Monthly Archives: February 2017

7 vital things that made my startup successful


What makes a successful startup?

There aren’t too many startups like Google and Facebook or even carsales, Seek and REA and the stats tells us that 9 / 10 startups fail (remember 90% of statistics are made up) so my definition of a “successful startup” is growing into a profitable, sustainable business and/or having a successful exit.


I’m sure every one is different in terms of the steps they took, road they traveled and end result so here’s 7 vital things that I found were fundamental to Digital Motorworks Pty Ltd (DMi) being a “successful startup” in 1999:

Identify the market opportunity.
As this will be your focus. This seems simple and it is more than wanting to do something because it’s what you know or to be your own boss. There has to be a gap in the market that you can fill or simply do it better and most importantly, it has to make commercial sense. The market opportunity for DMi was the gap of an independent inventory aggregation and dealer web services player for the big media players wanting to propel their online automotive sites, especially once Reynolds had made the decision to keep their inventory capabilities in order to push carsales (remember the quote “If it is this f&@king hard for us imagine how f&@king hard it is for them” in my post The Hard Decision carsales Had to Make).

Develop (and live by) the Business Plan.
My business partner is a finance guy and started us off straight away with the discipline of creating a financial business plan. I found that by thinking about and collating all the costs upfront and ongoing that we would incur, forced us to articulate a plan for getting money through the door (i.e. revenue). We went hard on the costs and realistic on the revenue because the costs were always going to be incurred but the revenue had to be earned! The importance of this step and ongoing revisiting of it cannot be underestimated.

3 Securing finance.
Most companies need to raise some money to get properly going, be it from family, friends, VC’s or the bank. Most certainly with the latter two and most probably with the former two, the before mentioned business plan is imperative. My business partner and I each secured finance to be used as working capital through the bank as second mortgages on our houses and the business plan was critical to making this process as straight forward as it could be.

Getting out of your comfort zone.
This is stating the obvious because you literally have to do everything no matter what your previous experience or expertise. Almost as soon as we started we were served legally by our former employer. Now this threw me straight out of my comfort zone and made me confront it head on which we did and got through, growing me enormously. My business partner took up a short term contract to get some money through the door with Esanda as they were trying to build Eauto.com.au while I pulled together our technology infrastructure and worked the sales process to secure our first client. This was again jumping out of my comfort zone as my background had only ever been technical. With the help and guidance of my business partner, I made it through the other all the better for the experience and most importantly, it secured the immediate future of our startup business.

Working bloody hard.
Again, this is stating the obvious but until you are in the position where the business survival rests on what you are doing, you don’t really know what hard work is. We just didn’t have enough hours in the day to get through everything we needed to. While my business partner would travel backwards and forwards from Adelaide to Melbourne putting strain on his family life, I would be working on securing clients by day and through our technology requirements by night. Mouth ulcers were a common side effect for me; and those don’t kill you!

Having a passion for what you do.
This one cannot be underestimated. It’s one thing to work bloody hard and it’s another to work bloody hard on something that you have a real passion for and love. We both loved doing what we were doing and our passion for it shone out as I’m sure it helped us secure new clients. This was when I learnt that I could sell anything – if I was passionate about it.

Having the right business partner.
It is ok not to have a business partner, in fact some people believe that you have to have 100% control to make something work. For DMi I had 2 business partners – a former colleague and Digital Motorworks Inc out of Austin, Texas. Having the guys from the US was vital in our time to market and helping us to secure our first big client. They provided the technology platform which I then had to take on, setup, maintain and adapt to Australia and later transform from auto to jobs. This was a great leg up but everything else was on our shoulders in Australia as a startup.

For me getting a startup off the ground with the experience and confidence (or lack thereof) I had at the time, having a business partner on the ground with me was vital. I have referred to my business partner multiple times in the previous points because we really did work as a team. First thing was that I probably wouldn’t have gone into this on my own or been able to get through without his expertise, experience and being able to talk things through. His background was finance and sales in the automotive space. My background was technology in the automotive space and playing/coaching football. We made a good team because our skills complimented each other, we had the same goals and we actually had a good time doing it.

