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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 – Tara Velis, Growth Hacker and Digital Innovation Strategist

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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.)

I am talking to Tara Velis, Growth Hacker and freelance Digital Innovation Strategist. Tara was selected and recognized by TheNextWeb.com as one of the 500 most talented young people in the Dutch digital scene during the 2017 TNW edition. Tara is known for her creative, entrepreneurial spirit, which she is using to her advantage in leading the change in SMEs and corporates around the globe.

What makes you do what you do?

I tend to see life as a big, complex puzzle. Because of my curious nature, I am in constant development, looking for new angles and new approaches to business problems. Innovation through technology is exploring ideas and pushing boundaries. The most radical technological advances have not come from linear improvements within one area of expertise. Instead, they arise from the combination of seemingly disparate inventions. This is, in fact, the core of innovation. I love going beyond conventional thinking practices. Mashing up different thoughts and components, connecting the dots, and transforming that into something useful to businesses.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?

I consistently chose to follow my curiosity, which has led me to where I am today. If you want to succeed in the digital industry, you need to have a growth mindset. Seen the fact that the industry is evolving in an astoundingly quick rate, it’s crucial to stay current with the trends and forces in order to spot business opportunities. I believe taking responsibility for your own learning and development is key to success.

Why did you take on the role of Digital Innovation Strategist?

The reason for this is twofold. On the one hand, I got frustrated with businesses operating in the exact same way they did a couple of decades ago. Right now we are in the midst of a technology revolution, and the latest possibilities and limitations of cutting-edge technologies are evolving every single day. This means that companies need to stay current and act lean if they want to survive. On a more personal level, I noticed that I felt the need to use my creativity and problem-solving skills to their maximum capacity. In transforming businesses at scale, I change the rules of the game. I love breaking out of traditional, old-fashioned patterns by nurturing innovative ideas. This involves design thinking, extensive collaboration and feedback, the implementation of various strategies and tactics, validated learning, and so on. I get a lot of energy from my work because it is aligned with my personal interests.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries?

Yes, I look up to Drew Boyd. He is a global leader in creativity and innovation. He taught me how to evaluate ideas in order to select the best ones to proceed with. This is crucial because otherwise,you run the risk of ideas creating the criteria for you because of various biases and unrelated factors. He also taught me a great deal on facilitation of creativity workshops.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I tend to have the characteristics of a transformational leader. People have told me that my enthusiasm and positive energy is motivating and even inspiring to them. Even though I take these comments as a huge compliment, I am not sure how I feel about referring to myself as a leader. To me, it still has a somewhat negative connotation. I guess I associate the concept with being a boss who’s throwing around commands. But if a leader means listening to others and igniting intrinsic motivation in people, then yes, I guess I’m a charismatic leader.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?

Yes, one hundred percent. I believe that creativity and innovation flourish when a highly diverse group of people bounces ideas off each other. Diversity in terms of function, gender,and culture is extremely valuable, especially in the ideation phase of a project, as it can help to see more possibilities and come up with better ideas.

Do you have any advice for others?

Yes, I have some pieces of advice I’d like to share.
First of all: Develop self-awareness. You can do so by actively seeking feedback from the people around you. This will help you understand how others see you, align your intentions with your actions, and eventually enhance your communication- and leadership skills.

Surround yourself with knowledgeable and inspiring people. They might be able to support you in reaching your goals, and help you grow both personally and professionally.

Ask “why?” a couple of times. This simple and powerful method is useful for getting to the core of a problem or challenge. Make sure to often remind yourself and your team of the outcome of this exercise to have a clear sense of direction and focus.

Data is your friend. Whether it’s extensive quantitative market research or a sufficient amount of in-depth consumer interviews (or both!), your data levels all arguments. However, always be aware of biases and limitations of research.

Say “Yes, and…” instead of “No”. Don’t be an idea killer. Forget about the feasibility and budget, at least in the ideation phase. Instead, encourage your team to generate ideas without restrictions. You can compromise certain aspects later.

Prioritization is key. There is just no way you can execute all your ideas, and, quite frankly, there is no point in trying to do so. Identify the high potential ideas and start executing those first.

Encourage rapid prototyping. Don’t wait too long to experiment, launch, and iterate your product or service. Fail fast and fail often. Adopt an Agile mindset.

If you’d like to get in touch with Tara Velis, please feel free to reach out to her on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/taravelis/

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Callum Connects

Marek Danyluk, CEO of Space Ventures

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Marek Danyluk has a talent for assessing the competencies of management teams for other businesses and pulling together exceptional teams for his own businesses!

What’s your story?
I am the CEO of a venture capital business, Space Ventures, which invests in seed and pre-series A businesses. I also own and run Space Executive, a recruitment business focused on senior to executive hires across sales, marketing, finance, legal and change.

My career started as a trainee underwriter in the Lloyds market but quickly moved into recruitment where I set-up my first business in 2002. The business grew to around 100 people. I moved to Asia in 2009 as a board member of a multinational recruitment business with the mandate to help them scale their Asian entities, which helped contribute to their sale this year, in 2017.

My main talent is assessing the competencies of management teams as well as building high performing recruitment boutiques and putting together exceptional management teams for my own businesses.

What excites you most about your industry?
Building the business is very much about attracting the best talent and being able to build a culture which people find invigorating and unique. It’s an exciting proposition to be able to define a culture in that regard and salespeople are a fun bunch, so when you get it right it’s tremendous.

From a VC point of view there is just so much happening. South East Asia is a melting pot of innovation so the ideas and quality of people you have exposure to, is truly phenomenal. The exposure in the VC has taken me away from a career in recruitment. Doing something completely different has given me a new level of focus.

What’s your connection to Asia?
Whilst I came here with work, both my boys were born in Singapore and to them this very much is home. That said, my father in law spent many years in the East so coming and settling here was met with a good degree of support and familiarity.


Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Possibly Hong Kong. It’s the closest I’ve been to working in London. Whilst there are massive Asian influences people will work with you on the basis you are good at what you do and work hard. I find that approach very honest and straightforward.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
“Always treat people well on the way up!”

Who inspires you?
I like reading about people who have excelled in business such as Jack Ma, James Kahn, Phil Knight, Sir Richard Branson, Elon Musk, all have great stories to tell and they are all inspirational. No-one has inspired me more than my parents and they are well aware as to why…

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Pretty much any technology innovation blows me away.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Whilst it is important not to have regrets I do continually wake up thinking I’m still doing my A’ Levels. So, I’d have probably tried a little harder in 6th form.

How do you unwind?
I like the odd glass of red wine and watching sport

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Japan skiing. I love skiing and Japanese food and it’s a time when I can really enjoy time with the wife and kids. I recently tried the Margaret River which was divine, although not technically Asia.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Barbarians at the Gate

Shameless plug for your business:
Space Executive is the fastest growing recruitment business in Singapore focused on the mid to senior market across legal, compliance, finance, sales and marketing and change and transformation. Multi-award winning with exceptional growth plans into Hong Kong and London this year, and the US, Japan and Europe by the end of 2022. We are building a truly global brand.

Space Ventures is interested in any businesses that require capital or management and financial guidance or any or all of the above. We have, to date, invested in on-line training, food and beverages, peer to peer lending platforms, credit scoring as well as other tech and fintech start-ups. We are always interested in hearing about potential deals.

How can people connect with you?
[email protected]

Twitter handle?
@Spaceexecutive

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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