What It’s Really Like to Run a Travel Startup

In our 9–5 series, we ask our favourite boss babes what a day in the office entails. This week, Kiran Samra, Toronto-based founder of the travel startup Lokafy gives us a glimpse into her grind

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Lokafy founder Kiran Samra

Age: 35

Education: Bachelor in information technology at York University; masters of business administration from Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto

Length of time at current gig: One year full-time; three years part-time

So how does Lokafy work? Lokafy brings travellers and locals together. Wherever you go in the world, you can meet someone who will show you around like a friend. The local isn’t a professional tour guide and they’re not interested in “fun facts.” You meet someone who’s really passionate about the city that takes you on a walking tour of hidden gems, great things to eat, introduces you to their own neighbourhood and friends. It’s a much more intimate and personal experience.

Did you have a travel-related epiphany that led to Lokafy? My first backpacking experience, and the first time I travelled solo, I went to Eastern Europe and I was always looking for ways to connect with locals. I went on chat rooms for Budapest and found someone who spoke pretty good English and didn’t seem creepy. His name was Sabi, and we walked around for hours. He told me about the history of the city, about the politics and about what young people there are interested in. It made me realize what travel can be when you open yourself up to a local perspective.

What does Lokafy mean? “Lok” means “people” in Hindi. So it’s all about making your travel about the people you meet and not just the places you see.

How did Lokafy start? I started Lokafy three and a half years ago as a side project. It was something I did on evenings and weekends. Last year, I quit my job at Deloitte, the auditing and consulting firm, where I was a manager. Lokafy started in Toronto and Paris, and then New York. We’re launching in Mumbai and Delhi. And starting at the end of October, we’re going to launch tours-on-demand pretty much everywhere in the world.

Now that you’re an entrepreneur, what does your workday look like? I get in to the office around 9:30 a.m. after walking with my son to school. In the morning I usually have some calls scheduled with the team in India or France. During the day, I meet with the development, design and marketing teams, have calls with travellers who have booked a tour and with Lokafyers to discuss upcoming tours, confirm availability and provide information about the travellers and coaching on what makes a good Lokafy tour. I try to finish work by 7:30 p.m. On the weekends, I try to limit the time I spend on Lokafy to a phone call or two in the morning and not more than a couple of hours each day.

Related: Meet the Stylish BFF Photogs Who’ve Been Travelling Together For 3 Years

What’s the best part of your job? I love all of the people I’ve met as a result of my job. I’ve met all of the Toronto Lokafyers in person, and the others I’ve met over Skype. It’s really great to hear what people are passionate about, and they make me more optimistic. I know there are so many great people around the world because I’ve met them.

Who are the Lokafyers? What do you look for in a local contact? I started by putting ads on Craigslist, saying that I was looking for people who loved Toronto and Paris. I asked people to write about themselves, what they loved and their favourite restaurants. I got a really overwhelming response and that was what made me sure this was a good idea. For my first ad in Toronto, I got over 30 responses and met with everyone—it was great to meet people in Toronto who were really passionate about the city for all kinds of reasons. I met someone who moved from Russia and really appreciated the freedom that Toronto represents.

Have you ever considered combining this concept with a dating service? People like a little romance on vacation. That really hasn’t come up and, of course, anything can happen. I met my husband on the metro in Paris. I wouldn’t exclude it as a possibility, but if I get a request from someone—like a guy who’s traveling solo who looks only for female guides—I have a little talk with him to make sure he understands the concept. I think otherwise there’s a danger of it becoming Tinder-esque, and that’s not what the locals signed up for.

Who uses Lokafy? Is it mostly millennials? It’s actually very mixed and increasingly diverse. When we first started, there were two main groups: young professionals travelling solo, and parents travelling with teenage kids. That second group surprised me, but it makes sense. There are lots of things to do with young kids, but not for nurturing the interests of older kids. I might get someone who’s taking their teenage daughter to Paris and wants to indulge her interest in fashion.

Speaking of Paris, why did you choose Paris as your second destination? My husband is French, and we lived there for a couple of years. It’s such a big city for travellers and we have friends there who helped us get started. I go at least once a year.

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Where would you take a visitor to get off the beaten path in Paris? I lived in the north of Paris, which was previously seen as unsafe but is now really cool. Travellers haven’t really discovered it yet. Around Stalingrad metro station, there are cool cafes and people are always hanging out around the canal. Nearby is my favourite park, Buttes-Chamont, where you can see Sacre Coeur. But I also want to stress that it’s less about the places, and more about the conversation and getting to know people.

Between terrorism and Kim Kardashian getting robbed, people seem pretty worried about safety even in places like Paris. Do you think these concerns encourage people to make local contacts? Absolutely. The travel industry obviously has an interest in protecting the safety of travellers, but it can lead to feeling like you’re in a bit of a bubble. Meeting locals and hearing about the ins and outs of a place can help you venture off the beaten path in a safe way.

Has starting Lokafy changed the way you travel? I’ve long had the instinct to connect with locals, but now I always find a way to do it. When my husband and I went to Crete, I arranged to meet three locals. We had dinner every day and they shared anecdotes of growing up there. They would introduce us to people as we walked around. One night, one of the women, Maria, took us to a restaurant and her mother was the chef! Her mom took my four-year-old to check out the kitchen. It really makes you feel like you belong in a place.

Do you think that travelling this way, being open to meeting strangers all over the world, has implications beyond travel? I feel like it could really help the world. I think people have traditionally travelled as consumers—getting the right pictures and seeing the top 10 things they’re supposed to see. It’s even in the way we talk about travel: “I did Paris.” But I feel like connecting with people is the best way to understand someone else’s perspective and an appreciation for what’s happening somewhere else in the world.

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