Jacinta Lim is Singaporean, and Lina Gedvilaite was from Lithuania, but they already had a few things in common when they first met while taking their MBA in 2016.
For one, they both came from successful careers in the finance industry—Jacinta was an executive manager at MicroEnsure, a global insurtech firm with 40 million clients in 10 countries, and Lina was an investment analyst at International Finance Corporation in Ukraine.
They were also both avid travellers, who had each been to over 40 countries, as well as lived in a few of them.
It was their love for solo travel, and particularly trips to “dusty off-the-beaten-track places” that bonded the friends.
Today, they are co-founders of their own travel booking platform made specially for the type of intrepid adventures they crave.
Seeking Wisdom Of Experiences
They call their platform ‘Seek Sophie’, inspired by the Greek name ‘Sophie’ which means ‘wisdom’.
The founders believe that travelling to lesser known places can open our eyes to the world around us, as well as teach us about ourselves.
Jacinta explains, “We believe those experiences help us really understand the true stories behind the local communities that we are visiting, beyond the shiny touristic facades.”
With her wealth of travels, the 34-year-old drew inspiration from a visit to Lalibela, an Ethiopian town home to 11 hand-carved rock churches, whose history date back to the 12th and 13th centuries.
“Unlike more well-known historical places such as Petra or Machu Picchu, Lalibela is still being used by the local people to this day—so it’s living, breathing history,” she says.
Thanks to the tip of a local guide, Jacinta started her visit before sunrise, and was able to witness a magnificent, sacred sight.
I saw thousands and thousands of monks, nuns, and pilgrims all wrapped in white robes, swarming the centuries-old rock-hewn churches, each chanting and singing, their voices enveloping the entire complex.
“I would love for more people to be able to experience these special places in the world,” she says.
Straight To Local Communities
To create Seek Sophie, Jacinta and Lina travelled around Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Malaysia, spending at least 2 months in each country sourcing out worthy experiences to offer their customers.
They wanted to connect travellers directly to local guides and operators, so that most of the profit would go straight to them.
Even before becoming entrepreneurs, they had both been passionate about supporting local communities.
If they’d remained in the finance sector, Jacinta says she would have focused on making insurance accessible to the poorest customers, in countries like Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria, who need protection most.
Lina would also have looked into micro-finance to support developing countries, through efforts like providing loans to small businesses or women entrepreneurs.
As it turns out, they chose to invest in the power of tourism to help boost developing economies.
We’ve All Been Confused Travellers
While travellers are interested in “non-touristy” trips, they aren’t so easy to plan since small local travel operators are hard to find online.
Those travel operators [you can find online] are usually foreign intermediaries taking a large cut of the profits from the locals—over 50% in many cases.
Lina struggled with this first-hand when she visited a safari during an internship in Kenya.
“Even though I was advised by locals which operator to book the trip with, I still felt like I wasn’t being given all the options, and had the sense that I was grossly overpaying,” she says.
Jacinta explains that many travellers feel confused about the value they’re paying for, and who is profiting from it.
For example, she says prices for the same 3-day hike up Mount Kinabalu can range from US$481 to US$1,096 on different websites.
“[That’s why I’m pursuing] a travel start-up to not only solve my own pain points, but also channel travel spending towards local communities in areas that need it most,” she says.
Meticulous With Every Step
They admit it wasn’t easy to give up their successful careers, as well as having a steady income each month.
The mental challenge is probably the toughest thing to overcome, as there are many daily sacrifices that come with entrepreneurship, coupled with a very real fear of failure.
It was a significant risk to take, with all the hard work they invested into starting up, including travelling in person to test out experiences.
They ended up launching the platform with about 260 listings, such as jungle treks, mountain hikes, wildlife sightings and visits to villages.
However, they excluded many others as well, as they did not want to recommend places they felt were not well-guided, not enjoyable, or simply unsafe.
“When our customers are on the trips, we get the names and numbers of the drivers and guides so we can check if the trip is going smoothly.”
“As solo female travellers ourselves, we are hyper conscious about safety!” they say.
Besides visiting sites, the pair went door-to-door around hostels in Singapore to chat with travellers and find out what problems they commonly encountered.
Jacinta even took up coding so she could build Seek Sophie’s website herself—and they did all this in just 6 months from the time the idea was birthed.
Leaving No Tracks Behind
When posed with the question of whether visiting these “untouched” places would have implications on the communities and wildlife, Jacinta readily shared their commitment to keeping trips sustainable.
“For instance, there are a couple of places to spot wild orangutans (which are endangered) in Sumatra,” she says.
“We decided not to list [an operator in] Bukit Lawang, [as we observed that] the local guides encouraged travellers to get close to the orangutans for the sake of selfies, and the orangutans were visibly stressed out by such interactions,” she says.
On the other hand, we decided to list [the one in] Ketambe, [where] the local guides were very careful to keep a distance, and were very clear that we were not to disturb the animals.
In the spirit of “leaving places in a better state than they found them”, the Seek Sophie team even delivered reusable canvas tents to the guides in Ketambe, after seeing that they had been using plastic ones.
Jacinta explains there’s a tougher issue that few are aware of—protecting natural and historical sites from being destroyed and converted for more lucrative uses.
“[When these places are not] bringing in enough money from tourism, there are frequently initiatives underway to convert them into coal mines, areas for logging, and palm oil plantations.”
We have come to realise that our best hope of conserving these places is to encourage people to go there and contribute their travel spending to these precious places, so that hopefully local governments can see [their value].
New Locations Every 2 Months
Three months after launching, customers have spent US$30,000 in gross trip value with Seek Sophie, affirming the ladies’ belief that more travellers are looking for unique experiences beyond the mass-market.
Customers have had truly unique experiences with Seek Sophie, with the team even providing complimentary flowers and a cake for one couple who was celebrating their anniversary on a trip.
While they charge about 10% commission for each booking similarly to travel agents, the founders promise to keep their fees transparent and help customers support local operators.
Their team is currently still very lean, with just 1 part-timer, 1 intern, and 2 freelancers alongside Jacinta and Lina.
However, they already have plans to introduce new offerings customers can add onto their trip, such as currency exchange, travel insurance and equipment hire options.
On Seek Sophie’s site, users can find travel tips and recommendations shared from the founders’ own experiences.
To take that further, they are also developing an algorithm to match travellers with experiences that suit their interests, akin to how Netflix recommends you shows to watch.
They’ll be adding experiences from a new country to the platform every 2 months, so stay updated with Seek Sophie to plan your next adventure!
Featured Image Credit: Seek Sophie