Simplification, Superheroes and Schumacher: Tim Fung, Founder and CEO at Airtasker

airtasker

Tim Fung is CEO and Founder at Airtasker.

Airtasker is a online job outsourcing marketplace where anyone can outsource tasks to local people looking to earn money and ready to work. From founding in 2012, the company has built scale quickly, now creating over $6m of work each month. The company recently hit the accelerator with a $22 million series B round, led by Seven West Media.

Some of the highlights of the interview with Tim:

  • Why Michael Schumacher is a management idol for Tim “He was able to surround himself with the best people” (Video from 4:10)
  • Why the values of Airtasker are represented through Superheroes: “for get more done we’ve got Nick Cage because he never turns down a movie script. He’s always getting more done. He makes a lot of movies.” (Video from 10:30)
  • Why Tim is so focused on simplifying management decisions: “The priority is speed and the priority is moving forward” (Video from 12:30)
  • How Tim filters management advice: “you should just hear lots of anecdotal evidence about how people have managed certain situations and then try and frame that into your own situation and apply it” (Video from 22:08)

The video:

The transcript:

Steve Pell: Hi, I’m Steve Pell from Management Disrupted. I’m here with Tim Fung from Airtasker, who is CEO and Founder. If you can start off by telling us a little bit about your business and where it’s come from?

Tim Fung: Sure, thanks Steve. Airtasker is an online and mobile marketplace. We connect people and small businesses, and now big companies too, with a workforce of over 650,000 people across Australia who can help you with tasks. They can be anything from simple things like cleaning and gardening and handyman jobs to small businesses that need help with photography, website design, office administration. We go all the way up to bigger companies who want to get a scalable workforce that they can have on demand.

Steve Pell: Very much the future of work right here?

Tim Fung: Hopefully.

Steve Pell: Where has the business come from? When did you start it and how has it grown?

Tim Fung: We started Airtasker, my cofounder Jonathon and I, in 2012. It’s been around for about four and a half years now. The reason why we started the business was because I was moving apartments in 2011. We had lots of stuff that you have to do when you move apartments and that’s things like building IKEA furniture, it’s packing boxes, cleaning up, cleaning the place you’re going in to, waiting for the Foxtel guy, all this kind of stuff.

I asked one of my mates, Ivan, to come over and help me do that because he owns a truck. He runs a Chicken Chippies factory so he’s got a truck that he uses to do deliveries. I said, “Come over and help me do all this stuff,” and he graciously did that. But after he’d worked for the whole weekend doing all this stuff for me he was like, “That’s the fourth time I’ve been asked in recent months to help people move because I own this truck. It’s really annoying because I’m a business owner. I’m really busy. Yet people always ask me to help them move.”

What we realised is there are all these people across Australia who want to be doing more work. Why are we not giving them the jobs yet asking people who don’t want to do the jobs to do them? The reason we sort of found out was because you just don’t trust those people to come into your house and do those jobs with you. We thought we’d try and create that environment where people could work with each other in a trusted way.

Steve Pell: You’ve told that story a few times I take it?

Tim Fung: Yes.

Steve Pell: We’re here today to talk about management and the business as it has grown to be. How many people are sitting out here now?

Tim Fung: We have about 40 people in the business right now.

Steve Pell: And that’s grown quite fast?

Tim Fung: Yes, this time last year I think we were about 15. It’s probably two and a bit times but we definitely don’t take pride in just hiring people for the sake of hiring people. We’ve definitely got the mantra of ‘hire slow and fire fast’.

Steve Pell: Let’s talk about your personal management style. How would your employees describe you as a manager?

Tim Fung: I would hope that they say I’m big on setting quite broad goals for people and then letting them attack that problem on their own. Certainly checking in with them every now and then to make sure that’s happening. Most of my team, I check in with them once a week.

Other than that, I’m setting big goals for them, checking in once a week just to make sure it’s heading in the right direction. I try not to micro manage although I’ve got my opinions on stuff.

Steve Pell: Where did your approach to management come from? Who’s been the most influential person and why?

Tim Fung: In terms of big picture, I like to look at the guys like the Schumacher’s and Steve Jobs and people that have set up big teams and been super successful.

At a pragmatic level, I worked with a guy named Rolf Hanson when I was working at Amaysim. I was essentially his assistant for many years. What I noticed was he was really, really good at not trying to drive in that really annoying hard way. He was really good at letting people make mistakes, give them room but just setting the big picture goals and then letting them run at it.

Steve Pell: It’s the first time I’ve heard Michael Schumacher come up in a management context. What have you learnt from Michael Schumacher about management?

Tim Fung: I think he was a guy who just surrounded himself with the best people in the game. For those who watch Formula 1 or are into the politics of it, basically you’d see great people join other teams and then suddenly the next year they’d be working for Michael Schumacher’s team and he’s probably paying them three times as much.

