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How Skyscanner Grew So Fast: 3 Killer Takeaways from a Radical Brand

Growth is oxygen to companies; especially those backed by investors. What can YOU learn from this giant's rise to dominate its market?

Sam Hurley
July 23 2018

If you haven’t yet heard of Skyscanner, I’ll be surprised!

The company is that big.

$2Billion-dollar-valuation big (and then some), to be more precise — along with over 70 million app downloads, and a 900-strong workforce across 10 global offices.

Here’s a summary of its value proposition:

‘Skyscanner is the world’s travel search site, saving you time and money by finding the best travel options wherever you want to go.’

And pertinent words from its creator:

“I think all startups have in common the desire to grow very quickly…

As companies grow, they can also bloat, become inward facing, political and static. But they don’t have to…”

(Gareth Williams, Skyscanner’s Co-Founder)

With every minute you eagerly spend looking into the elemental strategies of this thriving travel company, the more you will be amazed.

There are many insights to be absorbed from the team’s mentality and way of working — I’m going to unveil my observations soon.

However: Prior to this radical goodness, let’s initially discuss the concept of GROWTH.

It’s essential to understand before going any further…

Rewind, fellow entrepreneur!  <<<<<<

——————————————————-

Starting a business is tough, right?

Becoming profitable and remaining profitable are the next big hurdles…

Then — if your concept is truly validated, future-proofed, and you hold or hire the knowledge to diversify (while creating buzz and momentum) — something magical happens:

Your business grows and perhaps touches the sky.

Growth can be defined as increased market share, owned assets, business value and/or revenue.

Modestly bootstrapped growth (the type that attracts future investors — the type that doesn’t swiftly drop off!) usually isn’t possible without at least a glimmer of immediate profitability for survival, and adequate breathing space.

Next: There’s the matter of durability (via diversity), and also scalability…

(Graph Source: Marketing91)

[Just in case you’re wondering, scalability is your bandwidth potential for X more demand, i.e. coping and growing efficiently at a rate that very much exceeds additional time input and/or financial expense.]

Collectively, here is my overarching ‘winning business’ formula to keep in mind on your own entrepreneurial journey:

 

[Profitability = Financial survival] + [Durability = Staying power via diversity]

+

[Growth + Scale] = LONG-TERM SUCCESS

 

And long-term success sounds good, right..?

I would hope you think so, as we’ll soon be taking a peek inside the respectable growth culture of one of the most successful, multi-BILLION $ digital brands on the planet — one that has been growing for 17+ years.

First, it’s important to realize that standing still OR growing too fast is dangerous for any business.

Calculated, sustainable growth is the key to reduced overall risk.

While business lifecycles are hardly linear; you ideally need to grow while considering your company’s Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR), in order to remain stable.

This superb graphic from Small Business Decisions shows how to calculate your own SGR:

[Just be sure not to confuse profitability increase with growth, as they typically cannot be achieved simultaneously!]

Immediate profit is, of course, a healthy indicator in anybody’s eyes…

“82% of businesses that fail, do so because of cash flow problems.”
(Source: Fundera)

Yet, it’s also an indicator that is naturally fleeting and fragile in today’s world of intense competition and constant change.

If you offer investors a stake (Skyscanner raised an excess of $130Million — no pressure!), they will want to see constant growth. Customers increasingly demand more choice. Competitors seek greater market share. You want to remain in business.

Here’s the bottom line:

To stay around for a long, long time — your business model must also be adaptable, (perceived to be) integral, and ultimately: Expandable.

If there is one recent prime example of failure to comprehend the above, it would be the demise of Toys R Us; from absolute market goliath to a non-trading entity:

A certain company ensured not only its survival, but massive success — by expanding its offerings to cater for users’ needs (only achieved through acute listening)…

That said — heed the below for ingenious, ‘killer growth’ fundamentals displayed by a radical brand that is: SKYSCANNER!

Use its proven ideologies for your own business progression…

Skyscanner: Backdrop

This free website and app works similarly to Google, only it is dedicated solely to bringing you the best flights, hotels and car hire  — entirely customized to your needs, currently spanning an impressive 30 languages and 70 currencies.

So, how does Skyscanner make money?

Commissions are cleverly taken after each user purchase from the service providers listed on the Skyscanner site and app, in addition to ad revenue.

This enables its users to utilize the travel search tech, at absolutely no cost to them!

