Case Study: Skyscanner - Maintaining a Start-Up Culture in a Global Business

Booking a flight can be a risky business. Should you book today or hold out and wait for a better deal? Book at the wrong time or choose the wrong airport or airline and the cost could rise by hundreds of pounds. Add to this the frustration of clicking between travel sites, trying to work out your options and you might decide you’d be better off staying at home. Working out the best time to book a flight is a mystery. Or at least it was before Skyscanner came along.

Introducing Skyscanner
Skyscanner is a worldwide travel search engine, originally created to compare flight information to help customers book the best deals. Today, the site has expanded to include hotel and car hire deals.

The idea for Skyscanner came from Gareth Williams (pictured below); a computer programmer and keen skier. Williams regularly booked flights for skiing trips but was frustrated by the process and the hours wasted trying to work out the best options. So he created an application that would help customers instantly find the cheapest deals.

Thousands of people began using the prototype website every day and in 2003, Williams, along with his co-founders Barry Smith and Bonamy Grimes, left his job to officially launch Skyscanner. As word spread about Skyscanner, the site’s popularity rapidly grew. In 2014, the brand saw a 42 per cent increase in revenues and now has an annual turnover of £120 million. Today the Skyscanner site is used by over 60 million people each month and is available in over 30 languages and 70 currencies. Meanwhile, the mobile app has been downloaded over 50 million times.

The Skyscanner Culture
Although Skyscanner has grown from its original three founders to a global staff of over 800; the company has maintained its start-up culture. It’s a culture that has made the brand popular with customers, partners, the media and of course, with its own staff. In 2015, Skyscanner was voted the fifth best company to work for in the Sunday Times ‘Best 100 Companies to Work For’ survey.

The company offers staff several perks and rewards such as private healthcare benefits, flexible working hours, enhanced maternity and paternity leave and a bonus scheme. But they also focus on career and personal development. The Skyscanner University gives staff the opportunity to learn new skills, with courses in everything from languages to photography. And being a travel company, Skyscanner offers employees the chance to travel, with schemes that allow them to work from other Skyscanner offices for up to 30 days.

But while Skyscanner offers a great range of benefits to its staff, as I explain in my article on the importance of putting culture before strategy; creating a successful growth culture is about much more than employee perks.

At the recent Growth Hacking World Forum, held in London; I listened with interest as Janet Balneaves (pictured below), principal growth manager at Skyscanner explained a little about the culture at the company. She described how the teams at Skyscanner are encouraged to experiment, testing different ideas to learn what will work. While many companies strive to avoid failure at all costs, by removing a fear of failure, Skyscanner has created an environment where things can be achieved quickly. Experimentation is seen as a positive, even when things don’t work out. It’s by experimenting with lots of different ideas that the company has been able to achieve its rapid growth.

Skyscanner has also fostered a culture where employees are given autonomy to make their own decisions. In her talk, Balneaves explained that it is important not to tell teams how to solve a problem but to let them use their talents and resources to find the best solutions. And although teams are given the power to make things happen, the culture at Skyscanner is very much about working together and breaking down barriers between departments.

Although individual teams have autonomy, the company is aligned so that the actions of each team complement one another, supporting the growth culture within the business.

Open and Transparent

It’s clear to see how Skyscanner has fostered a growth culture by taking a vibrant and collaborative approach. Staff are supported and encouraged from the day they join the company and there is a culture of continuous improvement. And once a month Skyscanner’s founder invites a different group of staff from all areas of the business to meet with him over lunch where they can talk openly and informally.

Building a Global Culture
Maintaining a strong culture is especially important for Skyscanner as its offices are spread all over the world. With such a large number of employees and offices across the globe, it would have been easy for the culture to become diluted. But Skyscanner works hard to communicate its culture which remains consistent no matter where in the world staff are working.

Commenting on culture, Williams says: “Culture is a really nebulous thing but I do know that you can influence culture at every level of the business. It’s by concerted action and efforts to share a culture of focusing on the traveller and caring about your colleagues that you can create shared endeavour across different geographical locations.”

There are lots of lessons we can learn from Skyscanner when looking at how to create a growth culture in our own businesses. In particular, they offer a perfect example of how a company can implement a strong growth culture while retaining its founding values. For me, Skyscanner shows just what can be achieved when you put culture first.

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Culture trumps strategy. It’s a bold statement, and one that can cause upset. Read how putting culture before strategy is the quickest way to build your business.