Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello, my name is Vivian Chen and I am the owner of Modern Innkeeper. We design toiletries and guest amenity kits for short-term rental properties. Our mission is to empower rental hosts with unique supplies & resources and to improve the vacation rental guest experience – one guest, one product, one vacation at a time.
Our main products are the guest toiletry kits. Each kit includes all the essential travel size toiletries one or two people need for a getaway. Modern Innkeeper is an online resource for design-conscious hosts to offer their guests the same details as a larger hotel.
We primarily serve the needs of small hospitality owners, such as owners of vacation rentals, Airbnb, farm stays, campgrounds, cabins, cottages, small inns, and bed & breakfast.
Owners of these smaller properties often do not have the space to store supplies or the budget to order large quantities for the long-term. We deliver the kits in cases. The current kits come in 8 kits per case or 4 kits per case. Depending on each host’s booking demand, one case can last one week or one month.
The host can simply re-stock each month by easily ordering on our online store. They save the time to go shopping each time before guests check-in and they avoid ending up with mismatched amenities.
Design can influence guest experience and the details are often overlooked. Our kits are designed with the hosts and guests in mind. We focus on the health & wellness of travelers. The kits look good in any guest room or bathroom. They are also travel-friendly.
Guests can take them home as a gift (the importance of guest experience in hospitality). Everything is travel-sized and designed for travel, so guests can even put the kits in their carry on luggage before going through airports.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I took over Modern Innkeeper from the original owner. She created the first line of kits in 2015 after operating a small inn and vacation rental in Central California. She found that there was a lack of toiletries available to small property owners, especially vacation rental owners. She created the kits to fill that niche. She also ran a high-end food business with her husband. They did not have enough time for this business, so she put it up for sale. I took over in late 2018, but did not get to work on Modern Innkeeper until mid-2020.
I am based in Los Angeles and I have been working in the hotel industry since 2009. I was involved in many areas of the hotel business – design, procurement, financial analysis, real estate, investment, and development.
My academic background is in business, real estate, and law. I have an undergraduate degree in business, executive program certifications in hotel real estate and hospitality marketing, and a Master’s degree in business law.
The purchase of Modern Innkeeper was my first exercise in buying and selling companies after law school. Given my background in the hotel industry, Modern Innkeeper is a good fit for me. I understand the hotel business. I have many ideas I could apply to the vacation rental sector through Modern Innkeeper.
Starting and running businesses require one to take on many perspectives, so it’s important to keep an open mind and be curious about whatever interests you.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Currently, we are mainly an online retailer and wholesaler. Creating a new product is one of the most challenging parts and one of the most exciting parts of running a product business. Everything from the ingredients, labeling, packaging, usefulness, colors, shapes, dimensions, weight, and utility are considered.
We have some product ideas going through stages of research, design, and development. We plan to introduce new products and concepts to the public in 2021 or 2022.
Describe the process of launching the business.
When I took over in 2018, sales were exclusively through Amazon. The business was solely dependent on Amazon and had no activity on social media and no marketing. We had a mailing list but it was not being used. I took over a turnkey eCommerce store with a proven list of customers. It was what I was looking for – a built-out ecommerce business with proven market demand, under-managed and waiting for me to grow it.
Our main sales channel is the website, and secondary sales channel is Amazon. Selling on Amazon was a good short-term solution and a good way to test the market, but I’m here to build a long-term company. Relying on Amazon for sales is not a long-term strategy. You cannot build relationships with your customers with Amazon in the middle. Amazon a supplemental sales channel and part of an overall strategy, not the primary focus.
The focus is on building the brand. We have control of our customer information and we are consistently active on social media and email marketing. We can study visitor behavior and find ways to cultivate relationships. We’re building our customer base with long-term vision. We have many repeat customers who keep coming back because our products are affordable and convenient. We make running their rental businesses efficient. We also attract many rental new hosts looking for a connection on social media.
The pandemic destroyed the travel & lodging industry. As a vacation rental supplier, we have been affected by the decrease in travel demand as well. But vacation rentals have been doing better than hotels in booking demand. Before Florida opened up for business this summer, a host of 120 units ordered from us to restock all 120 units. I also had many orders mainly from hosts who were preparing their Airbnb rentals for guests when travel started picking up again in June.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Consistency, focus, and perseverance.
