The Entrepreneur: Tom Valentine, Secret Escapes

The co-founder of the luxury travel site believes in getting your hands dirty, using business coaches and wants Cameron to change Visa sponsorships

Co-founder: Tom Valentine
Company: Secret Escapes
Description in one line: Secret Escapes is a free-to-join members-only website and app, specialising in best-in-market flash sales for luxury travel.
Previous companies: Product & marketing director at E-Trader Group, product lead at Quiet Riots Ltd, programme director at Seatwave, strategy and business development manager at eBay
Turnover: £66m (2013)
12 month target: Working towards £1bn by 2019

Describe your business model and what makes your business unique:

  • Secret Escapes sells heavily discounted four and five-star hotel stays and holidays, and persuades its members to take trips they wouldn’t have taken otherwise. Nine out of 10 of our customers tell us they weren’t planning their trip until they opened our email.
  • We offer up to 70% off to our members by working with hotels to sell their remaining rooms at cheaper prices, creating income where there would otherwise have been none
  • The reason why it works is because hotels – even the best ones – don’t want empty beds.

What is your greatest business achievement?

Growing the UK business and expanding into Germany, Sweden, Poland, Denmark, Norway and the US.

What numbers do you look at every day in your business?

We’re very much a trading business, so I Iook at sales in each of our markets every morning. I’m looking for areas where we’re particularly strong (or weak) in supply, as well as making sure we’re pointing the right members  to the right deals. I keep a close eye on the performance of our marketing campaigns, and the progress of our internal teams through our quarterly project roadmap.

To what extent does your business trade internationally and what are your plans?

Secret Escapes is very much an international business. It provides holidays and hotels globally as a result we are always speaking to holiday suppliers and hotel owners in all four corners of the world, to make sure we supply our members with a range of travel experiences. We have over 10 million members and they are primarily spread across the UK, Germany, the Nordics and America.

Describe your growth funding path:

We’ve always been very clear that we wanted to fund the business to be a well-known consumer brand. We took a seed round and Series A in 2011, both led by Octopus Investments and Atlas Ventures. In 2012 we took a Series B to take the business international – led by Index Ventures.

What technology has made the biggest difference to your business?

Over 70% of our traffic comes via mobile, and we’ve found that customers logging on to check their emails and relax over a list of our beautiful hotels is a big part of our success. The move to experiencing the internet on mobile has been huge for us.

Where would you like your business to be in three years?

We’re the market leader and profitable in the UK, we’re looking to stay focused on this model and repeat our successful growth in the remainder of Europe, the U.S. and eventually Asia.

Growth challenges

What is the hardest thing you have ever done in business?

The first months of the business were certainly very stressful – we had a view on what numbers we needed to see early on to validate our theories about the business. Keeping focused on the numbers definitely helped prioritise what to work on during those months when pretty much everything on the site needed significant attention.

What was your biggest business mistake?

Hindsight is frustratingly perfect, but in almost every case where we’ve looked back on a project and realised we haven’t done our best work, we’ve wished we’d tested a small version of the project before diving in with both feet.

Piece of Red Tape that hampers growth most?

Whilst I appreciate it’s politically contentious, we’d be able to hire and grow faster if the Visa sponsorship process to bring people into the business from outside the EU was streamlined.

What is the most common serious mistake you see entrepreneurs make?

This is obviously a personal style opinion, but I certainly feel that our early months were made significantly easier because we’d spent a lot of time building a model that told us where the key statistics in the business needed to be every month. So, I definitely advise others to model out the metrics of a new business before investing in building it.

How will your market look in three years?

Both the luxury end of the market, where we operate, and the practical three star market are growing very fast at the moment. The same customer will book a hugely engaging luxury break and a very good value three star base for exploring a city in the same year. As a consequence, the middle of the market (which is more expensive than a basic three star, but is not a luxury experience) is going to feel a lot of pressure in the next three years.

What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?

Don’t buy voice over IP phones – they almost never work. And make sure to have a back-up solution for your office internet, it’ll definitely be worth it.

Personal growth

Biggest luxury:

I’ve currently banned myself from replacing consumer electronics I manage to leave on planes, but in recent times replacing them has been a big cost in my life.

Executive education or learn it on the job?

I would have to say both! We’re an execution business and it’s been absolutely great seeing how a couple of years’ experience at Secret Escapes has allowed many of the team to progress within the business at a huge rate. On the other hand, there’s definitely a value to formal programmes, I’ve recently started working with a coach and am finding it really valuable.

What would make you a better leader?

As the business matures I’m finding that it’s becoming more and more important to focus on managing the team over executing specific projects and there are certainly times when I don’t manage to let go and delegate to the team. It wasn’t that long ago that my job was almost entirely individual contribution and I certainly have the tendency these days to get my hands dirty on a task when I should really leave it to the team, who are invariably better qualified!

Tom Valentine was awarded Young Gun status in 2012, read his profile here.


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