Traveling Light: Ziko Atamuloev on the Journey to Founding UnicoAero

Illustration by Felipe Vargas

A lifelong entrepreneur, Ziko Atamuloev, founder of UnicoAero, set out to solve an annoying air travel problem, and in the process may have shifted the conversation surrounding mishandled baggage altogether.

As told by Ziko Atamuloev to Jordan Yerman

The idea for UnicoAero came to me three years ago at Washington Dulles International Airport, when I saw a woman coming out of the terminal juggling several kids and lots of bags. She was looking for someone to take her baggage to the parking lot – and she was willing to pay. Watching the scene, I thought, why not create a marketplace for travelers to match up with drivers for luggage delivery? Uber was doing really well at the time transporting customers from the airport to their homes, so why couldn’t we do the same for bags?

A friend of mine, who worked at South African Airways, suggested I focus on the airline side. “They have a huge pain with delivering luggage,” he told me, so I did some research and saw just how many airlines were struggling with mishandled baggage.

That got me thinking of my own experience – of having my bag mishandled on a trip from Ukraine to Prague in 2008. I got by with whatever I had on me for four days, but could remember how frustrated I felt, and now understood that millions of others were feeling the same. But like the bags that got lost along the way, my journey to this eureka moment involved quite a few unexpected turns – and the occasional roadblock.

I started my first company at 17, at a time when I had moved from Tajikistan to the United States to study. But going to class and listening to teachers wasn’t preparing me for the real world as I had hoped it would. I was instead attracted to entrepreneurship, to succeeding and, of course, failing in real time – not in the abstract. So when it came time to launch a business, I thought, “I don’t know how to do it, but I’ll find a way!”

I set my sights on imported packaged wet napkins after hearing that there were over two million restaurants in the US, not counting franchises – and Americans, I observed, sure loved their finger food. But why get up from the table and go to the restroom to clean your hands when a scented napkin could be waiting at your table? So I went to Turkey, agreed to a contract with one of the largest napkin manufacturers, came back and started selling to restaurants.

Unico, the Italian word for “unique,” came to me after reading Richard Branson’s Screw It, Let’s Do It.

Unfortunately, I had no contacts in the restaurant industry (and no experience), so that business naturally failed. Hey, I was 17. But something good did come of it: the Unico brand, which figured into that initial wipes business, and then a Persian carpet business and eventually UnicoAero. Unico, the Italian word for “unique,” came to me after reading Richard Branson’s Screw It, Let’s Do It. I was – and still am – very inspired by the Virgin Group, and so I wanted to bring my own set of unique products and services to the world.

My subsequent company, a consulting firm for international students coming to the US, was a flop, too, but it acted as a springboard for the next: a company that provides housing for foreign students and overseas workers. We’d sign commercial leases and then sublease to schools, embassies and government bodies that send many people overseas. We’d meet the students and workers at the airport and take them directly to where they’d be living.

That business remains successful today – it’s called 4Stay and is a multimillion-dollar company based in Washington, DC. After that came a shuttle business, a cleaning company and an insurance company. Some succeeded; others didn’t. But they were all necessary in strengthening my professional network in time for the creation of UnicoAero.

“Traveling Light” was originally published in the 9.1 February/March issue of APEX Experience magazine.