Find a single guiding muse for your creative project

A common piece of writing advice is to choose a specific person (close friend, spouse) and write to that person. It helps clarify the tone of the writing. Instead of writing for a nebulous crowd of people and have the writing float into the type of writing that sounds like writing, you’re keeping a stronger voice throughout. A lot of writers find this practice very freeing.

In his book On Writing, Stephen King says:

“Someone once wrote that all novels are really letters aimed at one person. I think that every novelist has a single ideal reader; that at various points during the composition of a story, the writer is thinking, ‘I wonder what he/she will think when he/she reads this part?’”

John Steinbeck echoed

“Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death, and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person—and write to that one.”

The same thing can be said of a physical space. When designing a hotel, coffee shop, restaurant, etc, choose a singular, guiding muse that you’re creating the space for. This is going to be the type of place that XXX would come to after XXX. Where would that person want the bathrooms? The color of the drapes? The appetizers we offer?

In this circumstance, the person doesn’t need to be familiar or even alive. But you must choose just one. A few months ago I was talking to a very successful restauranteur in Los Angeles about this. He’s known for creating all the celebrity hotspots around town. He said for each of those places he always had a specific celebrity muse in mind. His most recent creating was a lounge he imagined Drake going to after a show. Placement of bar? Location of parking? What would Drake do? Want? The place is now open and successful beyond imagination. It also has become one of Drake’s favorite places to come hang, after a show….

All this to say, the more specific you can get about who you are creating something for, the better. Your goal should never be to create something for everyone. Those are the type of creative endeavors everyone forgets.

Who Is This For?

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People will forget the color of your couch

I’ve stayed in over 200 hostels across 30 countries in my life. I can’t remember the color of a single couch.

I’m sure there were some really striking couches. Ones that at the time I commented on. Maybe even took a photo. But 3 or 4 years since my last hostel trip, I can’t remember a single one.

I can, however, remember how I felt in a number of hostels. Friends I made. The staff. How easy it was being there. Almost all positive memories from hostel are tied back to the atmosphere, people, and adventures found within.

So when you start thinking of setting up your hostel, or coffee shop, or any business keep that in mind. Don’t play business by overthinking things that don’t matter. Distracting yourself with the color of your couch.

They’re going to forget the colors. They’re never going to forget the feelings.

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21 Tips For Starting A Hostel

The first time I set foot inside a hostel was 2007 in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica. That weekend at Rockin’ Js was my first taste of hostel camaraderie and I was hooked.

In the 12 years since, I’ve stayed in hundreds of hostels across the world and my love for hostels spilled into my day-to-day life as I started a few myself. In 2012 I started, lived in, and managed a hostel in New York City. In 2014 I transitioned to Austin, TX where I founded HK Austin, the first hostel on Austin’s now-popular East Side. The hostel would quickly become one of the top rated hostels in the United States. Since, I’ve helped advise the formation of a few dozen other hostels and fielded a few hundred emails and phone calls from prospective hostel owners.

I’d guess most backpackers have thought about starting a hostel at some point. Maybe that is how you came to this article. Owning your own hostel can lead to the most rewarding times you can ever have. It can also be a nightmarish experience that leaves you with a prison of your own making. This list will hopefully lead to the former.

To any aspiring hostelier out there, here are 21 quick tips to starting the hostel of your dreams:

1. Your first trip needs to be to the city’s planning department. I know, a bummer way to start the list. BUT, you need to figure out exactly what type of permits, licenses, and building requirements will be needed to open the hostel. What areas in the city are zoned to allow hostels? It will guide your real estate search. I understand you’d much rather be daydreaming about duvet colors and the tracklist for your opening party, but you’re just wasting time until you do #1.

2. When you’re looking at spaces for the hostel, make sure the space can legally hold at least 25 guests. Under that it is hard to make a business out of your hostel and your initial enthusiasm for a ‘passion project’ will wear off. Most hostel owners burn out around year 2 because the hostel can’t produce enough income. Most of the time this is due to lack of beds.

