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Jazz Shapers

Shaper: Kevin O’Sullivan

Transcript

Elliot Moss
Welcome to the Jazz Shapers podcast from Mishcon de Reya. What you are about to hear was originally broadcast on Jazz FM however music has been cut or shortened due to rights issues.

Welcome to Jazz Shapers, I am Elliot Moss, this is the place where the Shapers of Business join the Shapers of Jazz, Soul and Blues. Our guest today is Kevin O’Sullivan, the Founder and CEO of Open Destinations, a company that provides technology solutions for the travel industry. Kevin started his career in travel as a writer with Rough Guides, after Managing Director and E-commerce roles within the industry, he founded Open Destinations in 1999, its aim, to transform travel reservation management. They launched Travel Studio, their flagship product in 2000. It’s a reservation system spanning the entire reservations process from building itineraries, booking accommodation to invoicing and it has over 10,000 users daily. In 2017 they bought Tineri, a mobile itinerary app for tour operators which can also be used for school trips and by conference and exhibition organisers. Also on Jazz Shapers today we’ve musical gems from Diana Krall, Georgie Fame and Herbie Hancock. Before all that though, here’s Grover Washington Jr with Mister Magic.

That was Grover Washington Jr with Mister Magic. My Business Shaper, as I said earlier, is Kevin O’Sullivan, he is the CEO and Founder of Open Destinations, they are in the travel world and we are going to find out exactly what they are about because I am going to ask you. Hello, how are you?

Kevin O’Sullivan
Yeah, very well.

Elliot Moss
Good to have you here.

Kevin O’Sullivan
Thank you.

Elliot Moss
Tell me a little bit about this business you set up twenty years ago. What is it all about and how has it changed over the years?

Kevin O’Sullivan
Yeah now, I set the business up twenty years ago and we are a travel technology provider and we provide software to tour operators so, we’ve got a range of tour operators around the world who use our software. They tend to be kind of medium-sized tour operators, I mean we have got customers in about thirty countries around the world, we provide a kind of reservation platform for them, so everything from where they kind of manage their products, you know loading all their hotel contracts and so on through to the reservation process, operations, making sure they book things with suppliers, through to the kind of back office accounting, making sure that they’ve got software to kind of manage all the different parts of their business really.

Elliot Moss
And, twenty years ago, Kevin when the world was less technologically powered as it were, what was the promise then? Was it still, was there still a base of technology involved?

Kevin O’Sullivan
Oh, yeah, no definitely, I mean I set the business up in ’99, twenty years ago, and really then the kind of internet was really taking shape, I mean there’s lots of businesses like Last Minute.com who had raised lots of money on the markets to kind of fund their business and, you know, what I wanted to do when I set the business up really was create an internet ready software platform that travel companies could use and at that point, most of the travel companies really were kind of offline, through call centres and travel agencies and so on, and any kind of online presence they had wasn’t really connected to the software that they used for their day-to-day business so what I wanted to do was create something that connected all the way through that they could have a search on a good of website, it would show price availability of their products and then when the booking happens that booking could connect through into their kind of call centre and then flow through the kind of operations that they needed to do to make sure it all got booked and the customer got what they paid for really.

Elliot Moss
In terms of your own background, obviously, you were involved in the travel world before you set up this business.

Kevin O’Sullivan
Yep.

Elliot Moss
You are a writer as well, I think you were involved in quite a lot of Rough Guides?

Kevin O’Sullivan
Yep, yeah.

Elliot Moss
That was kind of back in the day which was of course when I, because I am quite old now, I would be there with the bible – I thank you, you are a good liar – but the bible was your Rough Guide to wherever it was you were going. The creativity and the businessmen in you, which one is it, which one wins each day?

Kevin O’Sullivan
I think software is quite a creative thing really, I mean you know, the thing that kind of drew me into software really was, you know, I like the fact that you can sit there for hours developing something, designing something and then come out with something at the other end that, you know, other people can use and you can feel proud that you have completed something. But I think the creativity is what drew it to me and once I kind of knew that I could develop things and I could create things that people wanted, you know, it seemed like a natural extension really to set up a business and, you know, give, develop and sell those things to other people really.

Elliot Moss
So, this business that you created, you said earlier, ‘Oh I just decided to set this business up, I was in the travel world’. That’s actually a pretty big undertaking, you know, you could have carried on quite happily being a senior person in someone else’s business. Was there a tipping point, a moment, when you went ‘I just want to do this for myself’?

