At a time when Canadian entrepreneurs are asking whether or not they have to build their companies in the nation’s tech hubs, Hussein Fazal has been going back and forth on a more familiar question: home or the Valley.
Fazal is no stranger to building a company, having co-founded and sold AdParlor to Adknowledge back in 2011. For his next go-round, SnapTravel, Fazal spent six months in San Francisco connecting with entrepreneurs, ideating and fundraising ($1.2 million led by Lightbank and Bee Partners), before returning home to Toronto to anchor and grow the company (Fazal has been documenting the process on Medium).
“Toronto is one of the best cities in the world to get this done. There is fantastic startup talent in the city.”
– Hussein Fazal
“The key to building a startup in the early stages is to talk to customers and build product – aggressively iterating to find product-market fit before running out of money,” Fazal told BetaKit. “Toronto is one of the best cities in the world to get this done. There is fantastic startup talent in the city. You layer on the growing support ecosystem and government tax credits, and it makes Toronto the ideal place to build a company.”
While Fazal is still regularly spending time in the Valley, SnapTravel’s core team sits in Liberty Village’s Cossette Lab, part of the ‘growing support ecosystem’ in Toronto. Joe Dee, who runs Cossette’s Toronto tech incubator, was big on the fit due to the overlap between SnapTravel’s core focus (finding and booking hotel stays) and Cossette’s client portfolio (Fairmont, Group Germain, Tourisme Montreal, etc). “We’re already working side-by-side with SnapTravel on their learnings and sharing ours, it’s very powerful,” Dee said. “We get exposed to things that we can bring to our clients.”
Like most startups launching in 2016, SnapTravel is riding the chatbot wave, hoping that messenger services like SMS, Slack, and Facebook Messenger provide a frictionless path to getting the perfect hotel booking. While it’s still early days in the space, to help tip the scales, the company is presenting a half-bot/half-human solution.
“The goal is for the source of the message (bot or human) to be whatever provides the end user the best experience (speed, accuracy, service, etc),” Fazal said.
“The goal is for the source of the message (bot or human) to be whatever provides the end user the best experience.”
“For example, if the user asks ‘is it possible for me to get an early check-in tomorrow morning?’ the bot should respond right away with something like, ‘regular check-in is 11am, but we are going to call the hotel and see what we can do!’ Then a human agent should actually call the hotel and eventually respond to the user with the outcome.”
Fazal also said that the human element allows SnapTravel to push for more from the hotels, advocating for free upgrades or perhaps a bottle of chilled champagne waiting in the room. It’s the kind of perk expected by the frequent travellers the company is targeting (both business and leisure).
Online travel is an extremely competitive space, but Fazal believes that the explosion of messaging, plus improvements to machine learning and natural language processing, leave the market ripe for disruption. The company also has a bevy of experienced advisors in the space, including Scott Booker (ex-CEO of Hotels.com), Stuart Silberg (the ex-CTO of Expedia.com), and Eduardo Schutte, (an SVP from Hilton Worldwide). It’s through these relationships that Fazal says SnapTravel can promise lower rates than anything else found online.
SnapTravel will have to work hard to ensure that its half-and-half solution can scale with demand, but Fazal said that as long as the experience is seamless, users won’t care what’s powering it. Interested BetaKit readers can check it out for themselves with a sweet discount hookup here.