Originally published in The Daily Sound, Aug. 24, 2010
Suite Arrival, Michael Lewis’ burgeoning business, aims to replace the hassle of packing for trips (whether business or leisure) with the convenience — and pleasure — of having custom-prepped kits containing toiletries, beauty products, and even snacks waiting for the traveler on arrival at his or her hotel. A “sweet arrival” indeed . . . and an experience that Lewis insists carries a huge emotional tie-in.
“Our most common feedback is that it’s like a gift waiting for you,” Lewis told The Daily Sound. He calls it “the present effect,” and that “people are still stoked — even though they knew it was coming.”
Lewis signs his correspondence “Chief Concierge,” rather than CEO or similar. It’s the kind of branding that encapsulates his customer-focused attitude, wherein he seeks to not only save travelers the hassle of packing, but make their travel experience pleasurable and memorable. Some of the success thus far can be measured in that repeat customers are incorporating Suite Arrival into their travel plans from an early stage, ordering kits 2-3 months before a trip. He’s also not only seeing the amount of kits ordered increase, but customers on average are spending more per each kit. More than 70 brands are currently available for inclusion in an order.
As neat of an idea as Suite Arrival (suitearrival.com) is, and as fast as it seems to be taking off since its February launch, Lewis seems equally exuberant about igniting a the entrepreneurial spark in others. In an effort to help promote the local entrepreneurs’ scene, Lewis established StartUpSB (startupsb.com), a meet-up group for local entrepreneurs (or “‘treps” as he calls them for short). His goal for the group is to bring businesspeople/entrepreneurs together on a more personal level than the standard tit-for-tat, what’s-in-it-for-me style of networking. In part, it’s because he believes Santa Barbara is the perfect place for it.
Getting off the Runway
Lewis had cut his teeth in the voice-over-Internet-protocol (VOIP) industry through his own company at a young age, then eventually ended up at Hoboken, N.J.-based, VOIP company Vapps in a business development role. After Citrix Online bought that company in 2008, Lewis came to Santa Barbara to help train his new colleagues. When he saw the American Riviera, he was hooked.
“It was hard not to fall in love with it,” said Lewis.
Mere months later, he was brainstorming ways to get back to Santa Barbara and, when doing so, how to start his next company. The idea for Suite Arrival germinated during his business-travel travails. The incidents were several; one left his best clothes (and thus him) smelling like mouthwash for a business convention, another without some toiletries due to overly zealous airline security personnel.
To prepare Suite Arrival for takeoff, Lewis sold his car, cashed out his 401(k), and basically dropped everything in order to make a concerted effort for his new business.
“I knew what it needed,” said Lewis, in reference to getting this new idea off the ground, “and what it needed wasn’t part-time.”
In June 2009, Lewis arrived at his new home base in Santa Barbara, having “minimized everything, down to a mattress on the floor, clothes in a suitcase, and a laptop.”
From there, he set out to work, building the relationships that would enable the cost-effective delivery of products to hotels for travelers. The service launched in February 2010.
To try and understand Suite Arrival’s potential revenue streams is akin to taking a crash course in biz dev. Beyond just customers paying for products, Lewis rattled off details about sponsorship agreements, partnerships, agreements to offer competing samples when a certain product is ordered … even not doing so for a potential fee.
In other words, the Suite Arrival proposition is “not just a reseller,” said Lewis, “it’s a vehicle available for sponsorships.”
But this is all behind the scenes. On the surface, the customer experiences on-time delivery and friendly service. It follows Lewis’ mantra.
“Our way is to put the employees and customers first,” he explained. “Then everything should fall into place.”
When asked about competitors, Lewis replied that “Our biggest competitor is the status quo,” and said his challenge at this stage is always how to get to the next stage. However, he wouldn’t mind much if there was another company striving to mimic Suite Arrival’s business plan.
“It would be flattering,” he said, “and validate our marketplace.”
He’s thrilled to share his philosophies and business experience with the local entrepreneurial community. Startup SB, which to date has had more than 140 members sign on, is about to have its fifth meeting.