These 6 things were vital in making DMi a success. We were profitable within 6 months, grew to employ over 30 permanents and 60 casual employees and had a successful exit. We were no carsales or Seek or REA but then again they are no Google or Facebook either.

Nonetheless, we started a business from scratch and made it as one of the 1 out of 10 to succeed. For me, that was pretty successful.


Have you hit your Earning Potential Ceiling?


People pay for value. I love this as it applies to people as much as it applies to services.

What happens when people are getting paid for the value they bring but they want/expect more? It means they’ve hit their Earning Potential Ceiling.

We have a great mentor program at carsales where I’ve been mentoring carsales’ employees for a number of years and it’s been a great experience for me – and hopefully some value to them!

I like to keep our catch-ups real with nothing off limits as I’m there to assist them in their journey.

“you’ve forgotten about what makes you valuable so that you become…..a commodity”

One common topic of discussion is their job tenure and more specifically, whether they should explore new opportunities.

This topic comes up in a number of different ways. Some are ambitious; some want more money; some are naive; some are deluded; some don’t appreciate what they have; and some just don’t have their goals clearly defined.

More often than not it is a mixture of these reasons and quite possibly they tick every box!

One thing I don’t like hearing is that an employee I have been mentoring leaves for another company for a 10% or 15% or even 20% pay rise – and I hear after they have gone.

“Your earning potential is your responsibility”

These young people are ambitious but more often than not, don’t have a plan of building a solid foundation for their future employment.

They can all get more money elsewhere – look hard enough and you will find someone willing to pay you a little more.

Do this a couple of times and all of a sudden you’ve got the pay rises you (think) you’ve wanted but more often than not you will hit your Earning Potential Ceiling.

What does this mean? It means that you have been so busy chasing those incremental increases that you’ve forgotten about what makes you valuable so that you become (or more accurately you have made yourself) a commodity that can be bought anywhere because you are getting paid for the value you are bringing.

Like most things, I didn’t realize the lesson I was learning early in my working life. I was seeing other developers leave for new opportunities which usually was a little more money. Make no mistake, I looked at those opportunities as well, nearly left, tried to leave but for some reason never did.

We had a regular catch-up group of ex-employees and they would tell us how good it was but the next time you saw them a lot had moved on again; it didn’t seem right. Quite a few of them eventually found their way back to where they started, literally (ie more than just the employer).

When I left after more than 10 years I did so to start my own business and build my own experiences. It wasn’t for more money at the time because in fact I wasn’t guaranteed anything – I went without a salary for many months after.

What it did was taught me so many more things in the business world that made me more valuable because of my experiences and of course, achievements.

You don’t have to start your own business to get that experience. You can get it by digging in and being valuable to your employer, making sure there is always a win-win-win there for the company, your manager and of course you.

Your earning potential is your responsibility but don’t think that job hopping for incremental change is the way to enhance this or is at all sustainable because you will quickly find your ceiling.

You need to make yourself valuable because people pay for value. Or you will invariably hit your Earning Potential Ceiling.


Hindsight to be the next carsales


We’ve all talked with friends about super powers and asked each other which one you’d want. Mine would be the power of hindsight.

In my post The Hard Decision carsales had to Make, I talked about the leaders of Reynolds & Reynolds Australia using sound business acumen to make the right decision in persevering with carsales as a startup (it is now an ASX Top100 company with a market cap of ~$2.5b).

One of the learnings they used was the decision of Reynolds & Reynolds Inc out of Dayton, Ohio, to sell DealerNet.com in favour of being a business partner to Microsoft’s Carpoint.com.

Reynolds acquired DealerNet.com in 1995, the same year Autobytel was founded, and was one of the first online automotive classified sites in the US to list used cars. It was described as a “pioneer” in bring dealers to the Internet.

An article in Automotive News (26 June 1995) said ” DealerNet allows a computer user to hook on to the World Wide Web to get information on current car and truck models…..a consumer can get further information and even negotiate a deal via E-Mail – without ever stepping foot into a showroom”.

Reynolds was ahead of the curve with DealerNet.com with current day online heavyweights Autotrader.com and cars.com starting in 1997. Today each of them are worth billions of dollars as a couple of the leading online automotive classified sites in the world.

