The startup journey offers entrepreneurs the possibility to grow an unconventional idea into a global, enduring and category leading business.
Mews Systems co-founders Richard Valtr and Matthijs Welle share their journey from the idea for a better check-in experience for hotels to a fast growing hospitality tech business.
What got you started on your journey with Mews?
Richard: I first started thinking about Mews when I was building a hotel in Prague. The idea was not to have a reception desk that receptionists could hide behind. Without the reception as a barrier between guests and the hotel, clients would feel more comfortable while staff would be more flexible to really nail that guest experience.
Since there was no space for workstations without a reception, Mews was originally supposed to be an app used by iPad toting receptionists to check in guests and communicate with them.
But when I had a meeting with Oracle to discuss this idea, I learned about a huge underlying problem in the industry: an outdated backend system which made it insanely complicated to link up new tech solutions.
As an industry professional, Matt (now our CEO) immediately understood this problem and together we realized that we could only revolutionise the way things are done by eradicating the need for that backend.
Matt: I’d worked in various departments for Hilton for about ten years and was super frustrated with how our low-tech approach created a disjointed guest experience.
When I met Richard and he told me about how he wanted to change that by creating an entirely different approach, I was in straight away. I knew we could make something of this because if I was struggling with this issue, there must be many hoteliers out there feeling the same way.
When we got started, we were both experienced and inexperienced at the same time. With our hospitality background, we knew what the industry needed and thought we’d have an easy time creating it. But then we learned why most people don’t try to build hotel tech solutions: because they’re so complex… way more complex than we anticipated!
It took us four months to create a product we could test at our first hotel. For what felt like ages we were fixing system crashes, rebuilding the accounting parts of the system, adding multi-currency options and much more. It was tough but we pressed on…
How was your idea initially received by potential investors?
Richard: In the last two years we’ve had extraordinary success, but in those first three years we felt like we were out in the wilderness. While we were trying to build the product we wanted, we had to figure out a way to make enough money to survive and keep going.
A lot of investors we met in Central Europe wanted to control our project and to always keep a back door open. Since that approach would have compromised our vision, we preferred to stay super lean rather than accepting cash with strings attached.
When we did end up raising seed money in 2016 and going into Series A funding in 2018 in the Netherlands, it was a very positive experience for us. In our current partner, Notion, we have found an investor who supports our vision not just wanting to cover their backside.
Matt: As we were building this complex product it was quite hard to get traction initially. Some investors told us to stick to creating a simple check-in app we could integrate with other systems. Other investors wanted us to create a light product to sell super cheap that we could scale quickly. But that wasn’t what we wanted since it wouldn’t have addressed the underlying problem of the cumbersome backend.
We struggled with getting people to see our vision, so we had very little money at the beginning. That turned out to be an advantage in the long run because it forced us to remain extremely agile in how we built the product and eliminate a lot of things, ultimately making the product better.
When we met Jos White, our partner at Notion, he grasped the idea very quickly and we knew we had found someone we wanted to work with. Notion are a group of entrepreneurs who built their own successful SaaS business, and they seemed to really understand the power of supporting founders, rather than limiting them.
What was the vision for the company and how has that changed?
Matt: Our vision was and still is to deliver an innovative enterprise-grade solution with open APIs. I think we are doing that extremely well and we didn’t think we’d get this far, this fast. Automating payments was the next logical step. Uber was our model: you call the car, get in, arrive and get out without pulling out your wallet. We’ve enabled this for hotels but didn’t anticipate it being such a game changer.
Our vision has always been to create a powerful tech solution to help a very human industry behave in the most human way. If we had known we were building such a giant fintech system, we may not have gone down this route. But knowing the impact it has had on so many parts of the system shows it was important to do this.
What’s your experience been of hiring game changers?
Matt: We’ve been successful with many key hires, like our amazing Head of People. She elevates the leadership team and has brought in an even higher calibre of people. She and other recent great hires are going to help us scale.
However, some people we’ve brought in didn’t fit our company culture. On some occasions, we had a hunch that a candidate’s style didn’t match ours, but we still went ahead, only to learn that we shouldn’t have. This taught us the hard way that we need to think of who we are as a company and make sure candidates are a good match during our hiring conversations.
Richard: Yes, we have done well, but it’s bloody difficult! If you think about it, anyone who has been successful somewhere, was successful for a reason, be it company culture, a good support system, great resources or a combination of it all.
You might see some people as game changers because of where they’ve worked. But for someone to do well and bring major change and new ideas, there has to be some chemistry. This is what we’ve experienced with the people who have truly elevated us.
How does culture translate between all the different offices?
Matt: Last year we went from a team of 50 people to 250. In this time of rapid growth, we learned that we needed to clearly define our culture. We decided on our values as a team and made it clear that we wanted our hires to match this. While our HQ in Prague has a different vibe from our offices in Amsterdam, Paris and London, the culture everywhere is broadly the same.
