Profiles of Innovation
Vacationing with HomeAway: Success depends on the people
New businesses sprout from ideas born a myriad of ways, the consistent source of success though is passion and there are few things we all get more passionate about than a good vacation.
But HomeAway, the Austin-based vacation rental company was not founded by travel advisors or vacation consultants; it was founded by technology geeks who love vacationing with family and knew there was an untapped market awaiting discovery.
Brian Sharples came up with the idea. He'd successfully led Intelliquest to a very successful IPO and sale and then consulted for the biggest names in global technology.
Carl Shepherd provided the technological and operational expertise gained as COO of Hoover's online.
"In some places its just cool to do certain things," said Sharples. "And in Austin it's cool to be an entrepreneur, and its cool to work for a start-up, just like it is in Silicon Valley."
Together, they built and bought their way to becoming the world's largest vacation rental marketplace. HomeAway started vacation rental sites in many markets around the world and purchased 17 vacation rental websites. "We realized that in markets where there was already a strong leader, a quicker path to success for us was to buy that company and then integrate it into a national network," said Sharples.
Creating a global company from scratch takes experience and a commitment to building a strong, consistent corporate culture. When you work with something as fun as vacation, you really have to work to make work fun too.
"The biggest thing that I’ve learned in my career is that in the end, success is all about the people you bring in," explained Sharples. "You’ve got to create an environment that people want to come to everyday.
"I mean this piece of real estate on this corner (Sixth and Lamar) is right across from Whole Foods, right across from Starbucks, on the hike and bike trail and expense wasn’t the issue for us, the issue was we need a location that makes people just fired up to come in to work everyday."
Travel collections cover the walls of the building. Snow globes, skis, travel books and more create a professional environment that constantly reminds of employees of the customer experience.
"You see all over this office that the art are collections of travel souvenirs. They aren’t collections that we went out and acquired, they’re collections that have come from our employees and from our customers and we wanted everybody to be part of the building and the culture of this space."
"If you don’t have people that are passionate about the idea, they won’t join you as a start-up," added Shepherd. "If they can’t be affected by that [start-up excitement], you can’t pay them enough money and you can’t keep them here. You want the people who are going to be excited."
HomeAway's turning point might be defined by the biggest sports event on the planet. During Super Bowl XLIV HomeAway, just a young company, rolled the dice. "The Super Bowl ad is reflective of my side of the partnership we were looking for a very bold ad campaign," explained Sharples.
The ad featured Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo reprising their roles as Clark and Ellen Griswold from National Lampoon's Vacation. According to the company, visitors to the website went up by more than 500 percent following the commercial resulting in over one million page views. News about the company went around the world. "It was a huge, huge public relations success, it’s what really put Homeaway on the P.R. map."
Here's that ad:
Sharples and Shepherd have not played by the traditional rules of entrepreneurism. Sharples says they didn't even have a business plan when they received their first influx of cash. That was representative of the respect they carry as busnessmen. But then again they say, they're in Austin. "In some places its just cool to do certain things," said Sharples. "And in Austin it's cool to be an entrepreneur, and its cool to work for a start-up, just like it is in Silicon Valley. And Austin is this place that prides itself on being different, unique and weird and local and, well, being different and weird is what entrepreneurship is all about right?"