Reshaping Online Travel and Surpassing AU$100M ARR From Sydney
Fireside Chat with Mike Ford, Founder of SiteMinder, and Dave Yuan, GP at TCV
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- Whether we were going to go global or dominate locally, and what the timing would be.
- 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.
Dave: Outside of SiteMinder, what in online travel gets you excited?
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).
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.
Dave: Thanks so much, Mike, and congratulations again! AU$100 million ARR is an amazing milestone that only a few reach. Savour it!
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.
Originally published at https://www.tcv.com on May 29, 2019.