How I Launched This Company
How I Launched This Company explores the path of entrepreneurs and innovators in the Asia-Pacific region. From challenges faced to lessons learned, we will join them on their journey as they share how they got to where they are today.
Join us this week as we meet with Roby Sharon-Zipser, CEO & Co-Founder of hipages.
Hi everybody. Welcome. Thank you very much for joining us at Cloudflare TV. Today we are really lucky to have Roby Sharon -Zipser with us, who is the co-founder of High Pages in Australia and also the CEO.
As we have done with all these series, the first thing we want to do, I know that some of you are joining us from outside of Australia.
Roby, can you just tell us a bit about what High Pages is before we go any further?
Yeah, sure. So hi, thanks for having me, Aliza. Yes, so High Pages is a marketplace platform that connects consumers with trade people.
In Australia, we call them tradies.
So if you need a carpenter or a plumber or electrician, you would put a few details into our app or our website and we would connect you with up to three trades at real speed.
We call it the on-demand tradie economy. So, and just again, I know you've explained tradies, but is this plumbing?
Is this constructing a house?
Can you give me the range of activities? Yeah, it's kind of a broad base group of categories that fall under the heading of home improvements and home services.
So it goes from anything from, you know, building a new home, extension, addition, so extensions when you go out, addition when you go up, and all the trades in between, such as plumbing, electrical, tiling, carpentry, concreting, right up to gardening and landscaping and cleaning services.
Okay. It's really broad.
Thank you. So let's back up a bit and can you tell us about yourself?
Can you tell us how you got into this career? Is this something you've always wanted to do?
Are you secretly gardening on the side? How did you get here?
So like I can't drill a hole in well, I have no skills whatsoever in terms of trades or home improvements.
I'm actually an accountant. I'm really good at Excel.
I actually got recruited out of university, finishing my commerce degree. And I got a job at PWC.
And I worked there for three, four years, got qualified as an accountant, and then sort of had this passion always, as even as a little kid, I knew I'd have my own business, but I didn't quite know which business I'd go into.
And I ended up in this business. I'm starting at 16 years ago, but I had a business or two between there now and then.
So yeah. What businesses did you have between this?
I think you told me you had something at the markets. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
So like, as a kid, I ran the local car wash business. So I had a group of guys that would go around and wash everyone's cars in the local neighborhood.
I did that while I was a teenager and a little bit of pocket money.
But when I went to university, I ran a little market stall selling menswear.
My father supplied me the stock and I would go and sell menswear every Sunday in a market out in the western suburbs of Sydney.
And I ran it as a little business. And sometimes I made money.
Sometimes I didn't make money. In fact, I lost money. But I had to learn the hard lessons of small business at a very young age.
So yeah, those are a couple of things I had, like those little side hustles.
And then later on, I had a boutique advisory service to actually advise people in helping them managing and run their businesses before I got into this business.
And how did you or your co -founder get the idea for this particular business?
So actually, the idea came from myself and with my wife.
So my wife's not my co-founder, but we bought an apartment just before we got married together.
And it was a really rundown apartment. And when we moved in, we needed to fix it up a bit.
Like really, it was a 40 or 50-year -old apartment and nothing had been touched in all that time.
And just everything was not working.
And so we started to do a little bit of a kitchen renovation and a bathroom renovation.
It needed to be painted. Some tiling needed to be done.
And I just found that whole process really hard. I just didn't know if I could trust the trades that were coming out to do the work.
I didn't know how to pay them in installments.
Did I have to project manager? What are the regulations with the building codes and the council codes?
And I just didn't find that there was a lot of information out there that could help me with that process.
And so High Pages was born off that idea that we could make that process easier or simpler.
But we also realized that when we were speaking to trades that they were part of the whole problem, but actually also part of the solution.
When we're talking to trades, we found that they also had a whole bunch of problems and pain points in managing and running their businesses.
And there just wasn't a lot of information at the time on how to get your business online, how to promote your business as a trade business.
And also those businesses didn't have many technologies or tools to help manage and run their businesses.
So we thought that there had to be an opportunity there to make life easier for both consumers and tradies.
So how did you actually get started?
You had this idea. Yeah. So what did you actually do to start making this a reality?
Yeah, so at the time, 16 years ago, it doesn't sound like it sounds crazy today, but no one was funding technology businesses, even an idea like ours had no, no one would give us any cash.
