Sebastien Grosjean: Turning a passion into a high quality product

Sebastien Grosjean founded BookingSync with a view of turning his passion for vacation rentals into a leading, high-quality product. As a totally distributed company, we spoke with Sebastien about what it’s like working fully remote, and also some of the difficulties he has faced with this process.

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Transcription of the podcast (sorry for typos)

George: Today we have Sébastien Grosjean on the Surf Office Show, who is the founder and CEO of BookingSync, a vacation rental management platform. Seb, it’s great to have you on the show.

Sébastien: Hi George. Thanks a lot for having me.

George: No problem. Before we delve more and talking about what it’s like for you being a distributor company and your own traveling lifestyle, could you just tell us a bit more about BookingSync and your journey with the company?

Sébastien: Of course. BookingSync is a vacation rental software. It’s made for anyone managing an apartment, villa, castle, anything you want to rent for a short-term rate, whatever you would find on Airbnb, HomeAway, kind of inventory.

We made this management centralized, as easy as possible, and to make sure that customers get back directly through you as well. So you physically save a lot of marketing money on returning guests. And we try to optimize your process all the way through.

I get through this actually by chance I would say. My parents were in this business for over 25 years now. For me my side is IT. I ended up working for them about 10 years ago. I joined the business, because they just started a vacation rental in a certain location. So they used to have it in the in France and 12 years ago now they just moved to Greece. The problem that they had is that they were not really good English speakers, but 80% of our guests were English speaking, not French. It was good to give them a bit of hand on this. I got a bit of shift of my professional life as well.

The startup was starting again as a small company to make websites for small and medium companies. That was a good timing. I ended up moving to Greece and work with them on this vacation rental business, so to get much more involved than I’ve been before.

This went through and I realized that the software out there were very limited. I could not distribute anything. To keep in mind, back in the day you had to update your calendar pretty much daily or weekly so you get back on top of result pages. And you have to do this manually on every website.

As a software engineer that was just not possible for me. So I ended up coding something, making this automated. And this worked very well.

Back then through a little bit of technology we ended up booking 30% more than anybody on the island. The efficiency was really present.

This worked really well. BookingSync extended from there. There were a few iterations before in the internal tool. And then it moved down to something more serious. But that’s pretty much as it went through as a mix of being on the job and realizing the problem, and this passion for IT to try to find easy solutions to complex problems.

George: You basically used your own background in software to plug a gap in the market basically.

Sébastien: That’s right.

George: Great. When did you establish BookingSync?

Sébastien: The project itself started in October 2009. And we had the first paying customer in January 2010.

George: Since 2009 you’ve just grown from strength to strength. I know you’ve got over a hundred investors involved now as well.

Sébastien: Yeah, that’s right. It grew quite a lot. For the first four years I was pretty much alone, so I had a little bit of help on the last one. But it was really a side business on top of the vacation rentals — BookingSync was an extra. I just opened the tools I was using and put it as a rental, as a SaaS basically.

But since then there were a few proposals of purchase, intent. And so, at some point you’ve got to… Okay, what do you do, to sell or to scale? And I ended up with the idea of scaling. I think this goal that we have are very fulfilling for me.

Selling the company could have been maybe financially interesting but not as fulfilling as doing the job itself and having the impact that we are planning to have, could have. I’m sure we’ll touch base a bit more on this later on. But, yes, today we went through two rounds of fundraising.

We had 160 investors on the first round. The second round was mainly around the same investors plus a few more. But it grew quite a lot since then indeed. Today we are around 20%-25% and still hiring 10 of them so it’s going well.

George: That’s awesome. It’s nice building a product or a service or a company because you find it fulfilling, rather than just building it to exit and just building it to make a profit. It’s nice knowing you’ve got a purpose you’re trying to achieve.

Sébastien: Totally. The goal for me here is not purely financial. Managing vacation rentals was something that is profitable. It didn’t take me too much time. It was well organized. But it was not as fulfilling as what BookingSync is.

