“Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
The above quote resonates closely with the journey of marketer-turned-entrepreneur Lester Kang. A Singaporean by birth, Lester travelled to the United States to pursue aerospace engineering. He loved designing aircraft. However, he had to come back to Singapore after graduation, due to strong family ties. Back then in 2005, Singapore did not offer exciting enough jobs for aerospace engineers. So Lester had to start off in branding and marketing. The true explorer that he is, he forged ahead to create his own path in the new field as well. In the next 7 years, he grew to become an Assistant Vice President at DBS Bank.
While at the hectic job, Lester kept his love for travelling and adventure alive. He has visited 50 different countries in the last 7 years and found a best friend in James Chua, who also happened to love travelling off the beaten track. While staying in foreign countries, especially in Asia, both of them noticed the lack of affordable and comfortable places to stay. They found a calling! They quit their high-paying jobs and started PandaBed - which can today be called the Airbnb for Asia.
They have listings from popular Asian destinations including Bali, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Koh Samui, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Phuket and Singapore. Lester says his next big expansion plans would be in India, Indonesia and China.
Since the time of launch in November 2012, Lester says, “We have about 1,000 trustworthy and authentic vacation homes in Asia. Listing a vacation rental on PandaBed is absolutely free for homeowners or property managers. We just take 10% commission from the booking of the vacation rental which is much lower than standard online travel agency where their commission is between 15%-25%. We want to have comprehensive listings in Asia compared to any competition ”
PandaBed has a property scout network in all the countries where they have presence. Speaking on security and ensuring trust, Lester adds, “We pride ourselves on handpicking properties, which means that the list of properties goes through a rigorous selection process where we will make an effort to personally meet the owner(s), stay in the properties, evaluate the cleanliness, housekeeping and management of the home, and get to know the neighbourhood. What we aim to do is to keep adding more handpicked properties so that we continue to provide more quality accommodation. This would mean expanding our property scouts network and clocking up more air miles to visit our hosts.
1) Save money while travelling
2) Gain an authentic local experience
3) Make a few local friends
On fundraising and market size, “We are now looking to raise capital from partners who can help us scale more aggressively in Asia. Our vision is to be the number 1 most trusted and reliable vacation rental platform for Asians. We expect that ballooning Asian upper middle class will contribute to the majority of travel accommodation bookings. The Asian FIT segment (Free independent travelers) will grow to a massive 1 billion by 2030. If we capture 1% of the market, we will have 10 millions PandaBed users. Also, Airbnb is only 4 years old. The market is huge, and we believe that there is opportunity and space for more players to make the offerings competitive for the users.”
Adding that local language is the way to scale in Asia, Lester says, “We believe that we have to be a bit more localized in Asia. We may have to go the local languages way soon to scale massively in Asia.”
On the PandaBed team, “We are eight people, we are looking to add scouts and partners in India and China soon. Ensuring that all our customers can have the peace of mind sleeping in one of our many trusted vacation homes throughout Asia drives me and my team every morning to show up at work.”
Speaking of challenges, Lester adds, “The main challenge is in securing good quality homes with attentive owners to list their properties on our website. There is clearly greater demand from tourists to rent good quality homes than there is supply of such homes. This imbalance in supply of quality homes is also the reason why several of our hosts are experiencing over 90 per cent occupancy rate on their properties. The way we try to overcome this challenge is by bringing awareness on the benefits of hosting. We would love to talk to anyone who is considering hosting guests.”
Lester signs off with a zen like quote, “The world has enough positive-sum opportunities for everyone to succeed massively; you don’t have to step on someone else’s toes to get ahead in the game.”
We at YourStory are really impressed by Lester’s vision and single-minded passion to grow PandaBed into the most trusted marketplace for home-sharing in Asia. We wish them all the best as they plan to raise venture capital and scale. We will keep you posted about updates from them.