8 Common Misconceptions About Hostels

What does the word “hostel” bring to mind? The answer probably depends on whether or not you’ve actually stayed in one. If you have, then you may have the fond memories that hostels are supposed to build. You may have found one that was tucked away in that oh-so-perfect part of the city. You might have met an amazing cast of characters and earned friendships for life.

But if you haven’t stayed in a hostel before, then my guess is that you have an image in your head of what a hostel is—and it’s probably off the mark.

There’s certain misconceptions about hostels that come with the territory. There aren’t many areas where I claim to be an expert—but as the owner of a top-rated hostel and as an enthusiastic guest of 150 (and counting) hostels across the globe, I’m probably better informed than most. By this point, I’ve heard, seen, read, and done it all.

That short preamble is necessary for what I hope will be a useful bit of hostel myth-busting. No, every hostel is not a horror movie waiting to happen (thanks Eli Roth). But neither is it all “Eat, Pray, Love” all the time. Here are the most common misconceptions about hostel travel:

1) Hostels Are Only For Young People

Hostels aren’t just a young person’s game. I write this while sitting across from Helen, probably the most entertaining and beloved guest we’ve had at HK Austin—who also happens to be 71 years young.

In my travels, I’ve come across hostel guests of all ages. Like Robert, my 60 year old bunk mate in Leticia, Colombia who was boating down the Amazon River and had been doing similar adventures for the past 10 years straight after selling his house in the UK. He told me he had enough money to travel for 15 years if he did so frugally. When I asked what he would do after his travels he responded “Well, I guess I’ll figure that out in 5 years.” Or Elaine, the 64 year old grandmother of three who hiked Pacaya (an active volcano in Guatemala) with me and 5 other hostel guests, and even had the foresight to bring marshmallows for us all to roast on the lava at the top. She said hotels had always bored her and hostels were here “fountain of youth.”

This is probably the biggest misconception about hostels. Yes, hostels were originally marketed to a young European demographic, but the term “youth hostel” is a bit antiquated. The truth is, both the affordability and the camaraderie of hostels have made them hugely attractive options for older travelers, many of whom are traveling on a budget. You add to that the fact that older travelers can often be less encumbered; their kids may have left the house, they may be traveling alone, they may have no particular itinerary in their heads. All of those things make hostel travel not only an option, but a preferable one to the more sterile and drab accommodations offered by hotels.

Don’t let movies and media fool you: Hostels can be a dream come true for older travelers and a welcome adventure for people looking for something a little different.

2) Hostels Are All-Party, All-The-Time

Although some hostels position themselves as “party hostels”, the vast majority do not encourage partying within their walls. There’s a simple reason why: most hostel owners—myself included—want nothing to do with the chaos, crying, broken furniture, and general unpleasantness from a hostel that’s known for partying.

The social atmosphere within a hostel is a huge part of what makes the experience—but that experience doesn’t necessarily have to involve getting boozy. In fact, the best hostels don’t use alcohol as a crutch. They create an atmosphere organically that leads people to explore the city, cook meals together, trade stories long into the night. At HK Austin, we host big BBQs, play cards, and host trivia nights. It doesn’t mean we don’t crack open the occasional bottle of wine, but that’s not what makes the experience of staying here special.

If you’re worried about your would-be hostel turning into a frat party, check to see if they enforce a “lights out” or quiet time each night. Read the most recent reviews and see what people enjoyed most about the hostel. Odds are, it’s probably the fellowship of the people who were there, not the drinking.

3) “Hostels” Are All Basically the Same

This is a personal point of frustration: All hostels are not exactly alike. Just as hotels can span the gamut from Motel 6 to the Four Seasons, hostels can be just as diverse and different.