This in a sense where here, I think that the impact was much broader. We work with companies that manage rentals in over 150 countries. You can see that this impact is already much wider. We make them save hours and hours daily for the management business. We can have much more people having great holidays. And these people that manage it as well to have a comfortable life.

This in itself is already something that is more fulfilling. It was a bit broader than just a vacation rental business itself. But also our intent behind is definitely to make some profit, but to reuse a lot of this profit as well to change the world.

That might sound a bit pitchy. We know we use this a lot these says. Yet it’s very true that the very important things to me. It’s something that makes me feel more complete. And I know we have this commitment to charity that goes to give back from 10% to 50%., so about half of our profit goes back to charity for something that has been decided by all our investors.

Yes, today we don’t make profit, so it’s somehow easy to say. But we already made actions to be able to help in couple of projects and definitely looking forward to have a big impact on this.

George: I noticed your charity on the website. Obviously it’s nice that you’re doing something other than just the work in the property space. And it’s great that the investors are onboard with that as well because normally investors just want to see profit, right? What got you into that commitment to charity?

Sébastien: I think their interest is to see that there is some clear and balance in our current world and society. And that doesn’t really fair to me. Or even normal that some people today don’t have drinkable water, starving to death, or don’t have a shelter. For me this kind of all access to the minimum health needs, vitamin needs in general.

Here I feel that we can have this impact to do this. There are a lot of foundations that already exist, all of the things that are already in place. But funding is always something that’s necessary to keep pushing. The idea of is it going my cellphone place. Yeah, why not? But I’m not sure I could have the same impact. I feel that I can have a much bigger impact to this, and also feel happier by myself to actually do the things that I’m fully passionate about, which is vacation rentals and software. And make a lot of profit for the people that are doing a great job.

I feel that this can really help our world for better. That’s something that is feeling very close to me somehow, to be able to help others. From a very young age I always wanted to do stuff that improve people’s lives. That’s also what BookingSync is doing to another set of people. But it’s perfect, because now we can actually end up doing it in much more areas. And this is amazing.

George: It’s quite refreshing to hear it from a company, because normally people are just focused on money and growth. It’s nice that you’re also focusing on something that’s actually really matters as well. Have you ever had any trouble with investors with that?

Sébastien: Actually no, but that’s always been how we look for investors I guess that made the difference. So we didn’t look for any VC’s or even larger investors, or people that pretty much do investment as a job. Because their entire goal, at least as far as I’m aware is profit. I can’t blame them. That’s their business. Perfectly fair. But that’s not what I’m looking for.

So when we were going out the point and the statement about commitment to charity was very clear. To all investors it was meant to say that the product is not to be the most profitable that it can be. It’s to be the best one, and the one that can have the biggest impact on charity as well.

This means making money, but it also means giving a lot back. And from this investor, finally we end up choosing people, or working with people that have the same mindset as I do, as all the teams that BookingSync has. Because that’s something that is very important to all of us. And that’s how we make sure that everyone is a bit of a culture fit for the company and so on.

Yes. The choice of investors somehow, I kind of feel very happy that I’ve been in this position of being able to choose investors have been absolutely amazing. And I think it has even been an added value that we have this strong commitment, these strong values to select people that we feel are even closer to… It’s a different relationship. And that’s very nice.

George: Sure. And it is nice to know that there are investors out there who aren’t just off to a higher profit margin. But moving back towards BookingSync itself, how do you work in unison with other big rental platforms such as Airbnb or

Sébastien: We have a shared partnership with the four major in the vacation rental industry. That is Airbnb, HomeAway, which is now part of Expedia,, part of Priceline, and TripAdvisor.

We have very good terms with them. We started small so that that has been easy to make it through let’s say. But we may not improve, our inventory kept growing. We’ve been close to them in discussion. And I think technically that proves that we were good. We tried to be always on the top of what’s possible in terms of technical competencies.

