Ever wondered what it’s like to start your own business? In August 2016, Alterkeys co-founder Chema Gonzalez came on campus to share his own personal experience starting a business. Talking with Les Roches students specializing in Entrepreneurship, Chema explained how he quit his job at one of the UK’s biggest banks to concentrate full-time on creating a hospitality startup.
First of all, why become an entrepreneur at all? While some may dream of potential perks like money, fame or being your own boss and setting your own hours, for Chema, the answer boils down to one thing:
When you’re an entrepreneur, you own your life.
In Chema’s case, the idea of getting into the hospitality industry — and starting a new business — came about by chance. Back in 2011, Chema was living in London and working in the banking industry. “Did I love my job? I hated it. So I was always trying to come up with something to get me out of it,” Chema recalled. That “something” came when Chema and his friend, Joan Muni, decided to rent out their London apartment while they were away over the Christmas holidays. What seemed like a good idea in theory turned out to be much harder in practice. Chema and Joan had no secure way to find someone reliable to rent their home and ensure payment of the rental fees. At the end, their apartment remained empty over the holidays, but the experience got them thinking: Wouldn’t it be great if there were a safe way to rent out private homes for short-term use? And so, the idea for Alterkeys was born.
When Chema and Joan came up with the idea for Alterkeys, they hadn’t yet heard of Airbnb. Some time later, a friend sent Chema a news article about a company evaluated at $1 billion that was coming to Europe — Airbnb. “When I read that article, I wanted to kill myself,” Chema said. But Chema didn’t let the news deter him. On the contrary, he decided to launch Alterkeys as soon as possible, together with his friend Joan and his sister Patricia.
The beginning was tough. Chema, Joan and Patricia each had full-time jobs, and to get Alterkeys off the ground, they dedicated every moment of their time outside of their day jobs to the new project. As for the existence of Airbnb, the three used this to their advantage, by copying the features of Airbnb that made sense and removing the features that seemed counterproductive. In fact, studying the market — doing their own research online, checking to see whether similar services existed and how they worked — was crucial to deciding how to shape Alterkeys.
In 2012, the three quit their full-time jobs to work on Alterkeys. “The day I quit felt amazing,” Chema recalled. The co-founders set up a little office, even receiving some support for new startups from the government of Madrid. Although the beginnings were humble, that didn’t matter — as Chema said, “You need ideas, not money.” Alterkeys focused on finding property owners to join the platform. It took months for the company to get its first signing — but eventually the platform’s offerings grew to 1,200 properties around Europe.
Meanwhile, Chema worked hard to make Alterkeys a known name in the industry. “We spent a year being a part of the ‘sharing economy industry.’ If there was a debate, we were there — on television, in the news, and every media outlet.” He also networked and enlisted the help of more experienced leaders in the industry who could give Alterkeys more credibility.
Chema’s ultimate goal was to have Alterkeys bought by one of the key players in the industry, and in 2015, that goal became reality. Alterkeys was acquired by BeMate, a Spanish company with properties around Europe. As Chema explained, the company has “a different approach: It combines the best of hotels with the best of private homes.” While Alterkeys had already moved towards offering entire apartments in attractive locations, with BeMate, the platform added the kind of on-demand service typical of hotels, such as meal delivery, transportation and housekeeping. It was a step towards turning Alterkeys into a more premium service. And along with Alterkeys went Chema — today, he is BeMate’s Chief Strategy and Business Development Officer.
Do you have a burning idea for a new startup? Here are Chema Gonzalez’s tips for aspiring entrepreneurs:
- Fall in love with your idea. “Starting a new business is so tough that if you’re not in love, you’ll quit.”
- Nail it, then scale it. “You have to focus — do everything you can to become the best in a city or a little neighborhood, then scale up. If you try to nail your idea in 20 different places or products, you’ll fail, because you won’t have the focus or the resources.”
- Make every penny count. According to Chema, working on a shoestring budget is not such a bad thing. “When you have lots of money, you just throw money at problems — you hire external help, you pay a consultant. But you don’t think about how to create solutions. By giving away money, you give away control of your company.”
- Surrender is not part of the plan. “You’ve got to be patient — and work, work, work.”
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