Don’t let one hostel story color your view of all hostels. For one thing, as hostels grow in popularity, a natural segmentation will occur; but until then, understand that not all hostels are marketed to the same demographic. Take, for instance, the most widely accepted categories of hostels, such as: “poshtels”  which are a growing market of luxury hostels with amenities that rival any boutique hotel; “adventure hostels” that specialize in excursions and exploring the outdoors; “hacker hostels” or co-working/co-living spaces which cater more towards the startup crowd; and, of course,the infamous “party hostels”, which cater to those looking to get wild. In between, there are a dozen other varieties, all of which provide unique and different experiences for guests.

The first hostel I ever stayed at was geared towards families (I was unaware). The early curfew, children playing, and general family vibe didn’t mesh well with the 22 year old me who was traveling solo. Had I allowed that to determine my outlook on hostels as a whole, I may have never stayed in another and almost certainly wouldn’t be writing this article.

If one hostel doesn’t fit your style, there is bound to be another which does.

4) Hostels Are A Cottage Industry

Hostels can sometimes be viewed as the amateur younger brother of hotels when it comes to the behind the scenes operations.

While some of the best hostels are still one-off locations run by eccentric former backpackers, the industry as a whole is extremely sophisticated. In Europe, there are established chains such as Generator Hostels which manage over 12,500 beds across 15 properties. Another is A&O Hostels, with 27 locations across 18 cities. Hosteling International has over 4,000 locations worldwide. In the United States, the billionaire Ron Burkle dedicated $250 million in 2011 to open hostels across the US. His “Freehand” hostels have since seen great success in Miami and Chicago- so much so that he recently announced a $55 million investment to create a new hostel in downtown LA. That all seems fairly professional to me.

The growing investment in the US hostel scene is creating a market in which institutional money can make a play. This means over the next decade we’re going to see a variety of well established operators making hostel plays, and bringing the industry even more into the public’s eye.

5) Hostels Are Dirty

My cousin thinks hostels are “a frat house with a language barrier.” This same cousin has never been to a hostel, or traveled outside her state of birth, but she is convinced hostels are dirty. I can understand the logic, if we assume all the other misconceptions. How can something stay clean with a dozen 20somethings funneling beers in every open corner?

In reality, you’ll often find the best hostels have a more regular cleaning schedule than your favorite hotel. Since the concept of shared space is emphasized, hostels have very regimented cleanings to ensure everything is kept nice and tidy for the many coming and going guests. The guests themselves generally take it upon themselves to clean up a bit for the same reasons.

Sure, there have been more than one occasion where I was afraid to take off my sandals in the bathroom or go under the sheets when checking into a new hostel. And I don’t think I’ll ever forget the smell of a certain hostel in Brazil. But that was the exception, not the norm. The same thing can be said of hotels or airbnbs.

To ensure a hostel meets all your hygienic needs, you can always look at a hostel’s cleanliness rating on hostelworld.com, and see in real time just how clean those hostels are kept.

6) Hostels Are For Cheap People

I’ve never encountered someone staying at a hostel because they had no other options. Hostels aren’t homeless shelters, and people stay there because of a love of travel and a passion to experience the community atmosphere. They know they can get an almost hotel-standard accommodation with the real possibility of making lifetime friends and memories.

Here at HK Austin, our guests have included venture backed CEOs, bestselling authors, Grammy winning musicians, and dozens of other interesting people all of whom could have afforded any hotel in town. Why do they stay with us? Easy: to take advantage of the communal atmosphere and avoid the boredom a stay at a traditional hotel. Think about it, how many people have you ever met at a hotel bar?

Staying at a hostel isn’t a reflection on someone’s bank account, it is a reflection of their personality.

7) Hostels Aren’t Safe

“Surely all these poor people in the hostel will rob me!” My cousin didn’t say that, but I can imagine her, and others who have never stayed in a hostel, saying something similar.

Another poorly conceived concern that comes with shared accommodation is theft. When you first arrive, there are strangers anywhere and everywhere. Lessons from our parents about ‘stranger danger’ come flooding back.

