GIVEAWAY: Win 3 x $100 Villa-Finder.com vouchers for your next holiday in Bali, Thailand or Sri Lanka. Details at the end of the article.
Here at The New Savvy, we are constantly inspired by entrepreneurs who believe in their vision and pursue their passions. One of my hottest recent finds is Villa-Finder.com, a sumptuously presented property agent website that will have you chafing at the bit to get up, up and away to that holiday of your dreams.
I first discovered Villa-Finder.com in June this year when I was frantically trying to book accommodation for an upcoming trip. I found the website to be visually pleasing and easy to navigate. Due to my difficult scenario of a panicked last-minute search for a big group of travellers, I was unable to actually book anything suitable at Villa-Finder.com, but I sure did remember the website.
At that point of time, I was researching website design and online user engagement since I wanted to enhance the visitor experience at The New Savvy. I bookmarked Villa-Finder.com and browsed through the website’s beautiful pictures.
Fast forward to a few months later. I am sitting down with David Chambat, the CEO and founder of Villa-Finder.com. David has been living in Singapore for 10 years, having originally come here to work for Air France and KLM. He subsequently completed an MBA at INSEAD Singapore and then began working for TVtrip.com, a travel startup.
The New Savvy (TNS): Beautiful website, can you tell us a bit more about Villa-Finder.com?
David Chambat (DC): Villa-Finder.com facilitates the search for the best villas in Asia. We have 1000 villas in our ever-growing portfolio, located all around Asia. We offer 515 villas in Bali, 300 in Thailand and 100 in Sri Lanka.
TNS: Why Villa-Finder.com? What motivated you to start it?
DC: This is an interesting story. Three years ago, I was tasked with the purchase of a villa in Bali. After searching through many properties, I finally found one I liked. However, I couldn’t get a building permit as the villa was too close to a cliff. In Bali, there is a rule that prohibits the purchase of properties too close to a cliff edge for safety reasons.
I realised then that even if I had bought it, I wouldn’t have known how to market it to prospective tenants. I looked around and couldn’t find a website that offered a complete overview of all villas available in Bali.
As I was familiar with Google, and with search terms, I began to research the viability of building a platform to consolidate villa offerings.
TNS: What came next?
DC: www.Villa-Bali.com started operations on the 8th of August 2012 at 8:08 pm. Very Asian. A very auspicious number.
TNS: Wow. You believe in Chinese Feng Shui?
DC: Yes, that’s some Villa-Finder.com trivia. I built the site wanting to consolidate villa offerings in a systematic, user-friendly way. I focussed on having beautiful images since people are generally visual creatures.
Four months into our operations, Villa-Finder.com was profitable. We are now the leading villa agency in Asia.
TNS: Congratulations! Tell us more — what are the competitive advantages of Villa-Finder.com?
Villa-Finder.com does not only list villas. We screen the villas ourselves and nurture a relationship with the owners. Many villa owners come to us to list their property – but we turn down 80% of them as they are not up to our standards. A lot of people complained that when they book a villa, the villa looks different from the pictures posted.
We focus on having well-photographed images. We have our own professional photographer in Bali. Every week, we have nice 5 to 6 villa photoshoots. All the photos are owned by us.
TNS: Yes, the images on your website are gorgeous. But how different are you from AirBnb? Aren’t both of you offering the same service?
AirBnb is a marketplace that connects renters and landlords. They were not so popular 3 years ago when we started. Of course, they are now doing a good job as a marketplace.
Villa-Finder.com also offers a concierge service – we can help you arrange airport transfer, hire a chef, book travel packages. We provide a one-stop shop for Bali travellers.
TNS: Who are your other competitors? What are the ecosystem of Bali villas rental market?
DC: Other than AirBnb, we have 2 major competitor groups that provide offerings different from ours. You have the online travel agencies like Booking.com and Trip Advisor. They are well-established websites but focus mostly on hotels, not villas. These are good for 1-2 room hotel bookings.
The others are local companies that provide villas and services. But they are not well organised. They may not have the technological capabilities to build a good website and consolidate their offerings. Hence, they tend to be fragmented and confusing.
Villa-Finder.com offers the complete solution: villa, service and quality.
TNS: What about complaints? Recently there was a saga about Singaporean bloggers who complained about having money stolen while staying at a villa in Bali?
DC: Most of the time, clients complain about something not functioning in the villa – the air conditioner isn’t working, there’s an insect in their room or they’re just generally picky about cleanliness. Since we’re on the ground, we can send people to resolve the issues. Usually within 2 to 3 hours. Sometimes we offer compensation.
TNS: So before writing a bad review, we can approach Villa-Finder.com to resolve issue?
DC: Yes. You can first let the villa owner himself know. We act as a second layer to ensure that your stay in the villa is comfortable.
One time a group of customers was not happy with their villa. They wanted to switch out the villa. Obviously, this is tricky as money had exchanged hands. But we try to keep our clients happy. We negotiated with the villa owner on behalf of our client and managed to change them to another villa. They ended up paying us and we paid the villa owner.
TNS: That’s very good customer service!
DC: Customer service is one of our top priorities. I’ve always told my staff that “Complaints are gifts from customers. They give us the opportunity to change their perceptions.”
TNS: Especially in the service industry. You have to make your customers happy to turn them into raving fans.
DC: Exactly. That’s why we focus on having staff on the ground. We have 8 people in Singapore and 12 in Bali. About half of our staff in Bali are in customer service.
TNS: Other than customer issues, what challenges do you face?
DC: These 3 years have been a roller-coaster ride. Entrepreneurship can be tough; things change all the time. Google changes their algorithms; AirBnb is rising in popularity, and, of course, there is a shift to mobile. When we first started, only 25% of our visitors were mobile users. Now, 60% are using mobile or tablets.
