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NEW DELHI: Ravi Kumar’s business is one that focuses on servicemen from the three forces. The founder & CEO of udChalo says he is focused on exploiting a market that is 2.8 million strong. The services that he delivers through udChalo include travel conveniences and payment of utility bills besides offering free tickets to the next of kin of those who have lost their kin in the service of the nation. Edited excerpts from an interview.

How do you position your company udChalo?

udChalo is a consumer tech company, with the motto of “Service for services". We are focused on delivering convenience, affordability and accessibility to a large captive customer group of about active 2.8 million armed forces, along with veterans and their dependents. In fact, we are evolving and transforming into a membership-based platform that will offer unmatched services at industry-best prices and will constantly set new benchmarks for service.

In the year 2015, udChalo brought in a new concept of armed forces discounts to the aviation sector and started offering special fares and discounts on flight tickets to the Army, Paramilitary, Navy, Air Force, under trainee cadets, and Indian coast guards. We have expanded our offerings today beyond airline tickets in the travel segment we offer a complete end-to-end solution that encompasses flight, train, bus, taxi and cab service. We have further extended support in providing consumer electronics catering to the specific needs of our soldiers, we are helping armed forces in addressing their issues related to taxation, paying utility bills and administering online coaching for army kids for NEET/ JEE entrance exam.

How do you differentiate from the other existing players present in the same segment?

Our objective is to provide the best-in-class service, product offering at an unmatched price band to our discerning armed forces and their dependents. We at udChalo are a market creator. The defence sector along with dependents and veterans were always overlooked by the industry. We are not just catering to this segment but also helping in educating and breaking stereotypes for the armed force fraternity. Instead of fighting for a pie in the existing market space, we are offering our services to a completely new and untapped customer base.

We have democratized air travel amongst the defense fraternity and convinced them to be open about air traveling irrespective of their ranks and designation. We had a humble beginning with a mere booking of about 1200 air tickets in the first year in 2015, and with awareness came acceptance and today we book over 16 lakhs air tickets every year, and have expanded our services beyond travel for the defense fraternity.

What was the idea behind Udchalo?

My partner Varun Jain, and I come from an army background. With continuous travel being a part of our lifestyle, we understood the need- gap for this segment. Upon further research, we also found that low passenger load has been one of the key challenges for the aviation industry.

As we further deep-dived into the segment, we found that around 1 lakh defense personnel traveled via railways each day, and about 48,000 seats (now 40,000) go vacant on airlines. With last-minute leave sanctions, many defense officials end up traveling with non- confirmed tickets in very uncomfortable settings.

Seeing this as an opportunity, we started udChalo as a link between the armed forces and aviation industry. We partnered with the aviation players to bring down cost to AC 3 tier for army officials. While on the other end encouraged the defense fraternity to opt for comfortable air tickets vis a vis a non-confirmed rail ticket that can be later reimbursed from their office.

What were the challenges udChalo had to counter during the initial days?

One of the biggest challenges that we faced while catering the niche audience was the inertia to move from train travel to air travel. Defence personnel used to shy away from air travel and perceived airlines are only meant for officers and businessmen. Bridging this psychological gap and educating our target audience was one of the biggest roadblock for our business growth.

Cost was the second challenge. Because last minute air ticket bookings were always expensive. This is where udChalo stepped in by bringing in the all new concept of discounted fares for armed forces and also helped them to file the same against the LTC guidelines.

With the clear vision of ‘making life simpler for our soldiers’, we now cater to over 5,000 customers every day across the country.

What are the special services and initiatives by the platform?

Though the main focus remains on travel we are focusing on strengthening our travel arm so we have added bus, cabs and have taken IRCTC license too. Apart from this we have various initiatives on the platform that address various issues any army official and their family faces.

The Shradhanjali Initiative provides a free ticket to Next of Kin (NOK) or one person accompanying mortal remains of fatal battle casualties.

The AIT/Sainik School Satara Scholarship provides a scholarship for deserving meritorious students of the Army Institute of Technology and Sainik School Satara. Each year a scholarship of Rs. 4 Lakhs and 3 lakhs is given to AIT and Sainik School on their foundation day, extending the benefit to 71 students to date.

The Utkarsh Program empowers women from the defense family and gives them an opportunity to utilize their time from the comfort of their homes.

The Paraplegic Rehabilitation Centre’s initiative supports the paraplegic and quadriplegic members of the soldier community. A remote call centre is operated from the centres in Pune and Mohali and they are in line with soldiers’ time schedule thus ensuring zero discomfort and hugely empowers them to learn and apply new skills and rebuild their confidence.

The Company Chalo initiative was made to help and prepare veterans to get back to the mainstream business once they retire from the armed forces. Due to this placement service, today, many corporate offices are closely working with udChalo to fulfil their talent management requirement.

The Internship initiative is to develop life skills at the grassroots level, the students from army colleges are given an opportunity to work closely with retired army men and help them excel in their skills and prepare for future job roles.

The JudChalo Initiative was created to spread awareness among troops regarding new Leave Travel Concession (LTC) rules or on how to avail LTC benefits using our platform. The program is made for ex-servicemen, defence wives and dependents to showcase their mettle in business development and marketing

 How profitable is the business model?

We have been profitable from day one of our existence unlike many other startups who have a long gestation period. Today our major income comes from convenience fees by booking air tickets and the bonus offered by airlines for the bookings. While in consumer electronics we get commission from OEMs. However, in the future the share proportion will change as we embark on other services. To give you a perspective we did 100 million USD GMV (Gross merchandise value) last year. In the last 5 years prior to the pandemic we registered a whopping growth of 450% CAGR and we will continue to grow our numbers significantly. We have received many accolades for the work we do from the government as well as private organizations.

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