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Brex’s Karandeep Anand on the evolution of Brex Travel

 

Guest: Karandeep Anand, President and Chief Product Officer at Brex

 

Host: Justin Schuster, VP of Marketing at Spotnana

 

Length: 32:22

 

Karandeep Anand joins Justin Schuster to discuss Brex’s strategy for adding travel to its product suite, the collaboration between Brex and Spotnana that led to the successful launch of Brex Travel, and the role of travel industry innovation in enhancing user experience for Brex customers.

Karandeep Anand: We are celebrating the first anniversary of Brex Travel and I can share a lot of success cases around the logos we’ve won and, very demanding customers we’re serving and how commercially it’s been a successful thing, but for me personally, the biggest achievement of this partnership and this announcement has been, we’ve changed the entire industry expectations of what integrated travel and expense and card actually look like.

Justin Schuster: I’m very excited today. I’m speaking with Karandeep Anand. Karan is the president and chief product officer at Brex and Brex is a Spotnana channel partner. In fact you were the first company to publicly announce that you are a channel partner for Spotnana. And that happened about a year ago.

And Karan, I wonder if you could start off by just giving us an overview of Brex and tell us a little bit about the success the company is having as well. 

Karandeep Anand: Indeed, Justin, thanks for having me here. Obviously very huge fans of Spotnana. We took a bet on Spotnana a while back, but before we get into all of that real quick background, currently I’ve been at Brex for a little over two years now, and Brex started as a first corporate card for startups.

And we’ve had exceptional performance and success in serving startups of all sizes. And today, one in three startups in the U. S. is on Brex. But since then, we’ve come a long way. And we also added a whole bunch of enterprise customers. And we’ve been going up market pretty materially in the last 18 to 24 months.

Now we are the only solution which has an integrated card, expense management, travel, and procurement stack all built as a total spend solution. So we now serve everything from a five person startup all the way to a 50,000 size enterprise company with our single continuous finance stack.

So a pretty exciting portfolio of products that we get to serve all segments and obviously travel is a very core part of it. 

Justin Schuster: Amazing. And you mentioned that you joined about two years ago and prior to joining Brex, you were at Meta. And you were VP of Business Products there. So what made you decide to join Brex?

Karandeep Anand: I had a great ride at Meta and Microsoft before that. And I think during my time at Meta, the best parts for me were when I was also building things and we were moving fast and I’d only worked at large companies. And there was an itch that I really wanted to scratch, which is what would it feel like to go and work in a much smaller company setting as well.

And that’s the reason why after doing both Microsoft and Meta, very large companies, very successful companies, I wanted to try something way earlier stage, way more nimble. And after spending a lot of time just talking to a lot of founders, a lot of VCs, I zeroed in on Brex mostly because of the people and the culture and the dream-big aspirations they have on taking on a very established old-school industry that’s been around.

Like we used to do, even at Meta, we used to do expenses on Concur and I was like, oh my gosh, there has to be a better way to do this thing. So I think the fact that Brex had aspirations to go disrupt this traditional industry that finance hasn’t touched in a long time. I was like, this is for me.

Justin Schuster: Fantastic. And what do you see as the big trends that are happening in this spend management, corporate card space that Brex is focused in on? 

Karandeep Anand: Indeed. As I mentioned previously, this industry has not really changed a ton in the last 25 years. The last big innovation that happened in space was when Concur helped replace Excel spreadsheets to go do expenses.

And since then, not a whole lot has changed except for one big transformation that’s recently happened or is happening in the last four or five years, the bringing corporate card and expense management together as a single vertical solution has fundamentally transformed what you can do in the expense management space now.

I’ll give you a very simple example, and a good analogy here to think about is the Apple ecosystem and the Android ecosystem. The reason why a lot of us love the Apple experience, whether you’re an Android fan or Apple fan doesn’t matter, but the Android experience looks very different, it’s a modular plug everything experience and flexibility is amazing, but the Apple experience is you bring full stack right from when you swipe the credit card, the transaction happens all the way to it gets approved, it gets correctly classified and your accounting team never has to deal with it unless it’s an exception.

That magical vertical experience is where the spend management industry overall is headed to. And it’s almost a no brainer at this point. Why would you have three completely disconnected systems that don’t talk to each other and have a horrible experience for employees as the default.