3. More bathrooms. Always error on a space with more bathrooms than you think you need. Minimum 1 full bath (shower/toilet) per 4 bunk bed sets (8 beds). Even if city allows less.

4. Kitchens are important no matter the type of hostel. Make sure your space has an adequate one available for all to use.

5. Consider this scenario: You get sick and go to the hospital for 2 months. How does your hostel survive? You need an answer for that from Day 1.

6. The answer to #5 is systems. Systems run the hostel. People run the systems. Systems are the difference between building a hostel business and building a beautiful prison. You need to establish systems before Day 1 so you can effectively manage the hostel. Create systems for every aspect of your business and refine those as you take on employees. Create a system for everything you do too so you can eventually be replaced.

7. Assign a cost to your time, even if you won’t take a salary. Two reasons: a) you will need money to live and b) eventually you will need to hire someone to fill your role and they will not work for free.

8. Volunteers make the hostel world go round. When attracting hostel volunteers it is important to create a private space where they can get away from all guests. People are going to be in their face all day long. Create a space for them to go and unwind. They’re your most valuable asset. Take care of them.

9. Consider ALL the fees and taxes you’ll pay. When you sell a bed for $30, think you’re going to get $30? Wrong. HostelWorld is going to take 15%, then your city is going to take a 10% occupancy tax, then the government is going to take 25%, and so on. You cannot overlook these when putting together your projections.

10. Make sure it is easy to book directly on your website. Everytime someone books direct you make an extra 15% over paying HostelWorld. I’ve really enjoyed Cloudbeds.

11. What type of hostel are you trying to create? What type of guest are you trying to attract? “Travelers” is not an answer to this question. You don’t want to please everyone. Pick a specific traveler (maybe yourself) and let that singular guiding muse direct all your decisions.

12. What are you adding to your hostel that people can talk about? Give your potential guests something at the hostel to talk to their friends about. A crazy mural to Instagram. A room with sand on the floor. Maybe buy a goat. That’s how word of mouth starts.

13. Don’t have a TV in your common room. It ruins a hostel’s environment and all a hostel has is its environment.

14. Consider NOT serving breakfast. Quality breakfast is hard to maintain and expensive. Non-quality breakfast gives guests one other thing to complain about. Find your competitive advantage elsewhere. Plus, once you start serving it will be hard to stop. “I read you all served breakfast!” I feel the same about printers.

15. Buy good mattresses. People are essentially paying to sleep. You will never, ever have enough money when you start. And so, you’ll have to cut a few corners. BUT, beds are not the corner to cut.

16. Don’t allow locals to stay or for any guest to stay longer than 14 days. You need a circulation of people to maintain the traveler vibe. You don’t want long term tenants feeling entitled to special privileges. If someone is local, why are they staying at your hostel?

17. The day you accept guests is the day you start getting reviews. Think about that. There is no such thing as a ‘soft launch.’ People don’t care if you’re still getting your act together. If they paid to stay, they’re going to review their experience. Not your promise of what the experience will one day be.

18. Control what you can control. Meaning, there are certain elements that go into a guest’s experience (and review) that you fully control – the cleanliness of the hostel, the attentiveness of your staff, the activities you provide. You can’t control how every guest will react to your atmosphere or location, but you have to control what you can control. Starting with cleanliness. No excuses.

19. How will guests meet other guests? That’s why they’re staying there. You need to create adequate opportunities to meet each other.

20. On the flip side, where can a guest go if they need an hour to themselves? If there is nowhere but just the common room and their beds, they may feel overwhelmed.

21. Just start. If you’ve made it this far and you’ve always wanted to own a hostel, start now. There will never be a perfect time to launch. Next year may as well be a lifetime from now. My main regret with hostels is not trying to start one sooner. I’d have learned the lessons above quicker, pushed myself earlier. My current projects today would have been better as a result. When you’re looking back on your life, you’ll be more upset for never trying than if you try and it doesn’t work out.

