As part of our popular Meet the Founder series we recently caught up with entrepreneur James South, founder and CEO of Igoroom.
Can you tell us a little about your background and the company?
I’m an experienced entrepreneur and director with a 15-year track record of projects focusing on progressive, innovative technology within the international leisure and hospitality sectors. As founder and CEO of the award-winning Gecko Digital, that I had solely conceived of, developed, and raised investment for what became the largest virtual reality agency for the hospitality sector in Asia. My previous experience includes founding Econogo Ltd, later re-branded to ‘Gogorro’ – the world’s first electric motorbike with removable batteries and battery leasing commercials. I had conceived, developed, prototyped, raised investment capital for, manufactured and retailed the Yogo electric scooter.
My latest venture is Igoroom – a next-gen Virtual Reality travel booking app that is set to revolutionise the luxury online travel sector. Launching soon, Igoroom uses innovative virtual reality and artificial intelligence technology to provide users with world-first fully immersive, 360-degree virtual reality hotel and resort tours –uniquely placing potential guests in their most desired resorts before they book.
How did the idea come to you for the company?
I had tried to find a way to increase conversion of content sales for Gecko Digital. Barter was the most sensible option when dealing with hotels in Asia which posed challenges around selling the barter. Realising that not only would we be able to sell the barter using a channel we owned but we could create a space that didn’t exist in the industry- an online travel agency that used 360 imagery to sell its contracts, all at a time when we realised how much 360 was reinforcing hotels’ direct selling channels.
How have you been able to gain funding and grow?
Through a combination of personal connections, investment strategy, building a great, trusted team – and serendipity!
While the Igoroom idea was still in its infancy, I was trying to get a meeting with the elusive GM of a hotel in Malaysia to secure a VR shoot contract for Gecko Digital – one of very few that was actually potentially viable during the travel lockdown, as I was based in Malaysia at the time. I decided to take a punt on booking myself and my family into the hotel as a way to make sure the GM would meet with me, but when we got there the GM was away. I decided to go to the hotel gym to take out my frustration on the treadmill, and while I was there I overheard someone on the phone talking about AI. At the time we were actively exploring how we could use AI to take Igoroom to the next level, so I went over and introduced myself. That person happened to be Matthew Barsing, an incredibly well-connected businessman who had just led Malaysian AI and robotics company Superceed to a tenfold increase in valuation. Matthew got the Igoroom concept immediately, jumped on board and started driving our investment strategy and working his amazing black book.
For our first investment round we used a Southeast Asian crowdfunding platform, PitchedIn, and broke the record for the largest single donation to an equity crowdfunding in APAC region. There was fantastic enthusiasm for the product, and we found there is an incredible appetite for investing in travel because of the perceived bounceback, and the liquidity of travellers who didn’t go on holiday in 2020. Every available metric at the moment suggests that as soon as travel corridors and borders open up people will travel again en masse – and we’ve really been able to tap into that.
One of the biggest early drivers of awareness for Igoroom was a Malaysian TV appearance that I did alongside one of our investors, who happens to be a very high-profile figure in Malaysia.
What are the key successes?
One of our biggest strengths lies in the incredible IP that underpins Igoroom – an unrivalled VR content library for over 700 of the world’s finest luxury hotels and resorts, which also uniquely includes underwater VR content so users can even explore the coral reef in 360°! Our partners’ statistics have shown that a property will typically sell around 17.5 per cent more using this content. This invaluable asset is testament to the success of Igoroom’s sister company Gecko Digital, which enjoyed exponential growth over a seven-year period right up until the pandemic struck.
Another key success for Igoroom has been forging strong strategic relationships with major tourism and hospitality industry players like Hummingbird, Kerzner Group and Six Senses. Securing the support of influential international brands such as these is critical to generating momentum as we prepare to launch.
What were/are the challenges and how have you overcome these?
Aside from the fundamental design and development challenges involved in creating a first-of-its-kind app completely from scratch, one of the main challenges we encountered when building the app was ensuring connectivity to hotels’ dynamic rates. This is typically done via an API like SiteMinder or Resgate, but when we reached out to SiteMinder we could not get them to engage with us – essentially because there is no market appetite for yet another new OTA (Online Travel Agent). We eventually resolved this by going via an intermediary rates aggregator called HyperGuest.
Contracting with hotels to ensure access to high quality packages at competitive rates is another ongoing challenge; we have an experienced specialist contracting team to negotiate contracts and maintain relationships.
Finally, there have also been the basic logistical challenges of starting up during a global pandemic – until very recently most of the team had never met in person, we were doing everything remotely via Zoom, juggling significant time zone differences… and of course doing all of this on an unpaid basis until we were able to secure funding.
What are your plans now/for the future?
We passionately believe that a holiday should begin before you even arrive, and that part of the joy is in building anticipation during the booking process. We intend to embrace new technology in content with a better AR / VR proposition and harness the latest in AI communication tools online to provide guests with the best possible booking experience.
Can you share you top 5-10 tips for entrepreneurial success?
- Don’t get it right, then do it; do it, then get it right: Activity then strategy!
- Be open and able to pivot.
- Surround yourself with people you trust.
- Be positive every day: Setbacks are there to be overcome.
- Don’t sit around planning – by the time you’ve finished planning, someone else will have done it.
- No one ever knows where a company will end – Richard Branson never knew he was going to have an airline; Steve Jobs never knew he would be making smartphones.
Who are the 5 people who inspire you the most?
Walter Benjamin / George Orwell / Bernard Shaw / Elon Musk (Twitter @elonmusk) / Steve Jobs. Most importantly, on a day to day basis, I have friends who inspire me the most
What are your favourite inspirational /motivational quotes?
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has” – Margaret Mead
What are your social handles and website links so our readers can connect with you?