Founded in 2001 with co-founders Barry Smith and Bon Grimes (with its first employee in 2004 working from Gareth Williams’ dining room!), the last few years have seen tremendous growth from Skyscanner — so much so, China’s largest travel company (Ctrip) acquired the company in 2016 for a tasty $1.7Billion.

Let’s illuminate that point:

Skyscanner. Bought out just 15 years since inception.

FOR ALMOST $2BILLION.

It’s a level of growth that every entrepreneur craves.

(Graph Source: Dealroom)

So, how did Skyscanner do it?

There are 3 factors I’ve observed that undoubtedly played a huge part in its astonishing success:

Takeaway #1: SHEER JOY & CONVENIENCE

The Scottish-born company set itself in good stead even before launch by focusing first on ultimate ease for its users; “We’re here to solve travelers’ problems…”

Placing user and customer happiness at the heart of your company is always a promising way to begin! (I’ll explain how the company exceeds expectations for its customers in just a moment, too.)

“55% of customers are willing to pay more for a guaranteed good experience.”
(Source: ThinkJar)

“79% of customers want brands to demonstrate they care before considering a purchase.”
(Source: Wunderman)

If that wasn’t enough to convince you: “Skyscanner has grown rapidly, a lot of it through word of mouth…” said Andrew Cocker, the company’s CMO during 2013.

However, be sure to start as you mean to go on…

Numerous businesses have famously fell short on their promises to users or customers as they grew. Some even became greedy and self-centered, like Tesco did back in 2014.

Avoid that. Follow the Skyscanner method, instead! ☺

“The early days of high energy, fast development and idea-to-screen pace at Skyscanner gave way to global expansion; we are now in a driven, highly structured environment…

Despite this, mindset has remained the same: Help our users travel smarter.”

(Martin Burge, Skyscanner’s very first employee of 14 years to date)

Always serve your users and customers JOY and CONVENIENCE as a priority.

[It’s 2018. Experience is everything!]

You always know when people love your brand, because this random word of mouth affection occurs a lot more than any complaints:

(Source: Twitter & BrainyQuote)

Not only does Skyscanner provide a smooth user journey throughout, there is also frequent content published by the team; in aid of helping users even more.

Check out their interactive data chart, showing the best times to book cheap flights:

 

Cleverly, this is also a relatively popular query on Google UK that brings 1,300 high-intent searches per month:

A number 1 ranking, too. Very targeted content marketing!

[Bear in mind that based on data from ~7 million keywords across 57K+ websites, a #1 organic rank on Google currently returns an average Click-Through Rate (CTR) of almost 32% = 409+ non-paid, high-intent visits per month estimated for this ONE search query in the UK alone.]

(Interactive Graph Source: Advanced Web Ranking)

The brand has nailed its content by providing users with the information they need, in friendly formats entirely relevant in today’s age of choice and expectation of immediacy.

This purposeful content production is then often compounded by Skyscanner; collectively helping to 1) Educate users, while 2) Positively impacting SEO for greater visibility (i.e. Skyscanner showing up in 2nd place for head-term Google searches like ‘booking flights’ … Which it does here in the UK!).

A granular example is this Sydney-specific infographic:

Aside from the pure user convenience of this nature of content, take a peek at Skyscanner’s total non-paid traffic via Google (bolstered by extraordinary blog material):

 

And that’s just a single domain (its .net version) — the brand owns many international domains — 40+ top-level domains to accommodate users’ locale!

[Are you noticing a slight pattern here?]

The bottom line:

First, build something super useful. Then, produce content that’s mega helpful, ultra-targeted and locally-optimized. The type of content that only your users and customers will be looking for…

Combined, it’s like packaged rocket fuel.

The big reason ‘why’ is shown directly below. (Yep — those figures on the left of the graph represent MILLIONS of UNIQUE website and app visitors per year, since 2004):

(Graph Source: Skyscanner via SlideShare)

[NOTE: When I say ‘locally-optimized’, if you really want to grow up to be like Skyscanner — the brand boasts a workforce that very deliberately includes over 50 nationalities! Global convenience isn’t merely translation; it must stem from the beating heart of a company to truly connect with people around the world.]

Skyscanner doesn’t just stop there, either. Its users are obviously paramount to the success of the business but equally, it needs money to survive and continue to flourish.

As mentioned a little earlier, users don’t pay a dime to use the tech.

