Scotland’s Tech Startups: The Story of Edinburgh based Skyscanner

We put a number of questions to Williams - who is CEO of a site which provides flight searches in more than 27 different languages including Thai, Japanese and Russian, and which is now the travel site of choice for independent travellers all over the world.

SAS Airlines

Skyscanner came about 10 years ago, and was founded by Gareth Williams. As described on the full story section on their website, Williams had a vision for a single website that could collect, collate and compare prices for every commercial flight in the world. At a pub brainstorming session of IT contractors, Gareth and Bonamy met physics graduate Barry Smith (who went on to become the third co-founder) who liked the idea. From a simple excel spreadsheet, Skyscanner was born.

What advice would you give to a bootstrapping startup?

  • Be prepared to work at things for a long time (eg 5 years) to achieve your measure of success.  It will probably take longer than
  • Try to choose a web business where people who like your site have a reason to use it frequently.  Better word of mouth characteristics.
  • Don’t see funding or not being funded as a sign of business success.  The underlying business is what matters.
  • Some of the best business’ are bootstrapped.
  • Don’t be ashamed if it doesn’t work – you have achieved 100x more than people in the pub saying about the lastest web success: “I had that ideas 5 years ago”
  • Join the local networks for web and tech startups.  Try to give assistance to other people in your position – some day you will get your return reward.
  • Try to be a techie or have a CTO as part of the co-ofunding team
  • Read the great blogs (eg AVC, Jason Calcanis, Both Sides of the Table, etc)

How did you make the jump from a bootstrapping startup, to one that was funded?

It was a hard decision.  We went into business together to have control over our lives and be master of our own destinies.  Taking funding means having other stake holders.  However, we new what we wanted to achieve and we saw funding as the only way to get there.  In order to do so, we had to do useful planning and take formal “job titles”.

What are the biggest challenges which you’ve had to overcome at Skyscanner?

Loyalty builds slower in online travel – people travel long distances infrequently, so its hard to be an overnight success.

We launched before Google had AdWords.  Lead generation and information services wasn’t clear in its value as a business to a lot of people.

  • Building relationships with airlines was a slow process.
  • We have had hard decisions to make along the way – the first person we let go was very hard for me.

How do you aim to become the number one in global travel search?

I think it will take several years.  We will continue to grow very fast in Asia, and will open offices in the Americas.

Right now 20mio people use our services each month.  I can see that growing eventually to 100m if we execute & innovate well.

In order to be number one, everything has to be great – the information on our website,  the way we present that information, our marketing plans and our commercial deals.  If one thing is off, then we wont get there.

Who are your main competitors?

Kayak and Google are our main competitors.  They are both great companies.  We have to just focus on what we do.

Is there a problem with two few startups thinking about the big ideas, and falling back on building products which piggyback on other services, like aggregators?

I do agree with that, especially in Europe.  My biggest failing and benefit is having a high bar as to what success means.

How will web startups be a ‘democratising influence’?

It has never been easier to fund a business that could be world class in a relatively short timescale (eg. see first chart). Lower startup costs means greater accessibility to people of wider backgrounds and geography.  There are still barriers around cultural norms, educational standards and venture friendliness, but $5k, a great idea, and lots of ambition can take a very wide range of people a long way now.  The same applies to socially orientated ventures.

Would you have been able to achieve what you have without your 14 years experience as a developer?

No.  I do believe that in a web business you need to have a founder, ideally, with a technical background.  However, I don’t see it as sufficient.  A lot of technical people don’t empathise with users or get the characteristics of being in business.

What would you say your biggest failure is?

My biggest failure is that I always underestimate how much work something is.  It takes longer, and that can be demoralising to yourself and the team.

What is the long-game vision for Skyscanner?

I would love for Skyscanner to be a service that covers transportation, full stop.  However, there are a lot of structural difficulties in flights that makes it a hard technical and commercial thing to do really well.  In fact we have a number of European high speed rail routes on our site and this will expand.

Why Scotland?

I moved to Scotland to marry someone.  Once we were based in Scotland, we started hiring here and we are proud to be a Scottish company.

What is it like starting up in Scotland?

After the dotcom bust around 2000, the startup scene was neglible in Edinburgh as in many other places.  It felt quite lonely based here.  However, in recent years theres been a blossoming with companies like Freeagent, Lingo24, Black Circles,  Fanduel, Crane Software, Cupid doing very well.  There are many many more at earlier stages.  Theres even a 6 floor Techcube incubator being started near Edinburgh university.  Then there are other scenes in Glasgow especially.

What is the skills base like in Scotland for startups?

There is a great base of technical skills here.  I think historically many techies went to work in the banking sector and I don’t think that (an IT department) is a good preparation for working in a startup or a business that lives or dies on the quality of its software.  However, the bigger the startup community the better it is for all startups as the base of suitable people increases.  The start up scene is vital for scotlands future economy.  The techcube is probably more strategically important to scotlands tax revenues than north sea oil!

Funding is always hard.  I think there is funding around locally (SEP, pentech, par equity, archangel, scotish entreprise) and if you have a killer plan, then you don’t have to be limited to achieving it locally.

What are the benefits founding and running a global startup based in Scotland?

I only experienced London from a perspective of working for banks, so I don’t know the startup scene.  I think the bigger question is what will make Europe more successful than it currently is in web and tech.  Everywhere in Europe has a lot to learn from the US and elsewhere.

Would you say that there is a ‘Scottish startup scene’ at all?

Right now there is a magical feeling of shared energy.  Lots of people are working together to create an ecosystem and its inspiring to see.  Skyscanner tries to support this in various ways, but the best thing we can do is to set a standard of success that our fellow entrpreneurs set out to beat.

Who are the most prominent players in the Scottish startup scene?

See above.  Edinburgh Tech meetup.  Olly Treadway, Gordon Guthrie, Colin Hewitt, Edinburgh Informatics dept, Appleton Tower incubator.

…and Glasgow?

TechMeetup is run by a guy Jonas in Glasgow. Theres also an incubator Entrepreneurial SparkSEP is one of, or the, most successful VC in Europe (disclosure: investors in skyscanner), plus Pentech, along with a few companies like Metforic.

Do you think we’ll see more tech startups come out of Scotland?

Its already happening.  The #1 thing is probably the Scottish government providing one-off financial support / venture fund to the tech cube and other such initiatives.  They are already doing some matching funding of a number of startups.  I am not the best person to ask as I am so Skyscanner focussed.  Also, the government should ensure that Edinburgh computer science departments retain and indeed extend their attractiveness to top students from the UK and around the world.  In our Edinburgh office we have 25 different nationalities working for us.  That is good for us and good for Scotland.

The snowball effect?

Very much so.  Success inspires success.

Do you believe London might be a brain-drain?

Yes, London is a brain drain.  However, many scots want to move back and the experience they gain in London (or San Francisco) is good for scotland.    I think web startups will be a democratising influence over time and there will be more and more .  I also think that the quality of Edinburgh computer science department is a really big influence of the development of web startups.

What can European startups learn from their US counterparts?

  • Willingness to fail.
  • Desire to create new companies
  • Ambition to build world class new companies
  • Willingness to invest to scale fast