He was one of the first employees at NZ tech icons TradeMe, Xero and Vend. He’s just started his first company since the ‘90s. So why does Rowan Simpson want out already?
The itch started in Cuba. Rowan Simpson was in the midst of a yearlong trip around the world with his still-young family when the idea that would eventually become OneMetric crystalised in his mind. It had been a germ for decades, this frustration with communicating data within and without of organisations. The state of the art is still, unbelievably, spreadsheets at one end and PDFs at the other.
Until that point, Simpson knew it was a problem, but hadn’t lit upon a solution. On that August day, trapped inside by the stinking heat and tropical downpours, it hit him. A dashboard drawing on live feeds from all your various sources, from accounts to web analytics to customer churn. Anyone with access could view all the data in one place, and thus understand what was and wasn’t working for their organisation. Which numbers really mattered, and which were just distractions.
As an investor in multiple startups, Simpson was familiar with “companies going quiet,” he says, “how that’s such a negative tell”. He also knew from his time at three of the most iconic New Zealand tech startups in TradeMe, Xero and Vend, that it was easy for people within companies to miss opportunities and important correlations if they didn’t have their eye on them.
For Simpson, it was less that he wanted to make it, than he wanted to use it. “You see something that you really want to exist in the world, and it doesn’t exist,” he says. “So you either wait for someone else to build it, or you build it yourself.”
The itch had to be scratched. But for nine months, he built precisely nothing.
OneMetric is the second true startup that Simpson himself has founded. The first came 20 years ago, in the form of Flathunt.co.nz. He was working for consultants Andersen (now Accenture), and traveling frequently between Australia and New Zealand. Domain had launched in Australia, a giant online property portal recently bought by Channel 9, part of a deal for a range of media assets, including Stuff. Not long out of Victoria University, where he’d first acquired an interest in computers and coding, he remembered flatting, and the struggle to find a home. “I was looking for something to build, really,” he says, and he “basically wrote Flathunt in the Qantas lounge” going back and forth between Wellington and Sydney.
The idea was to connect people looking for flats with listings paid for by property managers, to fill a hole in the early online market. He had some savings, and resigned to go all in on the venture. It wasn’t a decision well-received by those around him. “One of the partners at the company I was working with literally told me I was throwing my career away, to my face.” Six weeks after its launch, Simpson gave an interview to Tom Pullar-Strecker – now a senior business reporter at Stuff – in which he confidently repeated the then-gospel of the nascent web. “The internet works best when it’s free.”
At the time Flathunt had 100 advertisements and “400-500 visitors a week”. He got it to a stage where it was covering its own costs, but not paying a wage, and he supplemented his income with development work for a variety of private clients. One was a tiny online classifieds site which would, in time, change his life and eventually shake multiple industries in New Zealand to their core.
The original TradeMe gang
TradeMe contracted Simpson three days a week, allowing him to keep doing Flathunt on the side. When he joined, he was the first person to work for TradeMe whose surname wasn’t Morgan. It was just the three of them: Simpson, Sam Morgan, and his sister Jessi running operations, a crucial and under-appreciated part of the company’s culture and success.
The fourth key element came not long after, when Nigel Stanford was recruited. Both Stanford and Simpson were essentially acquired, when Flathunt and Stanford’s Find Someone were bought in exchange for shares in TradeMe.
There were only 10,000 members when they came together. “So it was still tiny,” says Simpson. “But we were growing fast.” TradeMe was at the start of an extraordinary period which would see it upend the business of classified advertising of small goods, fundamentally altering the economics of newspapers and, eventually the real estate and secondhand car markets.
Yet while hindsight makes success seem inevitable, Simpson well remembers that whole core moving to London in the early 00s, essentially thinking the company was finished. One of the last things he did before he left was move TradeMe from open email addresses to usernames, thus locking users in the system, then turn on success fees, where before it had relied on advertising for revenue.
From there revenue finally started to tag along with its explosive user growth. It also saw well-funded challengers rise in NZoom and Ferrit. The latter was owned by Spark and phenomenally aggressive, its commercials saturating television, and helping fund TradeMe too. “We took their money to run their ads,” says Simpson. “Because that was sort of our arrogance at the time.”
Along with the financial milestones, there were other moments which stuck in his head as markers of major progress for the company. One, ironically, was a news item about fraud on the platform. This should have been terrifying – John Campbell crusading against your business on the 6pm news. But it was notable for an entirely different reason to Simpson, recently returned home.
“I remember thinking ‘He didn’t even say what that was!’ He can just say Trademe now, and people know what that is.”
Soon the whole country would know its name, and in time, all the first four would go on to be given huge paydays when the company was sold to Fairfax in 2006. But by then Simpson had already moved on.
