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Preview of New Travel Search Engine Kango.com

And new start-ups in the travel category are continuing to roll-out, which is great, and keeps it interesting. I was especially intrigued when my friend Yen Lee (originally from Vancouver – my current hometown), former head of Yahoo! Travel and former EVP at Worldres introduced me to his new venture a few months ago…and now he is ready for beta launch very soon. So we got on the phone, and I asked Yen a few questions about his new venture, Kango.

Tourism Internet Marketing Blog (TIM): Yen, what is Kango and what is the value proposition to the consumer?

We started Kango to help you make better decisions about your personal travel. Kango complements today’s travel booking sites (e.g. Expedia, aircanada.ca, deltahotels.com) by enabling you to find travel choices based on your desired experience and lifestyle (e.g. where to go for a warm weather beach vacation or what to do on a family trip to Calgary), then move directly to your preferred travel booking site.

A personalized travel search engine, Kango collects travel options and traveler opinions from all over the web and returns the most relevant recommendations on where to go, what to do and where to stay based on your preferences. For example, we return one set of hotel and activity recommendations when you are traveling to Vancouver on a romantic getaway and a different set when you are going to Vancouver with the family. Like web search engines (e.g. Google), Kango’s recommendations to you are not influenced by advertising.

TIM: You changed the name from “SearchSpark” when we emailed a few months back to “Kango” now – why?

SearchSpark was a place holder we used when we first started the company in my garage. We told our engineers they could pick any name they wanted to, and they selected SearchSpark because they wanted our personalized search recommendations to “spark” better travel decisions and trips.

We always intended to select a consumer name that captured the spirit of travel and our service. We selected “Kango” because is has positive energy and because it addresses the fun of travel. For us, Kango also has an implicit meaning – you can find what you need, then you “can go”…off to make your booking, to have a great trip… Truth is, as a Canadian, I was lobbying to use “Cango”, but I was out-voted by my (American 😉 colleagues (I was also out-voted by our engineers, who wanted to use SearchSpark!).

TIM: You are entering a very crowded space with meta search engines, such as Kayak, Mobissimo, Bezurk, Farechase (Yahoo), Farecast, TripHub, Yapta, Sidestep, just to name a few. How are you planning to compete and draw consumers away from the sites (not to mention sites like Expedia,

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Travelocity, and Orbitz)?

Yes, online travel is crowded; that’s no surprise given $87B

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was booked on line in 2007 (Forrester) and an annual travel spending was $679B in 2006 (US only – Travel Industry Association). There are a lot of well-established booking engines and a new generation of meta-search engines to help consumers find the lowest price. But they are best suited to help consumers book or shop for prices when the consumer has decided where to go.

At Kango, we will help you with a different, complimentary challenge – how to decide what to book. When you are ready to flee the cold Canadian winter, where do you go today to get help deciding where to go for your warm weather beach vacation? And who returns tailored recommendations to help you find the right places to stay and things do to when you visit Montreal for a family vacation. And who returns different recommendations when you are going to Montreal for a romantic getaway?

We aren’t competitive with existing sites. We will help you make your decision about what’s best, then help you head on over to your favorite booking site.

Most people begin their travel planning on a search engine. Finding Kango shouldn’t be hard in the midst of this competition. We’ll be in the “natural” web search results on Google and Yahoo because we will offer the most relevant content for a specific experience when you start your planning.

TIM: Is your service filling an unmatched need in the travel research marketplace?

Yes, travel research is currently a frustrating experience. Consumers generally start in web search (i.e. Google), then have to pick through different fragmented sites of inconsistent quality to piece together the information they need to make a planning decision. Consumers also need to decide which sites they can trust, and what opinions (e.g. reviews, ratings, blogs) on those sites to trust.

We are working to simplify that experience. We are the first to collect, analyze and organize these fragmented sites and diverse opinions and return relevant, personal results to you. We are also the first to enable a search based on a desired experience. To deliver, we have aggregated information on places to stay, destinations, and things to do from over 1,000 web sites and also collected over 18M opinions from across the web. Like the leading search engines, our personalized recommendations include abstracts of reviews, descriptions etc. most relevant to you. When you find an abstract you want to find out more about, we’ll send you off to the relevant web site.

Devolving to geek-speak momentarily to explain how we personalize your search results; we have done semantic analysis on those 18M opinions to derive weighted meta-tags so we can match your preferences with direct and fuzzy logic. What that really means is that we have a bunch of smart scientists who have figured out what past travelers said in their reviews about particular products. By figuring out what kind of traveler (e.g. traveling with kids, on a girl’s getaway etc.) they were, what they liked about it (e.g. “my children loved the pool and slide”) and how much they liked it (e.g. “loved the spa” versus “the spa was nice”), we

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are able to make recommendations tailored to your needs. I can’t honestly say I know how they do it, but it works! At least, our private beta testers have told us that they love how it works.

TIM: What is your business model, and how long do you project to be profitable? Who re your main partners? What are your risks?

Some things don’t change. The three prongs of our business model are very similar to the one we developed when I was at Yahoo! Travel: specialized lead generation to booking sites, general text advertising (i.e. ad sense), and lifestyle/experience-based graphical/display advertising (e.g. banner ads, video ads). We are most excited about the latter.

Many sites today sell graphical advertising, but in a setting where the consumer has been searching based on price. Our product experience is focused on consumers being able to search based on their desired experiences (e.g. a beach family vacation, or a ski “mancation” getaway) – which will yield much better branding opportunities for travel companies.

TIM: You were able to attract an amazing team (congratulations!) – How did you do that?

