Gareth Williams, Skyscanner

Gareth Williams

Co-founder & CEO, Skyscanner

Gareth is the CEO and co-founder of Skyscanner, a leading global travel search site which specialises in providing instant online comparison for flights, hotel and car hire.

A keen skier, it was Gareth’s frustration with finding cheap flights to visit his brother in the Alps that led him and two friends, Bonamy Grimes and Barry Smith, to create Skyscanner. It all started with a pub brainstorming session and a simple idea: to create a site that compares flight prices for every single commercial airline in the world.

Skyscanner initially grew by word of mouth; now, an average of 50 million people visit the site every month. As CEO, Gareth’s 14 years of experience as a developer for financial institutions and retail companies have helped him make Skyscanner one of the top digital travel companies in the world.

Skyscanner’s multi-award winning mobile apps have been downloaded over 50 million times, and now allows travellers to not only compare flights, but car hire and hotels too. The company employs over 800 staff in ten global offices, and year-upon-year reports impressive accelerated growth.

In his spare time, Gareth enjoys playing chess and has a love for literature and the arts, specially sculpting and drawing. He is renowned among colleagues for his incessant drawing during meetings.

Transcript

Mike: [00:00:00] Now, £1.4 billion, I mean, is not very much really, is it? To Ctrip last year? 

Gareth: [00:00:10] I think they've got exceptional value.

Mike: [00:00:14] I'm of course joking, but there was actually — we were chatting about this earlier — there was actually some very interesting criticism and some financial press about whether they could have gone for 100x. You know the comparison with, say for instance, Facebook buying WhatsApp for $19 billion. In 2017, $1 billion is sort of chump change these days. Of course I jest, but what do you say to people who say, "wellm, why didn't you go for the moonshot? Why didn't you go for an enormous amount more or raise more money and keep going, et cetera?"

 Gareth: [00:01:02] Yeah I don't think raising money is always correlated to going for the moonshot. This is one thing. The other thing is that I think in order to get a European Google you've got to have 200 companies of two orders of magnitude smaller. And so if we want that in Scotland then we need to have a 100 billion to 200 billion dollar company in Scotland, then we need to have 20 or more unicorns in Scotland. And then we have to think about, if we want 20, then how do we create the environment so that there's 100 $100 million internet startups in Scotland. And then it becomes a matter of, you know, not relying on individual people. I think the additional factor was that it took us about 5 yers to get to a series A. So you've got the elongation of time and as hard as anyone is prepared to work it can be quite intense over a long period of time. 

Mike: [00:02:14] But, you know, you've always played your own game really. You've always really been incredibly independently-minded about things. And I guess you know, would you stick two fingers up to people who would say "You hadn't got enough"?

Gareth: [00:02:31] Well, I think the main thing is we're not finished. We've actually set the conditions — and fate will play its part — but we've set the conditions to be 100 times larger than we are currently in terms of impact and indeed in terms of revenues. And I think we're well set up for that with a great partner, and the partner could have been the stock market, which has its own issues as well. So you know, I tell people that are joining that we've done the boring bit of getting five billion quoted itineraries organised each day, and we're actually doing the really fun bit which is creating a personal travel assistant that is on your phone and always providing value. That's actually, that's where it gets interesting.

 Mike: [00:03:25] I want to actually unpack that a bit more but I want to also ask you a little bit more about that acquisition process, because you met James Liang, one of the founders, and Jane Sun, the CEO, a few years ago right? Before all this sort of started happening. What was the kind of dance, as it were, before you guys signed the paper?

Gareth: [00:03:47] Well, I think I first met them about four years ago, three or four years ago just after Sequoia invested. And I think one of the reasons that Sequoia was interested at that point was because I was saying that he future is to be found in Asia, as least as much as it is to be found in the States, and I think that's becoming ever more true over time. And so he facilitated a meeting one time that I was in China and we had dinner around the round table. But it was just really interesting, and it was one of several meetings I had. But we stayed in touch and when the pressure for some sort of event — which the primary factor was my team in Skyscanner, some of whom had been been involved for 10 years or more, and I was known as "two years manana Gareth" you know, "two more years and then we can look at some sort of event", and I think I stretched the credibility of that for a little while. So the pressure was there.

