Flights of Fancy: The Journey From Bar to Boardroom With Skyscanner's CEO

How did a high tech startup, headquartered in Scotland's historic capital, become the global travel gateway it is today? And how does it maintain that startup culture, seemingly so crucial to its success, now that it is much more than a dream etched on a beer mat?

Heather Irish of Yankee Doodles brings you part one of a three part blog series on Skyscanner's business, communications and tech.

Skyscanner was created from co-founder and CEO Gareth Williams' personal frustration when trying to book French skiing holidays. In the early 2000s, Gareth spent hours scouring airline websites to find cheap flights to visit his brother who was a ski instructor. After a pub brainstorming session with his university friends and Skyscanner co-founders, Bonamy Grimes and Barry Smith, the company was born on beer mats and an Excel spreadsheet.

When people think of global tech companies - they think of Silicon Valley's sleek modern buildings in the Californian sun. However, there are other places emerging with buzzing tech scenes and one of them is Edinburgh, Scotland. There are now quite a few tech startups in Edinburgh but in 2003 it was a different story. That's when Skyscanner set up shop in Edinburgh - not too far from an ancient castle sitting atop an extinct volcano.

Fast forward a decade and over 35 million people each month use its apps and search engine to plan their travel. And it's still growing, 2014 saw a 42% increase in revenues and the travel company has over 500 employees in nine global offices. So how did a high tech startup, headquartered in Scotland's historic capital, become the global travel gateway it is today? And how does it maintain that startup culture, seemingly so crucial to its success, now that it is much more than a dream etched on a beer mat?

Gareth Williams sat down with Yankee Doodles blogger Heather Irish, to discuss Skyscanner's growth, what he learned along the way and his advice for entrepreneurs.

Heather Irish: When you first started Skyscanner air travel was going through a transition. How do you think Skyscanner contributed to this transition?

Gareth Williams: "When we started, those budget airlines didn't participate in the many traditional forums for distributing their tickets. They were web first and direct to the consumer and there was a very clear problem that no one knew who flew where particularly for the budget airlines. I think in general the booking engines that were dominant then were very much geared towards how booking systems had been set up were set up 30 even 40 years previously. When we set out to design a system, we did it from the perspective of the traveller rather than from the industry and its norms around data because we were technologists - so we were able to produce technology with product features that people really enjoyed using."

HI: When you started up in Edinburgh and everyone asked, "Why not California?", how did you do your own thing?

GW: "I think part of it was a sense of contrarian thinking. If everyone says do one thing there has to be some merit in the opposite view. I think that was a big part of it and we are seeing over the last 10 years that there is an increasing democratisation of the production of Internet economy software. It's still very concentrated. Mike Moritz wrote recently in the Financial Times, about the emergence of China and indeed places outside of Silicon Valley as starting to lead in producing the services that we globally consume. I think Scotland, Barcelona, Sofia, Singapore, Shenzhen, Miami - all the places we have offices - are places that each have their own ecosystem and whilst it was tiny 10 years ago it's hugely different now. I think part of that is not only is the desire and the need and the benefits to fly a global thing but the other feature of the global opportunity is the global sharing of information and it happens now so much more efficiently than it did 10 years ago."

HI: And when you started those 10 years ago, how were you able to learn and share knowledge and ideas?

GW: "I think it was in two parts. One was in reading veraciously - blogs and books by people with experience especially in the Internet economy. And that has been a default behaviour of myself for a long time. The other area is to learn from success wherever you see it and at whatever size or scale and really try to understand what it was that got them and that group to their success. And that's meant not seeing first hand the success of Twitter for instance but that doesn't mean that during our growth there weren't exemplars that we could learn from both locally and globally."

HI: Can you tell me how you took the company from its infancy - identifying a personal need to fulfilling a worldwide need?

