As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Tom van Bokhoven. Tom is the CEO of Yource, parent company for Flight-Delayed.com, an Amsterdam based tech and legal startup. They are known as the leaders in the protection of travelers rights in Europe.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Thank you for having me Christina!
Well, it was a series of serendipities that eventually led me to my career. Life has a way of throwing you a curve ball at the most unexpected moments. I was actually studying to be an architect, and on my way to an unfulfilling career developing monumental buildings and empty office spaces. All that changed one day on holiday with my parents.
Eight years ago, I flew to a beautiful Greek Island. I don’t remember which island it was, but I do remember having a great time basking in the warm glow of the sunshine, laying in the white sandy beaches, and cooling off in the cool breeze of the clear blue Mediterranean sea.
Good food, great wine — in short paradise.
When it was time to fly home, the harsh reality hit when the airport, suddenly without any prior warning, announced a delay. It was not a pleasant experience to be stuck at a tiny airport, without any ventilation, sandwiched between throngs of angry travelers, with temperatures rising upwards of 95 degrees Fahrenheit. I felt stuck, unable to do anything, and suffocating in the humidity of the summer heat!
The paradise turned into a living nightmare!
I waited at the airport for what seemed like an eternity with no answers. After nearly three hours waiting in the sweltering heat, with no food or water, an emotionless and robotic voice bellowed over the PA system ordering us to stand in line to board a plane. No reasons were given for the delay, no apologies were given for the inconvenience, and no compensation was given. In short, they treated us like pieces of meat in a conveyor belt.
I am usually an upbeat and positive guy and I never let things get to me. But that day, something in me changed. I remember sitting on the flight back with a fierce determination and a new found sense of purpose. I wanted the airline to pay for the way they treated us.
I did not know who to contact, what to do about it, or how to go about getting them to listen to me. All I knew was that airlines should never again get away with treating their passengers in that way.
So, I researched. I spent several hours searching for the next step, and finally stumbled on the consumer protection rights page. I realized that I was just 10 minutes short of compensation.
I knew I wanted to start a company around passenger rights. I started sleeping with a book next to my pillow. I wrote down every idea. My mind and body became consumed by this idea.
This experience led me to join the Amsterdam Centre for Entrepreneurship. The ACE brings together budding entrepreneurs and give them a place to birth ideas. Even now, I still remember being holed up in the middle of nowhere for three days, with 200 students. The place was buzzing with excitement.
Of the 200 people, I found myself wanting to connect with Bart and Mario. I didn’t know why, but something in my gut told me I needed to know them. You couldn’t find a more diverse group of guys to start a company with. Bart studied business economics, Mario studied IT, and I was studying to be an architect. Even our personalities are a complete mismatch, but in a way where we complemented each other more than we knew.
And that’s how my career began.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
In the beginning, I went to every airline industry event and trade show where airlines and Online Travel Agencies would be. I tried to meet representatives and CEOs from all the big airlines, but they refused to meet with me. They thought I was a crazy kid with a stupid idea.
It was during one of the rejections that I managed to score a meeting with a CEO from a large company. I will never forget this guy. If you were to look up the definition of a CEO, this guy’s picture would show up. Steven van der Heijden is one of the most imposing and intimidating guy I have ever met in this business. He is over 6 feet tall, weighs over 200 pounds. He held a cigar in one hand and a glass of bourbon in the other.
He was the CEO of TUI fly, and he represented all the travel agencies in the Netherlands.
Steven invited me to his office for an hour-long meeting. Naturally, I was nervous, but my nerves turned into reverence when I stepped into his office. He sat in a spacious office, overlooking the Schiphol airport. He was flanked by his head of legal and his chief of finance.
I stood there in awe.
Although we scheduled an hour long meeting to discuss the proposal, I wasn’t able to make my pitch. Steven spent the first 50 minutes taking me on a tour. He showed me every room in the building. At the end of the tour, he turned towards me, and said “Do you really believe that we are going to pay you a single dollar? We are going to fight you until you don’t have anything anymore. We are not going to pay you a single dime, not now, not ever!”
Obviously, I was totally taken aback by this. He wanted to unnerve me, and he did. But I didn’t want him to know that he did. So, I stuck to my guns and said “Fine. You can always find us — you have my contact details. We will continue. Passengers have these rights, and we are going to fight for them. We are always open for a partnership”
And then I left the room. And you know what happened next…
TUI Fly was the first airline to beg us not to sue them. They said that they have been sued enough, and they wanted a partnership.
In my opinion, that’s a smart airline.
Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?
The idea is based on the European Union regulations of passenger rights. If your flight is delayed, cancelled, or you are denied boarding, you are entitled to €250, €400, or €600. These are fixed amounts based on the distance and hours delayed.
We built a system that tracks all flights globally. Based on this, we narrow down the passengers eligible for compensation. Then, we match this data with the EU regulation, and provide advice to eligible passengers on how to receive compensation from the airlines.
