WATCH: Co-founder and CEO of Airtasker shares his journey from inception to IPO

Tim Fung is the co-founder and CEO of Airtasker, Australia’s number one marketplace for local services. 

Since its inception in 2012, Airtasker has gone on to enable more than $1 billion in working opportunities and acquired more than 4.3 million registered users. On top of that, in March 2021, Airtasker made its debut on the ASX and is now valued at $255 million. 

During a virtual fireside chat, Antler Managing Partner Bede Moore spoke to Tim about his entrepreneurial experience thus far, Airtasker’s growth to date, and advice he has for others looking to pursue a similar path. 

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You can watch the virtual panel session here.

Or alternatively, read the transcript below, including the audience Q&A. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity and starts from the beginning of the panel discussion. 

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Bede Moore (BM) (00:07):

I am absolutely delighted to be here today with Tim Fung, who is the co-founder and the CEO of Airtasker. I think so many of us here on the call today think about the pathway from inception to IPO as almost a rarefied dream. And yet, it is the path that Tim has trodden over the years, since 2012, and is so impressive.

Not only that, he has gone through the long road of bootstrapping, getting VC, growing a huge team and becoming one of the most beloved tech products in the country. But, he has obviously now taken it to the market and become, I think in the scheme of things, one of the most well-respected and well-known faces of technology in Australia. Tim, it's a real pleasure to have you here with us. Thanks for joining.

Tim Fung (TF):

Bede, thanks so much for having me.

BM (01:10):

Look, I'm guessing that the last couple of months for you have just been endless discussion at dinner tables, at coffee shops, and elsewhere about your IPO, but actually, our interest is really in the early stages of the company and that experience building it, and what that felt like. Indeed, many of the people on the call today will be, I think, considering going and building businesses and all of us would like to draw inspiration from that part of your story.

Not to make any comments about your age, but let's go back a little bit to the early years. And even at your very early years, because I have read about you in press reports that you say that indeed as a young kid, you already felt that you had a bit of entrepreneurial spirit and that that was something that was demonstrated in your family, and then again in the development of a car racing business.

What was the young Tim Fung getting up to before he left high school?

TF (02:21):

I guess in terms of being a student, I grew up in Sydney and went to public schools. I went to Artarmon Public School and then North Sydney Boys. So I didn't pay too much for my education, so that was a bonus. I wouldn't call that entrepreneurial. 

During that time, I guess in terms of starting businesses and thinking about things, I guess something that I think is important is being curious about stuff and also just questioning the way stuff works, and thinking about stuff from first principles. Why are certain things done in a certain kind of way?

In terms of ways that I managed to make a buck during those early years, one of the earliest memories that I have is I used to pull out my dad's gray hairs, so he used to pay me a couple of cents to pull out gray hairs while he watched TV. And one day, I was able to negotiate the price from... Usually, that was around two to three cents for gray hair, and it takes a good moment of time to be able to do this. But two to three cents a hair, but I negotiated one day to 10 cents a hair.

And on that day, my dad fell asleep in front of the TV and so I pulled out around 250 hairs from my dad's head and I got $25, which was pretty epic. I think I was six or seven at the time, I was like, "Oh my gosh, I'm the richest person in the world," which is fantastic. In terms of other businesses-

BM (04:02):

How did your dad feel when he woke up? Was he delighted? He said, "I'm young again"? $25 for youth?

TF:

He did question and try to audit the hair count because I was just like, "Look at that pile. That pile is definitely 250, I've counted." And he did resist a little bit for a while, but finally gave way and he paid up. So that was good, a bit of honesty there. 

And then, during university, I guess the business that you mentioned was a circuit club. I got into cars when I was about 18 years old, a lot of young people do.

We went to the racetrack one time at Wakefield Park down in Goulburn and I'm like, "This is so awesome. I want to do this all the time," but we can't afford to do it because it costs a couple of hundred bucks every time you go. So, myself and three of my good friends pulled together around 8,000 bucks and we rented out the whole truck. And then, we carved that up into tickets and we sold it to some other people.

And by doing that on our first event, we only made a $50 loss and we were able to drive for free. So we were like, "This is awesome, let's do this again." We've actually been doing it for the past 15 years or so. And it's expanded into things like we took people to the Nürburgring in Germany and Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium on these sort of truck days, but it all started just because we couldn't afford to go ourselves.

BM:

And now with COVID, you're back in Wollongong again, none of the glamors of European racing anymore.

TF: 

Definitely. We're definitely Australian-focused at the moment. And actually, it is a bit tough now that all of us have family and commitments and things like that, so we can't get up to the racetrack as much as we'd like, but it's been a great way to solidify our friendship.

BM(05:58):

I'm hoping that you can help people like me, who at that age did not have an entrepreneurial bone in their body. Did you draw any conclusions doing that, that you might want to build businesses? Was that something that was in your mind or was this just like something that you did and you didn't connect it with an activity or a passion around building things?

