Known in company for his penchant for tank tops, Shane Corstorphine joined Skyscanner in April 2012 and in less than two years has helped the company multiply its value. He’s overseen new share schemes, share buybacks, the structuring of acquisitions and in October 2013 oversaw Skyscanner’s most high profile investment which came from Silicon Valley venture capitalists: Sequoia Capital.
Your first business was a website for male grooming products called Metrosexual.co.uk; what made you decide to start your own company?
I was qualifying as an accountant and I’d learnt all this great stuff but I wasn’t getting to apply much of what I had been taught. Accountancy firms tend to be very rigid, all fixed procedure and protocol, with little room for trying new things. I really wanted to move to the other end of the spectrum where I got to apply the things I’d learned. So I looked at all sorts of ideas for setting up a business: arbitrage, buying and selling porsches, and various other possibilities.
It wasn’t because I was particularly metrosexual, but the male grooming sector was growing at 19% a year, and online business was growing at 40% a year and on top of that, the capital required for set up was small, so it was a viable business for me to start at the time.
What did starting your own business teach you?
It’s pretty high stress, but it really teaches you to multitask. You’re head of sales, head of finance, head of recruitment. If your computer breaks down, you have to fix it. You’re head of everything. You don’t get any sales until you pick up the phone and start making cold calls. It’s a brilliant experience, and depending on the business, starting your own company is cheaper than an MBA, and in my opinion, more worthwhile.
Why are there so few big tech companies coming out of the UK compared to the US? Can the UK become a tech-company hot spot?
I think the shift will come. In the UK, start-ups tend to be funded by business angels, rather than institutions as in the US. There are very few high-risk institutions here. We also have an equity gap between business angels and venture capitalists like SEP. That needs to be addressed.
The result is that angels tend to stick to what they know, and because online tech is a relatively new space, there are, or at least were, very few who understood it enough to take the risk of investing their personal cash. In the US, there are far more angels who are more comfortable with that risk and are willing to move into areas they don’t necessarily understand. There is also more of an investment structure that supports start-ups better.
Also, in the UK, investors are less comfortable with investing in companies that may have no direct revenue-generating options to start with, whereas in the US, they are more comfortable with funding businesses that acquire large numbers of users but not necessarily revenue, at least to begin with. Twitter is a prime example – it’s got 230 million users, has been valued at $18bn (£11bn) yet has never made a profit. The US is just further ahead in the tech lifecycle – so you’ve got business angels who made their millions in tech who are now funding new tech start-ups. In the UK, we’re in a slightly earlier phase of that cycle.
What are the big challenges for Skyscanner in the next five years?
Being able to rapidly localise and test at scale. We’re in 40 markets and need to be in even more. Being able to do that without having to throw more and more bodies at it involves really clever thinking and tools.
There are also other challenges unique to each market. For example only 12% of Brazilians have credit cards, so how does an industry dependent on card transactions work over there? We need to know and adapt to each country’s quirks to be successful.
You previously worked at a large international bank. What are the pros and cons of that compared to a more nimble, start-up style environment like Skyscanner?
One of the pros of the start-up is the acceptance of new things, the willingness to change, and a collaborative approach to that. Things in the tech-industry, and Skyscanner, change very quickly so everybody needs to be comfortable with the pace and rapid changes required to reach a goal. In large corporations, people don’t always see the bigger picture, and don’t really care. You come in, do your nine to five and go home. But in start-ups, there tends to be a more collaborative approach because everyone can see the goal. I honestly can’t think of any cons.
What are your favourite travel apps?
I love the BA app, national rail app and trover, a travel photographer app.
Is there one place in the world you’ve fallen in love with?
Yes – Crete. I worked out there as a student running a kids’ club during the summer. I fell in love with the people, the food and the climate. I went back every year for ten years until I could find a plot of land – and I eventually built two houses there. I go back every summer with my family.
You’re the CFO but it’s not all about the bling is it?
No. I like to get involved in other projects around the business. I’m currently mentoring a project to do with images, and how we can use images to help and inspire our users better. I’ve been blown away by the number of people from all areas across the business who wanted to get involved. These are guys who are still doing their day jobs, but are putting in extra time to do something new and be part of an interesting project.
Favourite travel gadget?
Travel and tech go hand in hand and I love my noise cancelling headphones. I’ve got a pair which are in-ear ones rather than the massive coconut-shell DJ ones. They’re great as you can sleep with them in. I also love ipods, ipads and portable DVD players.
You’re a big fan of scuba diving – what’s your favourite dive location and do you have any interesting dive stories?
I have dived off Australia, Egypt and the Gili Isles (just off Lombok in Indonesia). Egypt was epic – it was in the early days before tourism there was really booming – and it was just really amazing, but one of our dives there didn’t quite go as planned. We had all been really hoping to see a giant manta ray all week and whilst cruising around in the boat, we suddenly spotted one on the surface of the water, so we raced to get our gear on and get in the water.
All week, my cousins and brother had been talking about this algae that stings you if it gets in your face. I hadn’t experienced it so thought I was immune. So we were all in the water about nine metres down, following the mantra ray, when suddenly I hit this algae stuff and got stung in the face. I got a fright and lifted my hand up to wipe my face but accidentally hit the quick release on my weight belt which dropped into the abyss below, so I started rising to the surface like a rocket.
I tried to grab my brother’s fins to stop myself but I couldn’t – and because of me, the whole group had to surface to check I didn’t have the bends. We then lost the mantra ray, so I ruined it for the whole group – after only five minutes into the dive!
I wasn’t a very popular man that day...