Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
I’m Ritesh Raj, the co-founder, and COO of CuddlyNest, an accommodation booking platform for travelers. I have a travel tech background of over 13 years—so I’ve been at it since 2009!
I launched CuddlyNest along with my co-founder Haitham Saead—whose background is in banking and the Big Four—when we realized we encountered the same pain points while traveling.
As it stands, CuddlyNest is the only online travel agency (OTA) that has all types of accommodations at your fingertips, centralized on a single platform. Our mission is to be the most diversified and accessible accommodation booking platform out there.
That means focusing on all kinds of travelers, who are looking for all kinds of property types, with all kinds of budgets. Our inventory currently includes over four million properties of all types in 80k+ cities!
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Ever since I grew up in a small, remote village in India, I’ve been interested in technology and creation in general. I decided to build a house in New Delhi, and there I had many friends come and stay. They were from all around the world, and their travel experiences inspired me so much that I decided to visit all of them—all across the world—and so I spent more than five years traveling to 100+ countries. After that formative experience, I decided to start my own travel tech OTA in the hopes of allowing every kind of traveler to find their perfect accommodation.
My co-founder and I discovered that, when planning a trip, we always encountered the same pain points: we were never able to see every single offer there was on one single OTA. If you wanted a different kind of property type, you’d have to switch from one website to another. We realized that there was a dire need to have all kinds of accommodation centralized in one single place. And we also realized that sometimes the cancellation fees were incredibly expensive—sometimes even more than the stay itself!—and found that ridiculous.
When we started developing the idea, we also repeatedly encountered that property owners had their pain points that needed fixing as well—high commission rates that were drastically eroding their earning potential. We set out to solve that with the CuddlyNest business model, which allows some owners to customize how much of the booking fee they’d like to take on.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
At first, it was all about understanding the startup costs: what was it going to take in terms of tech? And the business and marketing side? Turns out, it was a challenge, but one we were incredibly excited to take on.
Once we had at least a first idea of what the product would look like, what features were needed to stand out, and what was necessary to make it the greatest experience for our customers, we focused on bettering our speed, getting as many listed properties as possible and the best layout. It took us well over a year to build the platform, with a team of fantastic global talent from around the world. We set out to build a seamless and smooth experience that catered to every type of traveler.
Having a good idea is one thing—knowing how to execute it is another entirely. So firstly, have a clear roadmap as early on as possible, and stay faithful to your vision but learn to adjust whenever necessary.
We decided very early on that we wanted to be a remote working structure from the very beginning, that way we wouldn’t have to deal with uprooting costs and setting up an office.
We also had to take into consideration the huge amount of competition there’s out there—we studied (and we keep studying) every action and direction they take, so we can always be a few steps ahead.
One thing we didn’t expect at all (as I’m sure none of us did, actually) was, of course, Covid. The pandemic was, without a doubt, the biggest setback we’ve had. We’re a travel company! Need I say more?
We were unprepared; it took the entire world by surprise, including us. But thankfully, we were able to pull through. We persisted and survived. And now we’re finalizing our mobile app, bettering our customer experience, and designing new marketing campaigns. So when life goes back to normal, we’re ready to travel with all of you.
Describe the process of launching the business.
When we first started, we reached out to friends and family and were able to raise an initial round of funding. Then, after we developed and refined our business model to make it as foolproof as possible, we raised more funding through private angel investors. Since 2017, we’ve raised over US$14M and we expect to keep growing. We look forward to having our team keep growing and evolving, adding more team members, and working to make CuddlyNest the best accommodation OTA there ever was. We’ll be soft-launching in various additional markets this year, so stay tuned.
My trips for the past years helped me understand the pain points that easily arise when you’re trying to book someplace to stay. During my trips, I’ve connected with a lot of people across hostels, hotels, and more. I’ve been able to put all that small talk—and by extension, knowledge—to effective use in developing CuddlyNest’s features.
We like to keep our eye on traveler habits in real-time, without relying on outdated data that changes significantly from one instant to the next.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
I think that being very close to what we believe in has been the most important thing in terms of gaining new customers. We wanted to create something that would be useful to us—at the beginning, it started as something that we needed ourselves. And now it’s turned into something that we really believe can change the way the travel industry works. So we hope that people eventually realize that our business model is different and in tune with their needs, be it property owners or travelers seeking a new adventure.
We also try to stand out with our features and inventory. All types of accommodations, free cancellation fees where possible, lowered commission rates for property owners. In a nutshell, everything that matters to both guests and property owners so that we have ourselves returning customers.
I make decisions every single day, and the scary thing about that is that I’ll know the results of bad decisions until months later. I have a vision, but not a crystal ball, which makes this a really scary game to play, but hopefully, one that also leads to success.
During the pandemic it was virtually impossible to attract new customers—the majority of people reduced both leisure and business travel. But our marketing team realized that travelers were eager to go back to their previous way of living whenever it was allowed, so we launched the campaign “Plan Now, Stay Later”, with the idea of allowing our customers to dream their stays months in advance. This wasn’t a conversion campaign. We needed to voice our opinion on travel safety at that time, and I’m glad that we did.
We learned a lot through the process of surviving the pandemic. We are aware that a lot of companies had to cut their workforce just to stay afloat, and we were lucky to maintain the business and our employees, and we’ll be here and ready whenever travelers are ready. We’re working hard to have the best platform for when that moment comes.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
The pandemic is not over, so we’re trying our best to do what we set out to do. Hopefully, the market opens up soon and we’ll be able to have a product that matches what the consumers want in travel accommodation.
In terms of our team, we’re growing and expanding. Over the next months, we look forward to hiring more than fifty new employees and beginning to set up physical roots in Barcelona.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Through the process of building CuddlyNest, though, we’ve learned to be aware of the scale of the process when it becomes bigger and bigger, and there is a learning curve with that.
I make decisions every single day, and the scary thing about that is that I’ll know the results of bad decisions until months later. I have a vision, but not a crystal ball, which makes this a really scary game to play, but hopefully, one that also leads to success. It’s all about trying to make the best decisions and reacting accordingly when sometimes it doesn’t work out the way I planned it.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We’re big fans of the agile methodology and Jira is our source of truth. I can’t imagine navigating our day-to-day without it!
We use flows for our email marketing. In terms of communication, we use Slack—no surprise there. And then, of course, we’re big fans of Google Drive.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I draw a lot of inspiration from listening to different podcasts like REI’s Wild Ideas Worth Living, The World Nomad’s Travel Podcast and, more focused on entrepreneurship, How I Built This with Guy Raz is one of my favorites. All of these keep me inspired and I try my best to include a bit of them into my daily walk.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
The best advice I can give any entrepreneur that’s starting right now is to have a clear understanding of the execution of their vision. Having a good idea is one thing—knowing how to execute it is another entirely. So firstly, have a clear roadmap as early on as possible, and stay faithful to your vision but learn to adjust whenever necessary.
It’s also imperative to have a close tight rate in the burn rate—the pace at which a new company is running through its startup capital ahead of it generating any positive cash flow—so you can have a proper runway;, being aware of how long you’re going to be able to run the company, and making decisions to pivot when necessary.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We sure are! We have more clarity about the future compared to the early days of the pandemic. We’re hoping the potential scenario is to be as close to pre-pandemic as possible, and with full confidence are looking to grow our team with new members. We’ll have remote openings in product management, tech, marketing, and content Which is a lot, and we’re excited to keep growing! To apply to one of our open roles, please check out our LinkedIn—and please feel free to email us with an unsolicited application.
Where can we go to learn more?
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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