"I wouldn't say that business is my passion per se. I think it's... solving specific kinds of problems."

TF:

I wouldn't say that business is my passion per se. I think it's like solving specific kinds of problems. And so, it's not that I have a passion for business in the same way that someone would have a passion for maybe trading stocks or certain kinds of crops. I think I just enjoy the process of solving a problem, and that comes in lots of different ways. For example, there'll be certain kinds of businesses, which I certainly wouldn't be interested in running or operating, or anything like that.

During high school and even in university, I wouldn't say that I was an entrepreneur per se. People will always say, it's a funny word to use ‘entrepreneur’ because most entrepreneurs don't think of themselves as entrepreneurs. They just go and start a business and become a founder. I tried lots of different things, but it wasn't about business, it was about something that I was passionate about.

BM (07:24):

It's interesting though, always talking about what it is that pushed somebody off the pitch, right? And you get these people who have always just building things, the other people who get really frustrated by something in their industry that they're hearing all the time. It's always interesting to know what it is that spikes people into action to want to take on the pain of building a company over a decade and everything that comes with it.

Anyway, so you obviously didn't have that precise feeling because you did go to Macquarie. How valuable has that been for you in the long run? Is that something that you frequently refer back to in your skillset as being useful? Or is it just totally forgotten period of time now?

TF (08:14):

No, I'd say, I definitely didn't plan out a career in this way, but what I ended up eventuating with, is that I sort of started in a large organization like Macquarie. I moved from that into an existing small business, which was a talent representation agency called Chic Management. That was a smaller business, but it was still an existing operating business. They look out to people like Miranda Kerr, and a lot of the Victoria's Secret models and things like that.

So they have turnover, they had staff around 30 people and I walked into that and worked in that environment for a while. I then worked, off the back of that relationship,  on a company called Amaysim, which is like Amaysim SIM card startup. We started out the back of the modeling agency, and that, I guess, was a chance to get even closer to the center of what goes on in a company.

And that was incredibly eye-opening to learn that, oh wow, you can raise money for the stuff. I didn't even know that this was a thing that people would give you money before you'd actually gone out and started a business. And then from there, going out and doing it on my own. And I think in hindsight, that was a good journey. I think I learned things at each step of that way, particularly at Macquarie.

One thing that I've discovered, especially as we've scaled at Airtasker, is Macquarie’s phenomenal culture. It is a bank for sure, there's lots of stuff not to like about it. But one thing is they definitely have a culture. There are very precise and principled ways that they like to do things at Macquarie. One of those things is being very entrepreneurial and business-driven. Then on top of that, you've just got really high caliber people in many of the roles at Macquarie and they hold those high standards.

And I think that has been something that's really helped along the way. And I know a lot of founders come out of uni at age 20 or 19 or maybe even just out of high school and start a business. I think that's epic if that's your path, but if that's not your path, I would generally say, starting in the bigger companies and working your way down has definitely taught me something.

BM (10:29):

Look, jumping forward just because I think it is a really interesting comment, this idea of building a company culture. Was that something that was in your mind early or is it something, that as you've gotten bigger, you’ve said we really need to have a really clear understanding of who our people are and what we stand for? And that kind of like was an evolution over time.

TF:

Yeah, it's mostly been an evolution over time. And I would say that in some ways it's fairly reactive. I think it's rare that somebody sits on a mountain top and says, "Here's what's important to me in my life. The seven pillars of excellence," or something and then pronounces those to a team and is passionate about driving them through. Obviously, as you get more experienced over time, I think you do learn those things.

And I'm sure if I were to start another company now, I would have much stronger views on what good is and what not good is. But when we started at Airtasker, it was just go, go, go. And when things broke, we'd go and fix them, so we would be like, "Oh my gosh. This part of our company is really frustrating. We need to go in and fix this." And over time we've consolidated that into principles and values and norms that are now articulated in written form and things.

But I think one thing that can happen is those things are definitely important. You will not reach excellence without having those sorts of things. On the other hand, it's also the case that they're probably not the first things that you want to address. There's sort of, in my view, a bit of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. The first thing that you want to have in a company is an idea, and some flow of sales and revenue.

And on top of that then, the next layer up is, you want to be growing. On top of just having something that works, it needs to be working and getting better. Then on top of that, you need to have a great team and organization around that to keep that going. And probably higher up in the hierarchy of needs, are some of those more self-actualization things like values and principles and all that. And I think one of the biases that we have, is that you only really hear advice from people who have been successful.

You hear from the founders of Atlassian or the founders of Canva, and so they're obviously in the mindset of talking about things like values and principles because they've gone on that journey. The first thing they did is they have a company, they have some great people in that, and then, they got to that level. And because they're espousing to people what they think is important, it is true in their context it's important.

