“Hard work pays off”, With Douglas Brown and Bahar Schmidt

I would say get a trademark immediately and make sure you have NDA’s signed before sharing your brilliant business idea with anyone. You never know who might take your idea and run with it. I shared my idea of reselling non-refundable travel packages and found out later that someone who I spoke with shared it […]

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I would say get a trademark immediately and make sure you have NDA’s signed before sharing your brilliant business idea with anyone. You never know who might take your idea and run with it. I shared my idea of reselling non-refundable travel packages and found out later that someone who I spoke with shared it with a person in New York and they tried to do the same, to my luck they were not successful.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing, Bahar Schmidt, founder and CEO of Eluxit.

Bahar Schmidt, a Los Angeles-based travel agent and travel industry expert specializing in high-end destinations, is the co-founder of Eluxit, the ultimate next-level travel agency and resale platform. Having worked in the luxury travel industry for over two decades, Bahar has seen a lot of non-refundable, yet transferable travel experiences go unused and wanted to find a way for consumers to recover some of the funds by reselling their travel. She envisioned a web-based platform where travelers and sellers can recoup some of the funds, while buyers can get incredible deals on high-end travel experiences. With Eluxit, Bahar has created an exchange that is safe, secure, easy to navigate, and provides vendors and travelers with peace of mind that is especially important during these unprecedented times.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I was born, raised, and attended school in Germany before moving to Los Angeles in 1992. In high school, we had a program were you had to choose an internship for one week at a workplace that you may want to work one day. At the time, I was walking by a travel agency every day to get to school. It always looked so magical to me, all the posters with the vacation spots I would dream of, and I knew that this was where I wanted to intern. Luckily the agency agreed to take me on as an intern, and even though I was just filing brochures, I just LOVED the way it felt to be there every day. It made me happy.

When I moved to Los Angeles, I was an international student and had plans to study law. I was more eager to work and didn’t really enjoy school however, and I applied for a receptionist position at a Travel Agency in Beverly Hills and got the job. I was so excited. After a short three months there, I taught myself the basic command of the GDS system called Sabre, which back then without having internet, was a giant book. My boss quickly recognized that I knew most basic commands and promoted me to be an agent and I started in the Leisure department booking cruises and Hawaiian packages similar to the ones I used to dream of. I loved my job!

When the airlines took away the domestic commission fee structure in the 90’s, unfortunately I was let go and worked as a manager in a shoe store while looking for another travel agency position. Shortly after September 11th, a publicly traded company called Flight Centre hired me as a retail travel agent in Santa Monica. I worked there for 10 years, being promoted to Store Manager, as well as opening both their second Corporate Travel Agency in downtown Los Angeles and their Entertainment office called Stage and Screen in North America. My main area of expertise was always high-end travel and VIP travel.

Being a woman in a travel company where all of the executives running the company were male was extremely challenging however. I was harassed on a daily basis and finally took my concerns to Human Resources. It was a nightmare. The retaliation was unbearable and I was devastated and finally put in my resignation and quit during the biggest recession in my lifetime. Everyone thought I should just hang in there but I just could not stay any longer.

Once I left I thought I would be able to find another job, but I was wrong as there were really no jobs available at the time. It was at this moment that I decided to open my own agency and opened Vice- Roi Travel Services LLC in January 2009 as an Independent Contractor with Altour International, a very large Travel Company.

In February of 2009, while I was pregnant with my twins, I was forced to bedrest, so I hired my first employee.

At Vice-Roi we looked after VIP clients only and with that came high end travel that would get cancelled from time to time without refund. So, in my mind I always was thinking about possible solutions for this.

In 2018, I started forming a rough outline of what would soon become Eluxit and together with some brilliant minds within the industry, we brainstormed, and the concept was formed. I knew I wanted to focus fully on Eluxit and sold Vice- Roi to Altour in March of 2019, which at the time was extremely successful with offices in both Los Angeles and Chicago, to pursue my dream of creating a new concept to resale luxury travel.

I still own the retail store VR Travel Agency, Inc. in Santa Monica. VR Travel Agency is a person-to-person agency, bringing the traditional walk in Travel Agency back that we lost during the 2000’s. The office is currently closed due to the Covid but is planning to reopen on September 28th.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began Eluxit?

I think it is all very interesting, especially how much my young children, both age 10, have been involved, even completing their school project based on Eluxit. My twins, a boy and a girl, have been so involved with the entire process from coming up with the name and even what the model would look like. I love involving them because their minds are so pure and their imagination is incredible, so I always consult with them. My daughter came up with the name, so my son wanted to contribute as well. He was taking an entrepreneurship class in his elementary after school program and came up with a model of what the store/ business should look like. I feel like they are my biggest supporters, always celebrating every milestone with me. I am a proud mom and feel they contributed and kept my dream alive.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The biggest mistake I made was paying the web developer before our site was live and fully functional. I love working with other female owned businesses and was referred to someone that I really liked and thought could be a great asset to building the site. It turned out to be a very long process however, and I had no clue what I was doing or anything about the web building language. There are so many little details and so much copy to write and come up with. Most people would think this happens overnight, but it literally took one year to build. If I had to do it over again, I would most definitely not pay the developer the final payment until everything was functional. We had issues with the site not working properly and developer was very unresponsive. Needless to say, it was a nightmare and postponed our launch by six months. Lesson learned. But I still have to say that she did a great job, in the end.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

I definitely wanted to give up many times. Eluxit is fully self-funded with over 500k so far invested by myself, so you can only imagine what it feels like when things don’t pick up as fast as you would hope.