So we actually, my business partner, David, he had a natural health directory and we effectively cloned that directory and made it work for home improvements.
And I wrote the business plan, took me a couple of months to write the business plan.
I needed to validate the numbers.
I actually had a really, really simple mechanism. I created this survey.
As an accountant, I'm not a natural salesperson. So I needed to build up my confidence.
So I built, I created this survey and asked the question, I randomly selected, you know, 30 or 40 trades.
And I asked them, you know, would you, would you take up a profile on our technology and our service?
And would you, yes or no?
Would you pay? I think it was like $75 a year for the service.
Yes or no? And then the third question I asked was, if you got nothing from it in the first year, would you still keep it for the second year?
Yes or no? And funnily enough, when I ran the research, the result was 66% of people, roughly these numbers, 66% of people were interested.
66% of the people that I surveyed said they'd buy it.
And 66% said that they would renew even if they got nothing from it in their first year.
So I kind of figured at 66%, like when I did my maths and did all the business modeling off that simple survey, that there actually was a business model that could be formed out of it.
And we were, that's how we were born.
And literally I was picking up the phone and offering a free service in the beginning of the, of the, of the process of getting, going live.
And when I was speaking to one of the potential customers, all the people actually I surveyed, he actually gave me his credit card and we didn't even have a merchant facility.
We couldn't even process the card. He just gave me his credit card straight off the bat.
And I sort of had a feeling, oh, this is going to work.
And so that's how we started 16 years ago. I actually remember his name. He's not with us anymore, but he's no longer in business, but his name was Carlos Gomez and he was a tiler out in Leichhardt.
So you never forget your first sale.
Probably not. So how did you fund yourself? So you said you couldn't take his cash and you said that nobody was funding tech companies.
So how did you actually fund the business?
I don't tell anyone, but obviously everyone's hearing it today.
But first don't tell my wife. So I took money out of our mortgage, our offset account.
I took $200,000 and put that in the business. I also did a really sneaky thing.
I applied for five credit cards at the same time. So back then the sophistication of the credit, the credit checking, you couldn't actually see who's checking on who it was.
The systems weren't as sophisticated. So I applied for five, $40,000 credit card limits.
Back then they get the banks before Royal Commissions, which is giving out credit and actually got all five credit cards approved at the same time.
We were just making payroll by going from one credit card to the next credit card week over week.
I think I had like $10,000 cash saved up and David had $5,000.
So we just put our money in $15,000 credit cards and mortgages and all that.
It was fledgling. It was bootstrapping. I was literally lifting up the couch looking for $2 coins in the side of the couch that fell out of people's pockets.
It's a true story. We really struggled to get it going. We really had to make it work in the beginning.
I needed to make 13 sales every single day.
If I fell short by one sale, I had to make it up on a Saturday or a Sunday, which I did many, many times.
Because if we didn't bring that cash flow in, then we wouldn't be able to pay the bills.
We would go broke. Those were hard days, really, really hard days.
There wasn't a lot of room for error. How did you and David split the roles?
You said you were not as salesy, but it sounds like you were doing the sales.
That survey actually built my confidence. Sales is all about confidence.
I got really confident after doing the survey. I got really comfortable talking to trades.
I found my inner self in how to speak to people. I had done sales in the past, but to trades it's a different type of sale.
Very much about trust and loyalty and being genuine.
Some of those things that I just said are actually part of our values today, a value system that we have in the business.
The way the roles were split was I'm not a technology guy.
David was the engineer. He ran the product and the technology side of things.
I ran all the operations, the finance and the sales and service aspects of the business.
We split it up that way. We were so busy, really didn't have much time to think.
That's how we split the function now.
I don't know.
Can you tell us? I'm sure there's been more than one, but some of the biggest challenges you've faced and or the hardest part of the journey so far?
The category that we're in, the on -demand trading economy is very challenging.
There's an equivalent in the US. It's called Angie Home Services or Home Advisor.
Those guys have been around for 24 years and we've been around for 16 years.
I know that comparable marketplace or platforms like High Pages globally typically need to be around for 12, minimum 10 to 12 years before they start building up the network effect.
Typically, marketplaces, you need to have an appropriate amount of supply, so people that can do the work to match the demand.
In our case, the demand is consumers wanting work done in and around their home, wanting home services and home improvement jobs done.
You need to have trades that match that out.
You need to have that so that it can fulfill the requirements of the consumers so that they get an outcome and a connection.
