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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

Is There A Coworking Space Bubble?

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An annual growth rate of nearly 100%, almost five years in a row? More than 60 coworking spaces in a city like Berlin? Are these the characteristics of a bubble? Nope, these are characteristics of a lasting change in our world of work, which has been further catalyzed by the recent economic crises in many countries. But what makes this change different to a bubble? We’ve summarized some arguments of why the coworking movement is based on a sustainable change. However, that doesn’t mean it’s an easy job to open a good working coworking space.

Five reasons why the growth of coworking spaces is based on organic and sustainable growth: 

1. Coworking spaces invest their own money and create real wealth

Already, there is a convincing argument supporting why coworking spaces are not developing in a bubble: the fact that they create real wealth.

Whether referring to the dotcom bubble a decade ago or the real estate crisis in Spain or the United States, the crisis originated in a glut of cheap money, in an environment in which the sender and the recipient were unacquainted. From funds and banks, money flowed in steady streams to investments which offered little resistance and the most promising returns – which only a little while later turned into delusions and ruined investments.

Redistributed risks create illusions. Those people who distributed the money rarely wore the risk of investment decisions. The risk was mainly taken by small shareholders or people who bought parts of those investments. This was because either both parties’ (better) judgement was drowned out by the noise of the market, or because shareholders were unaware of the risk, and were at the mercy of banks and funds for reliable information.

Another fundamental condition for the creation of bubbles are the sheer amounts of money that flow from various locations globally and are concentrated, by comparison, in much fewer places.

Most coworking spaces, however, receive their funding from local or nearby sources and do not operate within this financial system. In fact, the founders mainly inject the bulk of the required investment, and turn to friends or relatives for additional support. They wear the full brunt of the risks that are involved in small-time investment.

They have access to much more information, because it is their own project, rather than a foreign one thousands of miles away. This also includes failures and mistakes that are encountered along the way, but the risk is less redistributed, thereby decreasing the probability of failures.

2. Labor market changes demand on certain office types lastingly

Most users of coworking spaces are self-employed. The proportion of employees is also on the rise, in many cases simply because they work for small companies that increasingly opt to conduct their business in coworking spaces rather than in traditional offices. The industry of almost all coworkers fall within the Internet-based creative industries.

With flexibilisation of work markets, new mobile technologies that are changing work patterns, and the increase of external services purchasing from large and medium-sized enterprises (outsourcing), the labor market has changed radically in many parts of the world.

The long-term financial and emotional security of becoming an employee no longer exists, especially for younger generations of workers. Bigger companies are quicker to fire than hire, and precarious short-term contracts are on the rise. Promising options on the labor market are more often recuded to freelancer careers and starting your own company.

And that’s possible with less money to invest. All you need is a laptop, a brain and a good network. For years, the number of independent workers and small businesses has been growing worldwide – particularly in internet-based creative industries. Anyone who has sufficient specialized skills and the willingness to take risks may adapt more quickly to market conditions if they own a small business or are self employed; more so than if they were to work in a dependent position in an equally volatile market.

Coworking spaces provide an environment in which to do this. Once they have joined a (suitable) coworking space, these factors become apparent to coworkers, who will remain in their space for years to come.

Furthermore, independent workers rarely fire themselves in crises, and even small companies are less likely to give their employees the boot – compared to their large counterparts. This combination enables more sustainable business models – and less business models à la Groupon.

3. Coworking spaces don’t live on crises

Global economic growth is waning while the number of coworking spaces is continually growing. Do coworking spaces thus benefit from this crisis?

The current crises accelerate the formation and growth of coworking spaces, because they offer solutions and space for the resulting problems. Coworking spaces are therefore not a result of a crisis, but the product of change that pre-dates their existence. A crisis is simply the most visible expression of change.

The first coworking spaces emerged in the late 1990s; the movement’s strong growth started six years ago – before the onset of economic downturns in many countries.

4. Coworking spaces depend on the needs of their members

Most coworking spaces are rarely full. Does this mean they are unsuccessful? On average, only half of all desks are occupied. But the average occupancy rate of 50% refers only to a specific date.

In fact, coworking spaces generally serve more members than they can seat at any given time, since members do not use the spaces simultaneously. Coworking spaces are places for independents who want to work on flexible terms. Smaller spaces rely more on permanent members. Larger spaces can respond more flexibilty to the working hours of its members, and, can rent desks several times over.

If a coworking space is always overcrowded or totally empty, the purpose of said space would be defeated. Firstly, it is rather impossible to work in an overcrowded room. Second, it’s impossible to cowork in an empty room. Given the nature of flexible memberships, a coworking space only can survive if they fit the needs of their members. Members would otherwise be quick to leave, and membership would be much more transient.

5. The coworking market is far from saturation

Less than 2% of all self-employed – and even fewer employees – currently work in coworking spaces. Reporting on coworking may increase, but inflated reporting on the coworking movement in the mainstream media is still far away.

