Two men walk into a hotel in Saudi Arabia for a glass of water
“Johan and I first met at a hotel in Saudi Arabia where the air conditioning was stuck on low. A couple of winter coats to keep warm, water in place of wine due to the alcohol ban, talking about life plans……in the middle of the desert. The perfect setting for two single gay guys.”
I’m Brett, and with my partner Johan, we’ve embarked on this wild journey of setting up and now running The Origins, which offers a hand-picked, curated collection of luxury villas and residences. But how did we go from meeting in KSA to starting a travel company?
Way back in 2015 before we had met, the opportunity to visit Saudi Arabia didn’t come to many non-Muslims. Saudi wasn’t necessarily high on my list of places to go, but given the chance to go there for work it seemed like an interesting opportunity to travel, spend some time in the region and see if everything that we had each heard about the conservative Kingdom was real.
I’m originally from Australia and was working for the Boston Consulting Group as a management consultant and came to Saudi to work on a transformation topic. Johan was a consultant engineer based in New Zealand and had a FIFO (fly-in-fly-out) role on the Riyadh Metro Project. We were thrilled by the opportunity to expand our horizons and the chance to see the often-misunderstood region.
We both planned to return to Copenhagen and Auckland after finishing the topics though one day by chance, we struck up a conversation. Talk about an anticlimax. We met in a freezing cold hotel, drinking only water because of the country-wide alcohol ban and stuck in a winter coat because of the malfunctioning air conditioning. We didn’t envisage a relationship forming in that moment, though it was clear chemistry was formed early and a relationship started to bloom.
With Copenhagen and Auckland being quite a long way apart – even for those who love to travel – a move to the UAE offered both of us exciting professional opportunities as well as the chance to continue working and travelling. So we both rolled the dice, unbeknown where this would take us but willing to take a risk!
So what’s next? Inevitably more time spent in corporate roles, discussions of purpose, passions and whether the grass is greener elsewhere comes up
“It was a “is this it moment?” after several months of commuting between the United Arab Emirates and KSA that got Johan and I talking about the future, where our passions lay and ultimately where are we going. Heavy stuff for a newly blossoming relationship.”
Despite the travel and trappings of a comfortable lifestyle, we concluded that it wasn’t going to suffice in the long-term. Achieving lifetime Marriott titanium elite status and lifetime gold frequent flyer status at the age of 33 is all very well, but there has to be more to life. Surely. Hopefully. Please?
Corporate life is exciting in your early professional years; the promise of a strong career path and money is great, but if it’s not what you’re passionate about, you risk sleep-walking through your thirties, and suddenly you’ve missed some of the best years to take a risk.
I lost my father at 47 to bowel cancer. This had a devastating impact on me as a son and also on my family… though I have to say that it’s given me a firm first-hand impression that you only get one shot. We’re not here for a long-time and we need to make the most of it. My Dad did and I want to embrace this legacy. I pushed myself early, moving from the comforts of growing up in a small rural town to boarding school, moving overseas to study, driving from London to Mongolia on a whim and uprooting everything to then take a Masters degree and subsequently a job with BCG in Copenhagen.
Our shared passion of travel was discussed often. Cliché I know, right? But you’ve got to start somewhere. I always loved when I was able to find that one-off unique hotel, help a friend out or just find the perfect place that captured the essence of a destination. The issue I found was the incredible amount of time it took to get through the noise and make a decision. But where to from there?
So you’ve got the itch, but to do what? Translating a broad passion to business ideas and then a start-up isn’t that easy
“We certainly took our time. I made the most of my employer’s generous flex-leave and various working models to help clarify what we were going to do. And you know what? It ultimately didn’t help. When you have the comfort of a job, commitments to maintain, it’s hard…at some point you just need to break free.”
Knowing you want to do something else, or that that you want to start your own business and actually knowing what the underlying business is are not completely related. We had agreed that we wanted to explore something in the travel space – it was something that we both had a lot of fun doing – but taking that idea and translating it to a business was a challenging journey. Johan talks about the problem we had of “start, stop, repeat.” We looked at many options… things like a home hotel concept, pop-up or mobile hotels, theme based tours, glamping concepts… the list goes on.
While we edged into the start-up world slowly, taking eight weeks unpaid leave to explore ideas and work out the future, it was clear that making a decision to actually quit our jobs was the only thing that was going to create the right focus to get something happening. There is nothing like the sudden reality of having no regular pay-cheque to instil some motivation!
