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A fly-away internet success

Kathleen Brooks
THE entrance to Cheapflights, the flights comparison website, is based just off Baker Street and contains little more than a vintage advert for Pan Am that hangs on a wall and a couple of leather chairs. Its understated style is also embodied in executive chairman Hugo Burge.

The Bedales and Cambridge-educated geographer was in his late twenties when he says that he stumbled across Cheapflights. After graduation, he worked in property. But after he made £80,000 profit on the sale of his first flat he decided to leave property behind and invest the money in one of the many internet companies that were springing up. It was at this time that he met John Hatt, the founder of Cheapflights, who built the site in the attic of his house in Wandsworth. Burge bought Cheapflights, along with a small group of investors, in early 2000, just before the dotcom bubble burst

Cheapflights survived and has since grown. In 2009 revenues were over £30m.

His father had also started his own business, and Burge says that at the beginning of his involvement in Cheapflights he had a desire to prove himself. At the beginning, Burge was only one of three people who did everything for the site. “Hours were long, but the slog was worth it,” he says. The company has now grown to more than 120 staff serving websites in eight countries.

Burge, along with his business partner David Soskin, also helped to revolutionise the internet as a commercial force when they brought the first pay-per-click advertising model to the travel industry in the UK. Burge wasn’t afraid to take a risk. He got rid of Cheapflights’ flat rate advertising model (its main source of revenue) and replaced it with pay-per-click in late 2000 – this meant that advertisers only paid once a user had clicked on their flight details on the Cheapflights website. “Advertisers loved the model, and it also meant the site could be independent, without pressure from any advertisers,” says Burge.

So what are the drawbacks of achieving success at such a young age? Back in 2007 he was looking to sell his stake in the business. The sale fell through, but Burge pursued other interests. It wasn’t all plain sailing: “ I took on too much back then, but you learn more from your mistakes.”

Looking back over the last 10 years, Burge says he has changed a lot, but he remains committed to Cheapflights: “I see things differently now, it’s about the adventure and the challenge to think bigger, to do something to be proud of.”

One thing is for sure Cheapflights means that Burge no longer has anything to prove.

CV | HUGO BURGE

Age: 37

Home: London and Scotland

Drives: A second-hand nine-seater Land Rover for Scotland.

Favourite destinations:

“Mountain gorillas in Zaire, and Namibia is mind-bogglingly beautiful.”

Last adventure: Madagascar for three weeks, two years ago.

Reading: Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely and a collection of short stories by Somerset Maugham.

During this time he co-launched Howzat media, an investment company, One of Howzat’s investments is WAYN, the social and travel network, that has 16m users across the world.