In this interview, I will be talking to Estelle Verdier-Watine, Co-Founder of Jovago.com, an online hotel booking company focused on the African market. We will be discussing how she started a successful online business, the achievement and challenges of running an online business and many others.
Enock Kiprono: Hello Estelle, can you please tell us a little about yourself and your business?
Estelle: My name is Estelle Verdier-Watine, 27 year old French National. My very first experience in Kenya was in 2006, when I came around as a tourist. I was still in school, the people were hospitable, the country very scenic. I made a mental note of coming back-I wasn’t sure how, but I was certain this was where I wanted to be! By then I was a student in Political Science, and later took a Master in both Management and Economics. As luck would have it, I had the merit of fluency in both French and English, which nabbed me an internship with UNFAO Headquarters in Nairobi-Gilgil. My dream was about to be realized.
Later on I worked with an NGO before moving to the telecommunication industry (Orange and Cellulant) which spurred my confidence and interest in Start Ups. I launched Jovago.com East Africa in July 2013, whose main objective was to make travel in Africa easy, accessible and affordable.
Jovago.com is an online hotel booking company focused on the African market. We have operations in over 20 African countries and partnerships with close to 9000 hotels. We take advantage of technology to make it easy for people anywhere in the world, at any time to book a hotel in Africa.
Enock Kiprono: So who exactly are you targeting as your customers?
Estelle: We are targeting both locals and international travelers. In Kenya for instance we offer both resident and non-resident rates on our website. This is part of our objective to sell Kenya to Kenyans by supporting local tourism, in the same spirit we launched Mpesa as a Payment Option and we also allow customers to pay during their check ins.
Enock Kiprono: I believe you are not running Jovago.com by yourself. So how many people do you work with?
Estelle: In East Africa we have a team of 30 people, making sure we get the best hotels on board, best deals with these hotels and a great customer experience for referrals!
Enock Kiprono: How would you describe your entrepreneurial journey into the world of online business and hotel industry?
Estelle: I have always been quite a geek. I created my first website when I was 10 years old. At that time I was living in Canada and got a chance to get computer classes and learn how to do this. I started my career in the telecommunication industry, I worked with Orange at their HQ then at their subsidiary in Kenya, Telcom Kenya. You learn a lot from big corporate like Orange but the speed of action is a bit frustrating. I then worked for a Kenyan start up but it was still not dynamic enough. I finally joined African Internet Holding which was exactly what I was looking for in terms of speed of action.
I love travelling. I travelled in North and South America, in many countries in Africa and in Europe. I love discovering new places, preparing a travels etc… When I was offered the opportunity to co-found and launch jovago.com in East Africa I immediately said yes to the offer. I have been organizing travels for many friends and actually think that jovago.com answers an unmet need. People used to struggle a lot to organize their trip to Africa, Jovagois making it easier and more secure. Hotels are also enthusiastic about getting customers from all over the world.
Enock Kiprono: When you started out Jovago East Africa, what specific idea, purpose or vision was your key driving force?
Estelle: The idea was to make it easier for people to travel to Africa, and provide more transparency about the services offered by the different hotels. We display pictures for each hotel, we confirm that all the information about the hotel is correct, etc…
We also adapt our services to local needs such as: resident rates, Mpesa payments, Agent Affiliate Programme etc…
Enock Kiprono: What challenges did you face when you were looking for your first customer after setting up your business?
Estelle: On the contrary, there already was a customer base: travelers were hampered by the challenge of finding affordable accommodation in preferred destinations. The task lay with the hotels: hotel managers are not always very tech-savvy. Hotels are often managed by 40-50 years old managers who are not used to technology and are more often than not, unaware of the opportunity online web presents to their business. We have to prove to them that they have to go online, get an email address, and learn our system to grow their business on a global scale.
Enock Kiprono: What achievements can you tell us about Jovago East Africa?
Estelle: Today Jovago is partnering with over 3000 hotels in East Africa. In Kenya alone, we have our largest market of over 1000 hotels signed to our website. Everyday we have new customers using our service and more and more happy customers returning to our website. Hotels are also happy to see that we are helping them get some business especially in this difficult times for the Kenyan hospitality industry. Moreover I am very proud of my team, they are doing an amazing job here, some of them have really grown in terms of competencies and gained experience to help them launch own businesses in future.
Enock Kiprono: Very impressive achievements Estelle. In your journey to success, you must have encountered some challenges while running your online business?
Estelle: Like most online entrepreneurs will agree, cultivating integrity with a faceless system is a challenge, initially our brand was new and some hotels would not trust us. They would think we are one of these very many online businesses. We had to patiently prove to them that we are a really proper business with a strong team based here in Kenya, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Pakistan, Portugal, France and Germany. We offer top level customer care and we have a strong IT and online marketing teams based in Europe supporting our business. It takes time to create trust but I think after a year of operation we now have a good reputation and hotels see that we are helping them grow their business.
Enock Kiprono: How do you balance your personal life (family) and that of your business life? What challenges did you face and what advice can you tell an aspiring entrepreneur about work life balance?
Estelle: I work hard and fast during the day without any distraction such as Facebook or personal emails. I make the most of every minute to make sure in the evening I have some time with my husband, daughter and friends. When you manage a company it’s not possible to disconnect completely but it’s important to spend some time doing other things other than work, it allows you to step back and get a fresh look at things.
Enock Kiprono: Do you have mentors, business coach or external consultants that you work closely with to grow yourself and your business? If yes, to what extent would you describe their impact on your business? If no, are there any particular reasons?
Estelle: I don’t really have a mentor, I learn from many people: colleagues, friends, family.
Enock Kiprono: Many entrepreneurs complain about not succeeding in business due to lack of adequate funding, what is your take on this matter and how do you cope with funding issues in your business?
Estelle: I think when a venture is well timed, and strategically packaged to serve a demand, attracting investors becomes easier. Africa Internet Holding, has very powerful investors (MTN, Millicom and Rocket Internet) on board, they not only invest financially but also supply expertise in launching and sustaining successful online businesses, structuring, rolling out plans etc…
Enock Kiprono: It seems you have everything working for you, so how are you changing the world through Jovago?
Estelle: We are making it easier, more affordable, and more secure to travel in Africa. We provide many options to our customers from 5 star hotels to hostels. Moreover we negotiate rates for our customers. Through jovago.com it’s very easy to make a booking without the anxiety of your Visa Card’s security. Apart from Mpesa, you can opt to pay upon arrival. For each hotel you will find accurate information, and pictures which will help you make the best choice for your budget and criteria. This will definitely support the growth of hospitality industry and more specifically of local tourism and the growth of many businesses making it easier and more affordable for SME managers to travel to close new deals.
Enock Kiprono: What would you describe as your secret formula for business success?
Estelle: There is no secret, you have to work a lot and be passionate about providing the best services/product to your customers
Enock Kiprono: Thank you so much for taking your time to do this interview. Do you have any advice that you would like to tell any aspiring entrepreneur or business owners who are reading this article?
Estelle: Do things, take decisions don’t think about it for ages. Life is short and you spend too much time at work not to enjoy what you do. Enjoy your work, enjoy your life, be passionate about what you do.
Thank you Estelle for a Great Interview!