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Gevorg Babayan founder of LikeLocal
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LikeLocal:  Riding the Trend of Cultural Tourism

LikeLocal, an EPIC startup from the Spring 2020 batch, aims to reinvent the way people travel and enjoy their leisure time with cultural immersion. Through its platform, LikeLocal helps travelers to experience living as locals as their travel destination.  It serves as a bridge between travelers and local hosts interested in sharing their culture and day-to-day vibe with tourists.

Gevorg Babayan is LikeLocal’s founder, he has many years of experience in the tourism industry from organizing tours for embassy delegations to starting the first Yerevan Free Walking Tours initiative. During our interview, Gevorg shared his backstory, the challenges he faced while starting his venture during the pandemic, his future plans, and lessons learned from EPIC.

Tell us about LikeLocal and how you came up with the idea. 

The idea goes back to the time when I was working in tourism. In 2008, we started new tours with the tourism agency I was working with, intending to provide a chance for the tourists to experience the culture of the country they were visiting. We would find hosts, and the travelers would have lunch in their homes instead of in restaurants. Socializing with locals and tasting their cuisine was a pleasant experience for tourists. Their enthusiasm led me to implement the same tours in Georgia and Cambodia. The “Aha” moment came when I saw the demand and their overwhelming interest in these tours.

My curiosity about other cultures also played a role in developing the idea. When I visited Budapest, I stumbled upon a private residential neighborhood. With the curtains open, I could see families dining and children playing and wondered what life was like in a Budapestian house, what foods they ate, and what were their table manners.

I began with a small network and resource base, asking my family, relatives, and friends if they would like to become LikeLocal hosts. Later we went around, knocking on neighbors’ doors and trying to engage them in our community. Today LikeLocal is a larger and more developed version of what we did back in 2008. 

How does LikeLocal operate? 

We reach out to people who would like to welcome travelers and share their daily experiences and culture. We find hosts through relatives, acquaintances, friends, and online channels. Hosts register and add dates that they would be willing to host travelers. We find tourists by working with different communities, tour agencies, online channels, and promotions. From our website, tourists register and get connected with the hosts. We have a classic revenue model, where the hosts register on our website for free, and guests book and pay for the events. We collect 20% commission per booking. Afterward, tourists and hosts share their experiences, the word of mouth also serves as another promotion channel. 

What significant challenges have you faced when working on this startup? 

Being an entrepreneur means you constantly face challenges. We started our venture in February 2020. One month later, the pandemic happened and directly impacted the tourist sector. We started the EPIC incubation program on the 29th of September, two days after the start of the 44 days war in Armenia. It was a very emotional and uncertain time. We were trying to concentrate on our work and distract ourselves from the dark reality of war. 

The challenges also created opportunities for us. Living and working locations merged due to the post-covid transition. The wave of hybrid and remote work now allows people to have the freedom to travel for extended periods and explore the culture and traditions of their place of stay. Touristic organizations can not address the demand. They are focused on showing tourist attractions and don’t provide the experience of living like a local person. LikeLocal addresses the demand and people can experience living as locals live.

How has EPIC helped you build your startup?

EPIC was my first experience with its unique format. When I started, I underestimated how much time and effort would be needed to launch a company. 

With the start of the EPIC program, the 44 days of war started. I did not know what to expect. EPIC’s rich curriculum kept us concentrated on our startups. We had a new topic each week, and I was curious about what topics we’ll cover next. 

EPIC’s team members and staff, who truly cared about their residents, kept me going during challenging times. To this day, we are in contact with them. They offered all the resources they had unconditionally to see us succeed; I value the network I created at EPIC. The program gave us a lot of knowledge and network. We underestimated the value of the information they were sharing, but we applied this knowledge throughout our entrepreneurial journey. Thanks to EPIC, we jumped through the first steps of our path by relying on their advice. 

Where do you see the company in five years? 

Our target audience is mainly Southeast Asian countries, namely the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Soon, we would like to expand to Latin American countries as well. The ultimate goal would be to operate globally. For starters, we would like to expand into countries with hospitable cultures with 6-7 million yearly tourists and a minimum of 5-6 million population. My biggest goal would be to see LikeLocal developing a new social behavior in tourism.

What tips would you give your younger self and people just starting the path of entrepreneurship?

If a person is not self-reflecting and not enhancing their mistakes, they do not evolve. To what degree the person is unbiased and self-reflects objectively is personal. Even in my case, I am not sure to what extent I am objective. It is vital to know what you are doing right. At one point, I was doing tours for embassy delegations, and was pretty popular in the tourism industry. I was trying to understand what I was doing right. To be successful, I realized I had to be myself.

Listening to wise advice is another thing I would suggest. In the beginning, I was not listening to advice and trying to find the answers myself for many things. Later I realized that I can’t do everything myself, and I should take wise advice by learning from others’ mistakes. For instance, I was told not to spend time and money on creating a landing page for LikeLocal but instead, to test the idea on a small scale of WhatsApp, Facebook, and Telegram channels. I was not listening; In the end, we got the website and saw that customers mainly use WhatsApp and Telegram.

How can EPIC residents get the most out of their time in the incubator? 

We underestimated the level of work. We thought we were attending an incubation program and everything would work out. We did not comprehend that doing a startup is a 24/7 job. My advice would be to work hard. If you decide to start a startup, be serious, and take it seriously. The startup process can be seen as fun and challenging, but it takes hard work, time, energy, sacrifice, and a great deal of commitment.