Concur CEO Steve Singh: No Perfection Without Collaboration

Concur chairman and CEO Steve Singh last week kicked off The Beat Live conference here with a keynote address, but no, he didn't harp on open booking. He did, however, focus on other Concur themes: an open platform, using data intelligently and what the company calls "the perfect trip." He also put into perspective Concur's investment activity, responded to customer service criticisms and weighed in on a recent op-ed published in The Beat that suggested the company has stolen the innovation mantle from corporate travel management companies.

In that op-ed, Craig Fichtelberg, co-founder and president of Chicago-area travel management company AmTrav, wrote that "TMCs have completely abdicated responsibility for user experience, outsourcing it entirely to third parties," and that "a giant has risen to capitalize on the opportunity." TMCs, Fichtelberg opined, "have become virtual prisoners of this giant," left only to hope they aren't marginalized to the point of irrelevance.

Singh described the opinion piece__which never mentioned Concur by name__as "a fair and reasonable set of comments." But he also said that if the point was to share an idea "that we need to take the industry back, as if there is a model that says one part wins and one part doesn't win, I guess there I have a massive difference of opinion. The idea that any one company can control all this is nonsense. The reality is, how do we work together to make this all happen?"

Collaboration, according to Singh, is the only way to perfect a business trip. Why, he asked, does a business traveler experiencing a flight delay not have a service that automatically knows the problem, finds three accommodation options permissible by corporate policy, offers those options through the traveler's mobile device and books whichever option is chosen? And then why, he added, can't such a service automatically inform the traveler's hotel of the expected late arrival and have them checked in accordingly? "The idea that this is far off is ridiculous," Singh said. "All the technology exists today. What doesn't exist is the ability to work together in a collaborative model."

Such a model, he said, means leveraging each other's resources and strengths. "There are services that TMCs provide that we can't possibly provide because we're not experts in that area and we'll never be experts in that area," he said before repeating a familiar refrain: "We have no interest in being a travel management company."

"We think there's an amazing collaborative opportunity," he continued. "But the value, the niche, we deliver is different from what we delivered 10 to 15 years ago, and it may be different 10 years from now. There are a few that look at it and they want the world to stay the way it is__good luck, it's not going to happen."

Putting To Work 'Another $200 Million'

Discussing Concur's own work to innovate, Singh noted the company has upwards of 600 engineers__"just people who write code__and that number is growing every single year. Over the next 10 years, we'll spend about $1.2 billion or $1.3 billion just on innovation."

When Concur doesn't build innovation, it buys it__or at least funds external parties. In addition to the acquisitions this year of conTgo, GDSX and TRX, Concur steers investment capital toward emerging tech players through its "Perfect Trip Fund."

Singh said Concur thus far has invested about $120 million in 10 companies__including mobile ground transport booking tool Taxi Magic, digital hotel marketing firm Buuteeq and Indian OTA Cleartrip__"and there is another $200 million we'll put to work in other companies over the course of the next few years."

When asked to clarify if that additional $200 million specifically is earmarked for the Perfect Trip Fund, a Concur official told The Beat that "the company is looking to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a combination of future investments and other strategic spending__not just specific to the Perfect Trip Fund."

Singh provided a glimpse into Concur's thinking on investment opportunities around the globe: "The best global companies in the world are fantastic local companies. So when we look at every new country brand, we look at whether this is a multi-million-dollar opportunity by itself. And the way we invest in new countries is that if it's not that kind of opportunity then we're going to defer investment for now. We look at whether we'll make a profit five to six years down the road. That's the investment horizon we tend to look at."

He pointed to Japan: "We've seen great progress in the Japanese market for our sets of services because it's all being developed__the localization, the new innovation across the Japanese market__by our Concur Japan team. We don't think about it and say, 'How do we build that in the U.S.?' There's some cases of technology that could be leveraged there but the super vast majority for any innovation for any local market is developed in-market."

When asked just how global he thinks Concur has become, he made a distinction between travel and expense products. "On the expense side, we're in 190 countries," he said. "So, yes, I'd say that's reasonably global.

"In travel it's different," Singh continued, "and we're closer to about 15 or 16 countries where we have a real footprint around travel. We're as global as any other tool that's out there. The question is: What's the foot race to how much more global can you be, how much better can you be? You heard me [say] that we're going to invest $1.2 billion in roughly 10 years. I think we can make a pretty significant footprint."

But Holly Hegeman of Plane Business made note of complaints about Concur's products from some of her subscribers, what she said could be described as "growing pains." The concern, she told Singh, "is they would rather hear that the company is aware of these issues and what you're going to do to address these issues ... rather than talk about future growth."

Singh responded, "Of course we're aware of issues and of course we want to invest in that and make the experience better. The feedback is totally fair. It's something we're painfully aware of." Yet, he was quick to suggest that "you don't get to 20,000 customers by having a set of services that don't work."

Growing pains may persist for the foreseeable future. When asked what worries him, Singh said, "We're at 4,000 employees now, we'll add another 1,000 people in the course of next year. The next 1,000 that come in, how do they know what our values are? How do they know what's important to us? How do they know to look at every single relationship the same way the founders of the company do?"