In the same year that these two now internet giants started, Reynolds sold DealerNet.com to The Cobalt Group so that it could focus on it’s non-equity strategic partnership with Microsoft’s Carpoint.com which was launched the previous year (1996).

When you look back now, this was a pretty big mistake no matter which way you look at it and would have been realized early.

So why did they make the decision to sell DealerNet.com?

Automotive News at the time said that Reynolds wanted to sell it to focus on its relationship with its new partner, Microsoft CarPoint.

They quoted the Reynolds director of online services saying “With CarPoint, we’re better able to fulfill our mission of linking dealers to buyers”.

The irony with this comment is that DealerNet.com, Reynolds had exactly the same assets as what Reynolds Australia had with carsales – they were the number 1 dealer management system provider to franchised new and used car dealers in the US.

What they didn’t have was the foresight that Reynolds Australia had – they couldn’t see that Microsoft had started CarPoint because it saw something big. Had Reynolds realized at the time that if this was a big enough opportunity for Microsoft to invest in then instead of taking a back seat and helping them try to build something big, they would have committed to DealerNet themselves.

The other irony is that CarPoint ultimately failed because it concentrated on new cars as opposed to used cars, using Reynolds as the link to the new car dealers instead of using Reynolds for integrating used cars online which is the path Reynolds Australia took to make carsales so successful in Australia.

Microsoft found that it was bloody hard building a profitable online automotive portal. They bet on the wrong horse (new cars).

If Reynolds were able to use hindsight they would have realized that if it was hard for them to build DealerNet.com, imagine how hard it will be for someone outside of the dealer eco system?

We’re never wrong hindsight, I know that but I wonder if there is anyone still at Reynolds who thinks “what if”.


Moving into Jobs Classifieds from Auto


When we started Digital Motorworks (DMi) in Australia in 1999, our total focus was the automotive industry.

This made sense since our experience was automotive and the DMi technology base out of Austin, Texas was developed for the automotive space aggregating inventory data from over 6,000 car dealers in the US at the time.

So how then was our revenue split 35% auto and 65% jobs classifieds just 3-4 years after starting?

It was about pivoting our niche core competency and getting out of our comfort zone, quickly.

Within 6 months of incorporating the company in Australia, we had signed a significant sized contract with a leading Australian media company giving them exclusivity over our data aggregation and normalization services in the automotive classifieds space for the next 3 years.

We were precluded from working with other major media players in the automotive space although there was still scope for more expansion in auto.

Pretty soon after this, we learned that News Limited’s new digital arm, News Interactive, was keen to get all the job ads advertised in all News newspapers around the country seamlessly into their Careerone.com.au website.

Could our data aggregation and normalization services be used outside of automotive? There was no reason why it couldn’t but it was big change to the business focus and to our head space.

We were given some sample job feeds to test and the results were encouraging but News threw another curve ball – the vast majority of ads are encapsulated in a pdf, image or an image in a pdf. Can we extract the jobs from these file types as opposed to a more logically formatted text file?

Long days and nights followed experimenting with OCR (optical character recognition) software to integrate into our systems and the results started to come slowly at first but the samples were encouraging.

Before we knew it, The Times of London newspaper group (a News International company) had heard about our technology and sent us samples to send back. It was starting to move.

Fast forward a couple of years, thousands of man hours, lots of perseverance and DMi was processing display and lineage job ads from every News Limited newspaper in Australia, The Times of London, the UL’s largest educational group TSL Education (UK) and Emap (UK) for display online in searchable formats.

Was this in our detailed business planning that we used to underpin financing and starting the company? Not even close.

It would have been very easy for us to not try our hand at this new business and stick with automotive, after all we were automotive people with automotive technology.

Sometimes stretching your niche core competency is ok as long as you have a handle on the effort versus reward and more importantly, a handle on what it might do to your business good and bad.


6 moves that drove carsales


With carsales turning 20 this year, everyone seems to forget or fail to realise that for the first 5 or so years, carsales was not profitable and was fighting for the number 1 position with a number of (much bigger) players.

carsales had a (seemingly) unique advantage from the outset in terms of access to dealer inventory by virture of starting out of the number 1 dealer management system provider, Reynolds & Reynolds.

