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Jia En Teo, Co-founder of Roomorama

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Jia En is one of the founders of Roomorama.com, a leading platform for short-term accommodations worldwide. Her passion for travel, combined with the frustration at the lack of affordable, yet decent accommodation, led her to found Roomorama with her then boyfriend, now husband, Federico Folcia. Prior to Roomorama, Jia En worked at Bloomberg, in New York.

Today, The Asian Entrepreneur is joined by Jia En for an insightful interview about her experiences as an entrepreneur.

What exactly is Roomorama?

Roomorama is the largest platform for professionally-managed properties worldwide. Roomorama currently has more than 120,000 properties, in more than 5000 locations worldwide (and growing).

How did you come up with the idea of Roomorama?

Federico and I are avid travelers. Before we started Roomorama, we were in our mid 20s, tired of staying in faceless, cookie-cutter budget hotels and backpacker hostels, yet we weren’t quite able to afford swanky boutique hotels either. We looked around us and thought that there must be thousands of apartments sitting empty at any one point in time – how do we find them, how do we book them, and how do we convince the other party that we are legitimate and safe?

At the same time, whenever we traveled, we always rented out our place to travelers coming to NY via online classifieds like Craigslist. However, we never really knew who was on the other side of the transaction, we had to deal with no-shows, and we had no way of showcasing the positive feedback we received.

To solve all these problems, we started Roomorama – we wanted to create a platform that would make it very simple and safe for travelers to find and book a place to stay anywhere in the world, and for homeowners to be able to rent out their place in a hassle-free way.

Could you walk us through the process of starting up Roomorama?

Starting out was very difficult. First of all, because neither Federico nor I are technical, we had to find a company to help us build a website based on our wireframes that were initially all hand-drawn on paper!

The next challenge was to convince the first few hosts to sign up with us, with no history or track record to speak of. We went out and met every single one of the first few hosts, and visited their properties to make sure they were legitimate and of good quality. We then had to go out and find the people who would actually come to our site to find and book an apartment. I remember personally posting ads, handing out flyers in the cold, and actually calling all the leads that came to our site, and tried to make a sale happen.

While the concept was starting to gain traction in New York, we still had to convince people everywhere else, that staying in an apartment or home was actually a better idea than staying in a hotel. We did this through active engagement with the media, networking as much as we could, and just being advocates and ambassadors of this new trend of travel ourselves.

How has it been like managing the business since?

Things have changed a lot since we started. We have grown from a small concept to an actual company, with 45 employees worldwide, and thousands of people around the world using our product and service. At the same time, we always feel like we could be doing more – we never stop pushing ourselves to keep innovating and keep changing. There are plenty of ups and downs. We have small victories everyday, but also run into challenges and seeming failures as frequently.

Now, in addition to the problems we had to solve as a small company of two, we also have to manage many more people, and every day, we learn that that is probably the hardest thing to do.

Did you find anything particularly difficult during the startup? How did you overcome it?

Yes we definitely had some big difficulties. We were actually sued very early on by someone who wanted to join our team as a partner but who left after a few months. It was an unfair lawsuit, but we had no choice but to defend our case. This dragged on for the first two years of our existence, during which time we had to bootstrap and try to grow organically because we were not able to go out and raise money to scale fast. We overcame it by not letting the problem overwhelm and paralyze us – we every hurdle one step at a time, and tried to see the bigger picture and we stuck to what we really believed in.

Yes we definitely had some big difficulties. We were actually sued very early on by someone who wanted to join our team as a partner but who left after a few months. It was an unfair lawsuit, but we had no choice but to defend our case. This dragged on for the first two years of our existence, during which time we had to bootstrap and try to grow organically because we were not able to go out and raise money to scale fast. We overcame it by not letting the problem overwhelm and paralyze us – we every hurdle one step at a time, and tried to see the bigger picture and we stuck to what we really believed in.

It was not easy convincing everyone about the concept of staying in someone else’s property – there are many pre-conceived notions and cultural barriers that made it hard for everyone to buy into the idea immediately. However, we saw this as a necessary challenge to overcome – the point of every business is for the people running it to help others see the benefits of the product/service they are providing, and continue tweaking the product/service until people are willing to use it and pay for it.

Do you face a lot of competition in this industry? What is your strategy against your competition?

Yes, the travel industry is very competitive, and the short-term rental industry has certainly gotten more competitive since we started as well.

Roomorama’s focus is on the B2C space, meaning that we work mostly with professionally-managed properties. In fact, 80% of our properties are professionally-managed. By working with professionally-managed properties, we are able to assure higher quality and greater reliability for our customers.

Further, we want to “hotelify” the booking experience for our users, and make it as seamless as possible. Right now, booking a property can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days, and we want to make that instantaneous. We are the first player in the market to offer instant bookings, and while most of the properties for which this is available are in Europe at the moment, we are looking to roll it out for as many properties as we can around the world.

