Building An International Business in 6 months. What I Learnt Building Rocket-backed ZEN Rooms from Scratch!

My personal story:
I was recruited in July 2015 by Rocket Internet CEO Oliver Samwer and Group Managing Director Alexander Kudlich. They invited me to work on new company launches in Asia, where Rocket had built a very solid reputation in the internet world. Specifically, Oliver Samwer had a great vision to build the Hilton of our generation’. Indeed, travelers are increasingly young and want to travel more often. Low-cost airlines have emerged around the world and have been powerful at democratizing airline travel – but what about low-cost hotels? Are they safe, reliable? And do they provide what people want?

Little did he know, not only was I personally a passionate traveler but my first job experience was actually as a hotel night receptionist in London (while learning english 12 years ago!). I had processed hundreds of bookings, checkins/outs myself and knew how inefficient the hotel market was. In short, everybody got a different price for the same room! I had even been trained to quote a different price on the phone depending on the guest nationality! A common practice (in London at least, even at 3/4 star hotels)! At the time, age 18, I just did what I was told to do, but couldn’t help thinking this was strange! Looking closely, the level of innovation simply hadn’t been in line with the market size and Oli was likely right.

So I landed with Kiren Tanna, a Rocket Internet veteran, on the 1st of August 2015 in Jakarta (my first time in Indonesia!). We had no office. No website. No company name. No email. No business card! Just confidence from our backers we would make it happen – and we had to as this would be the biggest launch financed by our investors this year. We rolled up our sleeves and got started on what would become ZEN Rooms.

Here is what I learnt – and the journey/learnings are far from over!


What is your mission in 5 clear words? At ZEN: sleep well, pay less! 4 words!

 All ZEN Rooms guests are always guaranteed the above, even at low prices
All ZEN Rooms guests are always guaranteed the above, even at low prices

Ensure all staff is always aligned on your overarching goal, at every level.
This saves headache and makes communication so much faster. So repeat it and print it!

Disrupt yourself!

While Silicon Valley entrepreneurship often prones optimism above all else, in execution-driven businesses – especially quality-driven – pessimism is the winner. We always need to assume everything that can go wrong will go wrong.

Why? Because, if we worry, our clients won’t have to!

For this, have your staff, from junior to leadership be hyper critical. Crowdsource mistakes in yur operational processes. Incentivize debate. We debate often at ZEN: we disagree, often too loudly but it’s worth it.This is culturally not the de facto mindset in Asia but it is necessary – have it happen nonetheless!

Anything can happen!

Rocket, through trial-and-error, has drilled down to the best team combination to consistently deliver great companies in Asia. Strong expats supporting strong local team. Worth mentioning is the key reason why outsiders are recruited in the early stages – despite the many language and cultural barriers and therefore adaptation requirements. They are free from bias. This is a very interesting strategy, rooted in human psychology. Indeed, if you have lived in an emerging country (or any country for that matter) for too long, then you are too aware of the big Limitations. ‘This cannot happen, this neither’. However, when coming with fresh (even naive) eyes, limitations seem to be non-existent even in the toughest market environments.

This is an interesting play on human nature which has generated more than 1 success! Thus, at ZEN, we mix teams, between insiders and outsiders and we move people a lot; this incentivizes the ‘fresh eye’ factor.

Pilot, then scale heavily

With billion dollar successes like Lazada and others, the Rocket Group has in the past 5 years built a reputation for being the best in business execution – we now all have to live up to this reputation!

At ZEN, we chose to pilot Indonesia at small scale with a WordPress website (!) for two months before any public launch. We never paid attention to what competition may or may not do earlier than us. Pilot, learn at small scale, then scale heavily! There is no straight line to speed. This is the best way to leadership. This is a key lesson I learnt from my peers.

Once your processes are fine-tuned in your 1st launch market (as evidenced by strong customer satisfaction levels), scale and lead. If you attempt to scale too early, you are in the game of faking growth and compounding headaches!

This also ensures your staff is trained centrally and learns from mistakes before potentially taking charge of decentralized operations. This is extremely important. Even a few months of hyper centralization saves a lot of management time thereafter. For instance, we do avoid appointing fresh management hires in new markets, we prefer to have our staff travel a lot 🙂

So my advice is to scale fast indeed, but in 2 clear phases.

Be relentless on customer satisfaction

This must be the cornerstone of company culture. Clients must be happy, whatever it takes! And not only for altruistic motives: in our social world, customer satisfaction is free promotion, and who likes to have to pay for PR 😉 At ZEN, we see guest referrals increasing every week and this is always the sign of good things to come!

Proof that even budget hotels can delight guests!
Proof that even budget hotels can delight guests!

At ZEN, outsiders say we work very hard, very intensely.
Well, we do it for a purpose! We control guests’ holidays and this is a responsibility. We also control their safety: many things – if left unchecked – can go wrong in a hotel. So everyone in the company is on call to reply to guests, from juniors to Managing Directors.

This simple sticker on your hotel door  means your room has been  quality checked by ZEN staff
This simple sticker on your hotel door means your room has been quality checked by ZEN staff

I often say that we have a better Customer Service than HSBC, so if they managed to ‘be the world’s local bank’, we will be ‘the world’s local budget accommodation!’

All about HR…

A company is only a gathering of people who come together to execute on a vision. This is the #1 asset of Rocket-backed companies: the ability to attract highly motivated talent from around the world, with less effort than most companies. We receive tens of applications every day from highly talented individuals. While startups often have difficulty attracting talent, we manage to reverse.

Ambitious young people want to work with us, because they know our execution-driven, energetic culture and can relate to the company’s mission. We have a flat structure, where talent gets responsibility early and gets promoted. There are very few rules or glass ceilings. It all depends on demand and skillset. For instance, we had a former intern become Country Manager after only 6 months with us – at only 23 years old! Age does not matter.

This talent attraction capability has the benefit of making the key person risk close to nil and this is noteworthy. As an entrepreneur in my previous life, I do appreciate the change! It is key for every startup to develop their company culture so as to attract true talent, otherwise it is guaranteed failure! Seems obvious in a big company but makes so much sense in a smaller company.

… and reporting!

At ZEN, we are quite simply KPI obsessed, we turn all tasks into performance indicators. And every staff has access to them daily. It takes time but the payoff is enormous. We all commit to not letting each other down. Ambitious and talented individuals with clearly defined but stretched KPIs work wonders and have a habit of surprising. An online business without daily quantitative reporting is doomed to fail – and the culture at ZEN in that regard is very strict.

What’s next! Well, many new ZEN Rooms to emerge, in many countries. And over the long term, well let’s just say there are many more ways to improve the experience inside economy hotels!

See you on the road. Safe travels. And Sleep Well, Pay Less!

Zenly yours 😉


Nathan Boublil is the Global Managing Director of ZEN Rooms. ZEN Rooms is based in Singapore and last week it announced it launched in Singapore, Thailand, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. This article is originally published on

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