AsiaXPAT: Home for you is where exactly?
Jon Stonham: Well I am technically British but I lived in eight different countries growing up because my father was a pilot in the air force and we were shipped all over the world. But I guess I do consider Asia to be home.
AX: What sort of professional training did you have?
JS: I attended Imperial College in London and have a Masters in engineering and business. But despite my education in engineering I was far more interested in the marketing of products as opposed to the process of making them so I ended up working for technical companies. I got to see a fair bit of the region when I worked for a publishing house in Hong Kong that had a number of technical publications with sexy titles like Asian Plastics and Modern Manufacturing. Then I went to work with Hong Kong Telecom with their channel marketing and they introduced me to this concept called the Internet and I just got so excited by it.
AX: What year was that?
JS: That would be 1996. It was just fantastic and I soon realized it would be a paradigm shift in how marketing is done. Of course none of us had any idea how dramatic that shift would actually be.
AX: It seems prehistoric to look back at it now but I remember the first broadband boxes were the size of a stereo receiver.
JS: Exactly and we’re talking just 15 years ago.
AX: So your time at Hong Kong Telecom served you well in that it exposed you to the vanguard in new technology.
JS: Very true but it also served me well in thinking, ok, well I have to go do something on my own because I can’t stand working for a big company. It forced me to set up my own company.
AX: That was Asiahotels.com?
JS: Right I set it up with a colleague from Hong Kong Telecom, Riyaz Moorani, and that came about because I had two hotel experiences that were absolutely diabolical. My first was a diving trip to the Philippines and I stayed at the worst hotel I ever stayed at in my life. I remember coming back and my neighbor said to me, oh there is a really nice hotel just around the corner. And my first thought was, well I live in Asia but how the hell would people who don’t live here find out about this information? So we set about to do a really opinionated website on hotels. I guess in essence we started the blue print for Trip Advisor, we just never knew it at the time (big sigh!). We started doing reviews of all sorts of hotels and when you stay at a few hundred hotels a year, it doesn’t take much to know when the wool is being pulled over your eyes. And we had guest feedback as well to complement ours and we also had a mechanism where if the guest feedback was completely out of sync from ours then we would go back in there.
AX: These were obviously pre-IPO days back then so how did you guys survive financially?
JS: Right it was before IPO’s and venture capital so we ran a very lean company. We did a lot of stuff with our spare time, we begged, borrowed and stole.
AX: But you must have had a revenue model when you started up?
JS: The first revenue model was that we would produce a directory and the hotels would pay to be in it. The hotels at that time knew nothing about the Internet and had no desire to be on it, let alone pay for it. So we converted to an e-commerce model very quickly. If we booked a hotel from somebody we would take a commission.
AX: It was early days for e-com as well.
JS: Way early days. I remember, credit card online transactions for hotels? No, I don’t think so. The method at the time was the guest would pay the hotel and the hotel would send us our commission. And of course you can imagine how successful that was with the honesty of some of the hotels, especially in countries like China. I think the money owed to us around the region got into seven figures and we said ok, let’s start taking the money up front and by that time transactions on the web were much easier to do.
AX: When the silly money started to flood in to Internet stocks in the late 90’s you guys were already a proven entity.
JS: We raised our money too early because when the silly money came along we probably missed that boat and we had been up for awhile so we had to take care of ourselves. (laughing) Of course by the standards of that time we never raised enough money, we never spent it quick enough, our burn rate wasn’t high enough. I guess we should have raised a lot more and spent a lot more.
AX: What were some of the challenges of the early days?
JS: We had to make some tough decisions, we moved the whole operation down to Manila and we have been down there since. We scaled back Hong Kong because in those days Hong Kong was just getting so stupid in terms of salaries and cost of living. In those days we were training people up for three months and then they would move to someone else for a dollar
AX: How did your traffic evolve over the years and what set you apart from the other similar websites that were springing up?
JS: Well people liked the content as well as the independent feedback, which few places were doing. Great service, and great content and great partnerships, I guess people really liked what were doing and we had significant growth when the internet started to take off in 2001-02 to about 30,000 to 40,000 users a day. But there was a small hiccup in the middle of all that called SARS.
AX: Not exactly a small hiccup.
JS: No, not a small one. That was the most difficult period of my business life ever. From a personal perspective we didn’t know what the impact was going to be on you and your family, especially in Hong Kong. We had a reasonably large company at this stage, I think there were 60-70 people in five different countries and what are we going to do about that? The first killer of course was that we had loads of cancellations. So from a cash flow perspective, we were giving money back. And of course you weren’t getting any new business at the door. We had to trim back very aggressively. We put everybody on a one-day work week and told them if they wanted to leave for another job there was no hard feelings. It was vicious at the time because we didn't really know the end game for SARS or even if it was going to come back again.
AX: The fact that you managed to survive SARS being in the travel industry, which was hit as hard it could be, was quite something.
JS: Well it was certainly character building. A little while after it passed, we were publishing surveys - the best hotels ever in Asia, a bit of building up of awareness of things we did. We were stunned by the response. I think we got something like 200,000 responses. And that achieved our objective in building a database so then we decided to publish a book – Asia’s Best Hotels and Resorts. It was quite ironic, we were an Internet company but then we decided to go into print. Some guy who ran Orbitz (Cendant was the listed vehicle) got a copy of the book and wanted to buy us so were sold as part of their global expansion and that was in 2005. Because of the terms of the deal I couldn't work in our industry for two years, which was just fine, so I went sailing.
AX: You just packed up the family and away you went.
JS: Right we packed up the family, the kids were four and six at the time, and just sailed out of Hong Kong in April 2006.
AX: What sort of route did you take?
JS: Hong Kong to Philippines, down to the Borneo coast and then up to Thailand via Malaysia and from there across to the Andaman’s.
AX: It sounds very liberating but I assume it could be intimidating as well.
JS: We asked some people who had actually done it what it was like and they said that the first six months was a challenge because you had these strange feelings of guilt, you feel like you’re not doing something with your life. Everybody is looking at you with absolute envy and it takes a good six months to get out of that mindset. But to slow down to a sailing mindset after living a frantic Hong Kong lifestyle was a massive adjustment.
AX: That’s about 180 degrees, you can’t get much more of a change.
JS: I don’t think we ever got there completely actually because my wife Sandra and I both like to keep ourselves busy. Whenever the other yachties would see us they would have a bit of a laugh. Do one thing a day, not one thing an hour guys, they would say.
AX: I would assume that you certainly find out a lot about not only yourself but your family as well.
JS: I think as a bonding experience as a family, especially with younger kids, I would recommend it to anybody. After about 18 months the kids got accepted in school in Singapore. Hong Kong can be a very young city, not necessarily as kid friendly as Singapore. And for the work I wanted to do the focus was more on south Asia, as opposed to China. Singapore is central to Bali, Sri Lanka, Phuket and Koh Samui. And in the villa market, that’s where they are.
AX: And just like that you were back into the business.
JS: Yeah, www.thevillaguide.com is a very similar website to Asiahotels.com in that is very opinionated in our review of villas around the region. But I am not sure if I have kind of failed now that I got my head deep in to work again. When you do a trip like we did, you sit there and say; right I am going to get my life balance right. And then you come back to Hong Kong or Singapore and you are back into it again.
AX: Well maybe that is your natural life balance.