Reshaping Online Travel and Surpassing AU$100M ARR From Sydney

Silicon Valley does not have a monopoly on innovation. Great entrepreneurs are everywhere, and we have seen a strong software ecosystem emerging from Australia and New Zealand.

We recently profiled Rod Drury’s Xero journey building a global platform out of New Zealand. Meanwhile, another TCV company, SiteMinder, just reached an important milestone of AU$100 million ARR.

SiteMinder has methodically built a global SaaS leader in hospitality out of Sydney, Australia. Coupled with its impressive revenue milestone, SiteMinder has 35,000 hotel customers in 160 countries and is reshaping the hotel distribution value chain and online travel, itself.

TCV’s Dave Yuan caught up with founder Mike Ford to reflect on his journey.

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Dave: Congratulations, Mike! Hard to believe you’ve grown SiteMinder to AU$100 million ARR. That’s an incredible milestone and a great foundation for things to come, but let’s start from the beginning. Tell us about yourself and how you got here.

Mike: I always had an interest in technology and commerce, having majored in both. This led me to consulting, where I worked on large business intelligence projects for the likes of SABMiller, AngloGold Ashanti, and Chase Bank, bridging technology teams with executive management and getting a good grounding in both disciplines. Being passionate about travel, I embarked on a year-long backpacking adventure in 2000 before I arrived in Australia and took on a three-month contract with a health technology startup to fund further travel. In 2006, I founded SiteMinder, and I am still in Sydney 18 years on, so, clearly, my adventures didn’t work out as expected!

Dave: Tell us about the SiteMinder creation story. What was the original insight? When did you know you had an idea good enough to quit your day job?

Mike: I didn’t quit outright and that was key. I consulted for my then-employer, two days a week, in order to fund the early months.

There were two major influences that led me to take the leap.

The first was the health tech startup I was working at. They were digitising paper-based claims sent from hospitals to medical funds for reimbursement, as paper-based claiming involved a long payment and reimbursement cycle. For hospitals, the digitisation of claims meant instant delivery, faster reimbursement, and a clear digital trail. At the core of the engine was a switch that converted data from different hospital systems into formats digestible by different medical fund systems.

The second influence was an investment I’d made in an accommodation business. Through that, I learned how hotel and other accommodation sales were rapidly moving away from traditional channels, such as wholesalers and brick-and-mortar travel agents, to online booking sites as travellers were increasingly turning to the internet to make their reservations. The shift in consumer behaviour drove a proliferation of last-minute booking sites in Australia at the time, such as Wotif.com and lastminute.com.au, which promised huge discounts if you booked close to the date of your stay. The issue for hoteliers was there was no means of centrally managing all of those websites and keeping their room rates and availability continuously up to date on each. So, they often chose to list on only one or two sites and miss out on others because they couldn’t manage them at scale.

I quickly realised that if I could connect hotel systems with different online channels, as I did in the medical funds world, I could synchronise hotel room rates and availability in real time. For hoteliers, the value proposition was they could get more rooms onto more booking sites to grow their reach online. At the same time, they could reduce overbookings and the operational overhead of manually inputting reservations. That value proposition helped us get a strong foothold quickly in the market.

Dave: What was it like to start a company out of Sydney?         

Mike: We were actually very fortunate to be in Sydney. As with banking and payments technologies, Australia was far ahead in terms of technological innovation in online travel. Where other markets weren’t yet embracing dynamic room rates and availability, there were many booking sites in Australia available for hotels to list on. The multitude of sites, combined with the sheer number of hotels out there, especially independent hotels, meant that conditions were ideal for our entry into the market.

Funding was a big challenge as the technology venture market was very underdeveloped relative to what it is today. The government in Australia also had a myopic attitude to how important tech and STEM jobs were to the future of the economy, so tech startups got very little support in terms of R&D benefits, and sadly that hasn’t changed. In spite of these challenges, more than 80% of our revenue now comes from overseas markets. We are a truly global business that has kept its roots deeply in the city of Sydney where it all started.

Dave: You’ve scaled past AU$100 million ARR. Was it all smooth sailing from there, or were there big doubts and moments of near death?

Mike: In the early days, moments of doubts may have been around survival. Later, they were more focused on growth or new market entry, but they’ve never quite ceased, and I suspect it’s no different for any founder.