And today it seems to work very well. We are one of the 11 preferred partners of HomeAway. That’s maybe the smallest company as well from there. From their world we are at the top. We can hardly do anything better, which is always very nice to say. So I think the technical side really helped us there as well for this very nice relationship that we have with them. And on the Airbnb side it’s the same.

We often involve into new developments that they are doing and being able to be consultants somehow on housing. We like to stay very close to this company and I’ve been able to go and visit them as well. I’m going next week again to their headquarters if I’m away. Trying to stay very close to them to have a perfect relationship.

George: Where do you see the future of BookingSync heading?

Sébastien: There are a lot of things going on. There’s a huge potential. The market and industry is very young. There’s an estimation about 20 million properties. It’s just huge. You see Airbnb as three million currently on the inventory, on my way it’s 1.5. We see that we are still at the very early stage of the number of properties that can be rented for vacation rentals, and to be online market it.

The future of BookingSync here is definitely to keep helping these managers and owners to run the business, Make sure that travellers have an awesome experience to make this very freed from every single aspect. We want these owners as well to be able to enjoy a very nice lifetime, while you’re doing this job.

It’s a fantastic thing to help people having great holidays with business trip and so on. And we really want to make sure that we do everything we can to facilitate this experience for both parties.

George: That’s great. I read recently it’s estimated that something like 15% of all workers will be working remotely by 2020. So it’s clear that remote work is on the increase. And people are now travelling more while working. Have you noticed that shift of over the last few years of more people wanting to get away?

Sébastien: For sure, personal feedback, for me it’s a bit over 10 years that I’ve been in Greece in the summer and travelling in the winter. Working remote is part of my DNA I would say. It’s something I’m very familiar with.

And I see a lot of people doing the same kind of things. BookingSync we are remote. We don’t have any office. Everybody works from home, or a co-working space, or a plane, or a beach somewhere. As long as they are feeling comfortable and they can work with a minimum decent internet connection it’s perfectly fine.

I really see an increase in this desire, because the lifestyle that you have from there is truly amazing. You just feel free to live wherever it feels best for you. You don’t have to commute for long hours. You don’t have to be in a country or in cities that you don’t like just because a particular job is there.

You don’t have live apart from your family because of work needs. You can pretty much be wherever you want whenever you want. This is a huge improvement I think in lifestyle.

George: I actually mentioned this in the last podcast I recorded, the word freedom seems to pop up every single time I have a conversation with someone who’s remote working or recording a podcast. I think that is the big benefit that the lifestyle gives. Like you say, freedom to go wherever you want, and work from where you want, and do what you want really. Is that the reason you decided to make the company totally distributed?

Sébastien: I think it’s more things. Definitely freedom is very interesting. That improves the lifestyle of people we work with, because that’s truly important. For me it matters that people I work with feel great at work, or even outside of work, in good environment that I feel good.

But also the fact to be distributed brings a few more aspects as well to a company. Maybe some of them that are a bit underestimated as well in general. But by default when you work with somebody that works remotely you need that person to be a bit more responsible. You should not be behind the scenes watching the screens to see what they’re doing. You need a bit of trust. And you need to know that these people will do the job.

You cannot be there and filtering that they don’t go on Facebook during working hours. That’s not really a part of this philosophy. This increase of responsibility is actually putting people that you work with ensure confidence.

Usually what happens is that they want to prove that they can be trusted and that everything works. That has a very good impact because you end up having a team that is much more consolidated and much more efficient as well. You spend less time seeing if people are doing their work. You just work.

And the time you have on the site. Perfect. You talk about anything. Wonderful. You talk about travels. What’s the last place you visited? Or how do you find the latest trick to find cheaper flights or something like that. This aspect of responsibility and trust to be pushed even further I think is a very good thing that might be underestimated.

