Personally this interview was very exciting for me, I grew up looking at the Mr & Mrs Smith hotel collection books on our coffee table - dreaming of wonderful adventures in amazing places! The journey Tamara and Mr & Mrs Smith has taken is impressive to say the least, from starting with just Tamara and her husband to now a team of 120. Read how they managed growth, international expansion, outselling Harry Potter and much more!
Mr & Mrs Smith - The Journey
Tell me about your background prior to Mr & Mrs Smith.
I grew up in Spain, but I was educated in the UK. I came out of university and went straight to Brazil to help launch an energy drink; I was hired more for my language skills than anything else, but I learnt a lot. On returning to the UK I worked in marketing for large brands such as Honda and Ericsson, focusing on the data end of the industry, until I’d had enough of large companies. I left that world to help my mother, who was running a dating agency.
How did Mr & Mrs Smith start? Where did the inspiration for the business come from?
My now husband and I were dating while we were both working hard in London; we kept looking for weekends away, but were frequently let down by guidebooks that didn’t tell us enough information, used rubbish photography and weren’t speaking to us as 30-somethings. This was at a time when a home-design revolution was underway – Ikea was urging us to ‘chuck out the chintz’, Conran was offering affordable super-stylish interiors – and most of the hotels in the UK hadn’t caught up yet. After a particularly depressing weekend away, in a hotel that sorely tested our resolve, we sat down to write a guide that we would like to read.
Shortly afterwards, we took a month off work to travel the UK, seeking out under-the-radar boutique hotels that no-one knew about because they didn’t yet have a voice.
When did you realise you were onto something?
Our friends loved the idea, so we knew it was something worth pursuing. All the old-school publishers told us we were mad, but it made us more determined to shake things up. We’d initially planned to give the idea to a publisher and take royalties, but when they all turned us down we decided to go ahead and self-publish (back in those days you’d write a book instead of launching a website, but that quickly followed suit after we launched).
The first book went on sale in September 2003 and I think we first realised it was a success when we had sold out before Christmas and had to reprint. Waterstones in Piccadilly told us we had outsold Harry Potter (only on one day, but we were still elated!), and we were featured on the cover of The Guardian’s travel section.
Mr & Mrs Smith has been around for 12 years, how has your role changed and adapted during that time?
In the beginning, when there’s a very small team, you have to do a bit of everything. Gradually you acquire people who have expertise in a field you’re less familiar with, so you have to step back – this is hard for someone like me who can be a control-freak at times! My role at Smith has always revolved around tech and data: the website, apps, and the systems that allow us to process, make and manage bookings for our hotels.
And, how has the business changed and grown?
We’ve gone from being guidebook publishers to an online travel agency, albeit one that deals exclusively with boutique hotels. We’ve launched a sub-brand for families (smithandfamily.co.uk) and grown from just two employees – my husband and I – to a team of around 120; we’ve also moved from three desks above a 7-11 in Clapham, to offices in London, New York, Los Angeles, and now Singapore. I still remember the first day we made 10 hotel bookings, back in September 2005; now that number’s risen to around 300 bookings a day.
Our company’s changed dramatically over the years, but I think the biggest development has been becoming a global brand – it may be the most exciting part of growing a business, but it’s also been the most stressful, time consuming and frustrating for lots and lots of reasons!
Team & Hiring
What does your average day look like?
As the CTO and business owner, my day can either be focused on one role, or shift from one to the other. No two days are ever the same, but my mornings usually start with a stand-up meeting with the development team and a catch up on live projects. Throughout the day I’ll keep an eye on any issues coming in and help out where I can. I try and spend a part of each day looking at upcoming projects, ensuring we have a dedicated team in place and checking that we’re up to date with timelines; then I’ll usually have a meeting with my fellow directors, press interviews or other partnership meetings.
Having said that, I’m trying to cut down on the number of meetings I attend, take on fewer projects and delegate more to empower my team; so recently I’ve been trying to say no to things!
What were your biggest challenges when growing your team?
Finding great people who share your vision and passion is very time consuming, but when you find the right person it feels like a weight has been lifted from your shoulders. As a business grows, its people and HR become your main concern, so it’s important to learn to delegate, empower people to do their jobs and ensure they’re happy.
Growing the team internationally has also had its challenges – communication can be tricky and faraway teams can feel a bit out of the loop at times.
You have offices overseas, how do you manage those?
We take regular trips to New York and Los Angeles (where we opened an office in August 2015). It’s of utmost importance that I respond to queries from these offices first, so requests and updates aren’t affected by a delay between time zones.
You have to trust your international teams to deliver without micro managing them. They’re respectively experts in their regions, so you need to keep in touch but listen to, and advise and support them from a distance.
Achievements & Challenges
You were awarded an MBE in 2014, how did that feel?
The best thing about getting an MBE was seeing my parents at the Palace – they were so proud!
What do you feel is your biggest achievement to date?
The times when I feel I’ve achieved something is when our customers give positive feedback. I love hearing that someone’s had a great holiday through booking with us – it makes me very happy. I also feel proud when I see someone in my team grow and develop; giving people the opportunity to do what they want is very satisfying.
Within Mr & Mrs Smith what has been your biggest challenge?
International expansion has been a challenge for all the reasons given above, such as keeping in touch and working as a team. The process hasn’t been a totally smooth ride for me; I’ve made mistakes along the way, which is hard because I take them personally and I care. Some things we’ve tried haven’t worked, and sometimes you have to be brutally honest with yourself to move forward to the next stage. If you’ve invested a lot of time and energy in something, it’s painful when it doesn’t work out.
If you were starting Mr & Mrs Smith from scratch tomorrow, what would you do differently?
Our board has been incredibly helpful over the past three years – I wish they’d been there to advise and support us earlier; they could have helped us avoid some pitfalls.
Advice & Women in Tech
What is your advice for anyone just starting out in business?
- Understand that it will be your life – running your own business is not just a job, it’s a lifestyle choice so you’ve got to love what you do.
- Understand that it’s not easy. My father-in-law offered this advice, ‘If it was easy everyone would be doing it’.
- You can’t be an expert in everything. Know your strengths, and surround yourself with people who complement your skills.
Have you faced any challenges as a women in business/technology? If so, how have you dealt with these?
I have to say, I’ve been lucky enough not to experience gender discrimination issues, perhaps because it’s my business. However, I would love more women on my tech team – do you know anyone suitable?
What is your vision for the future of Mr & Mrs Smith?
I’d love to see Smith & Family (our sub-brand) reach its full potential. It’s been hampered because we’ve been too focused on the core business, and there’s a lack of really great family-friendly hotels; however, I know it’s something that people seek out and really want.
Many years ago, we used to promote villas and cottages, but we stopped because our tech was very hotel focused; it’s about time we did that again. I’d also like to see Smith make an acquisition of another company.
On the tech side, I’m excited about projects we have on the horizon for more data tech personalisation – matchmaking the customer and their perfect hotel – and continuing to improve our customer service, both on and offline 24/7. We’re not perfect, but it’s striving towards perfection that gets me up in the morning.