If ever there was a near-death experience, it would’ve been pre-angel investment, when I was funding the business and paying my co-founder out of my own savings. On top of that, we learned a competitor was launching a month before us, and they had AU$100 million in funds and an existing product. We had AU$180,000 and a beta release. It was nearly a no-go decision, but I’m pretty stubborn and so we took them on, and they soon went bankrupt.

Dave: What were the big decisions along the way?

Mike: Very important decisions included:

  1. Who we were going to take money from and bring on to our board of directors. We turned down early interest from numerous VCs purely on the first meeting dynamic.
  2. Whether we were going to go global or dominate locally, and what the timing would be.
  3. What not to chase. There are so many opportunities, and you can lose focus quickly unless you’re very clear about what you are and are willing to let go of opportunities that may seem attractive but don’t provide long-term benefits.

Additionally, the most crucial decisions involve the people you choose for the journey and the timing of bringing on key talent. The outlook of a founding CEO, certainly in the formative years, can differ substantially from those of a professional CEO. As a founding CEO, you have grown the team and the business from nothing. You have loyal, committed, and talented individuals who have helped you get the business to a particular stage so the company culture is more familial. Yet, through high growth, it’s hard to stay on top of skills and challenges across the business, and you may find yourself in a situation where you either don’t recognise that such deficiencies exist, or you don’t take appropriate measures quickly enough to address them. Over time, you get better at identifying the skills you need for the future, ahead of the curve.

Dave: How has SiteMinder succeeded in a field that has gotten so much competitive attention?

Mike: I think the definition of success is different for everyone. There are many travel tech companies that I would consider successful, even if they may not all have the size and growth trajectory of SiteMinder.

It sounds cliché, but it comes down to the deliberate process of ensuring many ingredients come together in the right way, at the right time, and in the right sequence. We’ve had a focused and smart go-to-market strategy, plus we over-indexed on personalised support for our customers and doubled down on localising our products and service for many different countries. We’ve invested in strong operational centres around the globe to provide true round-the-clock sales and customer service, and we’ve hired smart people. I could go on, but at our core we are product-driven and customer-obsessed. That permeates our culture and is key. Even if your product is average, you can have early success if your sales and marketing are great. In the long run, you can only continue your success if your product is truly market leading.

Dave: As you look forward, what are the big opportunities for hoteliers? How might this translate into benefits for the consumer and traveller?

Mike: Many hoteliers are still stuck in their traditional ways and aren’t open to the possibilities that technology can offer in making a world of difference. This does vary between hotel segments such as independent versus chain, full service versus limited service, regional versus city, and even by country. The vast majority of hoteliers still struggle to navigate the changing online landscape and are overwhelmed by the extent of the choice out there.

It’s for this reason that we’ve created an ecosystem, not just of our own technology, but of all other technology players that can help hoteliers navigate the online world in search of guests. If hoteliers can connect with customers at every touchpoint throughout their buying journey, they can ultimately create greater guest experiences long before those guests set foot in their lobby and long thereafter.

Dave: If SiteMinder fulfills its mission, what role can it play in the changing online travel ecosystem?

Mike: SiteMinder currently connects to 700+ partners within the travel ecosystem, so hoteliers can hook everything they need into their property management system and harness the power of integration, openness, and choice. Essentially, our platform is the most comprehensive and effective way for hoteliers to bring guests to their hotels, without having to think about or manage technology. It gives them more time to spend on the guest experience, which is the part they really enjoy.

If hoteliers can choose any best-of-breed solution to optimise their opportunities in acquiring guests in an increasingly online-driven world, we’re doing our job.

We also play a big role in the value chain in online accommodation, specifically the supply equation, by connecting hotel room rates and availability in real time to points-of-sale such as booking sites. We enable those booking sites to gain traction in core markets, where they otherwise can’t access a supply of rooms to sell.

There have been middlemen aggregators in the past that have rolled up supply for booking sites yet we connect the room supply directly to booking sites or room demand sources, so there is no ticket clipping and dilution of margin between the supplier (the hotel) and the seller (the booking site). In doing so, we have streamlined the supply chain for hotel rooms, rates, and content.

