Tamara Lohan - Tech Meets Luxury!

Tamara is the Founder and CTO of Mr & Mrs Smith! Yes - the luxury travel agent that you have spent hours trawling through daydreaming...procrastinating...imagining yourself on that beach! She founded the business 13 years ago with her then boyfriend James (now Husband)! It has evolved from a physical travel guidebook into a global online travel agent and Tamara is half of the team that manages its five offices and 120 people. Read on to discover her journey, her advice for female entrepreneurs and of course her top hotel picks! 


Meet Tamara

Current Job CTO and Founder of Mr & Mrs Smith

Favourite podcast Invisibilia

Favourite hotel It's like choosing a favourite child! My favourite hotel I went to last year was UXUA Casa in Brazil. The owner is the ex-creative director of Diesel and every single piece of furniture, light fitting etc. has been designed and crafted by him. You can just tell it is a passion project that is very special. 

Dream place to visit So many on my list - Tokyo, the Himalayas, Nicaragua 

Go to meeting spot I will meet anywhere where there is decent coffee!  

Necessary Extravagance Hey Jo Leggings - never have I owned leggings so good (no baggy knees after flights) 

Favourite productivity tool Wunderlist

Female inspiration in business I have three sources of inspiration: 

  1. My contemporaries - I have been fortunate enough to meet a small group of amazing women who all run their own businesses. We all support each other and they give me a huge sense of solidarity
  2. My two really good girlfriends with whom I can just be myself 
  3. Strong women designers who I just admire infinitely because I cannot do what they do! Particularly Kit Kemp who designs the Firmdale Hotels and Judy Hutson who designs The Pig Hotels

Top networking tip Don't try to put on a persona. Try and listen to the people who you are talking to. 

There is a huge difference between listening whilst thinking about how you are going to reply and really listening to what someone is trying to tell you.

The Journey

Can you tell us briefly about your background prior to founding Mr & Mrs Smith and what you gleaned from those experiences? 

Straight out of university I was given a dream job to go to Brazil and launch an energy drink (largely because I spoke some Portuguese, was willing and probably quite cheap labour)! It was a watershed year; I learnt a bit about everything: how to create a business, how to initiate marketing, how to get a physical product from one country to another, production, distribution etc. At the end of the year the company ran out of cash so we had to come home but the whole experience not only taught me about business and getting stuck in, it also taught me that things are not forever. I came back to the UK and decided to work for some larger organisations to institutionalise my education a little. I also worked with my mother a little who has always been very entrepreneurial and runs an agency called The County Register. 

What’s the single best piece of business advice that helped shape who you are as an entrepreneur today?

Well, my Father-in-law always says that

If it was easy everybody would be doing it

What has been your biggest challenge? 

When we first launched with our travel guide book our biggest challenge was actually getting to know our end customers as our clients were the bookshops. We even put a little card in the book to solicit information and build a database! Of course the guide books was a dying industry and the internet was taking off so we pivoted from a book publisher to an online travel agent. Taking the leap to actually change the business was a huge challenge! Our challenges now are quite different...keeping the brand fresh, attracting a younger audience whilst still pleasing our core database who might have had families, managing global offices and motivating our team and keeping everyone pulling in the same direction. 

What do you consider your greatest achievement, and what personal qualities do you attribute most to your success?

My greatest achievement is building my team - when you are in business it is all about the people who you work with and I love my team so much! I especially enjoy seeing the younger developers rise up through the ranks and become senior developers and witness them produce something they are proud of. I am delighted that we consistently push boundaries, stay innovative whilst retaining a no blame culture - just a great team environment! 


Mr & Mrs Smith

Tell us about the inspiration, origins and evolution of Mr & Mrs Smith

Mr & Mrs Smith was born from frustration. When James (my husband/co-founder) and I were dating he would try to take me away for country weekends but we would end up bitterly disappointed again and again. But the inspiration has always also come from the hotels. There are these incredible places out there - Alila Villas Uluwatu in Bali where the architecture is jaw dropping is just one example! I love seeing hoteliers push the boundaries, create an environment where the small touches live long in your memory and who continue to inspire me. I never get bored of seeing new and innovative way of doing things. 

You are the CTO. What does that role entail?

I run the team who make, create, fix and maintain the bookable websites... the blogs, the backend systems, the content management system, the rates and availability system plus all the integrations that we have with hotel central reservation systems and channel management tools. 

Tell us more about Smith & Family

Smith & Family was born as my husband James and I went on to have children. We realised that we were not prepared to drop our standards in terms of the hotels we wanted to go to. Just because you become a parent does not mean that for your evening meal you want to sit at a sticky table with squashed fish fingers under foot! There is a real market out there for families who want to stay in incredible places with their children. 

Smith & Family is built on three pillars - it has to be great for kids, great for the adults and finally great for the family as a unit, because I find that as a working mum when I go on holiday with my children I actually want to spend time with them not dump them up in a kids club for the week! There are very few properties that tick all three of those boxes! So our biggest challenge with this brand extension is a supply constraint...they are out there but they are hard to find. 

Sourcing your hotels sounds like a tough job! What does it take to be a Mr & Mrs Smith hotel? 

