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THE WAY I WORK

The Way I Work: Paul English of Kayak

Kayak.com co-founder Paul English is obsessed with customer service. That's why he bought the most annoying phone he could find.
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At a time when many Web companies go out of their way to make it difficult to contact them, Paul English is a customer service fanatic. When people contact Kayak, the travel search engine English founded with Steve Hafner in 2004, English makes sure they receive personal assistance from real employees. Given that Kayak has a staff of 100 and that millions of visitors come to the site each month to compare prices for airline tickets, hotel rooms, and rental cars, that's no small commitment. In his spare time, English, 46, even started a website, gethuman.com, to help consumers circumvent the Kafkaesque automated phone systems of large corporations. English, who has founded three other businesses, including an e-commerce software company that he sold to Intuit in 1999, acts as Kayak's chief technology officer, overseeing 60 engineers and product designers in Concord, Massachusetts. On any given day, you might find him tracking down potential hires, going for a run with his software engineers, or personally answering calls to Kayak's customer hotline.

I always wake up with a lot of energy and more ideas than I can get done in a day. I usually meditate for a few minutes to quiet my mind before I get out of bed. I get up around 6 every morning. After I check e-mail on my BlackBerry, I go exercise. I've been practicing yoga for about 10 years. I built a meditative room in my house.

After that, I eat breakfast and then drive my son to school. He's 14, and my daughter is 17 -- she has her own car. Driving my son to school is really important to me. Sometimes, if I have a business trip, I'll drive him to school, fly to California for the day, and then take the redeye back so I can take him to school the next day.

About two or three days a week, I have morning meetings -- mostly with nonprofits. I'm involved with a lot of different projects, including Partners in Health and Village Health Works in Burundi. It sounds sappy, but there are certain fundamental rights that I believe all people should have. Kids shouldn't be dying of drinking dirty water.

I usually get to the office around 10 a.m. and check my calendar. Often, I'll need to go straight into a meeting. We have offices in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and California. We started with the first two because my co-founder, Steve Hafner, lives in Connecticut, I live in Boston, and neither one of us wanted to move. We got a California office when we acquired one of our competitors in 2007. Steve and I talk every day, either on the phone or by instant message, and we can practically read each other's minds. If an issue comes up, I know how he's going to weigh in and vice versa. We trust each other. If we ever get in a fight over something, whoever feels more strongly about it wins.

Every week, Steve and a few others from the Connecticut office come here for meetings. We spend a lot of money buying keywords on Google and Yahoo, so we analyze how those purchases are going. On a typical day, I might have six or eight meetings. I have an assistant, and my general rule is that half of my day is scheduled and half is unscheduled. I like to walk around the office -- see what's going on and work on product issues and design strategy.

We have an open office environment. I sit out with the product managers. We hold design meetings at one another's desks throughout the day. We do design interaction like that, where everyone can hear and anyone can jump in. If anyone needs to make a private phone call, there are a few private offices, but our general philosophy is that an open environment facilitates intellectual intensity. Most engineers are introverted. Here, when people overhear a discussion, we encourage them to walk over and say, "There's another way to do that."

I get about 400 to 500 e-mails a day, and I probably send about 120. At any given moment, I'll have only 10 items in my inbox. When an e-mail comes in, I read it and decide immediately: Delete, reply, or delegate?

Customers are a big source of my e-mails. Anytime anyone contacts us with a question, whether it's by e-mail or telephone, they get a personal reply. The engineers and I handle customer support. When I tell people that, they look at me like I'm smoking crack. They say, "Why would you pay an engineer $150,000 to answer phones when you could pay someone in Arizona $8 an hour?" If you make the engineers answer e-mails and phone calls from the customers, the second or third time they get the same question, they'll actually stop what they're doing and fix the code. Then we don't have those questions anymore.

About a year ago, I bought a red telephone with a really loud ringer for the office. Whenever a customer calls the help number on our website, that phone rings. The engineers initially complained about it. They said, "That's so friggin' annoying!" And I'd say, "There's a really simple solution: Answer the friggin' phone and do whatever it takes to make that customer happy. Then hang up, unplug the phone, walk it down to the other end of the office, and plug it in down there."

It's like hot potato. Except I take it seriously. When the phone rings, I literally jump over the desks just so I can get to the phone before anyone else. I love talking to customers, even angry ones. I learn a lot from them about how to make the site easier to use. When the call's over, I'll say, "If you have any follow-up questions, my name is Paul English; I'm the co-founder of the company." I'll give out my personal cell-phone number. Only one out of 20 people might actually call, but they're blown away when I do that.

