CarTrawler’s Bobby Healy: Driving Dublin Travel Tech

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CarTrawler CTO Bobby Healy talks to Dublin Commissioner for Startups Niamh Bushnell.

Established in 2004, CarTrawler are one of Ireland’s most successful Travel Tech companies, providing travel brands worldwide with a direct connection to over 1,300 car rental agents in over 30,000 airport and city locations in 174 countries. They also own and operate the Holiday Autos, Argus Car Hire and Cabforce brands. In 2014 alone, CarTrawler was responsible for 2.5 million car rental bookings – equivalent to a total transaction value of €0.5bn. The company currently employs 450 people in Dublin, London, Boston and Helsinki, and is private equity backed by BC Partners and Insight Venture Partners.

CarTrawler CTO Bobby Healy is an experienced inventor and technology entrepreneur, specialising in booking engine software. He joined CarTrawler in 2005 having begun his career building computer games for Nintendo at 16 years of age. Prior to joining CarTrawler, Bobby founded Eland Technologies, which he later sold to airline technology giant SITA. His booking solutions are now in use by 80% of the world’s top 20 airlines. Bobby continues to be an avid computer programmer, and is a renowned thought leader in the Travel Tech sphere.

Talk to me about the Irish Software Association Awards ceremony. CarTrawler won Software Company Of The Year
Myself and Mike McGearty, our CEO, we’re at the dinner in The Burlington Hotel, and we had the rest of the team at a table with us, all ten of us. Eight of them were women and then there’s myself and Mike, the two old men. And we were conscious that with all the awards that night, it was middle aged men picking up the awards, the CEOs or whatever. And there wasn’t a single – or at least if there was I didn’t notice – female on the stage, yet the place was full of women that were driving the businesses. So we got our Chief People Officer, Gillian French, who’s amazing and is hugely responsible for our success, and said, “It would be a bit of fun, a kind of poke in the eye, to send up all our CarTrawler women on the stage.” So all eight of them went up and got our award. It was a bit of fun, and we were very proud of it.

That’s fantastic.
Yeah, it was great. So at our company, I think we’re about 53% female overall. We have our strengths and our weaknesses in that regard. We have three times the national average of female people managers, relatively. But we only have one female in our exec team. So we do a bit of navel gazing. We try to understand why that is. We have this discussion all the time. We’d like to think we’re all feminists, but you know, our credentials say that at a certain level of the company we are, but above that level we’re not. We know it’s an advantage – purely, cynically looking at it – if we could take advantage of all the female talent out there. We’d have an advantage over everyone else.

Dublin is cool. And I always look back at what Bono did and all the cool stuff that came with it. It makes a difference.

How do you guys hire and what matters – skills, experience, culture?
We’re a technology company and right now it’s really difficult to get technology people. The market’s getting very saturated now. There’s going to be – if there’s not one already – a spiral in this. And we do the guerrilla marketing. We attend the meetups. We make friends with programmers. We use our network and we branch out. And most of our hiring, we do through networks. We don’t do it through the typical agency cycle. We still see ourselves as a startup even though we’re ten years old. We do feel like a startup and when we incentivize someone, it’s as much about the emotion and doing interesting work – which is genuinely true, it’s really interesting work – as the environment, the fun part, the social part. So we’re not Google, we’re not Facebook, we have more to offer than that. You could literally come here as a data scientist and you could have a project that in six months’ time could mean you personally deliver a 3-4% upside to our bottom line. That’s measurable, direct impact.

That’s exciting, isn’t it?
It’s beautiful. It’s less measurable for programmers, but at the same time, we only hire very senior programmers, with a minimum about ten years’ experience. They work, typically, on their own. They architect, design and build everything themselves. We still have the luxury that we’re innovating, we’re doing so much new stuff that we can give people big, chunky projects to work on. So we don’t lose people. We have zero attrition in our programmers.

Wow.
But at the same time, it is hard to find senior guys, you know. So this year, for the first time, we’ll do a European tour of cities and then bring candidates back to Dublin to hire them here.

Are you going to be on that?
Of course. I’m a programmer, so I have the credentials. I can talk to them, make them feel all comfy, talk about the code, talk about the ideas, talk about algorithms, talk about my experience, all that stuff. And I’m 46 years old, so I’m a little old to be taken seriously, but at least we have that alignment so I can talk to them directly. I’ll ask them the questions I want to ask, not trick questions, but ‘What do you love to do?’. I met a data scientist yesterday, he had seven A1 honors on his Leaving Cert. He’s the thirty-third out of fifty-five thousand people on the Leaving Cert. He has a PhD in theoretical physics. And he’s going to join us. And I’m very excited about it. And all I want to know is, hobby wise, does he love to write QR code. “And tell me about that, when did you start doing that?” And all that stuff. Our tech team is very much hobbyists. And we wouldn’t target people that don’t love to do it. You can’t be good at something you don’t love doing.