But also something that we really like at BookingSync from distributed team is the fact that we can be multi-cultural. So working with people with different backgrounds, different experiences, different cultures, and that makes us more complete.

We want to be a company that is not just from a single [Unintelligible 00:19:22], but something that has seen the world, that understands different ways of thinking. And this is definitely something much easier to find when you work with remote people as well. And multi-time zones is a side benefit that goes with it. So it’s easier to be there more round the clock.

George: Have you found any challenges with being a distributed company or hiring remote staff?

Sébastien: Of course. Now that I have a large experience in building teams I used to be mostly starting businesses in various small teams of a few people. This is a bit bigger than I used to. But obviously the recent challenge is when you first hire somebody how can you make sure that this person is going to be reliable?

You end up working sometimes for six months or more with somebody without meeting this person. There are some challenges out there. It’s not always easy to sense the person. Or even in communication, no matter how much tools you use you don’t have the same feelings than we are in the same room. There are some emotions and feelings that doesn’t pass as well.

But I think if both parties are willing to work on it. And more and more you’re able to easily go to a video chat or something so you can see each other a bit more, everything is workable.

George: How do you onboard your staff across different locations?

Sébastien: It’s hard to compare. I don’t have too much experience of hiring more people like this before. I used to work usually more with friends and family, so that’s slightly different.

But hiring remotely and onboarding people remotely, we have to start for sure on the first months or so to be very close, so a lot of communication. Very quickly go on Skype calls, maybe even pairing. That can help. I think that’s the place to start, making sure communication… Don’t underestimate that.

George: One of the biggest things that a lot of entrepreneurs are talking about at the moment is how important it is to build a community around your business. And I’ve seen on your website that you place a big emphasis on this. How instrumental would you say that has been in the success of BookingSync?

Sébastien: It surely is. At the end of the day all these people that are managing vacation rentals are in a very small industry. It’s surprisingly amazing to see how close they are to each other. You go to the other side of the world and you already have a discussion with that person on this forum, on these places, check the same websites.

This industry is really, really small. And for sure being part of a community and trying to make people closer together brings more heart to that business. That’s the same as we try to be very personal when we interact with people. That’s why we do onboarding as well, so we make sure that your account is fully set-up instead phone calls. So we understand your business and making things right.

Being part of this community and involving ourselves into it is something that is I think crucial. And that has been extremely successful for us.

Today we’re at a point where we don’t really do any marketing efforts. We don’t have any paying ads anywhere or anything like this. We have more people that we can’t even onboard right now. Just basically by word of mouth and just being present on these different communities.

But it’s not even to sell the product, we’re just here to give advice, to say, “That’s what we have experienced, what we see works well.” By just trying to be there to help it really brings a big impact.

George: It’s great you managed to get to the point where you haven’t even got to market yourselves now. I think word of mouth counts for so much in this industry, right?

Sébastien: I think that’s the biggest thing. For me this comes directly from the vacation rental business itself. When you’re managing vacation rentals your best customers are your customers. If somebody’s happy for the holidays most of the time they bring somebody else. If you deceive somebody you will certainly lose them. It’s the same thing. It’s a service industry in the end.

George: True. Although you work remotely and the whole team works remotely, I know you try and organize retreats every so often. I believe you’ve just finished a company retreat. How was that and how do you design your retreats?

Sébastien: For sure we do value a lot company retreats. Even though this is the first one that we have I would say so big and official. The reason why is simply cost, because while we definitely want to be close to each other we also have financial constraints. Not to forget that we are not yet profitable. And so there money that our investors put in our hands needs to be used very carefully.

Yes, we have some people that work together for three years and never met. I will not especially advise this. But in the end this money that would’ve spent there I think at this time was certainly better spent somewhere else. So I would not regret this choice either.

But I’m very happy that last week we actually just came back from this retreat. We did a company retreat where there were 15 of us out of the 25. Not everybody could join, but at least more than half that were able to come were truly fully satisfied to finally meet some of us.

