Roomfilla Co-Founder Stuart Lansdale would be back in London carving out a typical post-graduate twenty-something career if that Indian rickshaw had only swerved six inches further, or if the brakes had been in better condition.
But on that particular day, the driver was a half-a-second too slow, or the road was especially dangerous. No matter. The rickshaw hit him. Destroyed his bike and left Landsdale stranded in the middle of India with little money and no real transportation.
Flashback to a few weeks earlier.
A school project had the Englishman biking around Europe and Asia. He had already made it through France, Holland, Belgium, Germany and Poland before a crash in Ukraine put him behind on his visas, forcing him to skip ahead and go to India.
Now in India with his bike an unsalvageable mess, Landsdale says he then,
“Hitchhiked from Mumbai to Kathmandu.”
“I hung out in Kathmandu for a bit and a company in Germany said they would send me a new bike. But post in Nepal is unreliable and they have high taxes because of the climbers, so it made sense to go the next place on my list which was Bangkok.”
As can happen in Bangkok, Lansdale’s story takes a strange turn.
“There is this guy that I used to play online games with as a kid. I’m a very big gamer and we agreed to meet (in person) for the first time in Thailand. He agreed to use his address to get the bike sent here and we started to talk more about business. He told me he was working with a guy in Denmark named Morten Lund.”
Morten Lund is a famous serial-investor who made a boatload of money as part of the original team financing Skype. Lund went bankrupt in 2009 after an investment into free newspaper Nyhedsavisen backfired. These days, he appears to be back on his feet and is funding companies focussed on financial trading.
But while Lansdale was intrigued, he had run out of money, and had to go home to London to finish school and maybe get a job.
“But after awhile the [gamer] guy in Bangkock contacted me and said, ‘Hey, things are starting to get interesting over here, do you want to help me out?’ I didn’t really believe any money would come in…but then it started to. And I decided to move to Bangkok,” says Lansdale.
Lansdale worked for Lund for awhile and – with help from his gamer friend – eventually helped launch a startup called PitchXO (which allows managers to filter through recipients of online business plans/pitches).
While he is still a shareholder in PitchXO (which has five staffers and is still up and running), Lansdale decided to move on start Roomfilla.
“The first move I made in Roomfilla was Christmas 2013, I knew a hotel in Bangkok which was cheaper than what I could list my apartment for on Airbnb. I stayed in this hotel for two weeks over Christmas and was making money. So I thought, if I can do this for my place, I can probably do this for other people’s properties,” Lansdale said.
Lansdale’s partner in crime is Co-Founder Ailbhe Horgan, who moved from Singapore to Bangkok to run a travel company. She helped start Roomfilla before transitioning into the real estate industry and taking some time off to focus on the new job. Horgan has since returned to Roomfilla. The company currently operates with four full-time employees and six freelancers.
So what do the day-to-day operations look like?
“Once we have an owner that says, ‘We want to use this service.’ We get the photos, we get the address, we bring them the price and we put it everywhere. The owner doesn’t have to do anything. So we distribute it to 15 different channels and take care of the day-to-day questions that go with it. Does it have a hair dryer? Do we get towels? We can answer those questions and create a relationship with guests so they are more likely to book,” Lansdale explains.
It charges 10-15 per cent commission and has topped US$300,000 in total transactions, facilitating nearly US$35,000 in revenue. Roomfilla has grown from 110 property affiliations to 280 since joining JFDI a month ago and the company is cautiously optimistic about meeting a goal of 1,000 properties by December.
Roomfilla wants to pitch the 1,000 rentals number as evidence of its traction and use any potential investment to hire tech talent to automate the service.
Lansdale openly admits he views the American company Guesty as competition. Straight up, the San Francisco-based startup is further ahead than Roomfilla. It has a much larger geographical reach, deeper pockets and raised a US$1.5 million Series A round in 2014.
But Lansdale also sees two major areas where Roomfilla has advantages. First, Guesty is strictly focussed on Airbnb, eliminating foreign clients who may feel more comfortable using services such as Wimdu (Germany) or PandaBed (Singaporea).
Furthermore, Roomfilla is an Asian-based company operating in Asia. Guesty claims to be a worldwide company. The Guestly FAQ page says, “Since we are your personal assistant in the cloud, we are not limited to specific locations.That means that we are available everywhere.”
Lansdale sees this as an advantage for the scrappy startup.
“Operators can leverage Asia if they understand the ecosystem. For example, in Asia all the properties have juristic offices (or ‘front guards’ in other places in Asia). They have staff there all the time so it makes check-in and check-out much easier. Many also have a staff cleaner which makes that easier to organise.”
But more importantly is on-the-ground understanding of local tourism trends. Thailand is both enjoying and grappling with the recent popularity of the country as a go-to destination for Chinese tourists (a major source of business for Roomfilla).
Being in Bangkok gives Lansdale insight into how Chinese tourists operate and allows him to tailor Roomfilla’s customer service to fit their needs.
“So again, it is being here, understanding the Asian customer.”
Lansdale, Horgan and Roomfilla seem to be following the advice of legendary comedian Christopher Walken who said,
“At its best, life is completely unpredictable.”