Podcast

Scaling Up [S3.E1]: Enterprise Software in Your Pocket with Luke Anear, CEO and Founder of Safety Culture

From Microsoft Word to unicorn, learn how Luke built the technology platform enabling safer working environments across the globe.

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Ed (02:25): Luke, welcome to Scaling Up. The Safety Culture story is one of my favorites, worldwide. It’s a story for the ages. In essence, the Safety Culture story is your story, and it’s a story embedded in deep ambition. And to me it’s a beacon of what can happen when ambition meets talent and opportunity. But like all founding stories, they are much better told from the mouths of those who lived and breathed them. So over to you.

Luke (02:56): Yeah, thanks, Ed. And it’s nice to be here. Thanks for having me on. The Safety Culture story really has a couple of different parts to it, I guess. But the initial catalyst was when I was working as a private investigator my job was to spy on people who had been injured at work or had put an insurance claim in, and I was working for the insurance companies sitting in the backseat of a car filming or photographing, whatever those people did in a day. And it really was my childhood dream. I get to follow people around and incognito. No one knows who you are. It’s pretty cool, it’s fun job. But at some point, when I was sitting in the backseat of the car daydreaming one day waiting for someone to come out and do something, it occurred to me that I really needed people to get injured or put a claim in for me to be able to get up and go to work.

That’s what my job depended on. I kind of felt I’m really part of the problem here. I’m not part of the solution to this. I’m relying on the problem to exist. when I started thinking around the two and a half thousand claims that I’d been involved in, I thought all of these were preventable in hindsight. No one goes to work and wants to get injured and the whole compensation system and getting paid if you get injured, that’s not a good path for anyone. It never goes well for them. I thought, okay, if I could help train people provide some training documentation for employers that would be a good place to start and help them solve this problem. That’s how Safety Culture originally started, was providing training documents for employers.

I’d pay like former government inspectors 800 or a thousand dollars to write a document on how to work on the roof of a building or how to dig up a road in the street. And I then take that document and sell it online as a Microsoft Word document for $80, which brought the cost down for everyone. And I sold quite a few millions of dollars’ worth of Microsoft Word Docs and had a pretty good lifestyle sort of business only in the end with one and a half staff. I had 25 staff at one point that were telemarketers and then brought it all back and we ended up with just a couple of people and it was a great business. But I guess I got restless and wanted to do more and then it sort of goes on from there.

Ed (05:15): We’ll touch on where this business goes. You were the star of a documentary called The New Hustle that really documented these founding years. And not only your journey, but Mel at Canva and the Vinomofo crowd. It’s just an absolute pulsing anthem to entrepreneurship. And there’s this quote that stands out for me in anyone that hasn’t seen it. You can see it on YouTube and it’s just an absolute must, but if I work for someone else, there’d be limits and I didn’t want limits. Is that how you felt at the time?

Luke (05:48): Yeah, I think so. I think it’s been my personality. I’ve never been one to operate within limits that just put there because that’s how we’ve always done it. I’m always one to question and have that curiosity as to why can’t we do that or why can’t we do more? And I think that always came through. And the New Hustle, I guess tells the story of the three founders, not just Safety Culture, but Canva and Vinomofo. And I think it, it’s a good example of the why behind these companies and why they were started. And the director, Patrick Morro, he wanted to tell sort of my story for a while. He’d asked me for a few years, I’d been working with him on different projects, and I used to be a videographer for Tony Robbins for years as well.

So, I’d done a bunch of film stuff even back further. I used to do stuff for Channel nine in Sydney. And I kind of got to a point where Cliff and Mel and myself and that were running around telling these stories when we could, but it was never reaching enough people. And when Patrick said, hey, I want to tell your story, I always felt funny about doing a story about us. I just thought there were much more interesting stories to tell than mine. But when we meant to Sydney Safety Culture had no employer brand, no one knew any, anything about Safety Culture and we’re trying to hire engineers. We’d spent I think over 500 grand on recruiters in the first year were there. And that’s when I occurred to me, I thought, there’s a smarter way to tell this story on mass. I said to Patrick, all right, you can tell the story now. the new Hustle was originally three episodes and it ended up, we crammed it back into 1 53-minute episode because it became a bigger and bigger production. But yeah, over 400,000 people I think have watched it now. And it was on in-flight TV on Qantas and all those. So, it’s been well received. It’s been a lot of fun.

