Founder Interview: Amanda Szabo, founder and CEO, ResortPass

Building a successful business is hardly as fun as a day at the pool, though for Amanda Szabo, that’s how hers got started.

The founder and CEO of Santa Monica’s ResortPass knew there had to be a profitable way for hotels to bring in day guests who wanted to use the pool and spa — something many people do anyway without paying. After all, thanks to the rise of Airbnb and similar platforms, the hospitality industry was looking for new revenue streams to boost bottom lines.

She was right.

Since Szabo’s website launched in 2015, more than 90,000 people have visited hotels through bookings made on the ResortPass platform. In May, the company raised a $2 million seed round led by Charles River Ventures.

But Szabo had to face some hard truths along the way. She spoke with us to discuss what it was like to build ResortPass by herself and how she eventually realized she needed a little help to turn it into the company she always dreamed it could be.

Have you always been interested in starting a business?

I’ve always had my own business; I’ve always been very entrepreneurial. I’m originally from Connecticut, and I went to a small liberal arts school in Pennsylvania. I very quickly realized I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, and I didn’t feel like the school was providing me an opportunity to discover that. After two years, I left. I did some traveling and ended up going to New York City. I took some courses in digital arts and realized I’m a creative person. I’m also technical, so I started my first business doing video production in the events space. For a while, I was very much in that space, doing digital arts for events, graphic design, and picking up skills along the way.

When did you come to Southern California?

About six years ago I moved to San Diego. I quickly discovered I wanted to build a startup and go into the tech space. I had a couple — the first one was a booking website. During that time, I learned how to code, what it means to create a website, and what it means to sign up businesses and sell to customers. That website is still going and doing well. My co-founder, who is my brother, has taken it over. It’s more of a lifestyle business, so it’s a pretty crowded market. But I approached everything with this idea that I wanted to build a billion-dollar company, so I continued my startup journey to find that right idea. I worked on another startup in the wedding and events space — a piece of software to book vendors easily online. I thought there was a real need for that. I picked up a lot of skills doing that, but I had challenges in the tech side. Two years ago, I had the idea for ResortPass.

How did that come about?

There are so many nice hotels and resorts in San Diego. I snuck in to one to use the pool, but you’re uncomfortable and stressed out, even though the whole point was to relax. I thought, I would pay to be there; why can’t I pay? Take my money. The only reason is because they didn’t have a system in place to manage this type of guest. I knew I was on to something big. I knew the timing was right, that this was something people wanted, and it would benefit this new market as well as the hotels. I quickly went about making it happen.

How did you get it off the ground?

I essentially took all the skills I had learned over the years, and I was able to build the website myself by hacking a WordPress site. I did all the front-end from scratch, but I was able to hack the back end. I was able to get it out to market on my own, and while I was building it, I was selling to the hotels. I was selling even before I had the website built. I had the landing page, but I hadn’t even figured out how I was going to do booking online. One hotel took a chance on something completely new. That’s all it took.

How did the hotels react to your idea?

It’s tough when you’re introducing a totally new thing for hotels. It’s a new type of program, bringing in a new type of guest and offering. The great thing about our product is that just by nature of what it is, it’s a strong sell and a huge value proposition. Hotels have to charge a resort fee now; they charge for the bottled water in the room. What we’re providing is a real significant new revenue channel that comes with no downside and is very easy to use.  We’re doing all the work; it’s commission based. Finding those first few clients was enough to learn how to sell to hotels. I had to craft the whole product and program and language based on how they think and what they care about. We’re still doing that.

How did Mucker help take ResortPass to the next level?

They saw the value and they were super interested. That’s what I needed. I needed someone to see what I had actually built, and “get it,” even though I didn’t have a team or a shiny background. Through Mucker, I met my CTO and co-founder, Taylor Bayouth. I was able to use the little capital I got through Mucker to accelerate my growth. I really was looking to raise a solid VC round, because we were at that point where we were really ready to grow this thing. They helped guide us to where we needed to go. They know that world, and it’s really helpful to get direct info on what you need, what they look for, and make sure you check off all the boxes. The most important part of their mentorship was helping with that process.

Is that when you moved to L.A.?

Yes. I was going up every two weeks and driving back down, and I was like, why am I going back down to San Diego? Every time I went up to Mucker I was meeting people and connecting. It just made sense for me to move there and move the business there.

What was that fundraising process like for you?

There was a lot of initial interest up front. But it was really hard to follow through and close anything for a while. It’s a female-driven market. I think a lot of male investors thought it was super interesting, but didn’t necessarily feel passionate about the space or directly connect with it. We definitely got comments like, ‘Oh I told my wife about it, she thought it was so cool.’ It’s understandable that investors want to be passionate and connected and excited about the deals they do, but that was a little frustrating.

How did that affect you?

I had to go through a learning process and understand that I don’t quite fit the profile of a founder that VCs are traditionally used to funding. That was challenging. Basically, the profile is Stanford, Harvard, Wall Street, Google, ex-Google, ex-Facebook. I don’t consider myself limited in any way in my capacity to build a company. I never had any doubt about myself and my ability, so it was very confusing. Initially, I was going in there really strong and maybe naively ignoring that they might see me in a different way than I see myself. They might look at my background and have questions and doubts, like can this person really build a massive company? I wanted to say that’s unfair and resist it. But I decided I’d rather understand what the reality is and see how I can overcome it — play the game in some way. Once I accepted that reality, things started to change.

How do you plan to use the funding?

Expanding our inventory throughout the United States, and we’re actually going international too. We’ve been hiring and really growing the team, and we’ll continue to do so. We have such a healthy business model; we may not even need to dip into this capital. My goal is to be a $100 million company within a year, and we have a clear path to get there.

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