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Leaps of faith, false starts, new angles, perfect timing: Steve Fanale on his start-up portfolio

Left to right: Drive Yello co-founders Steve Fanale (CEO) and Johnny Timbs (COO)

Left to right: Drive Yello co-founders Steve Fanale (CEO) and Johnny Timbs (COO)

With ten start-ups under his belt, Sydney’s Steve Fanale is nothing if not prolific. The industry-hopping entrepreneur, digital industry vet and former footballer has made it his mission to solve business problems with technology.

His current venture, Drive Yello, is enabling restaurants, cafes and other food services to better manage their delivery function – or outsource it altogether – with the aim being to free up time and money while increasing customer retention.

Using the app-based delivery management platform and marketplace, businesses can manage, track and pay their own drivers or hire drivers from a growing crowd-sourced workforce for one-off deliveries or full shifts on-demand. According to Steve, the platform is also an opportunity for businesses who currently don’t offer home delivery to enter the home delivery market and increase their revenue.

Ten months on from its initial launch, Drive Yello has onboarded hundreds of businesses and more than 2,500 registered drivers, for whom it has generated close to $300k in income. It has also conducted 50,000 deliveries, developed strong partnerships with major brands, including McDonalds, Menulog, Mad Pizza, La Porchetta and Woolworths, and expanded from Sydney into Melbourne and Brisbane.

To date, Drive Yello has attracted $1.7 million from investors. As part of its Series A funding round, this month, the company is seeking up to $5 million in capital.  There are plans to accelerate national expansion in the coming months, before launching in New Zealand, Singapore and – further down the line – the UK and US.

Steve spoke with Dynamic Business about the series of life experiences, including businesses – successful and otherwise – that led him to co-found Drive Yello with his close friend Johnny Timbs in 2014.

“It was quite a feat back then”

Steve commenced his career (the first of many) in 1988 as a professional footballer, playing for Parramatta. Simultaneously, he was undertaking a Bachelor of Commerce, Marketing & Management at the university of Wollongong. During his studies, he was introduced to computer programming and built his first app (“then referred to as software”), aged 19.

“It was a payroll application and I sold it on a monthly subscription to the bar I was working for,” he said. “It took them from manually calculated salaries in payroll books to computer calculated weekly payroll print outs and pay slips. This might not sound amazing by today’s standards but it was quite a feat back then, I can assure you!”

Despite a strong interest in business and technology, footy was – at that time – Steve’s ‘all-consuming passion’, his life. He had to reassess his situation in 1993, however, when the club he was then playing for, Balmain, passed on renewing his contract.

“While I would have loved to have kept playing, I took the opportunity to undertake a journey of self-discovery, during which I tried my hand at a few things,” he said.

“I even spent a year running a café in Cronulla – my first real business – before realising it wasn’t for me. Feeling directionless, I went backpacking around the globe, seeking to be ‘enlightened’. During my stay in the UK, I was drawn into the world of entertainment. I worked backstage and front of house at Piccadilly Theatre before venturing into voice over work, which got me interested in sound engineering and sparked the idea of establishing my own voice over studio back in Australia.

“Work in multimedia was plentiful”

While reading up on SAE institute Australia, a college renowned for sound engineering, Steve learnt that it had launched a new course in multimedia in Surry Hills.

“After reading the description, I was hooked,” he said. “After returning to Australia in December 1996, I completed a 9-month multimedia course with SAE. Unlike sound engineering, work in multimedia – and this new thing called ‘the internet’ – was plentiful. I pretty much walked out of college and into well-paid jobs, working for ad agencies.  At first, I programmed CD-ROMs and performed front-end coding and design for the internet but as my career progressed, I became more interested in managing people and projects.”

 “The Dotcom crash helped us grow”

After serving as senior executive for a handful of advertising and digital marketing agencies, Steve began to feel the “entrepreneurial itch”. Wanting to build exciting digital products – an opportunity that didn’t exist in adland – he co-founded MassMedia Studios (MMS) with Desmond Ang and Sean Kennedy in 2000.