Kevin O’Sullivan
What actually happened is, I was working for a big tour operator and, you know, I was their kind of group IT manager going round the world putting in different systems in different places and one of the systems that we put in place, I went into business with that guy and, you know, set up a business in probably thirty years ago with him and did that for kind of six/seven years, sold out my shares in that and then set up Open Destinations after that. So, once I had sold, you know, my shares in the other business, I sat around, you know the internet was kind of just embryonic at the time, I thought there was going to be a big opportunity really to set something up that’s slightly different, so I set up this business then twenty years ago from that.

Elliot Moss
You make it sound very easy, as in it was quite natural to you. Do you think that’s just because you are a kind of a measured, level-headed kind of person? Or is it that you wanted the excitement and the adventure of what was going to happen?

Kevin O’Sullivan
I think it was easy because I was confident that I could do what I thought people wanted to kind of, you know, create something that people could buy. But, also I thought that technology is one of those fields where there’s lots of jobs really, so, you know, if you fail then you can always go and do something else and, you know, I was early thirties really when I set the business up so, you know, I still had many years left of the kind of job market and so on, so, you know, if this didn’t work, I could do something else. But I knew from previous relationships that when I left the tour operator, you know I got on very well at the tour operator and the CFO of the group, you know it was quite a big group, sent a note out to all the business units round the world and said that they wanted to support me in the business I was setting up and, you know, if they could buy services from me or, you know, kind of pre-pay for things that they wanted from me then, you know, they’d support me in that. So, the first business I set up, you know, I had that kind of good will going into it and, you know, that gave me the confidence really that, you know, all the kind of negative things that people talk about setting up businesses; cashflow problems and getting first customers and things like that, I had, you know, some of those were kind of landed on a plate in some ways, you know, maybe from things I had done in a previous life at the tour operator.

Elliot Moss
And now we are, how many people do you employ around the world now?

Kevin O’Sullivan
We’ve got about five hundred people, so we’ve got an office in London with about forty people and then we’ve got a bigger development centre in Goa, in India, and we set that up in 2005, so that’s kind of, you know, what kind of thirteen/fourteen years old now, and that’s, you know, where our, that’s where our main development happens, we’ve got a kind of 24/7 support centre and also we do some outsourcing as well, so, some back office processes for tour operators, you know, we do out of that centre there as well.

Elliot Moss
And do you enjoy the management parts of things, Kevin? Because that’s a big number of people now, this is no small business.

Kevin O’Sullivan
It is, I mean, luckily, I’ve got a great management team and I think you soon learn, you know, when businesses start expanding that you need to get people in place to help you kind of manage businesses and to kind of manage different parts of it and the different people and individuals. I mean, technology is a very detailed type of business, you know, it’s all to do with understanding what the customer wants or understanding the product we are trying to provide and making sure that we do what needs to happen at the right time. So, you know, we’ve got a good management team in place that, you know, allows me in some ways to kind of step back a little bit from the day-to-day running, you know, all the support, all the kind of development services and so on, are all kind of, you know, we’ve got good people in place to do all that. But, yeah, I think, you know, one of the great things about starting a business is, you know, seeing it through that kind of journey. You know, I started the business in my bedroom and wrote the kind of first prototype of the application and got a couple of customers involved in kind of buying that. Once you get through that stage then you start hiring people, then the need to hire them and create managers and create processes and so on. So, you know, it’s a, I wouldn’t say a rocky first few years but it’s kind of, you know, there’s a lot to do in the first few years in a start-up because you don’t have the bedrock of all the processes that more established businesses have in place so, you know, that was definitely a, you know, an interesting period really.

Elliot Moss
He’s still got a smile on his face which means he’s secretly enjoyed that bit, I can see. Stay with me for much more from my guest, that’s Kevin O’Sullivan, he’ll be back in a couple of minutes but first we are going to hear from one of our partners at Mishcon de Reya with some advice for your business.

