Stevan Premutico, founder and chief executive of restaurant reservation service Dimmi, feels like he has achieved what he “came here to do” and the time is right for him to depart the company he has built over the last 10 years.
“Dimmi is my baby, and it always will be, but it’s time to pass it over to someone who can take it to the next level,” Premutico told StartupSmart.
The feeling of leaving that baby behind is “surreal”, says Premutico, who always thought the startup would be his life.
He leaves behind a legacy of significant achievements, including securing more than 4000 restaurant partnerships and one with Masterchef, and, most notably, a sale of the business to travel planning business TripAdvisor in 2015, which valued Dimmi at around $32 million. At the time, the business was turning over more than $10 million annually.
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“I’m leaving the business in a really good place, and I’ve found the right guy to take it somewhere further. That was the most important bit for me,” he says.
That right guy is Dimmi’s current general manager Jared Chapman, who will take the reins as chief executive from July 1. After that date, Premutico has pencilled in a “three-month sabbatical”.
“There were times when Dimmi almost got the better of me and I was just a few months from collapse, so the plan is just to do nothing for a while,” he says.
For some, the concept of “doing nothing” wouldn’t include walking the 780-kilometre El Camino trail in Spain, but that’s at the top of Premutico’s to-do list. And after all the resting and trekking is done, Premutico has his eyes set on another startup.
“Startups are in my heart, so I might do another startup and disrupt some other industry,” he says.
Startup founders must back themselves
With 10 years at the helm of a successful startup under his belt, Premutico is flush with advice and experience to pass on to budding startup founders, the most poignant of which is the importance of backing yourself.
He recalls his early days working as the regional director of marketing in the UK for Hilton when he had the snap realisation the corporate life was not for him and decided to quit and “take things into my own hands”.
“I quit my job that day, and that was the moment I put everything in the ring and backed myself. I wanted to create something, I didn’t just want to be a number,” Premutico says.
“After that, I was living in London without a job, and I was working 20-hour days trying to conceptualise what Dimmi was and trying to get funding. One day when heading to Starbucks for a coffee I fainted, and that was the moment I realised something had to change.
“I came back to Australia and gave myself four weeks to get Dimmi off the ground. Thankfully I found a seed investor, and that was enough.”
Premutico was also offered a lifeline in the early days, just after quitting his job at Hilton, where he was “living in an attic” in London. An offer came through from Virgin Airlines, asking him to head up the launch of Virgin Atlantic in Australia.
Having been rejected constantly by investors at the time, Premutico said turning down the offer was one of the most “naive, scariest, and in hindsight, the smartest moments of my life”.
“I had this lifeline from Richard Branson, but for some reason, I said no. In my blood I felt like I had to do something else, to give back to the world,” he said.
“Remarkably they respected the decision. No one should be pissed off at you for following your dreams.”
Three steps to ensure your startup withstands the competition
For early-stage startups, Premutico believes there are three essential steps to ensure competitors can’t come in and sweep you away, a reality that Dimmi narrowly avoided when the company took on international reservation giant Open Table in a David-and-Goliath-style battle and emerged victorious.
“Firstly, speed matters. Get to market fast and pitch yourself up as quickly as you can. Competition and copycats will come at you quickly,” he says.
“Secondly, you’ve got to brick-wall your market. In the early days, we did a lot of great partnerships with people like Google and TripAdvisor, and these brands became significant allies of ours. These exclusive long-term partnerships are hard to overturn for competitors.
“Thirdly, relationships matter. In the SME industry, you can’t buy relationships, you have to build them, so if someone comes in and undercuts you, you can rely on that relationship to keep your partnership strong.”
Finally, the number one thing Premutico has learnt from his 10 years at Dimmi is that startups are “one percent the idea, and ninety-nine percent the people”. Being the face of the business, Premutico received all the praise and credit, but he says the credit should go to “the people who make the magic happen every day”.
“For a startup to be resilient, you have to find exceptional people who are even better than you,” he says.