leadership

How Brian Shanahan helped create Temple & Webster, a $28 million online destination for homewares

Eloise Keating /

It was Brian Shanahan’s father who planted the entrepreneurial seed in his mind. Despite landing plum jobs as chief financial officer of eBay Australia and managing director of Gumtree International, Shanahan always remembered his dad’s advice that the only way he would make money or be happy would be to own his own business. The 45-year-old Sydneysider acted on that advice in 2011, launching online homewares retailer Temple & Webster with co-founders Adam McWhinney, Conrad Yiu and Mark Coulter.

Temple & Webster has gone from strength to strength in a little over three years, now employing the equivalent of 50 full-time employees and taking out numerous accolades in SmartCompany’s Web Awards. The pure-play subscription-based online retailer turned over $28 million in the 2014 calendar year and hopes to reach $50 million in revenue in 2015.

I’ve always been interested in technology and computers. I used to enjoy writing computer programs.

After I left school I worked for KPMG and then in corporate finance with JP Morgan. I was there for about seven years and during that time I could see the trends in banking and online merging very quickly. It was here to stay.

I fell in love with online. It is a window to the world.

I was given the opportunity to be the chief financial officer of eBay in Australia. It was in 2005 and I felt incredibly privileged to get exposure to e-commerce with a small team of around 30 people. I know everyone really well and I could ask about any part of the business.

I learnt an incredible amount about online marketing, customer experience, PR and all aspects of online. I worked with fabulous people and I jumped out of bed to go to work every day.

I joined Gumtree International in 2008-09 and left in 2011. I was responsible for seven countries, with Australia being the most significant. My job was to build the brand in the online classifieds space.

I took the tools in my eBay toolkit and rolled that into Gumtree. Ebay was all about encouraging people to buy a product.

My father told me as a young man, owning your own business is the only way to be happy and make money.

I met [co-founder] Conrad Yiu at a digital dinner one night and he asked me what I wanted to do with my career. He had ideas about online shopping and so did I. Together [with Adam McWhinney and Mark Coulter] the four co-founders fleshed out what those opportunities were and what the plan should be.

I had done a lot of category analysis during my days at eBay and Gumtree and what came out of that was there was a lot of demand in the homewares category but very few providers.

My co-founders shared the same view: we saw a lot of white space there. We decided to win the homewares space by becoming the first place people come for inspiration for their home.

We wanted a brand name that was Australian and spoke to Australian heritage. We thought about some of the best brands in Australia that resonate with consumers.

We came across William Temple and John Webster, two fine furniture designers who were commissioned in the 1820s to design two ceremonial chairs for the governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie.

The Temple & Webster brand is about attention to detail. It’s a little old fashioned but it shows customers the care we want to provide. It’s a brand we want to be around for a while.

The four co-founders all provided the seed capital to get the Temple & Webster concept up and running. We didn’t take a salary for the first six months.

Christmas 2011 was a pretty exciting period. For the first few days, if a sale came through we would sit around the table and work out whose friend or family member it was from.

By day two or three we got an order from a stranger, someone none of us knew. We knew then that Temple & Webster was going to work. We now have a member base of 1 million and it is growing rapidly.

It took us 214 days to achieve $1 million in revenue. These days, we do that every five to 10 days. It’s been a hell of a journey.

We’ve talked about other categories in the past and you can’t predict the future. But if you look at companies like eBay, they are horizontal providers. They have everything but are not experts in particular categories. We are focused on being the expert in our category.

We want to continue to inspire our members with wonderful ways to view the best products at great prices. There are a lot of opportunities in the category and we don’t want to confuse our customers.

Expanding to other countries is on the roadmap but it won’t happen this year. We know there is international demand for Temple & Webster: we are often contacted by people in New Zealand, Singapore, China, Hong Kong, the US and the UK asking if we can ship to them.

We decided to use a subscription model because we wanted to capture people who are interested in a category, not a product. We want to reach a group of like-minded individuals and give them exclusive access to a club.

There is exclusivity around being a member of the club. But it also allows us to market to our members every day, unlike traditional retailers who are focused on driving traffic to their sites, and paying for them to come back again.

Temple and Webster staff gather around

We continue to be approached by various parties who want to work with us. That’s not a surprise: we have a pretty special way of doing things.

We would absolutely consider a strategic partnership if it brought real value but we don’t have to rush into it. We are a great business as we are and at the moment, we have the funding to do what we want to do.

We might decide to take Temple & Webster overseas or to open a bricks-and-mortar flagship store. There are a lot of opportunities.

We’re still a startup and we’ve only been trading for three years. There are benefits to having a business plan but you can’t be too rigid. We’re a creative business in a lot of ways so we need to be open to other opportunities.

What keeps me awake at night is how to prioritise the opportunities we have. What do we focus on? A lot are attractive right now, but will they build long term growth for the business?

I have three children under the age of six so they also keep me awake at night. They are my other startup.

It’s a juggling act. The past three years have been the hardest years for both my startups, but we’ve got through it, and they are both heading in the right direction.

We use both online and offline marketing. Our collaboration with The Living Room on Channel 10 is one of the many strategies we have to market to people who are passionate and interested in the homewares category.

When we market through Google, the customers we acquire are more price-conscious. But we attract a better quality customer through print and magazine marketing because they are more emotionally engaged in the offering.

Increasing competition in online retail in Australia is great for consumers. The larger retailers are catching up to what has been going on in the US and that means the evolution of the customer experience is going to continue.

But it will become harder for startups to compete in the space. Traditional retailers are doing a better job at working out where consumers want to be, so it will get harder for smaller retailers to grow without greater financial support.

I would absolutely start another business. What I have enjoyed is creating something and changing and optimising it as well.

To some extent we are starting a new business every day. We always have new projects on the go and I am involved in that creative process. It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. 

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Eloise Keating

Eloise Keating is the editor of SmartCompany. Previously, Eloise was news editor at Books+Publishing, the trade press for the Australian book industry.

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