Coverage of coworking space are most likely to be found in the career or local sections in larger publications – front cover coverage remains the dream of many space operators. This is because the whole coworking movement can’t be photographed in one picture. What appears to be a disadvantage, however, is actually a beneficial truth: niche coverage allows the industry to grow organically, and avoid over inflation.

Conclusion

Coworking spaces don’t operate in parallel universes – like the financial market. Demand and supply are almost exclusively organic and operate in the real world economy.

For the same reason, there is no guarantee that opening a coworking spaces will be automaticly successful. Anyone who fails to learn how to deal with potential customers in their market, or is unfamiliar with how coworking communities function, will have a difficult time of making one work. In the same way that business people in other industries will fail if they do not understand their market.

Those who simply tack on the word ‘coworking’ to their space’s facade will need to work harder. The structure of most coworking spaces is based on real work, calculated risk, and real-world supply and demand.

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About the Author

This article was produced by Deskmag. Deskmag is the magazine about the new type of work and their places, how they look, how they function, how they could be improved and how we work in them. They especially focus on coworking spaces which are home to the new breed of independent workers and small companies. see more.

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Callum Connects

Dextre Teh, Founder of Rebirth Academy

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Dextre Teh is a consultant and marketing guru, helping F&B businesses to tighten their operations and grow their businesses.

What’s your story?
I help frustrated F&B business owners stuck in day to day operation transform from a glorified operator into a real business owner. I’m a 27 year old Singaporean second generation restaurant owner and a F&B business consultant. Entering the industry at 13 years old, I have always been obsessed with operations and systemisation. At the age of 25, I joined the insurance industry and earned a six figure yearly income. However, I left the high pay behind because it was not my passion and returned to the F&B industry. Now I help other F&B companies to tighten operations and grow their businesses with my consulting and marketing services.

What excites you most about your industry?
The food. I’m a big lover of food and even have a YouTube show on food in development. But that aside, it is really about impacting people through food. Creating moments and memories for people, be it a dating couple or families or friends. Providing that refuge from the daily grind of life. So in educating my consulting clients and training their staff to provide a better experience for their customers, I aim to shift the industry in the direction of creating memories instead of just selling food.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born and bred in Singapore. I love the culture, the food and travelling in Asia.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore hands down. The environment here is built for businesses to thrive. The government is pro business and the infrastructure is built around supporting business growth. Not to mention the numerous amount of grants available in helping people start and even grow business. If I’m not mistaken, the Singaporean government is the only government in the world that offers grants to home grown businesses for overseas expansion.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Learning to do things you do not intend to master is a BIG mistake in business. Focus on what you are good at and pay others to do the rest.

Many business owners including myself are so overwhelmed by the 10,000 things that they feel they need to do everyday. We try to do everything ourselves because we think it saves us money. The only thing that, that does for us is overload our schedules and give us mediocre results. Instead we should focus on what we do best and bring in support for the rest.

Who inspires you?
Christopher M Duncan.

At 29, Chris has built multiple 7 figure businesses. He opened me to the possibility of building a business on the thing that I loved and gave me a blueprint of how to do it. He also showed me that being young doesn’t mean you cannot do great things.

Imran Mohammad and Fazil Musa
They are my mentors and inspire me every single day to pursue my dreams, to focus on celebrating life and enjoying the process of getting to where I want to be.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Time is always more expensive than money. Money, you can earn over and over again but time, once you spend it, will never come back.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I am a firm believer that your experiences shape who you are. I am grateful for every single moment of my life be it the highs or the lows, the successes and the failures because all these experiences have led me to become the person I am and brought me to the place that I’m at so I will probably do things the same way as everything was perfect in its time.

How do you unwind?
Chilling out in a live music bar with a drink in hand, listening to my favourite live band, 53A. Other than that I’m big on retail therapy, buying cool and geeky stuff.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Bangkok. It feels like a home away from home where the cost of living is relatively low, the food is good and the people are friendly.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Everything you know about business is wrong by Alastair Dryburgh. It is a book that challenges commonly accepted business “truths” and inspires you to go against the grain, think different, take risks and stand your ground in the face of the challenges that will come your way as a business owner.

Shameless plug for your business:
I’m the creator of the world’s first Chilli Crab Challenge. It gained viral celebrity earlier this year with 3 major newspaper features and more than a dozen blog and online publications featuring it in the span of two weeks. In the span of the two weeks, the campaign reached well over a million people in exposure without a single cent spent in ads.

Now I help F&B companies to tighten operations, increase profits and grow their businesses with my consulting and marketing services. Chilli Crab Challenge (https://www.chillicrab.com/nationalday)

How can people connect with you?
You can connect with me on Facebook (www.facebook.com/djtehkh) or visit www.rebirthacademy.sg for more information or book a 10 minute call with me @ www.tinyurl.com/dexclar

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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