Dave: SiteMinder’s opportunity is also unique as a SaaS company. Vertical SaaS is seeing a renaissance with SaaS companies taking on platform and network characteristics, meaning “SaaS as a Platform”. What does SiteMinder look like as a SaaS business model over time?

Mike: We started out with a distribution platform for hotels. Over time, we recognised the importance of the direct sales channel and expanded our platform to integrate a hotel’s own website, so they could manage both their indirect and direct sales channels.

Over the years we’ve designed our platform to be more proactive and have powered it with business intelligence that steers our customers and makes them aware of opportunities to improve their hotel business. For example, our platform makes hoteliers aware of changes in market conditions or demand, so they can maximise their guest acquisition capabilities in a rapidly evolving online landscape.

The next evolution is really exciting. We recognise that there are many great applications and tools out there for hoteliers, and they can all improve a hotel’s guest acquisition strategy. These may be upselling tools, airport transfer services or activity bookings, revenue management systems or anything in between. We know that one company will never build the best of all these things. Our brand essence has always been one of openness, so we’ve developed a way to seamlessly link a hotel’s property management system to all the different applications. In doing this, our customers will be able to use all the best-of-breed applications available out there in combination with our own platform. If we are successful in this endeavour, we will have the most open and connected platform the hotel industry has seen, with the greatest number of hotel participants (we already have 35,000 today).

Dave: Outside of SiteMinder, what in online travel gets you excited?

Mike: One important shift is the rise of tours and activities moving increasingly to online with dynamic inventory and pricing. Driving this is people’s desire to seek experiences, not just flights and accommodation. We’re seeing increasing demand among consumers to package their accommodation, services and ancillaries, so they can get the best experience out of their accommodation and the local destination.

Somewhat tangential is the rise of personalisation. For a more personalised experience, including destination advice, many travellers still use a brick-and-mortar travel agent to plan their trip. That said, we’re also seeing the growing dominance of online booking sites. Alone, neither of these options is ideal for at least one segment of the leisure travel market, so I think we will increasingly see hybrids where booking sites get better at offering deeper, more human advice and personalised service. This may even include speaking to a local human expert when booking online. We are already starting to see signs of that happening now.

There are also relatively new entrants like Google making a wave in the space with disruptive models that are attractive to hoteliers. I think the race is on for OTAs to create a seamless end-to-end experience for the consumer, including research and advice, flights, hotels, car hire, transfers, in-destination activities and experiences, restaurants and everything in between.

Dave: Thanks so much, Mike, and congratulations again! AU$100 million ARR is an amazing milestone that only a few reach. Savour it!

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The statements, views, and opinions expressed are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect those of TCMI, Inc. or its affiliates (“TCV”). TCV has not verified the accuracy of any statements by the speakers and disclaims any responsibility therefor. This interview is not an offer to sell or the solicitation of an offer to purchase an interest in any private fund managed or sponsored by TCV or any of the securities of any company discussed. The TCV portfolio companies identified, if any, are not necessarily representative of all TCV investments and no assumption should be made that the investments identified were or will be profitable. For a complete list of TCV investments, please visit www.tcv.com/all-companies. For additional important disclaimers, please see “Informational Purposes Only” in the Terms of Use for TCV’s website, available at
https://www.tcv.com/terms-of-use/.


Hiring for Leaders: Your Company Won’t Scale if the Leaders Can’t

By Jonathan Shottan

Companies that scale quickly share many of the same problems. Institutional knowledge becomes fragmented or lost as people leave. Decision-making authority changes or becomes opaque. New cultural norms are developed. Personality conflicts arise as the old guard and new guard merge. Collaboration becomes even more essential, because almost everyone is involved in creating new functions and establishing new processes.

But if the conditions during scaling are similar, the results vary widely. Some companies thrive through it, while others struggle. I’ve seen both in my career, working at Pinterest, Facebook, and other startups, and cultural differences don’t explain it. Leadership does. There is universality to the qualities exhibited by the best leaders at successful companies. If you’re hiring or promoting from within during a period of high growth, these are the qualities that you can and should identify. Leaders with these qualities naturally maintain momentum, exceed their objectives, develop and attract top talent, and amplify the best aspects of your culture. They are best suited to thrive on constant change and they are instrumental in driving success for the organization. Colloquially, they are the 10Xers.