But I would say, if you're starting a fish and chip shop or something like that, the first thing you want to do is have some good fish and chips before you worry about your values and your principles, and articulate them in that kind of way.

BM (13:18):

I've founded a couple of different companies and my experience always in that early period is that literally everything is on fire, you're surrounded by fire. There isn't roles, there isn't culture, there is just panic really. You got to pick your way out of it and  you have got to be comfortable with it. Is that what it felt like for you initially or did you have a sense of control as you started going? How did you handle that?

TF:

Well, I would say the problem with us was even worse than having a fire. I would say what we had was more equivalent to two flint rocks and some sticks. And we looked around and were like, "I'd really love it if there was a fire." In some sense, having a fire burning, it's something to react to. And starting a two-sided marketplace was very much more like, you're in an empty forest and you're like, "I really wish there was a fire to put out. Who's going to start a fire? How can we get this going?"

And that actually is even more difficult. It creates that ambiguity where you don't know each day whether you're actually focusing on the right thing or the wrong thing, and you're looking for that thing to go and execute on. So, the first couple of years for us were really, really challenging where every week we would wonder whether this was the right thing to be working on.

But you spoke before, I guess one of the analogies to the fire that we did have is that we did raise a $1.4 million round very early on. We were able to do that because we'd come from an Amaysim and so we had a bit of a track record with investors, et cetera. But that certainly did create pressure. Okay, we jumped off the cliff, now we have to figure out how to not die.

BM (15:11):

I did actually want to come back to that because I think this is really quite an important point. You imagine a lot of people probably on this call are in that moment where they're considering building a company or they've just resigned. And they're thinking about that path to the first check and when it comes to the evolution of the business. Where was that for you? At $1.4 million pre-revenue is even in today's language, a big achievement. When did that come and what was the impact?

TF:

So, I think it depends a lot on the kind of business that you're building. And each kind of business, I think we'll have a slightly different capital curve. Particularly, in marketplaces or social products like what Airtasker is, there's definitely this idea that you want to be raising upfront because you're effectively building out a piece of infrastructure. You're building on a network and that network may not have much value until later down the track.

On the other hand, once you have that network, it's really valuable. So, you want to get there, but how do you stage your way towards getting there? And I would say, a marketplace is probably one less than a social network. A social network would be like the most extreme version; build for five, 10 years, monetize later. Marketplaces aren't too dissimilar from that, but thankfully we generate revenue along that curve but is certainly not proportional.

In that first iteration, we had to build all of the software for one task. At least when you do the second task and now you're splitting it over two tasks and it goes on, but you had to spend upfront. That's why we raised so early on. However, I would say that the extreme other end of that might be more like a services business, where you're an accountant or a lawyer, and you're going to sell consulting services. I would say you almost don't need to raise any money for that, or very minimal, enough to cover an office and maybe the first month of marketing or something, but you would have a very different capital curve.

And so I think it's really just dependent on what your building is to how you think about that, but we knew for sure that we wouldn't get anywhere without raising some basic capital.

BM (17:30):

Look, I'm going to guess back in 2012 that that was done on 2012's version of a safe, which is a convertible node. When you were thinking about, “oh, we've got to get money together” it'd be really interesting, talk people through. Obviously you were like, "Hey, let's turn around and go to the Amaysim guys." But what was that moment? How did you construct your fundraising in that early period?

TF:

I would say that back in 2012, it was a completely different environment. You didn't have the sophistication that you have now. It was actually quite a pivotal year in terms of the Australian ecosystem because it was that year that literally Blackbird, Square Peg, AirTree, all of those companies came about. So none of that was there back in those days. So we took quite an unconventional path where we actually raised ordinary equity and pretty much followed that all the way through.

There are pros and cons of doing this, I would say. One of the pros of ordinary equity is, it's very easy to sell because you're talking to your investors and you're like, "You're getting exactly what I'm getting." And it's very simple. "You get 10% of the company. If I make $10, you make $1, that's it." 

And it actually does keep things really simple, especially when crap hits the fan. For example, if the company does a down round by 20%, everyone is looking at each other all the time and they're like, "Yeah, we're all going to solve for 20% because we're doing a down round at 20%." And so it has a lot of advantages in that sense.

On the flip side of that, I would say that we probably took some early dilution that if we had structured equity or hybrid equity like a convertible note, or a safe note, or even preference equity or something like that, we probably could have raised at a much higher valuation and suffered less dilution from that. The downsides of doing that are a couple of faults. One is that, if the first person comes in and does preference equity, the second person that comes in almost always says, "I want that and a bit more."

By the time you're in a series D or something, you're pretty... It's not too dissimilar from having debt in the company. Now, if that doesn't work out... If that works out really well and you hear about Facebook and in Australia, Canva, it works out so well because you're just charging, bang, bang, bang, bang, and none of those conditions ever play out.