So that’s going to be where the world is headed now. 

Justin Schuster: I sometimes think about how credit cards are an example of how hard it is to make something really simple because from the user experience, they’re just paying for something. It’s a tap or a swipe. And then on the backend. A million pieces of information get shared across this vast network and it’s all seamless to the customer.

I always think about how hard things are behind the scenes and how impressive companies are when they’re able to make things truly simple. 

Karandeep Anand: Yeah. It’s a magical experience. Like we’re so used to it in our consumer lives and somehow when we come into work we’re willing to put up with old software.

That doesn’t need to be true. That’s why I like what you guys are doing with Spotnana and what we’ve been able to do with Brex is bring that consumer great experience for all use cases for employees. Because consumer lives are not any different and they should have the same amazing consumer experiences when they’re at work as well.

Justin Schuster: So Brex announced the release of Brex Travel about almost exactly a year ago. How has that first year gone for you? 

Karandeep Anand: We’re celebrating the first anniversary of Brex Travel and I can share a lot of success cases around the logos we won. And, very demanding customers we’re serving and like how commercially it’s been a successful thing, but for me personally, the biggest achievement of this partnership and this announcement has been we’ve changed the entire industry expectations of what integrated travel and expense and card could actually look like.

So the fact that when you’re traveling and you swipe a card and whether you’re in a hotel or, you’re a train ticket or a flight, everything just works seamlessly together. It’s now seen as a norm versus people that were earlier putting these systems together and the fact that, such, in such a short timeframe we were able to change the entire industry expectation that, there is a better way for doing things has probably been the most impactful part of this partnership and this announcement in a year, it’s been a year and we have people assuming that this is how the world should work because exactly how the world works in their consumer lives.

So I’m pretty excited to not just have commercial success alongside Spotnana, but also have a material shift in industry expectations on what great could look like. 

Justin Schuster: Karan, when you’re out there selling Brex travel, who is it that you’re running into? And why is it that they’re choosing Brex Travel over other alternatives in the market?

Karandeep Anand: Great question, Justin. This has been a great learning for us where we thought, when we go sell Brex Travel, we will be competing against the usual TMCs of the world, which is exactly what shows up. You run into the more traditional there’s like a Navan or Concur with some OBT slapped onto a really old school TMC.

And normally, we get into these conversations and we’re trying to explain how Brex Travel works. The first few conversations are just bizarre. They’re like, okay, so you’re not an OBT. You’re also a TMC and you also an inventory provider and you’re not trying to get intermediary fees, what is going on here?

So the first learning I’ve had is even the so-called modern travel solutions like TripActions or whatever are very old school in their architecture and in their fundamental design philosophy, because all of them are built around the fact that they will make money sitting in between.

So the company is ultimately paying money, whether, again, whether it gets hidden as a mockup on the fare, or it gets hidden because they get kicked back from the airlines. That is the state of the industry today. Yes, you can put a nice little cool shell on top of an old TMC stack and call it TripActions or any one of the new ones.

It doesn’t change the fact that it was designed fundamentally in the wrong way. Where you were never solving the pain for the customer or the user. So when we are out there selling Justin, we end up spending a bunch of time upfront explaining that our fundamental philosophy is to serve the consumer of the product, the company and the buyer, and then helping the suppliers in that order.

What’s the other way around, which is how it’s messed up. And we do not sit in between trying to make money on any of that. And that is a very fundamental rewiring of how the competition has been. Almost, I don’t want to use the word lying, but essentially they’ve been misleading buyers for such a long time because there’s nothing else available.

So I think I really love the fact that building on Spotnana, Brex Travel is able to be very honest and direct with where we create value and how we capture value. We’re not trying to hide the fact that, hey, we’re trying to create value in this experience and then we’ll get some kickbacks from any of the airlines.

We just don’t do that. And I think that’s the reason why I really believe in Spotnana’s approach to travel as a platform with the promise that you’ll always have access to the best fares anyone ever will have is a very core part of the travel selling experience. So I’m really glad that when we run into competition, we almost always win because the minute you can explain what we are serving is you, not any of the intermediaries, it becomes a very straightforward sales process.