Ed (07:32): Emotive, eye opening, just as I said, a must watch, but it’s an interesting example and leads me to probably the next theme I want to explore, but this one-to-many strategy of attracting talent. Just a fascinating way of taking it, but I guess as a non-technical founder, you’ve built a deeply technical software business that would have its advantages and disadvantages, and I’m sure that you’re acutely aware of both. Let’s start with maybe the macro advantage, and that is people who live in the world of software see software as the only solution to me as this visionary found you’ve always seen different ways of solving problems, whether it’s software, whether it’s hardware, whether it’s the integration of those two together. What other advantages have you found as someone who’s from outside the engineering world starting a software business?

Luke (08:25): Yeah, I think it’s really the problem-solving mindset is probably the key. Sometimes we hear about a skill shortage, and I don’t believe there ever is a skill shortage. There may be temporary skill shortages, but skill shortages are never a reason to not be able to solve a problem. You can either learn the skills you need to learn, or you can hire the skills that you don’t have. And I think a lot of people get fixated with what they can do, and their skill set today and therefore they’re limited by that. And I never really had that approach. I did a bit of python coding for a while early on and realized that’s this going to take me far too long to figure out and be able to.

Ed (09:02): Didn’t want to diss your technical skills, by calling you a non-technical founder. But compared to some.

Luke (09:06): No, it’s a fair call. I had none and still don’t. But I think being able to get great people who could help us think really smart about solving this problem, it’s a global challenge we took on. We’re helping teams do their best work each day and it’s not just safety, but it’s quality. It’s how they deliver their product or service consistently. And I think as you go along the journey and you tell the story about what you’re here to do, it brings in more people who want to help you and then the skills come. For me, it wasn’t a question of not having certain skills and therefore not being able to do something. It was a question of knowing what skills you do have and then making sure you find the skills that you don’t have. And I think that’s the key, being self-aware enough to know that there’s some things we’re all really good at and there’s some things we just suck at. And it’s important to know both where our skills fall.

Ed (09:58): It relates to what we were talking about earlier with the new hustle and attracting talent. But how did even in those early days and without a technical co-founder, not just who to employ, but when to employ certain people as your business was growing even in those early days?

Luke (10:15): Yeah, I think it’s just solving the next problem each step of the way. I tried to build some software with people earlier in 2007, which was five years before I ordered it came out. We tried to build a training platform and it was just terrible. And then in 2010, build a document management platform and that was terrible as well. There wasn’t from a lack of trying, but when I met Alan, who was an engineer that had dropped out of uni at James Cook in Townsville he got it, and he was the right person for that stage of the company and has grown with the company ever since up till today. But I think I was a bit lucky I met Alan who was willing to have a crack and have the battles that we needed to have.

I think these ideas come from a back and forth, it’s Steve Jobs called it the rock tumble, or the old guy down the street used to put rocks in a barrel and turn them around and they’d come out smooth. I think that’s the battle of ideas. You want a company to be led by ideas, not hierarchy. And I think these are the key things that if you can allow teams and people to have spirited debates respectfully, then you can usually form a strategy or an outcome that you wouldn’t have got to just with one or two people on their own.

Ed (11:30): Yeah, it’s something that I might touch on a bit later, but I do want to ask you, and maybe it’s a good time to talk about it, visionary founder, a high amounts of innovation and creativity. But as you’ve grown you, I’m sure there have been times when you’ve had to balance this innovation from a top down to actually really encourage people from that bottom up to make sure that that innovation is being fostered across the company, not just through the eyes of the founder.