We had a soft launch in November 2019 but were hoping to do our official press release and launch in March 2020 with a nice party inviting all of our vendors. When the Pandemic hit, I was faced with a very difficult decision, should I launch in the middle of a global pandemic when everything is shut down and there is no travel? I decided to move forward with the launch and with the help of our lovely team at Stanton & Co., the launch was a big success and ultimately, a great decision.

Everyone was talking about travel and specifically cancelled trips. There were so many trips cancelled and it was an ideal time to start talking about non-refundable travel and that now there is an option to resale your nonrefundable travel package. Although my travel agency was closed, this opened up a lot of time for me to focus on promoting Eluxit and of course we had great exposure that kept me going.

On the downside, there were no actual bookings because people were still not buying travel. We had travel agents posting non-refundable packages on our site, but no consumers in sight, I felt defeated and I felt extremely lost at times. I had no crystal ball telling me what I should do. There were so many days that I felt down. I knew the concept was good, I knew the idea was good, and I also knew this concept did not exist in the world yet.

So, I started doing affirmations every morning, telling myself that it will all work out, that it will take off. It was difficult to keep myself motivated to move forward. Then you get a sale, and all is good, and you know your concept worked. Now we have people all the way from Australia, Canada and Europe posting on our site. We have people from NY and LA coast-to-coast buying from our site. In the end, I think you just have to keep pushing forward and keep believing in what you build and never give up on your dreams.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My mentor is Dr. Habib Sadeghi at Beehive of Healing. I completed his mentorship program four years ago and it really gave me the strength to move forward with my idea. I am always able to call him anytime when I am in doubt or have a difficult time making decisions, and he has really been my biggest supporter. Dr. Sadeghi has a large network of VIP clients and was able to connect me with Amy Stanton from our amazing PR team.

I also would like to say that Joseph Oppold at Altour International has been a huge support in my endeavors. He always believed in me and my ability to make Eluxit possible. He has arranged my first Eluxit presentation at Altour in Los Angeles and has put me in touch with other Agents in NY as well.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

While there are so many life lessons and quotes that are my favorite, I would have to say the one that comes to my mind is “hard work pays off.” I know it is not the most perfect quote and it is super basic, but it somehow motivates me. Because honestly, it does pay off. I did not go to college and I don’t have a fancy degree but what I do know is that my entire life, I always worked hard to get to my goals and to achieve my dreams. I had three jobs at one point in my life, including being a housekeeper, a waitress and a sales person. I always kept my head up high. I honestly believe that every single job I had before, helped to get to where I am now. For example, being a housekeeper showed me how to be organized, being a waitress taught me all about the service industry, and selling shoes taught me how to be an amazing salesperson.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?

1. Clients were losing money on non-refundable trips they were unable to take.

2. Trips were going unused and leaving rooms vacant, thus lowering the revenues for resorts and localities that come with having clients onsite.

3. Luxury travel has been limited to a small subset of the population. Eluxit hopes to open the market to those that previously couldn’t afford luxury travel.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Eluxit is the first of its kind luxury travel resale online market place. There is nothing like it that exists for travel, but it is similar to the Real Real or Poshmark in fashion, were you can resale your travel package you no longer want for whatever reason. If the trip is non-refundable but transferrable, you can recoup some of the cost.

To the consumer this is a great site where they can buy next level travel at an affordable price. A once in a lifetime trip is now within reach.

For the hotel, they will now not have an empty room, and other revenue can be made by the hotel, whether it is from the spa the restaurant or the gift shop.

It is a win-win for everyone.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

Most people probably are shocked when they hear that a 46-year-old mom invented a tech website. I feel there is somehow always a perception that I am male. Most people address me as a “he” when I get quoted in articles online and it happens all the time when I strictly communicate over emails. Unless they hear my voice, they automatically assume I am “male.” I think that more light needs to shine on the women who are Tech start up entrepreneurs and also non millennial females, like myself. I feel that we don’t get enough credit for all the work we do and for what we have been able create.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

I would say that we are not taken serious enough. I always feel very challenged in meetings when I am the only female in the room, and I feel I need to create some sort of a joke to lighten the mood or to get the attention I need for my presentation. And then the obvious doubting questions, hands down men are always skeptical and have the most challenging questions. I hope this changes in the future for my daughter. I think we need to encourage more women to go after their dreams, because everything and anything is possible. I hope that what I am doing inspires other women my age to go after their dream as well. I am living proof that you do not need a fancy tech degree or an MBA or need to be a man to start a tech start up. There is no age limit, you are not too old or too young, you just have to believe it yourself and, in your idea, and go for it and let nothing stop you.

What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?