If you have a bit of a rocky path though, which I would say the vast majority of companies do, those structured equity things can come back and be pretty difficult to deal with if you've got a big preference stuck. The other thing is, I think it just makes some of the conversations and things more complex because when you're around in our boardroom, one board director might be holding preference equity, and the other one's holding ordinary equity. And of course, you're not going to be a hundred percent aligned on what you want.

Look, I think you've just got to assess those pros and cons and make a choice on which direction you want to go.

BM (20:50):

You had the good fortune of coming out of Macquarie, so perhaps you were pretty literate about this stuff already, but what did you do to bone up on “mate before you started embarking on fundraising...”? Was it anything or was it a learn as you go experience?

TF:

Jeff Bezos also often talks about one-way doors versus two-way doors. One way doors are essentially being investible decisions versus two-way doors which is, give it a crack, it doesn't work, try it again. And I would say that sticking to ordinary equity is a pretty two-way door because you can always move to preference equity and start going down that track of more complicated financial structuring and stuff. Whereas if you're with ordinary equity, it's pretty simple.

And so I would say that it's probably advisable in that very early period, you stick to something pretty vanilla. And then structure things as you get confident that that's the direction that you want to go in. But it is in a sense, a one-way door, once you go down that preference equity route, you're probably going to be layering up from there.

BM (21:59):

Tim, there's a question that's come in from Shelley, which is kind of a general question asking, "In its early period, what was the most critical early-stage problem you had to deal with and how did you then answer it or respond to it?"

TF:

Primarily I would say that depending on what stage you're at in your startup, you're going to be judged on different metrics and different signs of success. And one of the hard things for us early on was one, defining what success is, and then two, going out and achieving it. What we realized is early on in any kind of marketplace or social product, you really want to start at the top of the funnel.

Literally, in our first investor pitch, I think we told people, "Hey, we have this much page views on Airtasker." People are thinking we're interesting, and then in a couple of weeks' time, we moved down to like registered users. And then over time, we moved to posted tasks. And now where we're at, people ask about revenue, and margins, and things like that. But one of the hardest things is to find that narrative of what success looks like and it's different for different companies.

I think now there's a lot of wisdom that's out there around SaaS companies. So there are a lot of good benchmarks for that, but the problem with marketplaces is that benchmarking doesn't really exist. No one really knows what good looks like in those early stages. 

To be a little bit more direct in answering the question, I'd say the hardest part for us was really driving demand into our marketplace. We've got a pretty rockstar proposition to our Taskers, which is “turn to Airtasker, there's free access to flexible work”. That's a pretty rockstar proposition, so for us, it was all about sales on the demand side.

BM (23:51):

That's really interesting, and just to put that in context, when you're building a marketplace, what you want to have is a rough balance between supply and demand that keeps the supply and the demand sides happy. And so just let's take that a step back. 

What you were saying is, actually it was relative... One of these sides always comes a little easier in any kind of marketplace model. You're saying, "Hey, we gave gig economy workers an opportunity to get work quickly." So that was relatively easy.

So then you were noodling about, okay, how do we get demand on. How did you make a decision around the way to acquire them?

TF:

I would say that a lot of this was done on gut instinct and it tells us now, looking back on it, I think we were fortunate that the group of people that we had who started the company did have a pretty good gut instinct for what to try. 

But we effectively tried a lot of stuff and then saw what stuck. Again, I think there's a lot more wisdom out there and a lot more literature, et cetera, out there now that that doesn't need to be the case that you start from absolute scratch.

I think people can be a lot more educated, but certainly where we were back in 2012 is that that didn't really exist, not for marketplaces anyway. And so, we just tried a lot of stuff based on gut instinct. Recalling some of the things that we tried, we did PR, that was something we did a lot. We did content marketing, although we didn't call it that, we just called it blogging and checking stuff on social and stuff like that.

We paid up for Google ad words early on, but only to a very thin layer, and we just tried a lot of those different things. And now, what we've discovered is that as we're growing, and scaling, and trying to invest further capital into these initiatives, we're effectively productionizing a lot of the successful bets that we made in the early days on gut instinct. We're going to take in those gut instinct, random ideas that people had in the shower and just acted on and turning that into systemized, productionized growth channels.

BM (26:02):

What I'm getting from what you're saying is that, fundamentally, the skill set isn't that different. It's just that now you have slightly more resources and a higher sophistication, but it's still a kind of a test-and-learn methodology that you're using even at this stage in the company.

TF:

Oh yeah. I think we've sort of swung on a pendulum and you find I think that as you go through building a business, you often notice something and you course-correct it, and you over-index for it, and you got to bring it back and forth. Obviously, in the early stages of the company, it's almost like a dictatorship, it's like, "Hey, let's just do this." It's not a dictatorship in terms of forcing people to do stuff, but it's one person making the decision, "Let's just go and do this, and let's go."

