WILKES-BARRE — No, the founder of travelocity and kayak.com, Terry Jones, is not confused with the eponymous comedian from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, although this Jones readily admits that the other always comes out on top in a Google search for their shared name. “My real name is Terrel,” Jones said, “but I don’t like that.”
And no, Jones didn’t come up with the idea of a leprechaun for the Travelocity mascot. “That was after I left,” he said, “but he kind of looks like me.”
The founder of two companies that have since helped transform the travel industry and other start-ups, Jones will be the next speaker at the Allan P. Kirby Lecture Series on Oct. 21 at Wilkes University. The talk will begin at 7:00 PM at the Dorothy Dickson Darte Center on the Wilkes-Barre campus.
The title of the talk is “On Innovation: Powerful Ideas to Create a More Innovative Organization,” and looking at his resume, Jones is ideally suited to comment on the topic.
“I came out of university and I thought I would go to Vietnam. I had a low draft number. But I was rejected because of my eyes,” Jones said. Through a college roommate, he got the chance to travel the world for a year on a TWA Airlines connection, which led him to get into the travel industry. “Six months in the manager said ‘let’s do a start-up’.”
So they did.
At a time when, in the Iron Curtain era, barely a handful of companies were given the go-ahead to participate in travel to Eastern Europe and Russia, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev sought to thaw the Cold War. This led to work on an automated ticketing system, still a new idea in the industry, which was sold to American Airlines, where he got his next job and worked his way up to Chief Information Officer.
There, he helped develop travelocity, a new business idea made possible by the deregulation of the Internet. “It was pretty much the third startup I worked at,” Jones said, except it was a startup within an existing company, a concept often referred to as entrepreneurship. “I ran it for six years,” he added, but chose to leave when American’s computer division bought Travelocity.
Then the company came up with the leprechaun, which Jones said was a good idea. Not only did it give travelocity a recognizable icon, it reflected the company’s idea that although it was computer-based, it was a personalized service, so “you never travel alone”.
From there, Jones moved into the venture capital world and secured support for his next start-up, kayak.com, which he helped run for eight years before selling it to Priceline. The difference between travelocity and kayak seems small, but was a big innovation.
“In travel and in most e-commerce, you convert about five to seven percent of the people who appear on your website into sales. That’s really awful,’ said Jones. When trying to figure out what was going on, it turned out that people used Travelocity to find the flight and airline they wanted to use, then went straight to that airline to complete the transaction. Kayak “created a site that, when you click on what you want, will take you to that site.”
In fact, since your kayak had already been used to choose the flight, day, time and everything else, you went to the page where you complete the transaction, with your name and credit card number. “There weren’t many sites that did that back then.”
Kayak has also worked hard to make its version’s mobile app fast and easy to use when smartphone apps were still pretty clunky. For the modern consumer addicted to the ability to do everything from their phone, speed “makes all the difference”.
While doing other start-ups since then, including one flop, Jones has built a career as a speaker. At Wilkes, he’s going to “talk about really good principles of innovation,” he said, noting that the idea of change when everything seems to be going well used to be hard for successful business people to grasp, although that may have changed thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. 19 pandemic and all the changes it forced.
“The two things that I think are most important are culture and team,” he said. “The culture has to be one that understands that you’re going to experiment a lot to see what new ideas are good, and you’re going to fail. In the corporate world, failure is not welcomed. You have to be willing, as a leader and as a company, to kill projects, not people.” So a failure should not be a permanent black spot on an employee’s work record.
In business, “your delivery muscle gets a whole lot stronger than your discovery muscle,” he said, meaning you focus on making what you’ve done and forget about looking for new ways to do business. “You make quarterly profits over and over, and when the world moves on and that stops working, you’re the buggy whip man.”
He mentioned Dyson, which started as a vacuum company, but recognized that the technology to move a lot of air quickly had other business potential. “So they went into all kinds of air care, air treatment for the office, hand dryers in toilets. They innovated around their core technologies.”
To get a solid team, Jones said, “It’s not about hiring your best friend, it’s about hiring the best person.” travelocity searched for the best engineers worldwide. “And the last question you ask them is ‘who’s the smartest person you know, and then you go behind?’ That guy.”
It’s all about “innovation” and “disruption,” which Jones says are “two sides of the same coin” (and the subjects of two separate books he wrote). “The only reason you call it disruption is because you didn’t do it. You ask “how did that start-up do that”, instead of “how could we do that?”
Jones gave an example: he was asked to speak to a national limousine association after Uber started changing that company. Uber has long maintained that it is a technology company that develops apps that connect drivers with riders, not a car service company. The people of the limousine association ‘asked ‘what should we do with Uber?’ I said “get some software!”
He rattles off many similar stories about companies looking to change before their core businesses are overwhelmed by outside disruptions: car companies announcing the move to fully electronic vehicles, Shell moving from oil production to building car charging stations, and self-storage companies fully automating the process. to the point where a customer can ask to pick something up and have a robot do the work.
“You have to listen and see where the trends are,” he said. “You have to ask yourself, where is that going to lead?”
Anyone wishing to attend the lecture, which will also be livestreamed, can register at wilkes.edu.
Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish