A talk by Paul English of Kayak.com in Nairobi, Kenya.

In the early part of last week, I had the opportunity to attend a talk by Paul English at the Norfork Hotel in Nairobi, Kenya. I have to confess that I had never heard of Paul English until the previous week when Paul Kukubo of the Kenya ICT Board prompted me to make it for the talk which was to happen at the Norfolk Hotel.

Paul English, by the way, happens to be a co-founder and CTO of Kayak.com, a leading global travel search engine that helps consumers find the best travel deals from hundreds of travel service providers online. Apart from being quite successful and serving millions of customers a month (with a team of only 100!), Kayak.com has to-date raised in US$ 230 million in funding, which is impressive by any measure.

Paul English was in Kenya primarily as part of the JoinAfrica.org initiative. JoinAfrica.org is a bold project to explore the creation of two tiers of wifi access in Africa, the first one being a “text-only” low bandwidth solution that is free, and the second tier being paid access to the full internet. The second tier will be owned by African entrepreneurs.

To achieve the goals of JoinAfrica.org, Paul English is also working with the FabLab in Nairobi which is a joint initiative with MIT of the US to develop technology that would be deployed in the field and be low-cost yet durable and appropriate for Africa. You can see below one of the WIFI prototypes developed by the FabLab (yes, that’s a wood frame, and wire mesh, and it works!)

As it turned out, courtesy of our legendary Nairobi traffic, I got to the talk late but I did manage to glean some nuggets of wisdom that Paul English spoke about with regards to innovation, entrepreneurship and of course Kayak.com. I found Paul English to be remarkably pragmatic and he exudes the hallmarks of a seasoned business leader – there was no fluff about the guy – he was all authentic about how to get results as a tech innovator and a business.

Paul talked about his philosophy of employees first, customers second. On first hearing Paul make this statement I was surprised since everyone and/or business usually works on customer first and everything else second. The truth is, according to Paul, if you mess up where employees are concerned then ultimately the customer will suffer, as will the business and therefore the  bottom-line.

Therefore, through all his days and times at Kayak.com, and other businesses such as Intuit, Paul has always been fanatical about getting the best people to be on his teams. A case in point is that on his way to Nairobi he took two redeye flights via London so that he could meet a prospective employee. Such is his focus in getting the best talent on-board.

Another idea that caught my attention from hearing Paul talk is how obsessive he is about customer service. For instance, he has put a bright red (and retro rotary dial) phone in the middle of his tech teams’ department at Kayak.com. The idea is that if a customer calls its so loud and irritating for them that someone has to pick it up, and solve the problem. In fact, he races to pick up the phone first even though he is the CTO at Kayak.com – imagine that! I’d love to see the same fervor for customer service in lots of leading Kenyan companies.

On innovation, Paul said that you need to build your products and services incrementally so that over time you will have the best offerings in the marketplace. More specifically, he also said its important to aim for your offerings to be significantly more innovative than the competition. He cited the example of saying that if customers try your product or service and simply send an email to friends and family to try it then its not good enough. He says it should be so good that they call friends and family right there and then to ask them to try it out.

There is not much more I can say here about Paul English but the Internet is teeming with lots of content about him and Kayak.com. He is an inspiration without a doubt for tech professionals and entrepreneurs in Kenya and the greater African continent. One of the things I loved about his demeanor is how candid and straight to the point he was at the talk -  he is a battle hardened tech head! Finally, you know Kenya has arrived on the global tech map when the likes of Paul English take time to come to Kenya to help things get better.

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  1. […] is a brief blog post by Moses Kemibaro about this
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