There are many ways for you to enjoy all our former Jazz Shapers and indeed to hear this programme with Kevin again as well. You can ask Alexa to play Jazz Shapers and there you can hear many of the recent programmes or if you pop the words Jazz Shapers into iTunes or your preferred podcast platform, you can enjoy the full archive but back to today’s guest, it’s Kevin O’Sullivan, Founder and CEO of Open Destinations, a company, it says here, providing technology solutions for the travel industry. That’s exactly what it does. Good, we can go home, thank you very much. In terms of the joy now of this bigger business and all these moving pieces, when are you at your happiest? Is it when you’ve got the R&D team exploring another idea and they’ve cracked it? Is it dealing with a problem turning round a customer? What is it? Which is the bit do you think now?

Kevin O’Sullivan
Yeah, there’s quite a few things actually. I think, obviously as a business growing and increasing revenue and, you know, increasing profits and so on like that, it’s a kind of score card, a financial score card for the business so as a management team, obviously we are focussed on that and making sure we develop as a business. You know, I think I enjoy the kind of product developments, I mean we have come a long way, after twenty years, with the technology we use and the platforms we provide have changed quite a lot, I mean, you know, fundamentally we still need to very much the same thing and obviously some more advanced things as well but the underlying technology has changed so we’ve been through various iterations of our products over the years, you know, and it’s kind of good to achieve something with that. I think going live with our customers, I mean we had a significant go live with one of our larger customers last year, it was very positive, you know, they had very good feedback from the people who are using the products, they were happy, they created a lot of good PR within their business which is a good global business. Those type of things that, you know, are great for our team as well because it kind of reinforces, you know, the fact that we are doing something that, you know, people like and people want and so on, and often, you know, when you are months in the making of doing and developing some technology, it’s kind of hard sometimes to kind of, it’s easy to lose sight really of why we are doing it and the people who are going to use it at the end of the day really.

Elliot Moss
And are you happy to sort of be in the plumbing business as it were, because without you, the machine called the travel industry wouldn’t really work, would it?

Kevin O’Sullivan
Sure, and…

Elliot Moss
And you don’t mind, you are happy to be behind the scenes rather than in front of the…?

Kevin O’Sullivan
Yeah, no, definitely. I think it’s, we get a kind of privileged view of businesses really because, you know, I think, you know, obviously most people know travel companies and the products that they sell and the kind of websites that they have but what we get to do is, we work with some kind of fantastic businesses around the world and we get to go into their businesses and really understand what the DNA of the business is, you know, kind of what happens, how they get their products together, how they kind of manage the business, you know, what the culture of the business is really, and I think that’s a great thing to do and that’s what keeps a lot of people really interested in going out and meeting new customers and getting involved in the projects we do. But often when we work with a customer, we work with them for, on the implementation phase for kind of, you know, six to eighteen months, so we kind of have staff, you know, working on their businesses at their offices for a number of months and, you know, we get to kind of know them quite intimately and understand some of their business problems and so on, so I think it’s a, you know, it’s definitely a kind of interesting thing to do really.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for more from my Business Shaper, that’s Kevin O’Sullivan, Founder and CEO of Open Destinations. Time for some more music right now, it’s Diana Krall and Georgie Fame with Yeh Yeh.

That was the super-energised version of Yeh Yeh with Diana Krall and Georgie Fame. Kevin O’Sullivan is my Business Shaper and we have been talking about the joys of seeing the industry from the other side, the travel industry and I guess any industries like that. It strikes me, Kevin that you are very good at developing relationships. You talked earlier about how your, when you started your new business, you had this lovely note from the CFO saying ‘please use Kevin’. That’s probably because you are nice to deal with. Tell me a little bit about how you, if you were to give me the lesson in building relationships with clients and customers. What would the top three things be, from your perspective?

Kevin O’Sullivan
I think it’s maybe the three things are the same, actually. But, you know, I suppose the first thing is listen to them. You know, when you, especially in a kind of supplier relationship, when you are, you know, trying to win business of people then the first thing you need to do is find out what they actually want and listen to their problems, listen to what they are trying to achieve and so on. If you do that, then, and you kind of achieve some of the things they want, then you are going to start building a relationship with them because they are going to build trust in you and then, obviously, they’ll want you to do more things with them going forwards. I think that’s the kind of key thing. But I think the second thing probably is honesty. You know, I think in any relationship you need some honesty and, you know, if you say you are going to do something then, you know, you have to do it and I think maybe not with technology but, you know, most of us have had experiences in life where we’ve had a trades person in and, you know, a builder and, you know, the builder says it’s going to cost us X and then there’s something that happens and it’s going to cost something X for doing it, and I think technology is a bit like that really, it’s hard to foresee at the beginning of large projects exactly what the final costs are going to be. So there has to be some of kind of give and take really then and I think if you have an honest relationship with people and they kind of know that, you know, you’re not trying to rip them off, you’re not trying to put in additional costs and things like that that aren’t warranted, then those relationships can develop really, and, you know, I think, you know, often putting in technology is a bit like a building project, it can be stressful, nobody wants it to be stressful but there’s change in businesses, people’s job are changing, there’s deadlines that have to be met, you know, there’s things that you have to do that you don’t have enough time or resources to do, you know, properly all the time so, you know, things do get stressful so having that kind of honesty there is a useful thing really.

