Backstreet Academy is helping people in poverty gain independence by teaching their arts and craft skills to tourists.
Founded by Singaporean Jamon Mok in 2014, Backstreet Academy is a social enterprise travel platform that lets people from poor communities in Asia create and offer their own workshop and activity to tourists – providing an authentic experience for travelers.
Started with the aim of alleviating poverty in these communities, Backstreet Academy has helped countless people earn and multiply their incomes – even without any knowledge of English or technology.
Human Asia has this exclusive interview with Jamon Mok.
Tell us about the beginning of Backstreet Academy. What drove you to start it?
We were working on a micro social venture fund in Nepal and it was a chance encounter with one of our beneficiaries who was a mask carver that sparked this idea off. We sat down with him and learned about wood-carving for five to six hours, our hands and feet were sore, but it was a magical experience that sparked the initial idea for Backstreet Academy.
What initial difficulties did you encounter in starting up this venture?
Lots of difficulties! We were not very skilled in many tech functions, such as programming, building a product, web design, search engine optimization, marketing, training hosts, and so on. We however made it a point for the founding team to learn these things so we can function independently without outside help and this approach has brought us a long way. Getting people to try out new things has also been a challenge, the marketing was really difficult at the beginning without a brand or customer reviews.
How did you initially raise money to start this venture?
We raised it via winning business competitions, some grants from foundations and NGOs, a group of angel investors as well as our own money.
What benefits or services do you offer travelers? And how is it unique?
What’s unique is the ability for travelers to connect with locals who are amazing at what they do. Most locals in developing countries are inaccessible to tourists due to the language and technology barrier, and also safety issues. However, with our technology, we enable locals who cannot speak English or even access smartphones to be able to create unique and interesting experiences that showcase their own culture – things like wood carving with royal palace artisan, knife making with master craftsman, Fear Factor insect cooking class, and thousands more such experiences that were all previously non-existent because the locals were not able to access the tourism market.
Besides that, it is also different in the sense that it’s very peer-to-peer and driven by the host himself and not by a company or travel agent. It thus retains a lot of authenticity and genuine feeling of the host as well as the real
environment of local village life as most of the activities are done in the hosts’ house in a village compared to a workshop in the city.
Travelers also get to participate in the entire activity. For example, if it is wood carving, instead of just seeing, understanding and listening to a tour guide speak about it before being hauled to the showroom to buy things, they instead sit down with the master and learn how to craft something for themselves. This intimate experience with a master is game-changing and something travelers have been craving for but never really been able to pinpoint what it is.
How do you ensure high level service and that travelers are getting what they expected or paid for?
We train all of the hosts on how to host, how to structure an experience and get local staff to actually vet them before publishing their experiences online. Once online, we depend on a 3-way feedback system where the host can feedback on the guests, the guests can feedback through reviews, and the translator who facilitates the activity can also provide an independent opinion on what happened so that our local team can act on it to provide additional training, improve physical conditions or give an account to the customer.
You’ve called Backstreet Academy a social enterprise. Could you please elaborate on how it helps the hosts and their community?
There are a few ways we create impact:
A) Additional Income – Most of these artisans continually produce crafts for sale but it is very difficult to sell them. Therefore by running workshops as and when there are tourists, this can help to supplement their income, by a lot. Just by doing 1-2 workshops a week, a craftsman can easily generate 2-3 times additional monthly income and move himself out of poverty.
B) Quality of Life – By hosting to travelers, they essentially become micro-entrepreneurs who run their own business and are in charge of their own livelihood. They are also now respected by the community as well as by tourists who are awed by their craft and skills instead of just being seen as a production line worker. This increases vastly their quality of life.
C) Conserve and increase appreciation for traditional heritage, culture and crafts. By having these experiences, travelers appreciate it a lot more and become generally much more interested in culture. The increase in wages of these artisans also help increase the attractiveness of their craft to the youth, who are now more willing to take up the craft instead of becoming migrant workers because they can now see a future. This helps to keep alive many of these intangible cultural heritage that is slowly dying out.
Which countries do you provide experiences for right now, and which ones are you targeting next?
We are available in 10 countries: Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar, India, Nepal, and Malaysia, and covers 40 cities. We are targeting to expand to Africa next.
What’s your strategy for scaling up and expanding?
To scale quickly but also maintain the quality of growth, we have to make sure every city is set-up by a founder. We dive in for 2-3 months, set it up and quickly move to another city. Remote working arrangements are thus very important. Moving forward, we will be looking into utilizing launch leaders to scale using the same model as well as with more partnerships with local NGOs, tourism boards and such to quickly set up. Yes we are looking for suitable partners who share our vision to help us scale faster.
Tell us more about your childhood background, and memories growing up
My childhood has been a relatively uneventful one, just like a normal Singaporean kid focusing on school work and little much else.
Did you always want to become an entrepreneur? Tell us why you became one, and what satisfaction have you gained from becoming one?
Yes I always thought being an entrepreneur was amazing because I could very clearly create value and impact and make people’s lives better. I also do not have to face crippling bureaucracy and can do whatever things are important for the growth of the company. I love starting new things as well so it’s very suitable for my personality. The satisfaction is really having created services and products that truly made a difference. To the hosts, to the communities and to travelers as well for forging amazing experiences. I’ve gained a lot of skills in building products, scaling a company, managing people and making friends.
What is your academic background? Does one need to have your background in order to start an entrepreneurial venture?
I graduated from Singapore Management University with a degree in Business Management majoring in Finance. No i don’t think one’s educational background is a factor for starting entrepreneurial ventures. It’s more about the
risk-taking passion for the venture, in-depth knowledge about the particular industry, and a general ability to manage and motivate people.
Tell us a typical day for you. What do you do from the time you get up till bed.
I’m afraid there are no typical days! But I guess some things are fairly constant, such as the need to check emails regularly, fight fires, do management meetings, brainstorming sessions, prioritize activities, work on design, meeting external parties for partnerships, pitching for press, checking analytics and really many more.
Define what success is for you. Who or what motivates you to achieve it?
I think success for me is being able to make a difference to as many people as possible. The people whose lives have been made better by Backstreet Academy is really what motivates me. They welcome me into their houses, share food like family, and this wood carver even carved my name on a piece of wood. It’s amazing to know that their lives are now better because of this product or company that you built.
Finally, advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
You need to have these characteristics and qualities:
– Dogged ability to immediately jump in and start doing things when things look absolutely uncertain
– Ability to speak and convince people of your ideas, vision, why you are doing this.
– Desire to learn new things
– Be organized
– Ability to listen