Entrepreneurship, Leadership and Life by Sam Huleatt

Building a Virtual Hotel Brand

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I prefer hotels over Airbnb, especially when traveling for business — but this could change…

I posit that I (and many other mid to high-end business travelers) could be swayed to choose an Airbnb over a hotel with the advent of a “virtual hotel brand” built on top of the Airbnb platform.

Several recent trips to San Francisco and Austin have left me sticker shocked by hotel prices. A nice hotel in either city, can be $400+ mid-week. It seems sort of crazy and yet I have still paid the hotel rates. Why? I prefer hotels because: I know what I’m going to get, logistic simplicity and amenities. For me, Airbnb also still has a bit of an image problem: I tend to think of it as a “budget option” where I need to sacrifice all the aforementioned. This is where a virtual hotel comes into play — provide curation/standardization, logistics and amenities surpassing old-school hotels while leveraging Airbnb.

When you’re on a tight travel schedule, knowing what you will get is super important. People will pay sky high prices at say, the Four Seasons, because they know the property, experience and service will consistently be first-class. To help standardize business travel on Airbnb, I could see someone effectively curating a number of properties in different cities with great locations, near areas people typically conduct business. I’d come to trust this new hotel brand to book me a property sight unseen, without my needing to look at maps and read reviews and go back and fourth with the owner. This new hotel would make getting the key a breeze — perhaps they would have an Uber pick me up at the airport, and the driver would hand me the key prior to dropping me off at the front door.

Next, the virtual hotel would layer on value added services mimicking (or exceeding) a hotel. Rather than the host’s potentially crappy towels, the virtual hotel would have arrived in advance, checked out the apartment and equipped it with high-end towels, soaps, etc, and maybe added a few local beers to the fridge. It would also provide a daily maid service (optional) and contract with great neighborhood gyms and / or yoga studios, baking these amenities into the price or charging me on demand through an app. The virtual chain might even move beyond typical hotel perks to offer say booking meeting spaces (WeWork or Breather), or potentially providing a curated dinning experience I’d otherwise not be able to find on my own. Some of these demand amenities, I can obviously already book on my own, but making the experience simple, curated and frictionless on the payment side would be great.

A virtual hotel chain like this could easily win my business travel loyalty. I think at scale, the margins would still back out with lower price points than a typical higher-end hotel.



Seeking Whitespace in Technology


As an early adopter in the startup and technology space, now and again I discover technology whitespace; a web or mobile application that seems to provide a disproportionate ROI for my use. Tripit is a great example: I travel frequently and rely on my calendar to stay on schedule. With virtunally no additional overhead, Tripit grabs all my travel bookings from Gmail, aggregates it in one place, allows me to share the details with people like my parents and populate my work calendar so our team knows my whereabouts and availability. That’s a huge ROI (at least for me) and my only cost is $40 a year. Also since Tripit mines my Gmail and knows my preferences, I don’t have what Sam Lessin recently referred to as “hidden costs” in terms of mental overhead, i.e., manual setup and needing to make corrections all the time.

Also noteworthy is that many apps I’ve found whitespace with early on have proved to have diminishing returns over time. This seems particularly likely when an app has a network or community component. While users of these applications should in theory ‘benefit’ as the applications attracts more users, I’ve found the opposite to be true: as the app gains in popularity I actually see a diminishing return. It pays to be an early adopter!

Examples of Former High ROI Apps:

Quora: In the early days of Quora it was very small group of Silicon Valley influencers. It was not uncommon for VIPs in the tech space to engage you in conversation. Quora also let you message anyone directly, creating amazing networking opportunities. Further, answering many questions early on led several of my answers to become “top answers” which then benefitted over time from “social proof” — others up-voting my responses based on the fact that others had previously up-voted.

Unfortunately my ROI from Quora has dropped dramatically. Many of the questions and answers I see now are very low quality, or just variations of questions that are re-hashed.

Ohours: When Ohours first came out it was a really easy way to network with super high quality entrepreneurs in NYC. Since it was originally just small group of insiders who knew of it, the early meetings were phenomenal. I’ve stayed in touch with many great entrepreneurs and investors I met through it including @werdelin. Unfortunately, over time and arguably as it grew “more popular”, the quality of folks dwindled and ultimately the project was tabled.

Finding ROI Today.

Aside from Tripit and a few others, an app providing me incredible whitespace/ROI is Clara. At my company we work extensively with folks overseas (Israel, Dubai, Brazil, etc) and thus constantly need to schedule meetings across time zones. Googling time zone conversions, waiting for responses, last minute re-schedules, coordinating dial-ins/screen shares. Talk about a pain in the ass! Enter Clara. For a little over $100 a month, Clara has completely removed this pain point (check it out for more details).

