Made in Poland. Stolen by Africa.

Ayiba’s, Eyitemi Popo, sat down with Marek Zmyslowski in Lagos for the ultimate start-up story interview. Marek moved to Lagos, Nigeria two years ago from Poland to launch online booking site jovago.com. Today Jovago, based in 17 countries with more than 20,000 hotels signed directly to their platform, is Africa’s largest online travel portal and they recently partnered with Trip Advisor.

What series of events led you to working in Nigeria?

Marek: It was a series of coincidences like it usually is with major life decisions. I was working in start-ups back in Poland and before that, finance. As with most start-ups, some of mine failed, but then I built on the failures and eventually I was able to sell one of my start-ups to a bigger company.

At that point I wanted to go to the Silicon Valley, but then a friend of mine told me about Rocket Internet, a fast moving venture-builder focused on Africa. So I went for a meeting with them in Paris and we decided that I would come up with a new start-up somewhere in Africa. So I thought of Egypt because I always liked the pyramids and thought I could go kite surfing. But they laughed and said. “No. Nigeria is the biggest market.” And at the time, all I knew about Nigeria was the negative PR, but then they told me about the other side of the story and what was happening with the economy. They told me about Jumia and the other ventures they had set up and I thought, “Why not?”

We came up with Jovago, an online travel booking site, because we saw the hotel market in Sub-Saharan Africa was huge, but there was no online database so we wanted first mover advantage.

Did you have culture shock when you moved to Nigeria? What stood out to you most about the society?

Marek: I actually noticed a lot of similarities. Polish people, like Nigerians, are very entrepreneurial, very religious, sometimes chaotic [laughs].

My culture shock was mostly in the perception of time and distance. When someone asks you in Poland, “How far is that building from me?” they will answer “500 km.” In Nigeria, the answer is “far” or “near.” People are not very specific. Similarly with time, when you ask someone in Poland “When will this be ready?” they will say “in 15 minutes” or “at 2 pm” and if it is not going to be ready at 2 pm, someone will call you ten minutes before the deadline to say it’s not going be ready. Here is the new  delivery time. In Nigeria, the answer to “when will this be ready” is “soon” or “I’m coming.” That took getting used to.

Did you think that you would make it two years in Nigeria when you first arrived?

Marek: I never asked myself that question, but if I did I think that my answer would’ve been “no.” But the thing is, I knew that I had a responsibility and I was starting a company that I couldn’t just leave. So to my positive surprise I am still here. I’m enjoying it and I am definitely not going anywhere anytime soon.

Why did you focus on tourism in Nigeria as opposed to countries like Kenya or Tanzania, perhaps with a more developed industry?

Marek: We do have offices in Kenya and list hotels in both countries on our site, but Nigeria is as big as all the East African countries combined. And just because the tourism industry is already evolved there isn’t necessarily a reason to go there because a lot of the international players are already involved. Nigeria is a bigger market and because it’s one country, it’s easier to scale. I mean Lagos is the size of a country.

Another way to look at it is that Nigeria is a perfect testing ground for business. It is one of the most challenging markets in terms of problems that you will face, so it makes sense to start here.

I am sure you have more local tourists that use Jovago in Nigeria than International tourists.

Marek: Yes, definitely.

Do you find this more difficult in terms of marketing?

Marek: Hmmm. To some extent, yes, because you cannot acquire Nigerian customers online. I don’t remember the exact numbers, but only 2-4% of Nigerian hotel bookings are done online. So even though we are an online company and want to do things online, we have to realize that our customers are offline. Our potential customers don’t book hotels online. They land in a city, take a taxi, and find a hotel. So our competition isn’t other online booking companies. It’s offline travel agents and this habit of not booking ahead.

Also, Nigerian customers are not used to paying online. So that presents another problem because the customer would rather pay cash to the hotel on arrival and it costs more to service a cash business. 

A unique feature of Jovago is that it verifies all the hotels before putting them online. In the early days, did you travel around Nigeria signing any hotels?

Marek: Yes, I signed around 300 hotels on my own in Lagos because I wanted to learn the market. I did the same in Ibadan and then Abuja, but I got to a point where I just couldn’t do it anymore and I decided to focus on scaling instead.  So we hired sales teams in every state and I put my knowledge to them.

Where has been your favorite place to visit on your travels in Nigeria?

Marek: The most beautiful place I have been to in Nigeria is Calabar. I have also heard wonderful things about Jos and Obudu and would love to go.

What do you think has contributed to Jovago becoming Africa’s number one travel site?

Marek: I don’t want to call us a huge success yet, because we are on the tip of the iceberg. Here’s what I think. We’ve focused on two things in the long term: having the biggest inventory, which is an obvious pursuit, and going the extra mile in customer service (less obvious). We not only make sure that you book a hotel with the best price, but we make sure the room is waiting for you. We call to remind you of your trip, find out if you have a driver, and know the way. Many businesses here don’t do that.

What is the biggest challenge you will face moving forward?

Scaling up is the biggest challenge. Being very good at what you do on a scale x is one thing, but being just as good on scale 100x, 1000x is a totally different game. Most of the processes you had when you were small will not work if you want to be just as good when you get big. Everything has to be rethought as you grow.

When you have 10 customers a day, all you need is a notebook. When you have 100 customers, you should upgrade to an Excel file. When you have 1,000-100,000 customers a day, Excel is not enough. This is the most challenging part of managing a start-up because every start-up has to scale.

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