Saturday, 22 August 2015

"If Your Business Succeeds in Nigeria, it Can Succeed Elsewhere –Marek Zmyslowski, MD, Jovago Nigeria

Businessman businessman per excellence Twenty eight years old Marek Zmyslowski is an embodiment of bravery and willpower. He is the CEO of popular Nigerian online travels and hotels giant JAVAGO.
Two years ago, he left Poland, sold his two online companies, his home and headed for Nigeria to start an online company called Jovago. Two years down the line, Jovago has become a household name, making Nigeria its international headquarters and expanding into other African countries and the rest of the world. Today, Jovago boasts of over twenty thousand hotels on its portal, and out of the twenty thousand, eight thou­sand hotels are resident in Nigeria. Marek is a Nigerian at heart and has adopted a Nigerian name Chinedu, (God leads) and is also engaged to a Nigerian.

In this interview with Philips Olawunmi Ojo, he explains life as a businessman in Nigeria, and how he has been able to sustain his business­es. In just two years, he has raked up several awards such as BOICT Hotel Booking Portal of the Year 2015, the Best hotel reservation site in Nigeria 2014, Best Information Website in Nigeria in 2014 and Best Hospitality Security in Nigeria Award in 2014 .

What’s it like doing business in Africa for the past two years?

I have been doing business in Nigeria for the past two years and I must con­fess that I want more. Obviously, there are plenty of challenges like in every market , because different markets have different and unique challenges. But Nigeria is a very rewarding market at the same time, so I have been enjoying it. I was able to quickly learn not to get frustrated by things I cannot change immediately. For example, like elec­tricity when it is not available, I may have to pay for generator, fuel and oil. I was however able to refocus myself on opportunities that are there, and that is what makes me happy to be here.

In celebrating your two years anniversary, you launched the Nigerian Tourism Intelligence Report. Can you give us an insight into why Jovago decided to do that?

The main reason why we launched the Nigerian Tourism Intelligence Report is to help promote tourism in Ni­geria and boost investment in the sector. Nigeria’s tourism market is one that can yield very great returns and this is why we decided to take it upon ourselves to begin doing research into the tourism sector as this will help bring more in­vestments and investors into this sector. Any investor all over the world can pick up the report and have an insight into the tourism sector in Nigeria. The intelligence report will be published every three months. We have found out that Nigeria is the fastest growing hotel business hub in Africa and at such we want to make Nigerians, to begin look­ing inwards especially when it comes to holiday destinations and this in turn will bring much more money for the sector. In this first report we did, we were able to outline factors that limit Nigerian hotels. This first edition also has inputs from Sally Mbanefo, the D.G. of Nige­ria Tourism Development Corporation and Bruce Pinns, the M.D of Nigerian Communications Weekly.

While choosing or picking a country in Africa to come and settle and do business, why did you choose Nigeria?

Nigeria first of all is the biggest market in Africa, most populous black country in the world and the country that creates a potential for the middle class as long as everything goes well with the economy. Nigeria is considered as a market that is challenging and re­warding, and if you are able to succeed with your business in Nigeria, then it gives you a certain level of confidence to start going to neighboring countries and open up your business in them.

What prompted the idea of es­tablishing Jovago as a Nigerian company?

In 2013, after I had spent most of my life in Poland, I was at a stage in my life when I was able to sell my online company and I had an opportunity and freedom to choose what I wanted to do next, and because I had spent most of my life in Poland, I wanted to do something international. This was when I met by accident, though I must say everything in life is by accident, founders and investors in Jumia which is the biggest e-commerce business in Nigeria and they told me about Africa, a country which I really did not even know enough about. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have moved here, because even at that stage, it wasn’t certain that we were going to do hotel booking. Why I’m interested in Nigeria and Africa as a market was because it aligns with my ambition of doing something international and traveling too, and not just living in cold Poland. We came across the hospitality sector which wasn’t new for me, because I used to work in the hospitality sector, and I also have experience with the workings online because of my past businesses. That mix of two sectors, made me sit down and research how online hospitality looks like in Africa, and it looked like no one has ever done it the way I thought it should be done.

What’s Jovago all about?

It sounds much simpler than it really is. What we do is that we want to make all the hotels in Africa available and be booked online. We have realized that Africa is an amazing continent for business, tourism, and for everything. However, the problem is with access to the information about places you want to go and places you want to stay. So, we have come up with the idea to help hotel managers publicize their hotels online because you have more and more people doing stuffs online, so why won’t they also book a hotel online? We make hotels visible online. We also help in the process of booking the hotel too because finding the hotel is one thing and then booking the hotel is also another thing. Jovago provides hotels the additional customers that find them online and books for the customers. If someone is traveling within Nigeria or Africa, we help them find hotels much easier and faster and they are also able to find prices which they would not be able to find in any other way and we help them make bookings in fifteen seconds compared to sometimes the fifteen-hour stress they go through to get an hotel.