This is a snippet from the carsales’ website in February 1998 when there were just 9 dealers online (1 from South Australia, 4 from Western Australia, 4 from New South Wales):

But this wasn’t the silver bullet everything thought it was (some still think it is today funnily enough), things didn’t just happen for carsales though – they happened as a series of good, calculated business decisions that weren’t necessarily popular or seen as the best way forward at the time but each of them were winners.

Who have thought the “I’m Interested” Form would have been so influential:

Here’s 6 influential moves that drove carsales to where it is today:

Private Listings (2000): Despite having a seemingly huge advantage with unparelleled access to dealer inventory, carsales needed to find a way to drive traffic to the dealer’s cars especially since it didn’t have the seemingly huge advantage it’s competitors had – offline marketing presence. It’s leaders understood that “buyers are sellers and sellers are buyers” so if they could attract private listings on carsales these sellers would also be buyers (of dealer cars). Of course the dealers did not agree with this thinking as they were worried that nobody would look at dealer cars if cheaper private cars were also available for sale. We know who was right.

carsales September 2000:

Sell Your Car Until Sold (2002): Most automotive websites around the world are products of media groups, usually newspapers migrating online. Their model for selling was/is “pay me now for this edition, if it doesn’t sell pay me again to advertise again…and so on”. Translated, this means if I do a bad job helping you sell your car, pay me again. This makes sense for a newspaper as there are costs associated with re-publishing each edition but there is no (cost) reason for this model online. When carsales introduced a flat fee to sell your car until it was sold, private sellers lapped it up. It now made sense to sell your car where you are looking to buy.

Lead Model (2002): Like the previous point, the media groups and their online automotive off-shoots were all about sellers advertising their cars “for sale”. If carsales followed this lead, it would be tough to compete as there was no differentiation to its competitors who being propped up by their offline assets. The carsales leaders decided to change the paradigm by moving from “fee per listing” to a “fee per lead” model. Almost instantly carsales changed the currency of online automotive to leads and created a differentiation that helped propel the business. For dealers, the proposition was now not about “advertising” online but it was all about “selling” – the better they worked the leads they were paying for, the better their closing ratio and more cost effective their online “advertising” would be. It was a true win-win-win for dealers, consumers and carsales.

Acquired Trader Assets (2005): For a number of years there was speculation about “who was going to buy carsales”. Yahoo was the first to take a small stake in carsales in late 2000 which they on-sold to Fairfax in early 2005 but for the carsales’ leaders, each inquiry for acquisition was a takeover bid, something they did not want. The approach from PBL and the end result was different as it was about merging the complimentary assets for both sides to get a win-win (one plus one equals three…or ten as the saying goes). carsales acquired the Trader online assets in the deal in return for 41% of the business giving it the number 2 online auto player as well as number 1 online assets in bikes, boats, trucks, machinery, etc. adding an unparalleled depth to the business.

Mediamotive (2009): The move by carsales to create its own direct corporate sales presence was pivotal in the growth of the business around this time. By taking control of the display sales and recruiting seasoned experts, carsales was able to take its product directly to the buyers using analytical data to ensure a premium marketplace. The Mediamotive business has been a show point for carsales to all automotive classified marketplaces around the world such has been its effectiveness in delivering in a results driven environment.

carsales May 2009:

All Car Search (2009): This may not seen significant to some but by including all cars in the one user search was a great success for carsales. Once again they were ahead of curve in understanding that “all car buyers are new car buyers, it’s just some of them are used” (credit to Greg Roebuck for that quote). For the first time a user could search dealer used, private used, new cars in stock and new cars available in the one search meaning consumers who thought they couldn’t afford a new car, were presented with new cars directly comparable to used cars. There was a fear by some that leads on dealer cars would go down if a consumer could directly compare dealer and private seller cars in the one search given dealer cars are usually a little more expensive (to cover warranties, overheads, etc). Well the opposite was true, interest on dealer cars (new & used) increased and a whole new consumer experience was the result, another win-win-win.

Finally
Running an online business like carsales doesn’t just happen, it takes hundreds if not thousands of constant decision making moments (big and small) to ensure it first of all gets ahead of the curve and then stay there.