Troy Liu went to the US when he was 17. He was a student of economics at UCLA in San Francisco. On his first trip home to China, the girl at the airport counter asked him if he wanted to be a member of the airline’s frequent flyer program. “What’s that for?” he asked her.
The young Chinese student had never heard of frequent flyer miles which could be redeemed for free air tickets.
Mileslife just won the Phocuswright competition for travel tech innovators from across Asia.
“Whenever you hear the word ‘free,’ it’s pretty much like a joke. So I didn’t believe it, but I got a frequent flyer card, anyway,” he tells me in his irrepressible manner. We are in the lobby of a hotel in Gurgaon, near Delhi, where his #startup Mileslife has just won a competition for travel tech innovators from across Asia, conducted by global travel market research firm Phocuswright. Today, Troy has traveled to more than a hundred countries and helps others, too, get free air tickets with frequent flyer miles from multiple airlines aggregated on his Mileslife app.
It all started with that frequent flyer card he picked up skeptically from the airport counter girl. The next year, he handed over the card when he was again going home to China, and miles were added to it. One day, the Chinese student called up the airline and asked if he could get a free ticket and got a shock to hear he could. “Wow, there’s really something for free,” he thought. “The world changed for me. I started to study all the airline miles programs, and became addicted,” Troy tells Tech in Asia.
The miles addict
He first started flying around the US – notching up miles and collecting cheap tickets. “I was still in school, so I had time. Nothing much else to do, right?”
He became an auditor after graduating and had to make frequent trips between San Francisco and Washington. Between that and trips home to China, the miles kept adding up. His sightseeing turned global.
“When you collect miles, you need to redeem, right? Not put them in a deposit. They devalue,” he explains to me.
So he started doing some elaborate trips. He recollects a good one: Shenzhen to Seoul, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Samoa, Madagascar, South Africa, the Middle East, Paris, and on to the US.
Eight years ago, he went back to live and work in China. He started writing a blog at the side on his travels, which were becoming more an exploration of local cultures. One of these was a bike trip across India.
“I like to talk to local people. I don’t like sightseeing points any more,” he tells me in his characteristically quick, short lines. “In Gambia, there were a lot of police checkpoints. I got very tired of them. So I let three African women hitchhike a ride in my car. No more problems with police!”
Inevitably, he started passing tips on using frequent flyer miles to followers of his Chinese travel blog. He became such an expert over time that airlines started consulting him on designing their frequent flyer programs better. “Because I was an internet celebrity … hahaha … just kidding.”
Miles + Life = Mileslife
He became a formal consultant for airlines in 2013. The feedback he gave them, from his own experience as well as followers of his blog, was invaluabIe.
“For an airline employee, there’s no loyalty program. They fly for free anyway,” Troy points out to me. “So I could give them an insight from a different perspective, as a user. I was also writing a blog, facing consumers everyday, so I know what happens to them.”
A couple of years ago he took an extended trip that stretched over three months – from China to the US, where he traveled to multiple cities, before moving on to the Caribbean, the UK, Turkey, the Middle East, and West Africa, where he ran into the Gambian police check-points.
Then he got tired and decided to go home. One problem he encountered on his travels was the need to use multiple apps for travel, food, accommodation, and recreation. And that’s how he came up with Mileslife, roping in fellow UCLA student Zhichu Lin as co-founder to build the app.
It tied up with all the four major airlines in China – Shenzhen Airlines, Air Macao, Air China, and China Eastern – integrating with them through their APIs (application programming interfaces). This allowed Mileslife users to access multiple frequent flyer program and log their miles in one app.
The merchants get new customers with spending power, the airlines get loyal customers, and people get to maximize their frequent flyer benefits.
But it also tied up with local merchants in seven major Chinese cities and connected them with the loyalty programs of airlines. So now, Mileslife users could also earn miles when they ate at a restaurant, went to a spa, or booked a hotel. It made life easier for the traveler as well, because they could use one app to find everything essential when they landed in an unfamiliar place. Miles + Life = Mileslife.
The merchants get new customers with spending power, the airlines get loyal customers, and consumers get to maximize their frequent flyer benefits. This is on top of whatever freebies they get from their use of credit cards. So it’s also a double dip.
The first users were travelers in China, but soon it caught on with inbound travelers to China – as well as the interest of foreign airlines. United Airlines, the Lufthansa group, British Airways, Swiss Air, and Singapore Airlines are already integrated with Mileslife. Air Asia is coming on board in a week.
“Ours is the only Chinese company partnering United Airlines and British Airways,” exults Troy, who expects to add 10 other major airlines this year. Within six months of its launch, the app has crossed 100,000 users, he says.
The outreach happens on social media as well as promotions by the airlines. When a customer logs in to United Airlines’s China website, for instance, the first prompt the user gets is to sign up or log in to Mileslife to access the frequent flyer program and local merchants.
The only thing that slows down Troy is onboarding the airlines. He describes a recent interaction: “Hey Troy, sorry about the delay of last year. Our priority this year is Mileslife,” said an email from an airline exec. “That’s how it works,” says Troy with a chuckle. “They have 20-30 people involved in a contract negotiation.”
But this also makes Mileslife defensible. Not only is Troy an expert on loyalty programs, he has already gone miles ahead of any rival who thinks of doing something similar with airlines.
Soft launch in Singapore
Now, the globe-trotter in Troy wants to take the Chinese startup to foreign shores. The first stop is Singapore, which has the “lowest cultural barrier” for him. It is also a city-state which makes it easier to market the app.
An English version of Mileslife is ready, and Troy plans a soft launch in Singapore this month. He has already onboarded a good selection of Singapore merchants. Chinese travelers to Singapore will earn miles from local merchants, and so will Singaporeans traveling to Chinese cities – apart from the frequent flyer miles they get from the airlines for traveling anywhere in the world.
“It’s a miles-earning machine in your wallet,” grins Troy, waving his smartphone.
The Phocuswright startup battleground win in India, beating hundreds of applicants from the APAC region, gives him an opportunity to showcase the “miles-earning machine” in the US later this year at Phocuswright’s main annual event. And, of course, Troy will get free air tickets from Phocuswright for the trip to Miami.