Image: Selvaprakash Lakshmanan for Forbes India
Steve Jobs is an icon for many entrepreneurs. We are fascinated by him,” says Stuart Crighton, 49, co-founder and CEO of Cleartrip, alluding to the posters of global entrepreneurs and their famous one-liners that plaster the walls of Cleartrip’s Bengaluru office. Crighton had co-founded the company in 2006 with Hrush Bhatt and Matthew Spacie.
With Goibibo being bought over by Makemytrip in 2016 and Yatra in the final stages of being acquired by Nasdaq-listed Ebix, the online travel aggregation space in India has seen a fair bit of churn. Cleartrip, India’s second largest online travel aggregator, has a 17-19 percent market share, and ended FY19 with an unaudited revenue of $100 million, 50 percent of which came from India.
Crighton speaks to Forbes India
about the company’s journey, and how it is helping Cleartrip move into new markets. Edited excerpts:
Q How closely do you relate to the ‘Stay hungry, stay foolish’ ideology of Jobs?
I would like to say I do. We’ve made our fair share of mistakes that have impacted us. We have tried to be honest and transparent, and help our customers solve problems. That has been the DNA of Cleartrip. We are simple in our approach, and thoughtful in the kind of products we go after. We wanted people to sample our products and give us feedback rather than tell everyone how good they were. So, philosophically, not talking much and working silently seemed to have worked. And over the last 12-13 years, we’ve been fairly true to that.
Q It has been more than 13 years for Cleartrip. How do you see India?
Anybody who has been around in India, specifically for that long, deserves a pat on the back. It’s been a roller-coaster ride. Not only in the travel sector, but in many other digital industries, too, you’ve seen ups and downs. But it has been a remarkable journey for us. Because of India we were able to enter other markets, and hopefully provide a similar level of expertise and service. But the genesis of that is here: We learnt our craft here, our DNA is from here, a big part of the team remains here, the engineering hub is here.
It’s been a long journey, but it feels like it happened only yesterday. India has that remarkable capability to throw pixie dust at you, and you wake up and go ‘wow that kind of happened quite quickly’.
Q Why has Cleartrip been frugal with marketing and operational expenses?
That’s partly by design, and partly by circumstances. We’ve always been fiscally disciplined in what we wanted to do and the business we wanted to build. Our thoughts around customer acquisition, metrics to track business, and products are all viewed through the lens of ‘what consumers want’. That’s not to say that we haven’t built products that haven’t got much traction. But if things are not working, we turn our attention to something else that makes sense, rather than throw money at something that is not solving a problem or is being fuelled by discounts and spending.
Q But you too were part of the cash burn race.
We’ve had our hits and misses, and have been able to take those learnings. In India, the most discerning customer is astute, commercially savvy and demands high quality. In 2006, the benchmark was always internal: What are our peers doing internally? But in the last eight or nine years, it has been international, with regard to the quality of the experience.
Q Do freebies translate to consumer loyalty?
Once you give customers a certain level of service and quality, there is a certain amount of love that you get. This builds up repeat behaviour. Customers come back to us not because of any financial reason or benefit, but because they like what they see and what we offer.
Q What has been your biggest learning from India?
The single most important factor is the ability to stay focussed, because it’s hyper competitive. In India, everybody wants to get into the travel business; hence it is available in many forms, which is unique to this market. Stay motivated and focussed is the biggest learning.
In a market driven by funding, the notion of building businesses rapidly and making it sustainable is somewhat misunderstood. We have gone through cycles and built something that is sustainable, but it may not be glamorous. I’m confident that 10-15 years from now, we will be a big part of the travel scene in India.
Q How difficult is it to maintain a balance between the topline and bottomline, especially when other companies have opted for a trade-off in favour of scale?
It’s hard to avoid that. We were also seduced by the idea of fast growing markets. But we realised it was difficult for us to sustain that kind of business. We have been a product-focussed company. Perhaps our competitors were focussed on marketing and branding. The way consumers engage with our product was important to us, and we were compromising a lot on that in the quest for topline growth. So the phase of cash burn was short-lived. You need to have confidence in the business you’re building. I don’t see Cleartrip, in the near term, becoming number one in terms of market share.
Q You have had a sedate pace of growth compared to your peers.
We told ourselves early on that the growth story in India is a marathon, not a sprint. We would rather deliver a solid 20-25 percent sustainable, predictable growth and maintain a robust bottomline rather than go after 50-60 percent growth. We ceded some market share, but we’re still here and growing. We have built an agile technology product that is suited to other emerging markets, where we are finding rapid growth.
Q You’ve entered the Middle East. Will you expand to other geographies as well?
We’re cautious about where we go. It makes no sense to go to Brazil or the US since they are disconnected from the core environment we operate in. But, within emerging markets, we think we have an important role in the India-Middle East-Africa corridors.
Q What’s your take on failure?
We have failed many times, but I don’t think too much about it. It’s part of the journey. I don’t think I have a badge that says, ‘Today I failed, and am proud of it’. We would rather say, ‘That sucks. That didn’t work, and let’s fix it’. What’s important to remember is come in every day and try to move the needle. That’s the secret sauce.
(This story appears in the 13 September, 2019 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)