Matt Bullock discusses the challenges for startups in 1998 and the evolution since
Matt Bullock is the CEO and founder of Spinify, a gamification platform that aims to help motivate staff of an organisation through visibility of data. The idea for Spinify had its roots in the experiences Matt founding eWAY, an online payments platform which he managed for 18 years before exiting in 2016. In his conversation with Adam, Matt discusses some of the challenges of founding a tech startup in Australia in 1998, and shares his perspective on how the Australian startup ecosystem has evolved in the decades since.
Matt on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mrmattbullock/
Matt on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mattbullock
Adam Spencer: Hi, I’m Adam Spencer. And welcome to Day One, the podcast that spotlight’s Australian startups, founders, and the organizations that empower Australian entrepreneurship. We go back to the beginning, to tell a story of Australia’s most inspiring founders and how they built their companies. You’re listening to a special interview series as part of a documentary W2D1 is producing about the history of the Australian startup ecosystem. On the episode today, we have…
Matt Bullock: Good day, I’m Matt Bullock. I’m the CEO and founder of Spinify. Spinify, it’s a gamification platform. And what it does has helped motivate staff by giving them visibility of data, and then helping them feel recognized when they do something. All that’s about is creating competitions, having fun and moving the needle.
Adam Spencer: How and why did you get interested in the concept of gamification?
Matt Bullock: Yeah. Cool. I had a company called eWAY that I started 25… I don’t know, long time ago. And that company was a payment company. And if you bought something in Australia, it probably did the payment. So it was doing 6 billion a year, 25,000 customers like Kogan, Catch, [inaudible] and many, many others. And, of that whole world in my… I was in five countries. In my head office here, I had 80 staff, and I had 72 TVs. And those 72 TVs, I used different software. I wrote my own software and I was always trying to get the most out of everyone.
Matt Bullock: And when I sold my company, which I didn’t mean to, and I met some people in Vegas and that was a great story and it happened. And then, from that, I went, ” What do I really like doing?” and I really like TV. So, I looked at all the software that was out there and I just thought we could do a better job. And then we’ve spent the last five and a bit years doing that. We’re now in 28 countries and have 400 and something thousand leader boards running.
Adam Spencer: There’s so much that just happened just then, and I have questions about, but we’ll get to those questions probably through the course of your journey. Can you take us right back? When would you say you first got exposed to this startup world, and I’m looking at this and it says November, 1998 eWAY, but was there anything before that?
Matt Bullock: Oh, I was always someone who starts a startup always trying to do something, but nothing ever really happened. I mean, I’m 50. To people, it’s probably like 5,000 years ago. When I was doing it, there was no real thing as a startup or community or anything. It was weird. It was like when I was at school and… I went to Parks High, which is near Dubbo and there was like four, five us who were into computers and everyone else just thought you were a nerd and weird. And startups, that time was the same thing. “You’re going to do what?” I mean, I remember at the time asking 10, 15 good friends, “What do you think of the idea?” And they all told me I was stupid. Like, “You’re going to do what?” And that’s before it was a cool thing to do. Yeah. Tough thing to do.
Adam Spencer: 1998. Can you just give me a little bit of a history lesson around payments? Was there anything else happening in Australia? On the payments side?
Matt Bullock: Yeah, there was stuff, but there wasn’t really much, I mean. Just to understand, the servers were in my house. I have a 64k ISDN line. I had a modem that dialed up to the bank, bing, bing, bing sounds for 30 seconds to do the payment. So, it was very, very different to what it is now. And you had to build everything yourself. Now you can just get so many things and plug him in and use them and just build something very quickly. But I was the hosting provider. I was everything. It’s just how things used to be. You used to have to just do everything yourself.
Adam Spencer: Yeah. I also did an interview with Steve Baxter a few weeks ago, and he was telling a story about how he started his, I think it was a ISP, started an ISP and he just had all the servers in his house.
Matt Bullock: Yeah. I had 40 servers in my house. I was single of course.
Adam Spencer: You got the background, you did Bachelor of Computer Science in mathematics, so there’s no real… I can’t see any kind of finance or payment related stuff in your history.
Matt Bullock: No. I wrote some software that used to make dropdown menus, that are now just included in HTML. And I was selling it and I was selling it through PayPal and I just thought that’s just painful.