“In hindsight, it was perfect timing,” he said. “Although I was relatively inexperienced, starting a digital agency at the height of the Dotcom crash meant cheap resources and – with larger, more established digital agencies going bust – opportunities to thrive. As the industry matured, so did MMS. Sean, Desmond and I built a great business that went global off the back of Traction, the digital marketing platform we’d developed. We grew MMS to over 60 people, with offices in New York and London selling enterprise software to multinationals.

“Traction became so big that it spun out into its own business in 2004. Similarly, we launched an e-learning division of MMS, to take advantage of this emerging digital vertical – and this spawned 2and2, which I cofounded with Leon Young in September 2007. It still operates under Leon’s leadership today.”

“What we were doing didn’t excite me”

When Traction and MMS were sold to Blue Freeway (later bought-out by IPMG) for an ‘8-figure sum’ in 2010, Steve took a year off before returning to the entrepreneurial game with a renewed focus on his passion for start-ups.

“In addition to working as a start-up consultant, I co-founded FeverPitch Entertainment – a film and television production company – with Nick Bolton and Jonathan Adams,” he said.

“I soon discovered just how difficult it was to make a living developing original and entertaining content in Australia. To remain viable, we had to develop corporate content, which I wasn’t too happy about. I had done a lot B2B production work in my agency days and it didn’t excite me.”

“Apps have made it easier to solve problems”

Prior to shutting down FeverPitch in December 2013, Steve co-founded AppVillage, a mobile app incubator, with Patrick Visser and Matt Griffin.

“Consumer apps were a hot commodity at the time and a number of big players were generating large amounts of revenue,” he said.

“I had never explored this space before but was up for the challenge. With AppVillage, Patrick, Matt and I brought together entrepreneurs, developers, designers, investors, project managers and marketers – all the parties necessary to get an app off the ground. Our ‘virtual incubation’ model, while not flawless, meant each contributor enjoyed a slice of the equity pie.

“We enjoyed some success but found it difficult to raise the funding necessary to compete with the bigger developers. While AppVillage is still around, I use it solely as a channel to advise others in mobile app development. Since the advent of smartphones and mobile apps, it has become easier to solve problems, educate, entertain, transact, communicate and play – the opportunities are endless.”

“We’re tackling delivery from a unique angle”

Steve’s next two ventures –  fitness app, Motevát and supplier order app, Savvy Order – suffered from ‘false starts’ owing, he explained, to a lack of funding and the manpower necessary to progress both beyond the prototype phase.  He had better luck with Drive Yello, which reaches its two-year milestone this month.

“Drive Yello was developed as a response to staffing issues my co-founder and friend Johnny was facing as the owner of a successful pizza store chain,” he explained.

“Whenever there were demand spikes or a driver called in sick or missed shifts, he was under pressure to find additional or fill-in drivers and otherwise pick up the slack. We envisioned Drive Yello as an on-demand delivery service that would eliminate these issues for food services.

“Unlike Motevát and Savvy Order, there was immediate investor interest in Drive Yello and we raised $300,000 very quickly due to the strength of the minimum viable product (MVP) job boards we’d produced and Johnny’s experience in the pizza game. With this funding, I commenced designing the platform and assembling our team and we started servicing businesses straight off the bat to drum up interest from the industry’s major brands.

“Although we operate in the same space as app-driven services such as Uber Eats, Foodora and Deliveroo, we’re looking at the food delivery problem from a unique angle. Most services are trying to solve the problem for the consumer, we’re focused on solving it for businesses.”

“A supportive family has been critical”

Steve explained that in each of the businesses he has developed, he has had to ‘learn on the go’ and ‘take leaps of faith’ due to his drive to operate in industries he hasn’t necessarily had years of experience in.  

While I’ve had my fair share of setbacks, these have informed how I’ve selected and executed subsequent businesses,” he said.

“Ultimately, I’m motivated by the challenge of solving big business problems with technology as well as building and being part of teams, which probably stems from my footy-playing days. With Drive Yello, Johnny and I have a strong and committed team of fifteen.

“I’ve launched a number of businesses, many of which were run simultaneously. It’s been time-consuming endeavor, which often translates to lack of sleep. I’m fortunate to have a very understanding and supportive family with Linda, Loren & Amelie. In my opinion, that sort of support is absolutely critical to the success of any business.”