This is a big year for HomeAway: It is retooling its business model, and will attempt to get its mobile products in order. Good thing it has experts to lean on.
Brian Sharples, the co-founder and CEO of HomeAway, places his hands on the table, holding a tablet in one palm and pretending to clutch a smartphone in the other.
“These are two different things,” Sharples says emphatically, as he explains that tablet users rent vacation homes through HomeAway almost at the same propensity as desktop users, but potential guests wielding smartphones browse a lot, but hardly book at all.
He goes so far as to say that tablets almost shouldn’t be considered mobile devices when it comes to vacation rentals because customer behavior on tablets so mirrors desktop behavior, while advanced booking of vacation rentals at this point may be too complex on incongruous for smartphone use.
Sharples tells Skift that he admires what Kayak has done in mobile, and that when Kayak’s Steve Hafner asked Sharples to join the Kayak board early in 2012, Sharples agreed to do so, but there would have to be a quid pro quo.
Sharples says the informal agreement was that Kayak co-founder and CTO Paul English, whom Sharples labels a “genius,” would have to spend three days at HomeAway’s headquarters in Austin, Texas, talking about mobile and customer service.
You can symbolically get a feel for the Kayak-HomeAway mobile gap in glancing at their respective Securities and Exchange Commission filings.
Kayak, which still gets most of its revenue from flight search, has seen its mobile apps downloaded 20 million times in the four years since introducing them, and the company mentioned “mobile” 88 times in its third quarter report.
HomeAway, on the other hand, is in a very different business. In its recent annual report, HomeAway mentions “mobile” just four times; there are no statistics about downloads, and most of the references have to do with risk and the competition.
HomeAway has a mobile site plus iOS and Android apps that can be used by owners and guests, and is in the process of retooling its mobile efforts, Sharples says.
Version 2.6 of HomeAway’s iPhone app, released February 25, gets a rating of just 1.5 stars in iTunes.
Sharples says English has a relatively small team working on mobile at Kayak, and the company has managed to make sure that the user experience across myriad platforms are relatively uniform. “Kayak did that brilliantly,” Sharples says, with apparent sincerity.
A hotline for developers
After English’s visit to HomeAway, the company decide to adopt one of English’s signature customer service initiatives: some of HomeAway’s developers and product people now take customer service calls on a hotline so they learn first-hand how their work impacts real-life users.
Sharples says he also picked up tips from Kayak on the advertising front, particularly in how Kayak measures return on investment.
But, Sharples says the Kayak-HomeAway information exchange wasn’t a one-way street, adding that he could give Kayak some advice on the IPO process.
“I have taken two companies public,” Sharples says, explaining how he gave Kayak an operator’s perspective to supplement the financial guys who were whispering in Hafner’s ears.
Sharples says he’ll be sad to leave the Kayak board, assuming Priceline’s acquisition of Kayak gets final approvals.
The mutual admiration society is evident.
Paul English says of Sharples: “the best thing about him is his reckless decisiveness. Kayak founders are known for this a bit as well, but Brian has been very helpful on the board to make sure we’re keeping the pace up.”
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Photo credit: HomeAway is in the process of retooling its mobile apps. It gets great conversion from tablet users, but smartphone users mostly just browse around. HomeAway