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CD3966 Coffee shop confesion headerspsdSecret escapes

No secret about success of digital travel deals business

The co-founder of the deluxe holiday discount website Secret Escapes talks about the steps to success.

“We’re an email business, a deals business and a business in travel. All three of those have not been signals for success in start-ups,” notes Tom Valentine, co-founder of members-only discount website Secret Escapes.
“But, in a way, that’s been a bit of a positive. Over the years we've found lots of investors who have listened to our story and seen our numbers and have bought in. And so we've always been really sure that these people are in our corner, despite an awful lot of people saying no.”
Flush from another recent round of funding, Secret Escapes is thriving. The business links travellers to significant discounts on luxury hotel stays and trips via the internet and through its mobile app, and it has a growing audience in the UK, Europe and the United States.
Brainstormed in a pub in the arches beneath Waterloo, the company is a rare UK digital success story compared to the roster from Silicon Valley, but Mr Valentine insists that the company remains down-to-earth, even as it espouses its ambition to potential investors.

Fail fast

“It's getting cheaper and cheaper to start a digital business,” says Mr Valentine, and with failure far less damaging to a technology career than in almost any other sector – a badge of honour, even – the advice he would give his younger self is simply to start earlier.

“Get to working on it, learning the business model, and understand what needs to be improved,” he says.

“Success for us comes from keeping very honest about whether we're executing things as fast as we sensibly could, and making sure we're working hard to improve the business every day. I'm pretty happy with the way things have gone, but there are a couple of areas where we've made sure to learn the lesson the first time we made a mistake.”

One area Mr Valentine pinpoints as a lesson learned is in delegation and hiring – and trusting – good people. It’s a common reflection for entrepreneurs, but he says that recognising the need to make himself redundant in an operational sense was one of the few lightbulb moments in the remarkably smooth growth of the team.

Another is the need to celebrate their successes better – something he says the company continues to work on. “My business partner Alex and I talk about this a lot, because I don’t think we're terribly good [at it],” he says.

“We tend to focus on what's gone wrong that day or what we could improve,” he adds, and at no point has either felt they’d ‘made it’. “Arguably, we haven't yet, so that's probably right.”

From the outside the stance appears modest, but keeping humble remains key in the company’s strategy for success.
Mr Valentine is happily self-deprecating in this regard. “I remember when we had a very important fundraising meeting with an investor and I'd been in Singapore the day before and flown back overnight,” he says.

“I was feeling like an absolute rockstar – flying in thousands of miles for an investment meeting. The first thing I said was the wrong name of my own company. I was that tired. That was a very bad meeting.”

That was another lesson learned, he jokes, and a great example of why the business keeps its feet firmly on the ground even as its value is taking off.

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