A Konnect Africa Interview with Marek Zmyslowski – The Founder of Jovago.Com, Top Online Hotel-Booking Portal in Africa

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Greetings Africa,

How are you doing?

It is another Konnect Africa interview and today, we are honoured to connect to you, the Founder of Jovago.Com, one of Africa’s Leading Online Hotel-Booking Portals in Africa. He left Poland for Nigeria, saw an opportunity in the Hotel industry and he has gone to great length to fully tap into this market and exploit all the benefits therein.  I am talking about none other than the polish-born Marek Zmyslowski. 

He spoke to Konnect Africa and talked about how he ventured into online business, why he moved to Africa, his tips for those who are interested founding/running a Tech start-up and so much more. For all entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs, find a good position and soak in all these insights shared by Marek. Read on….

Marek Zmyslowski - Founder Jovago.com

Who is Marek Zmyslowski? Your roots, age, education, hobbies etc

My name is Marek Zmyslowski; I‘m Polish and I’m 28 years old. I love sports, and could easily pass for a geek. An enthusiastic entrepreneur, I have co-founded and sold two online businesses.

Until now, I have lived my entire life in Europe but some point I needed a new challenge — exciting and adventurous. At the same time, Africa’s start-up scene was burgeoning and I just could not miss out. I moved to Nigeria and started Jovago.com, an online hotel-booking portal. At Jovago.com, our vision is to create the best travel booking experience ever. Wherever you go in Africa, you can find your best hotel and book it in just few clicks.

Your History in Online business?

My so-called “professional career” started in Finance. I also spent three (3) years in doing sales. Sometimes in the early 2000s, start-ups in Poland were in their nascent stage and that got my attention.

At that point, I realized I wanted to build companies. I decided to focus on the Internet because of its immense power to change the world. I figured out it would be easier to do business in a fresh, growing online market than  starting from scratch in offline markets with established leaders.

Why did you choose Africa?

I have a strong passion for entrepreneurship with a strong leaning towards online businesses. I started several ventures in Eastern Europe and when the Africa Internet Holding team approached me about moving to Africa for an exciting opportunity to set up Africa’s No. 1 Booking portal, I knew it was just the right challenge for me.

I moved to Nigeria and slowly but surely, me and the team have grown Jovago.com to become the go-to portal for booking hotels in Africa.

Who/ what is the inspiration behind Jovago.com?

Jovago is part of Africa Internet Group (AIG). AIG has built up multiple web companies including JUMIAZandoKaymuHellofoodLamudiCarmudiJovagoLendico and Easy Taxi.

We have also now offices across Africa in Kenya, Senegal, Dakar, Ghana and Pakistan, also covering hotels in countries like Rwanda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Zanzibar, Djibouti, Malawi, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

What’s in a name? What does Jovago mean?

There is this strategy when starting an online company. You could choose an organic name that relates directly to what your company does such as booking.com and people already know what it is or you can make up a new name and over time build it to the extent that it connotes what your business does; an example is Expedia.

So, mostly what Rocket Internet does is to go with the second strategy which is to make up a new name and build its connotation to what the business does over time. We invented the word Jovago. We have a guy who is good with names and he came up with the name Jovago.

Why it’s also good, is that if you have a name that already exists and someone searches for you, they won’t find you that easily because there are many other results that will apply to that name.

Marek Zmyslowski - Founder Jovago.com

Objectives/impact of Jovago.com. What is your selling point?

I think the first and most important reason is our inventory. Because whenever you compare only hotel booking platforms like ours, we are growing in Africa. We are the biggest in Africa but let me elaborate on that a bit.

When you look at the more developed market, like booking.com, it’s all about the hotel numbers that you have, because for a customer, the choice is the most important. We, right now, not only have the biggest inventory of hotels in Africa, but also the best quality in terms of information that we are providing about the hotel, because we are verifying these hotels. There is no other travel agency that does it.