It was a bit different from common company retreats as well where you would usually put work aside and have a lot of activities and more team building and such. I think due to this profit aspect and this care of using investor’s money very carefully we also had this week finally of work.

It was just 15 of us moved in a couple of houses and worked for a week. But even though we were so into it, so happy to meet each other, to share meals and so on… Because when you work it’s not like you can share a restaurant easily. You could try to do it over Skype, that did happen, but it’s not the same experience. It’s not easy to pass the salt to your neighbor or something.

I think this company retreat experience that we started and that we have so far is a little bit on the different side than many. But I would still really recommend it for any company and startups out there. Be careful of your investor’s money. They trust you with it. Make sure you don’t abuse it. It’s not there just to have fun with friends or co-workers,

But this brings your team much closer together, even further than it was, and it really did for us.

George: I think a lot of companies don’t see the benefit in a company retreat if they haven’t been on one before, maybe haven’t looked into it. But we’ve seen ourselves, the amount of companies that have come through, and just the huge impact that the retreat has on the team is long-lasting. They go away and they’ve got that closer bond forever really, which I think is the big benefit.

Sébastien: I totally agree.

George: Moving away from BookingSync how do you personally find the digital nomad lifestyle?

Sébastien: Interesting question. I kind of move a little bit outside of it now. I definitely loved it. I did it for over 10 years and fully passionate about this lifestyle. But one thing I end up realizing that it’s not always easy for relationship purposes. When you want to get closer, make a family and so on, that can have some challenges as well. Maybe I was a bit too addicted to traveling, so changing places every now and then. Maybe that doesn’t help.

But now I’m more on a settled period. I’m living in Prague. I’m very happy to be here and keep traveling is something very dear to me but more occasional I would say, even though I came back from Greece and I’ll go to the US next week.

I still have a home and it’s actually nice to feel that you can put your clothes in your closet. That changed from living in a big for years.

George: I think it’s so great traveling and seeing the world, but it does get quite tiring when you’re living out of suitcase or a bag the whole time, constantly on the move.

Sébastien: At least it was for me. But I’d still recommend to anybody to try it. If they have this desire for having a nomadic lifestyle they should go do it. It’s something that is so enriching, so powerful. You meet so many people. It’s a life experience that you can never forget.

George: It’s life-changing, isn’t it? I know it’s a bit of a cliché that people say you go away traveling and you find yourself. But it is really life-changing, getting away and immersing yourself in a new culture and trying new things. I think it really does give you a different view on the world that you just can’t get if you stay in your hometown your whole life.

Sébastien: I totally agree. I think for entrepreneurs it’s maybe even required somehow, because you do extend this mindset as you say, and that’s what entrepreneurs need.

George: 100%. I think it’s interesting when you go away and you meet people who are doing similar things on the road. It’s just amazing hearing all the ideas they have, and the passion and the energy. Their new surroundings and the new country they’re in seem to feed that energy and their ideas.

Sébastien: I agree. You make me wish to travel again.

George: I think I might go and book another flight somewhere now actually. Seb, it was great to have you on the show. That’s everything I wanted to ask you. Is there anything else you wanted to say to our listeners?

Sébastien: Thanks a lot for the opportunity. I think maybe as a one more thing, if what you heard about BookingSync and my experience, which reflects a bit who we are is something interesting to you we keep looking for people to join us, whether that’s on customer care, making sure that we bring very high quality answers fast to our owners and agencies.

You can be remote. Absolutely no problem. That’s actually the only way. You can travel. There’s no problem with that, even better.

If you care about high quality, if you care about being close and friendly to each other, is respectful, and want to change the world. When you hear about people starving, that doesn’t feel right, we definitely want to help change that.

George: Brilliant. For anyone that is listening that is interested I will include all the relevant links below so you can get directly in contact with Seb. Seb, thank you very much for your time. It’s great to speak to you.

Sébastien: Thanks a lot George.

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