SO many things - the way we curate is our gold dust! 

It is all about the experience, so if you walk into a hotel and you feel like you are being treated like a number or just made to feel uncomfortable or that you should feel privileged to be in this environment - those feelings would discount that property for us. There are so many elements and touch points within a hotel that can affect that feeling as you walk in, down to the music levels, what type of music, the way the staff are dressed, the way they greet you, the way communal spaces are broken up etc. I always feel that a Mr & Mrs Smith hotel bedroom should make you feel excited as you walk through the door, and that you should feel an overwhelming urge to jump on the bed! But again - is the lighting really difficult to work out and overly technical, are the sheets a bit scratchy or Egyption cotton, is the bed big enough, can you fit two in a bath...

It is the sum of all of these things that make up the experience and make you feel special, whether you are travelling as a couple or as a family, that determines if it is a Mr & Mrs Smith hotel. 

What is the vision for Mr & Mrs Smith and any other future ambitions? 

Mr & Mrs Smith aims to be the absolute best guide to the best boutique hotels in the world. 

In addition, last year we bought a small villa company so in 2016 we want to really get under the skin of that. We want to launch villas properly with a view of expanding the locations, going into cottages and perhaps developing our ski offering! 


Women in Tech

How do you handle being a working mum - any advice for others? 

My tip is not to be scared by people who look like they are managing everything and doing it brilliantly because I think that underneath it all we are all trying to do the best we can. I never feel like I do anything to 100% of my ability. When I am at work I miss my children, when I am with my children I think I should be doing some work - there is never a perfect balance. My advice would be don't beat yourself up about it, just keep chipping away at it. 

Who do you surround yourself with? 

Positive people. I would advise you to remove those negative influences close to you as they are very very draining - often one does not realise what they are putting up with especially if they tend to see the best in people. 

What advice can you offer women who are looking to start their own business? 

I think women can sometimes get paralysed by the grandiose scale of what they want to embark on. I recommend thinking about it in smaller terms - just get to the first step, then overcome the next hurdle and continue to face each problem as it comes. If you had told me I was going to run a global, five office, 120 people business in the travel industry thirteen years ago I would have gone "What?!" But each step and success brings you more confidence.  

Follow Tamara! 

Debbie Wosskow - Our Sharing Economy Queen!

I was introduced to Debbie by Izzy Fox and we met over breakfast at Little House in Mayfair. I am simply in awe of her: she is the founder and CEO of Love Home Swap, author of the independent report for the UK government on the Sharing Economy, founding Chair of Sharing Economy UK, one of the Evening Standard's 1000 most influential people of 2015, an angel investor with a passion to invest in and help women, trustee and chair of Hampstead Theatre AND she also managed to go to the gym before our breakfast! Settle in as we talk through her journey, her ambitions and what the future of the sharing economy might look like for the UK.

The sharing economy involves using internet technologies to connect distributed groups of people and organisations to make better use of goods, skills, services, capital and spaces, sharing access and so reducing the need for ownership.

Meet Debbie

Current Job CEO of Love Home Swap; Chair of Sharing Economy UK (the newly formed trade association for sharing economy businesses); angel investor and I also sit on Sajid Javid's productivity task force.  

Education Philosophy and Theology at New College, Oxford University.

Go to meeting spot Little House Mayfair. I pretty much split my time between Soho House establishments and Firmdale Hotels.

Favourite book/blog/podcast I walk quite a lot so I listen to a lot of TED. As an arts graduate I am a big literature fan and I try to work my way through the Booker list each year. 

Necessary extravagance Expensive gym kit and shoes. 

Favourite productivity tool/app myfitnesspal 

How do you switch off Reading and theatre (I try to go to the latter once a week - going to see Rabbit Hole tonight). I also like to sweat every day; I enjoy a class or a trainer so I have one hour of my day where someone else tells me what to do!

Female inspiration in business I am from a very entrepreneurial family where none of us have a 'normal job', everyone runs a business, so the notion of going into an office was implausible. Seeing my mum and grandma do this and be mothers meant I never had a sense of women not being able to do things. Aside from family, Anita Roddick and Debbie Moore. 

Top networking tip Turn up. Be confident. Smile. 

80% of success is showing up - Woody Allen 

Hottest UK tech company (apart from Love Home Swap!) VINAYA

The Journey

Tell us about Love Home Swap, its evolution to date and the most exciting thing you are currently working on! 

The idea is 5 years old and has quite a personal origin. I was travelling back from a terrible holiday with my two small children (where we stayed in a cramped hotel room) and I watched The Holiday (inspiration can come in many forms)! I wondered does this even exist and if it does that is exactly what I wish I'd had. I don't let things drop so the idea was born and I founded Love Home Swap. I dissuaded my brother from doing an MBA and he joined me at the beginning of the journey.

We raised our first round from MMC Ventures in 2011. Now we have raised capital in the UK and US and taken strategic investment a year ago from Wyndham Worldwide. When I was raising 5 years ago the sharing economy notion was in its infancy and I got told repeatedly that no one will stay in someone else's home! Fast forward to the present and my mum stayed in an Airbnb last summer and Beyonce posts an Instagram of the one she stayed for the Super Bowl! We are benefiting from that after glow effect. 