Adam Spencer: Ah.
Matt Bullock: And I thought that has to be a better way of doing this. And then I got approached by a local company in Canberra to help build their payments app for Medibank private. And I went, “Oh yeah, I can do that.” And I figured I had to do it for them. And I went, “I can do that for other people.” And then I had $50,000 and then I just bought this very expensive hardware and started building it.
Adam Spencer: There’s probably a lot that we’re not going to have time to go over in the 17 year history of eWAY, from you starting it to right through to selling it. But, I do want to touch on that story that you just mentioned in Vegas. What happened?
Matt Bullock: I met some people here at an Amex function. They got acquired. They told me about, I should talk to these people. And I’d spoken to people before, but I had no desire whatsoever to sell. And anyway, I was at a payment show there, I met them, they offered me a future multiple that was some seven times future revenue. And it was 134 times EBIT or something. I text my CFO and was like, “How much is that?” And I was like, “Wow, that’s a lot of money.” And so, I had a meal with them. Talked to them for two hours. They really liked me. I really liked them. They talked about how they weren’t going to muck things around. It was just going to be a straightforward process, which all sounded exciting. They said to me, do I like Lenny Kravitz? And I said, “I love Lenny Kravitz.” Bain then booked out a nightclub with, I think there was like less than a hundred people in it.
Matt Bullock: And I went and watched Lenny Kravitz with them. Then Snoop Dogg was on, who I didn’t even know who it was, which also shows a bit about me. And then, from that process on, then it just took six months of anyone who does a deal M&A. Where I used EY, which is amazing. But just that whole process of trying to hit your numbers, run the business, answer seven questions that you’ve already answered the seven days before. And if you don’t answer, the deal’s over and just on and on and on and on. But like it is with M&A. And it was a good deal for them. It was a good deal for me, and I just decided to do it.
Adam Spencer: I imagine, and not knowing, but I imagine you probably didn’t really need to go and start Spinify.
Matt Bullock: No, I didn’t need to before anyway, so eWAY was paying me more than enough money as well. And I had a good lifestyle. Nice house, cars, that sort of thing. And I didn’t need to, but same thing for this. I definitely didn’t need to, but for me it’s about doing something and having that impact. What I used to like about eWAY was that three and a half million people each month used to get something in the mail and that we were part of that and helping people. And with Spinify, it’s about helping people all around the world actually enjoy their job, their life, in work and not feeling that whole, “I don’t know what’s going on. No, one’s really telling me.” And actually understanding the data, not talking to a manager once a month, but actually seeing it, being able to change it, and then have fun and play your own favorite song when you actually do a deal. So for me, it’s just another way of giving back.
Adam Spencer: Yeah. Can we just rewind for a sec to just eWAY for a second? How do you build a company like that?
Matt Bullock: One small step at a time. And millions of steps. I never got funding, and it was just constant get some money, hire some people, get some money, hire some people, more customers, more money and just step by step. And really what it was for me was, get a bank, get another bank, get a shopping cart. And by the end of it, we had all the shopping carts and we had all the banks. And that’s what the gateway is. Creating that network. And having many, many years, like I started off with some St. George Bank and all the other banks wouldn’t touch me and just constantly just kept on going. So, I think it took me seven years before NAB decided to connect to me or allowed me to connect to them. And then they ended up being my biggest partner in the end.
Adam Spencer: Can I ask how, how did you sell? St. George, did you say?
Matt Bullock: St. George is where I first started.
Adam Spencer: Yeah. How did you-
Matt Bullock: Kind of my first bank. When I had one bank, I would tell everyone that all the other banks are no good, and you should just use this bank. I guess it’s whatever is the spin to make it happen to do the deal.
Adam Spencer: Yeah. I’ve found that creating these podcast concepts and getting the first partner on board really, and leveraging that-
Matt Bullock: A hundred percent.
Adam Spencer: … but the trick is getting the first one.
Matt Bullock: Yeah.
Adam Spencer: How did you convince St. George to go, “Yeah. Okay. We’ll partner with you”?