Justin Schuster: Karan, why is travel important to Brex customers? Why did you decide to prioritize adding travel to the Brex product suite? 

Karandeep Anand: That’s a great question, Justin. The way to think about this is, companies spend money on three big buckets. One is, employees and headcount, which is essentially what we call payroll, and that’s like a very large part of what the company ends up having expenses on.

The second one is what we typically know as procurement or direct or indirect purchases. So either you’re buying goods for your supply chain, or you’re buying large contracts, like you want to buy large software or do events or buy hardware, depending on the business you’re in, and that’s a pretty meaningful second chunk of the expenses a company has.

And the third one is the most distributed spend that a company does is T&E. So travel and entertainment is the single biggest in terms of volume of transactions that happen. There might be small dollar amounts, but that is where most employees in the company participate because finance typically deals with the procurement parts and then HR deals with the payroll part.

But T&E is the most widely-touched expense type in a company. And that’s the reason why our vision has always been to offer the best experience for employees when they’re dealing with expenses. And that’s the reason why travel is such an integral part of that experience of how you’re spending a company’s money to move the business forward.

So I think trying to do this as two separate things, like you have travel and then you have to deal with expense management data. We see the world as a tightly integrated, fully verticalized stack where. Whether you swipe the card to get on a flight to coming back and doing your hotels, you never have to ever do an expense report.

And that’s the reason why first-party travel is a very critical part of tackling this third largest spend bucket a company has. So that’s the reason why travel is almost existential for my business, which is if you don’t have a great travel offering, it defeats the purpose of having only a card and expenses for all the T&E expenses.

Justin Schuster: Makes complete sense and I can see how travel is something that’s really strategic for your customers and thinking about how they want an integrated solution that combines major expenses and the ability to submit those expenses and have all that be one seamless experience. And so thinking about that, why did you decide to partner for travel rather than build something completely on your own?

Karandeep Anand: This brings back memories of the conversations we had almost two years ago where, Brex, one of the reasons why Brex has been, as successful as it has been is we’re very honest with ourselves on what our true strengths are and where we need to lean on partners which are exceptionally good at what they do.

So could we have built a travel product ourselves by cobbling things together, and have a travel support team? Probably yes. A lot of people think it’s a technology problem. And if you have smart engineers, you can build anything. But, as we both know, travel is much more than just technology.

There are so many moving parts and so many pieces of running a travel platform and a whole travel experience. When we were evaluating whether we build, whether we buy, whether we partner, I think it became very obvious to us that what we want to bet on is, the most advanced platform on the planet, which thinks about travel all day long.

The way we think about finances and expenses and credit card and global financial infrastructure, money movement, that’s what we live and breathe. I wanted to look for a partner which would essentially live and breathe travel all day long. Hey, where is the flight inventory coming from, the best prices are coming from, do I have the most coverage of hotel prices? I want somebody to be living and breathing this at a global scale the way we do it for expenses. So when we went through that exercise, Justin, it became very obvious that I do not want to offer a b-grade travel bolt-on product.

That’s the reason why we decided to go with the industry best. And that’s why we decided on Spotnana. Travel is in your DNA for Spotnana the way it is for Brex in finances. And that’s the reason why we decided to bet our entire travel business and product to be deeply integrated with Spotnana, as opposed to trying to build it ourselves.

We want to play to our strengths. And our strength is expense and cards. And I wanted to have a partner whose strength was travel. So the decision was pretty obvious to me after spending some time. There’s so many bad travel platforms out there and we didn’t want to build another bad one.

Justin Schuster: Brex and has built an incredibly deep integration to Spotnana. The way that you’ve decided to approach this is not just to do a simple embedding of our technology in Brex’s user interface. Instead, it goes much deeper than that. Can you say a little bit more about your philosophy and what it is that you’re building?

Karandeep Anand: Indeed. I think it goes back to why we, when we decided to partner instead of building it ourselves, it became very obvious that the trade off is either you build something yourself and it’s deeply integrated and it feels like a single product or you partner, in which case it looks like a bolted-on product.

One of the values we have at Brex is we want to break the trade off. And that’s the reason why we decided to go big on Spotnana. I was like, you have a very API-first approach of providing travel technology versus purely just saying, hey, here’s my website linked to it.

