We talked to Ozgur Gen of Rent’ n Connect on how to provide products and services that help travelers to stay connected at all times and this is what he had to say.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Ozgur Gen: Thank you for asking. Nowadays, starting with these mindful questions brings more kindness to us, and we need it. We are doing well. I guess we can consider ourselves fortunate enough to stay at home most of the time and have the resources to manage this period without any issues. Last month, we learned that we were all Covid positive. Overall, it was a straightforward experience though you can get anxious thinking about the risks and possibilities. We are glad it is over and hope the vaccines and drugs will start easing the pandemic’s impact.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Rent’ n Connect.
Ozgur Gen: I am a Mechanical and Industrial Engineer by degree. However, besides internships, I have not worked in my fields after graduating. While in the US, for my master’s degree, I had three startup trials in different areas. All of them failed at various stages, with one after two years of operation, between working at a regional company in the US in the environmental engineering field. After three trials, I have decided to go back to my home country, Turkey, as the economy was booming in Turkey and emerging markets. Failing 3 startups, I knew I was missing either skills or the knowledge to overcome the challenges, so I decided to work at a startup with funding and the potential to grow to make up for the experiences I lack. I did work with newly established aviation group companies for over eight years, taking several challenging roles, including Project Coordination and internal corporate finance. As I gained experience and felt ready for new challenges, my co-founders and I decided to start Rent’ n Connect.
The company founder is me, Ozgur Gen, and my two friends from University; we studied Mechanical Engineering at Bogazici University in Istanbul. At first, in 2012, our adventure started with providing iPads for rent in cafes and restaurants. After a while, working at a hotel’s cafe, we noticed that guests were taking devices outside of the hotel instead of using them. At the same time, in the restaurant, we quickly understood that they were using the iPad’s wifi sharing option. Analyzing the trends and talking with customers, we identified a need in the travel industry and changed our direction towards that opportunity. Globalization and changes in travelers’ habits with the conformity of technology and social media caused travelers to seek to be connected to share their holidays, memories, and experiences during their trips instantly and head for alternative solutions instead of paying high roaming fees. We saw an opportunity in this lack of convenience for travelers, and that’s how we came up with Rent’ n Connect.
How does Rent’ n Connect innovate?
Ozgur Gen: Rent’ n Connect is a fast-growing travel technology startup company. We provide products and services that help travelers to stay connected at all times. With offices in London, Berlin, and Istanbul, and products that offer high-speed coverage, we provide connectivity solutions at affordable prices wherever you go. Rent’ n Connect started its operations in 2014, providing mobile hotspot rental services in Turkey. In 2018 we launched Berlin and London offices and began offering services all over Europe. Today, we are providing coverage in more than 40 countries.
Starting from the initial days, we based our innovation and development on customer feedback or observations. A few examples:
- Early on, we noticed customers use iPads outside of hotels for data access. We switched to mobile hotspots and mobile phones as the main products to be portable.
- Customers liked the service but complained that devices do not have the excellent battery life to cover the day when they are outside. We added a power bank to the rental package.
- The customers preferred hotel delivery, but some customers wanted to start using it as soon as they arrive. We began partnering with airport delivery teams.
Besides product/service improvements, we followed the same principles for developing new products and features. On the customer side, we added multi-destination coverage and multi pickup options, member area to track orders, more ways of reaching customer support on where they naturally interact like Whatsapp, Instagram, Facebook, etc. We made many improvements to the management portal that we manage orders, customers, and operations, enabling us to track and control devices, sim cards, connections, e-commerce flows, chat sessions with customers, mobile device management, among other things.
Noticing part of our customers needing/requesting more specific solutions to their connectivity problems, we also introduced new products that we have been working on to gain transaction over the last few years. The two products that I can mention are www.connectpls.com, a custom smartphone subscription solution for caravan owners and outdoor travel, and www.conciergepls.com, a smart room phone solution for hotels and hospitality businesses.
