Startup Spotlight: GuestJoy

A globally aspiring Estonian startup, GuestJoy, helps independent hotels enhance their guest experience, upsell services and gather reviews in one solution.

In Startup Spotlight we zoom in on numerous Estonian startups, to find out more about their business model and how they got off the ground.

The Tallinn-based GuestJoy helps independent hotels around the world enhance their guest experience, upsell services and gather reviews in one solution. The idea is that by engaging their guests pre, during and post-stay stages of their visit, hotels could easily increase their revenue and rankings. “Think of it as a front desk in your mobile phone,” Alar Ülem, the CEO and co-founder of the startup, says.

Alar, how​ ​did​ ​the​ ​idea​ ​of​ ​starting​ ​GuestJoy​ ​come​ ​about?

It​ ​all​ ​came​ ​to​ ​me​ ​when​ ​I​ ​did​ ​my​ ​extended​ ​travels​ ​in​ ​Latin America.​ ​I​ ​decided​ ​to​ ​take​ ​time​ ​off from​ ​the corporate world.​ ​During​ ​that​ ​time,​ ​I​ ​stayed​ ​in​ ​all​ ​sorts​ ​of​ ​different​ ​hotels,​ ​hostels,​ ​B&B-s, bungalows etc.​ ​What​ ​I​ ​noticed was​ ​that​ ​ ​as​ ​a​ ​guest,​ ​I​ ​needed​ ​to​ ​do​ ​a​ ​lot​ ​of​ ​work​ ​to​ ​get information​ ​about​ ​anything or​ ​to​ ​order​ ​something.​ At​ the​ ​time​ ​I​ ​did​ ​a​ ​lot​ ​of​ ​tours​ ​and activities,​ ​and​ ​it​ ​took​ ​me​ ​too​ ​much​ ​time​ ​to understand​ ​what​ ​was​ ​available.​ I thought​ ​this​ ​is really​ ​silly​ ​as​ ​most​ ​information​ ​is​ ​now​ ​online,​ ​why hasn’t​ ​this​ ​happened​ ​with​ ​hotels?​ ​Why do​ I​ still need​ ​to​ physically​ go​ to​ the ​front​ ​desk​ ​to​ ​ask something?

What​ ​problem​ ​is​ ​GuestJoy​ ​aiming​ ​to​ ​solve?

The Hotels​ ​and​ ​their guests​ ​are​ ​completely​ ​disconnected.​ ​The​ ​only​ ​time​ ​you​ ​engage​ ​in​ ​conversation with​ ​the hotel​ ​representative​ ​is​ ​when​ ​you​ ​get​ ​the​ ​key.​ ​This​ ​means​ ​hotels​ ​will​ ​never​ ​know​ ​if you​ ​had any​ ​issues​ ​at​ ​the hotel​ ​until​ ​you​ ​post​ ​a​ ​negative​ ​review.​ ​This​ ​disconnection​ ​also​ ​means it​ ​is​ ​much​ ​more difficult​ ​for​ ​them​ ​to promote​ ​any​ ​of​ ​the​ ​services​ ​they​ ​might​ ​have.​ ​For​ ​hotels, this​ ​results​ ​in​ ​lost​ revenue​ ​and​ ​lower​ ​guest satisfaction.​ ​We​ ​enable​ ​hotels​ ​to​ ​become​ ​more active​ ​when​ ​engaging​ ​their guests.​ ​A hotel,​ ​as​ ​a​ ​good​ ​host,​ ​will ask,​ ​”has​ ​everything​ ​been​ ​ok?” or​ ​”would​ ​you​ ​like​ ​something?”

How​ ​is​ ​GuestJoy​ ​different​ ​from​ ​other​ ​competing​ ​and​ ​similar​ ​companies​ ​out​ ​there?

Our​ ​service​ ​is​ ​designed​ ​completely​ ​with​ ​independent​ ​hotels​ ​in​ ​mind. ​We​ ​know ​ ​hoteliers don’t​ ​have the​ ​time​ ​to manage​ ​yet​ ​another​ ​system. ​This​ ​means,​ ​trying​ ​to​ ​keep​ ​everything extremely​ ​simple​ ​and with​ ​a​ ​high​ ​degree​ ​of automation. ​To​ ​achieve​ ​this,​ ​we​ ​use​ ​a​ ​lot​ ​of data-driven​ ​intelligence​ ​in​ ​the background​ ​to​ ​assist​ ​the​ ​hotelier​ ​in their​ ​decisions.

What​ ​would​ ​you​ ​say​ ​was​ ​the​ ​hardest​ ​part​ ​of​ ​starting​ ​the​ ​business?