Having been at entrepreneur before at CitySearch and WorldRes, I recognized that the only things you can really control at a new venture are the team and the culture we build. We have been focused on not just finding results-oriented, competitive experts-in-their-respective fields, but also in finding people that collaborate and believe that teams succeed or fail together.

Interestingly, despite the huge increase in competition for search engineers from Google, Yahoo etc, there are still talented search engineers looking for the opportunity to really make a difference at a nimble, focused company. And our semantic search approach focused on “just” one category (albeit the largest ecommerce category!) and our approach to building the team was attractive to many engineers. That’s how we found Huanjin (search architect from eBay), Tong (from SimplyHired), Boris (from Loglogic) etc.

We also believe that if at first you don’t succeed, try again! I tried to hire both Elliott (VP of Marketing, founder of both Netcentives and Loyalty Matrix) and Gene (VP of Product Development, founder of bluedot and VP of product at Acxiom Digital) while at Yahoo! They both felt the opportunity to work together was compelling, but shied away from joining the large company culture. But their broad experience, prior successes and entrepreneurial instincts have been instrumental in our progress to date.

Tell me about your team.

Kango’s team has extensive experience in three essential areas: travel, search and consumer outreach.

I bring more than 12 years of entrepreneurial experience

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in search and travel. Most recently, I was General Manager within Yahoo’s search division, responsible for Yahoo’s travel businesses. While there, I helped grow the consumer business over 40%+ YOY and the overall travel category to ~$300M in annual revenue. Previously, as EVP at WorldRes, an aggregator of “long tail” alternative lodging reservations, I helped grow bookings to over $250M (~12% of 2001 online hotel bookings according to research firm PhoCusWright). I started my career as a business analyst at McKinsey before launching into my first entrepreneurial venture by co-founding CitySearch’s first market in SF. I’m a graduate of UWO and MIT.

Elliott Ng is our expert in consumer outreach and our VP Marketing. He has co-founded two successful ventures focused on consumer loyalty and engagement, Netcentives and Loyalty Matrix. At Netcentives he launched the largest online loyalty program backed by frequent flyer miles, developing online partnerships that represented over 70% of total internet portal traffic and capturing 12% market share in first 18 months. Most recently Elliott ran web marketing for Intuit QuickBooks where he accelerated sales to 50%+ YOY. Elliott started his career as the product manager for PowerPoint and Excel at Microsoft. Elliott is a graduate of Harvard and Harvard Business School.

Gene McKenna, our VP of Product Development, has 15 years of experience in software design and product development in direct marketing and travel. Previously Gene ran product at Acxiom Digital (formerly Digital Impact) and was responsible for the platform that sent over five billion personalized emails daily; during his tenure the company reached profitability for the first time. Before that he co-founded Bluedot Software, a travel company sold to Peter Ueberroth’s Ambassador’s International. Gene is a MIT-trained engineer and has a Masters from Stanford.

Boris Galitsky, our search expert has spent the last 15

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years developing innovative technologies for startups, focusing mostly on applications of artificial intelligence and natural language processing in vertical search. He has been developing search, data mining and language processing software for tax services, TV and Internet advertisement, retail and auction portals, and log management. Boris has a PhD in computer science and authored 70+ publications, multiple patents and a book on vertical search. He is our natural language processing scientist and manages our Russian engineering team.

Huanjin Chen has over 20 years of software and search experience, most recently at eBay, where he was the Architect responsible for eBay’s high performance search engine. He designed data classification system based on customer-provided tags and meta-data extraction using manually created rules. Huanjin has a PhD and does triple duty: as our search architect; as our head of engineering; and by running our China engineering team.

Tong Luo is a data mining and machine learning expert who joins us from SimplyHired. A graduate of Qinghua, Tong has a PhD and has a number of publications. Tong is our automated extraction specialist and helps run our China engineering team.

TIM: Who are your investors and how much money did you raise to be able to afford such great talent?

We aren’t ready to disclose our investors at this point, but we can say that a top tier Sand Hill Road firm and a number of strategic angels with travel experience have invested in Kango.

TIM: Is this site focused on the US traveler, or do you have plans to expands globally (i.e. multi-lingual)? If yes, do you think there are nuances to the site from an architecture, design, or search algorithm standpoint?

We plan to serve consumers’ global personal travel needs. For our beta launch later this year, we are starting with a focus on U.S. destinations, with a specific focus on what family, romantic, and pet-owners’ travel needs are, and with a geographic focus on California and Hawaii destinations.

We will roll out additional destinations and travel preferences as soon as we can without compromising quality. To go beyond the 50 states, 10 provinces and 9 misc. territories in Canada and the U.S., we plan to invest to “localize” our data collection, semantic analysis, product design, language and advertising as much as possible.

TIM: Thank you Yen! Good luck, and hope to see you in your hometown Vancouver for Canada-e-Connect November 7-9.

My pleasure, as much as I miss YVR, I’m not sure I will make it back home for Canada-e-Connect this time due to the launch of Kango. But I look forward to attending the next Canadian e-tourism event! And I’m sure we’ll catch up in person before then. Please let your readers know they can sign-up for previews at http://www.kango.com/ and that I welcome their feedback. Just mention that you heard about Kango through the “Tourism Internet Marketing Blog”.

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1 Comment

Comment by John
2008-06-03 11:55:36

Hats off to anyone setting up a new business however, Kango has a huge challenge as this is a very crowded market and it doesn’t take much for an existing TSE to shift their proposition slightly to block out newcomers.

What I’d really like to see is a proposition that just focuses on supply direct. I don’t want to shop travel agent rates but the supplier direct. It must be possible by now! That’s a real shift in consumer proposition.

Cheers
John

 

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