Can TripIt and Concur travel well together?

January 19, 2011: 12:36 PM ET

TripIt was an innovative startup that helps users organize travel. Concur is an entrenched leader in the corporate travel world. Their fates tied together will be a playbook--or a warning--for the current generation of startups.

By Chadwick Matlin, contributor

Tripit on mobile devices

Tripit on mobile devices

For the past four years, a small travel startup called TripIt has been quietly rethinking the way we travel. Overwhelmed with separate confirmation codes for your flight, hotel, and rental car? Forward the confirmation emails to TripIt, and it'll aggregate them all in one easy to read schedule. Barraged by more frequent flier accounts than you even realize you signed up for? TripIt will track it, and put it in your pocket through its smartphone app. Finding it hard to keep track of where all your employees are in the field? Have TripIt map them for you. The basic features are free, but as you ask TripIt to organize more of your travel, it's going to ask you for more money. Its Pro service costs $49/year.

For now, the company won't disclose how many people have signed up for that Pro plan—it just says it has millions of users overall. But there were enough of them for TripIt to go and get bought. Concur (CNQR), a firm that handles companies' travel and expense forms, purchased TripIt for as much as $120 million, based on certain triggers tied to the price of the company's stock. It's a sizable buyout for TripIt, which had collected a reported $13 million in funding. And it sounds like very little will change. All of TripIt's employees—nearly 50—will stay on with the company, and TripIt's basic service will remain open to the public.

Within the first minute of my conversation with Rajeev Singh, COO and President of Concur, it was clear why they bought TripIt in the first place. "We've been watching TripIt be a disruptive force in the travel sector for a long time," was the first thing he told me. There's an implicit logic in there: TripIt is disruptive; therefore TripIt is the future; therefore Concur should own TripIt.

For decades, "disruption" has been the holy grail of innovation. In 1995, Joseph Bower and Clayton Christensen published "Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave" in the Harvard Business Review. It's a piece that's staid in its focus on floppy disks, but prescient in its theory that technological change makes innovation inevitable. Its message is that a business model can only lie still for so long before it becomes brackish. By the time you find the pool skimmer, business has moved to a rival watering hole down the road.

For the past decade, disruption has had no better mascot than Netflix (NFLX), a company that first uprooted brick-and-mortar rentals, and then decided to scramble the plans of the studios that made the movies in the first place. Its model, combined with other factors, decimated companies like Blockbuster (BBI), propelling Netflix to $553 million in revenue for its most recent quarter. And yet Netflix soon encountered its own disruptive threats. An outfit like RedBox, which also retrofitted Blockbuster's model by selling DVDs for $1 a day at grocery and big box stores across the country, is now coming for Netflix. RedBox plans to start streaming movies this year.

In 2000, Blockbuster had the chance to buy Netflix for $50 million. It turned it down. Ten years later, Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy. It had made the unfortunate and oft-repeated discovery that more tenure, more money, and more brand recognition are temporary, tenuous advantages in the world of business.

Concur doesn't want to make Blockbuster's mistake. It recognized that TripIt was successful because it relied on the individual traveler instead of a company-wide travel agent. It's a model that speaks to the new way the country is traveling, now that anyone knows how to use Kayak.com to cheap for cheap fares. Gregg Brockway, TripIt's president and co-founder, says that this is TripIt's chief disruption. Companies are "seeing what applications their employees are actually using, and those companies that provide those applications are then upselling into the company."

That's what made TripIt so attractive to Concur. Concur already knew how to win over companies—it needed something to win over their employees. So Concur decided to annex TripIt into its network of more than ten thousand clients, a network that earned it nearly 293 million in revenue in 2010.

But now it needs to figure out how to integrate TripIt's disruption without neutering it. It's a dynamic that every company that buys another is forced to confront; but one that's more pronounced when a disruptive competitor is folded in. Start-ups disrupt for a reason. They're nimble, unchecked, and faintly ideological. Even if they're doing the wrong thing, they're doing the wrong thing quickly, adamantly, and with purpose.

Singh says all the right things about TripIt having the space to do its business—"I think we just added some really brilliant people" who "we want to be here forever." Brockway, who says TripIt wasn't looking to be acquired, echoes Singh, saying the partnership will work because before the purchase TripIt didn't think of Concur as "part of the travel establishment."

And maybe they're right, that this can be a partnership that works. TripIt will be the consumer product, and Concur will continue to offer the corporate solutions. But for TripIt to continue its disruption, and for that culture to infect Concur, it can't be a passenger on Concur's journey, or even its copilot. It will need to chart its own course.

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Paul Smalera
Paul Smalera

Paul Smalera is a senior editor for Fortune.com, guiding the website's coverage of tech, finance, investing and the economy. He has written about a wide variety of topics -- from the inner workings of the Google search engine, to the biodiversity protecting Svalbard Global Seed Vault, to the economics behind online dating websites and the impact of the Fed's policies on the national and global economy. A true generalist, Smalera believes every story is a business story if you follow the money.

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