John Brown (middle) with presenters from the last Town Hall
What would keep you in a company for 10 years?
This month, our CEO John Brown marks his 10th anniversary at Agoda. He began his career here when we were just 200 people and far less structured. He now leads a company that’s 20x larger.
Agoda Careers chatted with him about his path to Agoda, being our first non-founder CEO, the challenges of COVID-19, and advice on how to succeed at Agoda.
My first country visited outside the US
Pretty much the first country that I’d ever visited outside of the US was Thailand, in 1992, as a backpacker. I wanted to be a writer and never thought about being a businessperson. Fast-forward to 2005. I was working at the Boston Consulting Group in Boston when they sent me to Thailand on a one-year exchange program and I liked it enough that I stayed with BCG here for three years altogether. One day I met Rob Rosenstein, Agoda’s co-founder and former CEO, at a party in Bangkok where he asked me to join him at his startup I hadn’t heard of.
As single-minded and persuasive as startup founders are, Rob kept asking, and I didn’t think about it until I left BCG a few years later. He said “It doesn’t have to be anything more than a one-month consulting project. If we don’t like you, or if you don’t like us, we part ways. No big deal.”
John and Rob at a Town Hall in our Agoda Singapore office
“I knew pretty early on that I was going to stay.”
But I could tell that I loved it within about two weeks here, something about the culture and the team I was working with, and I knew I wanted to stay. One of the things I loved about Agoda was that when we had an idea, we’d sit down in an office, make a decision, and do it. And we could measure everything.
We’d test everything to see whether we just made a million dollars or lost a million dollars. I just felt like there was no time wasted on what I might call “corporate overhead.” It was just “Let’s do what we think is right. Let’s do it fast. And if we make a mistake, let’s correct it and move on.” And the people. Everyone that I met, I felt like I want to hang out with or have dinner with or drink beer with them. It felt extraordinarily refreshing after 5 years in consulting.
John and employees at Agoda Bangkok office, celebrating a milestone
From a scrappy startup to a company of world-class talent
Agoda in 2010 felt chaotic and it felt like a startup. And one of the things we always talk about in Agoda 2020 is to move like a startup. We were scrappy, sometimes in a bad way. People would show up on their first day not having laptops prepared for them. There were a lot of things like that that we didn’t have under control.
But I think we’re pretty good now, much more professional, and yet still working like a startup. The big difference is the level of talent we have now — which is not to say we didn’t have smart people back then. Today I feel like I’m surrounded with some of the smartest people on the planet. Back then, Rob and I would joke with each other and say, “We are definitely not smart enough to make this place world class.” And actually, we weren’t joking. So we began hiring a ton of really, really good people.
John giving out a prize at Agoda’s annual staff party
Becoming Agoda’s first non-founder CEO
“Oh my god, just don’t screw up,” was literally the first thing in my head. It was hard and daunting. Founders have gigantic personalities and they’re amazing at what they do, so it’s a hard act to follow. But I’d say over the nine years we worked together, I spent more time with Rob than anybody in the planet including my wife and kids. I sat in Rob’s office or in meetings side by side with him. We traveled to board meetings. And in all that time, I can say that he taught me a huge amount about how to lead the business. I felt like I was set up for success.
People often ask me how I’m different from Rob. I’d begin by saying that we are similar in many ways, and with all the time we’ve spent together, we literally finish each other’s sentences all the time. But one big difference is that founders must be single-minded because they essentially have to will an entire company into existence, against all the odds, while those all around them are saying it’s going to fail. That takes a special kind of person. But once you get to a company which is as big as Agoda is now, there’s no way that the CEO can call all the shots. Rather, it requires me to be a good listener. Given we have such great people, my job is really more to say “this is an important question. Let me listen to all the people around the company, hear who’s got a good idea” and decide who we’d want to listen to on each one. So I guess it’s a different level of collaboration that I bring to the table.
John introducing Agoda Values at a Town Hall
The hardest day by far in my professional career
Because of COVID-19, sadly, we did have to downsize our staff by 1,500 people which was without question the hardest day by far in my professional career. That has made our roadmap a little bit harder; everybody is dealing with a team that is smaller than it was before and we’re still trying to do everything.
But still, by and large, our roadmap isn’t way different. There are things we wanted to do with partnerships like JTB, Rocketmiles, and Flights, which we are still doing. Even though booking levels are lower, all the tech stuff that we wanted to implement are still the same as what we planned to do at the beginning of the year, just that financials are a bit different. We’re certainly doing some new things to adapt to COVID like GoLocal, EasyCancel, and HygienePlus. The good news is also domestic tourism is looking very good. In places like Thailand, Korea, or Taiwan domestic travels are higher than last year.
We’re in a very strong place right now — I’m more excited now than ever. We are taking on more in the group, doing better than ever against our competitors, and when people come out of these COVID times, we won’t believe the kind of growth we are going to see.
John planting trees with our accommodation partners and employees in Chiang Mai
The CEO’s tips
To be successful at Agoda, you need a lot of grit and adaptability. First, we really are data-driven. No matter what your job is at Agoda, you really need to dig into the numbers. That’s table stakes. Then start drawing connections between the numbers you know, and other parts of the company. Ask a lot of questions, go to lunch with people in other departments, and build up your Agoda network. Once you master your area and connect it to what everybody else is doing, you start making some real insights.
Two other things. Be flexible. We’re agile. What we’re doing one week may not be what we’re doing the next week and it may feel a little bit frustrating. As Omri (Agoda’s COO) always says, we move like a startup, and that means things change quickly. You need to be willing and adaptable and change with it.
And the last thing is to have fun. If you’re not having fun, you’re probably in the wrong job, or maybe the wrong part of Agoda. The only thing that has really kept me here for 10 years is that I like coming to work. I like the people I work with. I like the problems we’re trying to solve. I love to travel. If I didn’t, there’d be no way I would’ve lasted 10 years or even six months. If you don’t like something, experiment, talk to your manager, because in order to be the best at what you do, you first need to like what you do.
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