Elliot Moss
It also strikes me, and obviously we don’t know each other, but you seem quite a kind person. Is there a kind of…

Kevin O’Sullivan
That’s nice.

Elliot Moss
…without saying it, is there a kindness to the way you like to do business?

Kevin O’Sullivan
Yeah, no, definitely. I think, politically, I suppose I am kind of on the liberal left and I think if you treat people fairly and, you know, there’s kind of things that you do to, you know, people that you would want to do yourself then, you know, I think that will be rescinded back to you really. I think that kind of culture in the business is what we are trying to engender really.

Elliot Moss
And how do you engender that because you’ve got a big business now and you’ve got it in two different locations at least, and you’ve got the outsourcing bit as well, how do you make sure everyone knows that Kevin thinks that being kind is important?

Kevin O’Sullivan
I think it comes through really when, you know, through the kind of policies you have as a business, you know, what we try and do is, you know for example, in India, things like maternity policy where it’s the norm in kind of most Indian businesses and when we talked about, you know, we’ve got quite a lot of women who work in the business there both on the software side and the outsourcing side, and you know, obviously many of them were having babies and leaving the business, and you know, what we wanted to do was to encourage them to come back again so we, you know, we put in place a maternity policy and, you know, at the time the kind of local team down there felt that this was unnecessary and, you know, why are you paying this money to people, they’ll never come back and so on. But, you know, what happened is that people did come back, you know, they kind of respected the fact that we paid them maternity pay even though we didn’t have to do and came back at the end of it and, you know, obviously some didn’t but that’s life really. So, I think, you know, little things like that hopefully show that as a business we do care and when, obviously if people have problems and stuff, you know, we want to listen, we want to kind of make sure that there is as much as we can in life, work-life balance but, you know, coming through we can make policies that are kind of meaningful for people.

Elliot Moss
We are going to have our final chat with my guest today, Kevin O’Sullivan. Stay with me for that plus play a track from the one and only, Herbie Hancock. That’s in just a moment here on Jazz FM, don’t go anywhere.

That was Herbie Hancock’s thoughtful take on Summertime. I am with Kevin O’Sullivan, just for a few more minutes before we wrap up here on Jazz Shapers. We haven’t talked about the financial side of things and I don’t mean EBITDAR and I don’t mean kind of margins related to that or cashflow and so forth. I mean, you and money, because obviously this is your business and you’ve made a nice living and it’s a pretty decent sized business too. Where does the money feature in all of this stuff? Is it the thing? It doesn’t seem like the thing to me?

Kevin O’Sullivan
No, I suppose, you know, when I started, I needed to earn a living, I mean when I set this business up, you know, the first business actually my kids were just being born so, you know I need to earn a living and it was one of those moments where…

Elliot Moss
They need feeding, don’t they?

Kevin O’Sullivan
Yeah, exactly.

Elliot Moss
Clothing. Basic stuff. Air them out, all that.

Kevin O’Sullivan
Exactly. And mortgages need paying and things like that. So, you know, I needed to earn enough money but I think money, you know, isn’t the main motivator really. You know, obviously, we could have sold the business many years ago if we wanted and I think the key thing is that we think there’s kind of things that we want to do with the business, you know, at the moment we are going through a big R&D platform, change, you know, putting in some new functionality that we are quite excited about that’s going to be coming out during this year. You know, we’ve got some pretty interesting new customers that we’ve just signed up really over the last six months so, you know, the business is doing well and there’s a kind of positive feeling for, you know, the next couple of years going forward in the business and I think that’s the thing that motivates me really and that’s the kind of feeling I want to engender in the business rather than necessarily getting paid, you know X pounds more or something like that.

