Alex Klein was born in Germany, and his family emigrated to the US when he was 16. In the early years of his adult life Alex was a musician, touring in a punk band, where he played bass guitar. In his mid 20’s, Alex decided to become a physicist and solve the worlds energy problems and went on to build a career in Plasma Physics.
In 1999, Alex invented an alternative fusion confinement concept and relentlessly searched for a way to build an experiment to see if his concept would work. Finally, in 2008, Alex raised $3.5M of venture capital to build an experimental fusion reactor in a small lab outside of Boston, MA.
It was a very exciting time, and Alex was particularly impressed with the “can do” culture of private enterprise after having worked in academia or government labs all the years prior. Although the device didn’t perform as expected, it was a great personal success for Alex, having built and tested something that he had conceived and being one of only three privately funded fusion start up efforts in the world was something that Alex could be proud for.
After the project was shut down, Alex figured that he had reached the top of what the world of science, having achieved what he had set out to accomplish; he was ready for something new and different to do after that.
A few months later Alex and his wife visited Chiang Mia, Thailand. They had initially planned to stay for only a week but loved it so much that they simply stayed  and haven’t left since. They founded YogaTrail 3 months later, together with a third co-founder and they are here to share their inspiring story with The Asian Entrepreneur. What is YogaTrail? YogaTrail is a global yoga directory where you can find yoga teachers, studios, teacher training programs and retreats. It’s free for yoga providers to create their profile on the site, and since launching last summer we’ve got 50k+ professional profiles and another 20k+ practitioner profiles (yogis).

YogaTrail


Where did the idea for YogaTrail come from?

My wife and I discovered yoga in India in 2008. At the time, for various reasons, we did quite a bit of traveling, and so we ended up sampling a huge assortment of yoga. The diversity of yoga is astounding, with countless different styles and flavors, and all manner of teachers and venues. Experiencing all this variety was great, but we also saw that there was a problem to be solved.

The word ‘yoga’ can mean totally different things to different people. For some, it can mean athletic contortions in sauna-like temperatures, to others ‘yoga’ suggests sitting cross-legged in front of a candle for an hour while chanting mantras.

We discovered that it was very difficult to find the “right” kind of yoga using the web – which gave us the idea for YogaTrail: a site where yogis can share their experiences and opinion, and help each other find their yoga, whether they’re looking for places to practice, people to practice with, teachers or resources to learn from, or just conversations.


Could you walk us through the process of starting up YogaTrail?

I was teaching physics at the local university, and sat in on a class called “Web Entrepreneurship”, because we were already thinking about YogaTrail and I wanted to learn. At the end of the course, the students had to pitch an idea for a web-based business to “investors”, where people who are active in the web space in Chiang Mai volunteered to judge the presentations. I got to play along and present a pitch, which I thought would be good practice. 

Well, it happened that Sven Ernst (co-founder #3) was in that group of pretend investors. Sven is the director of the Asian branch of Buzzwoo!, a German development agency. Apparently, they had been looking for something to build on their own (they only did client work), and Sven liked our YogaTrail presentation a lot – so much so that we all had a meeting the following day and founded YogaTrail 3 days after that. Buzzwoo! handled the technical site development, Alex and I handled all the content, PR, marketing, customer service, business development, and much of the design of the website.


How has it been like operating YogaTrail?

It’s been very intense, often difficult, and sometimes quite tumultuous. Generally draining, but rewarding at the same time.

I typically put in 60 to 80 hours of work per week – and there’s always the feeling that things are moving too slow, that something that should take x days to accomplish ends up taking 5x.

I’m finding that building a social website is in many ways more difficult than building a nuclear fusion reactor. Just the technical aspects are much more involved than I had imagined at the outset – the site has to work across all browsers and mobile devices and operating systems, for example. When something doesn’t work on some browser, it can take a while to find out, even with all the testing that we do.

And then there are the users… in science and engineering, things are very straight-forward: apply an electric or magnetic field, and electrons move in a predictable fashion, for example. But humans are totally mysterious beings… how they react to some features on the site or even just the color of a button can be very surprising. Trying to figure out what people around the world want, what they will pay for, and generally what they’re thinking when they use a website is very challenging, although taking a scientific approach (testing and measuring) has been very helpful.  


What was the most difficult part of it all?

It’s finding and managing people. The first developer we hired seemed to be very competent and engaged with the project, but just a few months after we got started he had “difficulties” and simply quit. That left us with a half developed site, and it was difficult to find someone who could get into the code, understand it, and take over from there. It was essentially like starting over.

We searched near and far and were lucky enough to find a guy who was up to the task and was willing to relocate to Chiang Mai from Bangkok.

Luckily we found Jordan, our current lead developer who took things over and managed to dig into existing code, so we were able to launch the site with some delay.

YogaTrail


What kind of reception did you meet?

YogaTrail has been received very well by the people out there, and we’re relieved about that. The yoga community is a unique crowd, partly because of their wild diversity, ranging from very esoteric people seeking enlightenment in remote Ashrams to high powered executives that use yoga to de-stress before lunch.

We were very careful to brand YogaTrail as neutrally as possible, and to appeal to the entire spectrum of yogis. Before we launched the site, we worked hard to build a big following on Facebook and social media, and with our blog. So on the day we launched the website, we were able to hit the ground running and invite 30,000 people who had signed up for an invite.


