Q&A With Irina Zusman

Small Business Canada

Irina Zusman is the co-founder and COO of BagsAway, an international marketplace for on-demand luggage storage. 
Before starting BagsAway with her co-founder Eugene, Irina guided product development, marketing, and operations for several successful Canadian tech startups, giving her the experience to pursue her own passions and ideas. As COO of BagsAway, she’s tackled business growth and scalability issues and grown the company’s strategic partnerships across the globe, including support from one of Canada’s top business accelerators, Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone.

1. As Co-founder of BagsAway, what was the inspiration behind the founding of the company?

As avid and passionate travellers ourselves, we were inspired by our own experiences with luggage while exploring various global destinations. Our bags limited us more than we could have anticipated, killing our arrival and departure days, in practice cutting two whole days from our time at the destination. Many places had limited luggage storage options available and most had no options at all. Making special trips to leave the bags across town or at inconvenient locations, wasting both time and money. We also noticed we were not alone facing this dilemma. Travelling families, backpackers, and corporate travellers were all hauling bags around and accepting the lug factor as the status quo. Additionally, as my co-founder listed his condo for rent on Airbnb and other vacation rental platforms, he was flooded with requests for luggage storage on arrival and departure days before check-in and after checkout, which further validated the scope of the luggage problem. Time is precious, especially when spent at a dream destination. When we couldn’t find a solution, we decided to create it ourselves. 

2. What are some of the initiatives you’ve used that have contributed to the success of the company? What aspects have played a crucial role in the success of the company?

Be quick to recognize what works and what doesn’t, and to then properly iterate and move resources as needed. For our first year of operation, we actually started out with a business model that focused on luggage pickup and delivery. Although it was successful and yielded good demand, we quickly understood that scaling it would be an operational nightmare.  It was clear that the margins of operating a dedicated service in an on-demand model just didn’t make sense. By operating as a cohesive and agile team armed with real-time customer feedback coming from the front lines and trend research we were able to successfully pivot to the current model on on-demand luggage storage in convenient locations.

Additionally, acting fast and getting the product out to market with the bare minimum features, rather than ensuring it was perfect and loaded with all the bells and whistles was critical. A business is a hypothesis. The faster you get it tested by your audience the sooner you will operate on real data rather than information based on assumptions. This means you can quickly assess the business opportunity and spend less money doing it. Going through the process of validating the concept with real users will also help understand how to improve it going forward based on the way that your end-users are actually experiencing your service. 

3. What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve encountered in expanding the company and introducing it to the global marketplace and how did you overcome these challenges?

We knew the problem existed and that the scale of the issue was significant. However, 

building awareness and thus changing people’s behavior was a challenge. We really had to research and understand the customer journey as they go through the travel booking process and ensure that we reach them in critical moments and through touchpoints over the course of their research surrounding the destination. We also had to set up local touchpoints to capture potential customers that were actively experiencing the problem BagsAway hopes to solve. Expanding into different markets requires that we understand how the travel journey changes from one type of destination to another and change our strategies in reaching our audiences accordingly. 

4. COVID-19 has had a huge impact on many businesses. How has it impacted COVID-19 and what approach have you used to ensure the company remains successful during these challenging times?

Indeed many industries are suffering as a result of Covid-19 and travel is one that has seen a complete standstill with border closures as countries took drastic measures to stop the spread of the virus. The recovery is underway and we are optimistic, but we also know that recovery won’t be a linear trajectory. However, this “pause” in the economy has granted us a rare opportunity to shift our focus entirely on product development and design. With so few people traveling, our team spends less time worrying about customer support and daily business operations. The success of our business model depends on reaching small business owners, and now is the perfect time to build those relationships. Our partnership program offers businesses access to additional customers and revenue, and this is exactly what business owners will need once the economy is switched back onto “play” mode.

During this cash-crunch, we had to cut some hours, but the core team remains hard at work. However, we are considering various methods to keep our staff compensated such as stock-options and delayed pay for contractors. We are also making use of government programs, such as wage subsidy and emergency business loans to continue to fuel our business as we prepare for the return of our customers.

 We believe that laser focus, great communication, and a strong vision will steer us through choppy waters and back to clear skies. In return, our customers will receive an enhanced product, improved service, and most importantly, an overall superior user experience in the future! 

5. On a final note, what advice can you give to your fellow entrepreneurs when it comes to expansion? 

When you build a business, especially in the tech space, it’s all about scaling. There’s a lot of pressure to establish a global presence and grow, such that businesses might hurtle into expansion mode before they’re ready. This is especially true for marketplaces where land-grab is a race. That often proves to be a mistake that affects the overall customer experience and the quality of service or product delivered. If entrepreneurs are encumbered by limited resources at the early stages of the business, my advice is to perfect and dominate fewer markets at first. A business that thrives on a smaller scale will be more successful in the long run than a business that has no proper hold in any market. When you keep laser-focused on fewer markets, you can map out a proper expansion playbook to replicate that guides the way to penetrate other markets. 

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