Elliot Moss
If someone came along and offered you hundreds of millions of pounds though, that’s going to be difficult isn’t it, to say no?

Kevin O’Sullivan
It would, yeah, because I would have to invest it in more guitars and…

Elliot Moss
How many guitars do you own?

Kevin O’Sullivan
There’s quite a few actually.

Elliot Moss
Twelve or something.

Kevin O’Sullivan
I think about twelve guitars but they are all kind of different shapes and different purposes really so, you know, depending on the mood and what you are playing, you need different guitar but, you know, one of the great things about having lots of guitars is that, you know, I’ve got lots of people who play guitar of various abilities and when we get together, you know, all the guitars come out, we normally kind of start playing some Oasis songs and things like that and it’s good fun.

Elliot Moss
In terms of the, I mean this very programme was created because we felt that there was a very big similarity between people that create businesses and musicians that create music, especially in the Jazz genre which is kind of out there and it breaks the rules. Do you think about it like that when you play your instrument? Are you that kind of guy when you are also working or are they two very different Kevins?

Kevin O’Sullivan
I think they, in some ways they are kind of together in the sense that I like the creativity of playing music but I think what music does is it gives you a kind of tranquillity so, you know, it’s a bit like meditation really, I find that when I am playing, you know, I can sit there just playing maybe the same songs that I have played for years and it gives a kind of calmness to life whereas obviously in business, you know, you need that calmness to kind of make decisions but, you know, it’s a kind of different emphasis really.

Elliot Moss
It’s been really nice talking to you. Thanks for your time, Kevin. Just before I let you go, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Kevin O’Sullivan
It’s the cover version of All Along The Watchtower by Francis Lockwood Trio which, I think, you know, All Along The Watchtower is, you know, a famous song by Bob Dylan that was covered, you know, fantastically by Jimi Hendrix in the kind of late sixties and this song is, you know, is a great version of it, it’s kind of almost re-defines the song again in the same way that Hendrix did many years ago.

Elliot Moss
That was the song choice of my Business Shaper today, Kevin O’Sullivan. All Along The Watchtower by the Francis Lockwood Trio. Someone who understood the importance of relationships, about listening, it’s about honesty and it’s about treating people fairly. Someone who is behind the scenes happily ensuring that the plumbing of the travel industry is well catered for and someone really importantly who believes in the power of kindness and of showing that through the policies and the way that you act in a business. Really, really good stuff.

You can hear our conversation with Kevin all over again, whenever you would like to, as a podcast, just search Jazz Shapers or ask your smartspeaker to play Jazz Shapers. Or if you are springing forth early Monday morning, you can catch this programme again just before the Business Breakfast at 5.00am here on Jazz FM. We are back next Saturday morning from 9.00 with our next Business Shaper, it’s Will Beckett, Co-Founder of the British steakhouse restaurant chain, Hawksmoor. Up next after the news at 10.00 is Nigel Williams. Great music is coming, interviews and live sessions too. That’s it from me and Jazz Shapers, have a great weekend.

We hope you enjoyed that edition of Jazz Shapers. You will find hundreds more guests available for you to listen to in our archive. To find out more, just search Jazz Shapers and iTunes or your favourite podcast platform or head over to mishcon.com/jazzshapers.

Kevin O’Sullivan – Founder & CEO

Kevin is the architect of the technology solutions being offered today by Open Destinations. He set up the company in 1999 and built it to be one of the leading travel technology companies focused on Tour Operators in the world. The company is still privately owned and has over 500 employees in its two principle locations – London and India. Prior to founding Open Destinations in 1999, Kevin was the Managing Director of Tourplan and E-commerce Consultant for First Call Tickets. He spent five years as Group IT Manager in Tourism International, a large multi-site/multi-sector tour operator and hotel group. Kevin started his career in travel as a writer with Rough Guides.

Interview highlights

I think software is a creative thing.

You can sit there for hours developing, designing something and then come out with something that other people can use.

Once I knew that I could develop things and I could create things that people wanted, it seemed like a natural extension to set up a business.

I was confident that I could create something that people could buy.

You soon learn when businesses start expanding that you need to get people in place to help you.

Technology is a very detailed type of business.

Technology is all to do with understanding what the customer wants.

Money isn’t the main motivator really.

Music gives you a kind of tranquillity…it’s a bit like meditation.

I like the creativity of playing music.

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