And you’ll have a white label product that was not going to solve what we really want to solve, which is a fully deeply-integrated stack. So I think our philosophy remains the same, which is When a customer is buying a full stack T&E solution, they’re not expecting the seams to start saying, Oh, my credit card came from American Express and my expense came from Concur.

And now I have a bolted-on TMC that is providing travel. There’s a reason why we took an API-first approach in a partnership where we want to have the end-to-end experience in the context of Brex. And when people are buying Brex Travel, they’re expecting the same level of integration that they see between our cards and expenses in the travel as well. 

So I think our strategy has always been that even though we don’t want to build travel ourselves, we never want to expose those seams to a customer. So they have to get involved in troubleshooting when something goes wrong or understand how two different parts work. 

So I think that trade off is really important to break where we are not like, hey, Switzerland, bring your own travel solution. And then you can go figure out how to reconcile at the end of the month. That’s not who we are. You can use a credit card if you want to, but what we really want to do is if you are buying Brex Travel, you’re getting the best full-stack experience.

You can’t get natively into the product. One simple example, as soon as somebody books a ticket on Brex Travel, in the back end, Spotnanais making the reservations because you’re going through this complicated NDC network to get the best fares. But automatically, as soon as the reservation is done, it shows up in your Brex itinerary in your app.

The expenses automatically reconcile because we know it’s an in-policy expense. And, the day before your travel, we can send a notification in the Brex Travel app. All of those cannot happen if it’s a bolt-on experience. That’s the reason why native deep integration is an extremely critical part of the experience we’re aiming to have in this industry.

Justin Schuster: And you just mentioned NDC in passing there. And it’s a very significant change that’s been happening in the airline industry in particular and in travel overall. When you started down the journey with Spotnana, were you thinking about NDC at all? And in general, how have you seen things change over the past year in the industry, and how has that affected the way that you think about our partnership?

Karandeep Anand: Great question. I think the NDC, API-first platform and the scrappiness of the Spotnana team were all very critical consideration factors for us to go with Spotnana. Because obviously, at our size, we have tens of thousands of customers taking a bet on back then what used to be an early stage company.

It was not entirely a bet based on the product you have today, but the vision that Spotnanahas had and, NDC is a very cool part of it, which is the reason why Brex is we have very deep native integration with Mastercard for global financial services, an example, and we know the dividends it has paid over the years.

To bet on a platform, which is so forward looking that you might not have the features today, but we know the vision is aligned. I think that’s the reason why the NDC process for Spotnana took place, which is instead of just being another TMC, which is aggregating on top of a GDS system. The approach and philosophy was you want to turn the business model on its head where the traveler is getting the best choice, the most inventory, the best fares.

Direct connection with the airlines fundamentally speaks to the philosophy that we have even when we’re building out our global card network, as an example. So I think that is one clear example of how the industry is rapidly evolving so it might not be there today. And I know American Airlines and United, a couple of them already are ahead of the curve, but we know that’s exactly where the industry is going to end up.

So we decided to go and partner with Spotnana mostly to get to where the puck is going, not where the world has been for the longest time. So I think to answer your meta question on what are the industry trends like? I think, yes, most of them came from, Oh, I want to have a cheap travel solution to bolt-on to no, my employees in the company are demanding the best inventory, best fares, best experience, best native experience, and all of those things are where our visions aligned between Brex and Spotnana very closely, which is we will build the first tech stack, which is completely designed on transparency and full access to all the inventory.

So I think that’s one very critical example of where not just our visions aligned, but the industry is also maturing very quickly. Where they’re asking, saying, Hey, where are my Southwest fares? Where are my Easyjet fares when I’m in Europe? And that is where the industry will obviously eventually get to, because when I go down on Google Flights and my employees can find the best fares there, they want that and much more from the corporate travel, because corporate travel is not supposed to have the Google Flights data.

It’s all supposed to have my special custom deals that I’ve done with my airline partners. So I think these are all pieces which we obviously need to keep educating the industry on. But luckily our users and consumers are inherently dissatisfied with travel and they’re making the demand for where the world needs to go.

Justin Schuster: And in the year that we’ve been working together, we’ve released a lot of new functionality. What aspects of Spotnana are resonating best with your customers? 

