People often synonymise ‘internet start-up’ with ‘technological innovation’. An agile, growing, web-based business is seemingly expected to have some of the newest, whiz-bang technologies at the heart of its success. I’m sorry to destroy this illusion, but in my experience this simply isn’t the case. In fact, trying to be too innovative with technology comes near the top of my list for things that can quickly kill a web start-up. And with around 80 per cent of new businesses failing in their first three years, it’s critical for entrepreneurs to steer well clear of any potential pitfalls.
Let’s take a look at the world around us. Right now, the European start-up space is increasingly crowded. There are more start-ups than ever, fuelled by over 100 accelerators across the region. With the economy starting to grow once again, and with the expanding tech industry rightly being viewed by investors as a key enabler of further growth, there’s more funding up for grabs than there has been in the last five years. In fact, last year venture capitalists invested £937 million into 260 UK and Irish technology companies. As an example I went a couple of months ago to an event gathering some of the London-based web start-ups with a sharing economy model and I was astonished to see more than 60 companies represented! Among those were an impressive five start-ups just focusing on enabling people to rent out their car when they don’t use it.
So, in this increasingly crowded market, are the winners going to be the ones who have innovated the most in technology? I would argue the winners are instead going to be the ones who will make the best use of existing technologies to find better ways of fulfilling needs faced by large enough groups of people. They will be the ones focusing their limited resources on defining perfect user experiences and use technology as an enabler of this and not as an end in itself. And in a world of limited resources, the most limited of them all in the web is talent. That brings me to another non-negligible advantage of making use of existing proven technologies rather than going for the cutting edge: if you want your company to succeed you need talented people in your team and the more established the technologies you work with, the more available talent you will find.
It’s no wonder that if you look the existing winners such as recent European success stories like Just-Eat, ZenDesk, or King there appears to be one resounding secret to success: they all developed an experience loved by customers. In all their cases the technology was already there – but as the old adage goes it’s what you do with it that counts.
Similarly, HouseTrip’s growth isn’t fuelled by our innovating in technology. Nor is it in fact based on inventing a whole new market: home rentals have been around a long time. Instead it is fuelled by providing holidaymakers with a better experience. When before they had to go through an extremely discouraging process to book a holiday home (consisting of a long email and phone back and forth with the homeowner) they now can book their holiday home as easily as booking a hotel online. When before they were anxious at the thought of sending their money directly to a homeowner without even being sure that the home actually existed; they now experience total peace of mind knowing that HouseTrip is there to ensure that everything works well. The results? 95 per cent customer satisfaction driving amazing growth for us since we launched four years ago: we started the business with my wife in our living room and are now a team of 200 people with over 350,000 homes all over the world listed on HouseTrip. All down to understanding what customers wanted: a simpler, easier, happier experience. As a hospitality management graduate, I don’t have a tech background, but I understand the importance of getting the customer experience right, and have made this a cornerstone of our business.
Of course, we live in a technology-fuelled society. The vast majority of people in the UK today use smartphones and technology as a key tool in both their work and personal lives. I’m not disparaging investment in technology – as a web-based business it underpins everything I do. But I would encourage other entrepreneurs to understand technology for what it is: a means to an end. Invest in proven, stable technologies that are mission-critical. Above all, retain a laser focus on your customers and what they want, and your business is in the best position to thrive.