A Chat with Billy Tucker from Oneflare
Oneflare is considered somewhat of an Australian double sided marketplace success story. Gen caught up with Billy Tucker, the CEO of Oneflare, to discuss what it’s like coming in as a CEO into a startup that’s maturing, their most recent round of investment, and how Oneflare is attracting customers on both sides of their double sided marketplace.
Watch the video here or look below to read the transcript:
B: Billy Tucker
G: Gen George
G: Hi guys, Gen George here, back for round two of our Facebook live interviews. Today, we’re here with Billy Tucker from OneFlare and we’re gonna, as usual, hear what Billy’s been up to and how he got to OneFlare. Billy, so what happened before OneFlare, what did you do?
B: So look, I’m a ten year Microsoft veteran, studied in London back in 2001 so it’s a wee while ago and worked in the Xbox business. So came all the way through Microsoft, a couple of different countries, few different roles. I left Microsoft in 2010 to set up a company called Cudo, which was an online deals space. Yeah, we talked about a once-in-a-lifetime market opportunity and I think that was right. You know there was a lot of really incredible growth stories around that time so. Fascinating business, awesome experience, loved it two bits. The business best description, I think, is there was a tipping point when the business somewhat outgrew my capability and we also discovered that the business had grown so rapidly then in fact a lot of the baseline processes that we should have had to help us scale hadn’t been properly formed. And so it was a business that was a little bit teetering on the edge and we were just enjoying it and lapping up explosive growth.
So I finished with Cudo in 2012, did some consulting, I joined the advisory board of Kmart, did some startups, tried in vain to sell a business to American Express, who I think still use the business. And and then I went on to a management buyout in a media company.
G: So it’s been it’s been a bit of a journey.
B: It’s been a journey with a big corporate backdrop.
G:Favourite xbox game though? I’m sure you would’ve played one at Microsoft.
B: Oh look, oh my god. So the only game that I would play now is whatever their big equivalent to Gran Turismo is, their big driving game but that’s it. You know, we were encouraged at Microsoft back in London, in Soho, to all have an Xbox on our desks with dual monitors. I never used mine,
G: Some people watching are going to be “Oh my god, are you kidding?”
B: I know it was the weirdest thing. But I had two cousins who enjoyed a lot of demo games, so they used to get them through the post now and again. So I was favourite uncle for a while.
G: That’s good to know. So, coming on to OneFlare, what attracted you to a startup like this?
B: Look, here’s here’s the interesting thing and this might well form a theme throughout the discussion is–I hadn’t really heard of the business. So that was fascinating to me because when I saw the revenue that the business was generating, when I saw some of the SEO capability of the business and I had a friend of mine… So in in the MBO, we had a business called HopFrog, which was a global directory player that had been largely smashed by Panda in 2012. And so I had a very capable manager from HopFrog take a look at OneFlare and he was super impressed by the way the site had been built, by the SEO effects that had been built in, by its ability, its PageRank et cetera. And so you’ve got a business that in terms of broad optics was doing a phenomenal job and nipping at the heels of the incumbent and yet from a brand awareness perspective, I hadn’t heard of it. In fact, many people haven’t heard of it. And so I thought this is a really terrific opportunity to take something and once the product journey is right, then give it some brand presence and help them explode. So that’s where we’re at.
G: So for day one or the first year or two startups that generally watch these… From your experience with these businesses, if you were to start something like this again, what would be the the three things that you would focus on?
B: So if I had to start, bearing in mind I didn’t start OneFlare?
G: Yes. Hindsight’s a funny thing, right?
B: You know what, the fundamental effects of our SEO have been just incredible. I think here’s a decent argument to have been slightly more thoughtful about brand. Brand is a difficult thing. To some extent today, because I think our product journey isn’t quite what it should be, I think we somewhat benefit from our anonymity. Now we’re discovered primarily through customers research journeys–so they’re on Google and they’re looking for a plumber or an electrician or an accountant or a cleaner and one flare comes up because we rank so well and we capture the customer. But had our brand had more exposure, the likelihood as we get more type ends and we probably find, like many do in marketplaces like ours, that we struggle to supply. So in a lot of ways, we can we can generate almost unlimited demand from consumers looking for jobs, but we struggle with supply from the accountants, the cleaners, the builders, the painters. And you know, a lot of those guys, ironically, will say that’s crazy, because they want new work. But it’s how do you bring those things together in an effective way. We know the arbitrage is phenomenal but it’s about how you bring those together to drive liquidity, as you know.