Karandeep Anand: All of them to the point where I actually my wardrobe is now Brex plus Spotnana. I’ve been very impressed with the pace of innovation.

I think a lot of times people forget that the most demanding enterprise buyers are also the most patient ones when they are looking for a long-term bet on a platform. So I’ll give you an example of customers like SeatGeek or Roblox who’ve been on Brex Travel with us. They have hundreds of very demanding asks and rightfully so they should, they’re building great tech themselves and they demand great tech from us as well.

And that’s the reason why instead of naming any one individual feature, which I have a long list of, including the fact that I can reclaim my canceled flight credits by myself versus instead of being stuck on a phone for an hour are all examples of the speed of innovation.

And our customers are most excited about any one individual feature. So every time we come back and say, Hey, this is broken. I love the fact that we solve it through technology versus trying to throw more humans into the problem and trying to solve it operationally. So I think for me, if you were to ask, it’s not any one feature that stands out.

It’s the fact that the vision is aligned to solving hard problems through technology at a global scale and doing it very quickly and rapidly in response to customer feedback, which has been my most important learning. 

Justin Schuster: Karan, I have to say, I am a huge fan of Brex’s brand and design aesthetic. How is it that you think about that?

And what role did that play in selecting Spotnana as a partner? 

Karandeep Anand: It feels like a small thing, but being able to give confidence to the user that this is a one single stack and you have my back in case something was to go wrong. It’s a very important part of our brand promise. So I think, yes, absolutely.

Both the brand promise of the best technology and most premium technology on the planet. And the fact that it feels like a single integrated brand experience is a very core part of our decision. 

Justin Schuster: What you’ve done to achieve that, I think is very impressive. I, when I see demos of the integrated experience, I see parts that are designed purely by your design team.

And then I see parts that are Spotnana, but in a white-labeled context with your brand colors, your design elements all surrounding that, and it feels very seamless to me. And how do you ensure that happens in the way that you deliver? 

Karandeep Anand: It’s a great partnership. I think the fact that our design teams get to work together, engineering teams get to work together on an ongoing basis.

We are on a weekly standup call between the two teams. We triage issues together. I think it goes back to the very fundamental vision, which is why we also picked Spotnana. Spotnana aims to be the travel platform, not the travel product. There’s a huge difference in a small statement, but I think that attitude, that vision underlines why things work the way they do because platform companies are built fundamentally differently than a pure product company.

And the reason why we picked Spotnana is the aspirations and vision to become a platform company. And hence, its platform is what you can, we can generally customize to be your brand. And they work with developers like our teams to make that feel real. And I think that’s what has played out really well in the last 18 months.

Justin Schuster: And I saw that you had a recent announcement about some really exciting new AI capabilities. Can you say more about what you’ve just announced and how you’re thinking about AI?

Karandeep Anand: Indeed. I think like most of the industry, AI is both a buzzword as well as actually a massive way to fundamentally redesign and rethink how this experience around travel and expenses or just expenses can be very different than what we’re used to.

We’re trying not to be on this buzzword bandwagon. So we took our time to go launch Brex AI in a very thoughtful way. And we essentially see, Justin, AI play out in three different ways for Brex. Number one is we’ve been using a ton of AI for the last five years on the backend. So everything from risk fraud, modeling, underwriting has been, so it is deep in our DNA.

I think what Gen AI now with the recent announcements allows us to do is take that experience from the back end to actually also on the front end experience that an employee will have in a company or a finance team will have when they’re closing the books. So what we announced recently was Brex AI, which is a Brex assistant to take care of all the common redundant tasks on what needs to be approved? You have a missing memo. Where’s the receipt? We can automate most of that. There’s no reason why humans should be spending any cycles on any of that. I’ll give you a simple example. We were at dinner last night with a client and swipe the card and AI assistant was able to go look up my Google Calendar to say, okay, I was meeting with X, Y, Z, two people showed up, two people had declined, automatically filed expense, picked up the restaurant, picked up the context of the meeting, picked up the client’s name.