Also, it is the quality of the service. We are very transparent about our service quality, we are a partner of trust pilot, trust pilot is an independent organisation that verifies the standard of any e-commerce worldwide and we have the highest ranking in terms of customer satisfaction in an online travel agency in Africa and we also have the highest response rate. So, these are numbers that are backing up our claim as Africa’s Number 1 Hotel Booking Portal.

What niche and clientele are you looking to satisfy?

Our target market is pretty much everyone who loves to travel or just take a break from their routine.

Challenges of running an online business in Africa? How to beat the odds?

Understanding the specifics of Nigerian market and finding the right people to my team. In order to understand the country you leave in, you have to listen way more than talk. It is also not easy to find people that share the same passion I have and sometimes even harder to keep the very good ones.

Also challenging is handling the habits of people. On one side is convincing the hotel managers towards marketing their products online and working with a company like Jovago.com and putting their focus on customer service because our customers need to be happy with their hotel services.

If the customer is not happy with the hotel services, he is not likely to visit us again either.

For young people in Africa considering launching out on their own Tech businesses, what are your 5 Tips/ advice on running/founding a Tech startup?

  1. Be prepared to sleep like a baby. Waking up every 2 hours crying.
  2. Don’t get carried away with the pursuits of finding a Venture Capitalist to fund their start-up, because the pressure of growth can become too much to handle if the Startup has not internally grown and matured yet.
  3. While building a business in Africa and looking for role models to imitate, look at businesses in Asia and borrow a leaf from them. Asian businesses focus on growing the business from inside out with strong focus on mobile and consumer satisfaction.
  4. Be persistent, productive and critical.
  5. Master the art of delegation and create project lists that can easily be referred to, as this would help to make you more efficient.

Dealing with competition. Embrace it or eschew it?

Our competition is not really Wakanow.com, booking.com or Expedia. Our competition is really the habits of our potential customers trying to find a hotel when they arrive at their travel destinations.

When you look at the statistics, more than half of the travel customers here don’t really book hotels online. They usually choose the hotels when they arrive at their destination. Our challenge from the customer point of view is to change the habits of customers towards online booking because of its advantages in terms of convenience, savings and ultimately their satisfaction with the services provided when searching for hotels.

Marek Zmyslowski - Founder Jovago.com

What are some milestone achievements for Jovago.com since it was incorporated?

As we are speaking now, we have signed more than 7000 partnerships with hotels, just in Nigeria. And by signing a partnership, I mean visiting, in real life, the hotels, talking to hotel managers, signing a proper contract, seeing the room and the restaurants, writing a description, taking the pictures, and putting everything online. We have also done a number of strategic partnerships.

Why do we do partnerships? First of all, for a business like ours, it’s the most important thing to educate the market. Because you can say that hospitality market in booming in Nigeria and these numbers are great but if you dive in deeper into these numbers, you actually find out that only around five, maybe 10 per cent of the rooms which are booked in Nigeria now are booked online.

So many hotel rooms are still booked on the phone, with the travel agent or just by walking in. We cannot just sit there and wait for a customer to finally go to Google and search for hotels and then find us. We need to go to the market, find the customer before he even thinks about booking a hotel because the moment he thinks about a hotel, he already knows us and hopefully, he’s going to think Jovago. And this is why we need partnerships.

Partnership with airlines, this is something I am very proud of, it doesn’t happen that a company that is just launching last year gets a strategic partnership with any airline. Now we have with Discovery Air, we have Africa World Airlines, which is a Ghanaian airline; we have Precision Air, which is an airline from Tanzania, if I am correct and very soon we are going to announce more Nigerian airlines and corporations.

Because this is like obvious synergy for us, where there’s a customer that travels by plane into Nigeria, most of the time, he is going to need a hotel. So, we can have so many nice synergies. We know when a customer is flying in and where he is travelling to and we can get a special offer to that particular customer.

Then we have partnership with bus companies – it’s the same concept. We just launched a partnership with God is Good Motors, one of the biggest bus operators in Nigeria. We are trying to encourage customers to buy tickets online and also book hotels online. And then, we’ve been happy that we are able to strike a deal with the Nigerian Tourist Development Corporation.

