Risk-Seeking Entrepreneur Wins Richard Branson as Investor

    By | Small Business

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    TJ Sassani was on a business trip for a nanotechnology research company in 2006 when he had a scare. In a weary-looking 60-something-year-old fellow flight passenger who carried identical luggage to his, he saw his future self. The thought of being that guy in three decades prompted Sassani to quit his job, give his material possessions to charity, and leverage some investments to tour Europe by bicycle.

    He didn’t stay off of the entrepreneurial treadmill for long, however. “On that trip I connected with my passion – the outdoors and adventure,” he says. “And it dawned on me that I could connect more people with that lifestyle.”

    So, while hanging out on a dive boat, Sassani started sketching a business plan in his travel journal. When he got back to the States in 2008 he launched ZOZI.com, an online marketplace for adventure seekers. Its slogan: Get Out There. Seven years later, Sassani claims he has served well over 5 million customers, is approaching $1 billion in sales, and has raised $60 million in funding. Half of it came in a recent financing round led by Sir Richard Branson.

    Sassani’s business connects activity, tour, and gear providers with consumers, while offering travelers getaway ideas (from foodie farm-to-table experiences in Puerto Vallarta to rugged 9-day tours of Egypt), guided adventures (such as backpacking, rock climbing, and whitewater rafting trips), and small-group activities (wine tasting, edible plants classes, and ceramics workshops, for instance).

    The two-part ZOZI platform is similar to Open Table in the way it serves merchants and consumers at once, he says. The the core consumer offering is the ZOZI.com marketplace, which lets users choose from thousands of activities they can book on the site. And for the tour, activity, and events market there is ZOZI Advance, a reservation, payment, and CRM software product. Presently, several thousand businesses in 90 countries use it to manage website bookings, mobile payments, and entire operations. While most customers discover ZOZI online, a direct sales team of several dozen people in San Francisco, New York, Vancouver, and the Philippines closes deals with about 10 new merchants per day.

    Sassani says the platform features only licensed guides and tour operators with well-established companies who subscribe for software access and pay ZOZI commission on tours sold through the platform.

    Sassani’s introduction to Richard Branson came by way of one of his brand ambassadors, professional kiteboarder Susi Mai, who invited Sassani and his co-founder Dan Gruneberg to her exclusive MaiTai kiteboarding retreat for tech elites at Branson’s private Caribbean resort. After pitching ZOZI to Branson on Necker Island, Sassani and Gruneberg were among a dozen entrepreneurs invited to the Virgin Group founder’s ski lodge in Verbier, Switzerland, where he says Branson offered to invest.

    Sassani says he’s using the money primarily for development. “We’re investing heavily in technology to keep growing our merchant acquisitions, we’re hiring sales and marketing staff, and, because we have a substantial backlog of businesses that are signed up but not yet on the platform, we’re building implementation support to get those folks live.”

    The potential for ZOZI is huge, Sassani claims. “The tours and activities market is about $100 billion a year in sales globally, and that’s just one part of our market. One-third of that is in the U.S. It’s bigger than the rental car and cruise industry combined. If we got to 10 percent of that, we’d be moving $10 billion a year. I believe we will transact $2 billion in sales in 2016.”

    What’s Sassani’s secret to success? “I believe that failure is a decision,” says the two-time IronMan triathlete. “It’s something you chose, not something that happens to you. A lot of people feel like failure happens. But as an endurance athlete I know that whatever you think you’re capable of, you’re capable of more.”

    Sassani admits that there have been times when the business model wasn’t working. When the company ran out of money, he cashed out his 401k and sold all of his real estate to put every penny he had into ZOZI. “For me it was never a question. We were always persevering and going to figure it out,” he says.

    “Some people are a lot more sane and rational,” he says, but adds that his “never quit, never stop” mentality is what carries him through in sports and in business. It’s no wonder he caught Sir Richard’s attention.   

    Follow Adrienne Burke @adajane

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