Luke (11:55): Yeah, I think that is a challenge that just gets harder as you get bigger. We’re 455 people today and I think, yeah, that’s probably our number one risk is you grow into a big company that stops innovating. When you think of other great companies that have continued to scale, a lot of them do it through acquisition, not necessarily through innovation. I think it’s a really tough discipline. Apple did it quite well, particularly when Steve Jobs came back for his second stint. Tesla do it extremely well, but there’s not a lot of companies that purely just innovate a lot of them. You think of products that we use every day, Google Maps that was acquired Siri that was acquired when the company was called Siri. It was a couple of guys who had a voice recognition product.

There’s a time to innovate and have that throughout the whole company. And then there’s probably stages where you have to acquire some of the capabilities you don’t have. So the innovation part’s tough, but you got to prioritize for it and go after it. And I think like professional CEOs probably struggle with that more, where it’s more of a conservative approach. It’s quarterly earnings and things like that, whereas founders are probably more likely to take bigger risks and go after things that may spectacularly fail and that’s part of innovation. So yeah.

Ed (13:18): And as you’ve grown and the increasingly, there’s always going to be more professional leaders rather than startup style people in your organization, and that’s probably something that you’ve had to balance as well.

Luke (13:29): Yeah, I think so. You, you need different skills for different stages and maintaining that balance where you can run fast and have a flat structure where people can be empowered to be able to move is the key. I think that’s one of the things that large corporates struggle with because there’s so much red tape and so maintaining a fairly flat structure, having small teams empowered to go and execute is I think the ideal. But yeah, it’s tricky. Got a lot of people, a lot of dependencies and it’s a daily battle. I think that’s probably the battle that I have today more so back in the early days it was a battle of an idea about should we do it this way? Should we do it that way? Now it’s more a battle of between removing the obstacles, removing the barriers so that people can run and execute on not only the company vision but their vision that they’ve developed within it. Well

Ed (14:17): Well said. I know we’ve been jumping around a bit here, so I’ll try and get us back on track. Maybe just to round out the founding story, you can let your guard down a little bit here. I’m sure there have been a whole bunch of pinch me moments, this idea through inception to scale. You are now servicing some of the biggest companies in the world doing critical jobs for them across every Amazon warehouse for instance. How does that feel? What are, maybe you can give an insight into the emotion of what you experience sometimes on a daily basis?

Luke (14:49): Yeah, it’s pretty amazing. I don’t probably experience the, I guess the magnitude of what you just described. I’m just focused on the next thing that we’re got to do. But it is nice you look back and you reflect, I think three months in, I think we had a goal to get 10,000 downloads in the first year because the first app that Alan and I made got about 70 downloads in three months. We went, let’s set a crazy goal 10,000 in a year and we got at that in a matter of weeks and then three months in an airline in South America told us that an updated broken part of the app and they could have all their planes grounded. That was kind of a moment, getting the first funding I met these two guys through Blackbird, Scott Barker and Mike Cannon Brooks.

They, they interviewed me for the investment because they were the main investors in the original Blackbird fund and I didn’t know who these guys were, I didn’t know what venture capital was. And all of a sudden, I started thinking, I think we’re meeting some pretty interesting people here that probably know a whole lot more about this stuff than I do. So that’s a sort of moment where you, you think, wow, this is actually perhaps starting to become something and you start seeing the belief in other people’s eyes as well around you where they’re looking at you going, No, no, this is real. We’re under something. I think it’s been a handful of those moments where you go through an experience and you come out the other side and you look at each other and you say, wow this is pretty special.

I don’t know that we’re going to be able to repeat all of this too easily. That’s happened. I think the biggest one was probably this year when we allowed the employees to participate in the funding round for the first time and sell down the stock. Anyone had been with us for three years or more could sell and just the messages and the photos and things of people hugging their families and sharing the news with their children and stuff that mom and dad will never have to owe the bank money again and things like that, like life changing amounts of money for people. That’s probably the proudest part I think because you got to take people on the journey and it’s a long journey so not everybody can go the full distance, but there’s a core team of people who have been there from the beginning. And then we add people every year that are will be the people I think that we look back a few years from now and say, wow, they’ve really had a massive impact. So, yeah, there’s lots of those moments for sure.