Richard: The personality of every location is different, but our leaders all have the common goal of moving the company forward and proving their worth.
How important are the people on the journey with you?
Richard: The people define the product. Personality, culture and soft skills are key because they create a shared understanding. This helps my team act on my feedback and continuously improve our product.
Matt: My job has shifted from working on the product itself to training and guiding the people who are working on it now. We need their help to scale and reach the next level.
What are you biggest challenges, both personal and professional?
Richard: Letting go of senior members of the team is a challenge. We have had to ask ourselves whether it’s right to keep somebody who is a high achiever but maybe one where the company has different needs for the phase it now finds itself in.
Matt: We aim to have an open organisation, where we can debate products and features. At Mews, we don’t want to hide things from people because it doesn’t feel right.
Building a big business must take its toll on you, how do you cope?
Matt: You have to be able to say no to things. I’ve learned that if I pick up the phone or look at my inbox after 7 pm, I won’t sleep or perform the next day, so I just don’t. I wake up at 5.30 to go to the gym. If I don’t, I get back pain. It’s all about finding a rhythm and sticking to it. Travel can make this difficult because I might skip the gym and find myself in an unhealthy pattern.
Richard: I’m in a slightly different situation. I don’t have the luxury of sleep as I’ve got a 6-month old baby. Being able to find a way for your brain to recharge and rebalance is important after long, demanding days. Especially when it comes to managing a growing team and new demands, things can get challenging. As we’ve grown, I’ve gone back to reading and find it has a positive impact on me and my work.
What surprised you the most about your journey and what have you learned throughout?
Matt: Coming out of the hotel world, I realised the people work hard but there is little talent. Working in a start-up was refreshing because it attracts so many talented people. Being around them challenges my mind in a completely different way than working in a hotel and pushes me to always work at maximum capacity. That’s rewarding but exhausting at the same time. You haven’t worked hard until you’ve worked in a start-up with no money.
Richard: I’m surprised at how we’ve often had a good gut feeling about people and their ability to learn and quickly scale. I’ve learned that it’s not about having been to Oxbridge or having worked at Google, but about having the ability to move things forward.
Looking around now, I wonder if it’s good to have so much money floating around the start-up ecosystem because I don’t think we’d have developed the same grit had we gotten $2 M in the first six months. The vision would have stayed the same, but the people who supported us from the beginning are what make Mews what it is.
Who inspires you?
Matt: One person who inspires me is Melissa Di Donato, an XiR at Notion. We love listening to her because she’s been on the ground working with customers for so long, there’s no scenario she can’t find an answer to, and often that answer is a surprising one. Others just repeat the same thing at every conference, as well as on every podcast, and that adds no value for me.
Also, the Notion Platform really works. While many investors talk about adding value, they really don’t. For example, if I get an invite to one of Notion’s educational sessions, I always check it out because I know their events and speakers are worth my time.
Richard: Instead of following a few icons, I prefer to let bits and pieces from many people inspire me. When I’ve found one idea which could work for us, we incorporate these pings of inspiration. As Mews has grown, I realized that not even the biggest leaders like Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos built everything themselves. They all had teams, so that’s what I look at.
On another note, Stephen Millard from Notion has been amazing. We bounce our ideas off him and he always knows somebody who can help with a problem we’re tackling – that’s a very underrated aspect of working with Notion.
When you were starting out, what would you say to your younger self?
Richard: Do it earlier. I look back at myself now in my 20s and think ‘what was I doing?’. It is difficult to get things off the ground, but it would have been beneficial to join a start-up to gain experience and get on that exponential learning curve instead of waiting to have something to fall back on. Maybe even failing at another start-up could have helped me learn to get Mews off the ground faster and make it better.
Matt: For me, I’ve been extremely structured during every step of my career. From 16, everything was building up to me being a hotel General Manager. I never thought I’d run a PMS company, but I get much more out of my work now than I did running a hotel.
It’s those people with a clear, structured goal, who have to make a crazy decision and take a punt. If you’ve got a good resume, there’s always something to fall back on. Sometimes, I wish I’d made my crazy decision earlier. At the same time, my work experience was very valuable, so I think it all worked out well.
What advice would you give to an entrepreneur taking VC funding?
Matt: Every VC has a different goal when investing with you and you need to know where their focus lies. Is it on the product, realistic growth or something else? It was always important to us to keep control of the company. When VCs didn’t agree, we walked away and that proved to be the right decision.
There’s a lot of advice out there and not all of it is good. You need to be able to listen to it, analyse it and decide what you think is the right thing to do. If necessary, that means walking away from a VC who seems too extreme. Remember, you understand every aspect of your business much more deeply than someone who just heard your 15-minute presentation.
Richard: As someone who’s just started a company, you can get incredibly jealous of the money another idea has raised, especially if you think yours is much better (which you obviously do!).
Don’t start focusing on the money too soon though. It’s a means to an end and unless you have a specified end, money is not the solution because it can’t make up for a lack of strategy.