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Impala’s new COO on lessons learned reimagining industries

Impala’s new COO, Lionel Paillet, tells us about his ambitions for the company and what led him here.

I’ve worked in consumer electronics for a lot of my life: I spent 13 years at Apple before building a new product category at Nest. This means that Impala and the hospitality sector are new territory for me – but it feels familiar, because it’s still about creating an innovative product - that customers don’t even know they want yet - and getting it into their hands. Of course there’s a lot of work ahead, but my experience has taught me that this is what’s needed to reimagine any sector.

Starting from scratch

Several times in my career, I’ve had the privilege of being around at the start of things: I was the second ever employee of Splash Technology and stayed there for five years, during which we went to IPO on the NASDAQ.

I then went to Apple in October 2000. The company had been on the edge of bankruptcy; the only thing that saved it was the Bondi blue iMac. But this period was the beginning of a resurgence during which they launched their biggest products - and revolutionised countless markets, from music retail to mobile gaming. By the time I left, I was managing sales in 17 European countries.

Building a new category

I left because I got a call from Tony Fadell, the inventor of the iPod. Tony offered me the chance to join his new company, Nest, as only the third person on the European team. It was acquired by Google for $3.2bn shortly after I joined, creating a new category, scaling ultra-rapidly and selling tens of millions of thermostats globally - saving over 84bn kWh of energy.

After a short break from full-time executive roles, I wanted to find a company that was at the very beginning of reimagining an industry, and help it grow from the ground up. My search led me to Impala.

Big problems require imagination

From a technology perspective, travel is highly fragmented. There are lots of tiny solutions and a couple of big giants, though they all offer a mediocre customer experience. Most hotels don’t have their own IT department, so they are handcuffed to complex third-party systems. But Impala offers travel businesses something radically simpler and better – without the need to build an IT department in their basement.

Today, we are just getting started, but I want everyone to see how much better Impala’s technology can make things. Looking retrospectively, the success of Apple and Nest’s products feels like it was always inevitable. But the early days can be painful at times – it’s not easy to overcome that initial inertia, to help people realise they need your product. The prevailing attitude is, “this is how it’s always been, why change it?”

It all comes down to explaining the value of your solution. At Nest, no one knew that they needed a smart smoke alarm. But we just kept asking people the question: “Does it make sense to have your smoke alarm connected to your smartphone, so you know that your house may be about to burn when you’re not at home?” And the answer is: yes, it makes sense, so why wouldn’t you use it?

The big travel companies offer outdated products that prevent the industry from innovating at pace with traveller expectations. This should make us all sit up and take notice, but we have become used to the status quo. We have some early inertia to overcome, but travel is overdue its reinvention, and I’ve joined Impala to make it happen. To bring about change, we need to keep explaining how things can be better, again and again. I’m delighted to be here early in the journey, because before long, we’ll barely remember the way things used to be.