Seek Out Internal Experts
I came to Match.com in September 2004, excited to find the next level of growth for the online dating service. But the seeds for my arrival were planted when I was a brand manager for Intuit in the mid-1990s. I worked for cofounder Scott Cook. What a stroke of luck. Cook, a P&G vet, brought a brand-management mentality, focus, and methodology to running Intuit. I was shocked and thrilled at the level of engagement that Scott had in my first product, Quicken Financial Planner. He has got the curiosity of a kid and is always interested in learning. He believes the customer has all the answers. Barry Diller’s much the same way, and that’s why I wanted to work for him.
IAC just had its annual retreat down in Laguna Beach [California]. I’ve been to a gazillion retreats over 15 years, and they’ve all sucked. But this was different. Barry had people tell five-minute stories from their business about obstacles they’ve overcome, or what they’re an expert in that others can learn from. There’s an IAC company called ServiceMagic, and a big part of how it has built its business is through an affiliate network. We leverage affiliate networks at Match, too, but we’re far from being experts. It was a little five-minute thing, but then during the break, I spent some time with the co-CEOs. Now my affiliate guy is working with theirs to make sure we do what they do because they’re world-class. What’s that worth? Because all the products are complementary, people are very generous with sharing. You’ve got to be proactive in seeking it out, though.
Jim Safka was brand manager for Molly McButter nonfat butter sprinkles out of B-school. He’s still passionate about them but happy to run a product doing more good for society.
Make the Benefits Mutual
San Francisco, California
I took over at Hotwire in October 2004, but I had always been fascinated by the people there. They’re smart, scrappy, entrepreneurial spirits. Hotwire is just coming out of startup mode, and we have a ton of opportunities in front of us. Because of Priceline’s shift, we’re now the only site focused on the discount traveler. About 50% of people in the United States have never heard of Hotwire. So we have a tremendous opportunity to build awareness.
There’s very little bureaucracy or corporate pressure to try to create synergies between businesses at IAC. It’s more that we’re encouraged and the environment is made fertile for us to do deals. For example, we’re working with Interval International, which does time-share trades. It has hundreds of thousands of vacation days in time-share hotel rooms that go empty every year. So it’s perfect self-interest on both sides to get together and ask, How can we sell this? That’s something a discount-travel customer would be interested in. We can both make money. And because we’re all part of one company, we don’t have to deal with contracts and legal. We can just put together a basic agreement and tell finance how we want the money to flow.
It has to be allowed to flow naturally. I’ve been in environments where you try to model upfront what synergies you think there will be, and it never works out that way. Don’t demand too much too quickly. Try to create a frictionless environment. Over time, it does bear fruit. The hardest part is being patient.
Bob Hohman, an engineer, has been writing software since he was 9. As a teenager, he wrote Cobol code for an accounting firm. “I got all the girls,” he says.
With a Little Help From Friends
Los Angeles, California
Evite is a destination for social-event planning, and I’m a social guy. I was drawn to it, in 2001, because it was a business in a petri dish. It had a 12-person team, was becoming a household brand, and had a simple business model. The goal, while also simple, is big: How do you take this cool service with a cool user base and make a business out of it? That’s been my challenge. As you can imagine, that was Barry Diller’s loud marching order, too.
We’re trying to do this by leveraging our database of 66 million emails and the billions of relationships therein. For example, we partnered with Citysearch to launch a bar/restaurant guide. People still turn to their friends for trusted reviews. So when you’re planning an event, you can see what your friends have recommended.
I’ve found it surprisingly easy to work with other companies. A lot of my fellow senior executives come from Citysearch, where I started my career at IAC. It helps to have these friendships across the company. Technology has also allowed these integrations to happen more easily. Finally, when Evite plugs into Citysearch, we’re driving traffic to their existing businesses. So we can set up an amicable revenue share deal.
We’ve averaged 100% traffic growth and 100% revenue growth for each of the past three years, but Diller’s not happy. Nor am I, because Evite is still a niche RSVP-management tool. He thinks it can be the engine that redefines the way information is accessed on the Web. I share those ambitions, so he’s preaching to the choir when he pushes me.
John Foley plays DJ at Evite’s offices, spinning hip-hop to country, trying to build a good culture. He takes requests.
Share Best Practices
I remember when I decided to be in the hotel business. I was 11 years old and on vacation, watching all these people serving other folks, smiling and bringing smiles to customers’ faces. From then on, it never occurred to me to do anything else. Being in the hotel business for 15 years before I came to Hotels.com, we had always lived with the problem of marketing rooms and having the consumer understand what you have available. Then it became wonderfully obvious in the late 1990s that the Internet was going to be a great way to connect hotel consumers with suppliers.
I became president of Hotels.com in January 2004. The challenge that I face, which I think is probably the same for every Internet exec, is trying to move fast. One thing that helped is IAC’s formal cross-company conversations about expertise and how to leverage it across the company. We share best practices in marketing, HR, customer relations, call centers, and so forth. There’s a lot that comes out of these meetings. We contributed our targeted approach to email marketing and the way we buy direct-response advertising. LendingTree and some others later adopted our approach. In thinking about improving our call centers, that team realized that a peak demand period for us is an off period for Ticketmaster, so now they help us out when we need it. Barry’s big on us working together where it makes sense strategically.
Hotels.com became part of the company in June 2003. The biggest change since has come from IAC’s culture: It has taught me to challenge myself and my team every day. When you think you’ve challenged yourself enough, go back and do it some more. Our business is so dynamic, you have to get everyone to think, to be strategic, to create, to innovate, and to always think about what our customers and suppliers are looking for from us.
Cheryl Rosner is asked every single day what her favorite place to stay anywhere in the world is. She wouldn’t tell us, either.
Similarity Breeds Success
Founder and CEO, LendingTree and IAC Financial Services and Real Estate charlotte, north carolina
I was fairly reluctant to sell LendingTree to InterActiveCorp. But we got to the point in 2003 where being part of a larger organization would help us succeed. We needed capital to invest in our real-estate business. I wanted to be part of an organization that was entrepreneurial and had similar values.
At first blush, it may seem weird to have a financial-services company as part of a company mostly focused on leisure activities. But all of us are creating services that look out for the user, that are focused on wedding customers with suppliers more efficiently. So LendingTree’s way of plotting strategic opportunities, its relevance and doability, has been employed by other IAC companies, particularly in travel, because we’re in the same business.
IAC has provided expertise in terms of process, negotiation, and how to integrate companies into the fold. In acquiring companies to build out our financial-services and real-estate business, I have learned the importance of making sure that we bring in those with management teams whose goals are aligned with ours, and putting compensation plans in place to back that up.
The culture depends on empowering leaders to make decisions and run their businesses successfully. It’s very results oriented. Facts carry the day, as opposed to politics. With the amount of capital that IAC has, we can think bigger and more long-term than we could when we were a public company. I think it’s a great balance for an entrepreneur.
Last July, Douglas Lebda competed in the CEO Ironman Triathlon in Lake Placid, New York, finishing in 11 hours and 51 minutes.