The founder of Cuba Casa, knew how hard it was to book casa (hostel) accommodation in Cuba online. He wanted to change this and make booking a casa in Cuba a simple and painless experience. To do this, substantial communication and technical infrastructure issues unique to Cuba would have to be overcome. The company founder asked us to help him navigate the process of starting an online business.
We kicked off by defining the creative and technical needs needed to realise his vision. We then set about prioritising these based on the budget and resources at his disposal. Before long we couldn’t help getting our hands dirty … as working with start-ups is something we really enjoy!
Selecting the domain
First off, we undertook extensive keyword research to identify suitable options for a new domain name. A key issue was to secure a domain that would be available across all key top-level-domains (e.g. .co.uk, .es, .fr, etc). Unfortunately due to domain squatters this was by no means a straightforward process. However, in the end we managed to secure a portfolio of domains that the client was happy with.
Developing Cuba Casa’s identity
Once cubacasa.co.uk had been selected as the companies primary domain we started to plan how best to develop an identity within the budget at our disposal. By collaborating closely with the client we developed a brief that clearly articulated what was was needed. Given the straightforward nature of the identity required we elected to use 99designs. We selected this approach to offer the client more options then we, or our specialist partners, could ever generate within the budget available.
We received just under a 100 submissions of which a handful we’re up-to-scratch and great starting points for the refinement process. Thanks to the amazing responsiveness of the designer we selected the identity was complete within a week. We then worked closely with the client to define the tagline that encapsulates exactly what Cuba Casa is all about.
This phase was highly successful as a compelling identity that exceeded the founder’s expectations was developed rapidly and most importantly given the constraints cost-effectively. It’s worth pointing out that using a service such as 99designs is only applicable in certain situations. For this job it was perfect but we’d only ever advise using it in certain circumstances.
The importance of high quality content
Once this phase was complete the founder went out to Cuba to promote his idea and build out his network of casa’s. He took a professional photographer to every casa he visited so that he could ensure that users of the website would get an accurate feel for the casa they were reserving.
This substantial up-front investment in photography was a major risk. But maybe this alludes to that secret ingredient of all good entrepreneurs – they are willing to invest where others aren’t because they don’t just see the risk, they also see the opportunity. Given the quality of the images in use on the website, and people’s reaction to them in testing, this gamble seems to have paid off handsomely.
Finding the right suppliers – sometimes it just comes down to budget
When the client returned he asked us to manage the technical development process required to realise his vision. Given the constraints and risks involved we knew this wasn’t going to be straightforward. So we decided to wireframe every page as well as develop in-depth technical documentation that would help guide the selected developer.
Once this process was complete we set about sourcing a developer. The budget at our disposal dictated the use of a freelancer. But within a few weeks the inevitably slow progress forced the client to increase his budget so that we could circulate our documentation to a number of pre-screened companies who would be capable of completing the job quicker.
We were provided with a vast array of quotes (both in terms of price and quality) but ended up selecting the company that had the most experience of the target content management system. Technical development was a slow process as bending open-source software and contributed modules to fit Cuba Casa’s unique requirements was no easy thing.
This was greatly exacerbated by legislative changes that enforced extensive revisions to the website’s business logic and booking process. This was without doubt the lowest point of the project as we knew these changes would have a negative impact on a user’s experience of booking a casa on the website. To minimise this as best we could we worked closely with the developers to rearchitect the logic of the website and make the booking process as easy as possible whilst complying with the new laws.
The importance of testing before releasing
Usability testing highlighted key areas that required amendments and despite the delay this incurred solving these up-front has dramatically improved the quality of experience the website delivers. The local laws still enforce some quirks that complicate the booking process but not complying with these was never an option given the founder’s commitment to his partners on the ground.
There are a number of changes that could be made to enhance the website but all of these would come at a cost and rather than delay the launch further or invest more up-front we have agreed to monitor usage on this first iteration of compliant booking process and deal with suspected issues as they are confirmed by the analytics data.
Validating an idea
Within weeks of the website being released Cuba Casa has already started to receive a steady steam of bookings! We know the website isn’t perfect but given the process and context we’re certainly proud it’s up. In fact due to all of the difficulties we’ve encountered throughout this project it has been one of the most satisfying to see “go live” as there were numerous times when it seemed like it may not.
Developing an online business is hard at the best of times but when Cuba is involved we can safely say it’s definitely harder. That said, now that the website is up and running and providing users with a valuable service we’re really looking to monitoring and improving how it performs.
For more information on this project please read our case study.