We have four monitors in the office where you can see real-time streaming information about the site -- how many visitors, how many click throughs. It also displays the last customer e-mail that came in and the photo of the employee who answered it. So you're walking by and you see, "Oh, Dan just answered a question." We developed our own customer support software. One of the things it does is randomly select an employee response to a customer and send that response out to the entire company and to all of our investors each day. It keeps us on our toes.

I keep noon to 2 p.m. open, because I like going out to lunch. It's also a time for me to socialize. We have a very active work force. Some days, a group of seven or eight of us will go out for a run. Or we'll go out and play basketball, volleyball, or tennis. I like to encourage that. We had showers built in our offices.

I spend a lot of my time on recruiting. You could ask anyone in my office, "What are Paul's priorities?" and they'll say: "It's team, No. 1. Then customer, then profit." I really want to create the ultimate, most exciting dream team that's ever been created in software, and I focus on that every day. I love to ask people, "Who's the smartest person you ever met? The most creative person? The fastest?" Someone might say, "This guy I met in Ohio 10 years ago, but I think he moved overseas." I'll track him down.

I once hired a guy because he had an Olympic medal in rowing. That blew my mind. I thought, This guy is hard core, and I bet that translates. I love diversity of success. But I also like diversity in style, thinking, and language: The engineers here are German, Greek, Russian, Italian, French, Indian. One of my missions is that we will be able to answer every customer call, in any language.

When I am hiring, I try to get people to accept the job before I tell them about salary or title. I promise to make that person dramatically more productive, and that working for Kayak will be the most fun job he's ever had. I need two things in return: a promise to strive to be the absolute best you can be. And that you will be an energy amplifier -- someone people are excited to work with.

A lot of companies have the "no assholes" rule. So if the greatest programmer ever is also a jerk, he's fired. Our rule is "no neutrals." So when the new guy walks down the hall, is my team drawn to him? Or do they divert their glance? If they divert their glance, we fire that person. I call it the hallway test, but it's more of a conceptual thing. The idea is when you put superstars together, you can ask, "What did you do today that excited the people around you and made them better at their jobs?" If you can't give examples, I don't want you here.

I do all of the firing. At times, I've fired maybe one out of every three people I've hired. That might make people think I'm bad at hiring, but I think I'm quite good at hiring. The only way 100 people can ever build a larger company than one that has more than 8,000 people -- that's what Expedia has -- is by hiring Olympic-quality, unbelievable all stars of technology. My favorite metric is revenue per employee.

I travel about once a week, but most of my trips are quick. So I'm in California meeting with the team there or investors. I'll help Steve with business development and look at companies we're trying to acquire. I like to take my kids with me on longer trips. A while ago, my daughter came with me to a global health conference in Zambia. We got a week of close one-on-one time.

We work really hard for 40 to 45 hours a week, but we believe in people having strong personal lives. Over the past six years, there have been maybe five times I've spoken with Steve before 8 a.m., after 5 p.m., or on the weekend.

My drive home is 20 minutes. Rush-hour traffic doesn't bother me. When I get to red lights, I like to play this game with myself -- I look around me for something extraordinary. It might be sunlight hitting a building a certain way. For the last several years, I have been studying Buddhism. It has taught me to be a better manager and how to deal with things that 10 years ago would make me really angry and frustrated. I work on trying to be present -- in the moment. It's something you can actually train yourself to do.

After work, if my kids have a sporting event, I will go to that. During baseball season, I go see the Red Sox. When my son was 6, we started going to games together. He loved it, but for me, it was really an excuse to sit next to him for three hours uninterrupted. Over the years, though, I got hooked. Now that he's 14, he wants to hang with his friends more than his dad. So I invite friends to games. But my son and I still go down to Fort Myers [Florida] every year for spring training.

Every Tuesday night, I have an open dinner at my house. I'm one of seven children, and six of us live nearby. We're very close. Anywhere between four and 15 of my relatives will show up for dinner. I'm not a great cook, but it's fun to have people over.

I read for an hour every night before going to bed. I love reading books by Indian authors. I'll also read books about global health and Africa, as well as a murder mystery now and then. But I don't like business books. There are so many things in life that are more interesting than business.

Last updated: Feb 1, 2010




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