Do you face a lot of competition in this industry? 

We actually see a new yoga directory of some sort popping up about once per week, and many of these seem to be inspired by us. So far, none of the competition sites are credible or they have serious shortcomings (either because they only cover a small region or city, or because they don’t provide a great interface, or they’re the kind of site that won’t be embraced by the spectrum of yogis out there).

Somewhat troubling, we also see some competitors copying most of what we do within a few months of when we do it. For example, we built a nifty Facebook app that’s a collection of yoga image galleries, shared across thousands of yoga Facebook pages. About 6 weeks after we launched it, there were three other versions of the same thing, with exactly the same design and functionality… one guy even used the same name for his app! On the upside, I guess this means we do somethings right…

Our strategy: we simply work hard to keep ahead of anybody else. We’re relatively secure in the knowledge that building and maintaining a community-based yoga directory is a lot of work and not many competitors will be up to the task.


What can you tell us about the yoga industry?

The yoga industry is peculiar because it’s grown to become a huge industry in a world where a word like “money” and “profit” can be dirty words, due to the spiritual lifestyle aspects that are associated with yoga. We’ve learned that many yoga professionals have trouble with marketing and managing themselves as businesses, and making money is often not why they became yoga instructors.

On the other hand, yoga is now a $20B market, and there are many yoga professionals and organizations out there that may cloak themselves in “mindful” and non-commercial appearances, but who in reality are all about making money and profit.

Other insight: there have been a few yoga chains that try to establish dominant positions in the market, but they still only account for about 5% of the yoga places collectively – we think the world of yoga is such that a “one size fits all” yoga brand will never become a dominant factor in the space.


What are your future plans for Yoga Trail?

Long term, we want to become the place where every yoga professional in the world has a profile on YogaTrail (as is the case with hotels and TripAdvisor, for example). We also aim to be the website where a yogi goes to check what’s happening in their yoga world on a daily or weekly basis.

Beyond that, we have many ideas and we’re in the process of figuring out what the future YogaTrail might look like. The next thing on our priority list is to implement a feature where teachers and studios are able to add their class schedules. This will be very useful for every yogi out there.

If you could start all over again, would you change anything about your approach?

We would choose a different web development platform. Although what we’re working with is very powerful and in principle pretty well suited for a site like YogaTrail (Drupal), it’s very difficult to find developers here in Asia that are proficient in Drupal.

In general, I would be much more careful to make the success of the business dependent on any one person – including myself. Of course, that’s not always possible.


What do you think about startups in Asia?

From what I can see, South East Asia in particular is a region that’s bustling with lots of young people who have drive, ambition, and a very healthy entrepreneurial spirit. The general optimism and economic outlook in the area as compared with Europe and the United States is tremendous.

Where we are in Chiang Mai, we do suffer a little from being somewhat isolated from entrepreneurial hot spots like Bangkok or Singapore. So there aren’t many VC’s here yet. But even here, there are co-working spaces popping up everywhere, and the infrastructure and talent pool are already here.


What are some personal principles or personal values that guide you and your career?

Some traits and values that I hold in very high esteem and that are integral to the way that I work and do business:

  • always do what you say you’re going to do
  • always be on time
  • not everything you do has to be done to gain an advantage, and being honest, helpful, and fair is more likely to lead to long-term success

What is your definition of success?It’s a very personal thing that varies from person to person. A reasonable definition of success that works for me is for an individual to realize their potential. For some, that may mean getting out of bed in the morning, for others it could be winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
Why did you decide to become an entrepreneur?My time with a high-tech startup ruined any non-entrepreneurial life for me, it gave me a taste for entrepreneurship. That experience showed me very clearly that being your own boss, doing things that haven’t been done before and working in a small team on something “big and important” is 1000x more preferable than clocking hours for some established organization where the name of the game is to keep your head down and make it through to retirement.
What do you think are the most important things entrepreneurs should keep in mind?I’ve learned that the most important element in a startup is the people. Not just the founders you get involved with (which is of course critical), but the employees you hire, no matter what their role. It’s almost irrelevant what skill sets they have when you hire them, because people with a willingness to learn and work hard, and who can maintain a good attitude and be a part of a team will ultimately be much greater assets than any hot-shot who already knows everything. I think this is probably always true for any business, but for a startup it’s the most crucial thing to keep in mind, because in a startup

  • there are very few people, so every employee is a big part of the company,
  • there’s no money to waste on unproductive or disruptive assets that don’t contribute 100% to the success of the company, and
  • much of the product and the work hasn’t been clearly defined yet, so an open mind and willingness to learn new things is essential
Any parting words of wisdom for entrepreneurs out there?
 
The key, I think, is to retain your optimism, to never loose hope or give up in the face of adversity. Of course, many successful entrepreneurs have said this before, but it’s true:
 
Starting a business is very difficult, and along the way you’ll meet scores of discouraging people that bring negativity, you’ll face countless disappointments and major or minor set backs, and you’ll encounter unexpected disasters and seemingly insurmountable obstacles… things that would make any normal person throw in the towel and call it quits. Accepting set backs and disasters as a normal part of any entrepreneurial venture while keeping your spirits high is the key to success.
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YogaTrail