G: So with that marketplace liquidity, I know you have a lot of thoughts around some of the things that can be done to have quick wins. What are some things that startups should be looking at to start with when they’re first getting started?
B: To build liquidity? Yeah, so my view on liquidity, for instance, and I think this is maybe the answer to the third point of your question–is start small. Start focused in so much as single category, single geography, get to liquidity and then grow organically from there. Yeah, I think it’s highly valid. Now, interestingly, the U.S. equivalent to our business started with a thousand categories in almost 10,000 geographies.
G: Is this Thumbtack?
B: This is Thumbtack. But what they did differently is they used Craigslist to seed supply and so they went out to the supply base and said “Hey, we can get you a listing on Craigslist for free” and that way they managed to seed the supply base. Yeah, they talked about one of the investors talked about come for the tools and stay for the network and I see a lot of value in that. So I think you can do it both ways. I think for instance if we had a stronger Trading Post for instance and if maybe we had leverage, that we could have gone out in a similar fashion but we didn’t and so having a neat our tidier target pool is valid in so much as you can build liquidity, create the arbitrage and grow organically from there make sense
G: Yeah and as a leader, I mean, coming into a business like this, how did you prioritise or how are you prioritising on where to start? You know with the mature business, it’s not day one so it’s not so easy to make those decisions.
B: Yeah, it’s kind of tough. Look, think what I saw and it this is of course is a real journey for us I am six months and three days in the business now. I think there’s a couple of things, first of all there is a cultural question. So this business has grown rapidly and on the back of two very passionate founders and so that tends to grow around a theme and the theme in our case is family. Family is really tough. Families can be hiding places for underperformance and so it was important to me to move from the ethic of a family towards the ethos of a team. And so how do we think about being a high-performance discipline culture? That’s been a really tough journey for the business. Now in the last couple of days, our second six monthly NPS has been published and we’ve seen a real lift in the net promoter for the business. And so, how long do you intend to hang around? Folks who said less than six months has gone from 18% to 11% so…
G: That’s a big win
B: That’s a really big win for us. Yeah, really big shift and and so I’m really proud. We’ve made a lot of change and we’ve done so in a way that’s preserved culture and engagement. The second big area is how we focus our energies all up and so the strategic initiative. We have shifted in the last six months from being a business that’s focused on consumer to a business is focused on business. So how do we help the supply find customers, not how do we help the supply find new customers. So that’s been a really fundamental shift for us. We’ve also changed from being a sales and marketing business to being a technology business and so our tech business or tech team has gone from 20% to nearly 60%. 58% of the headcount are now focused on R&D; and so again that’s a really big and fundamental shift. So we’ve gone from having 28 salespeople to now having four.
G: So with all of this movement and it’s a lot of change for a company of this size in such a quick period, how do you manage the culture and adapt the culture at the same time? I mean, as a leader that’s got to be an awkward juggle.
B: Yeah and I don’t know that I’ve got the answers. I think we have we’ve been incredibly lucky that the management team, the executive team in the business we’ve hired, we’ve hired really well. So we’ve hired people who’ve got an innate capability to lead and to manage. For me, management is about starting with a culture of discipline. So how you do that and it’s really difficult. It’s not about what time you arrive in the morning and it’s not about how much time you spend playing ping pong but it’s about the degree to which we see people take advantage of autonomy and flexibility and how do we rein that back in. We also talk about, as many do, I think Meg Whitman talked about having seats on the bus. You know, we’ve only got so many seats on the bus and each one of those seats is precious and so we need to have an incredibly high standard through the recruitment process, but also, as we think about performance management. How do we tolerate under performance, what do we think about that? How clear have we made each role in the business? I think folks would still say that this is, I say a journey as a bit of a euphemism to say that we’re clearly not there yet, but I think folks would say that we are, at least directionally, we’re getting there, or at least we’re moving the right way.
G: That’s the hope, right? You don’t want to find out six months later you’ve been heading the wrong way, but by the sounds of things, you guys are doing all the right things.
B: I hope so, we’ve got some great leaders in the business and so I’m really proud that we’ve managed to find a collection of people who care passionately about being good managers and leaders and that’s such an awesome place to start.
G: Definitely. So how do you attract people like that as a brand that’s not, as you’re saying, not so well-known. By saying, “Hey, this is a great place to work and we’re coming on this journey. Do you want to come with us and create some change?”