I feel that Irish companies are innovating globally and leading the pack in Travel Tech.
Yeah, it’s funny. There’s quite a concentration of TravelTech stars in Dublin. I go to all the trade shows, I speak at all the trade shows all over the world. It is absolutely dominated by successful Irish businesses. Some have been around a long time, the Datalex’s, the OpenJaw’s and so on. Then there’s the new kids on the block, like Boxever. Culturally – and this really comes down to the subtleties – people just like us more. And that is a fact. If I’m up against a Brit or a Californian or whatever, I bet you I can get the customer to want to work with me ahead of anyone else. And that is not to do with innovation, it’s about relationships. You have to have credentials. You have to have something else that they want as well. But we do have an edge.

Do you think because we’re so likable we’re more innovative? Can those two things be connected to each other?
They’re separate, they’re distinct. I think we might be more pragmatic, that our innovation comes incrementally from existing businesses and sectors. So for TravelTech, you see a lot of the companies had existing domain expertise. They’ve known the sector and they’ve innovated within that knowing what the target market would be, knowing that there’s a problem that needs to be solved. It’s less Silicon Valley on an innovation level, but it’s more achievable, more investable. You should have a better hit rate with that approach, especially if we keep getting the investment, free flow of cash. I think we’ve culturally and environmentally got an advantage over a lot of other places. And we’re English speaking.

That’s massive.
And Dublin is cool. And I always look back at what Bono did and all the cool stuff that came with it. It makes a difference. Before there was substance, cool came and that attracted people with substance and fostered substance.

What’s the cool stuff that happened?
Culturally, Dublin seemed cool. People wanted to be here. Music came out of here, U2 back then, The Script more recently. I know it sounds ridiculous, but it works, right? It’s the same as the hippies in California, the surfers and all that stuff, which laid the roots for Silicon Valley. I think we have an environment here where we could have the multi-tiers, the big rockets that may or may not take off. Businesses like ours, they have substance to them. They’re kind of organic, businesses that just grow bigger and bigger and bigger. So long as we don’t sell too early, as long as we finance and refinance in order to grow – we have 460 people here now – we’ll be up to 650 in twelve months’ time. We’ll be 1,000 in two years’ time. We have a great future ahead of us, like many Irish businesses. There is some constraint because of the size of our market, which gets helped a little bit with the Googles and the Facebooks because they bring the people in and we feed off that. The ecosystem is there, but not on the scale that you’d need it. With continued government support, I think it will be.

One of the misconceptions about Ireland – and Dublin in particular – is that the multinationals that are here are just here for property and tax. But what I’m seeing is a great collaboration between multinational companies and our startups and one feeding off the other, feeding back and forth.
We have an ecosystem of big companies, startups and things in between. And they do feed each other because the big guys bring in worldwide expertise, and masses of talent. I mean, look at the number of nationalities at Google or Facebook. It’s just amazing. These people spend two years there, they get their credentials and then they want to do a startup themselves or they want to be a part of the startup. We feed off them and it’s great. So give them a friendly corporation tax, because they’re feeding the much more important indigenous industry that will thrive, and will be sustainable.

You guys are very good at thought-leadership. What got you guys into that, and what would your advice be to other startups who want to be thought leaders?
The first time I heard the phrase ‘Thought Leadership’ coined was by IONA, by Chris Horn. You’ll see that the reason all the big Irish tech companies, the Datalexes, the Openjaws, the reason we’re all successful is because we all do that. It’s hugely important and a major part of our success. When I’m invited into small companies, the first thing that I say is, “Whatever you do, thought leadership needs to be a part of it, because you punch above your weight with that.” Just find a subject of interest and be an expert on the stage about that subject. And then you’ve created a brand halo. People will want to talk to you, they will respect you and they will want to do business with you. That’s how we’ve ran our business, on the stage at the airline and airport conferences talking about behavioral economics, data signs, UX conversion optimization, all these subjects people want to hear about. All you have to do is grab a microphone and you’re the expert. It’s a hugely important sales device. Funnily enough, I recommended that approach to one of the startups in Dublin and he stole my entire deck and pitches at the same conferences I do, so I shot myself in the foot a bit. (laughs)

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