Consistently creating relevant, useful, refreshing content drive engagement and attract customers. Good communication and quality customer service retain customers. Our repeat customers keep coming back to us because we meet a need and we deliver it in a simple, practical, and convenient way for them. We make them look good for their guests.
We focus on learning about our customers (rental hosts) and their needs. Modern Innkeeper is more of a B2B than B2C. We have customers ranging from starter Airbnb hosts to owners of hundreds of units, so how we approach each customer depends on who they are and their needs. We want to build relationships with them as they go through their rental journey. We don't want to just make a quick sale and never hear from them again. Our hosts are excited to share their places with us and tell us their story. We find opportunities for them to do that with us.
It’s tempting to sell trendy items and offer a lot of products, but it’s important to focus on your strengths and the “why” you got into business in the first place. Focus on your strengths and where you can win. Get out of businesses you can’t win in. I have many ideas and I get excited thinking about how to develop them. But I always need to remind myself and ask, “Does it align with the company mission? Is it something my core customers want and need?” You can’t be everything to everyone. Stay focused and don’t offer more than you can handle.
Building a business is a marathon. I am here to grow slowly and consistently, instead of running a short sprint and then crash and burn. We are not here to grow at a tech startup pace. We are here to grow at a pace we're comfortable with, for the long-term. I never see myself as a startup founder who builds a unicorn product, takes on investors, and scales without actual profit. I see myself as a small business CEO who was appointed by the board and shareholders to serve the company. And as the CEO, my job is to craft a vision that aligns with the stakeholders' vision and perform to the best of my ability to execute the mission. My job is to be the orchestra conductor who can move the organization forward and achieve new heights - to build the orchestra and make sure each section can do its job to get us all closer to the vision. I serve the business and I answer to the stakeholders.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Modern Innkeeper is doing fine and it fills a niche in a growing sector of the hospitality industry. We are 100% online. The outlook for the global vacation rental market is expected to grow at a steady rate every year for the next 10 years. As the world population continues to increase, travel continues to increase. We live in a very connected world and travel becomes more and more convenient every year. I am optimistic for the future Modern Innkeeper. Relationships with customers are something we aim to cultivate.
The short-term goal is to continue to build our network of hosts and acquire a certain percentage of new customers each month while strengthening relationships with existing customers. In the short-term, I also want to bring more products to the market.
For the long term, I want to continue to create products that focus on guest health & wellness. I also hope to use my experience and knowledge to develop real estate.
The vacation rental sector is different from the hotel sector but within the same industry with many similarities, so there are many ideas I want to improve, tweak, change, or cross-implement. I have many ideas I want to try, which is what keeps me excited about running Modern Innkeeper. I have a lot of interest in product design, industrial design, and architectural design. Modern Innkeeper is a platform where I can pursue these interests along with my experience in real estate and my knowledge of the hotel industry. Building a business is a thrilling adventure. I fully embrace the thrill and I look forward to seeing how Modern Innkeeper evolves.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I learned that one must take on many perspectives and adapt for survival. Things rarely come out exactly the way you planned and expected. This applies to work and personal life.
I learned that life is much more fulfilling when your work has meaning. Being a business owner and working for yourself feels much more energizing than working a corporate job. You work with a sense of purpose, and you directly reap the benefits of the results. You are not merely just trading time for pay and enriching others. I wake up each day excited thinking about how to build and expand Modern Innkeeper, and which new customers will order my kits for their rental. I'm excited to connect with rental hosts and see how they prepare their places for guests. The motivations for owning a business are more than monetary. There are reasons or motivations for owning a business that cannot be measured by money.
I learned that you can’t do everything yourself. You have to evaluate your SWOT and leverage your non-strengths. You have to be thinking three steps ahead in every situation so you’re not caught off guard when things happen. In starting and running a business, sometimes it’s an advantage to be an overthinker. I learned that it’s necessary to manage your time, find the right help, and to stay curious.
Nobody has all the skills they need for their business, but the ability to find the right people to fill the gaps is one of the most important skills to have as the business owner. You don’t have to know everything, but you need to know a little bit about everything and know enough to find the right people to help you.
It’s important to stay informed, so keep an eye on industry trends and never stop learning. Airbnb now outnumbers the aggregate number of hotel rooms across the top five hotel chains, so when I saw an opportunity to be a part of the short-term rental ecosystem through Modern Innkeeper, I took it.
