Zilyo Case Study

Interview with the CEO behind the startup that’s creating a unique & affordable travel experinece


Note: I’ve officially launched the Agile Existence collaborative community. I’ll be publishing there from now on – along with many others. Join the new movement here at agileexistence.com.

One common challenge for aspiring entrepreneurs is access to advice from those a few steps ahead. Despite the copious amounts of information accessible through the Internet, I believe there is still a place for learning from one on one conversations. This idea motivated me to publish a series of interviews with entrepreneurs from all corners.

I felt this interview should be published first because it relates to my recent post on travel hacking.

Topics covered include:

  • Idea generation, & selection
  • Customer development
  • MVPs
  • Time to launch
  • Key skills necessary to launch
  • Tipping points
  • Mistakes
  • Marketing & PR
  • Outsourcing
  • What’s next for the company

I wont keep you waiting — enjoy!

Describe who you are, and what your current startup does in 2-3 sentences? Hi, I’m Hamed, just turned 22, and I am currently the CEO of Zilyo, Inc (founded in April 2013). We’re a search engine for the sharing economy in the travel space. That means we return results to consumers who are looking to book short term rentals, ride shares, or experiences from over 30 sites so far.

Is this your first startup? This is my first actual startup that survived more than 2 weeks, yes.

What is the website URL for your startup? https://zilyo.com

How did you come across this idea and what key beliefs did you hold at that time? Solving a problem and wrapping a business around it is key for a successful company. I was watching my parents trying to book a cottage up in Mont Tremblant. I noticed they had more than 20 different tabs open on their screen, and they were taking prices down on paper to compare them. Someone needed to create a tool to ease the way to search and book short term vacation rentals online from any provider you want. I guess that was going to be us.

How did you cover rent in the early stages? We rented out a room from a friend’s apartment for a very cheap price. We picked up tables from a dumpster including chairs.That stuff was really heavy, and we had to transport it for almost half a kilometer, by foot.

What lead to the decision to take this idea forward? What other business ideas have you considered but rejected, and why? Starting a business that has a clear monetization strategy from day 1 is usually the easiest way to convince your peers and folks that what you are doing is not crazy. It also removes lots of awkward conversations with investors explaining a complex business strategy. I would definitely consider doing a crazy “moloso” (mobile, local, social) startup after this.

What research did you do before building anything? (Please mention tools, and logic) Nothing. I heard that kids my age usually code a small program and apply to an accelerator to see if it’s worthy quitting everything else in order to pursue it. And that’s what we did. We built an app, and applied to an accelerator. We got refused, but it didn’t matter, our users at the time were a good enough motivation to continue to build something for them.

How many potential customers did you interview before building the MVP? Zero. I was convinced this is something that a lot of people wanted hence my parents were having this issue before our product (the need to have all results in one search with one user experience).

How long did it take you to get from idea to first MVP? It took us (my co-founder and I) 24hrs to build the first prototype. It was certainly minimal, but it was not viable yet. We found out that this product is actually very hard to build because data accessibility was very hard at the time. I would say that our first MVP was done a couple weeks later after the idea stage.

What was the MVP? It consists of a working search in which it would return results and place them on a map. Here’s how it looked.

How long did it take for the startup to go from launching the MVP to becoming profitable? (Or generating revenue) It didn’t take us long to earn our first buck after we launched our MVP (a week max).

What were your key competencies, and resources, (background knowledge, skills, contacts, capital, and credibility indicators) that were essential for your early successes? What did you lack in, and how did you compensate? Knowing how to build and design a product is key to any early stage company. It would have helped a lot if I was solving my own problem too, but having a customer that lives in the same house as me did help improve the overall quality and customer assumptions early. I wasn’t really networked in the tech scene, but having a co-founder that knows the ins and outs really helped.

What were some of the main tipping points (if any) or “A-ha!” moments? How did they come about? When you solve a problem, you get addicted to solve other problems instead of focusing on improving the solution to the first one. In early stage startups, tech companies rely a lot on the product, and if the product confuses the user, it’s a no go. We initially decided to aggregate the whole sharing economy space, but later resorted to one of the biggest markets, which related to travel. There should be a lot of “no’s” instead of “yes’s” when it comes down to building a great product.

What resources or tools did you find most helpful when you were getting started? I read a lot of Paul Graham essays. They’re usually focused to entrepreneurs who can program, but I think non-programmers can also benefit a lot of from him. My favourite essay: Do things that don’t scale.

What were your biggest mistakes, or biggest wastes of time/money? A big problem is when you try to accommodate everyone’s idea. Most of the time people give really helpful advice, but if you start to apply everything you get you won’t be able to focus on the core problem that you are solving with the business. Startups should be objective based, meaning weekly, monthly, and quarterly goals should be dictating what should be done next.

What have been your key marketing lessons learned? That there are ways to acquire users for free. And I’m not talking about SEO, or posting your link on some social media site or spamming it in forums and boards. These users usually just leave instantly because they were not coming in to use your service. Wherever you are acquiring users from, make sure it’s targeted traffic. If the right user likes your product, he will most likely share it.

Did you outsource any work? What are your suggestions for first-timers? Outsourcing is usually a red flag early on. Startups are risky, and there is no ROI in the beginning. I would only invest in outsourcing if I get funding. If you can’t build the product, you need to get some CTO co-founder to help you with it. If you can’t get a mere developer to believe in your vision, how do you expect to get users to use your product?

Any key PR wins? Media, well-known users, or company partnerships, etc.? How did they happen? No, I don’t think so, not yet Do you have any funny stories to tell; something that catches the essence of the startup hustle? Can’t think of anything —

If you had to put together a 6 month entrepreneurial course for those that don’t have access to business school. What subjects, activities, and learning experiences would you ensure it had? If you had to cut it down to 4 weeks, what would stay & why? Making sure they meet and connect with influential people is the most important aspect in my opinion simply because it’s very hard to acquire these contacts for founders without help. Other than that, getting their hands dirty is the best way to learn. They should just launch their startup from day 1.

What’s next?! Hitting product market fit. For some companies it can take a couple of weeks, for others, it can take years. I can bring thousands of users tomorrow, but what’s good of them if they won’t stick? Paid advertising should only happen once you are comfortable with the product and that the user will not leave your website unsatisfied (assuming the user is from your target market).

Author’s note:
It’s been great to share some Zilyo learning, and I hope this post has helped in some way. Have you experienced anything similar? If so, please let me know by commenting here, or on my Facebook page.

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A bit about me: I’m Rhys! I’m a 28-year-old adventure addict from England. In 2017 I crossed the Pyrenees, powered by the elements…rock’n a high performance paraglider. I turned the project into the most interactive adventure of it’s kind. Here’s a sneak peak into day-9, where we flew for 7 hours, covering more than 137km in-flight. The project began as a crowdfunding.

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