B: Yeah, look, I think that’s also interesting. To some extent, I think, it’s about the profile of the individuals and so how do we think about our own personal profiles on LinkedIn, for instance, and you know, what do we talk about? How engaged are we in the interview process? How do we engage them in the interview process and how welcoming can we be? You know, we’ve struggled a little bit with having negative feedback on things like Glass Door, which is not unusual, especially in a business that’s gone through a lot of change. But I’ve responded to every piece of feedback we’ve had and I try to be highly authentic about that and and take time to be personal and just try and deliver a genuine response. And if I’m disappointed, if a reviews stings, then it stings and I’ve just got to make sure that’s clear. So I think folks who look at OneFlare as a potential employer will look at a broad set in their research journey. You know we’ve got five and a half percent unemployment in Australia and I think in our cohort, we’ve probably got less than one of Metro based professional people and so it’s very much it’s very much a buyers market.
So yeah, it’s very much a buyers market and we’ve got to be careful about focusing on a research journey when they think about working with us and so we need to give them lots of opportunity to try and figure out what we’re really like as a company.
G: Yeah, definitely, I mean from our experience with you guys you’ve been a very authentic leader from day one. All interactions have been this either works or it doesn’t, delivering feedback good and bad, saying this is kind of how we operate. How do you instil with all the challenges that you have been going through as a start-up, how do you remain remain authentic the whole way through? I mean, that’s got to be a struggle as well.
B: Oh yeah, I think what’s hard is to trying to trying to maintain a veneer. I think that’s very difficult. I think being authentic is not hard at all. I think you’ve just got to allow yourself to be subsumed by it and say, you know, I’m just going to be an authentic person. I want to be honest with folks. I want to tell folks when it’s hard and I’m struggling yeah and I know one of you happy when I’m happy I want to just show a broad range of emotions and kind of be okay with that. Now, some folks would probably rather I was a bit more [13.35 inaudible] but it’s just not my thing.
G: Yep, fair enough. But, I mean, the startup community around the world struggles with this balance of the sales pitch and the hustle, but then also creating that authentic conversation, so there’s not, you know, there’s a lot of challenges around mental health and dealing with these sorts of ups and downs of startups. How do you manage your own headspace going through all these sorts of things?
B: Yeah, again I don’t know. I mean, I think, fundamentally, you know I belong to a large family unit with four children so we’ve got a lot to think about outside of work. But, otherwise, you know I think I think the thing that we battle with most and I’m describing a group of people and tell me if this isn’t right, is whether or not we’re right. And whether or not our instinct is right. Oftentimes, you’ll go through a period where there are no optics to support your decision- making. And you got to have real faith but you’ve also got to empower other folks to be honest with you and I think of do that. I feel like I’m very much part of a cohesive team, where we all have the ability to step up and say, “I think that’s not right. I don’t think that’s the right approach for us” and I would certainly for one, I’m sufficiently insecure to want to take that feedback from anyone. We also have a great board, so our board is highly engaged. I can call in any of our board members and feel good that they’ll give me honest feedback. And so those types of aspects are really important I think to help you feel less isolated. They do say that running a company is one of the most isolating roles you can have, which I get.
G: Yeah, so I mean the element of a board, do you find that that’s been helpful at the stage of business that you’re at? Or do you think it’s important for startups to get that in as their own advisory board or a structured board as early as possible? I mean, as a CEO, you’re really having to manage yourself–am I the best person for the job, are we doing the right things and are we focusing on the right things? Do we have the right team? When would you say is the best point to bring in someone to manage a CEO?
B: There are two or three things on that that I should say. One thing is that because I was recruited into the role, I can feel confident that today I am the right guy for the job. At least the board feels that way now–that may change at any point. Secondly, as I’ve worked with early stage, who have surrounded themselves with a very healthy suite of advisers, I think that’s incredibly useful. I think there is a risk of one or two person echo chambers putting mortgages on the line for crappy ideas or even good ideas and poor execution and I see I’ve seen a lot of businesses put a lot on the line for not a lot of an idea and so that’s really concerning. So having an honest suite of advisers who can be truly independent to call bullshit, yes, super helpful.
When I worked with KMart , which is way at the other end of the spectrum, I was brought in as an advisor to help them with their digital journey and that was incredibly useful I think for that business. So in the feedback at that time, it was useful. And so I can see how having an independent set of advisers can really help you form the right approach. You know, to what extent that moves from advisor to a board director, you know board directors obviously come primarily with fiduciary duties and no board directors should sign up you know without thinking deeply about that. But I think there is a, in terms of the ability to generate good advice, I think there is a marginal difference between an advisor and the board director.
G: Fair enough. And do you think that there’s a certain point where you should switch between advisers and a structured board?