For us what is super interesting is that we are a totally different audience - older, families etc. and the crux is about the swap. Airbnb is about the yield whereas Love Home Swap is an emotional decision. You put yourself in someone else's skin and them in yours. 

How does the business model differ to Airbnb? 

The average homeswapper is 14 years older than those using Airbnb. It is about the families, empty nesters and second home owners. For example, I am doing a homeswap this weekend to the Cotswolds - they have two kids, we have two kids. With Love Home Swap you are a member of the club and using points means you don't have to pay - you are still renting an Airbnb at the end of the day. 

What are your future ambitions? 

When we first launched we had 250 homes...now we have over 150,000! People swap for two reasons: flirting with where to go or, they need to go Sienna for a wedding. We need to be able to service both types of demand meaning bigger is better! We have ambitious plans to scale up the business and seed more homes in places around the world where people want to go. 

Can you share some of your other ventures to date, and the skills from those tenures you appreciate most since founding and scaling Love Home Swap? 

I have worked for myself since I was 25 and you learn so much about running a business from just running one (which dovetails into a bigger point around how we educate entrepreneurs and people in general); I didn't know how to read a P&L, but I learnt quickly! I have come to learn enormous amounts about people too. If you're the boss when you are very young you have to work out how to motivate, incentivise and manage individuals a lot older than you. But if I am good at anything it is really knowing what needs to get done that will drive value, and focusing and executing on that. 

What makes successful co-founding teams? 

Pick someone different to you with complementary skills. It is also more binding than a marriage - talking from a perspective of someone with both business partners and ex husbands. Companies are not quick, Mantra, my first business, took 8 years from start to exit and Love Home Swap is in year 5. These are huge commitments and I am skeptical when I meet teams that say they met at a networking event two months ago. Anyone can be good together in the good stuff, it is the endurance and grit together in the bad times that is important. 

The Sharing Economy & Investment

You authored the independent report for the UK government on the Sharing Economy in 2014 (Unlocking the sharing economy) - can you share some of the key highlights? 

It is about making the UK the home of the sharing economy. We have the opportunity to be really good - we have a benign regulatory environment and a government that wants to keep it that way. The report was about seising this moment and making the UK even better and truly startup friendly to sharing economy businesses. I have two main focuses afterwards: 

  1. Productivity - In a global league table the UK lags significantly. This is one of Sajid Javid's key focus - solving the productivity problem. My argument is that the current measure, GDP, does not capture sharing economy activity. 
  2. Status of workers on platforms - We have an opportunity to do things differently here. We are not the US where there is no welfare state and it is the role of the employer to provide those benefits; nor are we France where the employees rule. We need to get clear on this and carve out a different role for platforms. 

We have now formed the trade association and have catapulted from 19 to 50 members! 

You are the founding Chair of Sharing Economy UK (SEUK) - what are the goals of this relatively nascent trade body? 

Sharing Economy UK champions the UK’s sharing economy industry. We are a nationwide trade body representing the country’s most influential sharing economy businesses, along with game-changing start-ups, across a spectrum of sectors. We represent their interests, raise the profile of the sharing economy in the press and we are a resource for our members. If you are a small sharing economy startup and you are part of the same organisation as Airbnb, TaskRabbit and BlaBlaCar you benefit from those connections. We host events and provide mentoring and I just returned from a trip with 16 entrepreneurs to Silicon Valley visiting Uber, Instacart etc! Finally we are better together for conversations such as insurance policies and have better group buying power. 

Have you made any personal investments? What are you excited by as an angel investor? 

It is always about people and I try to back women (not exclusively) however, the last three investments I made were. It is something that I believe in - paying it forward - and given capital begets more capital and the statistics for women raising finance is still so terrible, if you have the means and expertise to help you should send the elevator back down, we have a responsibility! So I assess the people, I ask can I help with the idea technically, can I unlock my network in a way that would make a huge difference or is it just something that blows me away.

Women in Tech

What advice do you have for women looking to start their own business? 

  1. Get up early 
  2. Sweat every day 
  3. Have grit 
  4. Develop a thicker skin 

What business support networks do you value? 

I have an incredible network of strong female founders who are my friends: Sarah Wood, Alex Depledge, Tamara Lohan, Emma Sinclair and Nancy Cruickshank! Most of us have children and I have regular sessions with them as they provide me with invaluable support. 

What is your opinion on the women in tech conversation? How can we do better to attract and retain more women? 

  1. There are some structural solves on this one: you are most likely to start a business in your 30s and you are most likely to have kids in your 30s. You will pay to go to work as the cost of childcare will almost certainly outweigh your earnings as an entrepreneur. It therefore takes a certain situation for that to even be tenable. We need better childcare facilities in Tech City! 
  2. I would also like to see a crowdfunding site by women for women to further propagate the pay it forward culture. 
  3.  Finally it starts early...I don't want to STEM the death out of people but you have to be able to talk to girls about business. When I look at my own children they are different simply because of being exposed to mummy's website - we need to question how we educate young people. 


Follow Debbie!