Passengers find themselves in a complicated process created by the airlines. Over half of the passengers who go directly to the airlines for compensation never receive a response or receive a rejection. It is rare for the passenger to succeed if they handle their cases directly with the airlines.
This is where we step in. We understand the ins and outs of the airline industry, and we’re prepared for fight on behalf of the passengers. I see it as the start of setting things straight.
How do you think this will change the world?
Our idea will ultimately shift the balance of power from the airlines to the customers. We may be facing a David vs. Goliath moment, but there will come a time when we take the power away from the airline and hand it back to the consumer.
The airline industry is pretty conservative in terms of change. But the problems of dissatisfied customers is wide spread. The consumers are intentionally kept in the dark, preventing them from knowing their rights. We are going to change that!
The potential drawback is not with the idea itself but with the way our society uses the technology. For example, let’s look at the unintended consequences of mobile phones.
The creation of mobile phones does not have any drawback in and of itself. It was intended to be used as a form of communication. But now, we use it so much, it has affected the way we interact with others, and has major social and interpersonal consequences.
Buying and discarding phones affects our environment as we think more in terms of convenience rather than sustainability. This can unravel to further environmental degradation caused by mining of coltan, which is in our phones. The mining of coltan leads to unintended child labor.
But back to the question of unintended consequences of our idea.
What could happen is the dynamic changes between how airlines behave towards passengers and how passengers react to the airlines. Airlines could face multiple lawsuits and incur significant losses. This could lead to where airlines treat passengers with more respect and better service. This is good for the travelers, but may create a more risk averse atmosphere with unintended consequences, such as canceling flight routes permanently causing people to lose their jobs, or to certain areas of the world without flight options.
In a Black Mirror scenario, airlines could institute a new policy to profile passengers who have sued, and put them on a no-fly list. They could reward passengers who chose not to sue with a loyalty credit or miles, or given perks. This will create an exclusive community, but with unintended results.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?
Stuck at the airport in Greece with temperatures over 95 degrees, with no air conditioning, was the boiling point that led to this idea. I waited for exactly 2 hours and 50 minutes, 10 minutes short of receiving €400 from the airline. This experience led me to learn more about travelers compensation.
This led to creating a website that informs and helps passengers. Accurate flight data is scarce, and it was difficult building a system that links jurisdictional aspects of flight and weather. But when I discovered that the total compensation passengers were entitled to were $3.3 billion annually, I nearly fell off my chair!
Although we started the company in 2010, it took until October 2012 for us to really make a difference. Airlines fought every case we brought to court by utilizing loopholes in the European regulation. There is a regulation that covers cancellation and denied boarding, but delays were not part of the regulation due to vague legalese wording. We didn’t make any money for nearly two years, and we all worked a day job for those two years.
As luck would have it, in 2012, the European court ruled against the airline industry, ruling that airlines have to pay a financial compensation if a passenger is delayed for three hours or more. The court ruled that these norms should be applied in the case of canceled flights.
This was a major turning point for us! After that breakthrough, we were able to claim our money back retroactively through the statutes of limitation. This is when we really took off, and when we attracted a lot of media attention.
What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?
I don’t believe we can have absolute buy-in from airlines in the next two or three years. For that to happen, a major incident would have to happen that would result in an enormous amount of lawsuits.
I think the incestuous relationship between airlines and the travel industry should end. If the two industries were separated, then we would receive further adoption. Online travel agents should take care of their customers, but they do not always do so. They are sometimes afraid to send their clients to us to avoid upsetting their airline partners. So, having an open and transparent travel market is the only way to get widespread adoption.
Alternatively, what is possible is that people can educate themselves on their rights as a traveler, and come together as a group to put pressure on congress to enact a similar law as the EU regulation.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Although we have a business based on European regulations, we have to take into account that every passenger we represent is based on national law. The legal aspect is very difficult, as every country in Europe has its own sets of laws. In many countries, we face restrictions regarding legal services rendered. For example, you are not allowed to represent passengers in other countries. In order to represent our clients, we created legal partnerships in every country we operate in. We currently have over 3,000 legal proceedings pending all over Europe. But, if someone had told me how difficult legal proceeding would it, it would have scared me off this whole project!
2. I wish someone would have told me how to manage the growing pains of a young startup. When you expand as a company, it can be really hard to maintain the same vibe and culture. We grew from a company of three, to five, to 10, to 30, to 70 and now to 100. This year, we will probably grow to 200 full-time employees. I would be eternally grateful if someone could give me advice on how to properly manage a growing company. Managing a company of 100 is different to managing a company of 200 employees. I do know that some stages becomes easier. For example, it was easy to manage when the company had 25 people. It was a bit more difficult when we hit 35 employees, and then surprisingly easier when we reached 50. Managing people really reveal how incompetent you could be, or what skills and capabilities you lack.
