Cover Photo: Imran Sulaiman

Aaron Sarma is a serial entrepreneur who made his mark with the online travel startup Touristly. Now, he is looking to help other startups raise their game

Being a tech entrepreneur wasn’t something that Aaron Sarma naturally aspired to be. Still, it was a path that was always intriguing, and appealed to him because he always loves a good challenge.

Over the years Sarma has worn many hats, working his way up from a network marketing company to starting his first company, Touristly, which was subsequently acquired by AirAsia and renamed Vidi. As an entrepreneur, he doesn’t mind exploring different fields including organising gigs for bands, producing a music album and even dabbling in retail fashion, selling men’s clothes.

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“I don’t think I can box myself into one particular field. I love a challenge, the art of creation and building something new. That is what excites me,” he explains.

Sarma attributes his can-do attitude to his early career when he was tasked with starting up the local operations for a Singaporean deal site. As the first employee through the door, he knew he had to hustle and get his hands dirty. His first month on the job saw him knocking on the doors of countless restaurants and beauty saloons to sign them up on the deals platform.

Though he was initially hesitant to accept the job, as he did not have experience in digital marketing, he told himself the prospect of building a business from the ground up would prove invaluable.

Indeed, he was right on the money as the entrepreneur bug bit him in 2013. During a party celebrating another year of success for the company, the itch to start his own business came over him. “It dawned on me that despite working so hard to build up the company, it was not my business. That spurred me to take the plunge to be an entrepreneur,” he recalls.

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"I don’t think I can box myself into one particular field. I love a challenge, the art of creation and building something new."
Aaron Sarma

The idea for Touristly came when he saw an opportunity in this area as people wanted to find things to do when they travel. While the market has many solutions that offered hotel bookings, there weren’t any that focused on booking travel activities. The company would eventually catch the attention of AirAsia, and the two entities would later ink a US$2.6 million deal in 2017.

Sarma, who was part of the Tatler Tribe panel of industry who helped to nominate Gen.T List 2021, summed up the experience of being an entrepreneur as like jumping off a cliff and building a plane on the way down. “People need to know that the journey of an entrepreneur is a series of ups and downs,” he says. “As an entrepreneur, you cannot optimise your outcomes. You just need to do your best and take every opportunity that comes your way.”

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Though he counts the sale of Touristly to AirAsia as one of his biggest achievements, Sarma is far from calling it a day. After spending several years at AirAsia, he felt it was time to give back and founded ScaleUp Malaysia together with several partners in 2019. As an accelerator, Sarma says his latest venture is not just focused on helping companies raise their next round of funding, but also want to build them up to being profitable with the aim of expanding regionally.

“We have a target to invest in 50 companies and we are about halfway there, having invested into 21 already. At the rate we are going, we estimate we will meet our objective by next year,” he adds.

 

What advice does he have for aspiring entrepreneurs? To him, the most important thing to remember is that entrepreneurship is a team sport. The idea of a self-made millionaire simply is not true as no entrepreneur can do everything by himself.

“Surround yourself with good people and don’t be afraid to ask for help because that’s how you move forward,” says Sarma.

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