From my own personal experiences leading teams through scale at Pinterest, Facebook, and other startups, I’ve identified a set of three attributes to consider when vetting leaders during the hiring or promotion process:

  1. Leaders That Scale Take A Position…

What is it: Leaders who can scale companies successfully know how to take a position. I know it sounds simple, but not everyone can do it – especially during times of pressure. A position is an informed stance amid a swirl of uncertainty, which galvanizes others to understand it, respond to it, and imagine how it would work. As such, it speeds the organization toward decisions and action.

Why is it Important: A position is not an opinion, because everyone has plenty of those. A position is also not a point of view because again, everyone has a perspective from which they view the world. A position is a singular proposal for addressing a particular issue. In taking a position, you may actually diverge from your own opinion or perspective, in order to take a position that’s more provocative and therefore more productive. Taking a position creates urgency and gets the conversation moving toward an agreement on next steps.

This is critical because as organizations grow, people can get stuck in paralysis by analysis. They’re not sure of their status yet. They may be afraid of making the wrong decision, or making the right decision, but in the wrong way for the culture they find themselves in.

Leaders who take a position dissolve all this. Though it may sound like a paradox, taking a strong position at the outset of a meeting is a unifying force, not a divider. Everyone else now shares the same task: testing the position, modifying it, figuring out whether and how it would work. It’s easy to focus because a hodgepodge of opinions and questions has been replaced by a proposed solution. Even if the stance is only a straw man, it sparks a productive conversation. And if the position becomes a North Star that everyone can navigate by, you’ve just taken a great leap forward.

How to Hire or Promote for it: First of all, you want candidates with a wide range of knowledge and interests, not superficially, but down to details. These people tend to be polymaths. They are familiar with a wide range of fields, technologies, cultures, and customers, and they can see the big picture intuitively. They can also explain it from multiple angles. They love to share their data or historical knowledge if it will enlighten or empower others. Typically, they can formulate their position as they walk into a room, because that’s how their minds work: synthesizing many factors into one proposition and pitching that proposition at the right level for others to understand and react to.

During the interview pick a big hairy sector, such as transportation or education, and ask the candidate “How do you think this sector will change in 10 years? In 50 years?” Ask about the candidate’s hobbies, pick the one you’re most familiar with, and ask the candidate to talk about it at length; you’re looking for what it says about them, their passion, and their personality. What was the last book they read? What is the next book they want to read? Do they play a musical instrument or a sport? Ask them to analyze the strategy of the organization they’re working for now, both pro and con, to see how many different perspectives they incorporate into their analysis.

  1. Leaders Don’t Get Stuck On A Position…

What is it: The second trait for leaders who scale is effortlessly moving off their own positions when the time is right. They do this because they understand that the position is a means to an end. If you’re familiar with the expression “strong opinions weakly held,” you understand this trait already. In many ways, it’s the flip side of the first trait. Strong opinions weakly held means that leaders readily evolve their positions in the face of new information or through an ability to read a room. They understand that a stronger position is forming – and this was the reason for taking a position in the first place.

Why is it Important: Why does this matter for scaling an organization? Because you need everyone to share their ideas, even if they’re shy. Being inclusive of thought accomplishes this. It also draws out sharper analysis from bolder or more informed members, because they trust that they’re not going to hit a wall if they voice partial or even complete disagreement with a leader’s opinion. Getting to a new, better, shared position makes everyone feel connected to the outcome. Now it’s time for action.

How to Hire or Promote for it: Testing for the ability to gracefully move off a position can be fun for you and the candidate. Before the interview, pose a real-world business problem within an area where you have lots of data but there are many ways to solve the problem. For example, if you’re at a ride-sharing company you could ask “How would you build a driver loyalty program?” Once the candidate states a position in the interview, begin to challenge it constructively, as if you were colleagues in a meeting. Probe for the thinking behind it. Share new data and see how they change their position. You’re not just looking to see if they’re open to revisiting their conclusions. You also want to see if they can continue to effectively articulate their position in the face of resistance — without getting stuck on it.

  1. Leaders Embrace the Outcome…and Adapt Appropriately

What is it: Unless you’re the CEO you don’t get to make the final decision most of the time. That’s when leaders need to have a third critical trait: they embrace the outcome of the conversation that just concluded. If the board decides to cut marketing hiring by 50%, the leader of the marketing department could respond in a variety of ways. The one you want is understanding and expressing the consequences of that decision to the department, in a constructive way.