As you grow, you can find that sometimes accountability dissipates and things start getting spread across more people, and there's more just like group things going on. 

And so more recently, we've been indexing, even more so, back to some of that entrepreneurial and decision-making type stuff where we want product managers to say, "You know what? I believe this to be true and I'm going to have a crack at it. I don't need to do weeks and weeks of research to prove this. I'd rather make it a small bet, take a crack at it and find out if it works”. But if it doesn't, and everything else frankly is a conjecture.

BM (27:29):

Okay. So you've raised 1.4 million. You've gotten going, you've had some kind of demand-side difficulties, I'm guessing, in your first 18 months. 

At what point did you have a sensation of, okay, we're going to have to raise more money. For us to be able to get more cash in, this is what we're going to need to do. When did you have a clear vision of what it would take to close that next round?

"What makes a successful founder is that you have to be okay with that level of ambiguity."

TF:

It's funny, every time we thought that we were starting early. It's all relative, like right now, as a listed company, we've got an infinite runway and infinite cash burn runway, et cetera. But certainly, in those early stages, I thought six months was plenty. We're down to six months of cash. I got four months to close this. There’ll be no problem and we'll do it without weeks of notice. What almost always happened, is that we'd be around four weeks from complete disaster every time we ended up closing a round.

And I think this is another thing that a lot of founders do...what makes a successful founder is that you have to be okay with that level of ambiguity. It's pretty stressful, it creates a lot of anxiety. You kind of like, "I don't know where I'm going to be exactly in six months." 

For me, I was forced into it because after we'd raised the $1.4 million, I was like, "Okay, I just have to live in this ambiguity for the next few years."

But I do think that it's worthwhile enjoying that to some extent. I wouldn't say you ever get comfortable with it, but you have to enjoy the journey that you're going on. And that journey will be full of tons of ambiguity, et cetera. Actually, I think a mistake that people can make is trying to shut down that ambiguity too much. It's human nature to have certainty about the future, but you probably shouldn't expect that that future is not certain anyway.

So even if you are thinking, I can lock down a certain amount of money and I'll be set for the rest of my life or whatever, nothing is certain. So being able to live and deal with a bit of that ambiguity is probably something that you want to get comfortable with if you're going to go on this journey.

BM (29:59):

On the personal side, because as you say, you raise money, and then all of a sudden you are like, "Oh, I'm responsible for these investors' money until this finishes." And suddenly, as you say, it's like you carry that burden and it's a different feeling of anxiety than what you experience in corporate. It literally feels different physiologically. What did you learn to do to cope with it? Was it like exercise or being with it? How did you learn to cope with that early on?

TF:

It's like compartmentalizing to some extent … to the extent possible, is a good tip, I would say. We always worked in an office, in a physical space. I'd imagine if you are remote working, that would be really tough from a mental health position. If your laptop is in front of you 24/7, that would be pretty tough. 

So I think compartmentalizing, physical spaces is potentially a good idea there. It certainly worked for me. I think I do some sports, which force compartmentalization like doing rock climbing, driving cars, and things like that. And generally, those things force you out of your ‘thinking about the business’ mindset.

But I would say that starting a company is definitely... It goes all the way into your life and it's pretty tough. On a Sunday afternoon, even when you're with your family or with your kids, or your dog, or whatever you do, you do find yourself wandering back into business mode. And I think that that's something that you probably should accept, and rather than trying to pretend it is not true, sort of wrong with it.

And if you've got a partner or people who are around you, be honest with them about that. I've found that with my wife, I talk a lot about Airtasker with her and actually engage her in that rather than pretending that I'm not thinking about it, and that's been really good for us.

BM (32:22):

Okay. A couple of years go by, you've got 300,000 active users, 30 employees, 20 million worth of jobs going through the platform, and you raise eight and a half million dollars. That's an amazing achievement in a few years. 

If you look back and you say, "Hey, there were there must've been a couple of points in those first few years where there were real inflections," and I'm guessing also in your head, you're like, "Oh, we learned a whole heap and this is what we did." Can you remember any of them at this stage?

TF:

I think that's a really great point because when I look back on what our growth charts look like, I basically can remember our growth figures down to the day of the week because I'm like, "I remember that little bump." 

And one of the interesting things, and we're observing this today at Airtasker as well, is that when you're at the start of an S-curve or on the start of something special that is about to go, I don't think you know. And I reflect back on it now.

I don't think at any point back in the days of Airtasker, we'd look at this curve and it looks like this now, but there was no one day where we came in and were like, "Hey guys, we've done it. We're on the go. Let's go get some champagne and enjoy the day." 

And yet when we look back, we're like, "Oh, the summation of all of those days and weeks of hard work did add up to a curve," which would imply at some point you should have realized.