Getting​ ​the​ ​initial​ ​product​ ​out​ ​from​ ​the​ ​door. ​That​ ​was​ ​extremely​ ​challenging.​ ​To​ ​achieve​ ​it we​ ​tried everything: convincing​ ​friends,​ ​hiring,​ ​I​ ​even​ ​went​ ​to​ ​the​ ​Garage48​ ​hackathon​ (an Estonian-founded hackathon where aspiring entrepreneurs develop a product or service in 48 hours over a single weekend – editor) ​to Ukraine,​ ​just​ to​ ​find​ ​developers.​ ​

Unfortunately,​ ​it​ ​didn’t​ ​work​ ​out​ ​and​ ​with​ ​the​ ​last​ ​person who​ ​seemed​ ​to​ ​be​ ​on​ ​board,​ ​his​ ​apartment​ ​was burglarised.​ ​After​ ​that,​ ​he​ ​decided​ ​to​ ​go​ ​to​ ​the US​ ​and​ ​start​ ​a​ ​new​ ​life.​ ​So​ ​I​ ​was​ ​back​ ​to​ ​square one.​ ​Eventually,​ I​ ​decided,​ ​if​ ​I​ ​want​ed ​to​ ​get this​ ​off​ ​the​ ​ground,​ ​I​ ​really​ ​needed​ ​to​ ​start​ ​learning​ ​to how​ ​to​ ​code.​ ​You​ ​either​ ​make ​it​ ​happen or​ ​not.

How​ ​were​ ​you​ ​able​ ​to​ ​fund​ ​the​ ​business?

Initially,​ ​we​ ​funded​ ​our​ ​business​ ​from​ ​our​ ​own​ ​savings​ ​but​ ​that​ ​dried​ ​out​ ​quite​ ​fast. Eventually,​ ​we started​ ​to get enough​ ​money​ ​from​ ​our​ ​customers​ ​– ​we​ ​were​ ​able​ ​to​ ​keep bread​ ​on​ ​the​ ​table​ ​and​ ​also expand​ ​the​ ​business. Monthly​ ​subscription​ ​businesses​ ​are more​ ​difficult​ ​because the​ ​initial​ ​revenues are​ ​extremely​ ​small.

What​ ​have​ ​been​ ​some​ ​of​ ​the​ ​unexpected​ ​hurdles​ ​you’ve​ ​faced​ ​since​ ​starting?

Where​ ​to​ ​start.​ ​It​ ​would​ ​seem​ ​to​ ​get​ ​the​ ​first​ ​customers​ ​was​ ​hard​ ​but​ ​in​ ​our​ ​case,​ ​that​ ​was not​ so.​ ​We got​ ​some monetary​ ​traction​ ​quite​ ​early​ ​on.​ ​I​ ​think​ ​the​ ​biggest​ ​one​ ​was the realisation​ ​of how​ ​long​ ​it all​ ​takes.​ ​Founding​ ​a company​ ​includes​ ​so​ ​many​ ​facets​ ​that​ ​you​ ​have to​ ​build​ ​from​ ​scratch.​ ​Even​ ​the simplest​ ​things –​ ​like​ ​sending sales​ ​materials​ ​to​ ​the customer –​ ​caused​ ​us​ ​to​ ​scratch​ ​our​ ​heads,​ ​”we haven’t​ ​got​ ​any”.​ ​When​ ​the reality​ ​kicks in, the startup​ ​glamour​ ​fades​ ​off​ ​very​ ​quickly.

Could​ ​you​ ​briefly​ ​describe​ ​the​ ​founding​ ​team​ ​and​ ​their​ ​background?

The​ ​company​ ​was​ ​founded​ ​by​ ​two​ ​people –​ ​me​ ​and​ ​my​ ​sister​ ​Annika.​ ​My​ ​background​ ​is in managing technical teams​ ​and​ ​product​ ​management​ ​teams​ ​in​ ​largest​ ​IT​ ​and​ ​telecom companies​ ​in​ ​Estonia. Annika​ ​has​ ​worked​ ​at many​ ​hotels​ ​in​ ​Tallinn​ ​and​ ​eventually​ ​managed a​ ​boutique​ ​hotel​ ​in​ ​the ​old​ ​town of Tallinn.​ ​

Because​ ​I’m​ ​more​ ​technical​ ​and​ ​product-oriented​ ​and she​ ​does​ ​sales,​ ​we​ ​complement​ ​each​ ​other​ quite​ ​well.​ I’m​ ​always​ ​been​ ​wary​ ​of​ ​surrounding myself​ ​with​ ​people​ ​who​ ​are​ ​similar​ ​to​ ​me. ​This​ ​creates a​ ​sort​ ​of​ ​nice bubble​ ​of​ ​similar thoughts.​ I’m​ ​a​ ​firm​ ​believer​ ​in​ ​diversity​ ​as​ ​long​ ​as​ ​values​ ​remain​ ​the same.