To build that network up and to get the flywheel of volume is incredibly difficult, incredibly expensive.
You need very sophisticated systems. We were very fortunate that in 2006, we rolled out Salesforce.
That was a massive enabler. Everyone talks about Salesforce now and it's even bigger and different CRM systems.
Back then in 2006, software as a service for a CRM, that was quite a ballsy move to go out with that.
That was a big enabler for us.
It helped us build in sophistication in our sales processes, our thinking around sales.
I think the thing to answer your question without going into way too much detail is with these businesses, you need a perfect balance between operational capabilities and technology capabilities.
I think certainly in the first decade of operations, that's where David and I were in our element.
David was the product, the technology guy.
I was the ops sales service guy. The marriage of the two was really strong.
I think that's why we were able to become the number one player in Australia for what we do.
It's very expensive, difficult to build out. That's probably the summary of it all.
You must have done a pretty good job because if you said it takes 12 years to have this marketplace and then you IPO'd at what, 16 years?
How many years old were you when you went public? That's just been this last year, right?
We literally last week we IPO'd. It's taken us 16 years to IPO. Congratulations.
Thank you. Thanks. Just in case anybody's interested, what are the initials, the ticker?
HPG is the ticket code. If you're interested, have a look. I'm not trying to sway anyone.
I'm just saying historical facts. I've been given all the schooling on all the governance.
Right. I need one of those little ticker tapes going across the bottom here going, you know, here's his stock.
I can't do that either though.
But it'd be just nice if you download the app. Sorry. You want us to just download the app and go get gardeners and get construction?
That's enough. What's something you've changed your mind about in building the business in the last few years?
Something where you thought you had a particular idea about how something should or must get done.
And then you've really now come to a different point of view.
Yeah, I think there's a bit of a maturing of my own management style.
I used to think I had to tell everyone more of like a captain leading a platoon of exactly where they have to go and what they have to do.
And I'm kind of finding that that style was probably an inhibitor. I think there are certainly people that like that strong leadership style, but certainly particularly in the innovation side of things, in the engineering design and product, they like to be challenged, give them a problem to solve, particularly with engineers.
And that's been something that's sort of come on my plate in terms of in more recent years.
And so asking lots of questions, ask why a couple of times at least.
And sort of maybe guide rather than tell. I think you get better results, you get better accountability, more responsibility and ownership of what you want to achieve as an organization.
And I think that's probably a real maturing of my thinking that I probably didn't have a few years ago.
Do you find that you're getting different kind of feedback from the team over those period of those years than making the switch?
Yeah, definitely. I think if you think about our culture as an organization, it's at an all-time high.
I think we've always had a nice culture.
There's a saying, a fish rots from the head. And if you've got good leadership and a good culture, then you've got a good vibe.
So we've always had a good culture.
When David and I, David is no longer in the business, but when we were working together, I think one of the things that people would say is that they really like working in the business.
They really like the environment, the culture that we created.
So yeah, I think that's been the feedback that we've gotten is that ability to innovate, that ability to talk about your ideas in a non-combative, friendly, open environment, and also accept that sometimes there is a point in time where you do need to make a decision.
So it's not a complete laissez-faire environment where everyone can just say their ideas and it all happens.
No, at the end of the day, decisions do need to be made. And all the decisions that are made are based on sometimes it also has to have a good business case, has to make financial sense, but people do have the opportunity to talk about their ideas and share that in a collaborative way.
And actually collaboration is part of the value, one of the value sets that we have as a business as well.
You've talked about your values and your culture a couple of times. Are you able to describe those for us?
I mean, you've given us some insights along the way, but do you have?
Yeah, we have a definite set of values. It sits on a plan on a page every year.
Being genuine is one of them. Being collaborative is another. Being innovative is another.
Providing great service is another, and providing value.
So we're always looking to try and find value for our customers. So the service is free for consumers, but the value is in how quickly we respond to the consumer request in an on-demand way.
For the trades, we're always looking at how our product can be enhanced so that they get good results for their business and make it stickier for trade businesses to help manage and run their businesses.
And so we've got some new technology which falls under our innovation, but we'll roll that out as a value add to our product and services in the coming months.
Okay, and you've mentioned technology a couple times and you particularly mentioned Salesforce, but since we're a tech company too, Cloudflare obviously, can you tell us a bit more about how you built the technology, what you built it on, and any decisions?
