In February 2016, Brett Kaplan – a veteran of the corporate world – ‘flew the coop’ to become CFO of online home services marketplace Oneflare. Founded just five years earlier by serial entrepreneurs Marcus Lim and Adam Dong, the fast-growing Sydney tech start-up provided the enterprising South African with relief from an itch big business hadn’t scratched.
The former PwC, Investec and Onsite Rental Group employee spoke to Dynamic Business about the rationale behind his career change and what corporate types have to gain from joining the start-up ecosystem.
Dynamic Business: What led you to trade in a corporate career for a job with a start-up?
Kaplan: In January 2015, My wife and I took an extended 12-month honeymoon to travel the world. During what I like to call our ‘adult gap year’, we spent six months in India, working for an Australia-based social business. The team was small with a mix of young Aussies and local Indians, all trying to raise the standard of English education on the outskirts of Bangalore. There was a technology aspect to the business in that staff were developing software for tablets to assist facilitators who didn’t have formal teaching qualifications.
My role was to help the team “professionalise”, drawing on my corporate background. Working with a team of young, passionate people young team who were eager to learn and try new things was an uplifting experience. It was also thrilling being part of a group that could quickly shape the business and pivot on short notice. During my time in India, I witnessed a huge improvement in the management of the business and revelled in its success when it won a coveted technology grant from Atlassian.
The experience stayed with me during the rest of our travels and when we returned to Australia I decided to search for a similar role with a small business with big ambitions, possibly in the tech space, that could benefit from my corporate development experience.
Dynamic Business: What was the appeal of working with Oneflare at the executive level?
Kaplan: It was obvious the business model had massive potential. Other online marketplaces have had huge success in Australia and local services is another potential one of those. Oneflare had been experiencing rapid growth and the trajectory was (and still is) looking good. In 2015, it generated over $450m worth of jobs and attracted over 1.3 million unique visitors monthly – we expect the 2016 figures to be significantly higher.
The team are really switched on and passionate about solving the local services challenge.
Dynamic Business: How did you appeal to the senior management of the business?
Kaplan: By showing them that:
1) I was a guy they would get on with as well as work with;
2) I had seen and worked through similar organisational growth challenges that they seemed to be facing; and
3) I was prepared to do everything from basic transactional work to high level strategic and financial planning.
Dynamic Business: How have your start-up and corporate experiences differed?
Kaplan: There are many subtle and then not-so-subtle differences
Like any tech start-up, shoes are considered optional, there’s a high frequency staff drinks and dress-ups, and dogs wander around the office…and chase balls around the office and chew the odd cable around the office. Yes, there was some cultural adjustment but ultimately the transition from corporate to start-up life was quite easy for me. I’d already had a taste of start-up culture in India and I tend to approach everything in life with an open-mind. Above all, OneFlare is driven by a great company culture – it’s a hugely enjoyable work environment.
The greatest point of difference between corporate and start-up culture – and the greatest attraction for me – has been the ability to shape the business with incredible freedom and speed plus the opportunity to work with a team of managers who possess real entrepreneurial flair. I was amazed in one of my first management meetings how we were talking about potentially changing the entire revenue model, which would be rolled out in three months.
Dynamic Business: How has the company evolved since you came onboard?
The growth we’ve enjoyed has been accompanied by a lot of change, both in terms of the way our teams work and in the way the leadership team steers the ship. That said, the culture has largely remained the same, particularly the ability to think and move quickly with bold ambition, always learning from our mistakes. If anything, there’s a greater level of excitement and passion from the team due to the fact that the stakes are now higher and the opportunities more real.
The challenge will be to retain that culture as we continue to grow. We’ve had many a heated debate about the best way to tackle this challenge and it’s these debates that have brought out some really smart solutions.
Dynamic Business: why should corporate workers consider joining a start-up?
Kaplan: Freedom – The freedom you experience in playing an active role in shaping and growing the business. The freedom and pace at a startup is thrilling, making each and every day at work an adventure.
Also, your past experience in corporate will benefit you greatly at a startup. In the corporate world you see what works for large companies, and what doesn’t, which you can then apply to the startup to help it grow and be more successful.