The CEO and co-founder of SEEK has had a big year. For Andrew Bassat, winning the 2013 title of EY Entrepreneur of Year last month was the culmination of hard work and believing in oneself.
Having grown the website synonymous with job hunting in Australia, Bassat chatted to Dynamic Business about his rise to the top.
You co-founded SEEK in 1997 with self-confessed ‘little knowledge of the internet’, how did you envision the business in those early years?
Well SEEK started when my brother was looking for a house, and was finding the process frustrating. I think the starting point was that going online would be a much better way of doing things for classifieds generally. We soon moved to employment, thinking we could make a bigger difference in employment than we could in real estate – and that was the simple starting point.
On one level nothing core has changed, we’re still doing the job we started 15 or 16 years ago, which is trying to continually strive to use the technology to do a better job of matching job seekers with hirers.
The company is probably a bit bigger now compared to our original business plan, and it’s fair to say we’re in more markets and have more staff than we thought – but really every two or three years it has grown alongside how we expected.
Why do you think SEEK has succeeded where many other classifieds sites have failed?
I think we’ve been so focused on all of our markets, and indeed all of our businesses, that I just think we’ve got the fundamentals right. Our primary focus has been on creating a great experience for job seekers, a great experience for hirers, building a marketplace, and then worrying about making money at the output of that rather than the input.
I think that’s possibly differentiated us from a lot of our competitors, who were more focused on the outputs rather than the inputs.
Where did the name for the business come from?
Well each one of us – myself and my two partners – try to take credit for it, but one of us came up with it! I think it was quite important for us that we had a name which was easy to spell, easy to remember, and related to the product.
I think probably the other piece is that we always intended to do employment first, then real estate, then cars – so the name couldn’t be specific to employment. But having said that, we never got there – so I suppose it could have been specific to employment after all.
But that was the key, something that made sense to the product – and that’s where SEEK came from.
SEEK is already in markets outside Australia, but are there plans to expand more broadly, like into the US for example?
I think we’re happy with the focus on emerging markets. We’re going to markets like China, South-East Asia, Brazil, Mexico and now Africa – we can actually make a difference to people’s live by providing a service which isn’t already in the marketplace, and which improves efficiency. We can go into the US, but it’s already a well-served and very competitive market. I think our starting point is trying to help people and make an impact. We can make a bigger difference in a market like China than we could in the US, and similarly so in other markets. So that’s why we’ve gone to high-population, early stage markets.
At what point in the growth of SEEK did you start to get excited, and see the full potential of the business?
In the first year or so we weren’t sure the whole thing would work, and we were just having a bit of fun and making it up as we went along. It was only after a year or so that we started getting any results. In the first year we didn’t have many ads, and not many job seekers.
After about a year we recognised that it was actually working, and since then it’s just been one step at a time. Once our site started working, we thought ‘gee we can actually make a good go of this’, and started to see the full potential.
Presumably over the years you’ve received offers to buy the business, how have you worked through that?
You know, there hasn’t actually been that many. We’ve had a few approaches, but we’ve always wanted to get money into the business ourselves. I’d also say we’ve been more excited about the potential of the business than anyone from outside.
So the answer is we haven’t had many [approaches], and we weren’t in the market for it in any case.
There were reports recently that Snapchat was offered $1 billion by Facebook to buy their app. Has selling the business ever been part of the plan, as it is for many startups?
We’re always trying to build new things, and create new things – and for me, there’s plenty of opportunity to do that within SEEK. Had this been just a three year game, and then come down to simply managing the existing business, then there wouldn’t have been much point hanging around. But I continue to be able to – and the leadership team and the organisation as a whole – continue to be able to satisfy entrepreneurial desires under the SEEK umbrella, rather than feeling the need to sell it and move onto the next thing.
What mistakes have you made, and how did you learn from them?
How long have you got! Look we’ve made plenty of mistakes, but I think we also got a lot of the fundamentals right, and especially core philosophies.
In terms of people, we certainly made a lot of mistakes – things like hiring too quickly, ignoring gut instincts, and being too slow to deal with it.
We made some mistakes in other aspects as well, but I think with some of the bigger ones, like with people, we’re doing a better job now with getting the right people on board.
What are the future plans for SEEK?
I think we’re pretty open with where we’re heading strategically. In Australia we think we can be more effective and more efficient in matching job seekers with jobs and organisations. The hope is that we can be as good as we are in Australia, in our other markets as well.
So it’s about fulfilling that vision about being the very best at what we do. It’s a lot of work, but if we do we’ll have a bigger and better business.