Matt Bullock: I think from all of it, I just, I asked them. And at the time I only had a motorbike. I didn’t have a car license, so I got someone to drive me to Sydney. I met Easy Merchant. A mate drove me there. Tony Bartlett. I met Easy Merchant. They agreed to connect to me, so then I had a shopping cart. So now, I had a bank on one side and had a shopping cart on the other side. And that’s all I just kept replicating everywhere. And the whole thing was, I’d say that A and Z going, “Hey, I’ve got St. George and can I get you? Well, hey, I’ve got Easy Merchant, can I get you?” And it just kept on snowballing. A lot of effort is just asking people, and at the time there wasn’t many options in Australia anyway.
Matt Bullock: And I made it super easy. And I guess the big thing I learned about all of it compared to all my competitors was that I… None of them put price up. I put price up. And then I was a hundred percent focused on the customer. More than any. The rest of them were all focused on the money, and the big deals. And I didn’t care about any of them. And I just wanted all the small deals and every deal. And eventually we got all the big deals as well, but because I focused on just getting customers and keeping them and making them happy.
Adam Spencer: Has that been your kind of philosophy right through your business journey? And is that the biggest thing you took away from eWAY, is focus on the customer?
Matt Bullock: Yeah. I mean, I got that from Salesforce and listening to [Benny] often and all the times I went over there. And they really are a customer company and being that customer company, and making everyone in the company know that we’re here to serve that customer.
Adam Spencer: You exited eWAY in 2016. At what point did you have the bandwidth to stick your head up and start noticing what was happening in Australia in terms of startups?
Matt Bullock: So yeah, I was doing more and more of that at the end of eWAY. Just trying to help people, mentor people, get people in the office, talk to people. I did the 1% pledge with the Atlassian guys, which was cool as well. I put a million dollars into a foundation that we give 50,000 away every year. And the first, probably two years of doing Spinify, my 1% probably turned into somewhere between 10 and 20% where I was just mentoring people, helping people, just spending a lot of time, giving people advice.
Adam Spencer: Why is that important to you?
Matt Bullock: Just giving back. I mean, I don’t know why I do anything really. It’s all just what it is. It’s just what I… I have an idea, something happens and it just keeps on going.
Adam Spencer: When did you…? Feel free to skip this question if you don’t really have an answer, but when did you start to see this “startup ecosystem” start to take off in Australia?
Matt Bullock: I think in the end, for me, of eWAY that time was definitely there with people building e-commerce sites. And for me that was already a larger, medium sized business. I didn’t really feel it, but from doing Spinify, I started with a blank page. I was going up against competitors that had been in business for seven years and I had one line of code. So, I totally now really get that pain of what it is when I didn’t really get it because it was so long for me building anyway. But things I’ve learned is really, you think you know what MVP is, but really knowing what MVP is. And I think that as a startup, I’ve seen it so many times that people just get focused on trying to build something and it’s not quite ready and it’s not good enough. But just get those first 50 customers was a real lesson. And keep them, is tough. But understanding what’s the minimal thing that we need to build here that’s going to tick something off, to win them.
Adam Spencer: Are there any lessons that you took out of eWAY that gave you a bit of a competitive advantage going into Spinify?
Matt Bullock: Yeah. Like no servers. I had, I don’t know, a hundred and something servers in three different data centers. This time I built on serverless. I don’t have any on AWS. I have no servers. So, that’s just a completely different world for me. I hired a lot of people on Upwork. I’ve hired like 250 plus people on Upwork. That was really difficult for me to do in the other business. This business, I can bring people on, I can get people out. I can get lots of people doing the same thing at the same time. So, I’m so much faster. What I’ve done in my last five years in this company, would’ve taken me 15 in eWAY.
Adam Spencer: Jumping. I think I said at the start of this interview, we’re going to follow your journey chronologically. That’s not happening. And that’s my fault.
Matt Bullock: That’s just me as well.
Adam Spencer: Jumping forward to present day for a sec, what are some of the biggest gaps that you see? What’s wrong with the ecosystem today, and where can we make the biggest improvements, in your opinion?