How profitable has the business been for the past two years?

We are a start-up company and we are not a profitable company yet. This is because all the money we make, we are reinvesting in the market. It would be a short term thinking for us to pocket whatever money we have and spend it on our private stuffs. Whatever money we are making, we are re-investing into the market by doing stuffs that do not bring us money in the short term, for example organizing training for hotel receptionists. This is done in order to get more customers in the future.

Every entrepreneurship op­portunity is challenging, can you explain some peculiar challeng­es to Jovago as a company?

We have noticed that it is relatively simple and easy to convince someone to work with us. For example it’s rela­tively easy to go to a hotel and once you get in touch with the hotel manager, tell him the possibilities of making his busi­ness to be bigger by connecting him on­line. But from agreeing to do something with someone to making it happen real­ly does take time. The second challenge is the infrastructure. Although the roads are not all that important for us, because we are an online company, but basically internet connection, network receptions are a big challenge for us. Sometimes, we just can’t call our hotels to find out if everything is okay or send them an email because his phone line is not going through, or because he is not able to answer his email because the internet is not going through. I think these are some typical challenges especially since we are an online company.

How difficult or easy is it to run an online company/business like Jovago?

In Africa, it is very difficult, because when you talk about online business, one might think it involves some bunch of guys sitting in front of computers in the middle of nowhere. Of course we are an online company, but typically for an online company to grow, we have to face so many typical offline challenges such as infrastructure and also people. Once you have an online company that has one hundred people as staffs, you have the same problem like a cement factory that has one hundred workers. More so, because the market is at a very early stage, we are talking about customer behaviour now. We have to do many offline marketing activities in order to bring customers online. We are not like USA or Asian markets where every one is online already, and what we have to do is just buy some online advertisement. We have to be an online company and go to the offline space to reach the customers and bring them back online.

What are some key factors you can attribute to Jovago’s success?

I would not want to be the one to say that Jovago is successful, I would want Nigerians to rate us as we progress daily. However, certain factors have remained our benchmark of operation and first is customer service. This is because having the best rates will make people book the hotel, but what will make people stay is the customer service. What we do is we do not only make the customer service great on Jovago, because when you call Jovago, you have very nice people who would help you and attend to you, we also make the customer services of the hotels too friendly. We have a much wider approach to customer service and I think in the long term this is what will help us remain the leader because competition can copy everything else. They can copy the website, they can go to the same hotels, they can try to get the same price, but customer service is something that keeps you with the brand and Nigerians are brand con­scious, they like to be loyal to a brand. I have also noticed that it is a challenge for so many companies to deliver good customer services.

How were you able to secure these vast number of hotels on your platform, what processes were involved in bringing them all on one platform?

We have a huge team of field sales agents that work with us and they are based in every state in Nigeria. We train them and hence send them into the field. They just visit hotels from street to street, from city to city. This is how I signed the first group of hotels in Lagos. I just paid an Okada and told him to carry me to the hotels that are in a particular area, and I spoke with them and we agreed.

How is Jovago remunerated after a customer uses an hotel through their platform?

When a customer books online and pays online, we deduct our commission and pay the difference straight to the hotel. If a customer books online and pays at the hotel, after the customer has checked in, we send an invoice to the hotel, once in a month to remunerate us. We bring business to hotels and improve their revenue , so they must share the revenue with us.

What’s your advice to foreign­ers who are scared of coming to Nigeria to do business?

Whoever is scared is a product of him or her allowing this bad image we hear everyday of the country get to him. What I think is that everybody should do his or her own research and they will find out that this is totally not the way it is.

How intense is your competi­tion in this business?

We have very strong competitors in this kind of online business, because it takes like nothing to start this kind of business. The competition is good for us because we constantly check each other. If somebody comes up with something, makes some changes we can always follow, if we come up with something, they can always follow too. At such an early stage, worrying about competition is not a concern for us because we do not compete with each other. The only competition we have is with habits of hotel booking in Nigeria. This is because people believe they can just walk into any hotel and just book it at any time of the day. It is this habit we are competing with.

What does it take to set up an online booking platform and company?

I would say setting up an online company is about how you are able to assemble a team. What makes a good company is the team involved in it. What makes a good company is not be­ing able to predict everything but rather to be able to react to the unexpected and fix it.

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