Justin Effron – Co-founder and CEO of ALICE

The most important thing I’ve learned is to prioritize my to-do list and focus on just getting the top five things done.

Justin Effron is co-founder and CEO of ALICE, a mobile-first hospitality operations platform. Prior to co-founding ALICE, Justin was an analyst on the Equity Portfolio Trading Desk at Citigroup. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2012 with a B.A. in History, showing skeptics everywhere you can do something with that degree. Follow him on Twitter at @JNEffron and follow ALICE at @aliceapp.

Where did the idea for ALICE come from?

One of my co-founders (Alex Shashou) and I were travelling around South East Asia and came upon the same customer service-related frustrations at every hotel we visited. No matter how simple the request, we encountered the same belabored process at the hotel – long wait times, a complete lack of transparency as to how the request was being handled, and quite often requests that were misplaced or lost altogether. When we got back to the U.S. we spent 9 months researching hotel operations and talking to as many people as we could find in the industry. We soon learned the inefficiencies on the guest side at hotels stem from inefficiencies in the hotels’ back-end technology. So, we teamed up with our third co-founder (Dmitry Koltunov) and decided to fix that.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I’ve learned that keeping a tight schedule makes me most productive and efficient with my time. At ALICE, we used to schedule meetings for an hour and then find ourselves wondering where the days went. More recently we’ve shifted to keeping all meetings to under 30 minutes and only go over for larger projects.

I’d say my typical day is 50% meetings/phone calls for sales and business development, 20% company strategy, 20% general company managing and 10% hiring.

How do you bring ideas to life?

We’ve assembled a really strong team at ALICE that can take ideas about how ALICE should work and bring them to life. Our team is distributed but works together really well. The diversity of backgrounds and cultures helps us design a product and provide a solution to problems of operations that are global and universal.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

I’m particularly interested in artificial intelligence, and how quickly it’s growing.

One application of AI that really excites me is natural language processing. We recently released a real-time language translation feature within ALICE that can take what a hotel guest types within the ALICE application and translate it instantaneously to a language preferred by the staff and vice versa. Instead of doing this on a word by word basis – which is what tools like Google Translate do, and which often results in confusing, if not hilarious translations – we do it on a sentence by sentence basis, which requires a robust implementation of machine learning. It’s a feature that gets smarter by the day and we’re really proud of it and excited to make hotel communications work a lot better because of it.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Staying focused as a founder is one of the hardest things to do. At every stage of the company’s growth, there’s a million things to do at all times. The most important thing I’ve learned is to prioritize my to-do list and focus on just getting the top five things done. Having a great team also helps me delegate. Establishing daily routines has also been essential in keeping me productive.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

The only other job I had before this one lasted all of seven months, so there aren’t many jobs to choose from. So since this has been my only long term job I guess that makes my options limited! I’ve been lucky to love what I do from an early age, but ask me again in a few years and we will see where things stand!

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

This is a great question. I can think of a lot of things we might have done differently if we were to start over, but a couple big things come to mind. First, I would have hired a designer earlier on. Initially we outsourced our design work, and only more recently hired our first full-time designer. Second, I would have made sure we were tracking everything better internally — employee contracts, HR documents, etc. Lastly, and maybe most importantly, I would have started working with an established (startup experienced) lawyer earlier on. I would definitely advise first-time founders not to skimp on legal help because if the company does do well, the legal aspects become very important!

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Read and talk to others who have been through what you are going through previously. I consume a huge amount of industry (technology and hospitality) news and a number of blogs and newsletters. My favorites include Techcrunch, Business Insider and PandoDaily. I think it’s really important to stay on top of advancements and issues in our industry, as they often pertain to ALICE in some way and help inspire our own innovations. By reading and speaking to others you can see what has worked and has not worked and it allows you to make less mistakes and therefore move quicker by learning from the experience of those around you.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

Learning from others who have been through it before has been essential to growing ALICE. First time founders (like myself and my co-founder, Alex) often think they know it all, but we both readily admit we don’t. We know we can learn a tremendous amount from other entrepreneurs, whether they’ve been successful with their startups or not, and we have and continue to use their insights to avoid as many mistakes as we can.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

One of the hardest things we’ve dealt with as founders was losing our first customer. It felt like the end of the world. But eventually we realized that not everyone can share the same vision for ALICE we have and that we need to find the early adopters who embrace our solution and grow that way.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

If you can find any entrepreneur willing to give away his ideas, let me know!

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

A client of ours wanted to try out ALICE but didn’t have the budget to buy an Android device to test the app, so we lent them one of ours (roughly $100). They wound up falling in love with our solution and found a way to increase their budget to implement ALICE and buy devices for their entire team.

I’ve also probably spent around $100 on candy since Dylan’s Candy Bar opened a store around the corner from our office last month. I’d also consider that $100 well spent.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

I can’t recommend Salesforce enough. It’s really helped us organize sales efforts, stay more connected as a team and keep everything in one place.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Who: The A Method for Hiring by Geoff Smart and Randy Street has been a really important read for us at ALICE. Hiring is the most important thing when starting a company and this book helps you understand how to do it right.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

I know this might get an eye roll, but the number one person for me as an influence has been my mom, Caryn Effron. She’s an entrepreneur herself and very established in the startup world – she founded GoGirl Finance, a site and community that teaches young women how to manage their finances – and she’s helped shape my worldview, taught me how to start a business, and so much more. Other than that it’s great to follow successful entrepreneurs and investors on Twitter such as Andreessen Horowitz. I mentioned Techcrunch before, but it’s definitely a go-to publication for me to stay current with industry news and thinking.


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