A liberal arts education turns out to be the perfect foundation for building a successful tech company.
Five years ago, Ben Kazez ’08 arrived at the Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport to catch a flight when, as always, he began to mutilate his boarding pass. He pulled it out as he checked a bag. Then shoved it back in his pocket. He pulled it out to show security. Then put it back in his pocket. He consulted it again at the flight status monitors. And he pulled it out it at least once more when he forgot his gate number.
So, during the next two months, Kazez, then a recent graduate of Carleton’s computer science program, set to work creating FlightTrack, a mobile app for smartphones that provides boarding information, interactive maps of the flight’s course, and real-time alerts for changes in arrival times, terminals, gates—plus a one-tap e-mail to alert the person picking you up.
“I launched it in November 2008,” says Kazez, “and the next morning it was already at the top of the travel category on the iPhone App Store.”
Today millions of customers have downloaded FlightTrack, and it’s available in a dozen languages. And Mobiata, the company Kazez formed to market the app, became a multimillion-dollar company and was snapped up in 2010 by online travel giant Expedia. Now senior director of mobile products for Expedia, Kazez leads a crew of 40—including lead engineers Daniel Lew ’07 and Sebastian Celis ’03, director of design Reed Martin ’03, and engineers Joanna Lee ’07, Ben Cochran ’10, Daniel Levy ’11, and Jonathan Garnaas-Holmes ’12—developing travel apps for the Expedia and Mobiata brands.
“Mobile apps are the best way to give people flexibility when they travel,” says Kazez, who was living in Northfield and writing apps for Ultralingua, a dictionary software company owned by Carleton computer science professor Jeff Ondich, when he launched FlightTrack. “But in the beginning, I figured it was possible that no one would buy the app.”
When FlightTrack became a hit, he left Ultralingua to focus on developing travel apps. Soon, he had created four of them—TripDeck, HotelPal, FlightBoard, and FlightTrack Pro—and had hired 12 employees. As Mobiata became successful, investors began swarming. But Expedia’s offer made Kazez take notice: “Expedia [recognized that] mobile was changing the way people travel”—much as the Internet had changed the way people plan and book trips more than a decade earlier.
The sale was finalized in November 2010, and Kazez went from independent entrepreneur to corporate manager. “Running the mobile products division of a big company is very different from running a 12-person startup,” says Kazez, who now lives in San Francisco. “But then again, I didn’t have any experience running a 12-person startup.
“I can’t tell you where we’ll be in five years because things are changing so quickly. I used to book every hotel in advance when I traveled. Now, when I arrive at my destination, I view available hotels using our hotel app, and then press a button to book one. I’ve got a place to stay without having to think about it in advance.”
Kazez and his team also have developed apps that enable travelers to track fare drops, book a new flight if one is canceled, discover cool things to do at their destination, and consult an itinerary that’s always available and up-to-date.
Despite his success, Kazez acknowledges that he never wanted to be an entrepreneur. “I thought of entrepreneurship as something separate from the Carleton liberal arts experience,” he says. “I was totally wrong.”
It turns out that a liberal arts background was indispensable to the process of developing a business: “I wore a lot of different hats. I would write code for a couple of days and then I’d be editing somebody’s marketing copy. Next I would be looking at spreadsheets and trying to make the finances work. My liberal arts background was an incredible foundation for building a company.”
But the best foundation of all is a good idea. Kazez recommends that would-be app developers and entrepreneurs start with a problem—and find a solution.
“The most important thing is not to create something for the joy of creating it, but because it needs to exist,” says Kazez. “The world doesn’t need more start-ups. The world needs more great products that improve people’s lives.”