An interview with Skyscanner's CEO: Gareth Williams
Skyscanner CEO, Gareth Williams speaks about pirates, growing pains and being a successful web company, born in Edinburgh
Gareth arrives clutching a set of coloured pens and a paper pad. At Skyscanner he is well known for doodling during meetings, and by the time our interview is over, the left-hander has produced a Picasso-like cubist sketch, which I ask him to sign. Gareth has said that one of his life goals is to sell a piece of art he has created. If I'm lucky, maybe one day the artwork of Skyscanner’s CEO will be worth as much as the company he co-founded…
In 2001, along with your co-founders, Bon Grimes and Barry Smith, Skyscanner started with one Excel spread sheet, and one idea: create a site that compares flight prices for every single commercial airline in the world. Did you ever think that what began on a laptop in a bedroom would become a multi-million pound company employing over 250 people, with offices in Scotland, Singapore, Beijing and Miami.
I always wanted to start my own business, and I knew there was a large market for a product like Skyscanner. But I thought it could be run entirely from one place. I imagined we could build and run a site with a team of about 15 developers! We currently have over 100 and we’re still hiring…
What mistakes have you made along the way and what would you change if you could go back?
I didn’t recognise the importance of management and leadership sufficiently. I underestimated the difficulties of getting a team of people all working in the same direction. I also underestimated the amount of communication required to create a shared vision.
Time can barely be wasted in the communication of vision and strategy. Instead of leading by demonstration, I could have done more to lead by inspiration and provided an environment that encouraged management and leadership. I've learnt a huge amount from our COO, Mark Logan in that regard.
It’s very common in early stage start-ups; you’re almost entirely focused on execution. The danger is you get to a certain size, and not everybody understands what you’re trying to achieve. Recognising that point earlier rather than later would have been really helpful for Skyscanner.
Although Skyscanner is no longer a ‘start-up’ in the true sense, it has retained the work culture of one. Was that always a big part of the company you wanted to create?
Yes. I worked in a lot of large companies in my twenties as a contractor and I was very aware of their dysfunctional nature. I didn’t want to replicate those conditions. So I was keen to set in place certain things that would ensure we didn’t become a workplace that no one liked. I think it’s a big part of how we determine what sort of company we are now.
How can companies maintain the ‘start-up’ feel as they grow?
I think all start-ups have in common the desire to grow very quickly, and with that comes a nimble, exciting work environment. As companies grow, they can also bloat, become inward facing, political and static. But they don’t have to. With the right policies and the right people, you can maintain a rewarding, fun and positive workplace.
What are the disadvantages for a web-tech company being based outside Silicon Valley?
Primarily that Silicon Valley has a huge amount of people who are experienced at working for, or with web-economy businesses. Such people understand how web-businesses differ to other sorts of companies. The number of people elsewhere with the same experience is far fewer, and much harder to access. I think it’s a problem for all web-economy businesses outside Silicon Valley.
What are the advantages of being head-quartered in Edinburgh?
We have a world-class informatics computer science department on our doorstep. There are around eight high quality universities that excel in computing and the digital sector, in the central belt of Scotland. That provides a rich source of people who have the right skills for a web company like Skyscanner.
There’s also quite a strong start-up community in Edinburgh; because it’s not Silicon Valley, or London or Berlin, the community here is more supportive of each other. There are several successful companies to have emerged from that community: FanDuel, FreeAgent, Craneware, Avaloq, Aridiha, Blipfoto, Techcube and Cloudsoft being a few examples.
In order for Scotland to achieve performance and solidity in the tech arena, it needs a number of outright winners; hopefully Skyscanner and others will be successful enough to provide the training, skillset and attitude required to maintain and grow Scotland’s reputation for breeding world-class web companies.
Would Skyscanner be more or less successful had it been founded in Silicon Valley?
One of the mantras of Silicon Valley is ‘fail fast’. If Skyscanner had been founded there, I’m not sure if we would have been successful. I didn’t have the connections, and I wouldn’t have had the experience to stand up to investors. Through the difficult times we may have made rash decisions.