He was able to surround himself with the best people and I think that was critical to his success because he was like, “If something is wrong in my car, I’m not going to be able to be successful at what I do.” He just built an awesome management team around him, a bunch of experts who were able to do their part to make sure he was faster.

Steve Pell: Let’s talk about perhaps the worst management mistake that you’ve ever made personally?

Tim Fung: I think that’s actually really easy because there’s one that stands out really, really clearly. There was a time I remember when we were at a really early stage in the business and myself and Jono were doing long, long hours, probably 14 hours a day in the office, just nonstop going for it. Some of our staff would go home at 5:30 or 6:00 and actually when you think about that objectively, that’s totally fine. I think that’s normal in any job. If you’ve got something on, you have to leave a bit earlier, that should be totally fine.

But when we were doing 14 hour days we were like, “Hey, that’s really bad. How come these guys aren’t putting in the same amount of hours we are?” I remember actually writing an email saying like, “Hey guys, we expect that you’re in the office from this hour to this hour.” It was taken really, really badly. Now that I look at that, if I was an employee too, I think I would be like, “Yes, that’s a bit douchey,” in the kind of industry that we’re in, which is a very creative and intellectual business.

It’s crazy to be judging people on hours they work. You should definitely be judging people on the output they create or the effort they put in. So sending out that email was definitely one of the biggest mistakes we made. I think we probably lost a couple of team members because of that. I wouldn’t make that same mistake again.

Steve Pell: What did you learn from that personally?

Tim Fung: I think it would be that you can’t try and solve every problem in a really, really direct manner. If you see that people are going home early and they could maybe be working harder or putting in more time, trying to solve that by saying, “You will stay in the office longer and do more time,” is a really unsophisticated way to solve that problem.

What it really told us is about culture and motivation. You need to make people want to be in the office putting in those extra miles. That was something we weren’t very good at in the early stage of the business. We weren’t really giving people a sense of inspiration and making them want to do something. Basically forcing people to do stuff is the worst way you can get anyone to do something.

Steve Pell: How far out are you planning at the moment? 

Tim Fung: I actually quite consciously write this down. We’re looking at we need to get a return on something within 18 months. If we’re going to go and invest in a market platform like Salesforce or Marketo, that’s cool, it might be 100k to invest in that now but you must get that money back within 18 months, which is quite different to where we were a year ago which would be more like three months. You can invest $100 into Google ads, you must get $100 back within three months. Now it’s a little wider.

Steve Pell: Do you think about a five or ten year horizon for this business, where you’re going to be?

Tim Fung: I think you need to keep that in the back of your head and everything should just be naturally fitting into that. If I try to summarise how as a manager we do that, it’s to have one thing as a vision or a philosophy or a principle and never deviate from that. You can be agile all around that and be chopping and changing what you’re doing but if it’s all underpinned by some singular vision/principle/philosophy then it’s okay, because all those things should consistently be working towards that goal.

For us, we want to create a transparent, open, short term local marketplace. Now that we’ve communicated that to our team, everybody knows that, everything that we’re doing somehow should contribute to that.

Steve Pell: Yes, so everyone in the organisation knows and feels that on a daily basis…

Tim Fung: Yes, I think that’s really important that you have some things that are rock solid. It’s important to be agile but if you’re agile to the extent that everyday you’re chopping and changing your framework for making decisions, then it’s just a bit weird. It’s like, “Well, do you actually know where we’re going?” Whereas I think if you say, “We’re going over there. We can chop and change anyway we want but we’ll just end up back over there,” that’s important.

Steve Pell: You talked about wanting to see a return within 18 months on any decision you make. You talked about it aligning to a long term vision of five or ten years. Are there any kinds of short term principles or values that any decision needs to sit inside?

Tim Fung: Well, we certainly have our culture and values across the company. Not all of those are quantitative KPI type stuff. For example, one of those would be empathy. We’re working in a marketplace model. By virtue of that, we have to create a model which creates empathy between people. Because if you’re a cold blooded guy, you just want to extract the most from the other person on the marketplace, it’s going to be really bad.

We do have these sorts of pillars that we use to make every decision. But I think right now we are still a start-up. The great thing about that is we’re very much still a tribe. As we hire people into the business, we align them to the vision and by doing that we generally have people going in the right direction.

Steve Pell: Fantastic. Very culturally driven…

Tim Fung: Yes, I wouldn’t say that’s something that we focused on in the early, early days. A lot of people say they do. I can say pretty clearly that we didn’t but we’ve realised that as you sort of pass that 15-20 people mark, you start having to because you can’t communicate in such a personable way anymore. You’re not seeing every single person every single day so you need to have more of a way of disseminating the values of the company.

Steve Pell: If we look all the way down the back of the office, are they the values up there on the posters?

