It was 10pm on a Friday. Work had dragged on for too long. But it wasn’t like the work in question was even about to end.
The client had ruled that her brief must be done and dusted by tomorrow, Saturday, on the am. So, to the office everyone must return first thing in the morning. Or perhaps let’s grind all night, see how far we get? Um, no. We were all definitely fagged out, let’s pack it in for the night and head home—to recharge and return, say, at 7am and clean up what’s left. Ah, that also sounds like a good idea. Let’s take a poll, shall we? Well, the ayes have it. Let’s all go home!
But wait. Where is home?
Depending on who you’re talking to, home, for many people, is far from work. Which means, on dark nights when time is tight and you’re tired and you must have a comfy bed in which to catch some Z’s, a nice, pocket-friendly rest house would be nothing but a godsend.
And how do you find godsends if not by looking at the clouds. For thousands of Nigerians, prayers for a good night sleep are answered every day on hotels.ng, the discovery and booking site built by Mark Essien in 2013.
By the time the booking platform launched, it turned out that the market was totally ready for it. Mark had chosen to premiere it in Calabar, the tourist haven, and not Lagos, the commercial capital, partly because he knew Calabar more than he did Lagos. At the time, he was both the primary coder and salesman but within a few weeks, he’d signed up most of the hotels in the city. The start-up took off like an eagle takes to the sky. When Mark was asked how business was going, he put it this way: “no hotel wanted fewer guests.” And that’s just right.
More than that, though, hotels.ng was one of those rare ideas which offered everyone a win. Anyone could find a room within their desired location and budget; hotels could pull in more bookings; and, for connecting the triangle, the site takes a respectable commission.
Mark, 40, said his pre-launch “rigorous market analysis” could also account for why he’d been quite successful. “My expectations have largely been exceeded, the market is larger than even I anticipated,” he said. Within 36 months, his initial capital of $300 (less than N100,000 in 2013) had attracted investor funding and resulted in sales in billions of naira.
Now, almost eight years later, what has Hotels.ng become? You might say it is the front desk to the Nigerian hospitality industry. On one hand, if we took that statement literally, yes, you could reserve a hotel room by calling Hotels.ng. They would handle payments, too, if wanted that. On the other hand, as hotels are the cornerstone of the hospitality structure, Hotels.ng is the road that leads to clubbing, events, parties, tourism, local and international travel in Nigeria, offering a platter of choice you can take in at a glance.
Side by side with Hotels.ng, other ideas in the hospitality business were taking off. For instance, it is common these days to see booking.com and tripadvisor.com come up when you search keywords like “hotels in Lagos”. As icing on the cake, a few Airbnb listings may also materialise on your first search engine result page. Mark was correct: it’s such a massive cake from which every industry player should naturally want a piece.
As said by Airbnb itself, Nigeria is one of its fastest growing markets. Between 2018 and 2019, local listings grew by an unparalleled 325% to rank the country fifth on the continent. Yes, South Africa, Morocco, and Kenya were still ahead with total number of listings but Airbnb, which offers private properties as alternatives to hotels, would love to see Nigeria’s potential come to fruition.
If that happens, would it cost Hotels.ng any sleep? It’s unlikely for two reasons.
One, several listings on Airbnb are from Nigerian hotels—and some of these hotels are already available on Hotels.ng at the same rates. Their dual listings are intended to grab more bookings, from wherever they may come and here, hotels.ng isn’t losing per se.
Two, hotels.ng is hyperlocal. It may be quite valuable to Airbnb, Trip Advisor, and Booking.com that they currently employ reps in Nigeria’s major cities, but for Hotels.ng, being born of the land has been more valuable and may continue to be so. Mark Essien outperforms in Nigeria, not only because he lives here but also because he’s a world class tech entrepreneur who also happens to have been born and raised here.
He spent his early years in the Nigerian South-South political region, in Ikot Ekpene, Akwa Ibom. At 18, once he completed his secondary education at the Federal Government College in the same town, he left for the Beuth University of Applied Science, Germany where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Engineering and a master’s in Science.
While in school, he created a file sharing service he named Gnumm and an MPEG encoder called Standard MPEG. He earned some decent returns from these inventions, even selling Gnumm to Snoopstar, which was part of the Bertelmann group.
It was as if, by the time Mark returned home, all the pieces of an internet-based yellow pages for hotels were ready to fall in place. Within months of launching Hotels.ng, he received $75,000 in seed capital from Spark.ng, the start-up fund created by Iroko founder Jason Njoku. That same year, Spark injected another $150,000 and, two years later, Hotels.ng accepted $1.2million from eBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s Omidyar Network and EchoVC’s Pan-Africa Fund, which serves the seed-stage tech companies. All this funding is justifiable, owing to the fact that in 2014, Hotels.ng reported that it made $40,000 in monthly revenue through the last two quarters of that year.
In January of 2020, Hotels.ng employed 150 full time staff and over 300 agents. Mark also reported that the site reached more than 400 million people annually.
As the world manages to recover from the deathly blow dealt on travel and hotels by Coronavirus, it is expected that Mark’s service will continue on its pre-2020 growth trajectory.
This story first appeared in The Guardian of 6 February, 2021