We were in a total standstill during the Pandemic. I did not stop working, I think when this happens, you have to utilize the extra time you have to keep creating, to keep inventing, and keep cultivating new ideas. Come up with new strategies.

Always stay positive and be patient and stay motivated. I am planting my seeds in downtimes, watering them, and watching them grow. Come up with newsletters and stay in touch with all of your clients. It is crucial to any business to let your clients know you are still there. I sent all of my clients personal emails during the Pandemic when we first closed in March and let them know that I was sad and had to cancel my vacation plans as well, hearing from me that I was in the same boat, was relatable to them.

Also, it is a perfect time to revisit marketing ideas, social media content, etc. What changes can you make to get different results?

Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?

Hiring the right people, not just those who qualify for the job but are also a good team match. Teamwork make the dream work. This is key to any successful business. It is also important to retain your employees, every time when you lose a sales person or an agent, you will lose the clients most likely as well, which will ultimately result in an overall loss for the business, so keeping your sales team happy at their work place is key.

I love sales, and I love training my sales team. When I want to hire a good sales person, I am not going to ask for a college degree. I want to see experience and I want to see ambition, that is key to getting good sales people. I know I don’t have a degree however, I am the best sales person I personally know.

I love incentives. Rewarding your sales team is so important, sometimes even a small contest between the sales teams. Set strong and achievable goals for your sales team (e.g., solid targets, how do you get there, what can you do to get there, etc.). Discuss these in weekly team meetings. Celebrate the success of a big sale, a small sale, or a first sale will go such a long way. Celebrating and rewarding your sales team is not only motivates them but also feels good. Create a fun, welcoming, caring and appreciative work place and lead by example, always.

In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?

The most effective has been hiring our PR agency, they have gone above and beyond putting us on the map.

Eluxit is a brand-new travel concept and there is nothing like it on the market, so how do we reach people? I wanted to shout it out from rooftops, but clearly that would not have been effective. Our PR firm however did exactly that, they have created exposure within the travel industry which was needed to get content for our site and reach consumers. They have arranged so many interviews, from Forbes to CNN to Travel and Leisure magazine, spa magazines, the list is so long. I could have never done any of this without them.

The second I would have to say is lots of social media content and advertising. Also, giving webinars at travel conferences and key note speaking.

Most recently, our team helped us partner with KTLA News, where we were featured and where we were also able to give away a trip. The traffic on our website at exactly the time it aired, had over 600 new users within the half hour. That is probably the largest visit in a short period of time to our site and we had two sales immediately following as well.

From all the PR work, press releases, and interviews that we have done over the past five months, we have gained users to our site worldwide, most recently from Australia. It has been epic!

Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

1. If you have any questions or if something is unclear, please email us. Or call us, our agents are available 24/7.

2. Browse all of the available packages before making a selection.

4. Make sure to read all of the details of a package before purchasing.

3. Visit the property’s website to become more familiar with a destination.

As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?

I think that having a personal touch and always keeping in contact with customers is very important. I usually make it a point, when permitted, to always send a welcome note and amenity to the hotel room where my client will be staying. If my clients are traveling with young children, I usually make the amenity kid friendly like maybe milk and warm chocolates. I once had a popcorn maker in the room with M’M’s and these type of small personal notes and gestures can go a long way.

At Eluxit we make sure we stay in touch with all of our clients, via newsletters and blogs. Staying relevant is important, updating clients on a regular basis on what deals we have is important.

Following up is also very crucial. We always make sure we follow up with our clients after their trip to hear how it went and welcome them back home.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. The first step would be to get a good tech startup attorney. It is so important to start on the right foot. I learned so much from my attorney and also the fact he focused on tech startup companies was crucial. Setting up the company’s structure is important if you are looking to get investors. And that is exactly what the attorney will do for you.
  2. I would say get a trademark immediately and make sure you have NDA’s signed before sharing your brilliant business idea with anyone. You never know who might take your idea and run with it. I shared my idea of reselling non-refundable travel packages and found out later that someone who I spoke with shared it with a person in New York and they tried to do the same, to my luck they were not successful.
  3. Hire a really good web developer, make sure you meet with several and find the one that you see most eye-to-eye with and someone that is creative.
  4. Find friends or family members that might be good in marketing or branding and ask them to come on board on equity without pay. When I first started Eluxit, I did not have the funds to hire the people I needed. I had to find highly qualified friends that were willing to do the branding and marketing and who created the entire look of Eluxit in exchange for equity.
  5. Get an amazing copywriter to write your copy and create a brand vision. One of the best investments I made was hiring a copywriter to create the brand vision and write the copy on the site. This really helped me speaking about Eluxit more comfortably and gave me a clear vision on Eluxit and most importantly confidence.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would love to change the mindset that if you are born into a life with little opportunities that your future and your ideas are not possible. I am living proof coming from poverty, having no education, and being a women has not stopped me from creating my own businesses. I hope one day I can create a program for young girls who want to achieve more in life and give them a platform to start their dream.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Yes. I would love to meet Whitney Wolfe Heard, I am so inspired by her entrepreneurship and her success in the tech world is unmatched.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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