AIB Featured Business Leader – Matt Barrie
Matt Barrie is the vibrant Australian CEO of freelancer.com, an award-winning outsourcing marketplace which connects employers and employees in an online space. In 2014, Smart Company named him the most influential person in technology in Australia, and his string of awards stands testament to his contributions to the industry. When he floated the company in November 2013, the stock debuted at more than four times its listing price, and continues to trade at a 50% premium. He continues to hold huge ambitions for Freelancer, which now has offices in four countries and operates all around the world.
Barrie was born in 1973 in Adelaide, South Australia, and spent his early years there before moving to Jakarta as a seven year old. After two years at the Jakarta International School, the family settled in Sydney. Barrie was an excellent student, attending Sydney Grammar School on a scholarship and later graduating from Sydney University with two First Class Honours degrees, in Computer Science and Engineering (Electrical Engineering). In 1997, he went on to Stanford University to do a Masters in Electrical Engineering, and worked in the US after graduation until 2000.
Like many successful entrepreneurs, Barrie had to suffer through a spectacular failure before trying again. Before Freelancer, he ran a company called Sensory Networks, which sold semiconductor circuits that scanned traffic at high speeds. Although the technology itself was sound, both Barrie and his co-founders were unfamiliar with the semi-conductor industry, and were ill-prepared for its long sales procedures and the pitfalls of clients who required ongoing support. Barrie found himself building complex technology and effectively running a consulting company to ensure that it was used correctly. This made the start-up phase longer and more expensive than anyone had anticipated, and required several rounds of multimillion dollar funding.
When a new investor decided that the company needed a new Chief Executive and hired a recruiter to advertise Barrie’s job without consulting the board, Barrie found himself fighting on even more fronts. He managed to hang on, but he was working with increasing levels of stress and fatigue. Four years later, he finally snapped. At an investor meeting where investors raised the idea of reducing equity rights for staff, Barrie stood up. He told them that if they wanted to go that way, he would “consider the company my $30 million MBA and quit” – a remark which, he admits, made his name “toast” in venture capital circles from then on.
Seriously burnt out, he took almost a year away from working, building his strength back up and doing a lot of skiing. That occupied most of 2007, and then as a true entrepreneur, he resumed the hunt for a new business. His priority was something that needed few employees and no venture capital, as he realised that raising funds would be tricky after his previous experience.
While he looked for a business idea, he discovered that he could hire outsourced workers for tasks that could be completed remotely, just using his credit card. This solution to his own problem – how to hire help when you don’t have the resources or desire to take on full time staff or have a physical office – pleased him so much that he immediately saw the attraction to others. Barrie bought the then little-known website, called getafreelancer.com, renamed it, and freelancer.com was born.
True to his vision of a business that could start small, Barrie started off by running Freelancer from his garage, with the help of a single employee to redesign the site. Almost immediately the site started attracting enough traffic that it began to crash daily, and Barrie had to re-write all of the code within six months of launching. That allowed the site to grow globally, and three years after its inception, Freelancer was one of the world’s leading outsourcing websites, with turnover of $110 million in those three years and 100% growth each year. By 2015, net revenue was at $26.1 million.
A self-described party boy and ‘proud capitalist’, Barrie believes sincerely in the disruptive model he promotes. There have been numerous criticisms of sites like Freelancer, which have the potential to drive down Australian wages by opening up employment to people in poorer, usually third world, countries. Barrie isn’t ashamed of that. He talks about the staff in countries like Kenya, who are ‘poor, hungry and driven’ and have been able to access decent from-home work through Freelancer. He talks about global disruption. And he believes that the overall productivity of the world’s economy will increase with greater equality of access.
About the Australian economy, he is less optimistic. He considers that Australian business entrepreneurs have particular difficulty in recruiting and retaining talented staff. “I’ve lost engineers to Facebook, I’ve lost them to Uber, I’ve lost them to Amazon[…]. Now the brain drain is in full force”. It’s a result, Barrie says, of a lack of support to the technology industry at the Federal level, uncompetitive dollar values and high living expenses.
Barrie himself is supportive of start-ups. Although he’s spoken about not relying on venture capital, including during a keynote address at SydStart, he’s a huge fan of the Kickstarter model which allows small ideas to grow, and there are numerous stories of young tech entrepreneurs who have received help from Barrie’s own pocket. He’s been called a polarising figure, but never a mean one, and his emotional investment in the Australian tech industry is plain to see.
So what’s next for Barrie? He’s hopeful that the new Prime Ministership will signal an era of reform in the tech industry. He’s bent on building Freelancer into an even bigger success story. He wants revenue to hit $1 billion. He believes in what he does and its potential. And notably, perhaps, given his rocky path to success, he says he has no regrets about his journey. He just wishes he did it quicker.
This article was written by Tanya Ashworth-Keppel on behalf of the Australian Institute of Business. All opinions are that of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of AIB. The following sources were used to compile this article: SmartCompany, Australian Financial Review, Startup Smart, Sydney Morning Herald, Business Insider, Management Disrupted
Photo credit: Sydney Morning Herald