Ed (17:04): I can see the smile on your face talking about the liquidity that you provided for those employees. I think it’s worth sort of segueing into the business model itself and the business that you’ve scaled because for mine, if you were to ever build a SAS business, you’d build it the way that you built it. The product led growth that was highly scalable well before the term product led growth was, was even kind of banded around the investment world. You had no marketing team, everything was inbound really up until recently and this kind of playbook that we’ve seen play out through Atlassian and HubSpot, the consumerization of B2B software mobile first, is this how you thought it would play out or as you’ve kind of alluded as every problem has kind of come up, there’ve been little pivots at moments in time because as I said, if you were to ever do it from scratch, this is how you’d do it.

Luke (18:00): Yeah, I think looking back it’s easy to join the dots. You can say, oh well that’s obviously the way to do it. But when we started, we were a free app with no paid product. It was just a case of let’s see if people would actually use this thing. And once people started using iAuditor, then it was a case of, okay, how do we get money back for this? We’re going to have to come up with a way and it was $7, one time through the app store and you could unlock the Microsoft Word report feature. So instead of a pdf, you got a Word doc, and you could then manipulate it and they pay us $7. We didn’t know who they were because they buy it through the app store. So, when people say to you who was the very first customer say, I have no idea because it was through the app store, but that was it.

And then people would lose their device and say, where’s all this backed up to? Where’s your cloud? And we would say yeah, we don’t have a cloud. Then 12 months later we had a cloud, and it was $5 a month then and you could back up your data to the cloud and then people started working as a team and all of a sudden, we needed to give people the ability to access as a team and then people wanted to pull information out, so they needed an API. You kind of look back now and you can say, well, that’s how you do it. But I think what we probably got right was this freemium model that you can give people value without asking anything in return. And I think that’s the key.

You build a free user base that really love your product and they enjoy it, and then you give them opportunities to be able to get even more value and pay a relatively low price point. And I think that’s the model that’s changed from enterprise software where you pay for the pilot, it costs you $50,000 and it will run for three months and then our sales team will crunch you at the end of it and then get you to pay us a lot more money because we’ve proven the value to you. Like that old model I think has been replaced with this widely distributed capability thanks to the app store, you can put a product in there and it can be downloaded millions of times and you don’t have to do anything, you’re not even paying for the server. So, I think that’s what changed everything and that’s what allowed us to then build out that freemium model.

And I think today we’ve got to pull it back again. We’ve probably gone a bit far in regards to building out an inside sales team. We now do have that capability, but people are downloading the app now and getting a phone call within a couple of hours to see if they want to pay for it. We’ve probably gone, we’ve over optimized and I think that’s a lesson for us at the moment is you need to preserve that freemium funnel and continue to give people great value and don’t, don’t cherry pick too early in the funnel process.

Ed (20:31): If there are ever a wise word for founders listing. I think that is it. And now where you’re at, I imagine the vision has become so much clearer from the freemium iAuditor the land and expand into education training sensors. How did that crystallize as you grow as a business?

Luke (20:51): Well, there’s over 600 million checks a year done with iAuditor. So, every time someone physically goes and looks at something in the workplace that they want to know if it’s okay or not, that happens about 600 million times a year. As we started looking at what people were checking we could see things like fridge temperature coming up multiple times a day. In a supermarket, people would walk up to the fridge, and they would record the temperature of the, of the fridge. And we’ve now started to say, well, we can probably automate that for you. Instead of someone walking up and taking that recording, they’re not actually doing anything other than reading it. We can probably read it for you and then just tell you on your phone when there’s a problem. that’s how we ended up with the hardware sensors for temperature and humidity.

So anywhere that people store food, they have a responsibility to make sure that that’s stored within certain parameters in each part of the world. We’re now going further down that path of automating it, but to, to simplify it, there’s only three questions that we really answer for all our customers. And the first question is, what’s working well across my team? The second question is, what’s not working well? And the third question is, what do I need to do about it? So, everything that we do just comes back to those three questions. And our customers are distributed teams, they’re these teams that are working all around the world and we’re helping them answer those three questions every day.

Ed (22:28): When you think about growing your business and growth generally as you mentioned before there has been some venture capital into your business, but you’ve had a very conservative cash burn, highly capital efficient model, which has helped, but how have you thought about balancing growth and fueling the flames of growth as opposed to making sure that you are still optimizing the efficiency of the business?

