The story of Hipmunk: How the metasearch engine turned “suckage” into success


  • This article was written by Adam Goldstein, co-founder and CEO of Hipmunk.

When we started Hipmunk in 2010, we were trying to solve a problem we faced firsthand: the agony of searching and booking travel. I’d planned dozens of trips for the MIT Debate Team, and the average search session took hours and involved a dozen different sites.

We got a lot of strange looks when we told people that we were going after the travel space, but Y Combinator, the famous early stage investor, decided we were worth a gamble. We moved out to San Francisco in June 2010, and two months later we had a working product in time for Demo Day.

Unlike many startups, we didn’t have a set product in mind out of the gate. We considered launching as an online travel agency, for example, and experimented with multiple designs, like an Excel-based table of flight options.

Each time, we asked ourselves, “Would this approach make travel planning easier for frequent travelers?” And using that as our guide, we converged on a set of design decisions that were dramatically different than what had come before.

One of our first decisions was to not sort results by price. We believed that most frequent travelers were willing to spend a little bit more to take a more convenient flight, and that flight options should be sorted by a combination of price, duration, and number of stops.

Originally, we named this sorting metric “suckage,” but the day before we launched, we (wisely) changed it to “agony.”

Our “agony” sort caught on like wildfire, as did our time-based presentation of flight results. We reduced the number of clicks users had to make by putting all the results on a single page, and we used then-state-of-the-art web technology to make results update instantly when users updated their sorting or filtering settings.

A year later, we built on our flight search success by launching a hotel search experience. We pioneered new approaches there, too, combining a list and a map on a single screen and searching hotels and vacation rentals at the same time.

As our innovations captured the attention of frequent travelers, and our competitors slowly started copying some of our features. We knew all along we were going to have to continue innovating to stay ahead, and that’s exactly what we did.

We launched one of the first travel chatbots – Hello Hipmunk – that’s now helped thousands of travelers plan trips to all corners of the world. We also recognized that frequent travelers typically tend to travel for both business and leisure, and so we started building features that really resonated with business travelers, like the ability to search for a company name on a map and see the hotels nearby.

We took it further, allowing users to connect their calendars and see the hotels near their meetings and the flights that would get them in on time.

That focus caught the attention of SAP Concur. Together, we talked about the power of putting that Hipmunk experience in front of SAP Concur customers, like the tens of thousands of small businesses that weren’t yet ready for a fully managed travel solution.

Those efforts came to fruition last year with the launch of Concur Hipmunk, a lightweight travel and expense product that takes the work out of business travel and helps small businesses save money. And it’s also catching on like wildfire: Since launching, more than 900 companies have signed up to give their travelers a way to quickly plan and book travel – all while unlocking travel rates exclusive to small businesses.

This year, tapping into learnings from the Hello Hipmunk chatbot, we helped build the Concur Travel bot on Slack, specifically for business travelers who want to get their travel planning done quickly. And we launched the most advanced search experience in the market for users deciding between different fare classes, so travelers can compare the full cost and benefit of the growing number of fare classes.

Most startups coast when they get acquired; innovation slows down as they settle into complacency. I’m proud that we’ve gone in the other directionz: Our pace of innovation has increased since we were acquired, and in the coming years we expect even more to come.

  • This article was written by Adam Goldstein, co-founder and CEO of Hipmunk.



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