On Wednesday evening, April 22 in the Shapiro Admissions Center, the Hiatt Career Center welcomed Steve Kaufman, parent of a 2013 Brandeis graduate, the founder and CEO of TripAdvisor, to campus to give a talk about entrepreneurship. As the largest travel site in the world, TripAdvisor hosts user-written reviews on hotels and restaurants, as well as offering visitors the option to book a hotel right on the site. Inspired by having difficulty with a travel agent, and not being able to adequately research a hotel in Mexico for a 1998 family vacation, Kaufman has grown his website from the ground and earned the 2005 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award.
Following a brief introduction by the Executive Director of the Hiatt Career Center Andrea Dine, Kaufman gave a presentation detailing how he founded, established and grew his business. Kaufman worked the room much like fellow entrepreneurs Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. Escaping from behind the podium, he made sure to address the entire audience.
After Kaufman’s experience with a low-quality hotel in Mexico, his wife gave him the idea to start the website. It was a solid start, but Kaufman needed to raise money. The venture capitalists he met with supported his idea, but weren’t sure of how it could be viable. Kaufman then listed the reasons investors presented on why his idea wouldn’t work. From logistical concerns about how he would accumulate a vast library of reviews, to the more philosophical concern on how it would make money, Kaufman admitted it was disheartening to be rejected.
He explained how the entrepreneurial spirit kept him going despite the bad news. “You’re going to have some misses before you hit. You hold yourself up on Mark Zuckerberg, who was a success right away, but I had three failures before starting TripAdvisor,” Kaufman shared with the audience of mostly students. He then rattled off how TripAdvisor overcame all of these obstacles to become the success it is today, after he eventually received a small amount of funds to start the website.
Kaufman detailed how TripAdvisor flatters those who write reviews by thanking them for contributing and alerting them when someone else has found a review helpful. One reviewer has submitted over 3,800 reviews, receiving nothing in return except meaningless titles such as “Top Contributor” or “Senior Reviewer.” “I don’t know what he does for a living that he’s able to visit all of these places and write all of these reviews, but its fantastic,” Kaufman joked. In order to make money, TripAdvisor utilizes banner ads on webpages, subscription services for hoteliers to keep their pages updated and “cost-per-click” booking when visitors book hotels on their website. With over 315 million unique visitors per month, and 75 percent of this traffic being international, TripAdvisor has become highly profitable.
With plans for expanding into China, offering more personalized services for frequent visitors and the convenience of online booking, Kaufman is confident his business will continue to grow, despite the ever-changing climate of the internet. “I’m a hard-wired, Type A kind of guy. I’m worried about who’s gonna knock me off my perch,” Kaufman said, even though his website receives more traffic than Expedia, as well as the top 10 airline companies combined.
Kaufman finished off his presentation by offering the slew of undergraduate and graduate students his advice on entrepreneurship and running a business. He provided six quotes on his personal guidelines to business. From “Speed wins,” and “Done is better than perfect,” to more specific tips like, “Hire slowly, fire quickly,”but perhaps the most useful of all his tips was the last one. “Embrace change (and reinvent when times are good).” Kaufman said he doesn’t like change, and was nervous when his CFO recently resigned, but knows it is something everyone has to embrace.
Ending his presentation with a cartoon from the Harvard Business Review featuring two people walking through hell, with a caption that read, “What did TripAdvisor say about this place?” Kaufman finished by taking questions from a very engaged audience.