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Startup Saturday: udChalo helps defence staff, kin, ex-service personnel fly at discounted tickets

udChalo enables defence personnel to book discounted air tickets at the last minute for unplanned travel

pune Updated: Feb 16, 2019 19:09 IST
Namita Shibad
Namita Shibad
Hindustan Times, Pune
Pune,Startup Saturday,UdChalo
Varun (Left) and Ravi of Udchalo. (Shankar Narayan/HT PHOTO))

Being children of parents who have served in the Armed Forces helped Ravi Kumar and Varun Jain to start udChalo that serves the flying needs of defence personnel. Launched in 2015 with 30 customers, the start-up broke even in one year and started new ventures — PostingChalo and CompanyChalo — in 2018 and now serves 5,000 people fly in major airlines, except Air India, every day.

It is believed that doing good always pays. Usually it does not help one build their bank balance. This is not so with Ravi Kumar and Varun Jain, founders of udChalo.

Ravi Kumar and Jain are both children of parents who have served in the Armed Forces. So, they have a good idea of what life is like for these families.

In 2012 the duo saw that 40,000 airline tickets go waste due to lack of bookings. At the same time, there are three lakh people who get wait listed on railways and often do not get a confirmed ticket.

So, they decided to use the discounted airline tickets for the railway passengers who have not got confirmed tickets. The idea was initially shot down by the airlines.

Says Jain, “The airlines were not sure that the passengers would be genuine. Moreover people could use this to get discounted tickets. So we went back to our solution. ”

That is when their army family background came to use and they decided to use this idea for the Armed Forces.

“Most army men get their leave sanctioned at the last minute which barely affords them the time to book a railway ticket. As a result travelling for the Services people is very tedious. So we thought why not offer this service exclusively to them? If an army man wants to fly Delhi to Pune, he would pay ₹2,500 for a train ticket but if he could get a discounted ticket on an airline then he could fly to Pune for maybe as little as ₹3000,” says Ravi.

They approached the airlines. “We told them that they could offer their discounted tickets to the Armed Forces exclusively. There would be no case of fraud . Moreover this was a service to the men who serve us,” he said.

They approached all the airline companies and Jet Airways was the first to agree. Says Varun, ”The airlines understood very clearly that they were flying with approximately 15% of their seats empty. Here we offered them a closed user group of 27,000 people who travel daily (by train ) and they could help them fill those empty seats albeit at a lower cost. Moreover they looked at offering discounted tickets to Armed Forces as their CSR activity as well.”

“In the early days we would have about 20 to 30 people availing this benefit. Today, we have5,000 people flying daily.” And almost all the airlines have bought into this concept with the exception of Air India.

The key to the business was to find the need, find the solution and match the two. UdChalo has been doing it successfully since 2015.

Making Money:

The key to this business was to find the need, find the solution and match the two. But what did it take for them to get the Armed Forces on board? Getting approvals, permissions from a government body is a project in itself. It was the background again. Says Varun, “we both have studied from the Army Institute of Technology. And come from the same army background. Guess that increased our trust factor, Moreover, the Army knew that this was one way their travel problem could be solved and easily.”

With the Forces and the airlines both in agreement udChalo now flies approximately 5000 personnel to approx. 66 cities. They charge a small convenience fee of Rs 200 per ticket and have also opened physical counters in 45 cities including Srinagar, Leh, Udhampur, Uri and so on. “At the counter we charge Rs 150 per ticket.”

In 2016 when they started UdChalo they borrowed Rs 20 lakhs from friends, family and dipped into their own savings to invest in this business. “we invested in the online platform and setting up of the physical counters. In a year’s time since we started we are posting profits.”

Doing good always pays. But they wanted to go further. “We thought why not employ ex army personnel to man these counters? With a little training they now have 65 of ex army men who manage their 45 physical counters.

Going further

Their understanding of the army life gave them better insights that has helped their business expand. “We thought of how tedious shifting from one posting to another is for an army man. So we thought how can we make that better?” And so was born PostingChalo, a logistics services company that helps families move from one posting to another in an easy seamless manner.

