Founder and CEO, Hotel Engine.
I’ve been an entrepreneur most of my life. At age 13, I collected and sold honey. At 18, I earned my real estate license and, two years later, started a brokerage. By the time I was 25, I was running five businesses simultaneously.
In retrospect, I ran toward opportunity—apparently, all of it. Since then, I’ve learned to hone my focus and founded two profitable, high-growth companies: Travelers Haven and Hotel Engine.
Here are a few key takeaways I’d like to share that helped me build and scale my tech companies when I had little more than vision and grit.
Make sure you have a real market.
In today’s environment, investors are being more selective with their funding. In my view, this is a win-win for both investors and founders. It’s going to push founders to make sure there is a real appetite for their product or service.
Too often, new founders bypass the viability test and don’t take the time to understand their customer base. They focus on the technology, choosing sleek packaging or brainstorming marketing campaigns rather than speaking and listening to customers and working to create a differentiated product that meets their needs.
Start with the problem and work backward from there. When you decide to launch, don’t over-engineer and expect to have everything perfect. Launch, and then use customer feedback to iterate. When we started Travelers Haven, we couldn’t afford fancy software. We used free Gmail addresses and spreadsheets and went to work.
Listen to your inner voice.
I was on the verge of losing my first company because I got caught up in the advice of too many people. While talented and experienced, they simply didn’t understand my business well enough.
While you should consider advice from people you trust, don’t over-index on it—especially those who only check in once a quarter and are far removed from the day-to-day. Tread carefully on that advice. It’s more important to listen to yourself, your front-line employees and your customers.
Don’t let others decide your fate or diminish your inner voice. In most cases, you know your company and clients better than anyone chiming in from the cheap seats.
Don’t raise money just to raise money.
Clout competition has become an epidemic in the tech world. Tech entrepreneurs feel the need to raise money even before their first sale. For the first five years, we organically grew Hotel Engine before we raised our Series A. Today, Hotel Engine is profitable and valued at $1.3 billion, while Travelers Haven continues to maintain its bootstrapped roots even with more than $100 million in sales.
Someone I follow recently compared raising money at all costs to dirty bulking, which involves eating lots of high-calorie yet unhealthy foods in order to quickly gain weight. The problem with dirty bulking is that your organization, like the human body, becomes bloated, and then you have to quickly trim to become more efficient and sustainable.
Rapid weight gain and weight loss are not healthy for a person’s body, and it’s not healthy for a business. Be smart, be healthy and be efficient. Have balance—this market is going to force you there anyway.
Raise money for the right reasons. Not ego. Not clout. Not inefficient growth. Do it only when it’s absolutely necessary or when things are working well, and it’s time to accelerate.
Avoid toxic positivity.
Too often, leaders prioritize likability as a personal scorecard of success (pick nearly any LinkedIn message, and you’ll see this), and the majority of the time, it leads to negative outcomes—for everyone.
The best athletes have coaches who don’t just heap praise but help them identify blind spots and build habits for consistent success. If you are sincere about your people and you want to help them grow, difficult (and, sometimes, uncomfortable) conversations are just as necessary as praise and recognition.
Be a coach, not a hero. Heroes swoop in and provide instant gratification, creating a culture of toxic positivity and stalling growth. Coaches create long-term success and personal growth.
Be humble and hungry—and work harder than everyone else.
When success comes quickly, it’s easy to assume the business will take off. Opportunities will court you, and it can become easy to lose focus and get caught up in the newfound attention.
Amid the distractions, ask yourself whether what you’re spending your time on is good for you or the business. The answer is: If it’s good for the business, your team or your customers, then it’s good for you. Stay laser focused!
Most overnight success takes 10 years. Be patient and stay humble.