You don't need to go too much in depth, but a lot of the people who listen to this will know something.
So I'm going to be transparent on this one. I'm not the engineer, I'm not the tech guy, but I can tell you that we've been in AWS for a good six years now, since 2014, and AWS is really good in that it's given us a lot of flexibility.
We have a program that we're fully integrated in Australia. It's a very popular home improvement reality TV show called The Block.
And so we get really big spikes in traffic and inquiries when we go to air.
It's a fully integrated show, so you can't sort of skip the ads.
And by being on AWS, we just pop on a few servers and we can handle the load, no problem.
If one of the servers has a fault, we take it away and it gets replaced with a functioning server.
The code base that we primarily have been sitting on and been writing is PHP, but we're migrating away from that to .NET Core, and it's something that we're moving towards in the future.
Some of the new technology that we've been acquiring is written in that code base.
So yeah, that's sort of the stack that we've got on, but I guess really getting any more than that, I'm getting out of my limits in terms of technology.
And I have a very, very strong CTO or Chief Product and Technology Officer.
His name's Harry Wipatura, and he's awesome. He takes care of all of that for us with his team.
Thank you. I know we talked before this, whether there's any ROI kind of information you can share, and you might have some of this in the public domain now that you've IPO'd.
And again, congratulations. Is there anything that you want to share about how your business compares to other in this space or what you're proud of?
And if not, we can move on. I don't want to... No, it's fine. We did do actually recently some...
As part of the prospectus exercise going to being a public company, you have to do an industry overview section.
And in the industry overview section, we engaged an external consultant to do the market research.
And with the market research, they validated some really interesting facts for us.
So obviously, they did the size of the market, what our share of market is, all of that stuff.
It's all in the prospectus. It's section two of the prospectus, if you want to download it and you're interested.
But I think one of the things that I really, really liked that came out of the research, and we just threw it in in the last minute as part of the engagement, was to find out what the ROI is for lead generation platforms.
And so obviously, High Pages is one of those. And the data came back out of the quant survey that platforms like High Pages that generate leads for trades and businesses provide the best ROI compared to Google, social media, traditional media.
It was pretty close to Google, but better than Google.
And I thought that was pretty exciting from my point of view, in terms of going back to our values as an organization.
And coincidentally, the value is value.
We would like to make that more visible and available for our customers to understand and see.
Now, remember, our customers aren't sophisticated technologists, they're trades people, they're craftspeople, they use their hands, they're problem solvers.
So we need to provide them with really simple ways to communicate that ROI.
And that's part of what we want to do in the coming months, is to demonstrate that ROI to them that we know we do provide as a platform.
So yeah, I encourage you, if you're interested in the category or in the Australian home improvement market, if you are overseas, take a look at the prospectus.
We did do a very in-depth analysis of that. So it's full circle for you, because you said you started this business doing your survey on your own, right?
Yeah, that's true, right? Yeah, I think the reality is that all technology companies, you need to be talking to your customers all the time.
I mean, if we're looking for some advice here, we bring in, well, prior to COVID, we were bringing in trades and consumers into our offices and interviewing them in depth, understanding and watching them.
We also, we ran with external providers, videos of people using our app and asking them questions every time they press the button.
What were they feeling?
How were they, what were they thinking? What were they thinking as in what was going through their mind when they were looking at the particular features or the experience that they were having?
And we use that all the time in terms of developing our product and features.
So I think the concept of research and survey is a perpetual thing in our product development lifecycle.
And I think if you're a B2B or a B2C, or in our case, B2B, which goes to B2C, as a marketplace, if you're not talking to your customers, you're dead.
You don't have anything.
You have to be speaking to your customers all the time. I think that's a really, really valuable point for all of us.
Where do you go for advice? It was nice of you to give us some, and I'm going to ask you for more in a minute.
But especially now that your partner is no longer day-to-day active in the business, and you're the CEO with everything on your shoulders, where do you go to get help?
Yeah, so I think it's a good question.
I think everyone, if you're an entrepreneur, there's a few things that you can do.
You can join a network, and I'm part of YPO Network.
It's a global, I think it stands for Young Presidents Organization, and that's a tight group of people that you can trust and talk to.
I think another area that people should look at is have a good chairperson in your business.
I have a very good chairperson.
I'm very fortunate that he's more mature than me and has experienced more than me.
I think I've experienced a lot, well, our chairperson's experienced a hell of a lot.