From​ ​your​ ​perspective, how​ ​do​ ​the​ ​economy​ ​and​ the ​laws​ ​in​ ​place​ ​in​ ​Estonia​ ​facilitate​ ​startups?

Is​ ​it​ ​difficult​ ​or​ ​easy​ ​to​ ​start​ ​a​ ​company​ ​here? Extremely​ ​easy.​ ​I​ ​think​ ​Estonia​ ​is​ ​a​ ​really​ ​good​ ​place​ ​to start​ ​ ​and run​ ​an​ ​early​-​stage startup.​ ​I​ ​would​ ​say​ ​the​ ​only​ ​challenge​ ​I​ ​see​ ​is​ ​getting​ ​big.​ ​We​ ​will​ ​always have​ ​this​ ​barrier where​ ​larger​ ​customers​ ​and​ ​large​ ​consumer​ ​markets​ ​are​ ​somewhere​ ​else.​ ​In​ ​a​ ​way, it​ ​acts like​ ​a​ ​double-edged sword,​ ​it​ ​creates​ ​this​ ​intrinsic​ ​need​ ​to​ ​expand​ ​but​ ​also​ ​creates​ ​this​ ​initial barrier​ ​to​ ​gain​ ​sufficient​ ​momentum.

Have​ ​you​ ​received​ ​money from​ ​investors​ ​thus​ ​far – and how much?​

None.​* ​We​ ​have​ ​bootstrapped​ ​this.​ ​We​ ​took​ ​a​ ​small​ ​startup​ ​loan​ ​to​ ​start​ ​expanding​ ​more aggressively in​ ​other markets.​ This​ ​has​ ​proven​ ​invaluable​ ​for​ ​market​ ​validation​ ​and​ ​also​ ​for investors​ ​to​ ​see ​that the​ ​business​ ​is scalable.

Where​ ​do​ ​you​ ​envision​ ​GuestJoy​ ​in​ ​five,​ ​10​ ​years?

With​ ​the​ ​current​ ​business​ ​model,​ ​hopefully,​ ​acquired.​ ​But​ ​in​ ​terms​ ​of​ ​expansion,​ ​I​ ​would​ ​like us​ ​to​ ​be the​ ​gold standard​ ​of​ ​guest​ ​communication​ ​for​ ​hotels.​ ​When​ ​looking​ ​at​ ​our competitors’​ ​solutions,​ ​I believe​ ​it​ ​is​ ​very​ much​ ​achievable.

What​ ​could​ ​you​ ​say​ ​has​ ​been​ ​some​ ​of​ ​the​ ​key​ ​things​ ​you’ve​ ​learned​ ​so​ ​far​ ​as​ ​an entrepreneur?

You​ ​really​ ​need​ ​to​ ​believe​ ​in​ ​yourself​ ​and​ ​do​ ​not​ ​let others​ ​discourage​ ​you.​ ​I’ve​ ​got​ ​so​ ​used to​ ​ ​blank looks.​ If you​ ​start​ ​doubting​ ​yourself,​ ​it​ ​kills​ ​your​ ​inner​ ​drive,​ ​and​ ​everything​ ​falls apart.

What​ ​pieces​ ​of​ ​advice​ ​would​ ​you​ ​give​ ​to​ ​aspiring​ ​entrepreneurs​ ​out​ ​there​ ​looking​ ​to​ ​start their​ ​business?

Just​ ​start.​ ​There​ ​are​ ​too​ ​many​ ​wantrepreneurs​ ​out​ ​there.​ ​It​ ​is​ ​ok​ ​to​ ​validate​ ​the​ ​idea​ ​as​ ​a side-project of​ ​your current​ ​day​ ​job,​ ​but​ ​at​ ​some​ ​point,​ ​you​ ​need​ ​to​ ​make​ ​a​ ​decision.​ ​It​ ​is next​ ​to​ ​impossible​ ​to build​ ​a​ ​working company​ ​without​ ​going​ ​all​ ​in.

* The Estonian Business Angel Investment Programme has invested €160,000 in the company since this interview took place.

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Cover: GuestJoy’s team in Tallinn (images courtesy of GuestJoy).

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