KAYAK CEO, Steve Hafner: “We must inspire our children not to get trapped by routines or popular notions of success”

An interview with Dr. Ely Weinschneider

Dr. Ely Weinschneider
Jun 14 · 7 min read

The world’s a big place and there’s so much to learn. Don’t get trapped by routines or popular notions of success... You grow the most when you try new, harder, inconvenient stuff. I have two daughters in college right now and one of the things I tell them is not to worry about maximizing their grades. I want them to focus on taking challenging courses- they may be a stretch but in the end will make you more interesting.

As a part of my series about “How extremely busy executives make time to be great parents” I had the pleasure to interview Steve Hafner, CEO of KAYAK and OpenTable.

Thank you so much for joining us Steven! Can you tell us your “childhood backstory”?

I developed my love of travel from childhood. I was born in Lima, Peru to a Swedish mom and American dad. They met in Spain during college and married shortly thereafter. We moved around a lot and I grew up in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Texas, and Sweden. I graduated high school in Austin and consider that my hometown though I lived there for only five years.

Can you share the story about what brought you to this specific point in your career?

I graduated from business school in 1997 right when the Internet was becoming a ‘thing’ with the Netscape browser. I took a job at the Boston Consulting Group because it paid well and I enjoyed working with so many smart people, but I always wanted to start my own company. A bunch of airlines hired BCG in 1999 to develop an online travel site that eventually became Orbitz and I left BCG to help build it. Following the Orbitz IPO in December 2003, I quit and started KAYAK to address certain flaws I saw in the business model. We IPO’d in 2012 and Booking Holdings bought us in May 2013. I’ve been here ever since and recently began leading our OpenTable brand too.

Can you tell us a bit more about what your day to day schedule looks like?

It’s really hectic, my fiancé Staci calls it controlled chaos. When it comes to work, I spend one third of my time on KAYAK, one third on OpenTable, and one third on airplanes between the two. But, thanks to gmail and Slack, I can be productive nonetheless. I’m a product guy at heart, so I look at our services and try to figure out how to make them better. I also spend a fair bit of time on managing people, since talent is the most important asset at our companies.

This is probably intuitive to many, but it would be beneficial to spell it out. Based on your experience or research, can you flesh out why not spending time with your children can be detrimental to their development?

Kids crave stimulation even more than adults. If you want them to be their best, you have to mix up their environments, activities, and interactions with people. Plus everyone’s parenting skills are different and it’s important for them to learn from that. If you’re not spending time with your kids and helping them grow, you’re simply not fulfilling your parental obligations.

On the flip side, can you give a few reasons or examples about why it is so important to make time to spend with your children?

Spending time with your kids isn’t just for them — it’s also for you. I’m blessed with five daughters, ranging in ages 2–19. The best part of my day is coming home. Their curiosity and joy in life is infectious and reinvigorating. Nothing erases a long day in the office like hearing our kids giggle during hide and seek, for example.

According to this study cited in the Washington Post, the quality of time spent with children is more important than the quantity of time. Can you give some stories or examples from your own life about what you do to spend quality time with your children?

I spend a lot of time in front of a computer or cellphone screen. So when I’m home, I do my best to remove those items from circulation for both me and our kids. I’m a big fan of playing outside. When we are at home in Miami we hit the pool or beach almost every day. I also get the girls involved in mundane tasks, like raking leaves, sweeping, and even vacuuming. They love helping and think this stuff is fun :).

We all live in a world with many deadlines and incessant demands for our time and attention. That inevitably makes us feel rushed and we may feel that we can’t spare the time to be “fully present” with our children. Can you share with our readers a few strategies about how we can create more space in our lives in order to give our children more quality attention?

  • It’s hard to totally unplug from work given the ubiquity of the internet. So the best way to be ‘present’ is to keep your cell phone out of reach and hearing range.

How do you define a “good parent”? Can you give an example or story?

A good parent is someone who prepares their kids to be happy and productive in the real world. I don’t aspire to be best friends with my daughters and I don’t push them to achieve at any cost. Rather, I want them to see the world for what it is, warts and all, and to enjoy the challenge of making it better.

For example, my 19 year old daughter, Eva, is spending the first half of her summer studying in Germany — which will surely be a lot of fun. But the second half will be working for Summits.org, which is trying to improve educational outcomes in Haiti. I can’t think of a better way for her to grow then to compare Berlin and Port Au Prince and see the human impact of bad governance.

How do you inspire your child to “dream big”? Can you give an example or story?

  • The world’s a big place and there’s so much to learn. Don’t get trapped by routines or popular notions of success like grades. You grow the most when you try new, harder, inconvenient stuff.

How do you, a person who masterfully straddles the worlds of career and family, define “success”?

Success for me is being a happy and productive citizen of the world. I want to get stuff done, have fun, and make the world better. And there’s never been a better time in human history to do so.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a better parent? Can you explain why you like them?

My favorite book is a Confederacy of Dunces, but I also love classic fiction, history, and biographies. But I detest tomes with anecdotal business and management advice. I’m a devoted WSJ and Economist reader, but I also love celebrity weeklies like Star magazine and US.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Best advice that I was ever given was to be likable. It seems silly, I know. But people have a choice on whom to be around, and if you’re likable, they’re more likely to share information with you, to work harder, and to be productive. KAYAK’s office culture and environment reflect that idea too. We want our folks to enjoy coming to work, and to have their surrounding add energy and purpose to their lives.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

My whole career in technology has been based on the idea that people should experience the world more. It simply makes them better people. So I’ll stick to that, because there’s so much more work to be done removing barriers to the free movement of people, ideas, and capital.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

About the Author:

Dr. Ely Weinschneider is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist based in New Jersey. Dr. Ely specializes in adolescent and adult psychotherapy, parenting, couples therapy, geriatric therapy, and mood and anxiety disorders. He also has a strong clinical interest in Positive Psychology and Personal Growth and Achievement, and often makes that an integral focus of treatment.

An authority on how to have successful relationships, Dr. Ely has written, lectured and presented nationally to audiences of parents, couples, educators, mental health professionals, clergy, businesses, physicians and healthcare policymakers on subjects such as: effective parenting, raising emotionally intelligent children, motivation, bullying prevention and education, managing loss and grief, spirituality, relationship building, stress management, and developing healthy living habits.

Dr. Ely also writes a regular, nationally syndicated column about the importance of “being present with your children”.

When not busy with all of the above, Dr. Ely works hard at practicing what he preaches, raising his adorable brood (which includes a set of twins and a set of triplets!) together with his wife in Toms River, New Jersey.

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Dr. Ely Weinschneider

Written by

Dr. Ely Weinschneider is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, writer, and speaker based in New Jersey.

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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