Mike: [00:05:07] Was there pressure from shareholders?

Gareth: [00:05:12] There was. But I think my main priority was the team and my co-founders and that sort of thing.

Mike: [00:05:27] Right. How is there going to be some sort of integration with Ctrip or how independent will you be operating while you're operating?

Gareth: [00:05:38] We are operating independently. We're essentially the marketplace within which Ctrip can expand their offering from China to the rest of the world. They do 20 different verticals you know ranging from ferries to rail. I think they sold 300 million intercity rail segments just in China last year. So incredibly successful in China and it's understandable that they would want to see what's involved in replicating that success outside of China. And we expect it to be quite synergistic — a marketplace depends on great content and offers. And they'll gradually scale out their ability to offer it to different markets all around the world. But as the marketplace we're independent and we list their competitors, and we list the suppliers direct as well.

 Mike: [00:06:41] So you said that you want to create the world's most trusted online travel brand. People perceive online travel by their packaged tours or airline flight or whatever. There's that and then there's maybe slightly more interesting things such as adventure travel or whatever it be. What does it mean to be a big travel brand and what does it mean also to move the needle to where it's going to be or in the future? You talked about something called "Post travel engagement." What is this? 

Gareth: [00:07:27] So there's two parts to that. I think the first thing to say is that if you take every aspect of travel it sort of adds up to 10 percent of the world's GDP. Stuff that happens outside your home town or your home city, and people are involved from conferences, tourism, business or business travel. So serving the information needs of that will just occupy us forever.

Gareth: [00:08:00] Now within that, we're unusual in online travel in that we don't see the route to growth as being fundamentally advertising. The lower the frequency you do something, the more you're likely to become highly skilled at digital marketing. We've always seen and wanted to be a software company that builds the best product we can possibly do, and our very first metric was repeat visitors. So in order to succeed in what we want to do, we need to find a way in which we're providing value many days of the year. And for frequent travelers and for people who are dreaming about leisure travel, there are all these opportunities, and sewing it all together in an itinerary that has status, plugging in the booking engine of every single travel provider in the world so it's native and branded. You can then build wonderful software experiences. Imagine that your flight is delayed and you're going to miss your connection, but your Skyscanner membership allows us to rebook it right now. Do you want us to do that? And that's where it's fun to start thinking about how you make your phone an essential assistant to the travel whether you're travelling for work or for leisure. 

Mike: [00:09:46] Are you talking about all travel or are you talking about human movement? Would you go down to granular travel like commuting or Citymapper?

Gareth: [00:09:57] No. I see us as being focused on when you are travelling away from where you live, and what you do around that. And I think that's the area. I mean you know that will take a lot of time.

Mike: [00:10:15] Does that also include what you do when you are at that destination?

Gareth: [00:10:19] To an extent absolutely: where you're going to stay, what are the restaurants that suit you near the hotel that you're staying in? I should be able to say into my phone: "two days in the Barcelona office next week". Everything else should be proposed to me by an agent I trust, and I can adjust it if this week I don't want to travel on a Sunday. But everything authentically mobile means no thousand-result search results. It means it's doing it entirely in my best interest. 

Mike: [00:10:58] And it has a sort of, I suppose you know I could throw around words like artificial intelligence as well? 

Gareth: [00:11:05] Yes, clearly, although as you're indicating, simply asserting those two words is easier said than getting useful results out of. But actually doing and various forms of machine learning and artificial code.

Mike: [00:11:24] Your numbers are really amazing: $158 million in revenue, 44 per cent surging revenues in 2015. How many staffers do you have now?

Gareth: [00:11:41] 850.

Mike: [00:11:46] How do you build a big machine? To some extent there's still Kayak out there, you've still got the Expedias and the Travagos. Different business models obviously. Who is the big behemoth? Is it Google Travel? Google Hotel Finder? Do you feel that they're going to start breathing down your neck at some point?

