His jobs marketplace, in which people outsource tasks, has launched on the ASX. Now the Airtasker CEO has global domination on his mind.
How do you define good leadership?
Clarity of vision and knowing what’s important to you and the company. When you have that clarity in leadership, you can empower people and give them space to do their job. Balancing transparency with good communication is another aspect of leadership I think is really important. It’s something that I’ve grappled with over time. In employee surveys, half the people say, “I want to be more informed about what’s going on in the company – there’s not enough communication” and the other half say, “There are too many meetings and events and I’d like to get back to my desk and do my job.” Good leadership is being able to get the mix right.
I like what you said about empowerment because I suspect some founders struggle with it.
For sure but I think it can go the other way, too. You can be too loose and let things not be tight enough to your vision. There are certain aspects of the company where you do want to be dogmatic and uncompromising. At Airtasker, I have very strong views on how a marketplace should operate and how it should be structured, so I own that. But there are other aspects of the company where I don’t have such strong feelings so I empower people to take the space and pitch to me. You’ve got to know and articulate what you care about versus what’s less important.
There have been real winners and losers during COVID-19. From a business perspective, would you say you’ve had your best year yet?
Yes, 2020 was our best year yet in terms of absolute growth. It started out with us seeing a drop in marketplace activity in March, which was a great test of vigilance. We were pretty transparent with our staff and said, “If this happens, we’re going to have to make these cuts and if this happens, we’re going to go even further.” The team responded to that and said, “That’s awesome; I know what’s going on.” But we were fortunate. Our customers started asking for different things [on the platform] and because our model is flexible and we empower taskers to be able to solve those problems, they were able to respond to the changing demands. So after that dip, we saw a rapid acceleration.
During the pandemic you launched Airtasker in New Zealand, Singapore and Ireland. How important was it to continue to take risks?
Risk is something we have to lean into every day. When I’m speaking to investors and they want me to tell them exactly what’s going to happen next year, my usual response is, “Well, I can’t tell you that because I don’t know.” We’re paid to take measured risk and place bets where it makes sense to place bets and not place them where the ROI doesn’t make sense.
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How have you managed to get your team to have that same mentality?
As a company grows larger, it can be a challenge to keep up that entrepreneurial spirit in each and every member of the team. At Airtasker, we use a system called OKRs – objectives and key results. An objective might be that we want our customers to have a more satisfying experience on more of our tasks. We might have a key result that says our response rate increases by X per cent and our cancellations reduce by X per cent. We then empower our team to figure out a plan. We don’t tell them the specific things we want them to do; we just tell them about the outcomes we want them to achieve. It’s a more entrepreneurial style of management.
In March you listed on the ASX and by the first day of trading, your personal stake in the company was worth more than $50 million. How surreal was that for you?
Pretty surreal! We’ve been at it now for over nine years so it definitely hasn’t been overnight that we’ve gotten to the level of traction that we have. There have been ups and downs during that time and, frankly, large periods of it were a grind to get through and survive for that long and keep building. When we finally reached the milestone of an IPO it was really interesting because my natural tendency was, “This is just another milestone – it’s on to the next thing.” But I was pulled up by my board, my wife and even my mum and dad, who said, “Make sure that you really enjoy this experience because this is something that doesn’t happen too often.” So we spent probably two full days of partying as a team and as a board.
What have you learnt about yourself over the past nine years?
I’ve realised that most anxiety and stress in life comes about when you put up a front that you know what you’re doing when you don’t or you act like you’re not scared when you are. I’ve found it so liberating from a personal point of view to be vulnerable with the team. And not only is it liberating and good for my own mental health, I think it’s also good for performance because then people start thinking, “Oh, okay, cool. He’s telling it straight and I can try to fill those gaps.”
The gig economy is often criticised because it’s unregulated and there’s no minimum wage or standardised working conditions. Do you think it can be exploitative?
The right framing is: does the platform that you’re talking about – the marketplace – determine the price and scope of the work you’re trying to do in a narrow and directive kind of way? Or does the platform lead with empowerment and transparency? In the case of some of the food-delivery platforms and ride-sharing companies, a lot of the criticism is warranted because those platforms tell you how much you’re going to earn, what you’re going to do and they get you to sign up to accept those terms. Then from time to time they change those terms unilaterally – they might depress the price you’re going to earn or ask you to do more to earn the same amount of money. That’s quite different to what Airtasker does. At Airtasker it’s our customers and taskers who choose the type of work they’re going to do together and the price that’s going to be paid for it.
And are there challenges around the platform when it’s a marketplace determining the price? Can that drive the price down?
On Airtasker when people get multiple quotes to do a job, more than 70 per cent of the time they don’t choose the cheapest quote. That indicates that the price is not the main driver for local services. When I’m hiring a mechanic or an electrician, I’m not thinking about how I can squeeze them to get the lowest price. Have they got the skills I need, is it convenient and is it local? The average task price on Airtasker has been increasing and actually accelerated during COVID-19.
