TripAdvisor Post-IPO: Five Things We Learned From CEO Stephen Kaufer

12/23/11Follow @gthuang

Merry Christmas, Boston. You asked for it, and you got it. A big, publicly traded consumer tech company to put us on the map alongside the Silicon Valley bad boys and uppity New Yorkers. I present to you: TripAdvisor (NASDAQ: TRIP).

Sure, we already have Zipcar (NASDAQ: ZIP), Carbonite (NASDAQ: CARB), iRobot (NASDAQ: IRBT), and privately held but well-established companies like Wayfair, Kayak, and Harmonix. But TripAdvisor is different. Although the online travel firm is not new—it’s been cranking here in Boston for more than a decade—it has become one of the biggest consumer-focused Internet companies on the East Coast, with more than 1,100 employees; 50 million-plus unique visitors a month checking out hotel, restaurant, and travel reviews; and, oh yeah, a market cap north of $3 billion. Yet it hasn’t received as much media coverage or tech-community-adulation as you might expect over the years. (An exception to the former would be this in-depth story by my colleague Wade Roush; the latter would be this commentary from investor Chris Dixon.)

I spoke with TripAdvisor CEO Stephen Kaufer on Wednesday, the day his company officially became independent from Expedia (NASDAQ: EXPE) and started trading on the Nasdaq under its own stock symbol. Here are my takeaways from our chat:

1. TripAdvisor wants the spotlight now. “We have generally been very, very surprised at how little attention the press have paid to TripAdvisor,” Kaufer said. He pointed to his company’s size, number of employees, traffic, revenues, and profits, calling it “the $3 billion company in our own backyard.” On the local training and ecosystem front, he says college interns are turning down offers from Facebook and Google and working at TripAdvisor instead.

2. TripAdvisor is global. Seventy-five percent of the traffic to the company’s branded websites comes from outside the U.S. Think about that for a minute. “We’re almost unchallenged in most countries in the core of what we do,” Kaufer said. And none of this is new. “We crossed that bridge years ago,” he said.

3. TripAdvisor is blazing a trail in China. U.S. Internet companies haven’t fared so well in the Middle Kingdom—see Google, Facebook, and Twitter. But Kaufer said, “Darn it, I’m not accepting those odds.” TripAdvisor has had a Chinese version for several years and now runs two of the top 10 travel sites in the world’s biggest country. Kaufer admits that competing for top business talent overseas is a challenge, but so far, so good. “We’re in the content business, and we’ve had no trouble from the government,” he said.

4. TripAdvisor is getting more social and mobile. And it’s largely through partnerships and acquisitions, such as the EveryTrail and Where I’ve Been deals earlier this year. “We buy where we think we can get a head start,” Kaufer said. “Over time we would expect to continue to do acquisitions to fill out the product line and complement our technology. The challenge for us with smaller startups is, hey, it looks cool but do people really want to interact that way? We like to see some traction in the market.” (TripAdvisor has learned from its mistakes, too. Kaufer says, “Stupidly, we tried to build up our own friend network four or five years ago. No product in our history failed that quickly. That was my idea from beginning to end. It taught us a lot of things not to do.”)

5. TripAdvisor vs. Google should be interesting. The two companies have clashed over a number of issues, from reviews on Google Places to the search giant’s acquisition of ITA Software. Ultimately they compete for travel content (user reviews and business listings), traffic, and some bookings. Kaufer was blunt about this. “With Google Flights, I think they bit off more than they could chew. You need to have the business relationships with the airlines to have a successful product,” he said. “I hope they fail.”

Lastly, I asked Kaufer about his outlook now that TripAdvisor is officially free of Expedia. “I was blessed by having pretty free rein. Each year, I’d get permission to go down a route. I was never denied,” he said. “Now we’re our own boss. It’s a nice amount of freedom.” One benefit: Expedia’s many competitors are now more likely to form partnerships with TripAdvisor.

In terms of leadership, he said, “I’m all about building the next generation of this great company, and extending our lead. We pay a lot of attention to how do we keep the entrepreneurial feel of the company going strong. I never wanted to work at a big company. Our mission is to keep TripAdvisor a ‘small’ company.” To that end, he said, the company releases new features continuously. “It’s a train that leaves the station every week. We tweak five to 10 different things every single week. And it’s done with small autonomous teams.”

“We’re huge believers in the product driving the company forward,” he said.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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