Why is it Important: Psychologically, this leader has an innate ability to assume best intent. If a management decision goes against such individuals, or their organizations, they don’t take it personally. Quite the opposite, they default to a position that the people above them or around them share a vision for success and that the decision was necessary. Today is not forever, and marketing will be hiring again in the future. The focus now is making the current strategy succeed, rapidly. A good leader will take a positive, proactive position on how to do that.

This natural aptitude is an invisible bulwark against confusion and fatigue during times of rapid change and growth. Why? Because leaders with this trait are consistent in message, countenance, and style. When the environment is constantly changing, people look to their leaders. If the leaders are showing up as constructively positive in good times and bad, their teams will adapt a similar penchant for consistency and there will be fewer productivity troughs.

How to Hire or Promote for it: There are two approaches that can help you identify candidates who will naturally embrace an outcome, turn it positive, and lead their team to success with it. The first approach is to ask the individual to describe a time they disagreed with a boss or peer, and how they responded. You’re not looking for surface answers like “Of course I had to go along” or “I won.” You’re looking for the ways the candidate turned the adversity into opportunity – graciously.

The second approach is to actually put the candidate through adversity as part of the hiring process. If you gave them a homework assignment before the interview, change the terms before they can present their work. Substitute in an interviewer they didn’t expect to talk with. Pick something on their resume that could potentially be a deal-breaker and ask them to reframe it into a deal-maker instead. Again, you’re not looking for pat answers. You’re looking for the natural inclination to embrace what’s happening and turn it positive.

 

The Most Important Deliverable You Have

In my own career I came to realize that vetting for and then fostering leadership attributes on my teams was more important than any other deliverable I had. I am also aware that this knowledge can get crowded out when your company is on pace to grow 10X in two years, because you’ve got so many high-priority problems to solve. Fight the tendency. Sure, you don’t want to be distracted. But you still have to get leaders in place who can scale. Making this a priority benefited my teams tremendously. Individuals with the traits described above were resilient culture carriers who instilled confidence, trust, and good-will in the organizations they were involved with. They were best suited to manage constant change and rapid growth, and most responsible for the ultimate success of the organization.

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Jonathan Shottan is an Executive-in-Residence at TCV.

The views and opinions expressed in the blog post above are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of TCMI, Inc. or its affiliates (“TCV”). This blog post is not an offer to sell or the solicitation of an offer to purchase an interest in any private fund managed or sponsored by TCV or any of the securities of any company discussed. The TCV portfolio companies identified above, if any, are not necessarily representative of all TCV investments, and no assumption should be made that the investments identified were or will be profitable. For a complete list of TCV investments, please visit www.tcv.com/all-companies/. For additional important disclaimers regarding this document, please see “Informational Purposes Only” in the Terms of Use for TCV’s website, available at http://www.tcv.com/terms-of-use/.

 


The Rise of Augmented Marketing: Q&A with Michelle Peluso

Michelle Peluso has spent the past two decades helping to forge a new relationship between people and technology. She started her first company, Site59, with a group of friends in 1999 and later sold it to Travelocity, where she served as CEO during the “roaming gnome” era. Peluso became an Executive Advisor to TCV before joining Citibank as Global Consumer Chief Marketing and Internet Officer responsible for the digital experience of the bank’s 100 million global customers. Peluso then took the helm at fashion pioneer Gilt, which she later sold to Hudson’s Bay Company. She became IBM’s first Chief Marketing Officer in 2016 — a move that highlights the transformation of marketing into a core corporate capability.

Still an Executive Advisor to TCV, Peluso remains committed to discovering how marketing can redefine relationships with customers, a transformation that requires curiosity, agility, innovation, persistence, and resilience. In this exclusive interview, Peluso discusses:

  • How the CMO’s role has changed in the last decade
  • Four trends that continue to revolutionize marketing
  • How the rise of ‘augmented marketing’ will challenge CMOs as never before

TCV: It’s widely acknowledged that there has never been a more challenging time to be a CMO. How have you seen the role change since you founded Site59 in 1999?