Gareth: [00:12:13] I think the greatest existential challenge comes from the verticals, the people who own either the software platform or the hardware that essentially want to own your attention for the greatest part of the day. And their choices over which verticals to balustrade their horizontal offering is the greatest threat. I think there's two things in very top level terms we can do.

Gareth: [00:12:45] One is we can make sure that we are after travelers. Our second priority is delivering value to real world businesses that fly planes, keep us safe, make hotel beds. The horizontals tend to be great profit extraction engines of the real world, and that can therefore tie us to the industry. 

Mike: [00:13:18] So you're going in to bat for the travel industry, while Google isn't?

 Gareth: [00:13:29] Correct. Yeah and I think the way we express it internally is traveler first, end supplier second, us third. Not us nowhere, but us third. And the other thing I think that will come up ever more in time is integrity around how you treat personal data. And so we're making sure that, as we get into a more authenticated or logged in personalized world, we're very purposeful about what we will and won't do or even will allow our software to do when it comes to personal data. I don't think that's an advantage for us right now, but I think it will be in the future.

Mike: [00:14:18] In the future will we have Amber Rudd talking about end-to-end encryption on Skyscanner?

Gareth: [00:14:25] I hope so.

Mike: [00:14:41] You're technically owned now by a Chinese company. What's the issue? What do you find interesting about China and how do they do things there?

Gareth: [00:14:53] I think it's been tempting in the past to view China as a unique exception to the trend of history, and particularly to the trend of technology and consumption of the Internet. Really that's just something I don't believe. I think the Chinese consumer is right now using software patterns and those apps are manifesting in QR codes on restaurant tables and all sorts of different ways. They're doing things today that we will use natively in five years time. And I would encourage everyone here, if you're choosing a summer holiday, to go to Hainan and South China and do some observing yourself. Irrespective of what that means for the future, you can see the future. Who is it that said that the future is already here, it's just unevenly distributed?

Mike: [00:16:04] William Gibsonm, apparently.

Gareth: [00:16:06] So we always assume that it's in San Francisco where that future is already here. And in terms of the best software development practices, I would tend to agree. In terms of how people are using software, I don't agree at all.

Mike: [00:16:23] That far ahead do you think?

Gareth: [00:16:25] Yes. 

Mike: [00:16:28] So WhatsApp is still playing catch-up?

Gareth: [00:16:32] Yeah in a huge way.

Mike: [00:16:35] Well, [00:16:37] with WeChat [0.2] you can order taxis, book restaurants, order food, split payments. It's Venmo, Uber and WhatsApp all in one application.

Gareth: [00:16:50] Yeah, you know any large company never seems to willingly restrict itself so it's, you know... 

Mike: [00:16:58] Do you think that's partly down to culture in the sense that, things develop that way partly because of Chinese culture, or do you think that Western audiences would like an app that did all of that?

Gareth: [00:17:12] That's the direction things are going in. You're already seeing, albeit split in sometimes in two groups of that, but you're seeing a reduction in the number of companies that you're using. And when you start bringing voice and augmented reality into things you see a convergence of use cases. 

Mike: [00:17:41] Do you think that we're moving towards more of a bipolar world between China and the US? How is that going to affect technology, do you think?

Gareth: [00:17:49] So I think the just huge really critical problem is one per cent of Chinese people can speak English and way less of the Western or rest of the world can speak Chinese. So there's just a giant moat of lack of knowledge-sharing. Not only in that way, but that means that if you can understand what's going on in both cities, Silicon Valley and on the east coast of China, as a startup you've got a head start. And there are ways to do it. There are books written about Alibaba for instance. You know. I learned things from Alibaba and I learned things from Amazon, and for different reasons. And it's out there. Sometimes it has to be interpreted — you know, someone's writing a summary in English. But I would advocate travelling there. And trying to understand trends that are happening there.

Mike: [00:18:59] You've talked about "where is the European Google," but in a way it sounds to me like you want to become the European Google would you agree?

