YYZ Start-Up Sherpa Makes Visas Easy – And Pays Commission

with Bruce Parkinson

Sherpa founders Max Tremaine (left) and Ivan Sharko

It’s a happy fact that for many places Canadians travel, an entry visa is not required. But for those destinations that do, the process is often fraught with frustration.

An online start-up company created by young Torontonians Max Tremaine and Ivan Sharko is aiming to change that with a mobile visa application app called Sherpa -- and it’s winning approval from agents who cater to off-the-beaten-path travellers.

Tremaine tells Open Jaw that as avid globetrotters, he and Sharko were intrigued by the stories they kept hearing from fellow travellers about issues they had with travel visas.

“We would hear about people who were turned away at borders, held up in airports and charged massive fees for having the wrong paperwork,” Tremaine said in an interview at the Ontario College of Art & Design, which provided incubation space and support for the young company.

“We had our ‘there must be a better way’ moment about a year ago, and since then we’ve been trying to bring travel visas into the cutting edge of technology,” Tremaine said.

With his background in data analysis, market research and database marketing, and Sharko’s expertise in product design and development, the pair had the skills to do the job. And their initiative comes at a time when many countries are moving away from a paper-laden visa process to embrace the digital world.

The Sherpa app for iPhone and Android provides free, up-to-date visa information on 200-plus countries. All users have to do is input their citizenship, destination, current location and purpose of travel, and the app will tell them what they need to do to cross the border. That alone makes it valuable to agents assisting clients with travel planning.

Currently, Sherpa offers Canadians online visa processing for Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia, Kenya, Turkey, Australia and Argentina. The company is adding new destinations frequently, with Russia, China, India, Bahrain, Brazil, Malaysia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Ghana among the countries slated for addition in the near future.

The website at JoinSherpa.com has recently adding a landing page specifically for travel agents. There’s no membership fee, contract or commitment, and Sherpa will pay agents $20 for every traveller who applies for a visa. Agents are also invited to refer clients to the website or app to better understand visa and customs requirements. As well, there’s an API available that agents can offer up on their websites.

Initially, Tremaine and Sharko marketed directly to travellers, DMCs and OTAs. When they dealt with DMCs they realized that a lot of business was coming from ‘traditional’ agents. After obtaining a list of agents, the Sherpa founders called about 60 of them, and more than half signed-up with the program. They were blown away by the response.

Somewhat sheepishly, Tremaine told Open Jaw that he and Sharko didn’t really realize the continuing strength of agents. Like many people in their 20s and 30s, they accepted the conventional wisdom that agents had been rendered extinct by the Internet.

“I just didn’t think it was still a big thing. It’s still a big thing,” said Tremaine.

“Travel agent clients want an expedited process. Visas are a necessity for Canadians to 57 countries, but they are a necessity that could be a lot more pleasant. Sherpa is here to make it a better experience for your clients.”

Part of that is keeping up with changes in entry requirements, which are more frequent than you might expect.

“The requirements can change day to day. And depending on which embassy you call, you might be quoted a price of anywhere from $50 to $250 for a visa. There are also fake ‘official’ websites out there that give bad information or worse, take money and give nothing. We offer the same, consistent experience whether your clients are going to Cambodia or Kenya.”

Just a few months after its initial launch, Sherpa is now attracting 10,000 monthly active users and getting some great reviews from travellers. Tremaine says he thinks they’re just scratching the surface, and with the product running smoothly now, the focus is on sales and building partners and user numbers.

Sherpa is getting noticed too. Prominent travel technology publication Skift selected the company to speak at an upcoming conference on how travel documentation is evolving and how Sherpa is ahead of the curve.

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