Luke (22:54): Yeah, look, that’s probably just a reflection of myself more than anyone in going a bit slower than perhaps we could have. We’re a couple of kids in a garage in Townsville, and then you’ve got Blackbird and Mike Cannon Brooks and Scott Farquhar and these people leaning in saying, hey, we want to help you. So, we went and got an office, and we hired 30 people in three months and that was completely chaotic, and no one knew what they were doing. We’ve had to go through all those pains. Maybe if this was the second time round or something we would’ve been able to do it faster. But I’ve always maintained the mantra that we need to work with great people that we really enjoy spending time with and can learn from and to only ever raise as much capital as we can deploy reasonably deploy this stockpiling a heap of cash was never really the approach.

I think just my background in sort of small business was one where you just ran things fairly efficiently and we’ve tried to maintain that I think as we’ve built the business, but I think now’s the time as we get more and more experience in the team, we can place bigger bets. We’ve got a customer summit, which is open to the public, in November the keynote speakers Erin Brockovich, Captain Sully who landed on the Hudson, Scott Kelly, who has lived on the space station for a year talking about loneliness and those sorts of things. John McEvoy, who was an arm robber from the UK and now is a Nike sponsored triathlete, just phenomenal people. And we’ve been able to now go after these bigger plays. This is the opportunity now as bad as covid’s been, it’s been a time for us where our products are needed more than ever. And I think you’ll see us, as you say, put a bit more fuel on that fire now and go after the global opportunity that’s in front of us, much bigger than we ever had before. And that’s exciting.

Ed (24:43): There’s not a business in my mind that potentially isn’t a Safety Culture customer. And it feels like, as you say, the growth opportunity is wide open for you, but how do you think about the competitive advantage of the business? Not only now, but how that’s growing into this massive growth opportunity for you?

Luke (25:01): Yeah, it’s interesting. We come up against other people like us, I guess, who have built an app that solves a problem well and then you get large enterprise software companies that are trying to provide a mobile first experience, which they’re terrible at. We have competition in different areas, but I think the biggest fundamental difference has been the approach we’ve had to solving this problem. Workplace health and safety is how we started. So that’s a pretty boring subject. No one really leaves school and says, I’m going to build the next workplace health and safety app. They want to build the next dating app, or they want to build the next Minecraft or Fortnight. Most of your competition goes a different path right there. Then the second point is when someone actually does get excited about not just safety, but quality and other sexy subjects that are equally as popular at nighttime on the pillow, when people talk about it, they think about building compliance software and they look at the legislation and they say, all right, we’re going to build software that makes everybody compliant.

And we just never took that approach because I felt that that was not good enough. I thought that best practice is way better than compliance and what the law says, and that’s just boring. If you’re going to build shit software if your goal is to be compliant. And so, how do you build software that people really love to use, that they want to pick up and do their jobs better each day? And I think if you can achieve that, then you’ll achieve a standard way higher than just the legal requirement. And that’s where most people, I guess went on a different path. They go after the money because if you promise an employer, you can make them compliant, they’ll pay you lots of money for it. And I just didn’t want to build crap software.

Ed (26:38): Let’s pivot slightly to your own leadership journey from being a sole founder, which is a very different experience to, to many who share that and maybe we can talk of the loneliness that I’m sure you’ve had at times as a single founder, but maybe a good place to start is how do you filter advice? Because as now an Aussie unicorn, everyone wants a piece of you, whether it’s bankers, other founders either giving you advice or you giving that advice, annoying investors perhaps, how do you filter through that advice to make sure that you are only taking on what really counts?

Luke (27:14): It’s like a trip to the shops where you put a bunch of stuff in your trolley, and you leave a heap on the shelf and when you walk out you don’t worry about what you’re left behind. In other words, I think you find what resonates for you. And the other thing is always understand the limitation of the advice you’re getting. So, you ask yourself, what is this person really good at, better than the rest? And what are they not good at? And let’s make sure that you’re taking the advice from the bucket where they’re better than the rest. And I think that’s the key. Everybody has limitations, whether it’s Michael Jordan or Bill Gates or whoever your models are, there’s things that they just don’t do well that you might even be way better than them at. And you want to understand I think what that is and don’t just take the advice because they’re successful, but you take the advice because you can calibrate it and apply it.

