Finance Effectiveness Benchmarking Report

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How KAYAK works to stay lean and agile through waves of growth

Operating with a start-up’s mind-set and an obsession with metrics and data, the travel search specialist pushes for continuous improvement.

The challenge: Never do anything twice that a computer can do

Founded in 2004, KAYAK developed the first travel metasearch engine. KAYAK searches hundreds of travel sites to show visitors the information they need to book flights, hotels, rental cars and vacation packages. The company processes more than two billion searches every year, and employs more than 1,000 people across seven international brands.

In 2013, KAYAK was acquired by Booking Holdings, which also owns Booking.com, Priceline, OpenTable and Agoda. Chief Financial Officer Peer Bueller and Finance Systems Head Stelian Epure say that KAYAK’s lean and agile finance function helps keep KAYAK growing.

KAYAK’s employees have a passion for data and continuous improvement. The company’s culture values measurability, metrics and an agile mind-set. The majority of employees are engineers working to improve the company’s web services. The engineers “build the software. They develop it. They break it. They put it back together. They try to make it faster, smarter, lighter, easier to use,” Peer Bueller says.

Once the company became successful and grew well beyond its original 14 employees, it added HR, finance and legal departments as a matter of course. Consistent with the unique culture of the company, those departments have worked to remain lean and efficient, and to ensure that the work they do drives the business. KAYAK has just 38 people in its finance organization. “My tax is tiny. My FP&A is tiny,” Peer says. “In comparison, I have a slightly bigger finance systems team.” That’s where Stelian Epure comes in.

A focus on growing the business

Peer explains: “Finance here is focused on seeing whether there are pieces of software out there, pieces of connectivity that we can either buy or build that make us faster.” An example is leveraging AuditBoard to improve oversight and progress tracking for their vast global control environment. This is an investment that pays itself back by saving time on audits and control testing.

In its quest to remain lean, KAYAK’s finance function has been tapping Epure’s systems team to improve finance processes through automation and technology wherever it can.

While compliance and controls are central to finance, the department’s duties extend well beyond those areas. In addition to “not messing things up,” he says, finance needs to stay “innovative and focused on growing this business, and making sure it’s relevant next year and the year after. Our competition is very much alive and changing the way they play the game as well.”

He stresses that it is a rapidly changing space, with many new entrants, and a relatively low cost of entry. “We have to constantly evolve to stay competitive in both the value and quality of the service we provide, and the customer experience.

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"Just find what really matters and start chewing on that. And whenever you feel you found something valuable, let's turn it into a process that we can automate, and then move on to the next thing."

Save time, find what really matters

For Bueller and his finance teams, to stay focused on innovation and growing the business, it is important to save time. Bueller says he and his teams strive to “never do anything twice that a computer can do for us.” As an example, he explains, “If we have to build a three-year plan for the first time, and it takes two days to do it, I'd be very disappointed if it takes more than a day if we need to do it again a year later.

I really need everybody in a mindset where if you do that kind of work, it's going to be very easy to redo it, to update it, to do it for another business. We build things in a way that can be repurposed.”

Bueller says that “where we can automate, we automate. Where we can simplify, we simplify. Where we can get it done, we get it done straight away.” This goal is shared throughout the KAYAK organization. Employees inspire each other to keep things simple and effective. Bueller notes that automation not only saves time, it also improves accuracy. But that doesn’t take away for the need for humans - in fact - quite the opposite; Bueller believes employees are the main ones to benefit. With optimal automation we decrease repetitive work, decrease the need for manual review, and ultimately increase the time our people can spend on tackling new challenges.

“Any time I walk into a business to understand a new process and people say, ‘well, I download this and then I copy it here and then I paste it in there’ – it just makes me want to pull my eyeballs out! Finance encompasses many tasks that computers can do faster with higher accuracy. And computers won't get bored doing them.”

Bueller says that he tells employees “We have more data than you will ever be able to get through, so don’t try to understand it all. Just find what really matters and start chewing on that. And whenever you feel you found something valuable, let's turn it into a process that we can automate, and then move on to the next thing.”

