As the Nigerian internet space matures, a rising crop of young Nigerian entrepreneurs based in the Diaspora are returning home to grow businesses in the fast growing Nigerian sector. Mark Essien, a young Nigerian who has worked in Nigeria, Germany and in China recently co-founded Hotels.com.ng, a hotel listings and reviews sites. According to him, he is a a hardware engineer by profession who has also been active in software development. He started his career at age 19, when he sold his first developed software to Bertelsmann Media. From there, he moved on to release his own products, starting with the Standard MPEG Encoder in 2004, all the way through to various iPhone apps. Mark minces no words about the opportunities he sees in the space in our exclusive interview with him. Armed with about N5 million in funding, he sees the opportunities in the hotels listings and reviews space as definite and profitable given how successful it is in other parts of the world. Check out the interview below. Happy reading!
CP-Africa: When did the site launch and what inspired you to launch Hotels.com.ng?
Mark Essien: We launched Hotels.com.ng at the end of January 2012. What inspired me to start the site was not directly a passion for the hotel industry, but rather the observation that there is strong demand for technology products in Africa now, and that this demand is only going to grow. The South Africans are moving aggressively into the West African internet space, and I felt that this was a good time to also enter the market. After analysing various market segments, this particular idea was viable and doable.
CP-Africa: Did you launch with funding? If yes, how much and how were you able to pitch the site’s concept and value proposition to investors?
Mark Essien: Yes, we launched with a 5 million Naira seed fund. It was relatively easy to raise the funds – the core argument was that I was able to point at almost every major economy, and show that the idea was working very well there. A clear and obvious monetization path, also copied from foreign markets, showed that we would not have problems becoming profitable. And finally, and I would say, most importantly – my investors know that I am able to start internet-based businesses that make money, as I have done this several times already.
CP-Africa: Why did you choose to brand the site as Hotels.com.ng rather than picking a brand name?
Mark Essien: A brand name needs to be known by consumers. For that, you have to spend a lot of money on awareness, marketing, press and so on. We don’t want to do that, but prefer to grow slowly and naturally via search engine rankings. For that, a highly relevant domain is much better than a brand name. It was expensive to acquire the domain, but I believe that long-term, it will be worth it.
CP-Africa: How has the reception from Nigerians been since the site’s launch?
Mark Essien: The reception has been very positive. I’ve got a lot of positive feedback from the Nigerian tech community, a lot of hotel owners have contacted me to ask how our site can benefit them, and many people have sent me hotel listings to be added to the site. The friendly nature of Nigerians was really demonstrated after the site-launch : so many people offered to help and did help me without asking for anything in return.
CP-Africa: What has the reception from hotel owners been since the site’s launch?
Mark Essien: Hotel owners have been focused on what the benefit for them is. There are two major benefits we aim to offer to hotel owners – improved visibility among their potential customers, and a painless method to accept hotel bookings. However, because we are still in the starting stages, the amount of visibility we can offer is limited, and we do not yet offer electronic bookings. So to avoid promising what we cannot deliver, we are asking hotel owners to give us 6 more months to do development before we can offer them what they need. Till then, we are focusing on building up our directory.
CP-Africa: Can site visitors currently make bookings on the site and have their requests directly sent to hotel owners?
Mark Essien: Right now when a booking is made, we receive an email. If it’s a partner hotel (hotels that we have spoken to the owners and they know about us), we call them and reserve the room. We then reply the email giving them the details. If it’s to a hotel we do not know, we send an email to the booker with the phone number and ask them to call the hotels directly.
CP-Africa: How do you intend to monetize the site?
Mark Essien: Three ways: Hotels pay for featured spots, percentages on booking fees and by selling API access to our hotels data.
CP-Africa: Do you consider business listing sites in Nigeria such as Mocality and VConnect as competitors? If so, how do you intend to differentiate from them to online users?
Mark Essien: They are competitors in a sense, but I think we will always be superior to these sites because we are focused on just a single category. A site like Mocality needs to deal with very many diverse areas, and their website needs to reflect this also. We only need to deal with hotels, so we are able to offer the customers the information they need faster, more conveniently, and with better recommendations on alternatives.
If you are just looking for the telephone number of a hotel, then yes, a site like Mocality can do that just as well, but when it comes to staying at a hotel, you expect a certain standard in hospitality, security, and so on. Because we focus on one category, we are able to think: What is important for people looking for hotels? How best do we display this information to the user? How do we make the process more convenient for them?
We’re a more specialist form of these business listing websites, and even though we are then addressing a smaller market, we are able to serve this smaller market much better.
CP-Africa: The site is currently in public beta. What new features can we expect to see on the site in the coming months/year?
Mark Essien: In the coming months, we are just planning to fix the basics – get everything working smoothly, add hotel management features, heavily focusing on the mobile version of our website (a lot of our traffic is mobile).
Once the basics are done, then I really want us to create technology that is on-par with, or ahead of what currently exists in Europe and the U.S. I don’t want us to always be playing catch-up, but rather, it’s time for Africa to set the pace.
So we’re going to do some interesting things, we have very many ideas, but these are a sneak peak at the ones that are definitely coming:
— Last-Chance Deals. When a hotel has empty rooms by 4PM, it knows it’s not going to be able to sell these rooms anymore. So we’ll offer large discounts on these rooms – 50% off, 70% off and so on.
— Android tablets. Hotels in Nigeria would benefit a lot from using internet-connect android tablets to manage their bookings. They can use this to manage their rooms and as well as to accept payments. We’re going to offer the software for this at very cheap prices to hotels in Nigeria.
— Price optimisations. Hotels in Calabar are booked out completely in December. It’s almost impossible to get a room. These hotels can modify their prices based off demand (like some low cost airlines do), so as the maximize their profit. We will offer software that does this to the hotels
CP-Africa: Ultimately, how many listings would you like to see on the site in say, the next 5 years?
Mark Essien: It’s quite a discovery process finding out what hotels exist in towns in Nigeria that are not listed anywhere. There are a maximum of about 1500 hotels listed on the internet, and we are observing about 300 hotels listed in directories for the big towns like Calabar and Abuja. In spite of this, the photographers on ground are sending in signboards of hotels that are not listed on these lists. So there could be about 400-500 hotels in major towns in Nigeria. Small towns have between 10 to 20 hotels. So I’m estimating there could be 10,000 to 20,000 hotels in Nigeria, but I could be very wrong. In any case, our target is to have at least 3000 listed within a year, and another 5000 added in the following year. A target of 8000 within two to three years should be reasonable enough to give anyone a diverse choice in accommodation.
CP-Africa: Who are the other members of your founding team?
Mark Essien: Currently, we are three co-founders. Myself, who is in charge of technical development, a longtime friend, Chijioke Nwaoduh who is in charge of the on-ground deployment of people, and my sister, in charge of business development.
Thanks so much for sharing with us Mark! We wish you the very best and hope to see Hotels.com.ng grow in leaps and bounds in the coming years!