Traditionally, we’ve thought about the gig economy being for less skilled workers but it’s changing, isn’t it?
We’re seeing accountants, lawyers and architects finding work through Airtasker and there are more sophisticated and complex jobs happening on the platform. It’s also contributing to the increase in the average task price because some of these services are pretty expensive.
In the United States it’s been estimated that a third of all workers are involved in the gig economy and those numbers were pre-pandemic.
People are wanting more and more flexibility in their life. It’s being driven as much by individuals and workers as it is by the customers and company.
You’ve said your success has come about because you never wanted to be happy with the status quo. How did you learn to question everything?
Curiosity is something that’s innate in a lot of people. I probably take that to the extreme. But as a leader of a company, you don’t want to be doing things just because that’s the way they were done. You want to understand why things should be done in a certain way versus why not.
Who encouraged you to be so entrepreneurial? I know you were plucking white hairs out of your father’s head for the grand sum of 10 cents a strand when you were a kid.
Yes, my dad was a career accountant but had a few ventures along the way – a restaurant that he owned and various other investments – so I guess I was always exposed to that sort of thinking. But I just wanted things to be better, whether it was for myself or other people, and when you want things to be better, you go out and find a way to make that the truth.
Before you founded Airtasker, you worked at Macquarie Group and Chic Management, a modelling and talent agency. What key lessons did you take from those two very different worlds?
At Macquarie, I learnt about high performance and not making mistakes… At Chic, the biggest lesson came from one of my mentors, Peter O’Connell. He offered me the opportunity to do a few things together. We started a blog and content platform around the models from the agency, we worked on an oil and gas fund in the Middle East and started a telco in Australia, which became Amaysim. As a 25-year-old coming out of an investment bank who followed all the rules, I was like, “Can you do this? I didn’t know you could just do this!”
There’s a lot of talk right now about the need for people to simply switch off, especially when they’re working remotely. How do you manage office creep for yourself and your team?
We encourage people to turn off notifications for periods of the day – during the day if they need to get work done and also in the evenings. And we schedule lunch breaks to make sure people block an hour and a half or an hour to take some time out. It’s a hard thing to live by but we’re very serious about it – we don’t want people to be crushing themselves every single day because a lot of the work that we do at Airtasker is mainly about making decisions. We don’t need people to be writing more code or making more PowerPoint presentations. We want them to make a few really good decisions each week or each month.
And what about yourself? How do you manage your mental health?
Probably less successfully [laughs]. I try to come to the office a few days a week and that helps to define a physical space. I haven’t got it all figured out yet. But I do try to get a real weekend every weekend with varying degrees of success.
Are you a good sleeper?
I recently read that book by Matthew Walker, Why We Sleep. It was eye-opening to think about sleep as an activity that makes you faster, fitter, better and stronger. I have an alarm on my phone that goes off at 10pm to tell me to go to bed.
What’s your ambition for Airtasker? Do you see it as being one of Australia’s biggest global success stories in the future?
We want Airtasker to become the place where people across the world buy local services and by doing that we can create jobs and income and purpose for people. We believe that this is absolutely a global opportunity. Being one of Australia’s tech success stories would be a great thing but we’re thinking more broadly about the global stage.
I know you’re having a bit of a stoush with Airbnb over the “air” moniker. Does that legal drama faze you?
It’s a common word so no, the trademark around the word “air” doesn’t keep me up at night. We’re bullish about what the opportunity is in overseas markets and really impatient to start pushing further into international markets. We’re already open in the US and we’re starting to see some positive early signs of traction, which is fantastic.
You’re also an advisor to several startups. What do the founders of new startups often get wrong?
Sometimes people read about the problems that [Amazon’s] Jeff Bezos is trying to solve or the problems that [Facebook’s] Mark Zuckerberg is trying to solve, rather than thinking about what’s most important to them at that time. My advice would be to try and get really clear about what matters for you. Staging is critical and acknowledging the stage of the business you’re in and applying the right lessons to it is really, really important.
And what advice would you give a brand-new CEO?
Spend a fair bit of your time thinking and understanding the problem space that you’re in and the customers that you’re serving. It’s not the amount of hours that you put in or the amount of documents you write or the number of speeches you give, it’s thinking about what’s really important to you as a person and what’s really important for the company. Then you can make decisions that are precise and aligned to that.
Where do you do your best thinking?
We have a running joke at Airtasker. I used to come in every Monday and go, “So I was in the shower and I was thinking about blah...” And people would be like, “Oh, no, I don’t want to think about that.” Now, in the spirit of taking some time out and away from devices and notifications, I’ve started taking baths from time to time so I do a fair bit of thinking in the bath!