If you are thinking of opening a hostel, feel free to message me on Instagram. I love hostels and I love the people trying to open them. I’m happy to help however I can!

BONUS: Based on questions people have sent me I need to add in one more: work at a hostel. If you’re serious about starting a hostel and have never worked at a hostel, you need to do so. Volunteer for a few months and try as many roles as you can. It will accomplish 2 things: 1) you’ll see the inner workings of a hostel and the good/bad you can incorporate into yours. 2) you’ll see if you really want to deal with all the good/bad things that go into running a hostel!

We’re often looking for volunteers at my hostel, so feel free to reach out if you want to peek behind the curtains of an operating hostel!

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r/iama (Friday. April 19)

Going to do an AMA under user name hkaustin. Link to AMA

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The Hostel Industry Needs To Segment

“I’ll take one car, please.”

Imagine walking into a car dealership and saying that.

That may have worked in 1908 and you were trying to buy a Model T, but today it would probably lead to a confused salesman and maybe a call to security.

If they were patient, the salesman would ask a few more questions. What is your budget? What features are important to you? Where will you be driving this car? How many people do you plan on commuting with? Do you plan to go offroad with the car?

The goal with all these questions would be to bring you closer to the type of car you’re looking for. You’d walk away in less time, happier with your new car, and happier with the concept of cars generally because you got what you were looking for.

If you were to start your search online, every website would begin with you selecting from at least a dozen different body types from coups to SUVs.

Unfortunately in the hostel industry, we’re stuck in the Model T days. Type ‘hostel’ into any booking engine and they’re all lumped together. The result of this lack of categorization is a suboptimal experience for hostel guests and hostel owners. If the industry is to mature, we need to start segmenting. It’s the natural evolution of an industry, and it’s overdue for hostels.

In the hotel industry, this is widely established. A couple spending a night at the 4 Seasons knows to expect a different experience than those at the Red Roof Inn. Wikipedia lists 40 different pages under “hotel types” ranging from apartment hotels to casino hotels to eco hotels to conference hotels to boutique hotels to luxury hotels. Each of those types offers a difference experience. Each will appeal to a different demographic.

It isn’t that only one or the other should exist, it’s that different people are looking for different experiences. The easier you make it for people to match their expectations to their experiences, the better everyone feels.

In the hostel world, accommodation ranges from party hostels to alcohol free hostels, luxury hostels to budget hostels, adventure hostels, eco hostels, surf hostels, family hostels, and more. Each of those hostels provide a different experience.

As hostel owners, we need to accept and adopt this segmentation. Nobody likes being put in a box, but I don’t think anyone would argue against getting more guests better suited for our offerings. The result would be better hostel experiences for guests. Better hostel experiences for guests would mean more hostel experiences. A rising tide lifts all boats.

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People that can’t enjoy life can’t create places for people to enjoy life.

What type of space are you trying to create? Who will be inside that space? Make sure the team you’re putting together to create that project are the same type of people.

About a month ago the design team of our dreams came to visit our ‘ghost town’, Cerro Gordo. These guys don’t take on new projects. They’re too busy and in demand. Getting them to fly to California and join us on a mountain top was a feat itself.

How’d it go?

We forgot to bring dinner. And sheets for the beds. And enough water. And to tell them it was going to be below 20 degrees below and they should bring extra clothes. And basically everything any decent human would want when stranded on a mountain hours from civilization.

We ended up sleeping side by side in the living room on a jiu jitsu mat that definitely hadn’t been washed this decade. I didn’t have a pillow. If someone hadn’t woke up every so often to put another log on the fire we all would have lost a few toes to frostbite.

The experience could have been terrible. There was every reason in the world for anyone to complain. To lose the hours up there lost in thought of what should have been.

