SleepOut, Kenya’s answer to CouchSurfing

Starting out as a simple hobby, SleepOut has now transformed the way accommodation booking works. It all started in 2011 when Johann Jenson, who was then working for the UN, along with his girlfriend, built a hobby site for Lamu Island in Kenya. They began taking photos of their favourite houses and stunning sceneries and decided to put all the various accommodations on a single website. The response from the public and the online traffic was unexpected, and Jenson realized that if cultivated properly, this simple hobby could have huge potential.

SleepOut is an online booking system that connects travellers with a wide range of accommodation from hotels to resorts, to average homes, “We don’t discriminate, if you have a houseboat or a cottage in your backyard, then you could put that on SleepOut,” states Jenson.

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There is a wide range of locations from Naivasha to Cape Verde, to Mauritius. SleepOut seeks to move the light from the stereotypical African safari’s to exotic locations.

The booking procedure is simple and straight forward, you pick your destination, browse through the thousands of housing options and even create a shortlist. When you have an idea of where you want to stay, you can contact the host or go straight to booking. Contacting your host gives you the opportunity to express any queries via email or text messaging. Once you have decided where to stay, you can make a payment online via credit card or via bank transfer or mobile. Specific hosts will give the option of paying later. So you can book now and then pay when you get there. And voila! You’re all set and ready to go!

However, two years ago things were not this easily accessible. After the initial realization of what SleepOut could amount to, Jenson partnered with Mikul Shah who had created the first-ever online restaurant booking service in Kenya, called Eat Out. Together, the two built a booking accommodation system. As a pilot service, they created a system to handle a maximum of 500 booking requests. By June 2012, a month after their partnership, they had launched sleepout.co.ke, and bookings were flying in fast.

That is when Jenson decided to contact Zimbabwean-born Paul Schwarz, a programmer in Mombasa who was running his own software company and had his own business that was taking off with high-profile Kenyan clients. Paul had experience with vacation rental platform in Kenya which made him a perfect fit as the Chief Technical Officer for SleepOut.

Despite the fact that Jenson was still working at the UN, and Mikul at Eat Out and Paul with his own business, they were determined to see SleepOut all the way through.

Paul had already made positive changes to the existing software, and SleepOut was now dealing with over 500 booking requests a month. However, at the rate that SleepOut was heading, the current system was just not working, and the team realized that they would have to rewrite their core software to handle at least 3000 booking requests.

Nearly a year later, the team had grown to 14 people, yet Jenson, who was no stranger to long nights, is working long hours but this time for himself, while Mikul still manages Eat Out.

SleepOut is fast moving to a global competitor with recognition from a wide range of customers creating a high demand in other parts of the world. They were the only startup from East Africa to pitch at the 2013 Top 50 Global Alpha Startup Web Summit in Dublin, Ireland.

They have since moved their main office to Mauritius to grow into a world-class accommodation marketplace in the hope of reaching an international market and not just Africa and the Middle East. “Our plan is to run our management, software and customer support teams out of Mauritius while keeping ground operations where we deem it important for growing communities of hosts and travellers,” remarks Jenson.

If you have a spare room or a house, SleepOut gives you the platform to showcase your property for free and join the team. In this way, the sky’s the limit because everyone becomes a potential client but at the same time keeps raising the bar.

However, a major issue that Jenson has faced is internet accessibility with users. “We have noticed that many residents of East Africa tend to prefer to confirm their booking details over the phone before paying online. Because e-commerce has not been around very long in Kenya, there is still a long way to go for online businesses to earn the trust of users.

With growing customers and new locations as well as being featured by CNN in the list of 14 African Technology startups to watch out for in 2014, this is just the beginning for SleepOut.

YS PanAfrica

YS PanAfrica

Africans across the continent telling African entrepreneurial stories. Helping the global audience to explore Africa through the prism of creativity, optimism and perseverance one story at a time.