It knew how many people were there because two people declined. I did not have to do anything. That is an example of intelligence applied correctly. So it’s not a buzzword. I think it’s a very small thing that can happen in the background. Nobody sees it, but the fact that it saved me 10 minutes of aggregating what this was, then talking to my assistant and the company, my admin, she’s awesome, but I’m wasting her time.

So saying, hey, here’s a final expense report, that the whole thing is gone. Ultimately, AI is going to be the sum of these few minutes of magical moments compounded over time, and I think that’s how we’re looking at AI. It should genuinely be an assistant to make things happen faster and easier.

And that’s why I’m very excited about what it does as a simple example for the employees. But imagine what it is doing for the finance teams a thousand times more because they’re dealing with hundreds of thousands of these expenses coming in and having to go through it manually, classify, reclassify, annotate, all that is gone.

They don’t need any of that. So that’s why I’m pretty bullish on the power of what AI can do, but we are at the same time being very thoughtful on how we sequence high value to not get caught up in the buzzwordiness of this AI trend. 

Justin Schuster: We’re thinking of it in a very similar way, just ruthless practicality and how do we use AI in a dozen different places for different moments and different users?

How do we make our agents more efficient? How do we create moments that create more seamless experiences for travelers when there’s a disruption or when they’re searching for a flight or for a travel manager when they’re creating a report and trying to gain insights from data. There’s a dozen different places or more where in the product AI can be very useful.

Ultimately the value should be judged on the basis of how much time it saves.

Karandeep Anand: Yeah. Every small delightful experience deepens your relationship with the company. Cause wow, like you just don’t have to do it, but you just did it. That’s amazing. 

Justin Schuster: Brex has also been using Spotnana as a customer yourself for your own travel for some time.

Karandeep Anand: We do not partner until we put you through the paces ourselves. 

Justin Schuster: Completely fair. And very wise as a strategy. One of the things I think that we did together initially was support travel for an offsite. That that Brex put together. So can you say a little bit more about what that event was and why you do offsites?

Why is travel important for you as a company? 

Karandeep Anand: And actually this is a great question, Justin, because I want to also tie it back to another question you asked earlier, one of the trends we’re seeing in the travel industry. So one is spend in the industry. We’ve seen a lot of consolidation happening and full stack, but one of the things we’ve noticed in travel, especially corporate travel, is pre-pandemic, there used to be a lot of bespoke travel that the individuals would do.

And think of this like your sales team traveling to clients, client connections to make those meetings happen. And post-pandemic, something has fundamentally shifted in corporate travel where a lot of travel now gets done by employees in the company getting together. I think this is probably a fallout of a more distributed workforce.

Now, a lot of people working from home or working remotely or working at distributed locations coming together on a periodic basis and Brex does the same thing where we have employees in multiple cities, countries, and we bring them together periodically. So I think offsites are a very critical part of Brex’s culture, and we see this happening industry wide so it’s not just Brex. 

So one of the things we hence deeply care about is how do we make this experience of booking travel to get together to be as seamless as possible. And it should not feel like individual thousand people making their own trips because then it defeats the purpose because you’ve lost intelligence that they’re all getting together in a single location and they all need to line up and like at a meeting for a purpose.

So I think that’s the reason why an offsite as an experience end-to-end is both critical because part of our culture and DNA and a need, but also a very critical part of the product experience we aim to offer to our customers as well. So I think Spotnana helped us with the first offsite that we did in Denver and booking a thousand flights. I’m pretty sure put everyone through a high tension phase of saying, Oh my gosh, like the first time a thousand people want to travel together and Spotnana is going to be woken up.

I think it worked exceptionally well, but it also gave us a lot more confidence that this is not just a Brex unique thing. Every company wants to do this for their employees or even in their sales teams or sometimes with customers. And being able to bring people together goes back to the very value of creating human connection, which is what travel ultimately enables.

And I’m really glad that that is now not just what Brex does periodically, but most of our customers. We’re very heavy users of the Events product. 

Justin Schuster: Exciting. Karan, thank you so much for spending time with us today. It was a pleasure speaking with you and I look forward to the partnership and how it continues to evolve in the years ahead.

Karandeep Anand: I’m very excited. And Justin, thank you to your team. They’ve been amazing partners. And more importantly, the fact that we have a similar vision and philosophy really makes us very bullish about this partnership. So thank you to your team.