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Founder of billion-dollar travel app Klook: Being an outsider gave my business the edge

Eric Gnock Fah, co-founder and chief operations officer of travel platform Klook.

Eric Gnock Fah never quite felt like he belonged.

From growing up in one of the few Chinese families on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, to studying in the U.S. and later working in Hong Kong, Gnock Fah spent much of his youth trying to get by in a place that wasn't quite home.

At times, it was isolating. But it also gave him the inspiration to start a business to help with that very problem.

Gnock Fah is the co-founder and chief operations officer of Klook, a travel app designed to help people live more like locals when travelling abroad. Spotting an opportunity to capitalize on Asia's growing tourism industry, he set up the platform in 2014 with two fellow co-founders to handle holidaymakers' in-destination bookings, from transport to activities and experiences.

We were three people who actually had no background in travel per se.
Eric Gnock Fah
co-founder and chief operations officer of Klook

For the then-26-year-old, it was another bold move into an unknown environment. Until then, Gnock Fah had been working in finance. Yet, the young entrepreneur said he believes that's what gave him the edge and helped Klook become the $1 billion business it is today.

"It was a relatively far-fetched approach," now 31-year-old Gnock Fah told CNBC Make It.

"A lot of people in the industry were quite surprised," he continued, referring to established travel operators' take when the trio of travel newbies broke into the industry. "We were three people who actually had no background in travel per se. I think I'm the only one who can relate myself to travel, the fact that Mauritius is a travel destination."

Entering the unknown

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Growing up in Mauritius, a honeymoon hot spot, Gnock Fah said he noticed the huge disparity between local and what he called "tourist" prices. As part of a family of Chinese migrants, he would often be mistaken for a tourist and be hit with the accompanying hiked rates.

Gnock Fah noted that those higher costs are typical of the tourism industry as a whole. But he said technology has made it much easier to level the playing field so visitors have more options while also giving local operators a platform to promote their services.

After five years working in the corporate world, he decided to make that vision a reality and shake up what is otherwise "quite a dinosaur industry."

Nowhere was home but also everywhere was home. That was the edge for us.
Eric Gnock Fah
founder and chief operations officer of Klook

"I just wanted to start something that I could relate to. Even in Mauritius I felt like a minority, so nowhere was home but also everywhere was home," said Gnock Fah "That was the edge for us and (what) helped us form this travel business which inherently has to be global."

Making like Bezos and Musk

Gnock Fah's "outsider" strategy has its supporters in some of the tech industry's top entrepreneurs. Indeed, according to wealth expert and best-selling author Robert Frank, entering an industry as an outsider often has a large part to play in founders' success.

"The reason that Jeff Bezos reinvented retailing is because he didn't start out at Macy's. The reason that Elon Musk has reinvented cars is because he didn't start out at GM (General Motors)," Frank said during an episode of CNBC's "Fortt Knox."

That certainly seems to be the case for ex-financier Gnock Fah, whose business recently partnered with industry heavyweight, 37-year-old luxury hotel operator Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts, to give holidaymakers special access to Klook's platform.

"All these guys tell me the best thing they brought to reinventing their industry and starting a brand new disruptor was (that) they didn't know what couldn't be done in that industry," Frank noted on the show.

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