When Paul English talks he sounds like a typical working-class Bostonian, skipping his “r”s and shortening his vowels. He looks the part as well, his face a little round, a little red, with friendly eyes shaded by messy clumps of hair that he repeatedly shakes from his brow. He looks like he would be more at home in an Irish pub than between the glass walls of a successful startup.
However, Paul English, the co-founder of the travel price comparison site (Metasearch) Kayak, isn’t talking about his vision behind his latest startup, Lola Travel. In his friendly, open way, English is talking about his lifelong struggles with bipolar disorder. As he does a third stereotype comes to mind, the mad genius. Add to this his dual talents in both programming and management – a rare combination – and the down-to-earth guy from Boston has transformed into a fascinating mosaic.
Is there one element that stands out, that might be the key to his success? Does he possess some unique quality that gave rise to Kayak, Lola, Boston Light Software and many other entrepreneurial endeavours?
It is tempting to give some credit to his mental illness, comparing his “almost preternatural coding skills” to, perhaps, John Nash, the mathematical genius of “A Brilliant Mind” fame. Possibly, bipolar disorder is, in fact, responsible for English’s infamous gregarious personality. The man is not only known for his love of partying, and he based his previous business Blade on blurring the line between daytime work and evening recreation.
English himself as said that the hypomanic states (a phase between normal functioning and full-on mania) that he experiences during the “up” phases of his disease had given him confidence, and allowed him to work faster, and harder. He says hypomania largely fueled the early years of Kayak. However, he also has said he is “ashamed” of how hypomania was a driving force behind Blade, his ill-fated vision of a workspace that exhibited cyber art, generated new travel-based tech solutions, and offered a night-club/tech incubator party environment in the evenings. Blade has now been rolled into Lola Travel.
English also credits the success of Kayak to his management prowess. He “only hires entrepreneurs”, meaning his designers have their own hunger to contribute and innovate. He encourages employees to think out of the box, be confident in their individual ideas, and challenge his own ideas when necessary. Praise has been heaped on his 4-part hiring formula:
- Bandwidth, meaning intelligence and work effectiveness.
- Attitude, meaning people who have a drive for competition as well as personality and sense of humour.
- Experience, meaning he hires people who have already been quite successful.
- Lack of dysfunctional behaviour, meaning don’t be a jerk. The last rule is enforced no matter how talented the person may be. It is all about the team.
English does, in fact, come from a working-class background. Born and raised in Boston, he describes a family where both parents worked to put food on the table but were spread too thin to have the energy for much beyond that. This may be a source for English’s commitment to philanthropy. English serves on the non-profit boards of Summits Education in Haiti, Humanity Rises refugee relief and others, and is the founder of the Boston Winter Walk for Homelessness, and of a project to create a new memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King in Boston. Interestingly, coming from the man who helped eliminate human travel agents, English is also the founder of GetHuman.com, which seeks to restore personal contact in customer service.
Personal contact is, in fact, a keystone of Lola Travel, a service and software designed to simplify booking business travel for employers and employees alike. Lola boasts 24-hour live customer service and has negotiated travel contracts that eliminate lock-ins and hefty transfer fees while cutting back on layovers and tricky departure and arrival times.
A 10-year practitioner of meditation who has studied Buddhism, Paul English stresses the idea of acceptance over anger when dealing with human situations. “Anger is physical violence that you do to yourself,” says English. “You wouldn’t hit yourself on the head with a hammer and expect it to solve a problem.” Acceptance has given him the ability to roll with the punches, and move on from the past.
There is probably no one element that is the secret to English’s entrepreneurial genius. It is likely a combination of all of these traits, and more. One thing is for sure, they add up to an interesting, highly successful man who defies characterisation. The kind of guy who you’d love to share a pint with, if you happen to find yourself in an Irish pub in Boston.