You’re a very approachable CEO. For example, you invite a different set of staff from all areas of the business to talk openly and informally over lunch, once a month. How important is it that your staff feels they can come over to your desk and talk to you?
In my own opinion, I’m not much different to the person I was a few years ago; sitting in a t-shirt and shorts, coding, with a can of coke. Really, it’s a case of whether other people perceive me differently. I try to put people at ease and encourage them to view me as approachable. I have no interest in leveraging that perceived status of CEO. My view of a running a successful company does not include mahogany-panelled boardrooms, any notion of golf playing, or remote delegation.
What has been the low point of your Skyscanner career?
Having to make seven redundancies, back in 2009. It’s an awful thing to have to do.
Biggest challenges in next three years?
Making the transition to an environment where responsibility is fully devolved. A start-up is very much driven from a founding vision; people who share that vision – or want a job – join in, and execute that vision. The size we are at now requires us to use a much wider input of vision, at every level of the business. It cannot be a ‘command and control’ structure. I think we’ve gone a long way in our development to ensure that doesn’t happen, but we’ve got to be careful that things don’t ossify into that situation.
We’ve also got to transform from being a reliable website into being a rock solid, personal, cloud-based service, with the relative speed and performance of an operating system.
When it comes to your own travels, is there anywhere you keep going back to?
No. I like going to new places and tend to try somewhere different every trip.
You were once attacked by pirates but were saved by your own messiness. What happened?
Several years ago, my wife and I were on a diving holiday off the coast of Zanzibar when our boat was attacked and boarded by pirates with grenades and machetes. Our captain and crew did their best to fend them off but the pirates injured several of them quite badly. Everyone had all their valuables stolen, except me, because I’d left all my belongings strewn all over my cabin floor so they didn’t spot my wallet, money or passport in amongst the mess! It was a really frightening experience and certainly the closest I’ve come to ‘Holiday Hell’.
Listen to the full story on the Skyscanner travel podcast:
Where in the world would you live if not Edinburgh?
In Skyscanner’s early days, the Scottish media were surprisingly unsupportive of Skyscanner, often featuring our US competitors but ignoring the homegrown talent on their doorstep. Why do you think that was?
There is an element where we’ve always been underestimated. Kevin May of Tnooz once, quite accurately, referred to us as ‘the understated Skyscanner’. Any large-scale success outside of the US has typically come from London or Berlin so people don’t look to Scotland for world-class websites. It’s taken a while for people to see that Skyscanner could become one of those European success stories, and it all started in Leith, Edinburgh. I think other successful web businesses coming out of Scotland will get more support from the local media now. Equally it's the job of the media to 'report' rather than 'support'; I think their reporting was focussed on other areas.
What’s the best thing about running your own company?
Having a deep passion for your work. I hate the thought of working somewhere and not caring. I once did a lab job during one of the best summers on record. I spent every day in a darkened laboratory, looking outside at the sun, feeling my life was slowly seeping away. Beyond paying the bills and making ends meet, we all seek some meaning from our work. Starting your own business allows you to set the terms for that meaning, to some extent.
And the worst?
It takes over your life. I have had to shed certain interests that were valuable to me. I don’t paint or sculpt as much as I’d like to. I don’t play squash and tennis as much as I’d like to. And I don’t keep up with some friendships as much as I should. There is a compromise involved.
Are you proud of creating a place where people genuinely enjoy coming to work?
I am proud, but I don’t often think about it. I think our office expresses the physical aspects of what we want our company to feel like. It can always be improved, but there is no grey carpet, and no stultifying air of gloom here. When people visit from other more traditional companies, they often comment on the good atmosphere in the office.
You were once a competitive slalom skier. Is the will to win a vital part of creating a successful business?
I don’t think any sporting talent is necessary, but I do think a desire to persist and to win is absolutely essential, because 99% of your day is testing your persistence, not your quality of thinking.
And finally, what do you never travel without?
I never travel without a book. Generally a paperback although the amount of books I’m taking on my summer holidays is getting ridiculous; half my luggage is books. Next time I’ll be taking the Kindle. Although I’m a tech geek, I’m also a book geek – they conflict slightly!