And I think that’s why Scott Farquhar probably put so much time into helping me develop the business and myself over the years was because I could’ve said, ah, let’s meet every week or whatever, but I never did. I never ever had any schedule to meet him. Sometimes we’d talk three times in a week and sometimes we wouldn’t talk for a couple of months because I was applying the advice. When you think about mentors, usually there’s nothing much in it for them other than the satisfaction of seeing you do well. I think as a mentoree, your job is to go and apply that advice and don’t go and ask for more until you’ve applied it and then go back. And the reward for the mentor is that, hey, look what I’ve done, here’s what I did and your advice either worked great or no, I had some problems and I’ve had to modify it. But that’s kind of the key, I think.

Ed (28:53): You beat me to the punchline because I was going to ask about Scott next and just the power of that mentor relationship with one of Australia’s greatest ever founders. How have you found that relationship in terms of the importance of having a quality operator, someone who’s in the weeds as he’s been for over a decade now helping you on your journey?

Luke (29:15): It’s been invaluable is how I describe it. To have someone that is further along on, on the journey who’s actually built a business and a really successful one, the advice is so specific and relevant and it’s much easier to apply than theories or second or third hand stories that people tell you haven’t experienced it. And they can ask you better questions and they can give you better answers. I can remember Scott said to me when I was about 30 people and it was getting a bit chaotic, he said, you need a HR person by 65. At about 60 people I’m like, the wheels are completely falling off here. And yep, we need someone to help with HR. He would kind of preempt, here’s what’s coming for you. You probably can’t see it right now but assure me this is what’s coming.

Ed (30:04): You’re going a hundred km’s down the highway, the things come pretty quickly the other way.

Luke (30:07): Exactly. He could preempt what was coming and just help me start thinking about solving these problems before I landed smack bang in the middle of them. And sometimes I still managed to just land the middle of them, but he’d be there for the other phone call then.

Ed (30:23): I think that’s the nature of what you’re trying to do. Maybe we can touch on your experience as a sole founder and how you’ve managed that and that maybe that is why you have forged such a wonderful relationship with Scott. There hasn’t been that person by your side from the start to intertwine your own culture and values or bounce ideas off. How have you found that as a sole founder?

Luke (30:47): It’s an interesting question because the immediate answer is, I wish I had a co-founder would be much easier. And then I talk to co-founders and, sometimes they split up and have challenges and things. So, I think there’s, there’s pros and cons for both. I probably spend more time wishing I had a co-founder than enjoying the fact that I don’t. But it is what it is. And Alan, who still is with us today, never wanted to take on any management responsibilities, nor would he probably be good at it just as I’m not good at coding. We would joke around and whenever I’m dealing with a staff issue or something, he would say hashtag CEO life all the best. And, I joke that he could do my job for a day and I’d tried to his, but I think it is what it is.

You just got to make the most of it and Al’s good at what he does. He’s, he never wanted to take on people and managing all that stuff. And I had some experience with it. So that’s just the way it unfolded and here we are. So, I don’t really dwell on it, but it is, it is lonely, it’s tough, it’s all those things, but it’s also hard for people with co-founders. So, I don’t know that I can sit here and have a bit of a cry about it. I think we’ve just got to crack on.

Ed (32:00): I love your grit and your optimism every time we talk. One of your great strengths is transparency. And so, I’m sure you won’t have any issue me asking this, but I’m sure there’ve been a variety of mistakes that you’ve made from people mistakes to business model mistakes that you’ve had to unwind or change quickly. Can you share some of them and maybe the lessons that you’ve learned from them?

