Saturday, September 23, 2023

Our business started in Syokimau, now it’s thriving across Africa

Håvar Bauck is the co-founder of HotelOnline, an African yield management company for hotels, involved in provision of hotels, lodges, and vacation rentals across Africa.

My business partner Endre and I were former college mates who by coincidence found ourselves living in the same neighborhood in Nairobi a decade after graduating.  In 2013, I moved to Lagos, but I was still almost weekly in Nairobi. Whenever I was around, we would meet up and discuss business. He was running a guesthouse, while I was constantly traveling across Africa.

We both knew the travel and hospitality industry hands on, but from different perspectives. We saw a big gap in the market, as there were no budget hotels next to JKIA then, yet it was a major aviation hub in Africa.

The nearest options, Panari and Ole Sereni, were too expensive for most Economy Class travelers, and it could take two hours in traffic getting there.  We leased 5 budget apartments in Syokimau, put in some budget furniture, and marketed this online as a serviced airport apartments hotel.

The result? We were fully booked from Day 1, and became the most-booked property on in Nairobi in 2014.  This is what people refer to as the “AirBnB business today”. In 2013, no one had even heard about it, and we had the first-mover advantage.

Then we saw the next big gap in the market: If two amateur hoteliers like us could succeed at the first attempt, we were clearly doing something right!  The answer was: Online marketing!

The international hospitality market was going online fast, but the trend hadn’t reached Africa yet. We had an online-only strategy, with, Expedia, and other major online booking sites as our primary channels.

With that realization, we started building a business advising hotels on how to stand out online, attracting more business and revenue from all the available online marketing and distribution channels.

This is not a highly technology-driven business, with turnkey solution packages that combine cloud software with the know-how and expertise to maximize profits from it.

From the beginning, we never really cashed out. We reinvested everything.  When we moved to yield management, we put every cent into expanding across Africa. From 2016, investors from Norway and Nigeria put in additional money to help us grow faster.

All these investors obviously wanted us to keep accelerating, so the money always went into growth across Eastern and Western Africa. We eventually broke even in early 2020.

Anga Mbeyiya: How our business raised Sh. 6.7mn capital in four months

Then the 2020 pandemic hit.  Life can be quite ironic! With the pandemic behind us, and stronger operations than ever, we are on track to profitability in 2023.

We are however considering investing further in accelerated growth and expansion. Our shareholders have always had an appetite for growth, and we are discussing with them how aggressively to expand going forward, and how to prioritize between expansion and profitability. We may also decide to raise some additional growth capital for this purpose.

I once invested in internet stocks during the dot-com boom in the early 2000s. Tech companies with flimsy business models were fetching fantastic valuations during the early days of the internet.

It was a big hype that ended with a dramatic crash and a global recession.  Lesson learnt:  When everybody is getting excited about a hype, stay away!

Landing an investment from Yanolja early last year has been the biggest business moment so far.  Yanolja is a South Korean travel technology giant backed by Softbank and, valued at USD 12 billion.  With them as a key shareholder, we have a very strong partner on our journey.

I save through mutual funds. You get a much better return on investment than from the bank, and less risk than by investing in stocks. The few times I invest directly in the stock market, I stick to the “boring” shares with solid fundamentals and good dividends.

More volatile, “exciting” assets can be rewarding if you have the time and focus to follow them and the market very closely, but that is a luxury I don’t have.

It may be a cliché, but it is also true:  Follow your heart, but have a plan.  Go for what you are passionate about, but make sure you are able to make money out of it.  Life will throw unforeseen things at you, but if you are doing what you love, you will also have the stamina and energy to deal with it.

A version of this profile feature on Håvar Bauck was also published in the Saturday Magazine. The Saturday Magazine is a publication of the Nation Media Group.

Bizna Offer

Connect With Us

Bizna Rate Card

Latest Stories

Related Stories