TCTV: In the Studio, Sam Shank on Hotel Tonight’s Extreme Focus on Mobile Travel

Editor’s Note: TechCrunch columnist Semil Shah currently works at Votizen and is based in Palo Alto. You can follow him on Twitter @semil.

“In the Studio” welcomes today a successful, repeat founder in the travel space who has started and sold a company already, hails from a family of entrepreneurs, and who caught the travel bug early in life and decided to to mix his pleasure with business for his career.

After working for a bunch of consumer Internet companies back in the late 90s, Hotel Tonight CEO Sam Shank felt it was finally time to start his own thing. An avid traveler, Shank’s initial idea was to build a travel social network with a map to record the places you’ve been. He had this idea before Google Maps existed, and his team actually built their own map server and map data. After realizing it was a fun product but not a good business, Shank readjusted focus to hotel reviews an ultimately sold the business — that company was TravelPost, which was acquired by Sidestep, which then in turn was acquired by Kayak.

Fast forward to today, Shank and his team of 30 colleagues have quickly built up Hotel Tonight, an iPhone app that lets users book same-day hotels in select cities. Shank knew from his years in travel before this that travel was the biggest e-commerce category (and that lodging was the biggest within that category), that set up costs were low, but that scaling after success was incredibly hard. Despite how dead-simple Hotel Tonight is (book a room from your phone on the day you need it), Shank kicked around ideas for the better part of a year, interviewing industry people and scouting opportunities. Eventually, the idea hit him and he realized that no one else focused exclusively on same-day mobile bookings — so he went for it. The resulting app has received a warm welcome, and if you’re feeling spontaneous on your next trip to Vegas, you can roll the dice and see if Hotel Tonight will sell you a $2,500 suite on the strip at a steep discount from the app’s “Ballin” category.

In our conversation, Shank discusses his trajectory as a “travel startup” founder and you can see how all of the years of cumulative learnings have come together for him with his current venture. Back in November 2011, I wrote a post on TechCrunch after investigating a slew of new travel startups and couldn’t find ones that were close to a business model. Hotel Tonight, by contrast, is so simple, in fact, because of his experiences and decision to focus on key areas. First, they built for mobile only, and only for iPhone. Mobile is a natural fit for same-day hotel booking, the iOS platform offered them access to a certain customer, and being mobile-only helped them differentiate from other big travel brands. The result has been a smashing success so far, and as you’ll see in this video, Shank exhibits the kind of hyper-extreme focus an entrepreneur must have in an overly crowded, competitive market.