets with cash.

What’s NOT working? The founders are largely tech people and we initially approached the business as a technology solution. It was so difficult to explain to the bus companies what our solution can do for them.

We had to step back and scale down the solution to counter their fear of full automation. They learn fast though, not long after launch they want us to be as complex as airline bookings.

What advice can you give other entrepreneurs who are considering starting a startup in the transportation space?

Public transportation related start-ups in 3rd world countries like the Philippines require more than just technology solutions. There’s a lot of regulatory/legal stuff surrounding it and you should have the right people asking the right questions when dealing with the government.

Local culture plays a lot too into your marketing strategy. The good THING is.. this sector is not very popular among start-ups, so if you find the right approach – its yours to dominate.

How does being based in the Philippines impact the business?

It’s convenient and cost efficient to be located in the Philippines because this business requires a lot of face to face and relationship building with the bus companies.

The biggest challenge is FUNDING. Compared to US, Singapore, Israel, etc.. start-up funding in the Philippines is still in its infancy stage. Local investors give too much weight to historical revenues to peg valuation, which is obviously a challenge for start-up companies. We have no choice but to bootstrap while growing the company to a level where we are valued more appropriately.

The other disadvantage is government support. Start-ups are treated the same way as big business. If you are a start-up, you get no tax breaks, and you are required to submit those complicated monthly tax reportings, even if your revenue is only $10.

How do you see the startup and investment ecosystem developing in the Philippines?

The start-up community needs a showcase to believe in… not just a start-up with a grand idea, but a start-up that serves as an execution model.

Ideas are plenty, but many startups falter because of lack of experience and know-how in running and developing a business. PinoyTravel is aiming to be a showcase to show startups how to make it work.

What’s next for you and PinoyTravel?

Our vision is to bring technology solutions to the public transportation sector. With 100million+ population in such a small land area, efficiency is a MUST.

We plan to go beyond just ticket sales. Technology can solve bigger and more fundamental problems in our country. And we are lucky to have a young population (average age is 25) who will help drive such innovations.

What’s next for me?.. I’ve learned so much with PinoyTravel, and that includes dealing with the government, who is yet to recognize that we, the start-ups, can be their best partners in solving problems at the grass roots level.

At some point, I would like to leave business and use my learnings in order to serve my country.

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