Real Business has joined forces with Microsoft to search the UK for the bright businesses that are using digital services for a competitive advantage. Indeed, we’ve highlighted a baker, a beautician, an events company and more for clever use of tech to make a change.
The birth of Airbnb hasn’t sat well with hotels, but the online accommodation booking company, which lets home owners accept guests into their abodes for a fee, has been transformative for the travel industry.
As we continue building our list of 30 Digital Champions, Hostmaker, founded by Nakul Sharma, has joined the ranking. Sharma launched the hospitality business in response to the travel transformation and has raised almost £2m to help Airbnb hosts deliver a warm environment for guests, encouraging them to stay again.
He talked to us about scaling the business across four countries and how services such as online video has supported the process.
(1) Please give us a brief introduction to the business?
Hostmaker is a full-service hospitality management team serving Airbnb hosts. We were recently been featured in Forbes as one of the five fast-growing businesses to watch in 2016.
Hostmaker reimagines the streets of a city like the corridors of a hotel – we believe every home can be on Airbnb and every host can be “guest-ready”. We solve the complex logistical operation to coordinate housekeepers, fresh linen and key exchange. We further add value with our capabilities in dynamic pricing strategies, interior design and hospitality experience that makes a Hostmaker listing on Airbnb stand apart from the rest.
We believe this “secret sauce” of operational excellence is the platform through which we will earn the trust of our hosts and expand into new services and cities. We aim to be the world’s first truly global homestay hospitality management company. We launched in London in July 2014 and have already grown to serve Barcelona and Rome.
(2) What have the significant growth milestones been in the last few years?
Hostmaker has grown from strength to strength since our launch. We raised our first round of £250,000 on the back of strong early traction. Based on positive feedback from our customers in London, we decided to expand our services to Rome and Barcelona, we are now establishing ourselves.
We successfully grew in the high double digits for all of last year, which resulted in our second fundraise of nearly £1.5m. Our investors are experienced VCs and successful entrepreneurs who back our ambition, speed of execution and quality of service delivery.
(3) What inspires you as an entrepreneur, and how does that come across with your company?
In the context of entrepreneurship, I am inspired by other founders who dream unbelievable dreams and then follow through with execution to the finest detail. Not enough coverage is given to the stresses and failures that happen every day when the seed of an idea begins to take root, even in a successful startup story, so as a founder myself, I am truly inspired by leaders who battle against all odds to realise their vision.
Sustaining success in the long run is another matter, and I tip my hat to individuals who do that in any discipline. How I try to bring this to life at Hostmaker is to walk the fine line between staying narrowly focused on the day ahead while ensuring that the long-term vision and values that we hold dear are brought to life through our team’s actions and interactions with our customers, suppliers and with each other. Shelf life of a startup can be measured in months, so it’s extremely important to make every day count.
(4) What kind of obstacles are you encountering as you grow your enterprise?
There are two things that I think are important challenges for Hostmaker (but not necessarily unique to us) – developing technology that will enable the operations to scale quicker and recruiting top talent who can hit the ground running.
I believe we have been fairly scrappy in the way we have operated by using freely available applications to grow the business, but we have reached a point where the free apps keep crashing because they were not designed to support the things we want them to do. Developing our own technology solutions will take us to the next level.
Employing high quality talent is a completely different challenge. At the pace that we are growing, we need to find people who are inspired and excited by our business proposition and will join this team and stamp their mark on it. Our success rate with recruitment has been about 50/50 i.e. even though we try to be very transparent in our recruitment pitch that joining a startup means long hours in an unconventional work environment, if you haven’t worked in a similar place before, then it comes as a shock which may not be for everyone.
(5) For a company that isn’t technology based, how has a digital approach helped you to carve out a bigger market and acquire new customers?
Hospitality management is all about people serving people. Technology cannot replace a warm welcome by a host who ensures you feel comfortable in a new city and excites you about your holiday.
But there are several places that we see technology enabling our operations. From a marketing perspective, we are able to reach customers through online marketing on Google or Facebook.
(6) How is technology helping you to overcome hurdles, and what are the challenges of implementation?
Technology also helps us answer questions like – how do we communicate with 100 housekeepers who are spread around four different cities? How can we assure a host who is overseas that their guests have checked in comfortably into their home? How can we track and take information that our linen driver is running later than planned, which will have a domino effect on all the scheduled services for the day?
These are challenges that technology can help us solve which allow us to gain a bigger market share.
(7) Do you employ any kind of flexible working, and how does technology fit into this?
If flexible working means not working the conventional Monday-Friday, 9-5 face time routine in an office, then technology absolutely helps. Our CTO sits in Seattle, another developer in Eastern Europe and our city GMs leading our operations are in Rome, Barcelona and Paris, which is launching soon. I regularly interact with them through online video conferencing.
The team works the hours when they feel most productive, and shared drives and folders allow us to collaborate more effectively than was possible before.
(8) What kind of technology tools can you not work without?
Email, maps, a shared drive, calendars, mobile phones and video calls are all an integral part of the business. There are other proprietary tools that we are building that help us deliver value to our customers.
(9) What kind of technology would help you better compete with larger rivals?
I think technology solutions on the cloud are more accessible now to startups than ever before and it has definitely helped level the playing field with larger businesses. In fact, I would say that larger businesses on legacy systems are probably at a disadvantage when it comes to being nimble because they are wedded to technology and cannot change direction overnight. The bigger challenge is access to smart technology talent which larger organisations may be able to attract because of deeper pockets.
(10) Where do you want to take your business in the future?
Our vision to is to build a global hospitality management brand for the millennial traveller. The new Airbnb hosts are also guests in homes around the world when they travel, so by operating in multiple cities which have a strong travel connection to each other, we can build a network of customers who are assured of a great travel experience when they stay in Hostmaker homes and also use our services to manage their own homes while they are away.