New customer initiatives shouldn’t come at the expense of culture says hipages CEO David Vitek

hipages

hipages COO Roby Sharon-Zipser and CEO David Vitek

Taking a lead in Australia’s home improvement sector has involved eliminating friction points for home owners, letting go of the past and an equal commitment to consumer and culture, according to David Vitek, CEO of online tradie marketplace hipages.

The Sydney-based entrepreneur said that Australian homeowners are using the hipages mobile app to advertise more than 100,000 jobs, each month, to the company’s community of 130,000 qualified, verified and trusted tradies. In the fourteen years since he co-founded hipages with COO Roby Sharon-Zipser, the platform has been used by two million homeowners and generated $2.4 billion worth of work for Australia’s trades community. Hipages has also been certified as a Great Place to Work, and it ranked inside the Australian Financial Review’s 2016 Fast 100 list as well as its 50 Most Innovative Companies 2016 list.

“We’ve seen great success year-on-year, with 37% annual growth achieved in 2016-2017,” Vitek said. “From a workforce perspective, we’re also enjoying extraordinary momentum. Today, we employ 180 people in Sydney alone – a 49% increase in our headcount from 2017, and we plan to hire 50 new roles this year. It’s an incredibly exciting time for us, and the decision to recently relocate our headquarters in Sydney to a new and inspiring workspace, officially opened by NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, was made to meet the needs of our expanding team.

In conversation with Dynamic Business, Vitek discussed launching hipages with his childhood friend, the company’s evolution, the influence the platform is having on the trades community and the strategies that have fuelled growth.

DB: What led to you and Sharon-Zipser launching hipages?

Vitek: Well, we’ve been great mates since we were young and always planned to one day work together. I began my career in electrical engineering at IBM before joining a software startup overseas. Meanwhile, Roby’s background is in finance and he worked with PricewaterhouseCoopers and Allco Finance Group before starting a boutique accounting firm.

In 2004, we finally combined our complementary skills to build something special. At the time, the world was beginning to move online and people were expecting to find businesses easily; however, our research told us that the experience of reaching and interacting with tradespeople online was a very inconsistent and often frustrating for consumers.

Meanwhile, the online marketing space was becoming complex for tradies to navigate. They went from solely arranging ads in their local print directories to having to get their heads around marketing on Google and Facebook as well as SEO. Many were also engaging young freelancers to help create their websites – and failing to keep these updated.

Roby and I saw an exciting opportunity to help tradies better transition into the online marketing sphere and add value to Australians by helping them easily find the right tradesperson for any given job. We founded hipages as a service that would bring available and relevant tradespeople to consumers based on their job requests.

DB: What is the unique selling point of your trades marketplace?

Vitek: hipages is unlike other platforms that connect Aussies with those that can help with odd jobs in that we’re dedicated to helping Aussies find qualified and licensed tradies in their local area. We require tradies to move through a comprehensive vetting process in order to ensure they are credible, professional tradespeople from registered businesses.

Founded in an Aussie garage 14 years ago by two great mates, hipages helps Aussies find verified and licensed tradies in their local area while helping tradies grow their business through innovative technology, finding them more local jobs, which they can manage on the go.

Once a tradie has been verified, we help them focus less on admin and more on what they do best – their trade – by enabling them to find more local jobs and better manage their workload on the go from our platform. By facilitating a consistent work stream for our tradies, we’re also contributing significantly to the growth of their businesses. For large operations (i.e. five to ten tradies) listed on our platform, hipages represents a large portion of their workload. We’re also finding that many tradies who establish their careers in large operations subsequently make the decision to become sole traders. Relevantly, one in every four tradies who joins hipages does so with a newly registered businesses.

DB: What is something you are particularly passionate about?

Vitek: Making the profession more appealing to young Australians, which is why we’ve partnered with the HIA. They’re an industry organisation appointed to run the government-funded Industry Specialist Mentoring for Australian Apprentices (ISMAA) program. The initiative offers support to Australian apprentices, in a bid to curb the high dropout rates – namely, around 50% of first and second year apprentices drop out. We encourage our tradie members to register their apprentices for the ISMAA program.

DB: What sorts of strategies have fuelled hipages’ growth?