Tim Fung: Yes, that’s right. Only in the last six months or so, so four years into the business, we sat down and did a cultural workshop. We articulated what those values are and then drove them back into the company. Actually, one of the things we did to make sure those values are actually taken seriously and they’re not just like 10 commandments that people struggle to remember is we all voted democratically on who our theoretical brand ambassadors would be for each of those values.

For example, for Play Hard we’ve got Dominic Toretto, Vin Diesel, from Fast and Furious or for Get More Done we’ve got Nick Cage because he never turns down a movie script. He’s always getting more done. He makes a lot of movies.

Steve Pell: This is really interesting because a lot of people in marketing will have customer personas up on the wall. But when you think about HR and culture, there’s typically no personas to make these concepts more tangible. Very interesting insight because it does make it very real, very tangible. Who else is up there?

Tim Fung: I say jokingly that I was really disappointed in the team. Actually, the team was really disappointed themselves when we came to the vote and saw who won. Everyone was like, “I sort of voted for that guy as a joke,” but it actually came true. We have Captain Planet of the Planeteers, if you’re familiar in the ’90s. We have the donkey from Shrek.

Steve Pell: What value is Captain Planet?

Tim Fung: That’s to Stay Open. It’s all about looking at other opportunities. I guess the connection there is not as nice as it is with Nick Cage but we’ve got a good selection of people.

Steve Pell: It’s nice. I really like that. I really like that approach. I think it makes it very memorable, I’m sure a lot of people I’m sure can’t even name one company value. It gives you a good head start there.

Let’s flash forward 10 years. You’ve had a massive success with Airtasker. The business has shot the lights out with a huge IPO.  You’ve written a book on management. What’s that book going to be called?

Tim Fung: I think it would be called ‘Simplifying Your Management Decisions’. I’d say the key thing we have done well is we have not always thought about things in such a complex framework.

The priority is speed and the priority is moving forward. In order to be able to do that, you get as much information as you can within a certain context and then you run forward and you go and execute on that. You specifically do not look back for the next x number of periods or the x number of days, and then you do it again. You just keep iterating on that process.

I’d say the really sad thing is a lot of the smart people I meet don’t get things done because there’s just way too much thinking. When you think about most of those things, they’re about risk management. Most people are weighting failure or weighting a lack of success far too high on the list of priorities versus the opportunity to just move forward to get a result.

Steve Pell: You talked earlier about hiring slow and firing very fast. How does this action bias, that you’re talking about here,  fit into your approach to hiring?

Tim Fung: I think that hiring slow and firing fast just means being really selective on the people that you hire and quickly removing people if they’re not a fit. That becomes much clearer when you define the value set because you can say, “Hey, you really don’t fit into that. That’s why you’re not a fit.” I think that that’s not contrary to moving fast, because moving as fast as you can is all about simplifying the decision framework.

One of those constraints is resources. For example, if you know you only have three people in your team, you can’t say “Hmm, what could we do if we had eight people in the team,” or “Should we actually only have two people in the team?” No,  we have three people in the team. That’s the box. Therefore, there’s my inputs. That’s what I have to work with. What’s the best I can do with that?

Steve Pell: You’ve spoken before about the challenges of managing scale and quality at the same time. How are you balancing that in your role at the moment?

Tim Fung: Within the marketplace of Airtasker, I think there are a lot of analogies to the company itself. We manage Airtasker, the community, by transparency and openness. We don’t say, “Hey, this guy is really good and this guy is really bad just because.” We just expose the information. We go, “This guy’s done 10 jobs and gotten 10 five star ratings. This person has done four jobs and has three one star ratings. There you go. That’s the information. Work from that.”

I think that has a very clear analogy into our business too which is if you’re open and transparent about what your goals are, you can actually really let people run free and go and achieve the set of goals that are required to reach the big goal.

Steve Pell: It’s interesting you talk about the analogy between the product and the business. It comes up a lot in these interviews when CEOs start talking about the parallels between the way they design a product and the way they design their organisation. Are there other parallels that you can see between your organisation and your product?

Tim Fung: That’s probably the biggest one and that’s our fundamental tenet across everything is we don’t try and control things via actual control and process. We don’t sit over people’s shoulders and say, “Hey, move that box to the left a little bit. Move that down a little bit.”

We’re more like, “We need this to conform to a style guide so we’ll let the design lead, set up a style guide and everyone can go and work off that.”

Steve Pell: How do you communicate as a CEO to the organisation? 

Tim Fung: We’ve really tried to scale back on some of the meetings actually and not have such big meetings. When you’re working on products, it’s very easy to say that you’re going to be transparent, so you invite everyone to every meeting and send every email to every person. I actually think that’s like the worst thing you can do because if you’re sending everything, you may as well send nothing. Because you’re never going to be able to read everything. We try to tone that down.

