Skyscanner: Bonamy Grimes, Barry Smith and Gareth Williams

Barry Smith on how his business is revolutionising the way we search for flights online


Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin famously started their multi-billion dollar search engine without a clue how, or even if, it would make any money. Their mission was to make the burgeoning world wide web accessible to all.

Bonamy Grimes, Barry Smith and Gareth Williams started flight search engine Skyscanner similarly oblivious to its money-making potential after noticing there was no user-friendly way of finding flight prices online.

All three were IT contractors, and Williams, who would work two weeks on, then two weeks off, was taking fortnightly trips to his ski instructor brother in Val d’Isere. “Being a geek, he wrote some code which downloaded three low-cost airlines’ flights into a spreadsheet,” explains Smith. “That was kind of version one of the site.”

These days, its proprietary technology offers users a great deal of flexibility in the way they can search for flights online, in recognition of the fact that 25% of its visitors are browsers who don’t have fixed parameters.

Crucially, Skyscanner doesn’t require users to supply specific airports and dates to return a flight price. Unlike travel price comparison sites, which acquire data from multiple sources, Skyscanner stores information on its own database. Speed is of the essence for increasingly impatient web users, and by indexing and caching data in the same way as Google, its results are displayed instantly.

“We’re a technology company that happens to be in travel, rather than a travel company,” says Smith. “We now work with some of the biggest airlines in the world to help them develop their xml APIs.”

For those not fluent in geek-speak, Smith explains that this means Skyscanner is helping carriers develop feeds to distribute their prices.

With 47 staff at its Edinburgh base, Skyscanner has come a long way from the days of the company’s founders working in bedrooms with servers in their lofts. The site, while free for users, has just achieved a record £1.25m quarter through a number of revenue models.

“We earn our wage in the same way that Google and Yahoo do,” says Smith. “We provide the search technology and refer users on to the suppliers of travel products. We don’t get involved in the transaction in any way.”

The business has set its sights literally sky high, with a mission to index every commercial flight in the world. “Even after eight years, no one is doing it right -there’s no single site you can go to,” says Smith. But acquiring the disparate price data is no mean feat – some of the older carriers in Asia and South America still post their flight timetables on paper.

That said, after two rounds of venture capital investment (starting with £2.5m from Scottish Equity Partners in 2007), Smith believes his company has the focus and scalability to achieve this. Even before the funding, Skyscanner was recording organic growth of 100% a year, and it’s now the biggest flight search engine in Europe. The site’s availability in 20 languages brings 65% of users from outside the UK, and it has broken its own traffic record each month this year, with more than six million visitors in May and over 50 million flight searches.

A recent move into car rentals, with hotels and package holidays in the pipeline, should see this continue. By working with third parties, it can offer users this added functionality, while continuing to invest all its resources into perfecting flight search. A grant of just under £600,000 from the Scottish government will help this cause, funding work on a ‘free text’ project, which Smith promises will recast the way flights can be searched for once again.

Just like Google, Skyscanner is committed to becoming the fastest and most comprehensive search engine possible. “If we can aspire to a tenth of what Google has achieved, I’ll be happy,” says Smith.

 

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