‘If buildings could speak, this one would say: run away!’ or ‘Beach is too sandy, but water is clear’, just to mention a few examples of funny reviews on Tripadvisor. Whereas reviews can indeed be very amusing, for hospitality companies they’re serious business. Bad feedback from guest posted online equals low occupancy. All the more reason for Veer Koratagere, Danuwat Sae-Ngow and Ravi Huliyappa to start Guestasy, an online reputation management platform that supports hotels in Thailand to manage their reviews.
Differentiation through native language
The idea behind the startup comes from identifying a problem in the hospitality industry, as Veer explains in our chat at Tribe Theory Singapore: ‘Quite often hotels feel they’re not in control of the reviews. There’s a lack of skills or free time, it’s just not their core work. The hotel management’s main focus is taking care of the guest. But as technology changes fast, the online thing is getting out of control. And tracking reviews on different platforms is something people don’t know how to deal with’. Ravi adds to that from his own experience in his previous startup where he needed to handle his own reviews and outsourced it to his niece and nephew:
‘I didn’t have time to do it, then I noticed probably more people have the same problem’.
Obviously the reputation management isn’t a new thing, what differentiates Guestasy from other platforms is the fact that they respond to reviews in the native language. Veer: ‘French people don’t like to get an answer in English, for example. And we noticed that people are more willing to leave a review if they can do it in their own language.’ Currently, they’re offering fourteen different languages on seven different platforms, from Tripadvisor and Booking.com to Expedia and Google. During their stay, guests get the opportunity to leave a review already through scanning a QR code or receiving an email.
Answers can be given in smiley faces, to make it very easy to respond. If guests aren’t happy, the management visits them to check out what’s wrong. Clicking a happy face means they’ll get an invitation to write a review on one of the popular platforms.
A sales team with no experience in sales
Their Singapore registered startup is a year old and even though the first three or four months were challenging, the business is now successful enough to expand to other countries. Two of the co-founders and most of the team are based in Thailand. Highschoolfriends Veer and Ravi worked together in other startups in the past, coincidentally they were both involved in review businesses before they started a new collaboration together. In Thailand, where Veer met his wife and wanted to move back after working in Silicon Valley for a while, they met Danuwat whose family owns several hotels.
It was and still is challenging to expand the team with the right people.
‘In Silicon Valley it’s easier to find human resources, people are looking for interesting startups to work with all the time. In Thailand, it’s much harder to find the right people, especially developers, and preference is given to well-paid jobs.
Another problem is the lack of knowledge of the English language and the fact that people coming from a corporate organization expect everything to be in place in a startup, which isn’t the case in the beginning’, as the founders explain.
Help in finding their first client came from an unexpected source, a mutual friend who as biochemistry doctor couldn’t find a job in Thailand and therefore joined Guestasy as part of the sales team. ‘We had a sales team with no experience in sales’, tells Veer laughing. ‘This friend of ours went everywhere, he talked to property owners and hotel managers, he convinced our important first three clients. Meanwhile, he found a proper job in his profession, but we’re actually waiting for him to come back and help us expand the business further. He became a legend to us’, as the entrepreneurs confess jokingly.
Changes in the startup ecosystem
A beginning phase of a startup can be nerve-wracking. Thoughts like ‘maybe Thailand isn’t open for a new product’ or ‘nobody wants to take risks’ can give entrepreneurs sleepless nights. The men talk quite relaxed about the first months where they tried getting people to use the product through a free trial but nobody did. ‘It was demotivating for sure, but we knew we were working on a solution to a problem and it was just a matter of time for people to see the value’, as Ravi puts it.
If asked what has changed in the startup eco-system since Veer and Ravi started their first company fifteen years ago, Ravi answeres: “Back then companies took more time to grow, the whole cycle is much faster now. And I believe it became easier to raise funding. In India for example, fifteen years ago there wasn’t a startup ecosystem. Like there was no Tribe Theory either. The ecosystem has expanded and become more diverse.”
Rating Tribe Theory
During our chat, Veer takes the lead in answering the questions, it looks like the businessmen know the position they hold in the company. The opposite is true. It’s part of their scaling process to identify the different responsibilities. “We disagree a lot, but that’s good to keep the strategy sharp and help to move forward”, as Danuwat adds. His knowledge of the Thai and Chinese language and markets comes handy in this stage, where expansion towards Malaysia, Singapore, Hongkong and Taiwan is coming. Their main focus will remain on hotels, but they’re open to collaborations with restaurants as well. For the tech-savvy Mandarin-speaking tourists writing reviews is a popular thing to do, making actual blog posts out of them with lots of text and pictures. It makes the focus on machine learning a necessity for Guestasy, to be able to process all the data and extract important information in the future. Even though in this business, humans always will be handling the final stage. Which brings us to their review of Tribe Theory. Ravi rated us five stars on Google:
‘The only disappointment was not being able to extend our stay with another three nights’.
Just as a side note: this review was filled out before the interview ;).