Luke (32:26): Yeah, there’s been twice where I’ve had people who are fantastic individual contributors who I’ve allowed to just build a team and run because they’re great and then we’ve been caught out where they’ve got a team of 10 or 12 and all of a sudden they’re not great leaders necessarily and the team’s not getting what they need from them and it’s kind of imploding around them. And I’ve felt responsible for that because I set them up for that, I allowed them to do that and so, that kind of taught me, it’s happened twice since we started. It’s taught me that you need to provide the empowerment for people to be able to, to make great decisions and move, but you also need to provide some guardrails and understand the limitations because if people are really enthusiastic and they are excited and they want to run, that’s fantastic.

But if they end up running through fire that’s so bad that they end up scarred and burnt from it, then it can affect your ability to be a great contributor. I’ve seen that happen a couple of times now I really think hard about how do you provide the guardrails that people need without restricting their impact. I think that’s something that I’ve kind of learned and would call a couple of mistakes. Other mistakes I underestimated the importance of the employer brand when we moved to Sydney. We couldn’t get enough engineers in Townsville and so started in Sydney, and I was too slow. Took me a year to probably catch up because we, I’d saw what we’d spent on recruiters. We had someone who was leading talent and hiring, and they were just going bananas without any real guardrails.

And we went from 85 people to 320 and 18 months at one point and it was just too much too fast. And it took the best part of a year to unravel that actually we’d never really fired people before or lost people. But it got to a point where I’d customers contacted me on LinkedIn saying, I’ve used your product for five years and it’s awesome, but I’ve just lost the last three hours of my life to your support team, and it was terrible. And no founder ever wants to hear that. I was starting to get anecdotal feedback from all different places that things just weren’t quite right. When I dug in I remember ringing our support line and the personal answer to the phone couldn’t pronounce my name and it’s our own support line.

I rang our number and said, I’m Luke Anear and I needed to speak to their manager, which I said their name. And they were like, Who, who are you? I’m like, I’m Luke the CEO Safety Culture, the company you work for. And they still, and I’m like, if this is what happens to me, what the hell happens to our customers? There was a period there where the wheels fell off a bit because we grew too quick. And I think there’s people out there now who probably run around and claim credit because they were here with us for a while saying, I built this awesome team. It’s like no we had to fix up a lot of your shit when you left. It took a while to fix that up and we had tough conversations and we had people in leadership roles that, that didn’t have the experience.

It took probably a year after that period that was probably the biggest mistake and costly experience where we said let’s find the people who are really great at what they do and support them and find the people who are struggling. And if we can’t get them to be great, then find them a job elsewhere because we’d just given so many people jobs that were just turning up and getting jobs and that took a bit to sort out. So that was probably the biggest one actually and once we got on the other side of that, we had a team that was better than ever. It’s been amazing.

Ed (35:51): Yeah, scaling people and culture is probably the hardest thing that you’ll do as a founder. And there are always those certain limits as you’re growing that you need to smash through and it’s the people that will enable that. But as you said.

Luke (36:05): I think we’re all just people, businesses masquerading as technology companies.

Ed (36:09): Well said. You know my belief on that. Maybe we can touch on Covid and the impact that’s had on your business. As you said it’s provided huge tailwinds. Every business more than ever needs your software, but I’m probably more interested in the impact it’s had on the people inside the building. You we’re fostering a wonderful culture in in the main office down in Surry Hills in Australia and you’ve got offices around the world, Kansas City amongst them, everyone’s now dispersed and working from home. How has it affected your teams, how they collaborate, how they work together? Are you seeing any cracks up here?

Luke (36:46): Little ones here and there. Nothing significant yet, but a couple of things. I think when people first started working from home, it was a bit novel and everybody’s like, okay, we’re now adapting to this and people were taking it in their stride and doing their best with it, trying to set up at home. And then there was the kind of realization that, shit, I’m actually working at home all day every day. Some team members had kids at home as well because schools were shut and that was pretty tough on people. And then we kind of got to this point after that first wave where things relaxed a bit and I think people were in a routine then we talked a lot with the team about having great daily habits. We brought in speakers to talk about resilience and overcoming adversity and tried to prepare people, particularly the younger team members, that this could go on for a while and if you keep thinking next week, next week it’ll be over that can become quite fatiguing.