Xero and Vend, up close
While he was there from the scrappy beginnings of TradeMe, accounting software giant Xero was a different animal. When he arrived, there were 20 or so employees, and it was a far more professional operation.
“Xero was just completely different,” says Simpson. “The ambition was so much greater, and the reality was so much less, if that makes sense. We IPOed with 100 paying customers. And a good chunk of those were us.”
Simpson burned out fast on Xero, but it its success freed him up to work on projects and with people whose sensibilities appealed to him. Online payments platform Vend was different again, cementing the lesson that there is not a formula for a startup business, that they’re molded around those who create them.
“That’s why companies end up being associated with individuals so much. Because the trajectory that they’re on, from the beginning, is often set by that person, or those people.”
Hoku and Havana Dingus
Out the other side of Vend he found himself in an invidious position, financially successful, still young, able to choose what came next with an extremely rare freedom. With a few detours on the way, that eventually became Hoku, a family office and investment vehicle targeting the same kind of startups which had nurtured and rewarded him.
Once that was established, he took a year off to travel with his family, paying back the debt of the long hours accumulated over the previous 15 years. Partway through it came Cuba, and the seed of his next venture. It was initially known as Havana Dingus, a name which reads porny but is perfectly innocent, according to Simpson.
“At Southgate Labs, all of our product code names were something dingus. And people think that that’s kind of dirty, but actually, dingus just means something that hasn’t been named yet.”
That something became OneMetric. He built it in fits and starts, at times struggling for motivation, before committing himself fully toward the end of 2018. It finally launched in June, just shy of three years after it first hit him.
The marketing tagline is ‘We’re trying to keep people talking about the numbers that matter’. “I’ve been lucky enough to be part of these companies that are quite numbers led. Fact-based, you might say.” Simpson views an obsession with your data and trying to understand its meaning as a defining characteristic of firms which make the leap.
“Collecting your numbers in one place. Sharing them. Asking for feedback. There’s nothing technically difficult about any of those things, but there are real barriers. One of the barriers, we discovered, is spreadsheets.
“I’m comfortable with a spreadsheet, but most people hate spreadsheets. They have a physical reaction to them. Then there’s a psychological barrier as well, which is people are always reluctant to share. Their spreadsheet’s a bit of a mess, the numbers aren’t what they’d hoped, and so they don’t want to share it.”
OneMetric’s idea is that if the numbers flow through in feeds, and the user experience is beautiful, numbers and their progress over time will naturally become a focus for those running an entity. Not just businesses – Simpson believes there is a larger market for his product than the relatively niche world of investors and startups.
“There’s a much broader set of people who need to share their numbers. Everybody from sports teams to not-for-profits. Even one of the random ideas we’ve had is public companies who share their data. The gold standard way for a public company to share data is in a PDF, once every six months.”
The end of occasional PDFs and spreadsheets as the dominant transmission devices for snapshots of organisational data is a goal which is global in its potential. It also sounds like a phenomenal amount of work, requiring the kind of abject dedication with which Simpson is familiar with through most of his previous ventures. It also sounds exhausting, especially if you don’t have a major financial driver.
This is, in part, why running OneMetric is a job he’s not interested in doing for any length of time.
The reluctant CEO
“I don’t actually want another start up,” says Simpson. “It’s kind of the last thing that I want, and that’s part of the reason why this has taken so long to launch, is because I’ve been massively distracted through the process of building it, by all the other things that I do want to focus on.”
Simpson remains deeply committed to the business. But he sees his ideal role as a head of product or chairperson, rather than the day-to-day CEO.
“It’s a bit of a strange scenario, because the typical pattern is you have a founder who has a product idea, and then goes looking for investment. And in this case, you’ve got an investor who has an idea and builds it, and goes looking for a founder.”
“It’s kind of backwards.”
The launch has gone very well, with hundreds of customers signed up and the right people asking the right questions. Despite his being a veteran of a number of successful startups, the learning curve has been steep.
“We were just number two on Product Hunt on Friday, US time. That site is newer than the last venture I started. It didn’t exist as a way to launch something then. But now it’s been a big part of our launch story.”
For now he’s still excited to be at the wheel, and the transition to a still-unknown future CEO can wait. It’s still unclear whether OneMetric will explode and grow into another name in the pantheon, alongside Xero, TradeMe and Vend. Or simply be a curiosity which Simpson always wanted and willed into the world. Either way, 20 years after his first startup, Simpson is likely to remain a key presence in New Zealand’s tech community.
“I’m not good enough at golf, basically,” he says. “So I’m going to keep working on stuff.”
The Spinoff’s business section is enabled by our friends at Kiwibank. Kiwibank backs small to medium businesses, social enterprises and Kiwis who innovate to make good things happen.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.