What can you tell us about the industry? Have you developed any industry insights that you could share?

Short term rentals are becoming more mainstream – people no longer only consider hotels when they travel. It is not only an economic incentive for this trend, but we see that travelers are becoming more savvy, and are seeking more unique experiences when they travel. Travelers these days want to be able to tell a story, and really live like locals, rather than be typical tourists.

We have also noticed that Roomorama, and sites like ours, have made travel a lot more accessible to everyone. For example, people who may not have been able to afford traveling with their extended family are now able to find a place to accommodate everyone at a much more decent cost. Travelers are also now staying longer than before, because of the affordability and comfort of these new alternatives. This means that they have more time to explore the destination, learn the culture, and really appreciate what it has to offer, instead of just a touch-and-go experience that was much more common in the past.

How have you managed to stay relevant in this industry?

We keep listening to our customers, and refining our product according to what they are looking for. We have to keep talking to various people in the value chain as well, so we know where to position ourselves, and how we can continue being a pioneer in this industry.

What are your future plans for Roomorama?

Our plan is to be THE platform that people think of when they are looking to book mid-range to high-end properties anywhere around the world.

If you could start all over again, would you change anything about your approach? If so, what?

We would have been more aggressive in all aspects of the business. I think when we started out, we second-guessed ourselves, our abilities, the market responsiveness… sometimes you just have to believe and take a leap of faith and not be afraid of rejection. We wish we had learned that faster.

What do you think about startups in Asia?

I think that the eco-system in Asia is becoming more vibrant. There are companies focused on creating value in Asia, and while scale and momentum may take longer to build than in the US, because of high fragmentation in this part of the world, we are seeing some global players emerge, that are inspiring a whole new crop of startups in this region.

What are some personal principles or personal values that guide you and your career?

Always remain humble, and always question what you are doing, to make sure you are focusing and moving in the right direction.

What is your definition of success?

Success is a moving target, and there are many measures of it, for different parts and different stages of life. I never want to put a hard definition on it, because on one hand, it can make you complacent, and on the other, it can depress you. I find it is wiser to always be seeking improvement and growth.

Why did you decide to become an entrepreneur?

I think entrepreneurs tend to be problem-solvers and the type to jump at opportunities. I don’t think we ever really planned on becoming entrepreneurs, but when we saw a gap that needed to be filled, and that we had a chance of creating something that people would actually use, we took the leap.

What do you think are the most important things entrepreneurs should keep in mind?

Always keep focused – on your product, on the goal
Remember that the road is always rougher than you think
Surround yourself with people who are better and smarter than you, to make up for the skills you lack

In your opinion, what are the keys to entrepreneurial success?

Always questioning what you are doing, and remaining humble.

Any parting words of wisdom for entrepreneurs out there?

Never lose your determination, tenacity, and your thick skin!

Connect:
Website: www.roomorama.com
Facebook Page: http://www.facebook.com/roomorama
Twitter: www.twitter.com/roomorama
Instagram: @roomorama

Entrepreneurship

Women on Top in Tech – Daphne Ng, CEO of JEDTrade

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(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)

Daphne Ng is the CEO of JEDTrade, a blockchain technology company focused on trade, supply chain, and financial inclusion projects in ASEAN. She is also the Scretary-General at ACCESS and Exco. of Singapore Fintech Association

What makes you do what you do?
I was introduced to blockchain technology in 2016 after I left my corporate banking career after 10 years. It was my mentor who first got me interested in this technology, which I then went on to delve further into, on its potential applications in the lending and trade finance space – domains where I came from.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?
Being in the space for 2 years and actively involved in the ecosystem, I was able to bring on the projects, network and a good degree of thought leadership in this vertical. Early on in the startup journey, our team faced many challenges. And to me, the key to rising above failures are two essential factors – resilience and support. While resilience is innate, I received a lot of help be it in terms of connections or advice. ‘Nobody succeeds without help’ rings very true for me.

Why did you take on this role/start this startup especially since this is perhaps a stretch or challenge for you (or viewed as one since you are not the usual leadership demographics)?
From the start, I focused on my domain expertise in trade finance and the application construct of how blockchain and DLT can be applied to these use cases. Also, my strategy from the start was to build a technology company made up of 80% tech and engineers, which is also our key competitive advantage today. At the end of the day, deliverables are about strategy and execution, which includes building and leading an ‘A’ team.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries or did you look for one or how did that work?
I have many mentors, which includes our company advisors (all of whom are well-known in this industry) and mostly informal mentors I meet via my connections, and on various occasions and circumstances. Creating opportunities also means putting myself in the right place, at the right time. And in my case, these were mostly organic and genuine friendships formed from the initial connection.

