“I believe we have a strong and specific culture and it’s important to preserve it”

Posted on 19/04/2022, Carol Barnes

On 17th April, Kiwi.com celebrated 10 years since it took its unique place in the travel industry. We brought the concept of Virtual Interlining (self-connect itineraries) to the world which is an innovation that changed the possibilities for booking travel and enabled travelers to select their itinerary based on the best route and the best price available, no matter the airline.

In that time over 50 million seats have been sold, we have hired 78 nationalities and registered 300 Kiwi dogs to come to the office. We’ve put on more than 1,500 events and workshops, celebrated weddings of 20 Kiwi couples and welcomed the arrival of 200 babies born to a Kiwi.com parent. 

Remembering those first years when Kiwis spent all their time in the office working, working and working, our CEO Oliver Dlouhý shared, “You’d have a quick sleep and then get back to it. We were sustained by green tea and Redbull!  I remember around mid-April, which means it must have been about the time of our first birthday, a comment from one of the team where they realized it was Spring – they had been so busy, head down since December they had missed an entire winter!  I think my most vivid memory was reaching the 5-year milestone, where we had arrived at a point in the growth of the company where we no longer had to save every penny and allowed ourselves to have one hell of a party by renting out Brno Airport in its entirety,” said Oliver.

We asked Oliver more about those early days, about the Kiwi.com team, surviving the pandemic, and his expectations for the future.

How has the company changed from those early years in your view?

Back then there were no rules, it was one big ‘punk’, completely free-spirited. We would have an idea in the morning and it was in production by midnight. And somehow we had a lot of luck, just as the saying goes – the harder you work, the luckier you get. However, when you follow your gut you can also make lots of mistakes. And we did make mistakes and invested in projects that didn’t work out. It makes me realize how far we have come, as if we had had better preparation as we have now, it could have saved us a lot of money back then. But the projects that succeeded covered the losses, and we survived. We did though start to realize this is not a sustainable way to grow the business so we started hiring more senior people who had experience with more structured planning and management of the company and over the years we have transformed into a relatively predictable business when it comes to delivery and when it comes to forecasting. 

The pandemic – what did the last two years teach you about running a business?

Nothing is ever certain, it is important to hope for the best but prepare for the worst.  

Only companies with solid business models providing a lot of customer value can survive in a time of crisis. Kiwi.com is a bootstrapped business, profitable from day one, backed by General Atlantic, the best partners I could imagine for times of growth and also for times of crisis. Thanks to all of that, the pandemic has never been an existential threat to us.

However, the havoc caused by all those flight cancellations, and also the fact that many airlines simply kept their customers’ money for the canceled flights, put our reputation with our customers at risk. We have spent the last two years using all the levers we had to recover money for canceled flights from the airlines so we could pass it to the customers. As well as that we have invested in making our processes and services better for our customers by introducing products and services that address these issues for our customers, so if there should ever be the next time we will be better prepared.

What would you class as Kiwi.com’s biggest accomplishment since you founded the company 10 years ago?

Survival! Travel start-ups, in general, have a very low success rate, but they say that if you survive 10 years you survive forever. Of course, I am not being complacent and I know that the market is volatile and all of that but I believe that we have built a strong company, profitable, with a solid business model that brings lots of value to its customers.  It’s a healthy business – we are here for the long term and survived the biggest crisis in the travel industry and today we are in much better shape, providing lower fares than ever before. Two years ago it really looked like the pandemic will slow us down at best. But last week, we actually hit an all-time record of processed bookings and customers served.

Do you still work side by side with some of the original employees from the early days?

Yes, there are many people including of course my co-founder JK (Jozef Képesi).  Some people have left, some people have come and we still have a strong core team from those early Skypicker (our original name before we rebranded in 2016) days.  Kiwi.com has a very strong and specific culture and it’s very important for me personally and also, I believe, for the success of the business to preserve this culture. Our culture is very open and transparent.  Everyone, regardless of level in the organization, is approachable by anyone else.  It is context-driven, rather than just giving orders and expecting people to execute blindly. Anyone can challenge or comment on any decision we make and we take it all seriously and are willing to evaluate every single decision if it is constructively challenged. 

We started as punks, we majored up, but we are still punks at heart, just that we are that much more responsible, as it’s not just for us but also for our kids who depend on us. And that is why we are very sensitive when it comes to bringing in talent and mixing it in with the veterans of Kiwi.com to make the right balance. 

What do you see for Kiwi.com in the coming years?

First of all, we continue focusing on the customer, the customer experience, and providing the value which will lead to a more loyal audience that comes to Kiwi.com through our app and website directly.  We will invest in being the top-of-mind brand in various markets as we believe a direct relationship with the customer means we can bring them greater value. We have already seen success from our initial focus on a direct-to-consumer model. As our direct customer audience grows, we will look towards an IPO when the time is right.