We have like a weekly huddle. The whole team gets together and we have a session then. We also have like a steering committee. We’ve got the most senior guys in the business will sit down once a fortnight and just go through an update to make sure that cross collaboration is happening.

One thing that’s really good is about four or five months ago, someone just said, “While we’re having beers on a Friday afternoon, why don’t we just do a little huddle then because everyone is totally relaxed having a beer and you’re going to talk about different things than you would on a Monday morning.” We started doing that, having little huddles on a Friday afternoon with a beer, specifically designed to not talk about the cold blooded work side of things.

What we added to that was an AMA, an Ask Me Anything session, so once a week, someone will get up and you can basically drill them on anything related to work or not. A classic question is, “Do you have any tattoos? Where are they? What do they say?” I think that’s actually really good to get people to know other people in the company.

Steve Pell: How do you manage yourself?

Tim Fung: I think this one is really, really hard when you’re in that phase in between being a big company with PAs and team executives and 2ICs, but still having lots on. I think, for me, the main thing is I like to keep my mind really clear all the time. The only way I can do that is to write everything down, whether it’s email, Evernote or Trello. I use Evernote for meetings and Trello for managing all my tasks.

I think if I didn’t have something like that to sort of export the minutiae of what needed to be done, it’d be really bad because you’e thinking about all of these smaller things. I really try to outsource them to a list and then when I’ve got time, I go and tick them all off.

Steve Pell: How do you measure your own performance once you get away from the board driven metrics?

Tim Fung: I would say one thing is trying to open yourself up to criticism from people and not to make that weird. I think if you look at a lot of people, they’re sort of setting up situations so that it’s less likely they’re going to get negative feedback. I try to make myself quite exposed to that.

Whilst being a CEO, you should try and garner respect from people, you should also allow them to say, “That’s a shit idea,” if it is a bad idea. I measure myself by talking to people as much as I can and when they say stuff, try to actually listen to that and take it on board.

Steve Pell: How have you set up that environment where it’s okay for someone to tell you it’s a shit idea?

Tim Fung: I think that’s just purely cultural. It’s those little things like the way you talk to people. You don’t shut down an idea really quickly. I think it’s a really good thing to make a big fool of yourself sometimes. Not to try and be like, “I’m a superior, smarter person than you.”

I don’t think that’s what the CEO is at all. You’re actually just a facilitator of someone else being able to do something well. I think, again, a lot of CEOs set it up so that it’s like, “I’m always right,” and, “People will look up to me.” I don’t think that’s going to create a very good environment for you to be able to receive genuine feedback from people. You’re not going to hear that your ideas suck or that you’re not doing things in a good way. I always try to have a good conversation with people.

Steve Pell: So be vulnerable?

Tim Fung: Yes, I think that’s important. Certainly being a little vulnerable is a good thing to make sure that you hear a mix of feedback: positive and negative.

Steve Pell: If we go back to perhaps some other organisations you’ve worked at or even just things you’ve seen in the press, what do you think is the worst piece of common management advice that you’ll see bandied around?

Tim Fung: That’s really hard. I actually would say I’m not big on any kind of management advice which is a direct function or actually a process that someone is telling you to do. I’ve talked to a lot of people about this but I really believe that you should just hear lots of anecdotal evidence about how people have managed certain situations and then try and frame that into your own situation and apply it in that way.

I think it’s really bad if someone says, “Best CEO will always wear a black tie and come to work and tick off the first 10 emails in his inbox.” You’re kind of like, “Well, that might be good for you if email is really important and what you wear is really important. It’s totally not important for my business.” I actually think management advice is fine but I think it’s really up to the individual to synthesize it and apply it to their own thoughts.

Steve Pell: Tim, one last question. If you go back to day one of Airtasker, what do you know now that you wish you knew back then?

Tim Fung: Wow. I have been asked this question before in terms of what would you tell your younger self and I don’t actually have a lot to say to my younger self. The reason for that is I’m kind of like a ‘just move forward’ kind of guy. I think if you told yourself to do things in a certain way back then, you probably would have made other mistakes and you’d have to learn from those in a different way, if that makes sense?

The only thing I would probably say is, “Try to enjoy the journey along the way.” There is no end outcome. You’re not working towards something and then at some point you go, “Done it. I’m out.” You should enjoy it along the way.

Steve Pell: So you wouldn’t go back and tell yourself not to send that email?

Tim Fung: I think I learned from that. I really did. Maybe I’m just an eternal optimist. I think about it and cringe a little now but if I hadn’t sent that I’d probably be doing a bunch of other douchey management faux pas. By sending the email, it actually shook me up and it was like, “Okay, don’t do that again.”

Steve Pell: Fantastic. Tim, thank you so much.

Tim Fung: Cheers mate. Thanks so much.

— This transcript has been modified slightly for readability —