To ease this concern, most, if not all, hostels provide lockers for any valuable items within the rooms. There are also door codes, CCTV cameras, and other security measures. In reality, none of these are necessary; the stranger in your room is there for the same reason you are — to explore a new city, meet some new people, and generally have a good time.

Almost every day for the past two years my MacBook has lived unguarded in HK Austin’s common room (and many times my cell phone, keys, and wallet). I’m still typing on it now and the only times it has ever disappeared is when another guest has put it away in a locker for me.

If hosting over 4,000 guests has taught me anything, it is that people across the globe are generally good. Keeping this frame of mind, and your valuables in the locker, should be more than enough to keep yourself secure

8) Hostels Only Have Bunk Beds (Shared Accommodations)

If the thought of someone sleeping above you keeps you up at night, fear not. The vast majority of hostels offer private rooms as well as dormitory bunks. Hostel owners understand that sometimes you just need a little more privacy.

When you’re looking at a hostel booking site, you will be able to narrow down your search to see hostels that provide private rooms. Or semi-private rooms if you still want to share a room with a friend, but not 5 other strangers.

That way, you’ll be able to enjoy the atmosphere of the hostel, while still having a quiet space to relax, sleep, or whatever else you want to do without an audience.

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Why Hostels Are The Next Big Thing In The US

If you’re not yet familiar with the term hostel, you may soon find yourself in the minority. Hostels, a staple in the budget travel world for years, have entered the mainstream, with everyone from institutional investors to major media buzzing on what is poised to be one of the biggest travel trends of the next decade.

For the uninitiated: hostels are shared accommodation spaces, typically including bunk beds in dorm style rooms with shared common rooms and group activities. Travelers seek out hostels not just to stay inexpensively in new cities, but to tap into a social atmosphere and meet more people than they would in a traditional hotel. Hostels offer experiences, not just a place to sleep, and they draw visitors in with tours, intimate local adventures, and an ambiance that offers a deeper connection with the place they’re visiting.

This isn’t a new idea. The hostel has a long and storied history in Europe, where there are over 10,000 hostels,compared to about 300 in the US). And yet, for all their success on the other side of the Atlantic, they have only recently gained a foothold in the United States. The US has just 3 percent of worldwide hostel properties and 10 percent of global hostel revenue; to put that in perspective, the U.S. represents a commanding 28 percent of global hotel revenue.

Hostels can seem mysterious and inscrutable to people who haven’t stayed in one. While the majority are independent locations run by former backpackers (including your’s truly), many of the world’s established hotel brands have recently announced plans to enter the hostel market. Global real estate funds, billionaires, and other institutional investors are poised to pump millions into hostels. All of which suggests that the market is about to balloon in size and scale.

How did this happen? How did this European travel quirk become a multi-million dollar industry poised to overthrow travel as we know it? Well…

Millennials love their hostels, and money follows whatever millennials love

A brief scan of internet headlines can only lead to the conclusion that “millennial” is the most overused word of our era. But permit me another mention of this cohort. Why? Because they are big spenders, and their dollars are headed to hostels.

By 2020, millennials as a group will pump $1.4 trillion into the economy, according to a recent report from Accenture. That’s trillion—with a ‘t.’  A decent chunk of that money will find its way into the travel and hospitality industry. And Millennials do not travel the way their parents did. For one thing, Millennials aren’t looking for your standard issue hotel room. That fact is not lost on anyone, including Marriott’s head of global operations, who offered the pained confession that “what we’re finding is that the next-generation consumer wants the exact opposite of what we’re delivering.” Not exactly the come-stay-with-us slogan you’d expect, but at least he’s honest.

And he’s right: Millennials as a traveling group are quirky. They value experiences more than material goods. They treasure hospitality over simple lodging. Much though their selfie-taking may drive people crazy, they’re looking for things that will make them look interesting on Instagram. You’d be surprised at how that can influence the way they travel, but think about it: Would you rather snap a photo of yourself in a cookie-cutter Marriott lobby, or in the common room of a boisterous hostel? Depending on your age, you may not be able to answer that question, or you may not get how important it is. Believe me, Millennials do.