It's funny, because at Airtasker now, we've just launched a new product called Airtasker Listings, which is one of our biggest product launches. It's basically taking Airtasker where you post a task and actually flipping it around and saying to the Taskers, "Now you can create packages of services that you want to offer to our customers." So it's sort of reverse Airtasker in some sense. I was sitting down with the team and they're like, "Yeah, we've grown up 100%. Week-on-week for the past three weeks."

And literally, the numbers go like bang, bang, bang. And I was just like, "Hey, so I think you're onto something pretty special." And they're all sitting there going, "No, we've got to work on this next part of the product. We're going to shift this. We got to..." And I was like, "I think you're on the S curve guys”,  but this is pretty exciting stuff. My point of that is, you only know it's an S-curve when you're looking back and in. When you're on, it just feels like a fire, as you mentioned.

BM (35:03):

Okay. You raised eight and a half million in 2015 and then in 2016, you raised 22 million. So surely that was some external validation that indeed, stuff was starting to go... How did that feel? Was it a sense of just like everything creaking at the seams to accommodate the growth?

TF:

Yeah, I would say for us, we're always chasing growth. As a marketplace business, one of our major jobs is to drive growth in job opportunities for our Taskers. We don't actually have much of an operational kind of business. 

I know that in some companies, for example, let's say you make shoes. As a business, you might get a situation where 1,000 customer orders are coming in a day and you just can't make shoes fast enough.

But at Airtasker, our job, in some sense, almost literally is growth and creating more job opportunities for our Taskers. So we were definitely never in that position, where we were just sitting back and trying to solve operational stuff. I would agree with you about those milestones. We raised around $22 million in 2016, that was definitely memorable, and around 35 in 2017, and they were certainly milestones.

If there was anything that I would want to reflect on though, is that I suck at celebrating. And I actually, I don't say that in a sort of humble-brag, ‘I'm a hard worker’ kind of way. I actually suck at it. 

So, more recently, I've realized that it's really important to celebrate these milestones because of other people who are on the journey around you. They need to be given indicators that things are progressing in the right way and that when success comes around, we actually do enjoy it.

That is super critical to most people, and so I think we did a good job of celebrating the IPO. We basically gave the team the whole day off. And then we had an epic party on a boat with another startup, which was really, really awesome. And we really did celebrate and stop and smell the roses. But the main reason for that is because I was like, "If you don't smell the roses in IPO, when are you going to smell the roses?" That's pretty much the milestone. 

BM (37:39):

That's an interesting introduction because what I did want to say is, what was that moment like? There must've been a fair amount of catharsis or whatever at that moment, ringing the bell. Did it feel like what you had hoped for, dreamt for all the way along when you were doing it? Or were you just like, "Oh, shit. Now, I've got to do our earnings call, I really don't like." What did it feel like?

TF:

I would say that it was in danger of just being like, "Hey, let's just roll through this and get to the next thing." Other than the fact that my chairperson actually pulled me up and said, "You better celebrate this thing because these things don't happen too often." 

So a couple of weeks out from the IPO, I really took it on as a challenge to make sure that I enjoyed the day, but also the whole team that contributed to building this company enjoyed that day too.

So, there was a bit of a mix, but we definitely did enjoy the day. I actually had my mom come and ring the bell. My mom made it to the front counter of the AFR, which was a personal goal of mine. So we managed to get her into that shot and she rung the bell with me. 

BM (39:10):

That's really awesome, man. I'm glad you got to go through that. 

There's a whole bunch of questions in the Q&A, and I'm going to give an opportunity to run through some of these. You're going to go over some of the stuff that we did previously, but you'll see the nature of what people are interested to hear. 

Jessica says, "It can be really hard to explain something that hasn't existed before. How did you grapple with that in terms of explaining the concept of Airtasker to people around you and how was it received?"

"It's great if you can find investors that really believe in your story...Try and find those people who really are behind what you're doing at a fundamental level."

TF:

I love this question, so thanks, Jessica for that question. 

Actually, I logged on this with my team recently because it is something that actually is even more so true for Airtasker, I believe, than a lot of other companies. One of the things about Airtasker is we believe in this long tail of services. If I look at the data now, you can see that people use Airtasker for all these kinds of services, which don't really exist outside of Airtasker.

So, it might be removing a spider from your home or it might be setting up some children's play equipment and all of these things. One of the things that we realized about Airtasker is that the aggregation of all of those customer problems is actually absolutely massive. Although we laugh at any one individual problem and go, "Oh, that's not a business in its own right." The summation of all this stuff is huge.

And I imagine it's similar to YouTube. When you start up a company like YouTube, you can't imagine all the different kinds of videos that could be on YouTube, but you just have this feeling, people love videos. I think that if we create this, it'll be good. 

And that's how we felt about Airtasker, but it is really hard, it's really frustrating to tell people like, "This long tail of services, we believe this is going to happen." And people will be like, "I don't think spider removal is a big enough business to warrant a BC check for," et cetera.

