COVID-19 bruised TripActions’ business. It chose to innovate.

If nobody's booking business flights through your startup, why not help people pay for their corporate takeout instead?

COVID-19 bruised TripActions’ business. It chose to innovate.

TripActions had to confront a world with far less travel.

Photo: TripActions

TripActions was a fast-growing startup that helped clients manage their business travel when the pandemic hit early last year. Now, almost a year later, it's also helping businesses with their work-from-home expenses.

Chief financial officer Thomas Tuchscherer compared what happened last spring to being in a speeding car that was forced off a cliff — a terrifying experience shared by most travel industry companies hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis.

"All of a sudden the ground vanishes, so you're flying off in this car that's not supposed to fly," he told Protocol. "It was scary while the car was up in the air, not knowing how to land it. But it forced us to focus and invest in areas that really mattered."

A major area the startup focused on as COVID-19 took hold is TripActions Liquid, a line of credit it launched last February to help clients finance their business travel. On Thursday, the company said it's expanding the service to cover a broader range of expenses at a time when business travel is still largely down.

While TripActions Liquid was mainly used to pay for clients' flights, hotels and car rental expenses when it first launched, clients can now also use the service to pay for non-travel business needs that are more relevant in the era of remote work, general manager Michael Sindicich said.

"The type of spend shifted," he told Protocol. "You're not spending on travel as much, but you're still spending on a lot of other business areas ... A lot of it is for digital advertising, it's software spend, it's work-from-home furniture. You see a lot of DoorDash. You see, now that we're just coming off the holidays, a lot of gifts to employees."

Sindicich said the startup is "leveraging a lot of fintech and different tools" to enhance the ability of businesses to manage their expenses. TripActions Liquid, for instance, uses AI to quickly approve expenses and process payments.

Tuchscherer said the decision to expand TripActions Liquid to cover expenses beyond travel was also "driven by a natural expansion to capture more spend, and also to become more strategic" to clients' finance teams, including the CFO.

"If you're only truly present we can only talk about travel, you may be speaking only with the travel managers," he said. By expanding to other expenses, "you move up the finance stack and you start speaking with more strategic financial employees, including controllers, including CFOs."

TripActions launched the line of credit in February 2020 with $500 million in debt financing from Silicon Valley Bank, Goldman Sachs and Comerica. Initially, it was geared toward making it faster and more convenient for businesses to use the TripActions travel management platform.

But then the COVID crisis caused travel bookings to plummet by as much as 90% last spring. TripActions was forced to cut costs, including a major round of layoffs, Tuchscherer said.

"We had to take the very difficult decision of letting go about a quarter of the company back in March," he said.

The company has started to bounce back as some business travel also resumed. It also began expanding the scope of TripActions Liquid, which has become the startup's fastest-growing business.

Meanwhile, investor interest has also remained strong. In June 2020, at the height of the pandemic, the company, which had raised $250 million the previous year at a $4 billion valuation, raised another $125 million from investors led by Greenoaks Capital, boosting its total tally to $600 million. The new valuation will be set when TripActions goes public, Tuchscherer said. He declined to set a timeline for the company's IPO.

Jonah Crane, a partner at the fintech-focused investment firm Klaros Group, said TripActions' decision to expand its financing business shows how startups can tweak their business model, especially during a crisis.

"It's a good example of that broader trend where a company will often start getting traction in solving one problem for your customers and then say, 'Hey, we can also, we can also help you with this other thing,'" he told Protocol.
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