Skedulo CEO Matt Fairhurst on the Challenges of Creating an Australian Tech Start-up

Being a tech startup in Australia can be tough. The geographical separation from the world’s software hubs, like San Francisco’s Silicon Valley, is a struggle on its own. Understanding where to go next and how to get there can be the biggest challenge of all.

Matt Fairhurst, CEO of Skedulo, answers seven burning questions asked by some of Brisbane’s startup rockstars on how he overcame their current challenges.

Q: Can you talk about your journey from being a consultant to running a company?

Matt Fairhurst:
Entrepreneurs need to know where you start and stop as an individual. As a founder and CEO, you can’t do everything.

It’s really hard to know that you’re doing the right thing sometimes. For instance, I’m not a natural salesperson but it was hard to know when to let someone else do the selling for me.

In the beginning, you need to do everything, but as you continue to grow the company, you have to decide what you will let go. Once you have the funds to have someone else do those things you can’t do, you can move mountains with people in your company. You can’t do that alone, so don’t be precious about protecting your own ego because of what you’re scared to remove from your responsibilities.

The three things I recommend are:

  1. Surround yourself with people that have been there before that can truly help you. Be careful who you pick to be mentored by and align with. I got really lucky as my mentor was very generous with his time.
  2. Get an array of people you can trust and discuss openly with. Tech startups are very fast-moving, and you need to be adaptable. Sticking to one point of view is toxic.
  3. Find a mentor that is only several steps or a couple of years ahead of you. During the hard times, you need someone to vent to and talk to so you can keep moving forward.

It’s hard to trust people to do better than what you feel you can when it’s your vision. If you hire well, you can specialise functions to whatever you are removing from your own workload.

This is also the process of building an executive team, it’s hiring people that are far better at certain things than you are. You eventually become the leader who steers the company vision, then suddenly you become the dumbest person in the room when you are surrounded by people who do things better than you. In summary, it takes a lot of humility to realise this and hiring great people is the number one challenge of building a company.

Q: How have you maintained the culture you want while growing the company?

MF: I like to use the analogy of managing a band to managing a start-up. They are very much the same thing. When you’re in a band and playing music, you’re being creative, traveling together, sleeping in the same hotels together, eating together, and being a really intimate family. One that has feuds, but is creative and connected. Being in a start-up is very similar in that there is a chance of making money at some point and maybe even paying yourself along the way.

I loved the idea that being in a band and a start-up shared a lot of similarities, but things change when you hit 8 to 10 team members in your organisation. You see a cultural change. In a band you’re tightly wound. You celebrate successes and are together in losses. When you get between this uncanny valley of 10 to 20 team members, it’s really hard to maintain.

The connectivity and culture of ‘we are all in this together’ materialises when you have a distributed team, and it’s a constant challenge to maintain. When we had 40 people in the Australian office and 5 in the United States office, it was really hard to build and maintain the culture. When there are 100 people in the office, there will be people you don’t know, and the same level of connectivity at scale is really quite difficult.

Q: How can you be global from day one? What does that look like?

MF: The enterprise partnerships we had made it easier to leverage exposure to sales people and potential customers. These relationships I had built over time helped to accelerate global scalability at Skedulo.

Don’t market yourself as a company only selling to one region. Make how you present your company malleable to your audience.

But positioning yourself as a global company can be easy. Don’t market yourself as a company only selling to one region. Make how you present your company malleable to your audience.

The way we advertised and took our product to market made us attractive to those who needed to solve the problem globally. It just happened because we presented ourselves as global and the product works that way.

Q: How do you engage globally?

It’s not easy in the beginning. If you don’t have team members or an office on the ground in those countries, then you have to do what I did and manage it from your home country. The first year was the most intense personally due to the hours I had to work. I worked from 9:00am to 6:00pm in Brisbane, had dinner and slept, then woke up at 1:00am and worked through to the morning. I would do calls and demos, then continue this pattern. I did it for 8 to 10 months, and it was really difficult.

Q: How did you build a customer base?

We attended Salesforce’s Dreamforce conference in San Francisco the first year we started. We got some exposure from this event, and meanwhile, exposure was also inbound.

When building your product, you need to identify what price model you want, such as annual contract value (ACV), because that justifies a certain type of sales cycle. If you’re building a product with high velocity where someone can visit your website and download or pay for the product, then you can spend less time engaging customers in enterprise sales cycles. If your product is not high-profit, then you need to optimise the time spent on your customers and the transaction method needed.

On the other hand, the Skedulo solution is enterprise SaaS, which takes time. Give the customer the required time necessary process the demos, have the meetings, and build a formal relationship.

Q: When you hired technical talent, how do you find the right person? How do you convince them to join in the early stages?

MF: I was always very lucky as my CTO, James Davies, was always very technical and still one of the smartest technical individuals in the company. He is now in a position where he has an engineering team to support him so he can step back and think…“Where are we going next with this?”

I know a lot of founders that are not technical who struggle to find someone. You need to meet as many technical people as you can. Go to technical events, go to start-up events. There are a lot of technical people looking for non-technical people, and you need to build your personal network and connections of like-minded people just as you do for creatives and business people.

We hired our first engineer out of the company we had left. We knew him from past roles and functions and knew he was pretty good and was passionate about building products and joining a small company for a chance of innovating. I always look for people that are in organisations that aren’t going where they want it to go—really smart people that will inherently sacrifice stability, like working for a bank or large firm etc, and provide them a chance at building something that is somewhat their own.

I feel technical people and engineers in particular, care about two things more than money:

  1. Working with other smart people and surrounding themselves with smart people
  2. Solving hard problems and building hard products

They want to be challenged by the work they do. Once you’ve found that person, then you do what you can to get their salary paid for. You try and network with others to get small sums of investment to try and keep you going. We took small business loans and tried to remain stable. There were times where James and I didn’t pay ourselves for up to six months and accumulated a lot of personal debt. It’s a lot of sacrifice, and we didn’t have the pleasure of being in an incubator or accelerator—in those days we didn’t have the exposure to start-ups like we have today.

Q: Should I work to get funding to pay someone I can trust, or should I use an agency?

MF: If you don’t have the money to pay someone to work full-time for your company, then you need to find alternate ways to attract people. Best case scenario is you find someone that has the skills you need, loves the problem that you’re solving, and is super excited to be your co-founder. By having an agreement where they are happy to be your co-founder, you then have a holy grail that ticks all those boxes.

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