So, revenue must derive from Skyscanner partners who choose to have their services publicly available on the site and app…

That said, it’s clear to see why growth has been so rapid through pure innovation and care for BOTH users and customers.

Ready to witness this?

Takeaway #2: USEFUL DIFFERENTIATION

Skyscanner users are happy, and so are Skyscanner’s customers.

Why?

Instead of simply copying what almost every other competitor does — the Skyscanner team invested heavy resources to build their own data platform, cutting out any middle man while retrieving real-time data direct from over 1,200 service partners — bringing users accurate information and keeping costs to a minimum.

Typically, third-party systems charge for access to such data; Skyscanner doesn’t have this overhead!

In addition to this pioneering move:

Because profitability is increased by this owned tech — Skyscanner maintains healthy relations with partners simply because there are NO PREFERRED PARTNERS.

Trust is clearly a vital component of success for this company.

The team appear to very much realize the importance of togetherness, and it’s such values that have the power to springboard any startup into unchartered territory.

All over the web, there are examples of strong industry relations being created and expanded by Skyscanner:

Nobody ever got anywhere alone.

This incredibly humble brand has taken (and continues to take) the philosophy to another level altogether.

Mark Logan, Chief Operating Officer during 2015 said:

“It would be very tempting to favor those who pay us more. However, we have an ethos that in the long term, customers of our service need to be able to trust us — and if they trust us, they will continue to use us.”

Other travel sites in the space may charge differing, set fees PLUS commission to service providers — not to mention the potential threat of sneaky rank favoritism in alignment with their spend, or other criteria — which can then become a critical matter of trust among users AND customers, if noticed!

If that wasn’t enough warming differentiation to attract customers, there’s more…

Skyscanner even built a proprietary travel API (Application Programming Interface, the description of which I covered here), allowing affiliates to tap into THEIR data in order to show their own users accurate travel options and prices.

Are you open-mouthed yet?

This in itself, is a growth multiplier — spreading the Skyscanner brand further!

I mentioned at the beginning that Skyscanner is akin to Google, in its concept…

But there are actually many similarities between the two giants. Skyscanner seems to be more fluid than water — quickly adapting to market changes, user demands and its competition — with admirable grace.

Google has become what it is today through expansion; its fingers in many pies. Skyscanner looks to be following in the same footsteps today in a more industry-focused approach, layering revenue streams by offering travel integrations to partners and customers (as above) and continually adding features for users.

Who knows what the future will hold, in this respect.

When you stop and think about the fact that Skyscanner is a travel company, first and foremost — it’s pretty damn amazing how its people operate to shape the brand we see…

(Graphic Source: Skyscanner via Medium)

Takeaway #3: TRUE GROWTH STRUCTURE & MINDSET

Those fortunate enough to experience fast growth can also be faced with internal imbalance, if teams aren’t adequately prepared for it.

Many moving cogs speed up. Control can be lost. Demand outpaces supply. Customer service fails. Overall happiness wains. Value drops.

To prevent this from happening, implement yet another sustainable Skyscanner approach!

I haven’t seen any other brand make such a deliberate, transparent move towards this operational methodology.

“Our focus is on the needs of the traveler and the product because that is what we believe leads to retention. That’s the key to longer-term, sustainable growth.”

(Yara Paoli, Skyscanner’s VP of Growth during 2017)

[I’ll reach the matter of retention in a tick!]

Everything its people do is centered around growing — almost to a point of obsession — and they like to share their valuable experiences on the journey.

Just to show you a snippet of this rich mindset and meticulousness, I gathered some screenshots (further evidence of incredible content marketing):

 

There’s more…

 

And more!

So, not only does Skyscanner share everything it does to grow — the team is 100% growth-oriented from the core.

This disruptive venture should definitely ignite a spark in your mind…

It did for me!

Is it now even surprising they reached that $ figure..?

What’s even more brilliant is Skyscanner dared to go where no other company in its space has gone before.

I’m not just talking about its leap into ‘growth hacking’ (an already-controversial zone), or the team’s willingness to distribute every growth experiment and its consequent results…

They actually build their entire organization with growth in mind.

You may be wondering what that looks like in the real world…

Well, have you ever seen a jobs’ description page like this?

“Having evolved from a traditional marketing approach, we operate in growth squads (small teams with our own goals) and tribes (collections of squads working together)…

This way, we can work hand-in-hand with product, engineering and commercial to innovate, experiment and move fast.”