We will keep tracking customer behavior and continue innovating and delivering solutions to solve their burning connectivity problems.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Ozgur Gen: Since 2014, our primary audience has been International travelers who are usually making intercontinental or regional trips. As you could imagine, similar to most of the businesses servicing international travelers, we took a big hit. Between March and July, there were no flights virtually, thus 0 revenues. As travel started again in July, we have seen demand, but the overall market has weakened by about 75%. The more significant effect has been that, during the 1st two months of the year, we experienced more than 50% growth with additional interest from major businesses, creating heightened expectancies for the rest of the year. The initial period was quite a shock for the whole team.
We foresee a pent up demand as people are getting tired of being at the same locations and plan/dream of going to places they wanted. However, it is quite hard to foresee when travel will start for leisure purposes, especially with tightening the measures in most areas.
Soon after the lockdowns started, we focused on containing the costs so that we don’t have any or tiny cash burn, and we can wait until the majority of the pandemic is over while keeping the resources intact. A big part of that is, of course, keeping the team intact. Unfortunately, we had a few of the members leave for other opportunities. We have been lucky to have most of the team in place and hope to continue doing that until the pandemic is over. Besides keeping costs under control and the section in the area, we are also looking into new markets and expansion opportunities like serving remote teams’ connectivity needs or outdoor travel. We are very cautious as we don’t want to go into a spending mode before proving the opportunities’ potential and observe traction.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Ozgur Gen: As any travel business, we are facing many challenges about our operation and business, and have to make many difficult decisions, though we were able to deal with most challenges. One of the advantages we had was to benefit from the government support schemes introduced, primarily providing support for salaries.
However, there are many lessons learned; one of the most important is relying too much on the business going well that not divesting into new markets and products soon enough. The usual advice to tech startups is to focus on the same market until growth opportunities are gone, and we were going along with this as the primary growth strategy. We had the expansion plans distributed over the years. Knowing how fast things can change, we would be faster deploying new products and expanding to new customer segments.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety, how do you project yourself and Rent’ n Connect in the future?
Ozgur Gen: Honestly, I don’t have a method or tool that I am using, it would probably be a good idea to get into Mindfulness or meditation, but I am continuing my old habits:) The most significant part of dealing with this is to continuously remind me that the whole world is going through the same issues. For many people, without the resources or ability to adjust their life to be fully remote, it is even a lot harder to manage. It reminds me that as the whole world is dealing with this challenge, there will be solutions or new ways of dealing with this issue that, at some point, from which we will benefit. Thus we are not in this alone. Besides that, I am trying to keep in close contact with family, friends, and coworkers to support and also do anything that could contribute to specific issues they may be facing.
It is challenging to make long-term plans as many things are changing as we go, and a lot will change in the short term. We are also working on various projects to expand our offerings. Connectivity became even more critical as the masses moved to remote work and remote education. Being small also brings a lot more load to the physical – local networks, resulting in people moving to mobile solutions. Mobile operators also have challenges as they rely on long term contracts and locked-in subscriptions to have profitable operations. We foresee great potential for short & mid-term uses for our devices for domestic markets supporting remote arrangements. Additionally, new appliances, new technologies, and the need for on-demand solutions bring new opportunities to serve. We will continue expanding our solutions, more recent devices, more connectivity options, new categories, and new customer segments, becoming a holistic on-demand technology provider for consumers and SMBs.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Ozgur Gen: There are a few global players with their own devices like Skyroam. Some regional providers serve travelers from different regions. The main competitors have the US, Europe, and China as the origin countries for their customers. We are one of the leading regional operators, and we can say the main one for the travelers from the MENA region. Each operator has a different focus. Our main differentiation factors are stellar customer support and a vast partner network enabling convenience and fast delivery.
We plan to continue providing our customers’ service levels and expand into new products and segments with the same mindset. We have experienced that when the customer knows they can expect a sustained and high-level service, there is less reason to change providers and usually results in increased word of mouth.
Your final thoughts?
Ozgur Gen: We are going through exciting and challenging times, probably the most significant challenge most of the people in our generation have faced. It is essential to stay focused on the vital parts of the business during these times more than ever. Still, it is more important to keep the checks and balances looking internally and keep communication channels open with people close to you. Having daily or weekly conversations with family and team members, talking about all aspects of the current situation may help ease the load on ourselves and help others do the same. I hope we all will have the resources to stay safe and healthy and wish strength to all of the founders during these times.
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