SM: What are your thoughts about exit?
CL: I don’t think Elvis will leave the building for a long time yet. We’ve certainly had offers that would have made me a very wealthy man, or at least a guy with a very loud car stereo.
When I started this company I knew that we had a lot of broad market indicators pointing in our direction…fragmentation of media, migration of ad budgets to online, travel emerging as a lifestyle, explosion of online publishing and lack of barriers to entry. Still—I never really thought that this would roll out to be a big enough to become an IPO opportunity. I thought we’d possibly be an acquisition target by a media company that wanted to dominate the travel sector of online advertising or a travel distributor that was surprised by the advent of advertising as travel distribution model.
In our early days I had to be realistic: we were really only a rep firm and rep firms don’t have IPOs. But as we’ve realized how much easier the business gets as we scale, how effective our new products and advanced targeting are, we’ve begun to re-think that.
If international expansion continues the way it has and travel distribution continues to shift to an advertising model, then we might just be able to pull off the holy grail of exits. For now there’s no sense exiting until we figure that out.
SM: What are some of your key learnings from this journey so far?
CL: It’s hard to know where to start…it’s fun to think that an organization will grow to reflect you. Unfortunately, the way that a company reflects you is like a cloning exercise in a science fiction movie. The organization captures a few of your good characteristics but it multiplies your flaws. Nothing shatters your pride more than watching this process happen. If you hire the right people and bury your pride you can make the organization grow to reflect the best aspects of its management, without amplifying your flaws.
One of the things that we learned early on was that it is often important to take stands on principle. We didn’t pursue RSS ads or podcasting early on despite a lot of pressure to do so. Bob and I just didn’t think that it would work out for Travel. It turns out that we were right.
But we also took a stand early on not to pursue behavioral targeting because we didn’t think it would be as effective as contextual targeting. We were uncomfortable with the privacy issues. We thought it was just another flash-in-the-pan way to extract value from remnant inventory and a trick to get the last view through conversion.
It turns out that we were wrong on at least three of those four reasons. We’ll see where the privacy issue sorts out. But we were standing on a principle, not listening to the market. Once we decided behavioral was essential for travel advertising, Scott Cherkin has helped us catch up to everyone else, but we were slow out of the gates and this was a mistake based on our standing on a platitude rather than listening to the market.
On a personal level, I’ve learned to trust my co-workers more than I ever thought I’d be able to. And they’ve delivered more than I ever expected. We’ve all pushed each other to levels that I never thought we could achieve.
SM: Cree, this has been an absolute pleasure. I wish you the very best!