So I’m curious: what app(s) currently provide you the most whitespace?

PS: Feel free to email me if you want your “secret” to stay safe ;)


Low Friction and Invisible Spending

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Apple Pay will be a game changer. It was by far the most interesting thing IMO to emerge from the recent Apple announcement. Recall that great hardware is often simply a loss leader for the transactions it enables. Adoption may come slowly, but it will come.

I love removing friction from transactions. I bought a Coin (probably already extinct) and love using apps live Cover and Uber to ‘invisibly’ make payments. However — there is no doubt in my mind that the decreased friction increases the frequency (and possibly size) of my transactions. I’ve found myself on Amazon buying things I don’t really need simply because Amazon and Prime make it so easy. I’m extremely fortunate that I can afford to make some needless purchases here and there but I’m also lucky that I grew up understanding the value of money and thus have decent self-control as to how I spend my earnings.

My concern with new technologies like Apple Pay is that while the financially fortunate relish making their lives easier (often by spending more to save more time) — many folks can’t afford to spend more. Period. People love to say ‘time is our most precious resource’ – but I believe that’s only true to an extent before there are diminishing returns.

Impulsive purchasing is a real problem for many and there’s no question it is exacerbated by making spending fun, easy and invisible. Bored? A $2.99 game or new song is a click away. Hungry? Seamless web is so much easier than cooking. Just the ease with which we can evaluate and buy items on Amazon means we don’t need to wait for the annual shopping trip to the big city. Impulse buying and not bothering to return is like a new ‘breakage’ model. While many middle to lower income folks cannot currently afford an iPhone, frictionless, invisible payments will no doubt be eventually be pervasive across most phones. I think this could be a real issue for younger generations who begin to spend money that they never really see and who get sucked into the cool new app that provides some marginal benefit (slight time savings or slightly elevated level of service) for only a few dollars. Those dollars add up quickly.

It also all makes you wonder: who ultimately bears the responsibility?


Why Cards Matter

Google Maps Card Design

I’ve been struggling to really understand the significance of “cards” as a new unit of interaction. Fred Wilson and Benedict Evans have both discussed the significance of cards, but I feel like neither has been able to provide a concrete example that really highlights why a card isn’t simply just another design trend.

Extrapolating a bit, here are my thoughts on where this could go.

Several years ago Facebook released Open Graph Protocol. The idea was in part that any noun (person, place or thing) on Facebook could have its own Facebook Page, and thus, all the corresponding meta data that accompanied that Page. To me, the notion of cards takes this one step further.

Imagine a time, a few years from now, where you text a friend on WhatsApp to ask if they’ve yet seen James Bond Movie #34. WhatsApp would recognize that James Bond 24 is a noun — specifically a noun, specifically, a movie, and thus the text would automagically appear as a hyperlink. When clicked on, you would see the movie’s card — allowing you to interact with the movie in any number of ways: purchase tickets, watch a trailer, send to a friend, etc — all without needing to go to another app. In some ways it would mimic the options one currently has by clicking on a place in Google Maps (see image above). Cards basically replace websites or native apps. Apps within apps. Google has likewise purchase streaming technology that should allow for mobile apps to start being streamed so that you could interact with the app without ever needing to install it. Again, I see this as potentially being enabled via card.

If the card thus becomes the standard way that I actionably interact with any noun on my mobile device, that becomes a huge deal. It’s much bigger than simply a design fad. The message becomes the medium and functions more like an OS for interacting on mobile. So yeah, cards could be a big deal.


Buying Talent

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In an interview with Semil Shah, Keith Rabois remarks that he (Rabois) worries startup talent has become too fragmented. Rabois’ conjecture is that to have a true break-away company (a la Facebook, Twitter, etc) you need a concentration of very talented folks.

For the most part I agree with this — although I think certain types of Internet driven companies may require less technical human capital than before*.

Anyhow, a trend I have observed is that some A and/or B round companies seem to be raising large amounts of cash — more than they would seemingly need so early. Examples are Coinbase and 500px. My theory is that we are starting to see larger rounds where portions of the capital are used 1) to take some money off the table earlier (see SnapChat) and 2) using the funds for early acquisitions.

In an emerging space like Bitcoin, I think it makes a lot of sense to acquire talent with niche knowledge to ‘pour gasoline’ on the growth. What’s also ironic is that despite all the rhetoric about VC going away, these two trends could ultimately bring relevancy back to VC if hot startups opt for bigger checks earlier on to take advantage of the aforementioned points.

*My company Heights Media is an example of this phenomenon

     © Copyright 2014-2015 Sam Huleatt