How do hostels fit into that consumer picture? Well, hostels offer plenty of photo-worthy opportunities (as I know from personal experience). But more than that, they offer authenticity and uniqueness. No two hostels are the same, whereas hotel chains go out of their way to maintain a consistency of experience. At a hostel, you never know what to expect; hotels make their bones on living up to expectations. Millennials want the unpredictability of hostels over the stale, seen-one-you-seen-em-all quality of hotels.

This has leading brands including Marriott and Hilton exploring “hostel-like” concepts. Hilton’s chief executive Chris Nassett said in March of this year that the brand was looking to create a more unique, hostel like experience for Millennials. Or in his words, “something that has more of an urban flair.” His hope, and the hope of most hotel operators, is that by catering to Millennials now, Hilton can “get them loyal to our system, and trade up as they move on in their lives.”

If they can succeed, they won’t need to wait till later in Millennials lives to see returns. Millennials are traveling more than ever and outspending almost all other demographics. Stay Wyse forecast spending by young overseas tourists around the world to rise to $336 billion by 2020 from $230 billion in 2014. Another report by the independent travel research company Phocuswright showed hostel travelers spend more in absolute terms ($4,474) than the general traveler ($3,155) yearly.

If Millennials spend more than the general traveler and want what hostels provide, it doesn’t take much to envision the next wave of hospitality that will hit America.

Institutional money is flowing into hostels—to the tune of millions of dollars.

There’s that old line about the bank robber Willie Sutton. When asked why he robbed banks, he replied, without missing a beat, “Because that’s where the money is.” Investors operate on the Willie Sutton school of making a buck—and they are seeing the potential in the hostel market as well.

They are investing big dollars. In 2011, billionaire Ron Burkle raised $250 million to open up hostels are the United States. His “Freehand” creations are now a fixture in the accommodation scene in Miami, Chicago, and LA, with more planned. In Europe, the French real estate investment company Fonciere des Regions set aside around 400 million euros ($450 million) to invest in European hostels through 2018. London based Patron Capital Partners purchased the majority stake in Generator Hostels in 2007 and pledged to invest $200 million across hostel properties. They sold 23 percent of Generator in November 2014 to Invesco Real Estate for $60 million.

Why does institutional investment matter? Credibility. When big players put their money on the line, more investors follow. The signaling effect of big investment is powerful, and the marketplace opens up as other institutional investors become more comfortable investing. Liquidity opens the doors to big time money, and when checks start having nine figures before the decimal, they’re sure to attract some attention.

Hostels are becoming as American as apple pie.

Lack of awareness has long been hostel’s greatest enemy in America, but that has begun to change. At this point, the most mainstream of the mainstream media has begun to devote coverage to the trend. The hostel trend has attracted attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, USA Today, CNN, and many more in the past 2 years. Why does that matter? Because it helps to puncture all the negative stereotypes that people have about hostels. It opens the very idea up to a new audience, and it can even make them seem interesting and hip. Those of us who have stayed in and worked in hostels knew that already—think of us as hostel hipsters—but it’s refreshing to see it confirmed by the more reliable sources of information the public has.

I’ve seen the effect in my own hostel. Here at HK Austin, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “this is my first time at a hostel” when hosting an American traveler. It’s only a few days after that that they come up to me waxing about how great the experience is, how they wish they had known about hostels earlier, and about how they will only stay in hostels from here on out. I’m proud of what we’ve done at HK Austin, but I don’t think we’re unique in inspiring this kind of conversion. It’s a self-serving cycle: As more travelers stay in hostels and have good experiences, more people hear about hostels, who in turn book more beds in hostels.