Instead, it was the opposite. We all had the time of our lives. We went running through the cold, howling at the moon. We sat awestruck admiring the stars for an hour straight. We had some of the deepest conversations I’ve been a part of for years. We brainstormed how to turn a falling down cabin into a hidden spa. Maybe we should create a water tower? Axe throwing. How would people feel about luxury outhouses? Let’s go try making a mini bar in the mine shaft.

We enjoyed life. We spun out ideas on how to make Cerro Gordo a space to enjoy life. Because that is what we do. It’s what we’re setting out to do. If we can’t figure out a way to do that, how could anyone else?

It was through those nights on the hill we all decided to work together. That we were cut from the same cloth. It was confirmation on both ends that we could successfully carry out the task at hand.

People that can’t enjoy life can’t create places for people to enjoy life.

What type of space are you trying to create? What type of people would be there? Make sure those are the same type of people you’re attaching to your project from Day 1.

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Stop “playing business”

“Playing business” is a very easy trap to fall into when scrambling to do any and everything you can think of to “help” your business. When I was starting HK Austin, “playing business” meant, among other things: setting up profiles on sites like AngelList, trying to get local bloggers to come to various BBQs, reaching out to other local business owners, researching complicated legal structures for when it was time to grow, trying to gain Twitter followers, spending weeks on logo creation, and plenty of other premature things that didn’t directly impact a guest’s stay at our hostel that night.

The reality is none of those tiny details matter if nobody likes your product.When we dropped the bullshit and focused solely on the guest’s experiences, our reputation grew, and all of the little details started to take care of themselves. Now bloggers reach out to us for write ups, people follow us organically on Twitter, and other business owners want to talk business with us.

If what you’re doing each hour doesn’t directly and immediately benefit your customer’s experience, you should probably be doing something else. Be honest with yourself: Are you setting up profiles on these sites for the dopamine hit of satisfaction they gave you, or because they will actually improve the business? Are you ignoring or avoiding some more difficult task that’s actually tied to your success, in favor of idling on social media websites, gaining “followers” who will never become customers, and planning for realities way off in the distance rather than focusing on the here-and-now?

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Your customer’s ideas for your business are probably wrong

In fact, it’s worse: Your customers can often lead you astray. But catering to the customer has become a kind of legendary goal, with companies like Zappos setting the standard for bend-over-backward service that tries to anticipate the customer’s every desire and respond to their every whim. In the hospitality business, high-end, five-diamond hotels are notorious for going out of their way to do anything and everything their guests ask for, and they often earn their reputations by their willingness and ability to fulfill a guest’s zaniest request.

But that doesn’t mean it’s always the best business practice, especially for a hostel. I learned this firsthand putting together our hostel common room. When they’re at their best, the common room becomes the nerve center of any hostel: It’s where you meet other guests, trade expert travel tips, swap war stories, and, importantly, where you plan the adventures you’re going to have with other hostel guests. It’s no exaggeration to say that a solid common room can make or break a hostel experience.

One of the most disheartening experiences in my own hostel travel was arriving at one in high spirits, only to find a few guests trapped indoors, glued to the television in the common room. Everyone silent, staring at the blue screen as if in a trance. No socializing, and none of the convivial banter that makes for the best memories. If you can judge a book by it’s cover, then you can judge a hostel by the amount of wine and conversation that flows in its common room.

For HK Austin, I decided to head this problem off at the pass: A ban on TVs in the common room. Our guests were, initially, surprised. No TVs? What gives? A few guests even went out of their way to tell us that we absolutely, positively needed a television in the common room. We flat-out refused — and we haven’t regretted that decision for a second.

I’m proud of the space that our common room has become, and I know that it’s due in large measure to the fact that there’s no television around. People use the space to play card games, concoct plans, strike up conversations, drink, and actually enjoy each other’s company, without the endless buzzing distraction of television. In other words, they use the common room to find out what they might have in common.

