“The entrepreneurial journey is always filled with detours, mistakes, and regrets.”
It takes hard skin to power through, according to our guest. You need the ability to ideate the solution to a problem and then execute it flawlessly.
Henrik Zillmer is the charismatic Co-Founder and Chairman at AirHelp, a lifelong entrepreneur, and a former First Lieutenant of the Danish Artillery.
He’s also an alumnus of the Y Combinator accelerator and holds a Master’s from the prestigious Copenhagen Business School.
Join us as we discuss:
- The problem-solving mindset every entrepreneur needs
- COVID’s continuing impact on the travel industry
- How his company became stronger, leaner, and more resilient
- Leveraging AirHelp’s global reach to deliver their visionary new products
Let’s dive in.
“It’s evident that something must be done to make it easier, faster, cheaper, whatever, because the model is broken. Observing that, identifying that, and then saying, I can actually do that, that’s the first step.” — Henrik Zillmer
A serial founder, Henrik has always had a passion for international business, organizational behavior, and strategic tools for startups. After receiving his advanced degree in e-business, he was a member of the illustrious 2014 cohort at YC while building AirHelp.
He believes an effective entrepreneur needs two key qualities — the ability to develop cost-effective solutions, and the drive to execute these ideas.
“We have a tendency to over-romanticize startups today,“ he points out, “where it’s just like this beautiful path to unicorn status.” The reality is that the journey is immensely challenging, even for a company that appears to be an overnight success. Many founders never make it past this stage.
Henrik jokes that his revenue model was highly unenviable: “Getting money from someone who doesn’t want to give it to you.”
Everyone has had a less-than-stellar experience when it comes to flying. Left unchecked, airlines gleefully provided below-subpar customer service and refused to compensate those whose flights were canceled or delayed.
From his beachside perch in Bali, he percolated ideas that would leverage his personal travel experiences as well as his knowledge of tech and e-commerce. His goal was to creatively automate processes that would enable his company to help thousands of people.
When the European Union passed its Air Passenger Rights regulations in 2004, all travelers were now entitled to payments of 250 euros and up for enduring these massive inconveniences.
But many people simply didn’t have the time or inclination to spend hours filling out the necessary forms and following up, and it wasn’t worth the cost to hire an attorney.
That’s where Henrik found AirHelp’s perfect product market fit.
“It actually is a good thing to do things manually because that makes you the expert.” — Henrik Zillmer
A tiny thing called COVID
Every travel-related business in the world was affected by the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns and restrictions. Henrik acknowledges that “aviation was the worst industry you could possibly be in during COVID.”
No flights meant no passenger claims and no fees for AirHelp. The organization lost a horrifyingly huge percentage of its revenue practically overnight.
Every plan to get back on track was met with another quarantine, and unfortunately, faced the need to cut back on staff. “It was a bloodbath,” he remembers sadly, “and we also had to say goodbye to a lot of people that we worked with for many, many years.”
However, Henrik was able to keep AirHelp in business, although “everything got postponed for five years.” They’ve come through this ordeal far stronger and leaner than ever before.
In this quasi-post-pandemic world, business leaders need to cultivate resilience and become more adaptive if they want to keep the doors open and the bills paid.
For Henrik, this meant trim away the fat, cultivate a laser-sharp focus, and “align all the troops and all the resources on one thing” — weathering the storm.
“One of the key things, when we started AirHelp, was the approach to delivering a service that everyone in the world could use.” — Henrik Zillmer
The new landscape
Many who were stuck at home during the pandemic are desperate to travel now for leisure, but Henrik observed the demand for business travel has decreased. It’s not as cool anymore to fly for a meeting when you can easily do a video call.
Anyone who’s flown recently can testify to the fact that the industry has not fully recovered. Delays, cancellations, and lost luggage plague air travelers everywhere as airlines have cut staff and phased out older planes. Ramping back up to pre-pandemic levels could take until 2024.
While this isn’t good for people who want to fly, it’s great news for AirHelp. Henrik states that “we’ve seen more flight disruptions than we have in the ten years we’ve existed.”
Streamlining international payments
In order to serve the needs of a global population on the move, AirHelp needed to be able to work with many different payment methods and currencies. The EU regulations cover travelers from any country who are affected by flight interruptions within its borders.
To complicate matters, the compensation amounts sent to his customers frequently triggered anti-money laundering filters, making the process difficult and expensive to complete.
Partnering with Currencycloud helped Henrik vastly simplify the mechanism for his customers to get the compensation they deserve delivered right into their bank accounts.
He’s also enjoying the expansion of AirHelp’s products into the insurance space.
As the industry recovers, not everyone will experience a flight disruption while traveling through the European Union, and travel insurance is a growing industry that gives passengers preventative peace of mind.
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