Jia En Teo is one half of the power-packed duo that left a high-paying, high-potential job at Bloomberg to grow an internet start up out of a studio apartment in New York. She was 26 at the time. Three years on, that start up has grown into a global phenomenon that attracts funding from all sorts of places.
As for Jia? She’s the chief operating officer of a company that boasts revenue streams across almost every major continent, she’s happily (and recently) married, and now moving into a new home with her husband, Federico (who makes up the other half of the power-packed duo) and their dog named Pato (which oddly enough, means Duck in Italian).
Semi charmed kind of life? I think not. This is full on WOWZA how’d you get it right so fast?
But as she tells me, it’s not all sunshine and roses, there were choppy waters along the way, and even a time when they thought of pulling the plug entirely. But this spunky lady soldiered on, no doubt helped by the fact that her life-business-partner was by her side at all times.
A global nomad who shuns the tourist route wherever she goes, Jia took a break from her mad travels and even more maddening work schedule to tell me about her company, her husband, and the life and business they hope to build together.
We’re all familiar with the idea behind RoomoRama but how, exactly, did you get started?
Back in ‘09, Federico and I were living in New York, and I was working for Bloomberg. I traveled a lot for my job (3-4 days a week), and when I wasn’t traveling, I was at Fede’s place, leaving my gorgeous studio apartment perpetually unoccupied. So one day I thought, hey why not try renting it out? So I listed it on Craig’s list and just like that, I had a couple hundred dollars in hand. It was really good money, and I got to use the place when I wanted to.
It was around the same time that Fede was traveling a lot for work in Europe (which we all know is incredibly expensive), he knew that there was bound to be empty apartments all over the continent, but he didn’t know how to get access to them. That’s where Roomorama came in. (*poof* like magic!)
We saw two different needs and we helped them meet in the middle.
Did you take the “see how” approach or did you know what it would look like from the beginning?
Oh we definitely had a vision for it very early on and we knew what we wanted the platform to offer people like ourselves – we wanted it to be as easy as booking a hotel, minus the exorbitant prices. The site doesn’t look the way it did three years ago (it’s much nicer), but a lot of the functionality you see today existed three years ago.
What didn’t exist three years ago was the number of listings on the site. We started with just 11 apartments, all listed in New York, and today we’ve got 60 thousand properties across the globe (AT: At this point, my eyes have widened to the size of little saucers in my head).
In fact, one of our earliest partners (who listed 7 apartments with us in New York), has gone on to own more than 100 apartments in the city, and uses Roomorama for the majority of his short term rentals. He’s basically built a business from his personal investments leveraging our platform. That’s great for him, but it’s great for us too because our customers have so many more options to choose from when visiting the city. (AT: He’s like a slum lord! Except it isn’t slumming it at all!)
After New York came expansion into the major cities of Europe, and then the less well known spots on that continent, and finally we figured, it’s time to take on Asia. So last year I packed my bags and moved back home, taking Fede and our dog, Pato, with me. To be honest, we were a little tired of living in the city, and we knew that Asia is where all the growth is going to be – and it’s true.
One thing that would-be entrepreneurs obsess about is funding – has this been an issue for Roomorama?
No. We’re lucky in that our business model gave us working capital from the get-go, so there was no need to source for funding. It wasn’t a lot of money, but it was enough to keep the team fed. Also, we got caught up in a law suit really, really early on, and the way it works is that you can’t source for funding when you’re embroiled in something like that. It really forced us to bootstrap and make things work. While I wouldn’t call it a good thing, the suit helped us make sure that the business made sense. It wasn’t an abstract idea that may or may not work out – it was working and very well at that.
There was a point of time when we thought of pulling the plug and just going back into our corporate careers, but thankfully Fede and I shared the same vision, and we stuck by our business idea and each other, and pulled through the onslaught of issues and an ever-growing pile of legal fees. And I have to say, it’s a good thing we stuck it out. I would tell other young business owners to be resourceful about funding, sometimes not having much helps you determine if a business is truly viable, rather than running around trying to fill grant applications that almost never get approved since they’re written by people who aren’t business owners themselves.
