As mentioned, Simon is one of the founders and currently the COO of HotelTonight, an application that helps users find last-minute hotel deals and make reservations in just a few minutes. Founded in 2010, the company has raised over US$35 million in investments. Beyond HotelTonight, Simon has extensive experience building internet-based companies. He previously formed part of the team that developed TurnHere.
Camila Carreño: Has the plan with HotelTonight always been to build the product as a mobile app?
Jared Simon: It was mobile from day one. No one was taking on the mobile challenge for people on their way somewhere and without accommodations. Nobody was taking advantage of the mobility and simplicity of a big experience. That’s why we decided to go mobile only, specifically in this niche. It’s incredible to think about all these devices can do. There will always be a place for computers, but mobile devices are being used more and more.
CC: One of HotelTonight’s main characteristics is its simplicity. Has this been one of your goals from the start?
JS: In the beginning, it was our main goal. The only way to get people to use the app was to make it very simple. We were obsessed with the number of taps required, with how fast the process could be. The mobile versions of room reservation websites have hundreds of taps. We decided our app would need four taps – nothing more. It took lots of iterations. We’ve actually had complaints that the app was too simple. Children could end up reserving rooms while playing with their parents’ phones. That’s why we’ve had to perfect the app – now you have to follow the logo to complete the process.
CC: What has HotelTonight’s expansion been like, and what challenges have you faced?
JS: We’ve really expanded very fast. Canada, Mexico, United States, Europe. The biggest challenge has been that we take the product very seriously. User experience is key. We want to be sure that the reservation-making experience is enjoyable. For that to happen, we have to have a good relationship with hotels, and that’s not easy. It’s essential to have a relationship that facilitates a great experience for everyone.
CC: How do you achieve that relationship with hotels?
JS: It’s crazy, practically an individual agreement. The price of each individual room is negotiated between HotelTonight and the hotel. We could take inventory from somewhere else, but that could result in a bad experience, or lead to a user reserving a room and then not finding the space available. We don’t want that to happen to our users. This requires a lot of manpower – right now, we have a 90-person team.
CC: Is HotelTonight interested in the Latin American market?
JS: Absolutely. We want to expand throughout the continent. There are several reasons, namely, smartphone penetration and the fact that technological knowledge in the region is among the highest in the world. These factors render Latin America an important place to be. Moreover, whenever we expand, it benefits the hotels with which we already work. There is a network effect that serves everyone. Take, for example, a hotel we work with in New York that has an affiliate in Mexico City. The hotel benefits because its clients can use HotelTonight there as well.
CC: Will you be in Latin America in time for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil?
JS: We’re working hard and doing all we can to make it. We launched in London just before the Olympic Games. It was nuts. Not only did users help us, but hotels as well, because they overestimated demand and occupation rates weren’t as high as anticipated. HotelTonight became their only option.
CC: What opportunities are you seeking in Latin America?
JS: The ability to bring about something that completely changes the rules of the game for hotel reservations. The tool is sophisticated and technologically incredible, and it’s exciting to bring that to people and give them what they need.
CC: HotelTonight raised a Series A investment of US$3.25 million. In Latin America, finding funding is a challenge. What tips do you have for entrepreneurs in this arena?
JS: The most important thing we did was build a functioning version of the product before seeking funding. I’d recommend this to any entrepreneur. If an investor questioned our product, he or she could see that it worked. That’s much harder to do with a presentation, and the valuation will be much lower. We worked to create the best product, developed strong relationships with hotels. We did more than we thought we could, and that played out in our favor.
CC: One big issue in Latin America is that many of the region’s startups aren’t scalable. What advice do you have here?
JS: We wanted our app to be global from day one. Our goal was to make the application available everywhere, so we built it with that in mind, taking it to different parts of the world. You have to make sure the problem you’re trying to solve is a universal one and not specific to a certain place or situation. You have to solve problems that we all face, regardless of the language we speak.
CC: What is your view of the Latin American entrepreneurial ecosystem?
JS: There are many talented people who are developing the ecosystem from the ground up. Infrastructure is needed, as are services to support startups – things that take time but develop the ecosystem even more. It then becomes easier for entrepreneurs to concentrate on their startups.
CC: Do you think events like PulsoConf are useful for the ecosystem?
JS: They’re exactly what you need. Bringing together the region’s talent, facilitating discussions – that’s what brings about innovation. Entrepreneurs have to meet. They can’t stay in their own little worlds. We all face the same challenges, and we have to realize that we share a common reality.
This text has been adapted and translated into English by Emily Stewart from its original Spanish publication.