And again, the idea is the same. We both want to promote Nigeria as a tourist destination because this is their mission and if we promote it with them, once Nigeria becomes more and more popular, more and more people are going to come and more and more people are going to need hotels.

Why partnerships with music artistes like Ice Prince? Because we want to tap into the younger audience, our future customers that are still studying, they are educating themselves; they are going to get good jobs.

They have parents that don’t know about the internet yet and many times the parents ask them for help so I believe that young people are much underestimated as potential customers or a potential recommendation source. This is why we struck a deal with Ice Prince and other celebrities like Sasha P and Ajebutter.

But we also try to tap into the wider audience that sounds obvious for us – we have partnered with Japheth Omojuwa as we recognize that he is a voice of the Nigerian youth and we want to constantly have our ear to the ground to know what the youths need with regards to hospitality.

We have also become the partner of Nigeria’s first ever racing team, they will be taking part in the GT racing series, they will be travelling all over the world, they have African drivers, I think one Nigerian and two South Africans and that is like almost purely Nigerian/African racing team in the world and we want to assimilate through them because Jovago is pure Nigerian/pure African brand we want to promote Africa.

Is Tech replacing human resources and reducing available jobs?

For a business such as ours, even though we function mainly based on tech, but the offline fulfillment part is what keeps the customers coming. And for this, we need human beings performing different tasks.

Best way to pitch an idea to prospective investors?

When you have a business that is less than 3 years old, don’t look for funding from banks, go to Venture Capitalists as they will be more likely to buy into your business vision and fund it. Strategic partnerships can help your business grow so always identify companies that will help align your business and seek out partnerships with such companies.

Jovago.com boasts of partnerships with over 20, 000 hotels in Africa. What requirements does a hotel have to fulfill to meet your standards?

There are no stringent requirements. The hotel only needs to sign a contract with us, let us take pictures and get descriptions of the hotel and give us their best available rates.

Marek Zmyslowski - Founder Jovago.com

Do you think the tech startup space is becoming saturated?

I think we are only seeing a tip of the iceberg. More startups are going to crop up and that’s good because this is the tech age and we need to get used to the idea of doing more things conveniently, online.

Where do you see Jovago.com in the next 5 years?

I cannot tell you in details but definitely in the long term, what we are doing is we are an online brand but we want to be very present offline. So, you’re going to see Jovago stands, people and representatives talking to people offline because our goal in the long term is to create the market.

We want to change habits, we want people to make more bookings online and in order to do that, we have to communicate the benefits because it is safer, cheaper and time saving. So, what we believe is that when we make the cake bigger, our piece will also be bigger because it’s not the case of competing in a saturated market.

Now, it is all about creating the market. Our competition are not the other travel agencies, our competition is the habit of the Nigerian customer to stress himself, to take a taxi and ask the taxi man “can you find me any hotel close by because it is already 7pm, I need to sleep somewhere” and going hotel from hotel just to find a free room. I think that’s our biggest competitor, the habit.

Any mentors?

I have two of them actually. Filip, my first boss and Marcin, my first angel investor, both are very different, wise, great role models.

Inspire a young African in one sentence.

I don’t know if it is the best but it’s my advice. I have always been the kind of person that focuses on doing the right things instead of doing things right. So once I focus on something or get an idea, I just quickly go and do it.

Sometimes I believe people spend too much time thinking about what they want to do. People come to me sometimes for advice because of what I have done and they speak saying that I have an idea and I have been thinking of how to do it for five years. I am like how could you be thinking for 5 years?

My advice is, pick the first idea and start doing it. If you think your idea would be perfect by thinking about it for so long, then believe me, the first day you launch it, you would realise that things would change those your plans you have been making for five years anyway.

So, just start something and do something instead of thinking too much because you are still going to make mistakes anyway.

Many thanks Marek.

You are welcome.

You can connect with Marek Zmyslowski via twitter @marekchinedu. Cheers.

© 2015 – 2017, Arise Arizechi. All rights reserved.

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