AT: There’s a big disconnect between government agencies that disburse the funds and the entrepreneurs that need it huh?
Yes, there’s a huge disconnect between the writers of the grant and the people applying for it. The grants are written with the agency’s end-goal in mind, rather than the entrepreneur’s needs. For example, you can’t apply for a grant if the Singapore-arm of the business is the cost center, and the revenue streams are from other parts of the world (e.g., Roomorama). It’s kind of silly because truly successful businesses are rarely confined to the geographical constraints of a country, and given that ours is an internet-based business, our customer base is global to begin with.
That being said, lack of government funding is no reason not to go into something that you really believe can work. We went three years without funding and built the business to a decent size before we went out to source for capital. You make a much more convincing case if you’ve already proven the business can work. There are also other sources of funding – the private sector for example – which may be worth pursuing.
Okay! On to the fun stuff! Somehow in the whirlwind life you and Fede live, you squeezed in a wedding (IN ITALY!) between raising rounds of funding, moving house, and merging with Lofty. You’re like superwoman, and I really want to know what it’s like to be married and moving!
We LOVE having our own place. We lived at home for about a year after we were first married and while it wasn’t bad (my folks are awesome, easygoing people) you just didn’t feel comfortable. I mean imagine having your husband move into the room you grew up in as a girl with all the same furniture, etc. It’s quite odd.
We’re doing up our new place now, and it’s been a great experience. We loved being able to design everything around our own needs. We’re home all the time now, and I spend all my money on furniture and homeware. I love West Elm, and Restoration Hardware and Crate & Barrel. Great stuff, good quality and at reasonable prices. I wish we had more of that in Singapore.
And while we’re on the home front, tell me, honestly, what’s it like working with your husband?
It is great.
(Jia says this with the world’s widest grin on her face so you know I believe it)
Of course there’s a down side but I’d say the pros far outweigh the cons. You spend most of your adult life at work, and most couples have no clue what the other person is like outside of their home, I get to see that and I get to work with it too. Knowing that I know my husband from all facets – personally and professionally, is an amazing thing. Having a 360 view of each other helps our relationship.
Our business also means we have a shared vision for life. We know where we want our life to go together, and we never run out of things to talk about. It’s incredible synergy. It’s hard to explain.
Of course there are difficulties – like learning to leave work at work – but which relationship doesn’t? Sometimes, we want to pull each others’ hair out, but that’s normal. Sometimes, he wants to talk about work after work, but that’s normal – he’s Italian, he doesn’t compartmentalize as well as I do.
The best part about being business partners and life partners? We’re extremely complimentary characters. Fede is the visionary, the ideas guy, he always has the big picture, whereas I’m the executor, I pay attention to the details and I see them through. It’s an arrangement that works really well for us.
Care to share one piece of advice for would-be entrepreneurs? (I have a feeling I already know what this is)
Either get the legalese right, or make sure you have a lot of lawyers for friends (AT: I’m covered on that angle then if I ever decide to branch out on my own.) It’s really easy, especially among friends, to take the relationship for granted because there’s already that level of trust, but if you’re going into a business together, make sure you’re protected, and make sure the other party is covered too.
Best places to travel to and some tips – since you’re in the business.
Fede loves Europe, which makes sense since he’s from there. Whereas I like to go where there’s sun and sea, we’re talking Miami, Bali, Cape Town (South Africa) – someone recently listed the most beautiful space and we can’t wait to check it out.
We try to stay in an apartment wherever we are – it’s more comfortable, spacious and you immediately feel like a local rather than a gauche tourist (speaking of which you should read Jia’s guide on How Not To Be a Tourist in New York). It’s the best way to experience a place.
AT: No concierge service means knowing how to get around on your own, sort of forces you to figure things out and that’s when you discover the best things a city has to offer.
You'll find all of the fabulous properties featured in this post, and much, much more on Roomorama.com. Happy travels my friends!