Peluso: It’s no wonder the average CMO tenure is only 2–3 years and has seen a drop over the past two decades. It’s a hard and incredibly dynamic role, as marketing has shifted from a thoughtful, functional discipline around creatively amplifying the company message to a much more dynamic, real-time, analytical  —  and creative  —  driver of client experience, revenue, and company performance. Expectations have never been higher for marketers, and the new seat they have at the table is an amazing opportunity for the best of them to grow and lead.

TCV: It’s easy to say all these changes have been driven by the rise of the internet. But there are several distinct trends that are reshaping marketing…

Peluso: Clearly four major shifts have shaped, and are shaping, how we can connect with customers, how we can analyze our effectiveness and drive results, and how we need to lead our respective organizations. First was the era of digital. For me, this was the beginning of the internet, making transactions and content interactive, convenient, and more personal. Then, we entered the era of social, which has been all about engagement and authenticity. Social toppled the notion of hierarchy and forced brands to think differently. Third, we have seen the era of mobile, which began with mastering the art of a smaller screen but evolved into much more as the focus has been about location and real-time and always-on engagement. These three eras have dramatically reshaped every industry while elevating the role of the individual, with far-reaching consequences.

TCV: That’s three…

Peluso: Right. We are now on the cusp of the era of cognitive learning, or as we call it at IBM: Augmented Intelligence (AI). We’re building fast and smart systems that understand vast amounts of unstructured information, such as natural language and imagery, recognize data patterns to create recommendations, continuously learn from these recommendations and many other sources of data, such as books, medical records, and conversations with humans and finally, interact with humans in a natural way. AI lets us better understand and engage with our customers; it enables us to make more precise bids on advertising and improve ROI across every dollar spent, and it will fundamentally shift the paradigm of how consumers interact with websites. Arguably, we are already starting to see this with new AI home devices and natural language interaction.

TCV: This new vision will require an entirely new way of doing things, which is a significant change for any company, much less for a massive organization like IBM. How does a CMO drive these kinds of changes within such an established framework?

Peluso: The cognitive change is no different than any other large-scale change management program. To be a cognitive company, you need to be clear about your mission  —  what challenges do you want to solve? What decisions do you most want to improve? You need to have the assets, which are all about your data sets but, even more, your team, marketers, developers, and data scientists. And, of course, you need the right tools. Companies new to AI should identify a handful of specific problems they want to address and apply AI tools to solving those problems. Then, repeat the process to address new challenges. This way, a corporation will see meaningful and measurable results as they evolve into a cognitive company. Patience is required. Companies must learn how to use AI, and these systems also require learning, so “training” the system is critical. It’s a classic crawl, walk, run.

TCV: How does this new approach to marketing change the way you look for and hire the right talent for ‘augmented marketing’?

The traditional marketing waterfall process  —  develop a creative idea, send it to advertising, media, and a CRM team, and then analyze results  —  can no longer keep up with the pace of the market today. I take a lot of inspiration from the Agile movement, which fundamentally reinvented the technology development process. At IBM, we’re applying Agile to our marketing function, and that means creating small empowered teams with the right skills, clear accountability, sprints, and a constant focus on prioritization. When you adopt Agile, you can see how different marketing becomes, and the emphasis it puts on hiring Agile teams that have a strong mix of creative, process, digital, and data science skills.

TCV: What role will marketers have in identifying and developing new technologies for the augmented marketing era? Or will that function remain within the realm of the IT department?

Peluso: AI is about man (or woman) AND machine. Users of all sorts, not just developers or CIOs, can use AI in small and big ways to help them solve the most difficult problems. That’s the promise, and we’re starting to see this at organizations all over the world. Marketers will play a critical role in how AI is developed and applied. One of the many things I learned while working with the TCV team and their companies is that it’s fundamentally important to be insatiably curious about technology because the most successful marketers are as analytically rigorous as they are creative.

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The views and opinions expressed in this Q&A are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of TCV or its personnel. Executive Advisors are typically independent consultants who are not employees of TCV but have a strategic relationship with TCV and/or provide valuable advice or services to TCV and/or its portfolio companies. For additional important information regarding this post, please see “Informational Purposes Only” under the Terms of Use section of TCV’s website, available at http://www.tcv.com/terms-of-use/.