Epure notes that the focus on automation at KAYAK has meant that “we've been automating before the term RPA existed.” He described that, true to the company’s roots, they’re engineers, and they can program bots themselves. He says, “We're automating fixed assets, or automating if we need to estimate revenue, or any process that has repetition and logic behind it. And we've done that for quite a few years.”

Finance + operations = new opportunities

Analytics are also a backbone for KAYAK, both outside and within the finance function. The company sits in an industry where almost everything is measurable. Bueller believes that at least 90% of the people at KAYAK would classify themselves as analytical, and most have access to data.

The key is to find the right metrics to analyze in the right way to help drive the company forward. He says that Finance’s role is to “put things into perspective when it comes to ROI, when it comes to revenue and expense growth, into all kinds of ratios on a per-head, per-entity, per-dollar of revenue kind of metric, which are, I think, beautiful metrics to sum up the performance of initiatives.”

At KAYAK, Finance serves as a true business partner to operations, as the two groups work together to identify and evaluate business opportunities, make pricing adjustments and determine marketing initiatives.

Bueller attributes the company’s strong focus on automation and analytics to KAYAK’s history as a software centric startup. He says, “As a startup, you want to be profitable or at least you don't want to burn money like there's no tomorrow. And you're starting off with a culture of ‘let's do what matters and don't waste money. Don't waste time. Stay ahead of it. And, hey, given that it's so measurable, so trackable, let's make use of that.’”

Bueller also describes a tension at the company between speed and efficiency on the one hand and “making things future proof” on the other. He says that it is important to build processes to be flexible enough to easily incorporate modifications, because he stresses that KAYAK is an internet company and things are constantly changing.

Hiring for the entrepreneurial mindset

At a company that’s so focused on automation, analytics and continuous improvement, hiring the right talent is of utmost importance. Bueller explains that when hiring for the finance function at KAYAK, he looks for candidates with analytical thought processes and a strong appetite for change and risk. He also notes that employees really need to be able to function autonomously to succeed at KAYAK.

Finance employees are given access to enormous amounts of data and are expected to find their own challenges and be critical of their own progress. They are not given a daily list of tasks to accomplish or intrusive managerial oversight. Additionally, KAYAK prioritizes quality talent over lowering headcount costs.

The majority of the company’s employees work in places like Copenhagen, Berlin, Zurich and the northeastern US. None of these are low-cost labor markets. Bueller notes that this is by design, as “the money we could save on putting people in low-cost labor countries doesn't stack up to what KAYAK can add to its valuation through innovation and growth right now.”

He also says that even as the company has grown beyond its startup stage, “most people have the right entrepreneurial mindset. People treat the company’s money like it’s their own. I'd be the last person to think of classic budgets and telling people here's how much you can spend on travel next month.

I'm very drawn towards the aggressive transparency model that we see out there: “Spend whatever you want to spend, but let's be transparent about the intended impact of the spend. Then open up this ROI target as well as the actual performance for everyone to see. I love those kinds of innovations.”

Experiences that build careers

KAYAK has grown but its Finance organization has stayed lean and agile while preserving creativity. Looking to the future, Bueller tells his finance employees “the world is going to change more and more, and change is more inevitable than it's ever been. And getting better at change is vital in everybody’s career.

I want them to know that a year of experience at KAYAK should be worth more than a year of experience anywhere else. And we try to make that true with acquisitions, with change, with challenge, with empowerment.” Ongoing changes in the company and the industry will require continued agility and business improvement. He says, “the reality for Finance in KAYAK is that there will continue to be increases in complexity and automation.” However, he firmly believes that his KAYAK teams are up for the task, adding, “we'll deal with those challenges. And I think a lot of people here will actually enjoy it. As we have before, I think we'll get on top of it, make it a process again, and automate it and make it smart.”

 

This profile is part of PwC’s 2019 Finance Effectiveness Benchmarking reporting. PwC would like to thank Chief Financial Officer Peer Bueller and Finance Systems Head Stelian Epure for sharing their perspectives

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Robert Bishop

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Global Consulting Finance Leader, Partner, PwC United Kingdom

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Finance Benchmarking Lead, PwC United Kingdom

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