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Start small, be realistic as well as optimistic, Hotels.com founder says


Hotels.com founder offers insights on entrepreneurial success during talk at University of Miami School of Business for Global Entrepreneurship Week.

 By Richard Westlund

To succeed as an entrepreneur, do your homework, limit your spending, start small, and be willing to give back. Bob Diener, founder of Hotels.com and getaroom.com, offered that advice to students, alumni and others during a talk at the University of Miami School of Business November 16. Diener spoke in the inaugural Fouad H. Scandar Memorial Speaker Series as part of the University’s Global Entrepreneurship Week activities.

“Most entrepreneurs don’t think things through,” said Diener. But you have to be realistic as well as optimistic. That means being careful and frugal, as well as moving quickly to take advantage of a market opportunity. You also have to treat your customers right in order to keep them coming back to your company.”

Diener’s talk on "Conservative Entrepreneurship: A Business Philosophy"

was supported by the School of Business Entrepreneurship Program, the Launch Pad, and RefreshMiami. Will Silverman, director of The Launch Pad, introduced Diener, who signed copies of his book, “Biblical Secrets to Business Success,” after his presentation.

Susy Alvarez-Diaz, director of entrepreneurship programs at the School of Business, thanked the Scandar family for making Diener’s appearance possible. “Fouad Scandar was a lifelong entrepreneur, who came from his native Egypt, studied nuclear medicine at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Hospital program and managed a successful consulting and diagnostic business,” she said. “He believed that someone who was willing to boldly seek new solutions, dream big, and take advantage of available resources could become a great entrepreneur, and this series imparts that message.”

In his talk, Diener traced the evolution of the online travel industry, dating back 25 years to when the Internet was in its infancy. “We looked at the hotel industry and saw the average occupancy was only 60 percent,” he said. “That provided us with an opportunity to take those excess rooms and sell them to travelers at a discount.”

In 1995, Diener launched his first online travel site, which took off as the Internet’s popularity grew. Realizing that hotels were slow to pay commissions on the rooms his company sold, Diener created today’s “pay in advance” model, and changed his brand to Hotels.com in order to attract more consumers.  

Three years after a successful initial public offering (IPO) Diener sold the company, and recently launched a new brand, getaroom.com, offering a VIP program, flash sales and other features to give consumers lower room rate.

“Our industry is moving toward greater personalization,” Diener said in response to a student’s question about the future. “You will be able to get a simple, streamlined experience based on the destinations, types of rooms and deals you like, and you will be able to do it all on your watch or other mobile device.”

Drawing from his own experience, Diener gave attendees a number practical tips for entrepreneurial success. “I was trained as a lawyer, so I learned to think about what can go wrong,” he said. “Most business people focus on the upside, but you have to avoid taking on too much risk.”

He also emphasized the importance of researching the competition, gathering feedback from others, building a solid business model and offering an appealing value proposition to prospective customers. “You need to achieve a positive ROI (return on investment),” he said, “Always remember that you can’t conquer the world without figuring out how to make a profit.”