So it was really, really tough. You do feel like you're beating your head against the wall. And what I would say there is, it's great if you can find investors that really believe in your story, then get those real believers on. We certainly had a number of investors that we probably tried to convince to get on the journey and we were just never going to get there because they didn't have that core belief. So try and find those people who really are behind what you're doing at that fundamental level.

BM (41:50):

Similarly, how did you get on your initial and early team members beyond you and Jonathan? What was the composition of the team, and more importantly, how did those first conversations unfold?

TF:

I would say, actually, this is something that I've learned a lot from over 10 years of running this business, and I don't think that I did it particularly well. I would actually say that if there's one thing that you do want to do at that really high-performance level early on in a company, it's hiring. 

I do think that it is worthwhile structuring rubrics, for example, to say, "Here is what I think the right person in this role looks like. I need someone who's scrappy. I need someone who is happy to work on Saturdays. I need someone who is a great content writer and can write this kind of content." Being really specific about that. 

And then actually investing a lot of your time into doing that. So I would say that I knew Jona from uni, so it was great. We already had a relationship and we knew that we would work really well together in those early days. But we did not invest enough into creating that talent acquisition function early.

My thoughts on this is: employee number 10 or so should probably be that person who does the talent spotting. I think it's that important to get that early. I've seen a number of companies who are second or third-time-round founders, who do that early and I think it does pay dividends.

BM (43:29):

Just the sheer complexity of convincing people when you've got no money and nothing really to show, and yet to be able to get top talent, I think is a real indicator of good founders. Right?

TF:

Absolutely. I would invest a lot into getting that proposition right early on and the process right. And I'd probably just pay up, frankly, to get the right talent that you need. And that's probably equity early on, but I think those early team members will make a huge difference in what you do.

BM (44:04):

Yeah, like if you make right choices, the long-term payoff for enterprise value for giving away a little extra equity use, I think is a no-brainer when you extrapolate it.

Amy asks, "You chose to work with different or a range of different early-stage investors at each different financing round. What was the basis for doing that? Was that part of a broader strategy? How did you select them?"

TF:

I would generally say that, again, it's a hierarchy of needs thing - which is that the first instance you need the money, and then within that, you're probably doing some selection. At least that was the case for Airtasker, because we did have a capital intensive business model from the beginning. 

So, I would say what ended up being the case that really worked for us is working with those real believers and other founders who had had previous success. And so,  wanted to go on another journey and believed in the Airtasker story. So I think what was really important is we did some pretty sweet deals to get on some early angel investors and make sure that we closed them because they were fundamental to building up momentum and then going after other investors. 

But I would say it's a pretty luxury problem to be choosing who your investors are at each step.

And you often hear about that, but I think that's mainly a sort of success biasing issue where you only really hear about people who have been incredibly successful in raising money. If you're Airbnb, of course, you're saying, "Oh, well, yeah, I had to choose between Andreessen Horowitz and Kleiner Perkins. And of course I wanted Meg Whitman to be on my board, so I went with Kleiner Perkins."

I think that that is not usually the case. I think it's usually, get the necessary money in. And then you might be making some choices within that, but certainly we didn't have that luxury.

BM (46:11):

It actually is one of the Q&A questions. 

Somebody says, "Do you think the process would have been different if you had not secured that first investment?" And obviously, it's a counterfactual, but would that have been existential or what do you think would have happened?

TF:

I think it would have been fairly existential, yeah. Actually, $1.4 million sounds like a truckload of money, but I can tell you, it goes into your bank account, you're like, "Okay, that's cool. I've never seen $1.4 million." 

But then you start looking at your burn rate. And I remember one of our burn rates in the first four months: in one month, I think two of our Google bills fell into one month and two of our rent bills fell into one month, and the burn was like 150K or something and I literally flipped out.

I was like, "Holy, this is hectic. We have a total of 1.4 million, we've literally burnt 10% of that in a month, and we have no revenue to show for this." It's pretty scary stuff.

BM (47:11):

I was talking with a founder the other day and they did a $9-million round about a bit over 12 months ago. And he's like, "This is like point at which you officially get to halfway through, and before you get to halfway through the burn, you're like, 'This is great, we're fine, we got heaps of time.'" And you get to that halfway point and all of a sudden you're like, "Oh my God, we're running out of money"

TF:

40%, probably feels a lot like 20% or 10%.

BM (47:39):

Yeah, exactly. Shelly asked, “how you balance wearing all the hats of the business when you start?:  At the beginning, it's you, it's Jonathan, you basically do every function in the business. How did you manage that? How did you spread those tasks out? What was your management philosophy at that point in time?

TF:

It was actually really good, I guess again, just reflecting on the fact that one of the luxuries that we had was that Jono and I knew each other for quite a few years. We actually went to uni together and then we had a lot of common friends, and then we went to do Amaysim, so he was part of that early journey. 

