Travel search engine Skyscanner recently gave its chief executive and co-founder, Gareth Williams, the chance to take a break.
To mark a milestone of 50 million people across the world using its website and apps, the Edinburgh-based firm launched a search for someone to become chief executive for a day.
The company received thousands of entries from budding users hoping to take over the reins, but one entrant stood out and Skyscanner offered the role to Chris Herd, an offshore accommodation manager from Aberdeen, after he impressed the firm with his insightful and well-thought out suggestions for Skyscanner’s vision.
Herd spent the day with Skyscanner earlier this month at its Edinburgh headquarters, tackling all of the important chief executive duties it had set out for him, such as strategy meetings, one-to-ones with many of its key staff, and even presenting his suggestions to a panel of senior Skyscanner figures.
Skyscanner sat down with Chris over a business lunch to grill him on his motivations for applying for the role, his key thoughts on the product and Skyscanner’s future, as well as his insider take on the office and the staff he’d met.
Q. You work in offshore accommodation refurbishment, and your background is in architecture… what made you decide to apply for CEO for the day?
A. I spotted the advert for the position initially, thought it looked really interesting and figured, why not? Personally, I’m very interested in both business and technology. I read about both those subjects regularly. I’m also intrigued by the peer-to-peer economy, which I think it an element of online sites that’s is becoming more and more relevant. I think the work which Skyscanner does fits into that perfectly, due to the size of platform that it offers to its users. I think there is therefore a unique opportunity there for it to do more in that area. I also think it gives Skyscanner a great opportunity to explore the mind of someone who actually uses the product on a regular basis. It gives the company a chance to gain valuable in-depth insights from an outsider, which they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to access. You can go out on the street and ask questions of people, but actually having someone external come in and give an outsider’s perspective having spent a whole day there is completely unique.
Q. Do you feel like your contributions have been listened to during your day as CEO?
A. I feel like I have definitely contributed my opinion and been listened to. This morning I had an orientation of Skyscanner and its Edinburgh HQ. After that, I met with many of the key staff, and we exchanged conversation, with me hearing about their background in the company and them also listening to my insights and suggestions. I was also tasked with pulling together a presentation on my insights and suggestions for the future, which was received really well by the staff I presented to.
Q. Can you summarise, based on what you’ve learnt today, what Skyscanner’s strategy is moving forward?
A. It’s difficult to answer that in full detail as a company of that size obviously has so many strands to it, but from speaking to the staff internally, I think the key focus remains what it has always been: to service the needs of its users in the best way possible. They will continue to want to offer the best service possible to the largest amount of people and continue to meet the demands that the users place upon them.
Q. How did you find the culture of the company?
A. To be honest Skyscanner is so different to what I experience day-to-day normally, in terms of the company’s culture, how it operates and the clear perks of the job for the staff. Staff, and myself today, are able to work in different locations in the office, from hot desks to pods, to bean bags, which is very different from the typical office experience – the atmosphere and culture is far from boring; it’s the opposite really!
Q. Skyscanner’s CEO Gareth is an infamous doodler. How did you get on with the drawing doodles and playing ping pong part of the CEO for the day job description?
A. I think that as part of a creative process, doodling is a prerequisite of a creative mind. The way Skyscanner is, it’s about exploring possibilities and for Gareth that obviously helps him to think innovatively. In terms of the ping pong, Xbox and other activities they have on offer to staff, coming from an architectural background, I think actually coming to a final design and creating something of substance, doodling and having ways to relax, I find actually helps the creative process.
Q. What will you do with the £2,500 prize money?
A. I think it will have to be a holiday next year; that would seem fitting!
Q. What are the most stand-out things you’ll take away from your experience at Skyscanner?
A. I really enjoyed speaking to Martin Burge – Skyscanner’s first employee, where I learnt how Skyscanner had evolved so much from the beginning and how it got to the stage it is in now with the 50 million users per month it now has, and their 700 staff. I also loved seeing the culture of a technology company and how they’re maintaining the start-up feel.
Q. What’s surprised you most?
A. Probably the network and how well people seemed to integrate together. When I went into the lunch room, everyone seems really friendly and to genuinely be at ease alongside each other. Having an atmosphere like that breaks down a lot of the barriers that can sometimes exist in workplaces in a corporate environment. This competition has shown that if someone has a good idea and it has value in it, that Gareth in particular is willing to listen to it and learn himself from it in order to better the company.