Australian entrepreneur, Matt Bullock remembers writing code to sell at school. Building things, sales, and software have been with him forever.
From school, he went on to study for a Bachelor of Computer Science and Mathematics at the University of Wollongong, graduating in 1994. He went to work for several tech start-ups but soon launched his own.
We spoke about Eway, his current company Spinify and I had the great opportunity of listening to Matt’s wisdom on team building, sales, and building software companies.
In 1998, the internet was just taking off, and Matt spotted an opportunity to create a secure payment gateway making credit payments online fast and easy. Writing the code for the software himself, exchanging a crate of beer each for a banner and a logo design, he placed an ad in an internet magazine and found himself a customer. Initially, he kept his old job to pay the bills and worked from home.
Matt worked on his own for a long time. It was a slow burn success, but eighteen years in, they were processing payments for 25,000 online stores across the globe and processing $6 billion per annum.
He remembers having 27 direct reports at one stage. That changed when he started with a business coach. Matt finds he can manage eight plates in the air of things going on at any one time. Some people can only handle one. Matt has remained with that coach ever since.
Matt says that never in a million years had he planned to sell Eway, imagining handing it down to his kids. He was making more each year, and life was good. He wondered if he could become the new Paypal but knew how few companies get to be a Fortune 100 one.
Then a US company offered him 7x revenue, and Matt knew he would be crazy not to take it. The sale was made in secret. On his last day, Matt was moving his furniture out, and everyone was crying. He made his speech, had lunch but didn’t wait to hear the new owners’ plans.
He had been worrying that he might be a one-hit-wonder, so he started his second software company Spinify, the same afternoon.
Spinify is the #1 gamification board for sales. Sales team members compete on the metrics that make the business successful, using sales data combined with KPI’s. The software provides immediate feedback displayed on dashboards for all to see.
The software motivates, drives outcomes, and lets the users connect what they do to the overall goals to make the sales team successful. They can celebrate wins and productivity increases and increasing productivity is absolutely crucial to business success.
Originally, Spinify was intended for office teams, so Matt was hit by the pandemic, but they pivoted, re-build the software for desktops or notepads, not just the giant screens that were the initial plan. Microsoft partnered with them.
Starting a software company from nothing is ridiculous, Matt says, writing code, getting staff, all that money and time. They have got to the point they are ok now though he still doesn’t take a salary.
While building a second software company, Matt has set up a Scholarship for the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science and founded the Spinify Foundation charity. He invests in other companies and is an Expert in Residence at the Canberra Innovation Network. I was keen to hear his advice and experience as possible.
Matt on Teams
Matt says the secret is finding people who will put in the “stupid effort” you will. He asks two questions when hiring.
- Do you want to go fast?
- Do you want to change?
You need people who can cope with both, and some get dizzy with them. People say he is blunt; he says he tells it like it is. When he tells his staff that they have to change, he always tells them why and gives them time to adjust. Otherwise, they just feel out of control.
His team has to do something which makes people want to “vomit in a bucket” when they start. Everyday share with everyone
- ideas – if they have any
- issues – be these with customers or any other problems
- what they did that day – more to focus them
- what they plan to do the next
Matt says that the last thing he wants to do is break people. But some people grow with you, and some hold you back. From his own early hires, some developed, some didn’t. One especially flourished, and he runs Matt’s old company now for the new owners.
Matt wants to move fast all the time. If something is going to take a month, he says it feels like 20 years for him. Whatever the time scale, he always wants it sooner.
Matt on Sales
Sales became utterly unpredictable in the pandemic. There were months when they sold nothing because something was happening in another part of the globe. Customers were pivoting too.
While for vast companies, it can be little more than order taking, it is all about selling for entrepreneurs, and selling has become a complex business. Everyone argues about price now, and it has made liars out of business people. A buyer will say that is their absolute maximum budget, and get off the phone and going “Yeah! I just got that at half price”.