Sure, it can seem strange to come into a common living area in the 21st century and not see the boob tube against the wall. But the customer isn’t always right, and we had to trust our instincts and intuition. Besides, people will remember their stay at our hostel; they won’t remember the show they never watched.

Think of what your customers say they want, but that you know in your gut isn’t good for the business. Then stand up for yourself, and make your case if you have to. Don’t let the cult of the customer crowd out your own strong instincts for what you know is best.

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Just because your competitors fail at something, it’s not your job to improve it

Most hostels provide a meal approximating breakfast for their guests. Emphasis on “approximating”. One glance at a review of most hostels, and you’ll find the all-too-frequent complaints about the quality of breakfast. “They put out boxes of pizza and old doughnuts (half a donut each, if that),” wrote one traveler on the review website HostelWorld. From another: “The hostel’s ‘free breakfast’ consisted of ROTTEN EGGS, Stale BREAD.” And that’s only scratching the surface. A hostel breakfast is a culinary roll of the dice.

Why is that? Simple: It is labor-intensive and cost-prohibitive to cook great breakfasts for dozens of guests, each one with their own specific tastes, allergies, and preferences. Hostels run on relatively low margins, so simple decisions like whether or not to serve a gourmet breakfast can actually make a big difference. The result: a meal that begins the day and starts with the best intentions turns out to be too much of a hassle for the hostel owner, and you, the unfortunate hostel guest, are left smearing peanut butter onto white bread and calling it breakfast.

I know what you’re thinking: HK Austin decided to make breakfast amazing, right? Nope. In fact, we decided not to serve breakfast at all. Here’s why: Across the street from HK Austin are the best breakfast tacos in the city (and possibly the world). We encourage our guests to visit Veracruz All Natural, and we’ve never had a single complaint about the tacos or about our lack of breakfast. After all, half the enjoyment of staying at a hostel is taking in the local flavor and culture. We want to encourage that for our guests, and we knew that our own pitiful attempts at breakfast would never compete with the Veracruz migas (a taco that Food Network named one of the Top 5 in America). Competing against that was a losing battle, and one we had no intention of fighting.

Here’s the truth: Competitive advantages are excruciatingly hard to find, and it’s tempting in business to think that any one of your competitor’s weaknesses is something you can exploit. But sometimes what can seem like a hidden advantage for you turns out to be a warning. That was the case with our breakfast issue. If you notice a defect in your competitor’s product, rather than race to say, “We can fix that!”, take a step back and ask yourself, “Why is that a defect? What is keeping them from fixing it themselves?” More often than not, you’ll discover good reasons why they’ve chosen to leave a flaw in their product, and that knowledge can be valuable competitive intelligence.

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Give People Something To Talk About: Or, Why You May Want To Buy A Goat Off Craigslist

If you want people to talk about your project, you have to give them something to talk about.

It’s what we end up telling almost all our marketing clientsEveryone wants press but nobody wants to do anything interesting.

What is the handle you’re giving someone to pick up the story about your project, carry it over to their friend and talk about it?

A few days ago I saw an ad on Craigslist for a baby mini-goat that the owners were going to get rid (read: kill). I text them at 6:15 and by 7:15 the same mini goat was at my hostel, HK Austin, living his best life. Immediately guest wanted to take photos for Instagram. Call their mom who used to have goats for advice. Tell their friend about the hostel in Austin with a goat. A hostel with a goat? A hostel with a goat.

People want to be the center of attention. They want to be the interesting person who does interesting things in their friends eyes. They WANT interesting material about your project to tell their friends. Your job is to give it to them.

The result is the most powerful form of marketing available – word of mouth. Even the most complex and expensive marketing campaigns are all set up just to spark word of mouth. That is what sells in the long run. A McKinsey study shows that 20-50% of all buying decisions happen because of word of mouth. And that an endorsement from a close friend converts 50X any other type of marketing.

You need an entry point to your project. A handle. A reason for people to talk about it with friends. Give it to them.

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