And as we speak, Airbnb filed for IPO last week. That is good news for all the hosts and their suppliers. I also keep an eye on legislation affecting short-term rentals and how policies could affect the way they conduct business locally. Hotels are not going anywhere. Airbnb won’t replace hotels. There is some overlap but there is enough room for everybody.
I learned that it is advantageous to be in a position where you have been in your chosen field long enough to realize trends and seize those opportunities. Don’t be ignorant, because “I didn’t know better” is not an excuse. Read industry newsletters, read about people, read about outside trends, and think about how that could affect your business. Ask questions. Google everything. Stay curious.
And don't follow passion. Passion is whimsical. It can change month to month. Following passion is bad advice. Follow effort and opportunity. Follow what you spend the majority of time working on or thinking about, because that's where you most easily accumulate the '10,000 hour rule' to greatness.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
- Sales: Shopify
- Email: Flodesk
- Operations: Slack, Trello, G Suite
- Freelance: Upwork
- Accounting: Bench
- Social Media: Later, Sprout Social
- Marketing: Animoto, Canva
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I tend to read shorter pieces such as online articles, business journals, industry publications, and whitepapers. I also spend quite a lot of time browsing on social media for ideas and inspiration. I follow brands and news sources.
If I feel like I need to learn more in-depth about a topic, I would order books. My library consists of mostly textbooks and books about business, real estate, law, design, and architecture.
In college, I would skip classes every week and go to the bookstore to read books and magazines from the business section and self-help section. I got into the habit of regularly reading The Economist, Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Inc., Entrepreneur, and Architectural Digest. When I read about someone or a topic I’m interested in, I would Google that and try to learn everything I can about it. With people, mostly leaders of industry and prominent figures, I read about their background and their road to success.
In terms of books on general business knowledge, I find the reading list of top MBA programs to be very helpful. Works by Michael Porter, Peter Drucker, and Jim Collins are good places to start for books on management. I also like Seth Godin and Malcolm Gladwell’s books for unique insights on social behavior.
As for getting into the entrepreneur mindset, a great place to start would be Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad Poor Dad. This was one of the first business books I read outside of class during college.
Starting and running businesses require one to take on many perspectives, so it’s important to keep an open mind and be curious about whatever interests you. Besides reading, I find that listening to music has helped me generate new ideas.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
1. Use your youth, education, energy, and knowledge to your advantage. You may be younger than many colleagues or employees, but you may be more educated and more knowledgeable than them. Present yourself in a way that commands the recognition and respect you deserve. Don’t just tell them. Show them. Let the quality of your work speak for itself.
2. Avoid black and white thinking; it’s doesn’t do anyone any good. Not everything is “black and white” or “win vs lose.” There are shades of gray and many times the solutions are in the gray area.
3. Find your support system and build it. Be selective in who you choose to listen to. If you listen to anyone and everyone, you won’t get far.
4. Communication is everything. Good and constant communication can save a lot of time and mistakes. Poor communication can delay or kill a project. It can be beyond frustrating to work with people who cannot communicate consistently and proficiently to drive the team through the finish line.
5. Being organized can save a lot of time and money. Create a system where you can stay on top of everything. Be organized in every aspect of the business – the facts, the resources, the people, the plans, your position against competitors, your short-term and long-term goals.
6. Be proactive, not reactive. Don’t scramble to put out the fire after it has been set off. Don’t be the person always playing catch up. Be the one on the offense who has already thought about how the defense would react. Have a Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C. You want to lead the chess game, not just survive it. This includes being proactive in learning as well.
7. Hire the right people. One bad team member not carrying his/her weight can sow resentment among the other team members who must share the responsibility. Look for substance, not pomp. Watch what they do, not what they say. Some people are great at selling and talking, but lack the attention to detail and the ability to execute.
8. Find a way to cope. Starting and running a business can be very frustrating. We all run into difficult employees and difficult vendors. Find a way to cope with these difficult people and bad days. Go out for a drive. Take a walk. Have a plan to handle these obstacles and don’t let them affect your bottom line. Just stay away from drugs and alcohol. When I was working on my law degree while working full-time, I would study late at night because those were the quiet hours when I could focus. I studied every night and every weekend and coped with burnout by taking many TV breaks throughout the day.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
None currently, but I occasionally hire for certain positions on an as-needed basis. Many are creative and technical positions, such as photographer, copywriter, industrial designer, data scientist, and web developer.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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