travel tech

B2B travel company grows its Houston presence

Real-time inventory software enables travelers to book a last minute flight and have their boarding passes in hand at security a few minutes later. But that technology isn't utilized in other aspects of a vacation — tour companies, for example. That's where San Francisco-based Xola comes in.

Scott Zimmerman and his co-founder Anush Ramani realized real-time technology was a glaring hole in a multi-billion-dollar business. It's why they founded Xola, a booking and marketing software system designed for tour and activity companies.

"So many smaller tour companies operate with pen and paper," Zimmerman explained. "And for many cities and countries, tourism is the number-two or number-three industry — it's a huge driver of economic growth. It's a $120 billion global market."

They created Xola as a B2B solution that created a platform for operators to promote their offerings, and allow customers to purchase tours and activities. Meanwhile, Xola's custom-design software platform managed the tour inventory and payments, providing real-time inventory management.

Since its inception in 2011, Xola has emerged as a leading B2B solution for travel industry operators. The company started in San Francisco, but opened an office in Houston in 2016 in the Heights Clock Tower. Xola's Houston operation began with six people; today, it employs 17. Zimmerman says he sees potential to grow the team with additional marketing, sales, and support staff.

"We serve customers around the world, and Houston has everything we need to continue our growth."

Zimmerman acknowledged the cost of doing business in the Bay Area is expensive, but when he went looking for cities in which to expand, price wasn't his only concern.

"We wanted a large metropolitan area, with a diverse ecosystem, good universities, a great talent pool, a high quality of life and an affordable cost of living. Houston has all these things. And the more I get to know the city, I realize just how much it has going on."

Zimmerman said that the city has "totally exceeded" his expectations in terms of Xola's growth. He said every one of the Houston employees is wonderful to work with, and loves that they come from diverse cultural and educational backgrounds.

"I can't quite describe what the office is like, but there's a great energy and enthusiasm. [The team] easy to work with. It's been fun in that regard."

Zimmerman said that Houston's talent pool is so extensive, he can't imagine "ever exhausting" the city's resources. He also sees Houston as an asset for Xola's continued growth. The company currently has offices in San Francisco, Houston, Bangalore, and Belgrade and anticipates more expansion in the coming years. Xola's ticketing and software system has received multiple five-star reviews from its customers, who praise not only its ease of operation, but also the company's stellar customer service. In fact, Xola just won a 2018 Ease of Use Award from Capterra.

"In addition to Xola's core booking system, we're building next-generation automated marketing features that help our customers maintain a competitive edge. And our Houston team will continue to grow as we do, so we can continue to serve markets around the world."

Houston was home to more than 117,000 skilled freelancers in 2018. Photo courtesy of Common Desk

It's no wonder coworking is taking off in Houston. A new study shows the community of skilled freelance workers in Houston ranks as one of the biggest in Texas — and the United States.

The study, commissioned by freelance marketplace Fiverr and conducted by market research firm Rockbridge Associates, indicates Houston was home to an estimated 117,260 skilled freelancers who generated more than $4.1 billion in revenue in 2018, just slightly less than the financial haul in 2017.

Houston ranked second statewide and 11th in the U.S. among major metro areas for the size of the skilled-freelancer workforce and for the amount of revenue produced, according to the study. Between 2017 and 2018, Houston's pool of skilled freelancers grew 2.5 percent.

From 2011 to 2016, according to the study, Houston's community of skilled freelancers increased 7.7 percent, while revenue declined slightly by 7.8 percent. The Fiverr study places skilled freelancers in three buckets: creative, technical, and professional. These freelancers include attorneys, graphic designers, musicians, software engineers, accountants, and consultants. Any self-employed person whose work requires "specific skills and abilities" was counted in the study; excluded were folks like Uber and Lyft drivers.

"Highly skilled freelancers are an understudied and often overlooked segment of the workforce," Brent Messenger, Fiverr's vice president of public policy and community, says in a release. "By analyzing the data around these … workers, we're able to get a clear picture of the types of jobs they're doing, the amount of revenue they're generating, and the cities in which they're having the most impact."

DFW ranked first in Texas and seventh nationally in the study. In 2018, DFW was home to an estimated 154,617 skilled freelancers who generated nearly $6.38 billion in revenue in 2018, up 5.4 percent from the previous year.

While DFW dominates Texas in terms of freelance population and revenue, Austin boasts the fastest-growing freelance scene.

In 2018, the estimated 67,044 skilled freelancers in the Austin metro area produced nearly $2.7 billion in revenue, up 7.5 percent from 2017, the study says. During the one-year period, Austin's pool of skilled freelancers grew 7.4 percent. The study pegged Austin at No. 18 nationally for the size of the population and revenue of skilled freelancers.

From 2011 to 2016, according to the study, Austin's community of skilled freelancers shot up by 26 percent, with revenue climbing 31 percent. The study identified Austin and Nashville as the country's two fastest-growing hubs for skilled freelancers.

A recent study by commercial real estate website CommercialCafé found that Austin, Dallas, and Houston ranked among the most affordable U.S. cities for freelancers. Meanwhile, personal finance website NerdWallet in 2016 ranked Austin as the best place in the U.S. for freelancers, with Dallas at No. 3, Fort Worth at No. 8, and Houston at No. 15.

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A version of this story originally appeared on CultureMap.com.