The eight-year-old website Kayak.com has become a major player in the travel-search industry. The $224 million Kayak Software Corp. processed almost 900 million user queries last year, but it still has a small-company culture, with 173 employees in Concord, Norwalk, Conn., and Zurich. Paul English, the cofounder and chief technology officer, uses the site to book his many travels; according to his Kayak.com app, he has flown 283,176 miles in the past two years. The 48-year-old West Roxbury native recently spoke with reporter Katie Johnston about recent changes at the company and the big red phone he answers when customers call.
Last year you started letting visitors book hotels directly on Kayak, and in March you added flight booking, starting with Air Canada. How does this change the game for Kayak?
It’s causing some angst internally. We still have in our DNA that we’re a search-only site. But now that we let people complete the purchase, we have to rethink how we do certain design. It’s everything from the size of the link and how many pages you go through to the color of the price.
Last fall, you joined other online travel companies in putting up a fight against Google’s move into the travel business. How has Google’s entry affected you?
It hasn’t impacted us from a commercialization standpoint. Let’s look at January. Our numbers this January were 40 percent bigger than they were last January. We had over 100 million searches for travel in January, so we continue to grow very rapidly.
You redesigned Kayak’s iPhone and iPad apps, but stopped maintaining your BlackBerry app. Are there really that few BlackBerry users out there?
It’s declining. And the other thing is BlackBerry users don’t actually buy things.
I hear you sometimes answer the phone when customers call.
I love customer support. I had a really fun call recently from an older gentleman who was trying to arrange flights for his daughter in South Carolina to visit him in West Palm Beach. And he was saying well, maybe this date, maybe that date. And then his wife got on the phone, and she went through the whole thing. I said, “Have you tried doing a search on your computer?” And she said, “Well we don’t own a computer.”
So how did they know to call you?
She was calling from an old-age home and my cellphone number was posted up, because there are times when I will call a customer back and I will actually give them my cellphone number. If someone has a problem traveling, I really want to fix that problem.
Why do you take the time to do that?
We don’t actually have support people. Our engineers do all the support. If the programmer has to answer the phone and gets yelled at three times a day, the programmer actually fixes the code. I have this red phone. It sits on my desk, and when it rings, it’s really loud. And the engineers said, that’s really annoying. And I said, that’s the point. It’s all about trying to make the engineers feel the pain and trying to make us understand that travel’s hard.
The Kayak team likes to play pranks, I hear.
The programmer who first designed our [iPhone] app was being interviewed. We had like 12 of us all sitting there, and while he’s being interviewed on camera, we all pummeled him with snowballs. It’s on YouTube somewhere.
Kayak was embroiled in a bit of a controversy last year when it pulled advertising from TLC’s “All-American Muslim” reality show after a Christian group called on advertisers to boycott the series. Did that create a backlash from customers?
It hasn’t at all. We didn’t pull from the show. We just decided not to renew. Now you’ll notice that our CMO [chief marketing officer] made kind of a flip remark. He said we pulled it because the show [stunk]. He probably shouldn’t have said that, but he does enjoy pointing out to people that they actually have canceled the show.
You’re known as an aggressive hiring manager, reaching out to superstars in the industry who aren’t even looking for work.
I’m always recruiting. Whenever I travel, the joke at Kayak is when we land, people say, OK, how many people did you hire on the plane?