Japanese duo launches Berguide, helping Kilimanjaro climbers find best guides online



See the original story in Japanese.

A platform linking mountain climbers and guides has been born. Two Japanese based in Berlin has founded Berguide.

Berguide is a platform which matches climbers with local guided tours. At present it is only offered for tours of Mt. Kilimanjaro, offering people wishing to ascend the Tanzanian mountain tours for half a dozen possible climbing routes. Each tour has a web page detailing the price, itinerary and other content in addition to offering snapshots and video clips of the guide or the tour, enabling climbers to compare and then apply, not to mention make payments, online.

Almost dying upon mountain-climbing in Bolivia

The two Japanese, Takashi Sato and Yuji Gakuji founded Berguide in summer of 2015 in Berlin. Both men are 26 years old.

The idea of Berguide was born out of the dangerous experience Sato had some two years ago. A mountain climber himself, Sato decided to go climbing in Bolivia. Although an English-speaking private guide was hired, his health suffered tremendously during the ascent due to altitude sickness. Though he asked to descend the guide decided to place priority on the other tour participants’ pace, making it impossible to head down.

Fortunately at 5500 meters’ altitude the other participants noticed how ill Sato was and convinced the guide to cut short the trip and head downhill. By then Sato was facing a life-threatening situation. After the tour, Sato was shown the notes taken by the other climbers; they all had negative views concerning the guide. In hindsight, Sato thought that:

If only I had been able to see such reviews about the guide by participants, I would never have selected this guide’s tour.

Sato found out the hard way how such information regarding guides for mountain climbing tours were not open generally and not easily accessible.

Berguide currently provides tour information concerning the six ascent routes available for Mt. Kilimanjaro

Quit Adidas to launch a startup in Berlin

There was a need to provide as much information and choice to mountain climbers by opening up the information on guides and tour content. Sato thus decided two years after his Bolivian experience to build his own platform to make such information available publicly.

After graduation from a Japanese university, Sato went to Adidas headquarters in Nuremberg, Germany, where he became the first Japanese to be selected in the corporate officer training program, working in the global strategy team. He obviously had an “elite career” promised ahead at the company, but he decided to abandon that route in favor of establishing Berguide.

His reasoning was that I had kept this idea of ‘a service like this is a must’ in my mind from 2 years ago, but I saw no one else moving to set up such a service.”

He said:

I began to study programming on my own and felt that I could offer such a service.

Upon leaving Nuremberg he decided to set up base in Berlin because not only is it a location conducive to foreigners but also in recent years has been a hot spot for startups.

Berguide co-founders Takashi Sato (left) and Yuji Gakushi (right)

In the beginning Sato was thinking of going alone, but his endeavor was joined by another Japanese person. This was Yuji Gakushi who has been Sato’s friend since middle school; Gakushi is now an engineer. Skilled as a software handler since school days and experienced with work at an IT startup, Gakushi decided to respond to request for advice about technical problems when Sato was preparing his platform’s prototype. As the two friends conferred late into the night, Gakushi himself became interested in the project.

Upon returning to Tokyo from Germany, Sato invited Gakushi for a drink. Then over drinks he said, “I’ll give you this – can you come along to Berlin with me?” and presented a piece of paper written with a ballpoint pen that said “50% of my company’s shares”… Gakushi thus joined Berguide and moved to Berlin about a month later.

Launch at Kilimanjaro

Last September the two pals rented an apartment in Berlin to prepare for the launch. They targeted Tanzania as the launch place, with the aim of attracting the service’s first users from among the climbers and the guides engrossed by Africa’s tallest mountain. Since the two men had no connection in Tanzania, they prepared meticulously before going there.

First they contacted the head of the 2000-guide strong Kilimanjaro Guide Association in Berlin to explain Berguide’s business content. They also emailed local Tanzanian tour companies with details about the service, to see what kind of response they would get. The response even before going to Africa was positive, such as those saying “would definitely like to use such a service if one exists.”

The sojourn in Tanzania was limited, a little under 3 months. The two men could not afford to even waste a day, so they had made preparations to the fullest extent possible. As a result, they were able to move effectively upon arrival in Tanzania. Thus, they were able to present their services in front of some 300 people at a specially-convened main session of the Kilimanjaro Guide Association.

They could also visit the local guides who had been contacted via email from Berlin. Additionally, one introduction to another from local tour companies led to a wide network being built. There were more than a few occasions where tour guides who found out of Berguide’s existence even visited the hotel the two were staying at.

Over 300 guides attended Berguide explanation session in Tanzania

“Making it possible to see what the situation is for guides”

What is it with Berguide’s service content that attracts so many people?

Sato notes:

There are many tours of Mt. Kilimanjaro available, with overseas agents making reservations and taking a hefty margin for these.

When individual climbers search for tour information over the Internet, they oftentimes end up at sites from the U.S., UK and Canada where SEO (search engine optimization) measures have been adopted that look attractive on the surface; yet these sites crowd out local guides’ sites.

Although Berguide does take a success fee upon matching between the tour companies and climbers being completed, it costs less than going through agents and thus help the guides to be paid more. Furthermore, Berguide provides a system where an evaluation of local guides can be found when choosing a tour, with “peer review” by climbers is made possible to provide guides with direct feedback of participants, which may be reflected on future expeditions.

Such merits have led some 30 local tour companies to register with Berguide. According to Sato, because only nationally-authorized tour companies can offer guide services in Tanzania, it is not possible to match freelance individuals as guides. Should it become possible for individual guides to become authorized by the government such matching service for individual guides and climbers will also be offered. As for the climbers, the merit is high since not only can tours be reserved at lower prices but they can fathom the information concerning the guide and the tour.

Sato explains:

Currently it is possible to reserve a tour but details such as who will be the guide are not availed. I always thought this haphazard method of finding out who will be climbing with me was not a happy thing and so wanted some way to make such information publicly accessible.

He wanted to make it possible to at least see what kind of situation the mountain guides are in by using moving pictures and audio, without having to meet them directly. This makes sense since for a trek up Kilimanjaro-class peaks means a tour taking up about a week. Knowing who will guide you offers an increased feeling of security beforehand.

Although for now the guide-matching service is available only for Mt. Kilimanjaro, the platform plans to expand the selection of tours to other famous mountains around the globe. There are platforms focused on mountain climbing such as summitpost.org without functions like making reservations or searching for guides/tours while a Japanese community site Yama Reco covers only mountains in Japan.

Berguide’s challenge has only just begun. However, the potential of changing the landscape for tour guides, mountain climbers and the industry overall looms big.

Translated by “Tex” Pomeroy
Edited by Masaru Ikeda