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Dohop, a metasearch site specializing in flights and based in Iceland, has a set of challenges based on its location and diminutive business resources (population 323,000) that its peers don’t have to deal with.
CEO Kristján Guðni Bjarnason, who serves as a freelance mountain guide in his minimal spare time, says Dohop’s location and market position means it has to think differently.
Among the tweaks, past, present and in the game plan, Dohop decided to focus on the B2B side of the metasearch business about four years ago and now has some 8,000 affiliate relationships, according to Bjarnason, offers a self-connection option giving travelers flight-combination possibilities that are hard to find elsewhere, and Dohop is planning to revamp its site in 2015 with the aim to combine travel inspiration with metasearch.
“One thing to add is that our being a small company, much smaller than the big guys, we are capable or willing to take more risks in product development and to change our site,” Bjarnason says. “We have to do that when we’re competing against the big guys. We have to.”
Skift spoke to Bjarnason about Dohop’s challenges and the way forward.
An edited version of the interview follows:
Skift: What is it like building a flight search engine out of Iceland?
Kristján Guðni Bjarnason: Yes, that’s challenging out of Iceland or any small market because the population is so small and even though we are a well-known brand here, that caps our revenue. We don’t have a big base to grow so we have to think differently and that forced us into some innovative marketing. Four years ago, we we went into B2B for flights. We were probably the first ones to do that. We sort of outsourced the marketing to really anyone out there who wants to have flight search on their website.
Building flight search out of Iceland made us think globally right from the beginning. We were forced to do so. For example, Kayak had Europe as an afterthought and now it is trying to do what it takes to enter Europe. We thought globally. We translated our sites to as many languages as soon as possible. We added supplements for currencies, but it is mostly organic for us after that because we don’t have that big focus on traditional marketing.
Skift: What are your biggest markets in terms of your partners out there?
Bjarnason: In terms of white label partners, the U.S. is number one. Then Middle East is very strong for us as well. Then it spreads into Western Europe, Scandinavia, the U.K., Germany, and Russia is also growing quickly for us now.
Skift: What do you offer that you think is particularly attractive for countries in the Middle East?
Bjarnason: Well, it’s an emerging market so there are a lot of marketers that are wanting to enter the travel space. They’re looking for a consumer affiliate for flights and we are one of the only ones out there that has been around for a while. If you just search for flights and affiliates, then you see us as a number one resource among the top five on Google, for example. We also translated our website into Arabic a year ago. That came a little bit after we saw growing traffic from the Middle East so I think that might help, as well.
I think in the Middle East they don’t have any strong online travel agency brands. They might be actually be skipping 10 years of OTA history.
Skift: What about running your business since you are located in Iceland? Do you have trouble attracting tech talent or business development talent?
Bjarnason: Iceland has a high-tech community where people go abroad for further higher education. We have four universities here. A lot of us go out to Scandinavia or to the U.S. to do a Master’s or for a doctorate in engineering or technology. Most of us come back to Iceland so we have great talent for technology. In terms of business and business development, our choices are not as good. We don’t have many strong consumer brands coming from Iceland. We are strong in certain industries, but not in consumer brands internationally. We had to learn by trial and error a little bit with the team here on the business side, on the marketing side, and then we need to find people with that experience.
Skift: You say you have about 8,000 or so affiliate partners?
Bjarnason: That’s right. Yes.
Skift: Why would a company partner with you rather than Skyscanner or Kayak for flights or Trivago for hotels? What is it that you bring to the table that’s different?
Bjarnason: Our approach is different than those companies you mentioned; our flight search is different. We create content by connecting flights between airlines that are not interlining. We call it self-connections. You find an itinerary such as Norwegian from New York to London and then easyJet to southern Europe and that’s hard to find elsewhere. This can be a great deal for the consumer.
Skift: How are you finding these connections? Are they readily available? Do other sites have them and just don’t put them together? How do you source them?
Bjarnason: It’s something we create ourselves and price with airlines and OTAs help.
Skift: What can you say about how the company is doing in terms of revenue or sales or profitability? Can you shed light on any of this?
Bjarnason: We have been profitable the last four years. We raised a small amount of internal funding this year and we will go after another one, a much bigger funding round, probably in the middle of next year.
Skift: And that will be used for?
Bjarnason: Work on new product developments and marketing.
Skift: So you are leaving most of your marketing in the hands of your partners, right? How do you compete and what’s the next step for you guys?
Bjarnason: The next step for us is we need to do better and focus on the big guys. That’s really what we need to do to compete and get the traction on the partner level. We’re doing product development on inspiration features earlier in the travel planning phase. We want to grab the users earlier than we do today and have them get inspired by great deals and potentially all the tech as well.
Skift: Many metasearch players are rushing to start in-app bookings? Anything in the works for on this front or anything else?
Bjarnason: In Q1 next year we will be launching meta booking. We are looking at low cost carriers, a few of the major ones in Europe. We are also looking at partnering with major airports in Europe and working with low cost carriers and airports particularly on the connections between low cost carriers.
Skift: What is an example of taking more risk in product development than others?
Bjarnason: We are working on a totally different version for our website. We are willing to take some risk which might confuse the user and we need to teach them how to work with the site but the advantage can be great. It’s sort of mixing metasearch with inspirational sites. I think that is a risk that metasearch sites with much higher revenue wouldn’t be willing to take.
One thing to add that our being a small company, much smaller than the big guys, we are capable or willing to take more risks in product development and to change our site. We have to do that when we’re competing against the big guys. We have to.