• Gareth Williams: 'Why not be one of the 100 biggest websites in the world? What's to stop us?'
Working as an IT contractor in London in 2001, Williams liked to organise his work into two-week blocks, alternating with two weeks off. This allowed him to regularly visit his brother, a ski instructor in France, and indulge his passion for the slopes.
He wanted to secure the cheapest flight deals but with the variety of carriers, routes and destinations on offer, this became an increasingly time-consuming task.
"When I thought about resolving that, it struck me as inherently a job that required automation," Williams, chief executive of Skyscanner, says.
He spent about a month's worth of spare evenings putting together a simple spreadsheet that collected data on prices and routes to get to the Alps. He was joined by friends and fellow IT consultants Barry Smith and Bonamy Grimes and, before long, Skyscanner was born.
Now headquartered in Edinburgh, Skyscanner has grown to provide price information on more than 670,000 routes covered by more than 600 airlines, and employs 68 people.
After nine years in business, Williams says one of the things he is most proud of is the fact that all three co-founders remain involved in Skyscanner. Smith serves as the company's market development director from his home in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, while Grimes heads up product development from his home base in Norfolk.
"It is quite a happy thing that we are all still working in the business and we are all still friends," says Williams, who serves as the company's chief executive in Edinburgh.
The scattering of the co-founders across the UK is the result of how Skyscanner evolved in its early days. Founded in what Williams describes as "the ashes of the dotcom bubble", external funding was not an option in the early years. Williams, Smith and Grimes financed the venture themselves, in great part through unpaid labour, and it wasn't until 2004 that all three had given up their day jobs to work on the venture full-time.
"It did take three years before the site paid the salaries of three people," Williams says. "Before that, what we had really was three people working on the salaries of just two."
Williams was the first to go full-time, so when he moved to Scotland in 2004 to marry fiance Lisa, the operating side of the business came north of the Border with him. Having secured serviced office accommodation in Leith, Skyscanner hired its first employee later that same year.
The business grew steadily, and after the early boot-strapping stage, it quickly moved into profitability. By the time the co-founders decided to seek external funding in 2007, Skyscanner had about 14 members of staff.
The firm attracted interest from investment groups across Europe. In the end, it plumped for 2.5 million from Scottish Equity Partners.
"We didn't have to take the money, we just needed it to grow faster, which made it more attractive to give us money," Williams says.
Skyscanner used the cash to expand its staff and presence throughout Europe. This heavy investment resulted in the company's first-ever loss last year, but a return to the black is expected in the current financial year which closes at the end of May. Williams says Skyscanner, now headquartered on Edinburgh's Waterloo Place, will generate revenues of about 8.5m from an estimated 90 million visits during the year.
Between January and March of this year, the site saw revenues more than double compared to the same period in 2009. Revenues in the first quarter hit 2.5m, up from 1.09m last year. Growth was driven by other European markets outside the UK.
"Our goal is to expand in Europe, and once we are clearly the largest and most successful in Europe, then we would look to Asia and the Americas," Williams says.
In the UK, Skyscanner recently overtook travelsupermarket.com to become the second-largest flight comparison site. Williams is aiming to leapfrog the current market leader, cheapflights.co.uk, within the next 12 months.
He says he has spent a lot of time pondering the difference between being a web-based business in Scotland versus one in Silicon Valley.
"It is certainly not about skills, because you can get excellent skills here," Williams says. "It is more about expectation.
"Why not be one of the 100 biggest websites in the world? What's to stop us?"
GARETH WILLIAMS was born in Norwich and had an international upbringing, spending time in both Switzerland and Canada, where he learned to ski.
He studied mathematics and computing at Manchester University, where he met Skyscanner co-founder Bonamy Grimes.
He began his career as an IT trainer, then spent the ten years prior to Skyscanner as an independent IT contractor.
He moved to Scotland in 2004 to marry his fiance, Lisa. They have two sons.