Quitting led us to distil where we would focus and through this journey there were some funny lesson learnt. At one point we spent a week on a family member’s 600 acre farm in Australia playing with a pop-up dome concept. We needed inspiration and wanted to think outside the box by just doing. While the dome was beautiful, the hard reality of operationalising a pop-up stay, and particularly one with limited protection to the natural elements was just a non-starter…. also, I love the country but after that week I’d had enough of dirt and cow shit. Lessons learnt, some ideas captured and on we went!
The most important thing we’ve realised along the way is that a business is a constantly evolving and changing beast, and what the product or service looks like on day one is different from a month later, and a year later. No-one comes to you and says, I have a fully baked business plan, stakeholders engaged and just ready to hit the go button. Even if you achieve these things whilst you’re working there’s still so much to learn and so much unknown.
“We started to appreciate that having a vision and strategy anchors us but starting requires looking for the point of least resistance, running for it and then evolving along the way.”
The creation of The Origins has been a fluid process but at its heart are our learnings
“Speaking with stakeholders, reflecting on our own learnings and by understanding where the market is we aligned on three key principles.”
1) There are a tribe of customers that want to find an interesting, curated list of places to stay, though there are two challenges that they face: one is time investment and one is the risk of the unknown and being disappointed.
2) Creating a community of like-minded people is fun, engaging and self-fulfilling. If not, creative networks like SoHo house would not exist.
3) Guests should be able to simply enhance their stay with a series of interesting and curated experiences. A memorable holiday lies at the intersection of the perfect place and a destination defining moment. Making the process simple and fun is a must.
These are the fundamentals that have helped shape our strategy and guide us as we build out the company.
The Origins has launched a collection of handpicked luxury Indonesian Villas and Residences
“It’s been a busy period curating the first collection of luxury villas and residences in Indonesia. Currently we have access to around 150 villas and residences in Indonesia and are ensuring, as we say,
There’s a space, and place, that’s the perfect setting for your holiday.”
Villas and residences are a perfect expression of the types of stays that The Origins like. Small scale, unique, authentic and of course, luxurious. Each of the properties in the collection is personally selected by The Origins to make sure it lives up to these aspirations.
Our first priority is developing the best collection and a bespoke service model. We’ll then enhance the tech element as we look to scale. There’s some exciting plans in the works, especially with dining and experience enhancements (a detox & retox concept is in the works), as we believe the key to the perfect stay and a memorable time is the intersection between a unique stay and a signature experience.
The important thing, right now, is that we have a solid collection, at the best rate available, and are eager to ensure our guests enjoy their stay.
We’ve also just launched the insider series which takes a sneap peak at our curated collection and features, yours truly. Sometimes you’ve just got to throw your hat in the ring!
Seven reflections for those looking to start their own venture, here are a few things we’ve learnt so far:
“I wanted to take the opportunity to share my lessons learnt. If you’ve heard some of these before then great, it means I’m not alone and there’s a commonality of experience. Hopefully this helps you navigate your own venture.”
1) The business model must stack up: dream, dream and dream, but ground and prioritise these ideas by the numbers and market,
2) Take time, reflect, discuss the options but then take a decision! No one will do this for you,
3) Don’t underestimate passion and purpose, this is what sustains you. This should be a big factor in making a strategic decision,
4) You just need to start, the learnings will come. You’ll never have the finished product from the start (nor is it ever finished). Most importantly, look for a point of least resistance, even if it is tangential to what you ultimately want to be,
5) Roll up your sleeves and throw yourself at new learning opportunities, it helps grow your thinking of the overall business. Don’t be quick to outsource. We’ve internalised core website development initially as this has helped us refine our understanding and be more specific on what outsourcing we require. We’ve also started playing with our own content creation. The flip side is also true, know when to outsource. Websites like fiverr.com are GREAT at finding skilled professionals (and a third arm for the basics). Use it,
6) Always focus on the customer but realise everyone has an opinion – distil these quickly and move on,
7) Choose a business partner who can share the ups and downs. Yes having a business partner that is also your life partner is risky but we’ve found a cool working rhythm, we have varied skillsets and we really enjoy sharing the highs and the lows. There’s a real sense we’re writing this chapter together. Life partner or not I think this should be the aspiration for all partnerships.