Our main priority now is building a mobile-responsive website.
GIVEAWAY: Win 3 x $100 Villa-Finder.com vouchers for your next holiday. Details at the end of the article.
TNS: You are obviously passionate about your job. Tell us, David, what do you love most about working on Villa-Finder.com?
DC: Obviously, I love the product. I think it’s a great product in a niche market. It’s exciting. I remember doing a final marketing project in INSEAD on Colgate toothpaste. It just doesn’t excite me as much.
But working on villas and rental properties, now that’s an exciting product in a challenging environment. On top of that, I love Bali. I get to visit Bali once a month and it’s definitely a great perk of the job.
TNS: Everyone loves Bali! And you are offering solutions and filling a gap in the market!
DC: Yes. And we have expanded beyond Bali to look into Phuket and Koh Samui. They have gorgeous villas too. Our other market is Sri Lanka — it is a growing travel destination and Villa-Finder.com has great colonial houses in our listings.
TNS: Seems like you’ve got your formula for success. What do you think are the key drivers of the success of Villa-Finder.com?
DC: I have 3 rules to build a great business.
First, the KISS rule – Keep It Simple AND Stupid. We are in a niche market in hospitality – villa booking. We are not trying to invent the wheel. We had a good initial execution and did the basics right.
Second, be very customer-centric. We listen to our clients and their feedback. We adopt their ideas and suggestions. Like I mentioned, a complaint is a chance for us to get it right. We are continuously improving our product.
Third, I think what helped us is that we are based in Singapore. When we started, we had zero listings. I had to travel around Bali on a scooter and approach villa owners. When they found out that we were from Singapore, they were very receptive to us. Singapore has a very good reputation as a business hub. The Singapore branding is great; it has helped us open doors while doing business in Asia.
TNS: Going forward, what are your ambitions for Villa-Finder.com?
DC: We want to repeat our Bali success story in Thailand and Sri Lanka. We are also looking at new destinations like South Africa. Of course, we want to improve customer satisfaction to welcome back repeat clients.
TNS: Obviously, you’ve had great success with Villa-Finder.com. What are some of the biggest challenges facing entrepreneurs today?
DC: Staying focused.
As an entrepreneur, you are creative and brimming with ideas. There is a temptation to want to do everything and deviate from your initial plan.
There are a lot of people demanding your time and wanting to partner with you. You meet a lot of people and get a lot of calls. You get people who want your advice, who want to sell your stuff and distribute their products. It can be exciting but messy.
Again, keep it simple.
TNS: That can be a challenge as there is a lot of noise out there.
DC: Focus on the business plan and keep the product simple and consistent. Just like AirBnb. They nailed it down to the core and continue to keep it simple. They are just a marketplace for short-term apartment rentals. They can arrange car rentals and other ancillaries but their focus is on one thing.
TNS: What about women entrepreneurs?
DC: There are good women entrepreneurs in Asia. In fact, I see a lot of rising women entrepreneurs in Bali. More women in Bali are starting small businesses in hospitality, trading goods and arts.
There is also an entrepreneur community in Bali called Hubud.
TNS: What is the biggest challenge facing women today?
DC: Do women face more challenges than men? I don’t think women entrepreneurs face more challenges than men entrepreneurs. When it comes to setting up a company, having a business plan and raising funds, I don’t believe that the challenges are gender-specific.
TNS: How about the lack of women in the technology area?
DC: It’s true. There is a higher representation of men than women when it comes to technology. This might be an issue of training or preferences. When we place advertisements for developers, more men than women apply. Women are actually more creative, and in fact, should be good at coding.
Our website is woman-centric since women make the booking decisions. So we would be happy to find women developers.
TNS: Tell us more about your financial portfolio. What financial planning have you done for yourself?
DC: I am a firm believer in real estate. Most of my assets are in real estate. I own apartments in Paris and Singapore. But not in Bali.
TNS: No Bali villa in your portfolio?
DC: Not yet – and this is a conscious decision. One of our customer promises is unbiased listing and review. Normally, if you owned a property, you would be more motivated to push for it.
TNS: So why real estate?
DC: The longer I’m in business, the more I see why real estate is valuable. Be it in Bali or Singapore or in my hometown, Paris. It is a smart way to invest your money as you make use of the bank debts and low interest rates. The rental income is then used to cover your mortgage.
TNS: Do you invest in traditional investment products?
DC: I am rarely in cash accounts, especially in Singapore. The interest is too low! I am also bearish on the Euro; I believe it will drop further. There are just too many structural problems in Europe now.
TNS: How do you build on your financial knowledge and business acumen?
DC: I read a lot. I read business books and blogs.
TNS: We need to read what you are reading then!
DC: For entrepreneurs, I recommend “The Lean Startup”. It is how we are managing Villa-Finder.com. I am also a fan of Entrepreneur.com – they do a weekly Friday newsletter.
TNS: How do you keep yourself motivated?
DC: I have a lot of friends who are entrepreneurs in Singapore. They are a diverse and international group from Italy and France, and around Asia. We catch up over lunch and share ideas and projects and get feedback from each other’s products.
TNS: How do you maintain balance between work and family? You have 3 children, right?
DC: My wife has been a great support. She gives me feedback and is an amazing consultant to the business. My 3 children are all here so it’s been great.
TNS: David, any last advice for women entrepreneurs or those in corporate situations?
DC: Never stop learning.
To win 3 x $100 Villa-Finder.com vouchers, follow these steps.
Step 1: Leave your email here.
Step 2: Go to The New Savvy Facebook Page and find the giveaway picture.
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