GW: "I haven't run a company before so every stage has been interesting and fascinating and I have gone through different stages personally from coding near 24 hrs a day through to managing and leading teams of others. And that has been a really interesting journey for me. I think the reason we embarked on that journey is that we recognised that it was a global need and the global opportunity is what the Internet economy does so well in offering up opportunity. It makes it easier for people to succeed against your mistakes but the plus side is that if something works well and is a global need then you can reach that global audience in a way that a chain of newsagents simply can't. By recognising that from an early stage that virtually every Silicon Valley company does, we were able to leverage somethings like translating the site and addressing airline coverage throughout the world to attempt to be global from an early stage."

HI: With your background in maths and programming, can you share with me your journey to CEO?

GW: "Really for an Internet economy company, I believe you have to have at least one person on the founding team that is technical in background. And for us, we were, all three of us, technical in background. One of us had to be CEO [because] I didn't want an idiot to be the CEO, telling me what to do, so I became the idiot. So I would have happily been the CTO. And I think the role of technology is right at the centre, which for someone with my sort of background is really enjoyable in a way that working for an IT department for a bank or a retail organisation isn't as you're an overhead in those sort of circumstances. And I think one of my principles is that most if not every role in the company, should be viewed as producing gains for the traveller, for suppliers or for our revenues and not be viewed as an overhead or a cost of doing business because I think it's a more productive way in which to frame your work."

HI: Did your investors change and grow in number as the company grew?

GW: "I believe investment is not entrepreneurialism so I've approached investment as achieving as little investment as we can and creating entrepreneurial growth as much as we can. During the history of Skyscanner, we've actually only raised $6million, which is very unusual for the size of company we are and the sector we are in. Investment has tended to be secondary investment rather than money into the company. My approach is to much prefer to have investors asking to invest than to be asking a wide range of investors to invest."

HI: What advice would you give someone growing their business, starting that 2nd office somewhere?

GW: "I think it would be to have a clear reason why it's necessary. You should have no more offices than you have to have because there is a cost - just as you should have no more team members than you have to have as there is a communication overhead. In order to be successful at it, you have to ensure that you have the same standards of recruitment. You [also] need to think of the means you communicate on a daily and weekly basis, whether it be through video conferencing or tools like Slack and you have got to understand if you have the budget to allow a bit of travel so that you can go there or they can come here so that you can spend a bit of time together. On top of that I think that there are cultural differences and really understanding what is expected in terms of deference through to logical - that truth trumps social niceties."

HI: How do you maintain consistent direction, communication and strategy with global offices within different cultures?

GW: "I think strategy has been called science and culture has been called art. And for a technologist the temptation would surely be to focus on strategy rather than culture. But I actually care a lot that we have a company that people want to work at and it furthers their personal aspirations and that they do productive and fulfilling work because we spend so much of our time at work. And the means to achieve that has to be through culture. Culture is a really nebulous thing but I do know that you can influence culture at every level of the business. It's by concerted action and efforts to share a culture of focusing on the traveller and caring about your colleagues that you can create shared endeavour across different geographical locations. I think another way of achieving that is to work to reduce the day-to-day dependencies with people who are far removed from your work and that can be geographically, seniority or through working on different things. The more that the course of your day-to-day is bounded by your own decisions and the small amount of people you work with - the better".

Above: The doodle above was created during our interview. Because being a technologist and successful entrepreneur isn't enough, Gareth also enjoys drawing, painting and doodling - mainly done while in work meetings. (His staff told me that when he doodles during work meetings, it shows he's engaged and interested).

HI: I hear you are famous in the office for your doodles! How do you find inspiration?

GW: "I think there are two things. One it helps me concentrate and I don't know why. And the other it occurred to me because I'm not tapping at a keyboard with my fingers, which is what I did most of my career. I can actually get 10,000 hours in and try to master another thing. And whilst I might not be a high quality artist now, come back and see me after I've done 10,000 hours."

Above: GM: "This is one I did a couple of days ago. A couple of people said they liked it. Half an hour's work."

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