In 2010, my Wharton classmate Robert Albert WG98 launched Routehappy to help airlines and distributors differentiate and better monetize flight shopping while improving the consumer flight shopping experience. Under his leadership as Routehappy founder and CEO, he led the creation of a massive database, with features including UTAs (Universal Ticket Attributes) and UPAs (Universal Product Attributes) — that enable airlines to distribute rich content in any sales channel. In 2018, Routehappy was acquired by ATPCO, a technology provider that delivers essential infrastructure for pricing and retailing to the global airline industry. Over the past two and a half years, Robert led the successful integration of Routehappy into ATPCO. The following is an excerpt from our conversation as part of the Wharton Alumni Club of Southern California’s “Lunch & Learn” speaker series in September (and see below for a video of the full interview).
Alissa Finerman: When you started Routehappy in 2010, travelers would mostly book flights based on price and time. But with Routehappy, it sounds like you were able to deliver value for both consumers and for airlines by differentiating beyond those two elements. For example, how much legroom, what was the cancellation policy, what kind of plane were you flying on. How was the idea received?
Robert Albert: When I started to tell people about the idea for Routehappy, half of them thought it was brilliant and the other half thought it was stupid. Some immediately saw how it could combat commoditization and be useful for the industry and consumers and the others told me choosing a flight is all about price and that people don’t care about anything else. There was a lot of cognitive dissonance with the price only group though, as that same group would acknowledge they care about other factors when pressed. Also, many people thought that something like Routehappy already existed. I jumped into this morass of confusion.
AF: So how do you influence people and share an idea that some people think is crazy?
RA: One of the big learnings that I had as an entrepreneur is that it’s important to start by “getting real.” This definitely drove me at the very beginning of Routehappy when I would have to go to airlines, distributors, and technology providers and tell my story and be very authentic about it. We wanted to de-commoditize flight shopping and a lot of people said it couldn’t be done and that this kind of change would be impossible. I acknowledged that I didn’t have all the answers and that it was going to be a collective effort for this to work. Then I trusted my intuition. Listening and adapting were also key — it’s finding this balance between your conviction, your belief, your passion, your confidence, and total humility — and then truly listening to what you’re hearing. Feedback is the gift of the journey where people share gems of wisdom.
Then you need to be confident enough to share your vision and get everybody excited, and then months later recognize and acknowledge that the path you have chosen is not the right one. No entrepreneurial journey is linear; you may try something and then have to change course.
AF: You got success at a relatively quick rate. How did you gain traction and what was your big break?
RA: Routehappy was a 10-year overnight success. We did have some early success in the sense that we had validation, proof points, and good feedback. But it was a constant effort and cycle of building products and then proving it out and getting some validation points.
We started to be known in the market and travel distributors like Google and Expedia started paying attention to us. They told us they really liked what we were doing but did not want us to compete with them, which they perceived our original path to be. So we started to build APIs of our data. That’s when Google and Expedia said they would integrate our data into their flight shopping applications, which meant that overnight our data was going to be seen by flight shoppers everywhere, in the millions. This was one of those milestones where we knew Routehappy was a great idea.
Another validation moment was a meeting with American Airlines. During a demo, one of our data elements they saw was a cheeky comment about dated overhead screen entertainment on one of their flights. We immediately moved the cursor to a more modern and positive one, wi-fi. But they asked us to go back and explain if they had really seen something that said, “remember the 80s?” I knew it was a make or break moment for Routehappy. I explained our philosophy of transparency and expectation setting, and that we thought it was better to poke fun of a dated feature that no one wants any more than try to make it sound great. After what seemed like an eternity, they told us they also thought it was really smart. At that moment, I knew Routehappy was going to succeed. We eventually stopped being cheeky in our data, but that approach helped put us on the map.
AF: Fast forward to the pandemic and we have seen some companies like Southwest block the middle seats or ask travelers to wear a mask. Any thoughts on who survives and what you expect for the travel industry?
RA: There is huge disruption that is happening now with COVID-19 as airlines are having to reinvent themselves. Frankly, there will likely be some silver linings, like seat density improvements and improved hygiene and cleanliness. Airlines are doing many different things. Southwest, Delta, JetBlue, and Alaska are all blocking middle seats. From a Routehappy rich content perspective, we created new content that describes or shows the measures each airline is taking to protect their passengers. This once again underscores the whole need for differentiation in the aviation industry. Consumers like choice, and competition with differentiation ensures more and better products and services for consumers.
Alissa Finerman WG98 is an executive coach and Gallup-certified Strengths Coach and is the author of Living in Your Top 1%. She works with managers, leaders, and teams to improve performance and engagement levels.