Gareth: [00:19:09] Well, I think we have an opportunity to have 100 times greater impact than we do today. I don't know where that takes us. It just comes back to the journey it's no different than if you've got your first paying customer and saying: "Well suppose we had 10 customers, what would we do then? Wouldn't that be good?" And we're in the same situation. There are some downsides but there are definitely some upsides from when we had one customer as well.

Mike: [00:19:52] I'm interested in your view of the political environment, or at least the industrial implications of the political environment, with Brexit. How is that going to affect you? Is it going to infect your company? Is it going to be harder to attract talent?

Gareth: [00:20:11] It is already harder to attract talent and unfortunately. And yes that is a shame, but it's a reality of the situation. We're fortunate to have offices in mainland Europe. But when we were very small people used to say "what if Google do this?" and I'd say you can't do anything about Google, death and taxes. And it's a bit like that. I personally can't do anything about Brexit, Google, death and taxes. So I'd rather sort of get on with it and leave it to the eloquent or not so eloquent speakers on debating the topic. I care about engaging in the things I can affect.

Mike: [00:21:19] We were chatting earlier and you said to me that you think tech is the new Wall Street. What do you mean by that? 

Gareth: [00:21:38] I think there's a problem. I remember having a cartoon on my wall in London after university, and it was of a geeky guy talking to someone at a party and said "I'm an accountant but it's probably not as interesting as you think". And I'd crossed off accountant and put coder and put it up on a flat. And I think you know, things started that way and there was this sense of community from tech. The sense that there's something important here that the rest of society doesn't fully understand, and if you look back at the history of modern Wall Street it was the same.

Gareth: [00:22:22] If you've seen the film The Big Short, it started off with back room people doing this weird financial instrument thing and then it became a thing where loads of money gets made, loads of power accrues, and then all of a sudden you roll forward 20 years and somehow the largest Internet companies — and we're at risk of appearing the same — start to look or be perceived by the general population just in smallest tints of the way that investment banks are seen around the world. And I think that's a real risk and will lead to a backlash.

Gareth: [00:23:10] As I said earlier people don't care about data privacy that much as on average and as a rule. But I think that's going to change at some point and I'd rather be ahead of that by us doing the right thing in advance.

Mike: [00:23:29] Do you think that what you're implying is that it's beholden on big tech companies to have some duty of care?

Gareth: [00:23:49] Yes, and it's something 10 years ago I didn't really think about much at all. But I think we do. There's a blogger called Ben Thompson who writes a blog called Stratechery. He wrote the day after the Trump election something along similar lines, which is th at tese mass Trump voters are looking with a steamy eye at Silicon Valley and elsewhere. And there's something in there that I haven't fully developed but I'm kind of paying attention to.

Mike: [00:24:27] Yeah. I mean we could talk about that for for ages. You talked about technology as a community. Obviously there's a great technology community here in Edinburgh and in Scotland, and you've been a fierce advocate of keeping Skyscanner here even though I'm sure there were siren voices saying "well why don't you move the company and yada yada somewhere else." What was it that was qualitatively different about having your company based here and run here?

Gareth: [00:25:01] I mean, nothing. So the motivation I think is in two directions. One is a contrarian nature I suppose. And therefore if you remember 30 years ago seeing some gilded 15-year-old in the dot-com sort of pomp and, you know, on the Sunday Times Magazine and it was like here's what you do, you move to Silicon Valley, do this, do that. And well I've got no idea how you can get a promise of $10 million dollars by squiggling on a napkin, and it just was so alien to me. So there's a contrarian sense of well, dammit, we're going to do it here anyway. 

Gareth: [00:25:49] But I think the other aspect is if we're only making significant business taxes in like 10 locations around the world, I mean, what kind of society is that going to produce? You know, if it's in a couple places in China, a couple of places in the States, then we're essentially going to be net consumers of tax revenues as a local society pretty much everywhere in the world. So there's an element where the sort of distribution of the production of the Internet economy, as opposed to consumption, seems quite relevant. But I think the other aspect is that it gave us time to learn what we were doing, as well. And I think we have a really strong culture and we have a long period of growth ahead of us. And I think it would have been more of a ship or bus roll of the dice if we'd been located in Silicon Valley, and probably with who we were as founders at that time it probably would have been bust. So I think we're in it for whatever reason, whatever faint failings initially it was better for us to develop organically. I suppose 'organic' would be the word.