Matt Bullock: I think the hardest thing for any person as a startup is you have a job. When do you get off that? When do you start it? Plenty of times that I see a startup and they’re doing it, but they’ve got the other job. And it’s like, when do you get in, when do you dig into it? That’s a hard thing for people to be able to do. And I think part of that also is funding from the government, or funding from large companies. Everyone should just give so much more funding to help people who have ideas, who have passion to actually do something. Right now, you have to do a lot of it all yourself and take a massive risk. It’s easier in some respects, but it’s also harder in how much competition’s there. But the level of funding is just not there. It’s tiny.
Adam Spencer: On a positive side, what do you think we’re doing really well?
Matt Bullock: Well, there’s more and more startups, which I think is… that is just a cool thing, right? Because what’s really exciting is getting all these different startups together and going, “Oh, use a bit of this one, a bit of that one.” And building them all up to add to your own product, I think is great. And there’s so much product out there. And there’s so many ideas out there as well. People are having a go, there’s just a lot more people that could have a go, but it’s changing. And what’s good about that, is that when you do get a startup and you do make it work, you hire people, you change their lives, you change your customer’s lives and you make a difference, which is the number one thing, I think.
Adam Spencer: How important are organizations like the Canberra Innovation Networks of Australia, to helping the ecosystem grow?
Matt Bullock: If they don’t exist, there is no ecosystem because there is nowhere to go really. And I didn’t have anything like that. And the amount of people that are just willing to help. It’s just a massive culture of help. What do you need?
Adam Spencer: Do you have an unpopular opinion about the Australian startup ecosystem? Just something that you’re a firm believer of, but you just can’t seem to get other people on the same page.
Matt Bullock: I think it goes back to what I was saying before. It’s about money. I’m not a hundred percent sure, but I believe that the ACT government gives about a million bucks a year. What’s a million dollars compared to all the other projects and everything else they fund? The difference is with anyone that chucks… any of the governments that chuck in that money, what comes out on the other side is huge. I mean, for me, I look at how much support that I got, and I paid a stupid amount of tax, just like you do when you do an exit. It’s terrible. And I wish that money could have, instead of just going into the federal government bucket of nothing, part of it could have, at least, gone to doing something with startups.
Matt Bullock: I think as a whole, we just don’t give enough money in government to startups that are trying to do something. Sure, you got to have rules and criteria, so you’re not just chucking it up against the wall. But there’s definitely people that, if they were helped with just small amounts of money, would make massive difference and hire a lot more people, change the economy. And the world’s a service business. No, it doesn’t just have to be about products. And we could do it if we just spent the money on it, but we spend so much, so little rather than what it is that we should spend.
Adam Spencer: Silly follow up question, but why? Why don’t they?
Matt Bullock: I’m stuffed if I know. I just don’t get it. I guess maybe it’s about the risk associated with it. Maybe it’s about they think the voters don’t think it’s a popular thing to do. I don’t understand why the hell we don’t. I think it’s crazy that we don’t. Yeah. If we did, even if we just times by two, times it by 10, times it by a hundred, it would just make such a massive impact to everyone.
Adam Spencer: This is kind of… You’re an expert in residence at [inaudible] You said you talked to a lot of people, give advice. If a brand new founder came to you tomorrow, what would you tell them? What one piece of advice would you give them?
Matt Bullock: I guess that the big one is, don’t stop. When surrounded by people telling you no, don’t stop. The only small part on that is make sure that what you’re building has a need, because quite often people get stuck on an idea. And is that idea commercial? And you go, “Well, no one else is doing it.” And go, “Yeah, there’s a reason no one else is doing it. Because it’s stupid.” Or, there’s a hundred people have done it. No one’s ever made money out of it. I think don’t give up, but on the other side of that, make sure you’ve got competition, and make sure you’re going to beat them.
Adam Spencer: I want to touch on Spinify just for a second. For people, like new entrepreneurs out there that have an idea. When you had this idea for Spinify, what did your first month look like? How did you start to implement that idea and get it going?
Matt Bullock: Just hiring a ton of people on Upwork.
Adam Spencer: Oh yes.
Matt Bullock: Yeah. The way I would do it is I’d hire three people, sometimes five people just to do the same thing and I’d go, “Right, you’re too slow. You haven’t responded. Okay. You two are good. You two can even do the same task.” They won’t even know, and then figure out what it is and put it together. But I couldn’t do that in Australia if I was hiring people, but I could do it very quickly from Upwork. And I’ve hired people, I think in just about every country on the planet.