 

Growth squads and tribes. At a travel company…

I’m in awe.

Everything this brand offers is exciting — its people even produced a video to explain its choice of growth words and team structure:

 

And the big list of ‘growth’ vacancies goes on; spanning multiple global Skyscanner offices.

So, growth structure is evidently robust throughout the company — but what does growth really mean to its employees (compared to traditional marketing), and how does it change their perspectives/actions?

This is a concise explanation:

“Growth is more about actionable metrics and this is where our focus is at Skyscanner…

Because we have a high volume, low cost business model, it is harder for us to use traditional marketing tactics — therefore, we must focus on where we see our efforts yield the most results.”

(Source: Douglas Cook, Growth Marketer @ Skyscanner | Interview via Medium)

“While traditional marketing tends to consist of hard-to-measure activity such as brand awareness, growth is more focused on aspects of a customer journey further down the funnel…

More tangible, measurable activities that can be assessed using Pirate Metrics (AARRR) which makes it easier to design a growth experiment around.”

Makes sense, right?

Don’t worry, Pirate Metrics don’t involve walking the plank. You’re going to love what it really means…

Whilst growing (and simultaneously cutting any slack) is a constant mindset adopted by its employees, they are intently focused on that one key metric…

RETENTION.

Here’s what AARRR actually stands for:

(Graphic Source: Pierre Lechelle)

The AARRR framework concentrates more on loyalty than anything else, and the latter benefits of brand affinity.

[Sadly, this is something I find a lot of companies lack — even today.]

It’s a powerful analysis model that is extremely helpful to explore, on top of the traditional marketing funnel (one that can develop leaky holes, dismissing advocacy).

Emphasis on WoM (Word of Mouth) marketing shows just how close Skyscanner remains to this concept…

Alas, a very large company that truly knows it matters to keep users and customers happy — and onboard!

Here are a few retention stats that demonstrate why Skyscanner has become what it is in 2018:

  • It is 16x more expensive to form a long-term business relationship with a new customer, than to simply strengthen the loyalty of an existing customer. Skyscanner actively maintains both its user and customer base by offering an outstanding, human service.
  • The average customer spends 67% more in their 3rd year as a customer, compared to their initial year. Skyscanner is deemed extremely trustworthy. It also continually adds new tech and features (for both users and customers) to keep them around for as long as possible. (Forever).
  • Despite the unquestionable value of customer retention, less than a third of business executives consider it a top priority. Skyscanner executives definitely don’t fall into the two thirds.

They experiment until they please more people … And then create another test from their findings!

THAT = GROWTH.

Thank you Skyscanner, for such breathtaking innovation and inspiration! ☺

10 WRAP-UP ‘KILLER GROWTH’ NOTES:

#1: Don’t simply growth ‘hack’. Grow sustainably and become user / customer-centric.

#2: Provide the best service to your users and/or customers. Better than anybody else will.

#3: Deploy well-researched, high-intent, ultra-helpful and interactive content as part of your growth strategy.

#4: Differentiate your brand by staying ahead of the curve (even if it means sensibly sacrificing immediate gains for longer-term success).

#5: Diversify your offerings, regardless of whether you believe your company is stable and/or integral right now.

#6: Don’t just tell employees you are now a growth-oriented company. Become one (culturally and structurally).

#7: Know that brand loyalty and trust is more important than the surface concept of growth (because growth follows naturally, and even more so with encouragement).

#8: Experiment. Test. Measure. Repeat.

#9: GROW!

#10: Finally — keep up with all the latest Skyscanner growth experiments, right here.

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[DISCLAIMER — This content has been subjectively created using publicly-available information. I am personally not in any way affiliated with or incentivized by Skyscanner, nor are the PostFunnel, Optimove or OPTIM-EYEZ brands.]

We just think the company and its people are flippin’ awesome at growing. 😀

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Sam Hurley

Sam is a passionate 'people connector', Personal Branding expert & Founder of OPTIM-EYEZ. He has achieved success for SMEs, national and international organizations, while being ranked as the world’s #1 digital influencer by Webinale, #2 most influential digital marketer by Onalytica and world’s #3 content marketing influencer by ScribbleLive. Sam loves a high-octane action movie and his all time favorite supercar is the Lamborghini Aventador! Catch him on social for cosmic amounts of Digital Marketing tips.

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