Vitek: Our team is constantly looking to identify and remove friction points in the business. For instance, hipages was initially conceived as an online directory but user feedback soon revealed that consumers were having to call about ten tradies before they found one who was available. So, we set out to remove that friction point by introducing our Get Quotes model. This involves the consumer posting a job to our platform and telling us what they need. Those tradies from our database who fit the service and geography criteria are notified, and we then advised the consumer of three to follow up for a quote. Once we addressed that friction point, growth just took off!

When it comes to product innovation, I personally get presented with video sessions of tradies and consumers testing out new features on our platform. We’ll assess their feedback and decide if there’s good enough evidence to implement that new pilot feature or make changes to promote more ease of use. 

DB: How does hipages today compare to hipages circa 2004?

Vitek: Much has changed in the 14 years since we launched. Firstly, the capital raising ecosystem is now much more sophisticated and accessible. Ten years ago, we didn’t have fund managers and VC funds. Today, there’s a significant appetite for investment in technology businesses like ours. The emergence of cloud services has also really enabled us to scale. Utilising Amazon Web Services allows for high volumes of platform usage at any given moment. The emergence of apps has also enabled much growth for us, enhancing the accessibility of our service and allowing us to integrate more intelligent capability. We’ve transformed into an all-in-one app, which has truly changed the game for us.

DB: How have you and Sharon-Zipser grown alongside hipages?

Vitek: We’ve learned to move from being very operational, to managing operations, to leading the managers of operations, to leading leaders. Every one of those steps has been a personal development experience. It’s learning how to let go of the things we used to do in the past and learning how to trust. It’s been about finding the right people to join the business, ensuring they appreciate the importance of committing to the customer and culture.

DB: What does your commitment to customer and culture look like?

Vitek: Roby and I, together with our team, ask ourselves two questions every day. Firstly, ‘what are we doing for the customer?’ Secondly, ‘what are we doing for our culture?’ While you might want to move at 100km/h, you need to ensure you maintain control and meet the road rules, so you don’t crash. It’s important to deliver new initiatives for the customer but not at the expense of our staff. We want the customer to have everything, but I can’t afford for my team to burn out – I need them to be happy in their roles. You need equal commitment to the customer and the culture.

DB: How have you ensured that hipages is a Great Place to Work?

Vitek: Being certified a Great Place to Work involved an assessment of our culture and employee engagement by the Great Place to Work organisation. This accolade reflects our dedication to uniting the team behind our goal, which is to revolutionise how home owners find qualified and trusted tradespeople while supporting tradies to grow their businesses through the provision of outstanding service and support.  We spend a lot of time ensuring every single team member is clear on how they personally contribute to our goal and excited about the challenge.

We’re a highly motivated group and our success comes from ensuring the entire team is focused on innovating, using our diverse and collective expertise to solve problems quickly, creatively and effectively. We proudly work hard and move fast, free from bureaucracy and politics to ‘make it happen’ every day.

We’re very conscious that we spend a great deal of time with each other at hipages, so it’s important to Roy and I that everyone feels like they are being looked after, and are enjoying themselves. For instance, we love celebrating everything – from big wins and babies through to birthdays and little wins – and we regularly host events to reward everyone’s hard work. All of our people also have the opportunity to become owners of hipages (through our employee share program), which means we’re united in our mission and everyone gets to have their say. The energy and ‘buzz’ in our office is palpable and infectious.

DB: What other mindsets or mantras have served you in business?

Vitek: Be clear on your vision, mission, purpose and strategy. If you ever slip up or experience friction around a task, it’s best to pause, step back, and refer back to the bigger picture. Refer to the company vision and mission, and trickle back down to the task at hand. This provides context and 90% of the time the challenge can be solved.

DB:  How do you and Sharon-Zipser plan to continue growing hipages?

Vitek: Home improvement is a booming nationwide sector. In the past year, Australians spent $140 billion on service providers in the home improvement market [1], with over 70 million jobs completed each year in the sector. We therefore see a far-reaching opportunity for much more growth and expansion, and we’re constantly investing in our people as well as product development to set us up for ongoing success. Building national awareness for our service is another key priority. There is still plenty of untapped market for us in Australia. So, we are furthering our reach around the country, and only once we’ve fully succeeded here, would we then look to expand globally.

[1] Australian market only, marketing spend and jobs/year are management estimates from collated sources. Sources: ABS, PWC, IBIS. Service providers: building and home improvement industries