So it was fairly clear-cut, which was that I was good at the business, marketing, raising money, and the finance side of things, and Jono was really good at the product management side of things, operating the software, ops, all of those kinds of things. So roughly, that's how we cut it up in the early days.

I really enjoyed the parts that I did. I think overarchingly, Jono really enjoyed the parts that he did and that's where his strength was. But there's definitely tension in how you split all of that stuff up in the early days. That's just something that you've got to navigate with, and fortunately, we had a really good relationship from many years before that we were able to do that.

In terms of individual priorities, I think once you've split out where the responsibilities are, one of the things that I find these days is, it's good to have a linear list of to-dos, but it's also good to just dump your mind onto a piece of paper every now and then. I actually do use a pen and paper to do that. Is just to get one of those big bubbles of areas, the fires that are burning, or the priorities that I've got, and just to be able to visualize that and take it out of your head.

Because I think a lot of anxiety and a lot of pressure can come from the fact that you've got all these things in your head and they're all sort of disparate and not connected. And that can just cause a lot of stress. So I think it's good to get that down on a piece of paper, so that you can identify which of the things that are most important to solve.

BM (49:56):

And do you have any personal management techniques that you do for that? Do you say, "Look, every three months, I take two days off. I go up to the Blue Mountains, I stare out at the woods and I do this," or any of that sort of stuff?

TF:

One is, I think I do have a business coach who acts as a therapist in some way. And I don't mean that too jokingly, as in someone who can just talk to and dump a lot of the pressure onto and he can set you straight. 

So, I think that's one thing that I did invest into. I appreciate that something that you probably got to get to sort of business scale to be able to afford that. But I think in the absence of that probably, a mentor or someone like that would be really valuable to have.

I also do one thing on Sunday night, which is, I'm the one person in the company who doesn't really have a manager other than the board. And so whilst we encourage each of our team members to write an update email to their manager, I do it the reverse way, which is I send an email out to all of my reports and I just talk through like, "What did I do this week? What am I planning to do next week? What are the big roadblocks and challenges in front of me and what else?"

And I send that every Sunday night at 7:00 p.m. to my team. That's a little bit of structure, and I think it gives you that accountability in the absence of having a manager per se. 

Lastly, I would just say, try and enjoy your weekends if you can. That's been harder and harder for me, but I think trying to carve some full days out of work is powerful. It is a luxury, I think. Those early days of a startup, I think you do…

There is a bit of a just grind it out kind of concept, but as you grow, you probably want to get more focused on making a small number of really good decisions as opposed to just running on the treadmill. So I do try to take some time out on the weekends.

And not feel guilty about it. I think that's the other thing. If you're a runner and you were literally running every day, all day, surely that's not very good for winning races. I think it's the same thing with your brain. 

If you want to make good decisions and succeed, you probably want to give your brain a rest just like you'd give your body a rest. So don't feel guilty about it, it's doing a service to the company.

BM (52:22):

I think that's probably very good advice to everybody on the call. One last question for you, from the crowd, with experience and hindsight, again, going back to the earliest stages, what is it that people need to look out for? What is it that trips you up in the very beginning of your early-stage experience?

"Avoid too much hesitation and too much analysis early on. More often than not, a decision is better than no decision.

TF:

I think everything is sort of a default fail. So, I would say that there's a lot of ways that you can trip up. I would say one thing that I could say is probably to avoid too much hesitation and too much analysis early on. More often than not, a decision is better than no decision. I've found that a lot of people can hesitate. And if you do hesitate for too long, you're effectively making a decision by not making a decision, or you're pushing towards an outcome by not making decisions. So I think, better to make a decision than no decision.

BM (53:33):

Amazing. Okay. Last one for me. Has anybody ever put tweezing gray hairs as a task on Airtasker? because I feel then it would come full circle.

TF:

I don't know, I don't know. But maybe I should put pulling gray hairs off as a listing on listings and offer that. 

Actually, I might just say here a bit, I'm going to give a bit of a spruik to my Airtasker Listing, which is that I offer to review startup pitch decks. So you can look me up on Airtasker. I'll show you the link, Bede bit if you want to share it later. I charge 500 bucks though, so it's not cheap. But if you do want me to review your pitch deck, I'll give you personal feedback.

BM (54:19):

Yeah, that is very, very cool. Okay. You heard it here first, everybody. We have been with Tim Fung. He's the co-founder and CEO of Airtasker. 

Mate, thanks so much for giving us your time. That was very, very insightful and an enjoyable conversation. And now you're going to have 48 requests to refute decks over this weekend,

TF:

Also thanks, Bede. I appreciate it.

- END -

This article was written by Anjali Warrier, Communications Analyst at Antler in Australia.

 

*This event took place on May 20, 2021.

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