Steve Huffman Hipmunk In this companion post to our Hipmunk mobile search app road test I connect with Steve Huffman, Hipmunk Co-Founder, to discuss features in the pipeline and opportunities on the horizon.


Hipmunk is a travel search engine, but there are other alternative mobile search apps and engines that also focus on travel. What makes you different?

At Hipmunk, we are trying to optimize the amount of time you spend on Hipmunk, and we want you to spend as little time as possible on Hipmunk. We’re not trying to trick you into clicking on ads; we’re not trying to bog you down with search results. What we want you to do is find the right flight as fast as possible. So, we purposely don’t show you every possible flight result ever, because there are many results that simply don’t make sense. We also don’t sort flights by price by default because price is not the only variable that goes into making a decision. We sort by agony which allows us to show you the best, most reasonable flight first.

You said it’s not about ‘tricking’ me into clicking an ad, so what’s the business model for your business and your app?

The business model for the app and for the business is the same. We make money on lead gen. So, when a customer finds a flight or hotel reservation they want and they go to book it, they’ll book it directly with the airline —  sometimes with Orbitz or another flight provider — or directly from the hotel. We get a commission for referring that customer.

But why not advertising? It’s the easy option and it’s obviously worked for the major search engines like Google…?

Ads detract from the experience. If you look at our competitors, their ads often look like results and they’re largely ad arbitrage companies. They run their own ads to buy traffic from Google, and then they basically resell that traffic by running advertising on their site. That’s not the business we want to be in. We want to help people find the ticket or reservation they’re looking for, and we can do that without ads. We are a user experience and a user interface focused company, both on the website and on mobile. And — if we were to cover any part of our UI with ads or dilute our user experience with ads – that’s the exact opposite of the product we’re trying to build.

Talking about that experience, in the mobile search space I’m seeing a renewed focus on the features and functionalities that make search services more of assistant and more integrated in my daily life. Hipmunk is moving in this direction by integrating with my calendar. Can you give me an idea of what we might expect next?

Sure. Most of these features come out of this desire to make this process easier. When you buy flights online or hotels online, there’s all these little points where things are painful, where you get annoyed, or where you have to take these extra steps  — and those are the things we want to eliminate. The calendar feature is a great example of that. When we buy flights we are always checking back with the calendar and doing this kind of mental cross-referencing. We simplified that. There’s still a lot of other problems around making sure your flights are in your calendar, making sure you know where you are going, making sure you’re up to date on what your flight schedule is. So over time, we will try to solve all of these little niggling annoyances people have when they’re preparing to travel.

Well, you’ve obviously done a great job so far. You’re nearing one million downloads. Are downloads on track? And what were some of the learnings that made it possible for you produce this app and reach this high number of downloads?

To your first question. We are on track. About the app: we have a simple process which is all around what makes the app useful to us. We all travel a lot and we think we are our best focus here. We don’t actually do much design up front. We come with a few ideas, and then we get an implement so we can feel it in our hands. On the Web we can update the service whenever we want. On mobile, it’s a little trickier because you’ve got this complicated process where you have to deal with Apple and that whole thing. So for us, it’s really a matter of what feels right, what works right and what works the fastest when we’re building both the site and the app.

For many search providers it’s about offering a platform to developers or a white label solution to other providers. In your case, it could be an airline-branded app, for example. Do you have plans in that direction?

It’s something we’ve talked about, but we’re not actively doing it at the moment although we’d like to. We’re not philosophically opposed to doing this if we can do it in the right way. For example, we don’t want to dilute our product. But, if we can still maintain a good product and a good experience, then we’d love to do that because we think we can smooth over rough edges that other products have. We’re always happy to experiment and work with people, but the frustration is most of our providers aren’t so forward-thinking or open to trying things out and seeing what fits.

How would you describe your mobile strategy, or mobile roadmap?

Our mobile strategy’s similar to our website strategy: we build what we think we need. Of course, there are some features that make more sense on mobile, or work a little bit differently on mobile. The hotel product is a good example of that. Our hotel product is largely a map-based interface – maps are much more fun to use on the mobile. You’ve got that native hardware – you can scroll things; things look good, you can do that pinch and zoom thing.

We’ve got a few big products in mind for both website and mobile — like search for verticals other than travel — and we’ll get around to that soon. Multiple currencies is another big problem we need to remedy.

It’s interesting that you’re looking at different verticals. Can you provide some detail?

At some point, we’d like to do cars – that’ll be a nature evolution to us. Flights, hotels and cars are kind of the ‘big 3’ for us. And­— as I said ­— the BIG project for us is multiple currencies. We have many international users — which is really cool for us given that our website and app are both in English — and we can only book in dollars right now. So we’ll be remedying that just, and I think that’ll be both a big project and a big win for the users.

Tablet, mobile, smart TV. We’re moving from mobile to a multi-channel, cross-channel app approach. How is this larger development impacting your strategy? Is there going to be a time when you also won’t be distinguishing between the three screens?

That’s a great question. We’re in this period in computing where the technologies are converging and the only difference is the screen size. Mobile lags a little bit behind where desktop software was when we went from native desktop software to mostly living on the web. Now mobile is going through a similar transition — and what held the Web back is what’s holding mobile back now. The mobile processors are so much more powerful than the mobile browsers. As a result, the native apps have this much nicer feel than what a Web app would have on a phone. But a year or two from now that probably won’t be the case. And, yes, the products will start to converge. From a development point of view it’s good news because we can have a more cohesive team. We don’t have to have silo development efforts working on basically the same thing. It’ll also be better for the user experience point of view because it will mean we can get these updates out faster — with all the benefits you get from being on the Web.

So, what will mobile search become? We know we want answers and actionable things – we just don’t want lists of links. And then there is the advance of more personal, more precise search …

The best business model on the Internet is take something Google is mediocre at and do a better job at it – or take something Craigslist is mediocre at, and do a better job at it. Google and Craigslist are about  ‘breadth first’ search, where they cover lots and lots of verticals. But the opportunity is in diving into any one of those verticals and doing it better. There’s a handful of companies trying to do the ‘breadth first’ thing, and they are consistently failing against Google.

So the opportunity is all in the Long Tail…