Adam Spencer: Why did you do it that way? Is that important to not give one person the whole puzzle?
Matt Bullock: Oh no, just speed. Speed, and knowing that I’ve got five people solving the same problem and I’ve got one that’s now a star. That person can keep… It’s an interview process as well, right?
Adam Spencer: Yeah. Right.
Matt Bullock: I can now work for you for a couple of years, but it’s just about getting things done simultaneously, as opposed to “I’ll do this, wait for that to be done, then I’ll do this.” Doing many, many things at the same time.
Adam Spencer: Essentially, yeah, you’re just that project manager.
Matt Bullock: Yeah. I hired people that were project managing him.
Adam Spencer: The last question I just want to give you two, three, four, five minutes to… Whatever is top of mind, keeping in mind that we’re trying to create a six part documentary here that will, as honestly as possible, and tell the real story, not just some story that someone wants us to tell. As holistically as possible, tell that story of the history of the Australian startup ecosystem. We want everybody to listen to this documentary. Founders, investors, policy makers, academics. Any one of those categories or all of them, what do you want to tell them?
Matt Bullock: For me, with startups, it’s the same message I had anyway, is if you’re thinking about doing a business, go and do that business. Figure out what is that you’ve got to do to make it happen, and just make it happen. There’s a thousand reasons why you can’t do something and you’ve just got to find the reason why you can do something. And then you’ve just got to keep pushing through and believe in why you should do it. And try and make that change and make that difference. But passion is the big thing. If you’ve got the idea, because ideas are cheap, and passion and follow through with a commitment. And focus on just getting that first sale, getting that first 50 deals.
Matt Bullock: And I think one of the things that’s lacking from founders is that quite often they don’t think about that as a founder, you also have to be a person who sells. And you have to be the best person who sells. And they get quite nervous about it. And that’s something that you just have to do because if you don’t want to sell, I don’t really reckon you should be doing the business because you should be the best at selling it. And that’s got to, again, come through from passion, and being able to articulate what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and why people should buy it.
Adam Spencer: Yeah. Yeah. Sorry. Follow up question. Yes, I get that. I get the sales side of things. Why do you think… Is it just people that just… The connotation associated with sales, the word sales, they don’t want to be a salesperson?
Matt Bullock: Yeah. I think people don’t want to be a salesperson because… and also ideas are cheap and building a product is easy in the fact that you can just go, “Yeah, let’s add another door, let’s add another window. Let’s make it 50 stories high.” And you can just keep on building. And no one questions you. When you’ve got customers and they say, “Why is the door sideways? Why do you have a window that opens backwards?” All those things that you go, “Oh yeah. Okay.” But then selling someone and actually even asking someone for money is hard. But when you’re just sitting in your room, stacking up blocks or whatever else, it’s not as hard. Not building a product is not an easy thing either. Everything, I think, to do with the startup is hard, but selling is really tough. Convincing someone that you’re the right solution and for them to give you money is a hard thing.
Adam Spencer: What would you tell that founder that is too hesitant to do that? How would you kick them up the bum? Or would you just tell them, “It’s not for you”?
Matt Bullock: No. I would say to them, because everyone can change. I would say, “This is something you need to fix. Just because you don’t do it today, work on it, and what you got to do.” I use tools like gong.io but there’s a ton more. So when you do calls with people, review them yourself, find all the things that are busted and fix them. And that’s all it is. It’s just finding every single little thing from the pitch. From the questions that you ask someone when you do something, when you do a demo or whatever it is that you’re showing to them. And just look for all the changes. And every time you think, “Yeah, I’ve got the sales press process right,” you never will. You’ll find another one. And you find one every single day. And I guess the biggest one on top of all that, is deal with objections instead of just accepting someone when they tell you why they can’t buy the product, that’s why. And if you keep asking why and you keep listening, eventually you’ll break them down and there’s nowhere left and go, but for them to buy.
Adam Spencer: I hope you enjoyed that interview. More interviews are on the way. Follow the podcast wherever you’re listening right now, stay tuned for more interviews, with many, many more amazing people from the Australian startup ecosystem. Thanks for listening and see you next time.