Tom Caesar on the growth trajectory of his bootstrapped, digital-first finance start-up


Positive Group: Mark Caesar (3rd from left) and Tom Caesar (4th from left)

Tom Caesar co-founded Positive Group, a financial services provider, with his father Mark in 2009. The duo, both veterans of the industry, initially operated the start-up out of their home office in Adelaide. Rather than take out a loan or engage investors, they resolved to bootstrap the operation. This decision, together with the company’s transformation into a digital-first business, has proved profitable.

After spending the first few years chipping away at an initial debt of around $45,000, Positive Group, which now consists of multiple finance business including Positive Lending Solutions (PLS), began to enjoy consistent year-on-year growth. Last year, PLS debuted at #21 on the AFR’s Fast 100, after turning over more than $7 million, and Positive Group as a whole achieved a 176% increase in revenue.

Tom Caesar,who is the managing director of Positive Group, spoke to Dynamic Business about the company’s growth trajectory, including a key turning point, and what other start-ups can do to ensure growth.

Dynamic Business: How did Positive Group come to be?

Caesar: Mark and I were both working in the finance industry – myself in asset finance, Mark in mortgage finance. We had spoken about going into business together for about 12 months because we were ready to strike out on our own and not work for someone else within the industry. Mark was suddenly made redundant in his position and so we brought forward our planning by taking a punt and setting things up.

Dynamic Business: What has fuelled consistent growth?

Caesar: Being a digital-driven business has played a crucial role in our growth trajectory. We spend about 15% of our revenue on digital marketing, which can be considered a pretty big slice of the pie for most SMEs, but we’ve reaped the benefits of having a strong digital footprint and we’ll continue to invest in this way.

Furthermore, we don’t have a traditional focus on in-person services, as we felt this this would limit business growth to a smaller catchment area. Rather than have one-size fits all model, we engage customers on their own terms. Consequently, our serviceable market is seven-times the size of what a broker would typically handle.

A culture of constant improvement and curiosity has also played a role our growth. We take calculated risks – some pay off, others don’t. We’ve also created a progressive and collaborative work environment, where everyone is entitled to make suggestions, whether it’s an improvement to our improvements, a new marketing idea or the adoption of new software, via our internal innovation page. All ideas are considered, even if they don’t necessarily sound intuitive in the first instance.

Dynamic Business: Did growth require an ‘aha’ moment?

Caesar: Our key turning point came at the end of 2011 when we went attended Dreamforce, the largest Salesforce conference. It opened my eyes to the opportunities in our industry that come from utilising technology.

There were so many things I learned from other industries which I could relate back to what we were doing with Positive Group. For instance, I recall listening to the head of a motorbike manufacturer speak about using gamification to encourage sales distribution and create healthy competition amongst sales managers. That idea resonated with me and I left the session thinking gamification could work in our business even though we were providing a different service.

Listening to business leaders from other industries trying to innovate and drive positive changes, I began to adopt a new mindset, which led to a culture of improvement and feedback on Positive Group. Since then, we’ve strived to go beyond the norm. For instance, we consider being digital first rather innovative for our sector. As long as we continue innovating, we’re in a position to grow.

Dynamic Business: How will you maintain momentum?

Caesar: We recently acquired two businesses as part of our growth strategy. Our new specialist car loan business is allowing us to better serve customers in the Perth time zone by having a physical presence in that market. Meanwhile, our new financial planning business comes with a really strong team. They currently practice in-person, so we’re keen to build this out to a digital channel. I believe there’s an opportunity to be a disruptor in this instance as financial planning is typically done face to face.Of course, I’m making everything sound a lot easier than it was. Initially our leadership team expected a transition period of approximately two months – in reality, however, it took closer to six months to on-board staff from the new businesses to our systems, processes and culture. .

We  have a few big projects coming to their final stages and hopefully we will be able to announce some new systems and announcements before the end of the financial year. One of them is a new customer platform we’re working on, which will ideally scale our business about ten times its current size without having to bring in much additional resources.

We’re also continuing our work with Leading Teams, a leadership development consultancy which focuses on creating a culture of high performance. Having a positive workplace culture has definitely contributed to the success and growth of the business, as our staff work towards the same goal as a collective whole, while remaining accountable to their personal targets.

Based on our growth curve, we really want to nurture our workplace culture; we can’t lose sight of who we are and what we believe in as we continue to bring in new staff and grow the business. This past year has really has been a year of consolidation by increasing efficiencies in processes and systems, with the aim of another large growth spike next financial year.

Dynamic Business: How can start-ups ensure growth?

Caesar: There are so many free resources available to start-up founders – use them, try new things and keep learning every day. Personally, I read Venture Beat and other blogs, watch TEDx videos, read books from business influencers and go to as many conferences as I can. It’s all about expanding your knowledge and fertilising your creative thinking, with the aim of improving your business. You never know when you will be inspired by a different sector to yours. The main thing is to never be caught up in only running your business because you never know when a big idea will hit you.

Most importantly, business operators need to build a good culture. That isn’t a culture of all going out on the booze together but a culture of working together, giving each other feedback, having open and honest conversations and where everyone is steering the ship in the same direction. Whilst we have always had good culture, we actively invested in our culture by bringing in an external facilitator from Leading Teams to ensure we could scale positively. We’ve brought in 25 new staff since we had Leading Teams working with us, and not only has our cultural DNA stayed the same, we’ve also changed for the better.