As one of Skyscanner’s co-founders, I’m often asked for my thoughts on entrepreneurship. Here are my three self-styled ‘Start-up Laws’; a collection of things I’ve learned along the way and my own personal beliefs in terms of how a fast-growth business should operate.
Gareth’s Law 1 : Advertising is the way to solve the problem of revenue outstripping costs.
I say the above with tongue firmly in cheek. All companies seek a way in which to increase awareness of their service – that’s natural. But the easiest path to spend money on acquiring new users to the point of marginal profitability (and beyond) is via over-dependence on advertising. Especially for replacement visitors.
As a start-up, your resources may be better spent making your product 10x better. Focus mainly on product improvements, retention and virality. Yes, they require greater skill, but surely a better product is worth more to your users than a churning user base?
At Skyscanner we started by sharing two salaries between three co-founders and our first external funding was fully six years after the first prototype. We only had resources to build product. Our first marketing was PR (see Paul Graham) and our second was SEO. The interesting thing in retrospect is that they are both fixed costs (cost in time and money was not a per user cost like an ad).
Nowadays, as a more mature company, advertising brings us great value as part of our acquisition/activation/retention pipeline – but as start-up, I’d recommend making your product as good as it can be first.
Gareth’s Law 2: The size of an email footer is inversely proportional to the growth prospects of that company.
I once heard a website homepage described as something that represents the scars and battles of the departments in a company. I think the same can be said about the size of your startup’s email footer.
With an email footer you might see a logo, a fax number (still), links to company apps, a legal disclaimer, an event or new product plug and so much more. Of course there is the counter-productive and passive aggressive ‘think twice before printing this email’. These can be symptomatic of box ticking and an aspiration to come across as ‘professional’. The vast majority of start-ups need to change and adapt quickly and they require great flexibility. They also, by and large, require a singular vision and interest. A long email footer, in contrast, suggests conflicting interests and bloat rather than a simple, widely-embraced aim. Sadly for start-ups, the inverse of this ‘law’ is not guaranteed.
Gareth’s Law 3: Internet Economy success at scale is converging in all sectors on being an AI / machine-learning problem.
As so many aspects of internet economy success become shared knowledge sitting atop open source software, the ‘last’ race for online services is trending towards being to solve complex data and personalisation problems. Doing so will (and will become a prerequisite to) delight users – across every sector.
Take Facebook’s news feed which, very far from being a manual curation problem, is a machine learning or AI one. Mass personalisation appears to be an oxymoron. But at the very least this requires ever-more complex heuristics. Increasingly, the way to win as an Internet Economy start-up with traction is to look to AI/machine learning to achieve that magical experience for the user. Think of Google Now cards, Netflix channel curation or in online travel solving the ultimate challenge – “Where should I go on holiday?”
At Skyscanner, we still view ourselves as a start-up and at Skyscanner for Business in particular, we feel privileged to be able to help so many travel start-ups get off the ground via our travel APIs.