In this fascinating interview, I speak with Rachel Evatt, product director of Skyscanner as she talks me through her entrepreneurial journey, about the struggles of starting a business, getting traction, raising money and selling it. She also touches on her role at Skyscanner and the transition from Zoombu.
So how did it all begin, what were you earliest moments of being entrepreneurial?
Being entrepreneurial is really an approach to solving problems, a desire to want to change something, to make something better and the appetite and will to jump in and have a go in the face of many unknowns. I’ve always had a certain amount of that approach within me. Looking right back, at age 10 I ran an ultra small-scale craft business selling things that I and others made, so you could say that was one of the earliest moments, but I’ve always enjoyed getting stuck into hard problems whether it be through a role in a bigger company or doing my own thing.
Tell us a bit about the early days of Zoombu? What was the hardest part of setting it all up?
Zoombu was about getting stuck into solving a hard problem through a common sense approach. Prior to setting up the company I was a Management Consultant, working long hours for various clients in far flung places and I did loads of travel for fun and for work. I was constantly pained by the effort involved to plan this travel. When Alistair Hann, a friend from University, got talking to me about his idea to make part of this process better, with a tool to help find the best (cheapest, fastest) way to get from A to B, I was immediately involved and wanted to get stuck in. With the idea and a little belief we were selected to take part in Seedcamp and from that point we decided the only way to give it a go was to do just that. So within a week of finishing Seedcamp I’d handed in my notice and we were going it alone, forfeiting a decent salary to do this. Once we’d made the decision it was surprisingly easy to start.
Zoombu was a real journey and we had many ups and downs along the way. We created a great product, in a tough industry where data is extremely fragmented and revenue margins are slim. We knew barely anything about that industry when we first started and we had no choice but to figure it out and keep iterating.
Can you remember thinking of the company name, opening the company’s bank account to the first six months or so of running the business, how excited were you?
I attribute the name to Co-founder Alistair, since he came up with that a few weeks before talking to me about the idea! He needed something quick and used a names generator to do that. Naming a company is a bit like naming a child, once you’ve done it, it’s very hard to go back! But was memorable and we stuck with it.
Starting the company for real is very liberating. I remember clearly the first day of doing it full time, when ‘the office’ was my flat in London. We got a lot done in a short period of time without the complications that come with larger organisations.
How were you able to fund it?
We did a lot of boot-strapping, using some investment from friends and family to get us through the first few months. After that we obtained start-up investment through a fund run by the Said Business School of Oxford University, which allowed us to grow the team by employing others. Part of obtaining that investment involved pitching live on stage in front of 400 people to Sir Philip Green (of TopShop fame) and David Bonderman (founder of Texas Pacific), which was seriously tough!
You built and sold the company, when/how do you know it’s the right time to sell a company and I ask this because of the countless number of companies that get acquisition offers?
Every company’s journey is different and in our case, it was the right time to join Skyscanner when we did. We had taken the Zoombu product a long way but were still far from profitability and raising the funding we needed to get there was not straightforward. When we met Gareth Williams, one of Skyscanner’s founders, we immediately knew we shared a vision for making travel planning better and we were inspired by what he and his team had achieved. When you are acquired you are getting into a long term relationship with a new company and that fit has to be right.
They are so many challenges that entrepreneurs go through trying to build a company or making it successful, can you share a challenge you faced and how you overcame it?
Building a team is one of the toughest things for a start-up, because you have to sufficiently inspire others in your vision to get them to give you something precious, their time and energy. Finding our first full time team member was one of the hardest milestones to cross. We were looking for somebody with the right attitude, somebody who executes, and somebody who didn’t mind taking a chance on an idea and an early proof of concept. We did a lot of networking and spread the world about what we were building, and ultimately we got lucky. It didn’t work out with every team member, and letting one person go was my least favourite part of managing a team, but essential where the fit wasn’t right and resources were highly constrained.
What are some of the most important lessons that you’ve learnt on your entrepreneurial journey?
I’ve learned to make decisions in the face of partial information. Action is often more important than deliberation and analysis. Whilst it’s important to fully consider options available to you and think through the consequences, you have to act fast, because time is never on your side in a start-up. Being in a position where ‘the buck stops’ with you is the best way to learn that lesson, and I continue to apply a certain start-up mentality to making decisions now.
Tell me about Skyscanner?
Skyscanner is now one of the most used travel websites in the world and yet in many ways we still think of ourselves as a start-up. We value entrepreneurial qualities such as getting stuck into solving hard problems, not being put off by obvious hurdles, and looking for different ways to get something done. It’s a very flat organisation and people have the freedom to make a difference regardless of exactly where in the company they are placed. These qualities have always been inherent to Skyscanner, which is what drew me and Alistair to joining the company through acquisition.
How has the transition been, working in another company from being your own boss?
I worked in several companies before starting out Zoombu, so working in a larger team and organisation wasn’t unfamiliar to me. Having been my own boss, I am even more discerning about who I’d work for and wouldn’t do anything I didn’t enjoy. I love working at Skyscanner because I’m surrounded by smart, ambitious people who want to get stuff done, and the company is growing at an incredible pace. Whilst it’s the same place I joined three years ago, we are now an order of magnitude bigger and the challenges are different, so I’m still learning.
What does your role that include at Skyscanner?
As Product Director I am responsible for calling out the ways in which the product should develop, making choices about what we can spend our valuable engineering resource on, and working closely with Engineering to make the product increasingly better. I manage a team of 25 people made up of Product Managers, User Experience Designers and User Satisfaction agents who are in constant touch with our users.
What would you say has been your most memorable moment so far?
The day we first walked into the Skyscanner office in Edinburgh and met the team there, having agreed in principle to explore an acquisition. Both Alistair and I almost immediately knew it was a place we’d fit in, and we were excited to continue the Zoombu journey in this capacity. Since then there have been a whole host of milestones along the way, but the most memorable moments are the small ones, like working through an idea with a couple of technical people and getting it to the point where we can see a route through – that’s what I love.
What do you do outside work to unwind?
I love sport, in particular cycling, and was racing competitively for a women’s cycling team until recently. I run, hike, and generally do a whole host of things that involve getting fresh air when I’m not at work!
What should we be expecting from yourself and the Skyscanner team in the coming months?
We have all kinds of exciting developments planned for the Skyscanner product as we move further into holistic travel planning and diversify from our routes in flight search. You can expect us to have even more presence on mobile devices and to be with you throughout your trip planning. We’ll also be doing more for our users in specific markets as we strengthen our presence in Asia Pacific and the Americas.
Before I leave you today Rachel, what tips can you give to founders that get acquisition offers?
Think carefully about what’s important to you and for your business and recognise that successful acquisitions are the start of a whole new relationship. Choose your acquisition partner carefully and pay close attention to the culture, growth plans and the specific plans for how your team and product will be integrated into the wider business. The right route is different for every founder and start-up team, so whilst it can be interesting to compare your situation to others, it’s a very unique decision you’ll be making and has to be right for you. For us it was absolutely the right time to join Skyscanner and we haven’t looked back.