Lillian Liszkay, 28, from Johannesburg is running a small hostel in the heart of Vienna; the Believe-It-Or-Not Hostel. I had an appointment to do an interview at 1.30 pm and ended up staying…
By Klaudia Bachinger
.. a whole afternoon at this lovely place. I saw new people checking in, others hugging Lilly goodbye. I was involved in inspiring conversations with people from Argentina, Singapore and California while watching Lilly cleaning and taking care of the place.
The concept is pretty simple. And very smart. The “Believe-It-Or-Not-Hotel is an all-inclusive hostel with no useless rules and curfew. Lilly provides her guests with really everything you need to feel comfortable – from toothpaste to moisturizer, umbrellas and sewing kits, instruments and books. The way she treats her guests and the positive vibes Lilly spreads make it “the best hostel ever” or rather “a home away from home” (quotes from the many reviews). Believe it!
Lilly, what education do you have?
My education. Alright. I got a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Johannesburg. I focused on Marketing and Communications and Business Management. I always had an interest in Tourism & Hospitality with the idea to open up my own guesthouse or bed and breakfast. But, my parents didn’t see this as a fit way to spend money on education. So, I went ahead and picked a random degree, finished it, and at the end, applied for a job in a hotel anyway. Upon receiving my CV, they called me just to ask “why did you apply for this job when you have no experience and qualifications?”. I think I remember laughing and I told them – I believe I can do this job and I really want this job; I don’t have the time or the money to go study again. They then called me in for a proper interview and ha-ha, they gave me the job. Yeah.
So I worked in this hotel for pretty much two years and they trained me on the job. So, basically I got educated while earning money. It was great. I was also promoted to Reservations Manager within half a year. It was a really good experience. But then I burnt out. Because at some point I was working about 14 hours a day, six days a week. So, one day after feeling really fed up, I looked at my bank account I saw that I have saved enough money to quit and finally do what I always wanted. Travel. I wrote my resignation letter. My boss tried to convince me to stay. I said no, even after being offered more money and I left. And then the best education of my life began and that was travelling.
Because you get to learn more about yourself. Your strengths and your weaknesses. And it gives you a better idea of what YOU like and want YOU don’t like. I started in the USA. I was there for nine months and I felt that I grew up four years in these 9 months. Really. Just matured and opened up my mind and became more confident about myself and about decisions in life. And I guess it made me more inclined to take risks. You start trusting in yourself, you know. And believing in yourself. And you just try things because the worst that can happen is, you either fail or someone says “no”. Right? Also, the stories and experiences of other people show you an insight into the world and teaches you useful facts and great life skills. For me, it was much more valuable than sitting in an office.
And after my miss America mission, I went home because I had almost run out of money. Never-mind visa issues. I got another job. In hospitality software. Ugh! I had to program a hotel’s computer system and train the staff how to use it. So I was back into the hospitality industry but on the software and technology side of it and I hated it. Especially trying to teach bored adults who asked me for a cigarette break every seven minutes. I quit after six months and took the little money I had saved up, and this time bounced off to travel Europe. And after about four months, I decided I wanted to live in Europe. So, I packed up my life in South Africa one last time, with the desire to go to Berlin. Berlin felt like it was my city. But I booked a flight to Vienna because it was cheaper. And I am still here. Hello Vienna! I am still here! (laughs)
So, how did you get a job here?
Well, the plan was to spend about a week in Vienna being a tourist, enjoying life and then eventually taking the overnight train to Berlin. But after being here one week, I realized how much I really liked Vienna. Exactly one week after I had landed in Vienna, I was sitting at a friend’s place and I made a joke with him. I said: “Today I am gonna look for a job and if I find one, I’ll stay in Vienna, if not, I’ll take the train to Berlin tomorrow”. He laughed, “Yeah, good luck with that”.> Read more
I looked up and wrote down the names of three hostels based in Vienna which I found via hostelworld.com. and off I went on my job hunt. I thought I should stick to hospitality due to my experience but, most of all, because I only speak English, I though starting in a hostel would be the easiest. The first hostel I walked into was called my MOjOvie and you guessed, I asked for a job. The lady running the place, practically dropped everything in her hands, looked at me with the words “are you an angel?!” floating out her mouth. She continued: “can you clean?” – Yes. “are you legal to be here?” – Yes. “Okay, then if you want a job, you will be here at 9 o’clock tomorrow.”
No really. It took me one hour to find a job. I went straight back to my friend and with the biggest smile on my face said, “I guess I am staying”. And I started the next day at 9 o’clock pretty much just as the cleaning lady. I am OCD – obsessive compulsive – anyway, so cleaning is no problem for me. It kind of calms me down. Although telling my family and friends back home what I do, wasn’t that easy. As a white person from South Africa, being a “putzfrau” is not acceptable. But I stood by my decision and earning 10 Euros an hour was the best salary I had to date. I would happily make beds and clean toilets for this rate.
So a long story short – I worked there for 3 months. The owner then gradually trained me on everything about running her hostel. And then, she asked me if I wanted to be the new manager for the Believe-it-or-not-Hostel. And that’s when I decided to take a big risk; use all my life savings, sell my car, take a loan from my dad in order to put down the deposit and take over the hostel.
And you have never been worried or afraid? Have you ever had existential fear?
