Launched in 2003, SkyScanner finally reached Unicorn status earlier this year. Its February funding round saw the UK-based travel search engine raise almost $192m from new investors - valuing it at $1.6bn - which it said it will use to fund acquisitions, expand internationally, and fend off takeover offers from larger rivals in what is a fiercely competitive sector. They now have 40 million app downloads globally, 60 million unique visitors to the website and applications a month, and last year reached £120 million turnover, generating £11 billion in total transactions. They also employ 750 people.
Skyscanner’s growth over the last few years has been remarkable, and much of this is down to the excellent work of its FP&A function in enabling the company to scale and move into new markets. At the recent FP&A Innovation Summit in London, Tony Finnegan, Manager of FP&A at Skyscanner discussed how the function had changed during his tenure as the company had grown, and the way the function was riding the crest of the wave without holding back growth, despite working in what is an extremely complex business model.
The key driver for FP&A at Skyscanner, as it is for most in the digital age, is speed. It is competing with giants such as Trip Advisor in a fast-moving marketplace, and must therefore be extremely agile to remain competitive.
According to Tony Finnegan, there are three phases that their FP&A team passed through as they grew to unicorn status. Phase 1 saw FP&A activities carried out by a general accountant, who dealt primarily with budgeting. Phase 2 saw an increase in the amount of ad hoc analysis, with more staff allocated to help the function. Phase 3 - where the firm is now - has seen FP&A become a standalone function, utilizing pro-active business analytics and operating reviews to drive growth. In phase 3, it is a clearly defined business unit which operates separately from other departments, and looks to help different teams work better for the business as a whole.
In order for this to be a success, FP&A needs to operate a continuous learning loop when the business grows at rapid levels, and evolve their skill set in line with expansion. The most important thing he noted, however, is autonomy and the ability to act as a business influencer rather than a centralized function. Autonomy is particularly important for Skyscanner because of its exceptionally complex organizational structure, with different ‘squads’ overseeing each section: one for hotels, one for flights, and one for car hire. Such a structure makes it impossible for FP&A to be centralized. Most of the time, they are not sharing financial information with FP&A analysts but product owners, most of whom are not from financial backgrounds, which means education is paramount. The product owners have got to have a good idea of how what they’re doing is impacting the business model. For example, when making a change to the product, they need to know whether it is driving more exits, if it’s driving more revenue, and so forth.
Once a product owner has a sufficient level of commercial awareness, Skyscanner’s FP&A team starts to shift ownership out to them entirely, leaving them alone to monitor their information and performance. Once this is achieved and each ‘squad’ has the necessary knowledge and ownership, they are able to conduct 1000s of tests around everything they do, enabling far greater agility and speed of processes. The FP&A team itself, meanwhile, can come together from a macro view. This drives the product, growth and performance, generates insight, and gives them visibility of what each squad could be doing to learn from one another and ensuring that they are doing it.