Sharing is the new black

Who knew that sharing—the simple virtue all parents try to instill in their kids—would become the foundation for an entire economic movement. We share our cars (Uber), our homes (Airbnb), our workspaces (WeWork), our photos (Instagram), our thoughts (Twitter), and even our sources of information (Wikipedia). The communal aspect of daily life has exploded as access and ease of use has reached these services. People more than ever value access over ownership.

All this is good news for hostels. As people become exposed to the benefits of things like airbnb and can experience first hand the difference between hospitality and lodging, they’re coming to realize the power of real social interaction. Hostels, being on of the original ‘sharing economies’ out there, have long provided this interaction. The communal aspect is the reason travelers have stayed in hostels for decades, and as our culture becomes more familiar and comfortable with sharing (as evident by all the examples above) hostels are positioned to benefit.

The next decade will be an exciting time in the hostel world. With the number of hostels expanding across the US, there should also be a natural segmentation that occurs within the industry. Just as hotels can span the gamut from Motel 6 to the Four Seasons, hostels can be just as diverse and different. From party hostels to “poshtels” there is bound to be a hostel catering to your desire. And soon, you won’t have to look for to find one.

I also think that the hostel trend could anticipate a broader one within travel itself: the idea that travel is more about experiences and the people you meet than the places you go and the luxury you enjoy. I’m no sociologist, and I don’t play one on television, but I think part of the reason hostels have acquired so much attention is because people recognize that they feel less lonely, more engaged, and more connected when they travel hostel-style. It’s easy to go to a hotel room alone; eat at the hotel restaurant alone; walk the streets of a new place alone; and return home, feeling like you are maybe a bit better traveled, but not changed fundamentally.

I don’t think that’s possible in a hostel. Just in the way they’re designed, you can’t be alone. Food is nearly always a communal experience. Travelers are looking to travel together, stay up late into the light talking, and go to local haunts as a pack. It is, in the end, a cure for all the loneliness we say we feel (or at least what we tell researchers we feel), and it’s a useful counterweight to the pre-packaged, adventure-less exercise that travel can become. Maybe that’s taking it too far, but I don’t think it is. But hey, if you want to hash it out with me, come to the hostel. There will be a group of people here, ready and willing to have the debate.

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8 Unexpected Rules Of Business That No One Teaches But Everyone Should Know

I fell in love with hostels during a college study abroad trip. By 2014, I had stayed in over 150 hostels in 30 countries. I’ve slept on everything from pillow-top beds with handmade duvet covers that could rival any Four Seasons all the way down to hammocks strung above dead cow parts on a cargo ship in the Amazon (advertised, of course, as a “luxury cot”).

When you stay in a hostel, it’s an adventure unto itself. You’re straying from the beaten path; you never quite know what’s going to happen next or who you’ll meet along the way. Guests mix and mingle with each other in a way they never do at hotels, and the close quarters lead to lifetime friendships. As anyone who has spent time on the hostel trail can attest, it’s a slice of traveling life you have to see (and experience) to believe—and I had seen enough of it to know the good, bad, and ugly.

Over the years, I’d always return home from my travels longing for the atmosphere inside hostels. Hoping to find a way of recreating that excitement and camaraderie without having to jump on a plane, I moved to Austin, TX in 2014 and invested nearly every dollar I had in opening what I hoped would be a very different kind of hostel.

Easier said than done: hostels aren’t the most understood thing in the neighborhood, to put it mildly. It took a full year of wrangling with the city, acquiring permits, finding partners, and establishing ourselves, fighting city hall at almost every turn. It was, at times, totally maddening. One example: It took three months, 12 (unanswered) emails, and four different trips from city inspectors just to reach consensus on—wait for it—the height of our stairs. And that was just one of thirty such measurements or approvals we needed. But it was all worth it when we could open our doors to guests and, at long last, in June 2015, HK Austin was born. By the end of 2015, in a result none of us expected, HK Austin was the highest-rated hostel in America.


