How Dan Kerr helped grow service.com.au into a $1.8 million business directory, after it took three months to land the first customer

The co-founders of service.com.au had worked a number of different sales jobs before the temptation to strike out on their own took hold. Having seen how traditional business directories sold ads—at a higher cost with no way of tracking leads—Dan Kerr, Jacob Banks and Dexter Devlin decided to build their own business to connect customers with services.

It took about three months to sign a company that would pay for the service, but since the first tradie signed up, service.com.au has grown to 20 staff. The directory has close to 70,000 businesses on board and it turned over $1.8 million last year. Chief executive Dan Kerr tells SmartCompany the core team has learned a lot about customer needs in a short time.

The three of us co-founders were all working at another sales jobs, and Jacob [Banks] said: “I have this ideas to build a trade specific directory, but do it online”.

I wouldn’t say the three of us were particularly entrepreneurial. It was more that we had a very strong sales background and were just working seasonal sales work, and we thought we’d just give it a go. We were like, “we’re just going to pick up the phone” and if people were willing to hand over cash, then that’s our product market fit.

The main benefit of being online is that you can basically track everything that happens, and let a business know month by month everything that’s happening for them.

Initially, we were offering 30-day free trials, and we would call businesses back after 30 days and nobody would actually give us any money. It took about three months before we could work out how to [convert] them.

It was like any of the horror stories of any early business—we had an office with a hole in the roof, with buckets on the tables.

But it was about continuing to speak to people and working out how to add value. I think in everything, especially in terms of online, it’s becoming more about users and consumers wanting choice, but they don’t want to do the legwork.

Initially we were just selling pages in a directory. Later we [started to] see the market going towards letting the user and the consumer tell us what they want, and then we’d get the tradesman to come back to the user.

We could then have a lot more clarity over the interaction. When we spoke to a tradesman at the end of the month or the year, we could say to them “this is how many people you reached”.

I think consumers have gone to this place now where they want choice, but they want it to come to them. In a lot of different industries—you look at Uber and that kind of thing—people say, “I want to go from here to here, I don’t care who takes me”.

There’s a lot of information and I think it’s getting to the point where there’s so much information that the way we’ll beat it is by providing choice, but also provide recommendations first.

We rate and verify businesses, and based on what the user wants, we’ll give a recommendation.

Going forward, we want to utilise artificial intelligence and data analytics for this, and then transition from providing a wealth of information to saying: “Pay a fee, and we’ll just get it done for you. Trust us to take care of it”.

We realised that we’re a very technology heavy business, but that wasn’t one of our core competencies within the three of us.

We outsourced our website about six months ago. We decided that if we contract that out, we’ll focus on building our sales team because we knew sales, and we could coach and train staff on a product.

About six months ago we on-boarded our first chief technology officer. The change in the six months is immeasurable, in terms of consumer growth.

It’s one of those things where we went through an accelerator program [at the Bond University Bond Business Accelerator] and everyone told us, “you need to find a technology [person]”. 

We were probably a bit of a slight anomaly in the program as it was geared towards the idea stage and fleshing that out.

The theory behind the accelerator had kind of passed us by a little bit; instead we just want to pick up the phone. But then, by far the biggest learning was being able to open us up to different networks of people.

The big thing was putting ourselves out there; looking and asking the questions and exploring numerous opportunities. We were very close to offshoring all of our technology and then literally a guy we came across through the accelerator program two years ago fell into our lap, essentially.

We were three people sitting around in our office trying to come up with solutions to all these problems, but by the time we’d completed that program we’d come through will all these different contacts.

In any business there’s challenges when you spend three and a bit years working on the same thing, but the biggest plus is that every person goes through their own doubts and things through that period

To have two other people who would add good energy and have fresh ideas that the other one or two of us weren’t quite feeling at that time was priceless. Just that camaraderie.

In the jobs that we were doing prior, it wasn’t so much we didn’t believe in the product, we just hit the road after we had done it for so long. We weren’t passionate about it, whereas this is something we see on a day-to-day basis that’s growing.

One thing someone did say to me was: “Really look at who is giving the advice and where it’s coming from”.

We did a government-funded program once in front of a board, and the board was all made up of products with bricks-and-mortar-like mediums. They gave us a lot of criticism and as much as I appreciate those opinions, it wasn’t relevant to what we’d been doing.

We’re always cautious about who we seek advice from—there’s a million different ways you can skin a cat.

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