Michelle HammondFollow on twitter www.startupsmart.com.au
Pollenizer celebrates fifth birthday: Five lessons from the start-up pioneer
Mick Liubinskas has highlighted the trials and tribulations of Pollenizer, including how it turned Spreets into a $40 million company, as the online venture builder celebrates its fifth birthday.
Pollenizer, which recently pocketed $1.1 million from investors, was founded in 2008 by Liubinskas and Phil Morle, both of whom were working with start-ups on an ad hoc basis.
Since then, Pollenizer has launched 20 start-ups and raised $12 million. As it celebrates its fifth birthday, Liubinskas has spoken of the challenges and achievements, and the lessons learned.
Starting with nothing
[In 2008] there were a few good people around, a few start-ups, a few events and a few investors. It was highly fragmented, poorly organised and high risk.
There were no real heroes or success stories other than the category winners (Seek, Carsales) and some dotcom boomers like Looksmart.
Companies like SitePoint, Atlassian and Campaign Monitor were doing well but it was still early days.
We looked at this landscape and thought there was opportunity there to take an entrepreneurial spirit.
We had no capital, no brand, no team, no systems and no platform to build on. We had a few start-ups we were helping, a few contacts and a few people saying “Go for it”.
Learning to improvise
We found a passionate group of others who were also working to grow the ecosystem and did what we could.
It took a lot of volunteer work from all these people but it really started taking off.
We took some equity for discounted fees, mostly 1-2%. None of which paid off but it was the start of a portfolio and our learning about caring about increasing value.
Building and selling Spreets
We are perhaps best known for [group buying website] Spreets which, from idea to exit, was 13 months. It took a number of planets aligning for that to happen and we acknowledge the luck.
But I think a lot of people massively underestimate the work it takes to create and take advantage of that luck.
I met Dean [McEvoy, Spreets co-founder] five years earlier and we kept up our relationship. Getting to know each other and building up trust.
Spreets was started with no money and we supported the full team for three months… We focused just on restaurants, just in Sydney and we built a product [which was] so focused.
Pollenizer had worked on cultivating relationships with the large web companies in Australia from day one, including Google, Microsoft and Yahoo.
It was this relationship with Yahoo!7 that improved our chances of getting interest in a trade sale from them.
Pollenizer had also cultivated relationships with service providers in Australia, one of which was David Cooper and Damien Tampling from Deloitte.
Damien was the guy that worked very hard to get the sale to Yahoo!7 through.
The notion of “flearning” (failing and learning)
We’ve made lots of mistakes, did a bunch of things the wrong way and had hundreds of ideas go nowhere and more than 10 businesses fail.
If it works, everyone is happy. If it doesn’t work, even with a good attitude to failure, there is disappointment and often anger. Why didn’t it work? Was it someone’s fault?
Pollenizer has an approach and we have some lessons but it’s one of 1,000 ways you can start a company and it’s no guarantee to make something work.
This has been hard to live through again and again, but it’s part of the game.
The need for constant change
We’ve changed every six months. We are constantly pushing ourselves to make everything better.
It’s very hard to live like that, and I appreciate how difficult this makes life for the people we work with but it’s critical to the very survival of Pollenizer.
When we started it was near impossible to get good people to work on start-ups… We had to hire the team, pay them okay salaries, try to train and support them as best we could and make it work. Five years on and the ecosystem has changed massively.
Start-ups are more understood. We’ve had some wins, more champions, the events are working, some good people are working hard at universities to make start-ups a career path. You can find great people who are up for the risk.
So we’ve refined the model again.
The one thing that has always remained is that we will do a large amount of work on a small amount of businesses and do everything in our power to make it a success.