We’ve sort of pre reframed it and said, look, we think this is going to be a minimum six months and we’ll reassess later in the year and then we reset it again and said, no, it’s going to be longer. I think that helped us quite a bit in terms of getting through it. But I think we’re now starting to see, and we’ve got Sydney offices open again Townsville office is open that the us, UK and Manila offices are still closed, but we’re starting to see the lack of mentorship and day to day coaching that happens when you’re all in the one building and you pass each other or you can see by someone’s body language, they’re a bit down, hey, what’s happening? How are you feeling? Well, you don’t necessarily see all that on a Zoom call. I think we’re starting to probably now go into that phase of this where we really need to talk about how people can get that coaching and mentoring, get the support and just also the emotional support that is needed to get through this part of it. But overall, it’s been fairly good. I think everyone’s managed really well, but we’re ready to have people back in the offices and that may still take a little while for some of these offices.

Ed (38:46): And then intertwined with all of this is you’ve completed your maiden acquisition with Ed app. How’s that integration culturally going to take shape if potentially as you say, people are still working from home or in and out of the office? And I guess the overarching question is just around acquisition and cultural fit. How do two businesses in your mind come together and make sure that they’re still moving towards the same North Star?

Luke (39:11): Yeah, I think they’re coming together really well. Darren is a fantastic founder and leader and someone that I’ve just had a lot of respect for and in the two and a half years I’ve known him, and we’ve got along very well. We’re both very straightforward people and have a common goal. So, he wants to democratize training and make it accessible to everyone in the world. That’s also part of the vision that I laid out and what we need to do. So, it wasn’t a big leap for us, and it was kind of a natural coming together. I think we didn’t start out with the intention to acquire Ed app. I just started out to, to help another founder who I thought was doing a great job. And if that was advice or mentoring or whatever, then then I was prepared to give it.

And when he said he needed some funding, it was like, well, we can probably do it for you if you want to. And that kind of made it interesting because they hadn’t had VC funding and if they’d taken VC funding it probably would’ve set them on a different path. But because it was founded a founder, we could figure out what worked best for us instead of what worked best for an investor who’s sitting across the other side of the table. It’s been a really interesting journey, but something that I think’s been very organic and the teams are working together on projects and as we integrate the product, people are spending more and more time together, but there’s a genuine excitement from both sides and we’ve, we’ve really worked hard to try and bring the best from both cultures and bring that together and make it very much an inclusive feeling rather than an us and them type feeling and that sort of thing. So, we’ve been quite deliberate and conscious about bringing the culture together as one and at the same time making it clear that we are here to support their original vision and goal to democratize training and make it available to all workers in the world. So, it’s a really good fit for us.

Ed (40:54): That’s around this out for a boy that grew up in Townsville has started this wonderful business, what’s the advice, if you could turn back the clocks and give one piece of advice to Luke Anear circa 15 years ago, what would it be?

Luke (41:10): Don’t worry too much. It’ll work out one way or the other. I probably spent far too many hours and sleepless nights stressing and worrying and using fear to serve you is kind of one of the skills you want to develop early. Fear is great, fear is powerful because it tells you what can go wrong, and you want to know that. So, I think learning to use fear as your friend and acknowledging it and then making a decision and moving forward is the key because I think when you become fearful of everything’s not working and holy shit, I don’t know what to do, you kind of need someone in your ear to say it’s going to be okay one way or the other. This will be okay. You’re either going to completely fuck it all up and you’ll learn from it, and you’ll be better for it. Life will still be okay or it’s not going to be as bad as what you think right now, and you’ll figure it out. But I think there’s just too much time spent worrying early on and I think a lot of founders, you see the stress in their eyes, turn that into positive stress rather than negative stress is probably the advice I’d give him.

Ed (42:13): It’s wonderful advice. You’re talking to someone who spent many sleepless nights tossing and turning wondering what was going to happen the next day. And you do come to the conclusion that the only thing you can’t control is time tomorrow will happen and you’re going to have to turn up and perform at your absolute best on that given day. So, I completely agree with you mate. It’s been a pleasure. Every time we talk I tend to laugh a lot, I tend to learn a lot and today was no exception. Thanks for your time, Luke.

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