He's been through being the CEO in a GFC, being the CEO of a company that had a global, went into administration, even though it was nothing to do with their local operation, and a chairperson that's been through many capital markets in situations like ours.
So you've got to find a really good chairperson, and if you don't have a good chairperson, seek out someone that can mentor you.
As a founder and as an entrepreneur, you're definitely going to be on the spectrum.
I'm not saying that in a negative way, but just what I mean by that is you've got a bit of a rollercoaster mind.
You're typically always thinking.
You probably don't sleep much. You stare at the ceiling. You're always paranoid about stuff.
I probably sound like a mad person, but you do kind of have to be a bit mad, but you do need to have someone that you can talk to that you completely trust that can help balance the energy that you probably have as a founder.
You have to have some sort of energy or spark that's probably a little bit different to others when you do these things, and sometimes you need someone to counter that and be a sounding board and listen to what you have to say.
It brings a bit of stability into your management style and your leadership style, and I certainly have that, so I'm very fortunate that I've got that now.
I probably didn't have that as much a few years ago, but in the last 12 months, I've been finding that extremely helpful.
Has the chairperson or any of the board or any of your advisors ever given you any tough advice that you've been able to act on?
Yeah, a couple of times. I probably talk too much. Perfect for this show, so it's great.
Don't worry about it. Yeah, I think that was good advice because I find now that if you listen more, you learn more, and sometimes the answers come by just listening, not actually talking, so that took me a little bit of time to learn.
What was the other thing? I think I got told, someone told me I was a little bit condescending, and I really never want to make people feel that way, so that was tough advice.
Didn't realise I was like that, and so I'd definitely make an effort not to sound that way or be that way, and then on reflection, I thought that was fair advice, so I'm being very genuine on the show today.
What about COVID? Before we run out of time, we've had an interesting time.
You mentioned your chairman lives through the GFC, but you're living through something that's an in -person business during a time when we've been restricted from doing some things in person.
Australia hasn't suffered as badly as some places, but what's happened to your business?
Has the health turned? How have you dealt with it?
With COVID, we definitely had the same impact globally in March.
We went into lockdown as a country for literally eight weeks. Very, very strict restrictions on freedom of movement and pretty much people staying at home, many small businesses closing down or shutting up for a period, and I'm very fortunate that we live in this great country where we've done a really good job of not really having any really communicable transmissions for a number of days now and really out of lockdown, except for obviously Victoria, but in terms of the business, we did feel an impact.
Yeah, Adelaide sort of happened, but New South Wales, Victoria are obviously the major commercial hubs and where the volume of activity occurs, but back in March, we did have a dip.
I think everyone was a bit unsure, but what we found is that the prior year, we had built quite a resilient business.
We'd focused on being efficient as a company. We'd built in a lot of technology and systems that resulted in self-service for our customers.
We have a subscription product that has some flexibility that was built into it to allow customers to pause their subscriptions for a period.
That was a feature that we were very fortunate that we had built prior to COVID.
No idea that COVID was going to happen.
We just knew that that was a feature that was nice for our customers to have, so we built all that and what we then saw was a real resurgence or surge in demand.
We also saw trades wanting to get back into it because they'd been out of work for a period of time because of not knowing what to do.
While we were having a nice growth trajectory prior to COVID, COVID has accelerated it and you can see that in the home improvement retailers that are listed companies.
Their results are absolutely outstanding. I think that when we do some more research on this, we'll find that because people are not traveling as much, they're not going on their holidays, they're not going out to restaurants as much, there's still income coming in and those people are spending that money on improving the quality of their life, which means improving their home, fixing that door, fixing the landscaping, making that outdoor deck area because people are spending now more and more time at home.
We're seeing that wash through into our platform and we're enjoying the benefits of that.
I say that with caution because I do appreciate that there are many hospitality, travel, education, service provider businesses that are very badly impacted by COVID, so acknowledge their pain but also in these situations sometimes there are winners and losers and in this situation High Pages and being in the home improvement category is a winner in the space.
Robbie, I'm going to cut you off because we're almost out of time and I want to say congratulations No, not at all, but congratulations to you for being a winner in this space, for listing last week, so for those who want to look it up, HPG on the Australian Stock Exchange.
Thank you so much to Robbie Sharon-Zipzer, co-founder and CEO of High Pages for talking to us about your entrepreneurial journey today.
Thank you, thank you so much for having me. See you.