Says Ravi, “we tied up with two companies Gati and Safe Express. When an Armed Forces personnel has to shift they reach out to us. We take quotations from both these companies and offer the lowest priced one to the family. What we offer the family is ease of shifting. They do not have to hunt for a company that will do their shifting They do not have to worry about their goods. Often these people change the rate at the last minute, or there is the problem of damage to the goods. We ensure the goods are insured and the claim is settled without any hassle. The rate is fixed there is no last minuet haggling. The service is simple and easy.”

So far in the two months since they have started they have done 45 shiftings. But the market is huge. In a day about ~1800 of families have to move from city A to city B. With their hassle free service they are sure to capture this captive market.

To be of service to the Armed Forces the duo has also launched another service called CompanyChalo. This service is aimed at employing retired Army personnel. “Thorough our network we find retired army men jobs that are suited to their skill sets. So far we have managed to find 69 people jobs.” Their revenue model for this service is a fee that they charge the employer. “We take anywhere between four to five percent of the cost-to-compamy. Like in the Army all their businesses are humming well on to their way to success. Like we said in the beginning, doing good always pays.

udChalo centre at Camp Pune:

Pravin Yewale, ex Naib Subedar retired in 2016. He gets a pension of Rs 18,000 per month but with this job, he has added Rs 22,000 to his monthly income. He is happy. Says he, “I do ticket booking for the Army men who come here. I also do some marketing for the Logistics service, PostingChalo and the employment service CompanyChalo.

“We sell on an average about 15 to 16 tickets a day and get about two enquiries a week for logistics. The reason this centre helps is because not all army men are efficient with the website to book their tickets and not all have credit cards or like using them. Here we offer to do their booking online, give them a print out of their tickets and also pay via cards f they prefer to pay us cash. It makes things easy for them.

udChalo call Centre: This call centre has seven differently abled soldiers from tri-services manning the Call Centre

In 2004 ex Naik Ramesh Puri was hit by a vehicle whilst delivering some documents to his office in J&K. This injury damaged his C4/5 and 6 and left him disabled. While the Army took care of him and his needs it was this job at the udChalo call centre that has given meaning to his life. Says this Sena Medal winner, now 48, “This job keeps me in contact with the Army as jawans call up and we get to talk to them, feeling connected. It keeps me busy so here is no time to think negative thoughts. Despite being disabled I can still be of help to others and that is a great feeling. Also the fact that we get to learn something new is empowering.”

Despite not being able to use his limbs Ramesh manages to attend to calls that ask for help with ticket cancellation, refund, or queries about various flights. “we have to look up the data on the website and even though I do not have full use of my hands, I can use my fingers to navigate through the website. We get about a 100 calls a day and the seven of us work in two shifts of three and four hours each. It is deeply satisfying to know that we are of use to others.” Ramesh gets paid Rs 5,500 per month for a four hour shift. But that’s not as important as “being useful to society.”

The Airline Game:

An airline generally strategises its sale. Tickets are sold at discounted rates weeks before a flight. This may be at a loss. But as the days get closer the ticket rates go up. The idea is to cash on to people’s urgency to reach a particular city. So the money they make with the last minute sales not only makes up for the loss of selling at discounted rates it adds to their profit. And with udChalo they are happy to offer discounted rates at the last minute only because they know that the buyer is genuine and getting something is better than an empty seat.

Military air miles take flight

udChalo flies atleast 5,000 personnel to 66 cities - all on an exclusive ticket arrangement with airlines at a discounted price

Trigger: In 2012, Ravi Kumar and Varun Jain observed that on one hand, 40,000 airline tickets had gone unused in a year due to lack of bookings and on the other hand, tickets of three lakh people are wait-listed and often, they do not get a confirmed ticket.

The dynamics

97 per cent of Armed Forces are entitled to railway tickets

3 per cent of Armed Forces can fly, but only Air India

The ‘service’ card

The duo approached the airlines and asked them if they could offer their discounted tickets to the Armed Forces exclusively as often, they don’t get train tickets on account of last-minute leave sanctions.

First thumbs up by Jet Airways

Thirty people availed the benefit (in the early days)

Now 5,000 people fly daily

Except Air India, all airlines have been bought into this concept

First Published: Feb 16, 2019 16:28 IST