Founded in 2002, Bangkok-based Agoda was acquired five years later by Priceline. The site – with hotel reservations, reviews, and travel tips – is available in 37 languages and boasts the lowest prices at 170,000 hotels worldwide.
Robert Rosenstein cofounded Agoda ten years ago, worked through growth and acquisition, and now leads the company as CEO. Below, he shares insights from that process and why he ended up in Thailand.
Tech Cocktail: Why did you start Agoda?
Robert Rosenstein: At the time, there were a number of websites offering hotel bookings in Asia, each with specialities in various areas. We felt we could create a global site that would have the scale and reach to deliver better deals and more choice through a simple online booking interface. Also, we loved to travel and this seemed like a fun business to be in.
Tech Cocktail: What tips would you offer other entrepreneurs?
Rosenstein: First, it’s great to have a business that generates good cash flow. There are going to be times when things go wrong and money is tight, and friends, family, and investors are hard to find. Make sure you think hard about what you’ll do and where you’ll get money during these times, especially if your model is not cash-flow friendly. And perhaps most importantly, always be willing to share equity or take less money to get the right people or the right partners.
You will always make more money than you expect when things go well, but this means choosing your partners and your colleagues carefully. I like the combination of high natural intelligence, competitiveness, personal humility, and a strong ethical foundation. That’s a winning formula for your most important people. When you find someone who is like this who can add value to your business, be willing to pay up, take less for yourself, or make whatever sacrifice you need to make, because that is how you make a great business.
The same can be said about picking the right people to sell your business to. The right people can adapt your model at the right time, help you find a solution you didn’t see, or simply execute better than the competitor. Never be cheap or careless when it comes to investments in your key people or the right partners.
Tech Cocktail: What did you learn from the process of growing Agoda, being acquired, and now operating as its president?
Rosenstein: In order to live through a period of such change and growth, you need to continue to reinvent yourself and your company. The things you need in a small company are very different from those you need when you are ready to be acquired. As part of a public company, and being quite large ourselves now, there are new things to learn, new skills to develop. You need to hire people who are suited to the right time for the business, and that means attracting new and different kinds of talent and being willing to make and explain organizational changes. It means listening to others who have experience, and keeping your mind open to new ideas.
Tech Cocktail: What’s your favorite part of the job?
Rosenstein: My favourite part of the job is the hands-on work I do, often with some of our newest employees. I love being in the field talking to hotels together with our contractors, working deals with our business development teams, developing solutions with the IT department, and talking to new people who want to join our company. I also get great ideas from my visits to our offices around the world. My heart has always been with operations and this has continued since I became CEO in 2010.
Tech Cocktail: How did you end up in Thailand, and what’s it like to run a company there?
Rosenstein: I’ve always loved Thailand ever since I visited as a backpacker in 1991. In 1998, I invested in one of the first online hotel businesses in Thailand, and the founder of that business and I formed a partnership in 2002 which would later become Agoda. Between 2002 and 2004, my wife and I gradually transitioned to Bangkok, where I became the COO of the company. We have a son who was born in Thailand in 2010, and we all consider Bangkok our home. It is hard not to love living in Thailand. It is really a unique culture, known for its food, considerate people, and comfortable lifestyle. Today, the Agoda business runs out of many countries as many Internet companies do – we have significant operations across Asia and in Europe as well. It is relatively easy for me to be based in Bangkok and still be connected with our operations around the world.