Mike: [00:27:20] So being outside of where those hotspots are or at least have been, outsiders to the nuts, the craziness of, say, the Valley, gave you that opportunity to build your own culture?

Gareth: [00:27:38] Yeah, I mean, things are very different in Edinburgh now. The dot-com bust happened and sort of laid waste. I mean it decimated any Internet activity in Scotland at the time. So it was quite a lonely experience. And when Edinburgh Informatics started TechMeetup there that was sort of a small band of nutters sort of getting together as it were. Now I think the community, and the environment, and the group of people doing startups is fantastic, and if it was 10 times bigger there would be a certain loss of open engagement and helping of your neighbours. So that will no doubt come in time but I think it's to be treasured at the moment.

Mike: [00:28:37] You know you've been very successful. Do you get asked a lot for advice by founders? What sort of advice do you give them?

Gareth: [00:28:45] I have a single story; I'm not a multiple entrepreneur, so treat any advice with caution because I am well aware of the huge amounts of happenstance and luck involved both in the successes and the failures. But overall I would say my top one is: read incessantly from the source, and the source can be found in many places. Trends take 15 years to spread. I can use couple of examples like sagging, when jeans were down, that took 15 years to spread worldwide from the very first group that started that trend, and the same for Californian English. If you think of Frank Zappa's song, Valley Girl, if any of you are old enough to remember that, that form of speaking was 15 years ago and then I started interviewing graduates and they were speaking with the same accent. And 15 years to adopt continuous deployment is just... you're dead, or go to a sector that doesn't require high product skills. So the beauty of the Internet is it is there. For you to find. You just have to know that what you're being told personally isn't necessarily the source and you have to go find it.

Mike: [00:30:24] You don't think trends and cycles are speeding up because of the pace of technology adoption?

Gareth: [00:30:29] Yeah undoubtedly. But as long as you're not at the leading edge you will be squeezed out of the most interesting areas to participate in. 

Mike: [00:30:43] You're a keen skier apparently? But you also like playing chess and you love drawing? Apparently you're a bit of an artist?

Gareth: [00:30:55] I can sell you a small piece for £50. When I started in meetings my goal was for strangers to buy something for however much. And I've been working on developing a style that someone would choose to own which is still a work in progress.

Mike: [00:31:20] What do you sculpt? 

Gareth: [00:31:31] Sculpting-wise, I've done an apple core, and a head, and the usual things when you're learning and doing courses. But yes, mainly drawing and painting. I'm developing a new mood art movement called highlighterist.

Mike: [00:31:59] Are you excited? Are you passionate? Are you still hungry? Or is that very cliched thing to ask?

Gareth: [00:32:09] Ah you're talking about emotions.

Mike: [00:32:14] Are you not a very emotional person?

Gareth: [00:32:18] It's that classic British thing, I think, boiling away under a mask. But I am because it's fun. You know thing I assert in the company is that understanding unstructured input around travel plans and everything around travel is an eminently solvable problem. We're working on solving it at the moment and that's fun, and it relates to interests I had at the beginning of Skyscanner. We didn't have to do it, but I remember taking the HTTP referrers string, the thing that comes from a referrer and examining if there was a search term in it, and then setting the select boxes so that the user didn't have to do that themselves. That was the same interest then around unstructured input. Just now I get to do it as the pointy-haired boss rather than coding it myself.

Mike: [00:33:21] Do you like being the pointy-haired boss?

Gareth: [00:33:23] No, well I'm ambivalent. The way I ended up being it was that none of the three founders wanted to be the CEO, which I think is a reasonably healthy state of affairs. And in the end I said, "Well look, guys, I don't want to be CEO but I don't want some idiot telling me what to do, so I'll be the idiot."

Mike: [00:33:53] Well, Gareth it has been great talking to you. Thanks very much for coming.

Gareth: [00:33:56] Thank you, Mike.

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