He jumps to answer the customer service line because he wants to know what’s on people’s minds. Paul English, the co founder of the popular travel website Kayak.com, admits to being a customer service fanatic who sits with his employees in an office-less office, and believes the company’s nontraditional philosophy accounts for much of its success.
The savvy traveler begins a trip searching for deals on the web. But with so many travel websites offering so many deals, how do you know which one offers the best bang for your buck? Enter Kayak.com. The company, founded in 2004 by Paul English and Steve Hafner, combined 100’s of travel sites into one. The idea started when Hafner, who helped found travel website Orbitz.com, noticed a pattern among travelers looking for deals. “He found that most of the people would search an online travel agency like Orbitz and find the results they wanted." says Paul English. “They would then open a second window and go directly to the hotel and airline. Many times they’d find a better deal. Steve said to me, why don’t we have a site that searches all the sites in one page, that way you don’t have to go to 5 or 10 or more sites.”
Starting with an Idea
It was a big idea from a small company that employs about 100 people between its Concord MA, Norwalk CT and Zurich, Switzerland offices. Compare that to 9000 employees at rival Expedia.com. In the first 10 months of 2012, Kayak.com rack up one billion search queries, forcing competitors to sit up and take note.
But for English, the culture he cultivates is a big ingredient in their success. “To me, the difference I see at Kayak is that we really are about team first. And we really want to make sure it will be a fun place to work." says English, "I work quite hard as a recruiter to try to find the right people to bring into the team. It’s hard to get a job at Kayak, but when we find the right people and bring them on board, I have this commitment to make sure I can get them more productive than they’ve ever been, and also have more fun working. And I really believe that by having that, you end up building the best products."
English often looks to cull talent from outside the travel industry. "I actually prefer to find engineers who have never worked in travel before." He says, "I think creative people are at their peak when they see a problem for the first time. And if they’ve been successful in another venture, they’ve designed another product – for an iphone, for the web, whatever, I believe I can take that success, put them on the right team, and help them make a successful product in travel."
Throwing out Hierarchy
That process doesn’t just stop with the team. English sits in the middle of an open office, and will often answer customer calls. "It’s funny, sometimes at the end of the call I’ll say I’m one of the founders of Kayak. And I’ll give them my personal email address. I really, really want to make them happy." he explains, "So if someone had an experience on Kayak, or even with one of the partners that they found through Kayak, and something was confusing, we work really hard to try to figure out not only how to solve their problem, but also how to make sure no other customer has that problem going forward."
The attention to detail and success has not gone unnoticed. Last month travel giant Priceline.com acquired Kayak for a staggering $1.8 billion, proving there’s money to be made in a good deal. English plans to stay on and promote the Kayak brand. "I know that every time I demo Kayak to a friend, or I meet someone at an airport and I ask them how they booked their flight, and I demo it, I see things about the mobile web product that I don’t like. And I just think there’s a lot of opportunity for making it simpler. So we’re pretty committed as a team to keep pushing the brand ahead. Just trying to keep it a fun place."
This is Priceline's biggest acquisition to date. English and the rest of his Kayak team have been assured they will operate as an independent subsidiary. And though travel websites may not satisfy complex travel needs, they have revolutionized the way plane and hotel tickets are bought.