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Interview with CEO, Johann Jenson

07 Oct 2013

Interview with CEO, Johann Jenson

With its beaches and national wildlife parks, Kenya is regarded as one of the world’s top holiday destinations.

And taking this reputation into consideration, the founders of Africa and Middle East online hotel booking website say the website is growing quickly and that Kenya is key to their business strategy.

SleepOut allows tourists to book hotels, but also base their decisions on reviews from other visitors who have been to these places before.

So, ITWeb Africa has caught up with Johann Jenson, SleepOut’s chief executive officer and has sought to find out why the website has garnered attention despite it operating in a highly contested market.

ELLY OKUTOYI: Kindly tell us what SleepOut is and the main services you offer.

JOHANN JENSON: SleepOut connects travellers looking for a cool place to stay with hosts and their empty beds. We aim to make booking accommodation in Africa and the Middle East easier by focusing on choice, value, efficiency and trust. Travelers can book a hotel room for a night, an apartment for a week or a castle for a month.

ELLY OKUTOYI: When did you have the idea to form SleepOut , and what was the main motivation behind this?

JOHANN JENSON: We built our first accommodation booking portal in Lamu, a small island of 20,000 inhabitants and 3,000 donkeys. Our original goal was to make accommodation on the island accessible and affordable. Because of our success on this small island we had a feeling that if we could replicate what we did well that SleepOut could be huge. We still are very careful to stay true to the original concept that we built on Lamu Island, focusing on genuine recommendations, providing unique accommodation options, and working closely with hosts while finding the best deal for every potential guest.

ELLY OKUTOYI: How has the reception been like among the public and more so, the target users?

JOHANN JENSON: Our Kenyan pilot site ( has been a great success although like any great product there are always improvements to be made. What we have learned is that SleepOut users are generally very passionate about the product because travel is something fun and exciting. Kenya's incredible accommodation options are a source of pride to our team and users who are constantly amazed at how many beautiful homes, resorts and hotels the country has to offer. When we launched the Kenyan site in June 2012, the growth in users was far higher than what we had expected despite some of the shortcomings of the old platform.

ELLY OKUTOYI: What are some of the milestones in terms of numbers you have been able to achieve over the time since you started operating?

JOHANN JENSON: We built to handle a maximum of 500 booking requests as a pilot service to work the kinks out before launching across Africa and the Middle East. Due to this unexpected exponential growth we have had to adapt to now handle the 4,000+ monthly booking requests and 100,000+ visitors that we currently receive. Since we launched our new host interface last week in the lead up to our upcoming launch we have had accommodation offered in at least 15 countries from Tel Aviv to Buenos Aires to Mauritius to Cape Town. While our core focus is Africa and the Middle East, the demand and growth potential for SleepOut in other emerging markets is enormous.

ELLY OKUTOYI: Are you facing any competition in your area of operation and if so, who are some of your competitors?

JOHANN JENSON: There are a few big boys in our industry mainly running out of the US and Europe but nothing that has been tailored to developing countries in the way that SleepOut was built. We feel that by focusing on working closely with hosts and providing excellent variety on the supply side of the equation that we will be able to bring a great deal of added value to any companies working in this space trying to growth hack from their office in San Francisco or Amsterdam.

ELLY OKUTOYI: What makes SleepOut unique from the online hotel booking portals?

JONANN JENSON: SleepOut is the first travel service to truly combine the ability to book commercial accommodation (hotels, resorts and lodges) with vacation rentals and peer-to-peer accommodation. As a one-stop-shop for finding a place to stay, SleepOut provides an alternative to traditional cookie cutter booking portals that all rely on the same feed of 3 to 5 star hotels. Being an accommodation host is already very demanding so we built a marketplace platform that had to be easy enough for your Swahili grandmother and flexible enough for a luxury hotel revenue manager to list and rent out their empty beds at any price point.

ELLY OKUTOYI: How has the journey been like so far, in terms of the challenges you have experienced?

JOHANN JENSON: Starting a company is difficult, but launching a world-class tech product in a sub-saharan African country comes with its hardships. Besides infrastructure and unreliable banking services, our greatest challenge stemmed from building trust with our users, both guests and hosts. First-time hosts or guests on SleepOut can be apprehensive especially if the place they're looking to book doesn't have any user reviews and particularly so if they're used to booking accommodation offline via their local travel agent. Additionally, building software is a tedious task and with limited resources we needed to maximize our output and efficiency sometimes working 18 hour days to churn out high quality code and an awesome user experience.

ELLY OKUTOYI: So far, how have you been able to overcome these challenges?

JOHANN JENSON: I think we're dealing with them quite well. Over time you need to learn to handle the stress that comes with running your own startup. Taking time to evaluate choices and reflecting on your strategy only comes when you take the time to step back and take it all in. If there is one thing that our team has learned in the early stages of setting up SleepOut it is that focusing on building quality and taking the time to get things done right the first time around most often pays off.

ELLY OKUTOYI: SleepOut has been selected as one of the Top 40 startups for this year’s DEMO Africa event in Nairobi, what was the main reason behind you participating in DEMO Africa?

JOHANN JENSON: Since November last year we scraped our old codebase and re-built SleepOut from the ground up; new architecture, new servers, new pretty much everything. We have adapted our service for internationalization and built a powerful new user-generated marketplace in a matter of months. DEMO was the perfect platform to launch this made in Africa product and it could not have been better. Well, actually if we had a few more weeks we might have slept a little more but yes we are looking forward to tell the world about the new at DEMO.

ELLY OKUTOYI: What are some of the expectations you have for the event, and how are you looking to benefit from the whole experience?

JOHANN JENSON: Fundraising for any startup comes to mind and although it is an important aspect of any tech conference we attend, we also look forward to meeting other teams around the continent and sharing our war stories and achievements. We find that being immersed at events like DEMO builds a sense of comradely amongst the participating teams and contributes to a much healthier ecosystem.

ELLY OKUTOYI: Am sure there are many other entrepreneurs out there looking to venture into the Africa tech scene. What advice would you give to such people and more specifically in technology?

JOHANN JENSON: Run for the hills. Haha. No seriously: run for the hills. Ok, I'm kidding but seriously. Remember those battle of the band competitions you used to see back in the day where aspiring rockstars would do up their hair and go head to head on stage for millions of fans to decide their fate? Well, sometimes tech entrepreneurship can feel like you're the one in the hair band with all of the embarrassment and uncertainty that comes with trying to please your friends, girlfriends, family, investors, colleagues and partners. Most of the time however it's an inspiring process and quite possibly the most fulfilling career decision you will ever make.

ELLY OKUTOYI: Do you have any parting shot for our readers?

JOHANN JENSON: Remember that failure is OK and should be embraced. Be willing to share your story and yes many people will 'borrow' your ideas but look at every new conversation you have as at worst an opportunity to convert a loyal user and at best as a conduit for invaluable ideas to surface from that piece of confidential information you should not have let slip out.

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