David Roche: The boss who aims to hit the right note
- 30 June 2013
- From the section Business
You might not think being a jazz musician has much in common with running a successful internet business - but Hotels.com boss and committed pianist David Roche sees a connection.
"Jazz is very improvisation-based. There are rules, but it is also about making things up as you go along," he says.
"That experimentation is also vital when you are running a company like Hotels.com.
"In our industry you have to keep changing all the time to make money, to stay ahead of your competitors - you feel the pressure of Darwinian selection on you all the time."
The 44-year-old Irishman has been president of Hotels.com - part of US online travel bookings giant Expedia - for 10 years.
Selling rooms in more than 200,000 hotels around the globe, the London-based company takes a commission from each transaction.
When Mr Roche joined the company, it was "a tiny little business run in a kitchen-table fashion".
Under his stewardship - and thanks to the tremendous industry-wide growth in online retail - Hotels.com has seen its turnover increase 50-fold over the past decade to firmly establish itself as a market leader.
It now has 2,500 employees, and offices in more than 40 countries.
But, Mr Roche says, there is no room for complacency.
"Internet businesses are just like all other businesses… except that they operate at light speed. They are the mayflies of the business world, visibly ageing in front of your eyes.
"So internet companies can come into existence, ramp up to a gigantic scale, and then equally come down the other side of that precipitously.
"Remember Netscape, remember Lycos, remember AltaVista? The wreckage of failed internet businesses are all around.
"So you have to keep changing, you have to keep improving what you offer your customers. You have to keep on experimenting."
Mr Roche says his love of experimentation and running businesses was with him from an early age.
At home in Dublin as a child he would develop computer games on his basic Sinclair computer, while at school he would sell things to make money.
"I would say that my first business was selling water pistols at school," he says.
"Those were the days when corporal punishment was sanctioned, and I got biffed quite thoroughly for doing it, because of course the pistols were widely used in the classrooms, and it all got traced back to yours truly."
By the time he went to university at Dublin's Trinity College, playing jazz piano had become his primary way to make money.
"I worked as a musician throughout university, playing restaurants or corporate functions," he says. "And there was a certain amount of hustling with that - you have to go and find the work."
Mr Roche also ran one of the university magazines, where after being told he could pocket any advertising revenues he brought in, he sold space "very enthusiastically".
After graduating with a degree in maths and English, he and a friend opened an event-management business, organising live entertainment for hotels, tour companies and corporate clients.
"After three to four years we had a nice little busy, but I wanted to get out. Like many Irish people, I suddenly found the island to be too small. I wanted to get up and away, so I sold my share of the business and travelled around the world for a while."
After travelling for six months, Mr Roche settled in London and got a job with an advertising company.
"I thought it would be very creative, but my work certainly wasn't. I became very disillusioned with it. Basically I had the wrong idea of how advertising works and I got my comeuppance."
Quitting the advertising industry, Mr Roche's next job was to launch a start-up technology business. It taught him a valuable lesson - how to deal with failure.
The idea was to put TV screens into convenience stores, and play adverts on them.
After piloting the screens in 15 stores, the early 2000s dot-com bubble burst, and confidence in the scheme collapsed, leading to Mr Roche pulling the plug.
He says: "It teaches you personal resilience - sometimes stuff just doesn't work. Even if you put your heart and soul into it.
"You don't need to see that as a referendum on your potential as a human being, you just have to pick yourself up and move along."
Move along Mr Roche did, joining Expedia in 2003 to run its Hotels.com subsidiary.
He explains that his method of management is to hire the very best people, set them an objective, "and then keep out of the way".
"This business is so ferociously competitive that I need people who want to make a difference," he says.
"They have to be coming up with new ideas, and it has to be the best idea that wins, even if I don't initially agree with it - I want my staff to be able to say they think I'm wrong."
Mr Roche explains that the changes and experimentation at Hotels.com are all connected to making its website, and the overall customer experience it offers, as easy and enjoyable as possible.
"The amount of information we are able to provide about the hotels will only go up and up. In the future we'll probably be able to be as specific as 'you'll get this room, it will look west, and this is the view'."