It was a year packed with mistakes, heartbreak, and dozens of sleepless nights. But like any great entrepreneurial journey—or any journey at all—I walked away with scars and lessons that will last a lifetime.

 1) 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.

2) 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 our 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.

3) Know when to pay full price

It’s basically the only iron-clad law in business: You will never, ever have enough money when you start. And so, you’ll have to cut a few corners. There’s no crime in that, and everyone who has started a business has done their version of it.

But there’s an important difference between being cheap and seeming cheap. You can save money without appearing to be the cheapest joint on the block. Remember, in business, appearance is reality. Which is why it’s important to know when to shell out a few extra bucks.

For us, as veteran hostel travelers, we immediately honed in on one thing: mattresses. When we were first putting together the hostel’s bedding, we had an important choice to make. Buy the $109 mattresses, which were in keeping with our budget. Or, spring for the $279 mattresses. Multiplied by the number of beds we had, the $170 price difference wasn’t an inconsiderable amount. At the time, that was actually our operating budget for a full month.

We went with our gut and not our pocketbook: the pricey mattresses were the ones we wanted our guests to sleep on. At the core of our business, after all, was people paying us money for time in a bed. Everything else—the atmosphere, the common room, the location, the book collection, the guests, the reviews—was secondary, and, to some extent, outside our control. But if we could make at least the beds an unforgettable experience, we knew we would be putting money on a sure bet.


It was a bet that paid off: Our most common “complaint” these days is that our beds are just too hard to leave. That’s a problem any hostel owner is thrilled to have, but it wouldn’t have happened if we nickel-and-dimed the decision.

Think about how this applies to your business. Where should you be ruthlessly frugal, and where should you be extravagant? What’s the core part of the business that affects perceptions, and in a universe in which you can’t control what everyone thinks of you and your product, how do you shape the few pieces you can control?

4) 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. For me, “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?

5) Hire faster

Every small business owner has a control freak living inside them. Especially when you are starting out, every single part of the business, no matter how insignificant, can seem like something you ought to have your personal stamp on. In our case, this meant scrutinizing everything from the website design to the email templates to the brand of bathroom cleaner, all the way down to making sure I was the one hand-making each bed so that the sheets were tucked in just tight enough. Plus, it was saving us the expense of paying someone else, right? And didn’t Steve Jobs obsess over every detail of Apple products? That’s sort of the same, isn’t it? Of course I should make the beds myself, if only on the what-would-Steve-Jobs-do-if-he-ran-a-hostel theory of business.

You can see where this is going. While it’s great to know a business inside and out, you have to acknowledge the difference between working in the business and working on the business. If your business is going to grow, you have to work on growing it. Otherwise you’re just making beds all day, while the core business languishes.

The solution is to hire fast. It’s in vogue these days to say things like “hire slow, fire fast.” That’s a fine rule of thumb in certain businesses and companies at certain stages in their growth, but it was my experience that I was reluctant to hire because I was unwilling to cede control. I assumed I knew best, and that anyone I hired wouldn’t do the same high-quality job I could, right down to how tightly they tucked in the sheets. My delay in hiring was a kind of arrogance, and it badly impaired the business.

When you wait too long to hire, your company can’t capitalize on your competitive advantages. In my case, I’m a partner at a successful marketing company. My competitive advantage is in marketing, branding, messaging, and growing the business and its digital footprint. Instead of focusing on that, I was busy making beds. And as soon as I got out of my own way, and trusted that others knew what they were doing, our business started growing.

6) Boredom is your new normal

Here’s an inconvenient truth for anyone about to start a new venture: If you don’t like doing the mundane parts of your business, you probably shouldn’t be in that business.