B: Well, I mean, structured board–fundamentally the business should be paying the board and the board should share in those fiduciary duties. So there is a point at which its right to have a board–a paid board, a professional board–at the same time, it will be a bit of an overhead for small businesses and they shouldn’t do it just for the prestige of having certain advisors or certain board directors.
G: That makes sense. And from, I mean, Sydney’s startup community, there’s a lot of hype obviously at the moment with the new startup space–it’s gonna be on York Street just like the Neighbours… There’s a lot of investment talk, and now the government’s getting involved, Tech Sydney and all those sorts of things. What’s your view on the landscape you know for the investments being made, the new start ups coming through, you know, do we have a sophisticated community?
B: Look I think we do but I’ve got to say, even though I’ve spent four or five years with Innovation Bay, for instance, as part their review committee, whatever we call it, I’ve always felt like I’ve looked and peered into the startup ecosystem from the outside. I’ve never really truly felt like a founder. So even though I founded my own unsuccessful startups, which should qualify me, I’ve never fully felt like I was part of the ecosystem. But from the outside, it looks it looks pretty good. Yeah, I do get concerned when I see rows of folks–and I use the term mortgages on the line– but rows of folks who have put a lot on the line and aren’t necessarily putting themselves in a position to get the right advice. Back to your point about advisors, putting themselves in the position to get the right advice about whether or not they should really pursue this or if they should go back to a corporate role. You know, we talk about a turn in the economy, a turn in the housing market and we should all be concerned at what our economic future looks like and so you know, go hard or go home. I think might the answer for some of these folks. Let me put it this way, the startup ecosystem in Australia can look a little bit like a lifestyle choice and that always worries me–I never want to see that.
G: So with all of the different business you’ve started and with all of the scrapes and bruises, what are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned?
B: Persistence, absolute persistence. I think that have been at least two fundamentally valid ideas that I have let run through my fingers through a lack of persistence. Yeah, you know, it was one terrific business. I had a license and arrangement with American Express and the idea was that those guys were going to acquire the business and for one reason or another, it didn’t happen and it didn’t happen very late and I’ve got to say, my head went down and I just couldn’t pick it back up again. But had I done so, had I persevered, had I looked elsewhere for tweaks to the model I would have seen, you know, I think a very valid core business. I had also reached a point where I was a little bit too sensitive about putting too much of my own personal sort of economic security at risk so I think that’s part of it too. Yeah and I think if you’re not willing to go all-in, you probably shouldn’t bother and I didn’t bother.
G: Yeah and hindsight’s a funny thing.
B: That’s right.
G: So corporates and startups or tech businesses, how important do you think the relationship is there?
B: Over time, increasingly important I think. When we started talking, maybe five years ago, about the innovator’s dilemma and folks started to get it. And folks like Polonizer came along and said, “Hey big corporate, we’re gonna help you be more innovative.” I think there was a really important shift towards innovation-thinking and design-thinking within big companies and so then how did how did those big companies embrace startup ideals? I think there’s a ton of opportunity. So we’ve seen from the banks with Reinventure, for instance, their willingness to embrace so I think we’re seeing we’re seeing a migration path, we’re seeing a bit of a shift. I’ll be interested to see how far that goes. There’s also an interesting example a few weeks ago, when Domain released a whole bunch of public API’s so that startups can tap into their data, which is another interesting shift towards more openness.
G: Obviously one player is invested in by Domain, how does that work? How does that relationship work so that both sides get value? Obviously, besides the business doing well.
B: Yeah, look it’s great. One thing that is true today is that here is an imbalance between the extent to which One Flare has brand on the line versus Domain. I mean Domain has got a big and well-known brand. They are absolutely the the underdog right now in the real estate market doing a phenomenal job. Apparently, Australia’s number one property app, which is great.
G: They’re saying no, not apparently!
B: 100%, 100% true. So they’ve got a terrific amount on the line. So we’ve got to be you know enterprise-grade before we properly integrate with that business but I think we’ve got a terrific roadmap of that opportunity. When someone’s, you know, looking through rental properties or whatnot, we can be there talking about services and cleaning removalists. Huge amount of opportunity.
G: Got a question so I’m going to try read it off the screen. Apologies for my nose, guys. From Lee, “You spoke about changing the recruitment process that you’re so that you’re more involved. What does the new recruitment process look like at OneFlare and what does the onboarding process look like?
