Kayak's new chief commercial officer, Debby Soo, is relying on her history at the company where she started as an intern eight years ago to help it move forward, focusing on user experience and innovation.
Soo's start in travel was in a traditional brick-and-mortar agency her parents owned in California, which specialized in bringing tourists from China and Taiwan to the U.S. She spent her summers filing and answering phones and, as she got older, booking buses and hotels and securing group rates.
"Travel runs deep in my blood, and had you told me when I was a kid that I would end up working in travel one day, I would have laughed," she said.
Soo earned undergraduate and master's degrees in East Asian studies from Stanford University, where she also minored in economics. She started her career as an investment banker at Citigroup then moved to Google's business development team, acquiring and negotiating content for Google Maps. Eventually, she returned to school for her Master of Business Administration from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Sloan School of Management.
During her first year at MIT, Soo found herself facing a number of loans and a lack of funds, so she started looking for part-time work. She emailed Kayak co-founder Paul English, who at the time was the company's chief technology officer.
"The next thing I knew, I was in our Massachusetts technology office doing mobile business development for the company," Soo said.
In her first post, Soo was tasked with finding a cost-effective way ("Which meant free," she laughed) to promote Kayak's app. The year was 2010, and Kayak was one of the first online travel companies with an app. In her second year at MIT, Soo was promoted to a full-time position at Kayak as the product manager for its Android app.
After that, she held positions in marketing and on the commercial side of the business, launching Kayak in a number of countries, starting with Brazil. For three years, she was the vice president for Kayak Asia Pacific, then was asked to run the North America business. A few months ago, Soo ascended to her current role.
In her time with Kayak, Soo has seen a lot, including its IPO in 2012 and its acquisition by Priceline Group (now called Booking Holdings) later that year.
"It was just exhilarating, all of it," Soo said. "I had taken companies public before when I was working in finance, but to be on the other side and actually be a part of a company that was going public was one of the most exciting things that I've witnessed in my career to date."
The company's acquisition was less exciting, because much of Kayak's day-to-day business stayed the same, Soo said, but it brought an important opportunity: the chance to scale the business globally. The company's focus at the time was still on North America, but the acquisition opened doors into doing business elsewhere, such as in Latin America and the Asia-Pacific region.
Today, Soo recognizes that Kayak has competition in the metasearch world. Trivago (owned by Expedia Inc.) is an obvious competitor, and because Kayak considers itself a technology company, Soo also has her eyes on the biggest competitor in all of tech: Google.
"We're not the only … show in town," Soo said. "There are a lot of other players in the market now, big and small, and what that means is, I think, we have to up our game." That means ensuring Kayak is "the fastest, the most innovative, the easiest to work with from our partners' point of view."
As an example of a measure Kayak took to fulfill those goals, Soo said it was the first metasearch engine to "very explicitly message" what basic economy fares were on its flight search results page in North America. That will also roll out globally.
"It is important that consumers understand what they're buying," she said. "So as a metasearch, even though we refer most of our users over to partner sites for booking, I feel very strongly that our responsibility early on, as the user is conducting the search, is to let users know this is what you're about to get yourself into."
Competition makes Kayak's job harder, but Soo said it also makes the company better and pushes it to innovate.
"North America is super, super competitive," she said. "So we have to make sure that we are at the forefront of features like this [basic economy warning] to have our consumers and users know, 'You know what? I'm confident that Kayak can search all the travel sites, that it's found me the best deal. I'm confident that my experience on Kayak is the easiest, the fastest, the most intuitive.'"