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From Cooking Tarantulas to Crafting Knives, This Start-Up Brings Unique Experiences to Adventurers

Singapore start-up Backstreet Academy lets travelers venture off the beaten path and learn from the locals

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BY Cristina Morales - 26 Jul 2017

crafting knives

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

10 years ago, Singaporean Jamon Mok and Nepalese brothers Akash and Anil Gurung were working in the development field in Nepal when one of their beneficiaries, mask carver Kedhar Dhanuki, offered them a crash course in wood carving. They spent the next five hours covered in wood shavings, sitting in an alley at the foot of a master, learning the ancient craft of wood carving.

They paid Kedhar a small fee for teaching them, and were surprised at his immense gratitude for both the money and their appreciation. “If he could just host 2-3 classes a week, that would be enough to double his monthly income,” explains Anil. “He told us how people don’t appreciate his craft anymore and it was a great experience for someone to look upon him as a master rather than just someone who sells souvenirs.”

This experience led the three friends—who all met while studying at Singapore Management University—to start Backstreet Academy, a “peer-to-peer impact travel online platform for unique experiences in developing countries”. Since 2014, Backstreet Academy has been giving travelers easy access to one-of-a-kind experiences with real locals in over 10 countries and 40 cities, ranging from insect cooking in Siem Reap to bow crafting in Luang Prabang; from “kukri” knife crafting in Kathmandu to cemetery photography tours in Cebu.

Opening up horizons

What sets Backstreet Academy apart from other P2P experience companies is how it focuses on Bottom of Pyramid (BoP) communities who often don’t speak English or even have access to a smartphone. Tourism, Anil says, is one of the most efficient ways to redistribute income across the developing world. But without a direct way to connect locals and tourists, less than 7% goes to local communities.

“We built our platform to enable direct connection,” he explains. “Our technology delivers local language calls/SMS notifications to our hosts so they can handle their bookings right on their feature phones. With local translators facilitating each experience, this allows more people to join their program. We thus have the biggest pool of people creating the best and most authentic experiences unavailable on any other platform.”

Anil says that the biggest challenge they face is marketing to travelers who are still wary of peer-to-peer services. “Especially in developing countries, people are still afraid of safety issues, hygiene, and quality,” he says. “It is thus not easy to convince travelers who only have a short amount of time to try something new.” But Backstreet Academy has been able to build up a solid reputation. The platform has served over 20,000 customers, with over 40% repeat rate and over 95% excellent reviews. In a short span of time, they’ve earned 10 TripAdvisor Certificates of Excellence.

Winning at the Booking.com Booster

Backstreet Academy was awarded the top grant of €400,000 at the first Booking.com Booster Program in Amsterdam last month. “The Experience at the Booking.com Booster was phenomenal,” says Anil. “It was the first time we participated in a travel-focused program and it was clear that the people at Booking.com were the best in the industry. They were able to very quickly pinpoint our problems and help us create solutions.”

At the booster program, the founders also had the opportunity to work with other sustainable travel start-ups. “Not only could we learn from them, we have also started collaborating post-program for greater impact,” says Anil.

He adds that they are planning to use the grant to develop their tech, marketing, and product development departments. Once those areas are ironed out, they plan on expanding to other areas around the region, as well as breaking ground in new areas like Africa.