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THE BACKGROUND

Popular travel site Expedia had its humble beginnings as a travel booking division by Microsoft in 1996, known as Microsoft Expedia Travel Services. The goal was to provide a groundbreaking method for customers to research and book their trips.

In the early 2000s, American media and internet company, IAC took over Expedia and what followed was a string of other ecommerce site acquisitions: Hotels.com, Hotwire, TripAdvisor, and China’s eLong.com.

“Buy, not build” would become the company’s repeated business strategy. Five years later in 2005, Expedia was listed on Nasdaq.

“We are always opportunistic,” commented Mark Okerstrom, Expedia’s then CFO. “The M&A team is never closed for business. We are always on the hunt for interesting opportunities and we’re fortunate to have an incredibly strong core business, which gives us the confidence to go out and do some of these acquisitions that are a little bit more intensive.”

Expedia Southeast Asia

Source: Expedia

THE CHALLENGE

Technology, as with most industries, has disrupted the travel business at a blink of an eye, shaping the expectations of travelers. New forms of “travel tech” such as fare comparison, travel design and emerging business models like Airbnb’s share economy, shook an industry that relied on travelers thinking only “where do I sleep?”

The internet granted people the luxury of a hassle free travel booking; best location, best hotel, best flight all for the best (lowest) price on one platform.

The arrival of Airbnb in 2008 changed the mindset of travelers – mainstream hotel chains no longer attracted them. Travelers sought property in remote, funky neighborhoods and relied on the local know-how of their host to explore destinations. Could Expedia compete with its traditional hotel offering?

Expedia Southeast Asia

Source: Phocuswright

THE STRATEGY

In order to cope with the volatile industry, Expedia did what it does best – opened its wallet for another acquisition. The company added Airbnb competitor HomeAway to its portfolio for a price tag of $3.9 billion in 2015.

Expedia Southeast Asia

Source: Nikkei Asia

The acquisition helped Expedia increase market share but is still behind Airbnb. In Q2/2017, Airbnb captured 15% of the global home-sharing market while Expedia and Priceline secured 12% and 9%, respectively.

Expedia, already with a stronghold in North America, realized that it needed to focus on emerging markets where 50% of the world’s millennials live and where its competitor, Priceline, established a leading position via Agoda.com and Booking.com.

Asia’s travel industry is expected to rise with a 12% CAGR during 2015 – 2020 to reach sales of $434 billion.

Asia Pacific is expected to remain the main driver of this performance, registering a 20% CAGR over the next five years, as internet adoption picks up in the region.

Expedia Southeast Asia

Source: Skift.com

In an attempt to compete with Priceline’s popular Booking.com, Expedia made a recent investment of $350 million into Indonesia-based Traveloka to bolster its presence in Southeast Asia as the company services six of the region’s primary markets.

“The US used to be the driver of our global strategy and other areas would follow,” expressed Dara Khosrowshahi, then CEO of Expedia in June 2017, only months before embarking to Uber. “But Asia is now driving our strategy.”

Unsurprising as the region’s internet economy is expected to grow from $31 billion in 2015 to $197 billion in ten years time. Travel is estimated to account for 45 of that, according to Google and Temasek.

“Our target is to at least double our share of the online travel marketplace in Asia[-Pacific]. I think we are on our way,” said Dara Khosrowshahi.

More specifically, Dara expected to increase gross number of bookings from its non-US businesses from the current 36% to two-thirds. It’s quite possible with Traveloka as an aid because Expedia can capture more of the 168 million Muslims expected to go abroad by 2020 as Indonesia is home to the world’s largest Muslim population.

Before his departure, Dara said there are two keys to winning Asia:

  1. Understanding Asian consumer habits
  2. A mobile-first attitude

To achieve this, the company operates Expedia Innovation Lab in Singapore where it uses sensor technology to understand how users feel while browsing Expedia-branded websites in 14 Asia-Pacific markets, including Australia, China, Thailand and Singapore, most of which have larger traffic volumes coming from mobile users.

Expedia Southeast Asia

Expedia Innovation Lab uses sensor technology to understand how consumers in Asia interact with its websites and services. Source: Nikkei Asia

THE FUTURE

The company is trying to fight for a stake in the fast-growing home-rental industry in Southeast Asia, where home rentals are still illegal as regulations have not caught up to the “share economy” while expanding its core hotel-booking business.

