Launched May 2012, SleepOut.com is an accommodation booking portal for East Africa but it is quickly spreading to other emerging markets. SleepOut is an SMS-driven reservations startup connecting thousands of guests and willing hosts to the tune of 150,ooo visitors monthly.
With over 1,000 ”SleepOuts” in Kenya and with over 500 properties throughout East Africa, the accommodation booking service is steadily becoming East Africa’s largest accommodation booking platform though still in BETA.
SleepOut has castles, rustic holiday homes, italian villas, 5-star resorts and floating cabins.
On average,SleepOut.co.ke handles over 5,000 accommodation booking requests per month and over 150,000 visitors in Kenya alone.
TechMoran caught up with the founders and this is what they told us:
Who are the founders and what are their backgrounds and who is on your team?
One of the most exciting features of SleepOut.com is actually the people behind it. We knew we wanted to build something amazing that Kenyans could be proud of so we tried to put together an all-star team of entrepreneurs that are both passionate about the travel industry and African tech. CEO and co-founder, Johann Jenson, is an ex-UN staff member and a workaholic Canadian hospitality marketeer. COO and co-founder, Mikul Shah, needs little introduction on the Kenyan tech scene. His earlier startup EatOut.co.ke revolutionized the restaurant industry in Kenya and is planning big things for its expansion in the region. Finally, a recent addition to the executive team at SleepOut.com is CTO Paul Schwarz, a Zimbabwean software engineer with years of experience in the hospitality industry.
What inspired you to launch SleepOut
It all started on a small island full of donkeys. Johann built Lamu.org in 2011 as a pilot project working closely with holiday home owners and hotel owners on Lamu Island, Kenya. At the time it was nearly impossible to find good value accommodation on Lamu Island. To add to this dilemma, pricing for many of the commercial properties was not consistent with the low occupancy which sometimes hovered around 25%. The concept was simple, place all the island’s accommodation options on a web platform and connect hosts with empty beds and potential guests looking for great deals. Within 6 months Lamu.org was getting great traction and Johann who was still working at the UN at the time needed help coping with the site’s popularity. Mikul Shah offered to adapt the process behind his restaurant booking software to solve some of the more technical problems Lamu.org was facing in handling the increase in booking requests. With some tweaks here and there the duo found a balance that added impressive efficiency to the traditional booking process and began listing new accommodation throughout Kenya on what later became the SleepOut.com platform.
What is one challenge that you’ve overcome in the startup process?
Certainly building intelligent accommodation booking software in Kenya has been a significant challenge. You wouldn’t think that something as simple as booking a room could be so complex but it requires a great deal of attention to detail and working closely with both hosts and guests to get the system right. In addition to drawing up the right specs, designing awesome software is expensive and in an industry as competitive as travel, you need to get it right. We are actually in the process of phasing out our legacy service to make way for our re-launch or as we call it SleepOut 2.0.
What are some of the milestones SleepOut has achieved?
Our first goal was to build a product that we would use when travelling. Johann is an obsessive traveller having visited over 60 countries over the past 10 years, so he’s that annoying guy that will bargain incessantly and not settle for anything less than the best accommodation deal. He has tested the platform by booking many of the “SleepOuts” himself and with the launch of SleepOut 2.0 later this year there is no doubt that our service will incorporate much of what he has learned. Our second goal was to offer at least 10 unique or unusual accommodation options in the major tourist destinations in Kenya. We achieved this within a few months and have set our new target to achieve the same for all of Africa. Finally, we wanted to build a product that truly made travel for both residents and non-residents of Kenya more affordable. The response we’ve received thus far has been overwhelmingly positive and we believe we are well on our way to achieving this.
What are your next milestones?
Besides launching the new and improved SleepOut 2.0 later this year, the team aims to expand its offering to include accommodation across the continent and the middle east. By growing the number of travellers using SleepOut both for hosting guests and travelling themselves we hope to build a culture of independent travel throughout Africa.
Who are your mentors and role models?
We tend to watch market leaders in our industry and certainly booking.com is one company that catches our eye. Kees Koolen the former CEO of booking.com is quite possibly one of the least well-known incredibly successful e-commerce entrepreneurs out there. In 2001 he was appointed as COO of booking.com when the site was turning over only a few million per year. Over the past decade Koolen managed to grow the company to a multibillion world leader in hotel reservations with over 4,000 staff in 75 countries.
It’s kind of embarrassing but we have to say that we also really admire our mothers and fathers all of whom run very successful businesses driven by a strong entrepreneurial spirit.
What are some of the advantages/disadvantages growing your startup in Kenya?
The biggest drawbacks to scaling a startup in Kenya is 1) access to basic services such as payment gateways or reliable internet and power; 2) funding opportunities and 3) world-class software engineers. That being said, all of the above are quickly improving and there are several business opportunities which are uniquely Kenyan including access to unsaturated e-commerce markets, mobile payments, affordable skilled labour, low costs of living and a friendly and hospitable culture of customer service.
What’s next for SleepOut?
In line with our three major goals of making SleepOut.com useful to all travelers; complete with unique and unusual accommodation options; and affordable for both non-residents and residents; we have a number of big announcements coming soon. We can’t say too much now but as SleepOut grows we look forward to exporting our made in Kenya solutions to other markets on and off the continent.
Where can people find out more on SleepOut?
Our BETA service is already operational throughout Kenya at http://www.SleepOut.co.ke. To stay on top of all the latest on SleepOut.com and Kenya’s tourism industry visit our online magazine at http://www.SleepOut.com/NOMAD.