B: Wow. So recruitment process–so we use some agencies where required. I think agencies can be super helpful. I think you know that’s that’s been a really difficult undertaking for a company of our size, because it is an expensive process. However, miss hiring is also an expensive process. There are certain rules like product managers, for instance, data scientists, of which we have many. Those roles are incredibly difficult to hire for. And so you can bash your head on Seek all day long and the likelihood is you just not going to find the right candidate. So we have an inclination to use agencies for some roles, otherwise we’ll go our own way. We currently pay to use the LinkedIn premium product, whatever that is.
G: Have you found that useful?
B: No. Look, it’s a lot of money. I think, you know, I’ve got some friends at LinkedIn so I’m gonna reserve what I say next. Yeah, I don’t expect we’ll be paying for that for long. But you know, so we’ve tried LinkedIn, we’ve tried a bit of Bamboo, we’ve tried Glass Door. We’ve tried a whole bunch of different ways and you know, fundamentally, we’re on a business call word of mouth and I think that’s what works. I think word of mouth works, yeah. And so, Tech Sydney, for instance, has been really useful. So our VP of engineering, James Martin, was one of the founders of Tech Sydney and I think that’s a great environment, for instance, to be finding talent and then plus just word of mouth effects. So, that was the so the recruitment process. Now, that all sounds a little bit ambiguous, but it’s really–we have a three thousand dollar referral bonus for staff should they should refer someone who who hangs around. We have a couple of agencies involved in some roles and then we have our word-of-mouth. And then when people are on board, so we had a new senior QA arrive today and you know the onboarding process is nearly a week long. They get phone calls that come in through our support team, listen to the sales guys, basically just become immersed in the business. So it’s a fairly open culture I think and the ideal is just to get people immersed as quickly as we can.
G: Yeah, definitely and perks-wise, there are so many crazy perks out there from the other tech giants in Sydney how How do you guys compete with that?
B: Yeah, so I thought long and hard before we offered free breakfast. We sort of offered free breakfast as a strategic incentive because I think we will never have more than 20% of the staff of our largest competitor, because we’re tech company and not a sales and marketing business. So breakfast will always cost us five times less yeah. So yeah, we offer free breakfast we’ve got fairly flexible hours.
G: What time is breakfast?
B: Breakfast finishes, apparently, by 9.30. But we did get some feedback recently from people who don’t often make it. But that’s fine. I’ve been known to have some fruit toast in the afternoon.
G: So before I mean your team trying to make them all you know managing each other, that 360 feedback has got to be quite important. How do you guide that between other staff members? You know it’s easy as a leader of a business to go, “Hey, you know, this is what we expect.” But how do you make sure that flow on effect actually happens in the day-to-day? Sure, I think the idea primarily is for people to know that they should meet often. There should be a solid framework around which people can perform and know they’re performing. Once you meet, it’s about having a productive conversation about behaviours, as well as about KPIs. And we’ve actually, I think from next week, we implement a program of the Big Red Group called Ready, which is about rewarding and recognising staff peer-to-peer and 360 as well. So we’re going to roll that out as a way of incentivising people, just to give a pat on the back or some reward points.
G: I have to tag Andrea Culligan, by the way.
B: Yeah. she’s been great, she’s been really good. So that’s a decent-sized investment for a business of our size and yeah, we’re super keen to make sure people feel loved and recognised and give them a platform to do that. I think it’s going to be really useful and for the future.
G: What about the future? Are you guys ambitious to overseas or is it about really having a stake here in Australia or what’s next?
B: We’ve got a lot to do here. I mean, our view is there’s about nine point three million households in Australia. We think each household has seven or eight jobs a year that they outsource, you know, electrician, plumber, removalist, accountant and so that’s seventy five million jobs. Right now, about half a million jobs come to platforms like ours and so our non-user base is very very significant we think that’s where all the opportunity is for for some time to come. So we’ve no real overseas ambition today, I think, we’ve got just a lot to do. We also participate in a hundred and ten categories seriously, there are many more. So how we think about moving horizontally and going deeper in certain categories that were already successful and have liquidity in, so there’s lots of ways that we can grow and move before we need to think about elsewhere.
G: Ok, so lucky last question. If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
B: So, you know what I think the number one superpower that I think we don’t like to try for a week is invisibility but I’m not sure if there’s some weird…
G: Is it because of Harry Potter and his invisibility cloak?
B: I’ve never actually seen Harry Potter.
G: What? I don’t know if we can be friends anymore!
B: Sorry about that, Gen. So yeah, I think probably invisibility and then back. And speed is the other one.
G: Speed would be good…Well, thank you so much for your time. And I look forward to catching up shortly. Bye, guys!