3. Manage expectations. One of the first difficulties we faced was receiving a large amount of claims. But we didn’t know how to process them. I wish someone would have advised me to set up the operations side of the business prior to setting up our marketing.
4. Don’t be naïve and do your research before your start a project. Let me share something with you. When we first started, we naively thought that as long as you have a website, you would be able to launch it in a new country. To our surprise, we did not have legal permission to do so. When we launched our website in the United Kingdom and Germany, we had no idea of the legal implications, and we were sued for unfair competition. It was a very costly mistake. We had to pay €20,000 that is equivalent to roughly $23,000. For a young company without any capital, we had to pay that out of our own pockets! So, don’t start right away. We always want to be the young guns that goes in, disrupts the traditional way of working. But you need to know the lay of the land before you embark on a project. Looking back, it would have been great if someone sat me down and said “Listen. Be careful. You really need to conduct research, or you may have to do something twice.” We did — we had to re-launch Germany a year and a half later. This could have been avoided with a bit of planning and research.
5. Looking back, I can say that we did a lot of things the wrong way due to our enthusiasm and naivety. We sent the wrong letters to the wrong airlines. We didn’t know which letters to send based on regulations. We didn’t even have a printer, so I had to go to the public library to print documents. An example of our enthusiasm and naivety is when we started a Pay What You Want kind of service. We would claim the compensation for the customers, and leave it up to them to decide how much to pay us. A Pay What You Want kind of service is essentially a free service, and it would cost the company dearly. In this case, our altruistic nature got the better of us. And if you think that experience made us wiser, then think again! We are still the most altruistic company on the market!
We are the only company in Europe that offers the lowest fees, despite repeated protests from our board. We have a no-win no-fee rule, which means customers do not need to pay us anything if we are not successful, even if we began legal proceedings. If we are successful, we charge 25% of the total compensation, which is lower than all of our competitors.
I still insist on it. I genuinely care about our customers. After going through what they experience on a daily basis, I know what it feels like to feel like we are ripped off. That is why we deliberately maintain the lowest rate for our client.
6. Never act on your emotions. For example, I wanted to give away 21% of our revenue to greenhouse gas reduction projects. But, Ben & Jerry’s, a much larger corporation, only donates 7% of its revenue. Although I wanted to do good, I had to realize that financially, it wasn’t sustainable. When you act emotionally, there will be legal or financial implications.
The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?
It all comes down to hard work! I did not get to this point by lazing around or day dreaming, I went out and made it happen! Always do the things you like, but it will not come easy. Anything worth doing takes time, energy, drive and hard work.
The other aspect is to always learn. Not just for the sake of learning, but to progress in your chosen profession. We often hear about technology replacing people. So you not only have to learn a new software skill, but you need to be fluent in it.
Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?
There are things that is still wrong in the travel industry that impacts every passengers flying anywhere in the world. This is why, with our services, we are taking control away from the monopoly of airline industry and giving it back to the people. That is what I believe is going to happen in the next few years. Our ultimate goal is to become the number one leading company in travel services and the protection of passenger rights.
We are doing everything we can to get there. If we have a million dollars, we would be the clearing house for the airlines. At the end, we could become an external customer care of the airlines.
There is another idea at the moment, but this is something I cannot share with you or with your readers yet. All I can say is that you should watch this space. We are embarking on something huge, so follow us!
Spoiler Alert: It’s something that has a global reach and is worth €100 billion.
Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?
Well, I don’t know if you have ever read Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I like lightness, I don’t like heaviness, I am always optimistic. It is really hard to see negative things.I always believe that there are good sides to everything. Even if something bad happens, it will eventually help you in life. For m,e the lightness of being is a blessing instead of a burden.
In my career, I have always believed in maintaining sustainable relationships. I have never made enemies and this applies to airlines with whom we often find ourselves suing in court. We make them pay by suing them due to legal reasons but if I were to sit down with the CEO of any major airlines, I would be able to fully understand why they do the things they do.
Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?
I do a lot of naked yoga! Just kidding, but one of the things I do instinctively, and that I think is a mindset that gears me for success, is a combination of humility and taking initiatives. For instance, I fix the printer if it is broken instead of delegating it to someone from IT. If there are dirty dishes in the office I will gladly wash them.
You should never feel that you are too good to do something. If you become arrogant or develop an ego, you put yourself at a disadvantage. If you stay humble, you stay hungry. This helps you become comfortable and secure in yourself.
Another thing is to always surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. This might be intimidating at first, but trust me, this will help you and your company grow.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?
Do you want to invest in a €100 billion market that is still untouched? If so then please call us!
We are one of the first passenger rights company and we have a mind blowing idea that is at least 40 timesas big as our current service and worth €100 billion! The best part is that our idea will soon become a reality, so join us in our global venture before it’s too late.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.
Thank you Christina I really appreciate it!