Local Startups United
Lewis is convinced that Santa Barbara is a far friendlier climate in which to grow a business than most other locales. “It’s a rich entrepreneurial ecosystem in terms of people being kind and willing to help you.”
Michael Neville, VP of Business Development at Formation Solutions, agrees that Santa Barbara is “a very friendly environment to be in,” adding that “There’s not as much commerce or business in our town, but per capita, we’ve had a lot of investor groups and startups in our backyard.”
“When I started StartUpSB, I knew I wanted to cultivate an entrepreneurial community based on camaraderie rather than business card swaps at networking events,” said Lewis, saying that he’d attended a few such events when he first arrived in town and “they were a nightmare.”
Neville first met Lewis at a tech group event, describes Lewis as a “warm, friendly, open kind of guy.” As Formation Solutions is an incorporation services company, his business goes hand in hand with startups and entrepreneurship. Neville’s attended most of StartUpSB’s meetings, and recognizes their value.
“In a community like Santa Barbara, names and introductions go a long way,” Neville said. “Reputation can also carry you a long way, good or bad.”
Participants “show up and make friends with each other, which is far better for the community’s long-term economic growth,” Lewis said. “I spread the word via Twitter and word of mouth at coffee shops, where many local ‘treps work during the day. Now we have 140 members and will soon have the fifth gathering.”
“StartUpSB isn’t big,” Lewis says, “but it’s potent. You can’t measure that potential, all in one room.” He’s passionate that everyone attending has something to contribute. “Each entrepreneur is like one of the X-Men,” he joked, “each with a special forte.”
”The point,” Lewis said, “is to create long-term economic growth at the local level.”
Lewis is thrilled by peers’ successes and confounded by their stagnation.
“Seeing great companies at the same stage after 2-3 years is frustrating,” he said, adding that he’d advise fellow entrepreneurs to not be afraid of taking risks. In fact, his opinion is that in a down economy, “Fewer people are taking risks; the time to strike is now.”
The company is still small at this point. There’s Lewis and his New York-based business partner, Tim Kress-Spatz, who served as an advisor through the prototype stage, and organically cemented into more of a true partnership during that process. There are also two people on the development staff (also located back east), and eight non-employees serving as “brand ambassadors.” Lewis is thinking about getting help for some newsletter and blog writing, as well as social media outreach, important venues, since Suite Arrival doesn’t use traditional advertising, but relies on organic growth and word of mouth.
Lewis has received several funding offers, but refused them due to the terms not being right.
“We have turned down thousands in funding because the investors just didn’t make sense,” he said. “We want entrepreneurs that want to participate, have fun and help us grow. There has to be a culture fit as well.”
As a startup, Lewis prizes Suite Arrival’s nimble nature, something that might be lost if just the right deal isn’t cut.
For instance, Lewis is able to act upon what he sees as the fantastic opportunity in Europe for his service, where the average worker gets significantly more vacation time than in the U.S. He’s been dealing with business development people from London’s mayor’s office, and could have employees in the U.K. by 2011. He’s able to pick up the phone and call Santa Barbara Municipal Airport and try to make some money with his hometown hub (result, regrettably, was “thanks but no thanks.”) He doesn’t need to worry that he’ll come under undue influence from folks less passionate or more risk-averse about Suite Arrival’s mission.
In other words, he’s retained the ability, through hard work and considered action, to make big-picture things happen. Not that he’s forgotten about the smaller, more intimate moments that pop up from time to time in the course of the work day.
“My favorite thing we’ve ever shipped,” Lewis said, “was our very first gift for honeymooners.”
He showed off a picture of it on his phone — a gift that saved hassle for the bride and groom, and contained enough product for their week spent in the Caribbean. The packaging by Suite Arrival was slick, but he was clearly excited for the couple.
It seems that “Chief Concierge” isn’t merely clever branding, but an apt description of the philosophy by which Lewis nurtures all his ventures.