How did you make a match if you and how did you end up being mentored by him?
To me, a match in values is very important. It also takes humility to ask for help and be willing to listen to advice, which is important in order for mentorships to be successful – be it formal or informal.

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent?
I love this question! I am passionate about building strong teams and helping my people grow. I abide by the 3Rs when identifying talents: resourcefulness, resilience and right values. And then I invest in the ‘potential’ and this means giving them room to lead, make decisions and take risks.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?
My support of diverse talents, skillsets and characters can be seen in the make-up of our core team – all helming specific roles and each bringing their own value to the table. We need the sum of all parts to build a great company.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb?
Great leaders emerge in times of failures and challenges, never abandoning the team, and always putting the team’s interests before her own. And I consciously live by these mottos every day.

Advice for others?
My advice to other entrepreneurs: be resolute and dare to be different. If you are going to follow others, then you will end up on the same path as them. No right or wrong; but I would rather chart my own path. This June, we are officially launching our blockchain project, Jupiter Chain (www.jupiterchain.tech), which have garnered much interest in the industry, even before we made it public. We believe this project is the epitome of marrying innovation with practical implementation, and we want to be the first to truly operationalize blockchain for our ecosystem projects in this region.


If you’d like to get in touch with Daphne Ng, please feel free to reach out to her on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/daphne-ng-%E9%BB%84%E7%91%9E%E7%8E%B2/

To learn more about JEDTrade, please click here.

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Callum Connects

Jace Koh, Founder of U Ventures

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Jace Koh believes cash flow is the lifeblood of your business. Understanding it will enhance your ability to run and manage your business.

What’s your story?
My name is Jace Koh and I am the Founder of U Ventures. I’ve always been inclined towards investment and entrepreneurship. I’ve played a hand in starting businesses across these industries – professional services, cloud integration, software and music. I believe that succeeding in business is tough, but that’s what makes the rewards even sweeter.

What excites you most about your industry?
Everything excites me. These are my beliefs:

  • Why is accounting important?
    The accounting department is the heart. Cash flow is like blood stream, it pumps blood to various parts of the body like cash flow is pumped to various departments and/or functions in a business. It is vital to the life and death of the business.
  • Is accounting boring?
    Accountants are artists too. They paint the numbers the way they want them to be.
  • What makes a good accountant?
    A good accountant can tell you a story about the business by looking at the numbers.
  • Why is budgeting and projection important?
    Accountants are like fortune tellers, they can predict the numbers and if you wish to understand your business and make informed decisions, feel free to speak to our friendly consultants to secure a meeting.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born and raised in Singapore, and here’s where I want to be.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore is my favourite city. We have great legal systems in place, good security and people with integrity. Most importantly, we have a government that fosters a good environment for doing business. I recently went for a cultural exchange programme in Hong Kong to learn more about their startups. I found out that the Hong Kong government generally only supports local business owners in terms of grants. They’ve recently been more lenient and changed the eligibility to include all businesses that have at least 50% local shareholding. But comparing that to Singapore, the government only requires a 30% local shareholding to obtain government support. In the early days of starting a business, all the support you can get is precious. It’s great that we have a government that understands that.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
The best time ever to plant a tree was 10 years ago as the tree would have grown so big to provide you with shelter and all. When is the next best time to plant a tree? It is today. Because in 10 years time, the tree would have grown big enough to provide you shelter and all.

Who inspires you?
Jack Ma. His journey to success is one of the most inspiring as it proves that with determination and great foresight, even the poorest can turn their lives around. I personally relate to his story a lot, and this is my favourite quote from him, “If you don’t give up, you still have a chance. Giving up is the greatest failure.”

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
I’ve faced multiple rejections throughout my business journey, and recently came across a fact on Jack Ma about how he was once rejected for 32 different jobs. It resonated very deeply and taught me the importance of tenacity, especially during tough times.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Nothing. I live a life with no regrets. Everything I do, regardless of whether it is right or wrong, happy or sad, and regardless of outcome, it’s a lesson with something to take away.

How do you unwind?
I love to pamper myself through retail therapy and going for spas. I also make a conscious effort to take time off work to have a break outside to unwind as well as to uncloud my mind. This moment of reflection from time to time helps me see more clearly on how I can improve myself.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Taiwan! Good food with no language barriers and the people are great!

Everyone in business should read this book:
I don’t really read books. Mostly, I learn from my daily life and interactions with hundreds of other business owners. To me, people tell the most interesting stories.

Shameless plug for your business:
We’re not just corporate secretaries, we’re “business doctors.”
U Ventures is a Xero certified advisory firm that goes beyond traditional accounting services to provide solutions for your business. You can reach us on our website: http://uventures.com.sg/

How can people connect with you?
Converse to connect. You can reach me via email at [email protected] or alternatively, on LinkedIn here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jacekoh/

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started,
built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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