Pombai is a marketplace for non-air transportation in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
Travelers can use Pombai to book tickets for intercity buses, ferries, and trains. Merchants can use the platform to access more foreign customers, manage ride inventory, and possibly increase sales.
Here’s how the product works:
This spring, before one Guatemalan merchant began using Pombai, he had to fill three shuttle buses (12-18 seats each) every day by waiting for people to walk up to his counter and pay him in cash for the shuttle leaving the next day.
The customer had to speak Spanish to make this transaction happen, had to pay physically at the office, and had to pay in cash in local currency.
Meanwhile the merchant had to use multiple middlemen in a nearby city to help him sell seats – and pay a commission fee for the referrals. Occasionally, drivers handling the money would steal by not placing ticket money into the register.
With Pombai, the merchant now puts all his inventory online in Spanish and people can search and purchase it in English or Mandarin.
Customers pay with a credit card or PayPal, which eliminates his fraud issue, so the merchant doesn’t need to use middlemen to help sell, and he can reach people all around the world by using a Web-based interface from his home.
Monetization is straightforward. Pombai takes 10% of every transaction, with more sophisticated pricing models to follow later.
Pombai has incorporated as entities in Ireland and the US company with a development office in Lithuania and business development office in Beijing.
Q&A with CEO Joseph Finkenbinder:
How is the way you are solving this problem more special or effective than previous attempts you or the market has seen before and how different do you have to be to succeed?
Pombai helps local merchants do business internationally by bringing their brick and mortar business online. Most attempts to solving this problem are done through technology alone but that’s not the problem.
Technology can now solve this fairly simply but it takes a very solid understanding of the cultures you operate in to implement the proper technologies and know what it takes to educate your consumer so they maximize its functionality.
Why should people or companies use your startup?
We are a marketplace so we have two customers.
For the traveler, Pombai’s killer convenience is advance booking at destinations with few locally-started online businesses that have the ability to process credit cards. Instead of risking that seats will sell out, travelers can book in advance from reputable, peer-reviewed merchants.
The traveler gets some other nice perks as well. The traveler doesn’t need to waste time walking around looking for a ticket office, can use a payment other than cash in places that might not have an ATM. If something goes wrong with the exchange, Pombai can always step in and mediate.
Our main focus is on the merchants, though, because the data they provide us is proprietary can be sold through many different currently popular sales channels.
Our service is without cost, simple to use, universally accessible, and opens businesses up to tens of millions of new customers, particularly Chinese customers.
In total, we provide better access, accountability, variety, and security for both parties but our primary focus is helping local businesses grow.
Other than going viral and receiving mountains of positive PR, what is the strategy for raising awareness and getting customers/users?
Leveraging our strong connections in Western and Chinese government agencies to access merchants. Partnering with companies that we feel would benefit our customers when we can offer tangible benefits to theirs. And, making people smile.
What other options have you considered for the business and the team if the original vision fails?
If we pivot one more time we’ll have turned in a circle. It’s “get shit done” time.
What mistakes have you made in the past in business and how have you learned from them?
Wrong business model, wrong market, wrong customer, wrong employees, and wrong partnerships. We learned to find some mentors to help with the model and market, talk to customers to know them better, and fire people.
My co-founders and I started of with a basic notion of wanting to do something in transportation a couple years ago but weren’t sure exactly what that meant.
Initially we focused on a rideshare as a sort of CouchSurfing for cars but after awhile we realized that wasn’t something we were really passionate about nor was it all that profitable.
I know there are some players out there like Carpooling.com and Zimride that are doing fairly well in that space but it wasn’t a big enough problem for us and our efforts there weren’t going to have the same impact we were looking to create.
We then started to see a much larger business application in B2B/B2C marketplaces and Chinese consumers.
As our idea evolved and took us into a very profitable market, people began to make lots of promises about what they’re going to do for us. Promises about development, funding, access, and all types of things.
This of course didn’t pan out so we cut loose those that weren’t performing, on the technical and business sides.
A tech accelerator like Startup Bootcamp Dublin would have saved us from many of those mistakes but it’s never too late to learn, so once we got into SBC we took advantage of it and temporarily relocated from Beijing to Dublin.
Since then we’ve validated our new model through customers and mentors and are well on our way to releasing an outstanding product this autumn and have begun working with merchants in Asia and Latin America to roll it out soon.
What is wrong with the travel, tourism and hospitality industry that requires another startup to help it out?
It’s a fairly top-down operation for the segment of the industry we operate in with high barriers to entry.
So we decided to give merchants the tools without any costs so anyone with a computer or mobile device can use the system and grow their business.
This enables us to offer data (tickets) to travelers that does not exist anywhere else on the web.
The non-air transportation booking space is promising with figures of well of north of $10 billion a year in cash and non-cash transactions estimated.
There’s a threat from Redbus, Roadhop, Ticketvala, TicketGoose, local travel agents, Sabre, Amadeus, and many other companies that are positioned to become competitors for this non-air transportation market.
That said, Pombai has been wise to target Chinese travelers by offering its software in Mandarin as well as English and by working with Chinese government agencies. By scaling up with this underserved market, Pombai could become the leader and then find partnerships or sell out to a larger company with an existing English-language customer base, such as Viator.
Kudos to the team for putting out a Version 1 quickly, then improving upon it based on users’ reactions.
The minimal interface seems smart. If the company had waited to release a fully-functional service and stunning database, mistakes would be more deeply wired in and difficult for them to correct based on user reactions. Going simple first is a good way to iterate.
Some red flags about Pombai include cross-border tax issues and regulation, plus inconsistent internet access in the developing world. Another worry is whether or not the user-generated ratings of merchants will be enough to weed out unscrupulous merchants.
Overall, a promising leap from the starting gate.