Scaling Skyscanner, Part III: International Ambition
Having offices around the globe looks and sounds good — but is it worth it? And how should you approach setting up international offices when you do actually need them? Shane Corstorphine has ‘been there, done that’ with Skyscanner; here he shares his thoughts on realising those international ambitions…
Skyscanner was founded by three friends who wanted to make it easy for travellers to find the best flights. Sixteen years later, Skyscanner has over twelve hundred employees in offices around the world, and serves eighty million travellers in fifty markets and thirty languages — each month! This post is the third in a series of blogs in which members of Skyscanner’s leadership team share the hard-won insights they’ve gleaned from their experiences — for the benefit of entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs taking their own startup journeys. Catch up with the series here: Part I, Part II.
With your business scaling steadily, you will be starting to wonder whether you should open your first overseas office and, if so, to think about where that office should be.
Product-market fit — it matters at home and abroad
Before you make decisions that will substantially and financially commit your company, fundamentally changing your business and inviting a complex range of challenges related to localisation, you should start with assessing product-market fit in any new region you are planning to expand into.
Put your product out there using whatever resources you can spare. You could support this with a test advertising spend if needed (while being careful not to generate a big spike that veils genuine PM fit) to see what level of conversion you see for the traffic you bring to your site. Testing your product in this way allows you to improve your offering in a new market without being tied down prematurely with operational costs. This experiment will go one of two ways: you will either learn that you do not have the right product fit for the market you are chasing, in which case you were wise not to have committed to an office, or, through testing, you have improved your product offering and witnessed encouraging levels of retention that supports investment in that market. If you are fortunate and it’s the latter, you need to decide whether to build a team on the ground from a hub office, or physically open an office in that market.
Skyscanner’s product is available in 30 languages and 50 markets — and this number is growing — yet we identified very early on that we didn’t need to have an office in every single market. We chose our hub locations according to a number of factors and they didn’t necessarily relate to the physical market we wanted to compete in. Our key criteria for choosing a city to open an office in are pretty straightforward, but imperative for ensuring we have access to the right set of people equipped with the necessary skills — some examples are:
- A high-quality University where you can bag and invest in talent with the skillset your business requires
- A cosmopolitan city with a range of spoken languages. Our Russian market team includes four Russian nationals who are all based out of London; this allows us to forego opening an office in Russia, at least for now!
Having the right people in place
The skills required to grow a team from nothing and the skills required to scale a team are very different. As I mentioned in Part One of this blog series, building a growing operation often requires new people to join the business and apply their expertise in scaling.
The people you hire to take up the first roles at a new office have a double challenge: they have to work on ‘opening’ the office and on growing the new market they’re in. Ideally these roles are offered on a secondment basis — after a set period you should be prepared to rotate out the people who have taken initial responsibility for growing the business in the new region, and rotate in a new group of people specialising in scaling up an established business with product-market fit.
That’s the practical side of it, but there can be an emotional, personal reaction from people towards the rapid changes that might see their role and/or reporting structure change, and it’s important to handle communication around these changes as honestly and sensitively as possible. Ensuring that staff understand — and accept — the reasons why someone may be joining above them and that this is absolutely not a demotion is both important to get right and yet tricky to do well.
At this stage, you may need to start recruiting from scale up experts from corporate, or more traditional work environments. This can start to feel like a big transitional shift for many, with scalable solutions from new leaders to the business seeming to impose a risk to the collaborative, start-up culture you have and creating feelings of uncertainty. It is important to look at this from both sides and see how you can integrate the corporate recruit into your culture while exercising the growth mindset of the start-up employee.
Lastly, take your time hiring. Determine what you need that is specific to that market and then figure out, from that, first what can be done regionally, and secondly, what requires central/global support — it shouldn’t be considered the other way around! Make sure you stick to your recruitment process and don’t cut corners just because you get a good feeling about a candidate and/or because you are impatient to get that role filled. A robust hiring process ensures that you get a true 360 degree perspective on a candidate and whether they are the best fit for your company, and vice versa.
A work culture that survives scale
- Prioritise senior staff office visits. While this can feel very demanding given that senior staff are likely to have very full schedules already, and not necessarily productive in terms of executing on actual work, it is important to do ‘temperature checks’ otherwise you are just communicating with colleagues on video calls across different timezones and many seemingly inconsequential issues are likely to gradually escalate and cause conflicts over culture, throw up blockers to productivity, and so on.
- Invest in a robust, deeply considered and consistent induction programme: we invest a considerable amount of money in our global induction programme as it is the first insight (after a thorough recruitment process!) for new starters into our culture, which we have carefully created and treasure and which is vital to our fail-forward, honest and open way of working and collaborating. We fly all new hires to the UK for an intense induction where they form part of a ‘starting group’ — this means they quickly establish themselves as part of a network.
- Invest in leadership coaching: to help as many of your existing employees grow themselves at the same rate as the company. As mentioned, the alternative is likely to be hiring professionals from already scaled or corporate environments as you scale, who are highly skilled at taking companies to that next level, but not necessarily the right cultural fit for the business (and some won’t be able to make a cultural adjustment). If they can’t then there is a high risk of failure no matter how accomplished they may be. Investing in leadership coaching is worthwhile.
Entrepreneurial mindsets a must
While the Skyscanner team may have grown to include more than 1200 amazing people, we’ve stayed true to our startup roots: we have worked hard to stay fast, agile, and when we fail, we fail forwards. Sixteen years after we were founded we’re still growing — if you’d like to help us soar even higher as we enter the next Skyscanner era, take a look at our open roles and get in touch. Entrepreneurial mindsets a must!
About the author: Shane Corstorphine
Shane Corstorphine is SVP Growth at Skyscanner, the world’s travel search engine. Shane originally joined Skyscanner as Chief Financial Officer, where he was instrumental in multiple investment rounds, before becoming SVP of all regional marketing and playing a crucial role in making Skyscanner a truly global business.
Playing a pivotal role in growing Skyscanner from c.100 to 1,200 employees, Shane is also an advocate of the “fail fast” approach in the workplace and the importance of having a growth mindset. Having been an advisor to online startups for more than 15 years, and continuing to advise and invest in both start-ups and scale-ups, Shane is an enthused speaker on all things digital, including start-ups and scaling businesses for growth. In December 2018, Tech Nation published their new book ‘Upscale: What it takes to scale a startup by the people who have done it’ with journalist and author James Silver interviewing Shane exclusively for a chapter dedicated to overseas expansion.