Not really. No. I like the idea of the unknown. I like to take chances. And it really helps to trust in yourself and realize that if you didn’t try, you would never know. And I don’t like the word never. For example, when I decided to live in “Berlin”, I simply hopped on an airplane filled with utter excitement and the feeling of “I can do this”. I gave myself a budget of 500 Euros to get something started and if I couldn’t find a job or a way to make the money double, I had an open return ticket booked to home ready for my fall. If I had fallen, I would have seen it as a nice holiday.
So what do you do exactly?
I take care of ten guests. I make them breakfast, I make their beds. I clean up after them. And I tell them what to do and where to go in the city. I am their host, their tour guide, their mother, their maid. It’s a half-time job. But I love it. You get to meet people from all over the world and take care of them. It’s really nice. Basically, I am all departments of a big hotel put into one tiny little hostel.
And can you live of it?
Yes. Very well. Ha-ha, well, if you don’t forget that a cash business leads to spending all of it at once. I learnt the hard way. But after making many mistakes, and finally understanding the business in full, yes, it’s great money.
Could you imagine doing something else?
No. I wanna do this forever. But I guess the next step is to design my own hostel. Like, I love this place. She has done a beautiful job. But I would like to have my own personality, my style, my design, my flair. And maybe a little bit bigger. But I would stick to hosting and this kind of business for sure.
Do you think that you are able to fully develop your skills here?
Yes… yes. It has been one hell of a learning experience. Because you think you know things about the business – I mean I worked in a hotel for over two years. But when you do it on your own… and I was pretty young when I took over; I was 25 and naive; that’s where the real lessons come in. Working for yourself, answering to yourself, making business decisions alone with no experience – it’s a whirlwind. You like to think you are responsible but sometimes you make decisions and choices that are not. But you learn on the job and I have learnt most things the hard way. But by now I figured it out – I think (Ha Ha Ha). And the mistakes were necessary. I like to think that by the time I am 30, I will be a really great business woman.
So what are the happy moments at work?
Well, the fact that I still feel like I am traveling. I just feel like a guest that never checked out of a hostel. I am the guest that’s always here. Then, the people aspect. Constantly meeting new people, having great conversations, still getting educated about the world. And then, there is this element of me that likes to host. To take care of people. I get a lot of joy out of that. I like meeting people’s needs. That’s kind of good. And also the fact that I am self-employed. I like being responsible and answering only to myself. And of course, let’s not forget that I have a lot of free time with this job. I really appreciate that.
Oh and, cleaning is the best body work-out ever! I mean look at my arms. (laughs)
And the downsides?
Uncontrollable risks. Zum Beispiel: it’s an old building, so there are plumbing problems, but never-mind the old side, it’s just the overuse of things. 10 people using the facilities everyday makes this household fall apart quicker. It’s a lot of maintenance. That gets a bit annoying. And some guests just really have no respect and don’t take care of the apartment and forget that they are living in someone else’s space. But hey, I can’t teach an old dog new tricks. But at times, it’s hard to handle. However, it has taught me patience.
And, then there are my little friends – the oh so horrible, bed bug. Let me remove the word friend. They are the biggest enemy to this business. Oh wow. And there isn’t much you can do from stopping them coming in. They travel with guests, so they are bound to come in and out at some point. At least now I have the knowledge to get rid of them quickly… That’s all.
And hat causes you stress?
Not much. My own personal dilemma with procrastination – the result is having to do three months of bookkeeping in 24 hours. Or not speaking German fluently after almost 4 years. My laziness causes me stress. But that’s nothing too grand. Bed bugs caused me more stress than people or other aspects. So really, not much.
Do people who come here inspire you?
Yeah people constantly inspire me. Absolutely. I get new ideas. New life perspectives. And often I do see these people again, or keep in touch with them. Often, I meet these people somewhere in the world again. Or they come back. Great minds stick together and share knowledge. It’s great!
Do you think you ever inspired somebody else?
I think so. I mean it sounds arrogant to say that. But I definitely think so.
When I tell them that I come from South Africa and I run a business in Vienna they go “WOW! And how did you get here…?” And then I can kind of see that they are thinking about taking more risks in life. For sure. And most of them that are here, suddenly just quit their job and just started to travel. Which is where I started. So I think it inspires people more to keep to that risk and you know, don’t give up until they know what they wanna do in life. Don’t compromise. Yeah. These are people that don’t compromise, I think.
And you don’t have any employees?
No, because it’s a half-day job and I am happy to do it all by myself. And by doing it all by myself I get to keep more income. And I am very capable of doing it, so I might as well do it.
So what if you need a day off?
Then I have good friends that come for a day or two. Or I close the hostel. But actually, I pretty much work 360 days a year.
Wow. So you couldn’t imagine yourself to be employed?
Not again. No. I have done it. I think it’s a valuable lesson to know what’s it like to work for somebody. And to see that side of the coin. But now that I have tasted self-employment, I think I will never go back. I’ll make sure I don’t. I’ll keep on being an entrepreneur. I will not. No. I can’t go back.
What about a franchise?
I could do a franchise. Sometimes it crossed my mind. I could discuss to take the Believe-it-or-not-Hostel elsewhere, but then there is the point where I wanna be completely independent. Do it 100% mine. So no. I think I want to have a “Lilly’s Leaf” somewhere. Do my own one. Take the full risk and start it from scratch. Get the capital and see how long it take to break-even.
Your plans for the future?
Opening a hostel or bed and breakfast or guest house somewhere else in the world. The next plan is to figure out, where. What is after Vienna. I like the idea of doing it in Cape Town and going back home to South Africa. But I need to see where there is a gap in the market. And how to keep it special and different. And I really think I should finish learning German in Vienna. Or go somewhere else and learn another language.
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