Price is a continual battle with huge companies telling him they can’t afford 10k when he knows they spend that on a tea round. But it is more than the price. Another issue is that the vast companies expect mid and small companies to be run in the same way and to the same standards when that isn’t possible. People make every clause of a deal a battle, and legalities are now a massive part of all deals.
Gatekeepers are a nightmare, Matt says, preventing conversations with the right person. Tech people can be the worst. They will reject a proposal for all sorts of reasons, the color because they think sales should be done differently, or claim they could build the software themselves, so it isn’t worth the money. Matt says you can buy a tyre and three bolts, but it doesn’t mean you have a car.
Matt says he has learned so much of the complexities of sales during the last year, and most of all, he has learned how the data really works and what metrics are critical.
Matt on Building a Software Company
Matt says he is obsessed with nailing your point of difference, something most people don’t get. He has to know everything about his competitors and every reason they don’t get a deal. Competitors are great, he says. If you don’t have them, you have a lousy product.
Your build has to have an impact, and that is hard. Everyone copies; that is the way to success. Then it comes down to price, and anyone who says they are priced in the middle is an idiot. As you build your software, so you have to find that point of differential.
The next thing is to fully understand what an MVP is. Matt says he has spent millions finding his. In his last company, if a customer wanted something special, he would spend months on it. Now, if pushed, he might offer a couple of tweaks, but he will provide something that will do 80% of what they need without losing time and money.
Matt remembers negotiating a deal through IBM with Vodafone early in his career. They wanted to own the IP, and it was taking 90% of his time. He decided to walk away and says you have to learn some deals you don’t want.
If customers shout and swear at his staff, he gives them one chance but tells them that they won’t be doing any more business together if they do it again.
He is a big fan of Amazon, but when they approached Matt for software. They told him their custom would be so good for his business that they wanted it free. Again, he said no.
When you are a CEO, you are the only person in the boat, and sometimes it is sinking. You tend to have yes, and no people around you, and in many ways would be a bad thing if you didn’t, but it makes it lonely. In addition to his coach, Matt benefited from being part of a CEO group that met and bounced ideas off each other.
You have to keep learning. Software companies are changing incredibly fast as it is so quick to build now. You can launch and be competitive, but it is so crowded. Matt’s hosting platform, for example, has 250 tools and is adding new ones all the time. Trying to keep up is brutal. For instance, he used to do PCR compliance, but now many people are battling with PCI DSS compliance soc 2, which is much more complex.
Another change is that free software trials are coming to an end. Matt says if you can see how it works, see 1000 companies have written reviews on how good it is, what more do you want.
Instead of buying a new car, focus on your key metric and buy a ridiculous amount of new software to help you achieve that. Some will work, some won’t, but you will learn. Matt cites CRMs, saying that a good CRM will teach you so much, including the sales jargon.
Above all, see something, do something, act on it and take risks. And know your number. Matt’s software gives people the ability to know that, which is a great gift.
The Future for Matt and Spinify
Matt wants to make a massive impact with Spinify. In the immediate, he is focused on constantly building more software, creating more competitions, making them faster, different, even more fun, and ensuring everything is measured.
When sales went quiet with COVID, they spent their time building. Matt is never happier when doing this. Now, they have to say, “Stop, it is time to sell.” It is always a balancing of building and selling.
He says he may do this one forever. It is still early days in this space despite the hugely financed start-ups coming in. For Matt, it is all about building recurring revenue.
Equally, if the right deal comes along, who knows. Matt believes the best time to sell a company now is around the $10-13 m. turnover. Under that, you only get 1x revenue. Why would you sell when you can make that in a year? It is that multiple that counts. The market is changing, and so many companies are getting sucked up around the 3-5m by the big players, Salesforce, Apple, Dell.
Matt’s favorite part of the day is his lunch break, during which he always leaps on Youtube and learns something new for twenty minutes. Matt loves to play board games with his family for other relaxation and orders a new one most days. With his passion for building things, it follows that he also buys vast quantities of Lego. That and the odd glass of chardonnay keep him going.
Another company doing great things with their software that I have interviewed recently is SEON, two entrepreneurs intent on beating online fraud across the globe.