#Asia Building an international business: I learnt founding ZEN Rooms from scratch!


Thinking of starting an internationally-focussed company? Or even joining Rocket Internet? Nathan Boublil offers his perspective

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[Editor’s Note] Nathan Boublil is the Global Managing Director of ZEN Rooms. The company is based in Singapore and last week it announced it launched in Singapore, Thailand, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. Now, let’s hear from Nathan. 

My personal story:

I was recruited in July 2015 by Rocket Internet CEO Oliver Samwer and Group Managing Director Alexander Kudlich. They invited me to work on new company launches in Asia, where Rocket had built a very solid reputation in the internet world.

Specifically, Oliver Samwer had a great vision to build the ‘Hilton of our generation.

Indeed, travelers are increasingly young and want to travel more often. Low-cost airlines have emerged around the world and have been powerful at democratizing airline travel – but what about low-cost hotels? Are they safe, reliable? Do they provide what people want?

Little did he know, not only was I personally a passionate traveler but my first job experience was actually as a hotel night receptionist in London (while learning english 12 years ago).

I had processed hundreds of bookings, checkins/outs myself and knew how inefficient the hotel market was. In short, everybody got a different price for the same room.

I had even been trained to quote a different price on the phone depending on the guest nationality — a common practice (in London at least, even at 3/4 star hotels).

At the time, age 18, I just did what I was told to do, but couldn’t help thinking this was strange. Looking closely, the level of innovation simply hadn’t been in line with the market size.

So I landed with Kiren Tanna, a Rocket Internet veteran, on the 1st of August 2015 in Jakarta (my first time in Indonesia).

We had no office. No website. No company name. No email. No business card. Just confidence from our backers we would make it happen – and we had to, as this would be the biggest launch financed by our investors this year. We rolled up our sleeves and got started on what would become ZEN Rooms.

Also Read: Rocket Internet’s ZEN Rooms blasts off to 4 new Asian markets

Here is what I learned – and the journey/learnings are far from over.


What is your mission in 5 clear words? 

Ensure all staff is always aligned on your overarching goal, at every level. This saves headache and makes communication so much faster. 

Disrupt yourself!

While Silicon Valley entrepreneurship often endorses optimism above all else, in execution-driven businesses – especially quality-driven – pessimism is the winner. We always need to assume everything that can go wrong will go wrong.

Why? Because, if we worry, our clients won’t have to,

For this, have your staff, from junior to leadership be hyper critical. Crowdsource mistakes in your operational processes. Incentivize debate. We debate often at ZEN: we disagree, often too loudly but it’s worth it.

This is not the de facto mindset in Asia but it is necessary – make sure it happens nonetheless.

Anything can happen.

Rocket, through trial-and-error, has drilled down to the best team combination to consistently deliver great companies in Asia. Strong expats supporting strong local team.

It is worth mentioning is the key reason why outsiders are recruited in the early stages — despite the many language and cultural barriers and therefore adaptation requirements.

They are free from bias.

This is a very interesting strategy, rooted in human psychology. Indeed, if you have lived in an emerging country (or any country for that matter) for too long, then you are too aware of the big limitations. ‘This cannot happen, this neither’.

However, when coming with fresh (even naive) eyes, limitations seem to be non-existent even in the toughest market environments.

Pilot, then scale heavily

At ZEN, we chose to pilot Indonesia at small scale with a WordPress website for two months before any public launch. We never paid attention to what competition may or may not do earlier than us. Pilot, learn at small scale, then scale heavily! There is no straight line to speed. This is the best way to leadership. This is a key lesson I learnt from my peers.

Once your processes are fine-tuned in your 1st launch market (as evidenced by strong customer satisfaction levels), scale and lead. If you attempt to scale too early, you are in the game of faking growth and compounding headaches.

This also ensures your staff is trained centrally and learns from mistakes before potentially taking charge of decentralized operations.

This is extremely important. Even a few months of hyper centralization saves a lot of management time thereafter. For instance, we do avoid appointing fresh management hires in new markets, we prefer to have our staff travel a lot.

Also Read: Are older entrepreneurs more successful?

So my advice is to scale fast, but in two clear phases.

Be relentless on customer satisfaction

This must be the cornerstone of company culture. Clients must be happy, whatever it takes.

And not only for altruistic motives: in our social world, customer satisfaction is free promotion, and nobody likes to have to pay for PR. We control our guests’ holidays and this is a responsibility.

We also control their safety: many things — if left unchecked — can go wrong in a hotel and you only have one chance. So everyone in the company is on call to reply to guests, from Juniors to Directors.

All about HR…

A company is only a gathering of people who come together to execute on a vision.

Ambitious young people want to work with us, because they know our execution-driven culture and can relate to our mission.

We have a flat structure, where talent has responsibility early and gets rewarded. There are very few rules or glass ceilings. For instance, we had a former intern become Country Manager after only six months with us — and at only 23 years old. 

It is key for every startup to develop their company culture so as to attract true talent, otherwise it is guaranteed failure. Seems obvious in a big company but makes so much sense in a smaller company.

… and reporting!

At ZEN, we are, quite simply, KPI obsessed, we turn all tasks into performance indicators. And every staff has access to them daily.

We all commit to not letting each other down. Ambitious and talented individuals with clearly defined but stretched KPIs work wonders and have a habit of surprising (even themselves). An online business without daily quantitative reporting is doomed to fail. 

Also Read: Who the hell is @startupwati?

What’s next?

Well, many new ZEN Rooms will emerge, in many countries. And over the long term, let’s just say there are many more ways to improve the experience inside economy hotels.

The post Building an international business: I learnt founding ZEN Rooms from scratch! appeared first on e27.

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