The company already has formed strong alliances with powerful players in the region such as AirAsia. Expedia acting as an official distributor through its agency AAE Travel can bundle AirAsia flights with hotel packages. But in a nascent market such as Southeast Asia, strong discounts are only the beginning as consumers have a plethora of travel agencies to choose from.

Good news? No single company occupies over 23% market share in any major Southeast Asian country.

The name Dara Khosrowshahi has been everywhere in the news lately. Why? The Expedia CEO of 12 years has officially confirmed reports that he will be joining Uber as its new CEO.

The ride-hailing platform has had its fair share and sometimes self-inflicted misfortunes. In Southeast Asia alone, it is under high scrutiny from the Thai transport authorities calling for a crackdown, it recently paid $9.6 million in fines after the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board in the Philippines banned it, and is going up against Grab, the region’s unicorn soon to close an investment round of $2.5 billion backed by Toyota, Softbank, and Didi Chuxing.

Who is Mr. Khosrowshahi and what does he bring to one of the world’s most valuable and troubled startups?

A great answer was shared by angel investor Terrence Yang, excerpt below:

In a perfect world, Uber would just hire Sheryl Sandberg. But in the real world, there’s no way Sheryl would ever join Uber. If you were Sheryl, would you? Becoming Uber CEO poses massive downside risk and and only moderate upside for Sheryl.

Among other things, former CEO Travis Kalanick keeps meddling/trying to come back, Uber has massive problems with recruitment and retention, Uber is highly unprofitable and probably needs (not wants) driverless cars to happen sooner than later to make the economics work (but Alphabet’s Waymo is suing Uber for, shall we say, inappropriately appropriating and basically colluding with Lewandowski to steal Waymo’s self-driving tech).

Here’s what’s great about Dara:

  • Dara is a grown-up Travis. Like Travis, Dara was and remains ruthless, smart, tough. But unlike Travis, Dara developed empathy and soft skills that Travis failed to do for years. Dara is also much more humble and learns fast, including learning soft skills.
  • Travis was the right person to lead Uber when he did. Uber was the fastest growing big startup company in the world by some measures. It’s a truly impressive accomplishment. Travis will go down in history for that. But Travis also went down – because Travis never evolved. Dara did. That’s why Dara is the best realistic choice for Uber.
  • Jeff Immelt and Meg Whitman just don’t know much about the travel industry. I don’t see how leading GE, eBay or HP is very relevant to leading Uber. Dara’s experience is much more relevant (and, no, you are not going to be able to hire the CEO of Lyft right now).
  • Dara bought HomeAway, which competes with Airbnb. Expedia also tried to compete with Airbnb directly. Airbnb is a good model of how to technically violate laws (e.g. turning homes into hotels) without pissing off so many people. Unlike Uber. And Dara is even an investor in freight startup Convoy. Uber is trying to make UberFreight a success.
  • Dara started as an investor in Expedia and CFO of that investor. Benchmark is suing Travis in part over Uber’s lack of CFO.
  • Dara learned to be a great CEO of Expedia. He’s been ranked in the top 100 CEOs in 2015 and 2016. Expedia stock and revenues are doing great.

Southeast Asian startups need…adults?

The lack of experienced digital professionals, coined the talent challenge, has always been a looming backdrop to the bustling nature of startups, especially in emerging markets like Southeast Asia. As long as someone was able to get the job done, they were hired. Age was just a number.

But given the growth of these companies from a team of 10 to 300 in the span of a few short months, businesses need leadership and maturity, two things that usually stem from experience. This is not to say that older means better but that a great leader is able to recognize what a company needs at Stage 1 is completely different than what it needs at Stage 3 and willing to implement the necessary changes.

Dara Khosrowshahi Humility

Source: Medium, Al Doan

Given the 48-year old’s track record leading Expedia to become “one of the largest online travel companies in the world” and positive reviews by Expedia senior execs, it isn’t surprising that 93% of employees told company review site Glassdoor that they currently approved of his leadership.

How many startups in the region can confidently say their leaders are this well-received?

Probably one of the biggest indicators of his maturity and most importantly, humility, is witnessed from the memo he wrote to Expedia staff regarding his departure obtained by Recode.

“This has been one of the toughest decisions of my life. I’ve had the privilege to run Expedia for 12+ years now, and most of you who have been on this journey with me know it has not been easy going.”

“I have to tell you I am scared. I’ve been here at Expedia for so long that I’ve forgotten what life is like outside this place,” he added.

Best of luck Dara.