Sitting in a dingy Internet café in a strange city and paying in 15-minute increments to use a computer is no traveler’s idea of fun. After backpacking through 23 European countries, Argentine-born Diego Saez-Gil knew there had to be a better alternative. The advent of smartphones inspired him to invent one: an app that could replace websites as the go-to-source for travelers looking for accommodations as well as new friends on the road.
Saez-Gil, who has an MBA from the Universitat Ramon Llull in Barcelona, Spain, pooled his savings with Chris Piazza, an American, and Alex Torrenegra, a Colombian, to develop a mobile app that was launched in 2011 under the name InBed.me, later changed to WeHostels. The app, available free from Apple and Google, is designed for student travelers and young professionals who are looking for affordable, last-minute accommodations anywhere in the world. The first such “social” hotel booking app available on mobile platforms, it has since grown to 300,000 users in over 80 different countries.
Saez-Gil, now 32, admits that it was a learn-as-you-go experience. “One of the things that you learn as a startup is that a lot of assumptions you made at the beginning are wrong,” he says. “At the end of the day, success will come from adapting.”
That flexibility paid off as the company revised its initial social-networking strategy. It hired two new developers—Lucas Lain, 32, from Argentina, and Juanda Zapata, 31, from Colombia—and secured seed funding from Start-Up Chile, NXTP Labs in Argentina and other venture capital organizations from around the world. After first trying to attract Americans and Europeans looking for accommodations in Latin America, but discovering that many hostels in the region were not online, Saez-Gil and his colleagues realized that their biggest market was American, Canadian and British travelers visiting Europe and the United States, not Latin America.
Recognizing WeHostels’ potential to expand services to young travelers, StudentUniverse—the largest online travel agency for students and youth—acquired the nascent company in 2013 and hired Saez-Gil as vice president. His hard-earned success, however, also left him determined to help other developers avoid the mistakes he made.
So, in addition to running the WeHostels business unit at StudentUniverse and driving the company’s mobile strategy, Saez-Gil has taken on a mentorship role for other travel startups in Latin America. One company, Viajala.com—a Medellín-based startup that aggregates different search engine results for flights and hotels in Latin America—is already thriving. Saez-Gil says his first piece of advice to budding entrepreneurs is to seek out mentors who can advise them about finance and development, which he says would have helped his own company in its early stages. But he says the field is now even more promising than when he began.
“In general, there are many more opportunities for entrepreneurs around the world to build global products,” Saez-Gil says. “Before, you had to be in Silicon Valley. Now, with the web and mobile [technology], you can build an app from anywhere in the world.”