I’ve seen many hostels fail when the ‘owners’ fall in love with the “lifestyle accessories” they believe come along with owning a hostel: adding “owner” to the LinkedIn profile, hooking friends up with free stays, flirting with attractive people who came through the door. Yet they hated changing beds, cleaning bathrooms, dealing with questions from guests, running the software required to keep track of stays, fixing small problems around the property, and the like. You know, everything that goes into actually running a hostel and making guests feel at home.

The trappings of owning a business aren’t going to get you through tough times. You have to enjoy every part of the business if you’re going to survive. This might sound like something of a Zen parable, but it’s a fact of doing business that isn’t talked about enough. Mundanities are the business; boredom is the norm. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you will know if your idea is something you’re going to want to pursue on the lowest of low days.

7) The beginning isn’t the end

Here’s a daydream familiar to anyone who has had to launch a product: The larger-than-life grand opening. In our imagination, we’d invite our friends, family, and the press, and they’d all be blown away by our perfect hostel machine. We’d pop champagne from the second floor balcony, admire the amazing art on the wall, and laugh with all the guests occupying every bed in the place. Until that exact moment was possible, my partner didn’t want to be in business at all. It was another excuse for inaction, another excuse to “hit the whiteboard” and plan some more, instead of actually hosting guests.

There is no perfect time to launch. A “grand opening” or a “launch party”—these are usually just overhyped events that don’t deliver any kind of sustained firepower, revenue, or sales.

When the time actually came for HK Austin to open, we had bare walls and only half of the beds ready. We couldn’t afford champagne, and we had a grand total of two guests. But we launched faster than we thought, and did everything we could to make the best two-bed hostel in the world. There was no reason to wait till we had everything set up to give it a true effort. In startup talk, we had achieved a minimum viable product. Every day since, we’ve worked to make the place a little bit better and slightly closer to that finely tuned machine of our dreams.

Start now. Figure out the rest as you go along.

8) Being human can get you extraordinarily far

Whole shelves groan under the weight of books about “customer service.” Here’s a simple formula that worked wonders for us: When in doubt, be a human.

What does that mean? Well, we knew our only ace in the hole was going to be the fact that we could beat our competitors on how and how much we engaged with our customers. We didn’t have the sexy murals, established bar crawls, or the bank of good reviews to rest on when new guests came in the door. To be perfectly honest, we didn’t have nearly the best amenities either. But we knew we could lavish time and attention on each guest who came through our door; we could make them feel like old friends. So every single one got a personal tour and an endless supply of conversation and advice. In other words, we treated them like human beings, not customers. We took time to pay attention to what they said (and didn’t say) and we tailored their experience as best we could.

When a guest found themselves flat broke and in need of an unexpected 5 A.M. ride to the train station due to a family emergency, we woke up and gave them a ride, saving them a four mile walk. When another found themselves with nowhere to stay and all local hostels (including our own!) were fully booked, we invited them into our home for a place to crash and a family-style dinner. When one guest was too shy to go to two-step lessons on their own, we scrambled our local friends to accompany them—creating a memorable night for everyone involved.

This didn’t cost us gobs of money, nor did it require us to do anything more than pay attention very closely and respond with energy and empathy. You’d be surprised how far simple humanity can get you in business. We were competing against hostels and hotels many times our size and with much deeper pockets, and yet, we were able to compete with them on ratings because we made each guest feel like a guest and not a line item on our balance sheet.

When you’re starting, you don’t have many unlimited resources. But you do have a limitless capacity for work, endless opportunities to provide a great experience, and the proximity to your customer that reminds you they are a person, not a profit center. Given you’ll be starting with a minimum viable product—not a finely tuned machine—it is important to understand how much extraordinary customer service can make up for. At the start, you won’t be able to match your established competitors in all aspects of business, but outshining their stale customer service can be a way to make up the gap.


Applying these hard-won lessons took our hostel from nothing to one of the best in the industry. While it is still a work in progress, each day we try to get a bit better. This year is sure to bring many more lessons, but we will never forget these and we hope you don’t either.


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