Startup Advice

When the disruptor becomes the disrupted: Seek co-founder Andrew Bassat on what happens when you get complacent

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien /

Andrew Bassat

Seek co-founder Andrew Bassat speaking at the Disruptive Innovation Summit 2018.

Recruitment giant and disruptive force Seek went through “a scary period” when it found itself on the other side of the fence, with new disruptors coming in and threatening its place in the market, according to co-founder Andrew Bassat.

Speaking at the Disruptive Innovation Summit in Sydney on Thursday, Bassat, who co-founded Seek with his brother Paul Bassat and Matt Rockman, said when Seek was founded in 1997, no one within the startup “really had any experience in technology”. Today, the listed company has a market capitalisation of approximately $7 billion.

The innovation was simply around making use of the advantages of the internet, and as the web became more mainstream, the three founders identified a use case around job ads.

“It became very clear to us that classifieds would go online,” he said.

Seek focused on “embracing the medium and pushing hard”. It was soon the market leader in the space and starting to expand into international markets.

But then the founders got “a bit fat and happy and lazy”, Bassat admitted, and were not “pushing or challenging ourselves”.

In 2009, however, the founders “woke up” to new competition in the space — namely LinkedIn, which was moving into the recruitment space, and newcomer to Australia, Indeed.

LinkedIn already had a database of professionals, and therefore access to jobseekers and significant data on them. Indeed, on the other hand, was operating on a ‘freemium’ model, allowing employers to list jobs for free and to pay for add-ons.

Suddenly, Seek was under threat as “LinkedIn had all the jobseekers and Indeed had all the ads”, Bassat said.

“Finally, we started to take this seriously,” he added.

Seek started to re-focus, considering what makes a person choose one platform over another, given the way technology has evolved.

“So much more depends on product technology, data and AI [artificial intelligence] and all these sorts of things … that’s going to be the deciding factor between success and failure,” Bassat told the summit.

“Somehow we had to drive that. We were good at strategy, we were good at sales, we were good at marketing. We were no good at product tech.”

Bassat and Seek’s leadership team realised that if they didn’t innovate they would be in “a lot of trouble”. Ultimately, they “responded well”, Bassat said, with two key concept changes.

The first change was around the way Seek measured success. It started focusing less on the numbers of job listings and job seekers, and more on the outcomes, or “finding the right person for the organisation”, Bassat said.

Seek found it was facilitating around 25% of all job placements, putting it “a long way in front”. But rather than the company resting on its laurels, Bassat explained “the more important number was the 75% we didn’t have”.

That was “where the vulnerability and the opportunity lies”, he said; getting that 75% was “driving the urgency of investing in innovation”.

“What do we need to do differently with our technology, with our data, with our product with our data?”

The second improvement was a mission to become the best in the world at using AI in this space, something Bassat admits was “a tough challenge”.

“If someone else in the world is better than us, then they’re going to beat us. And we didn’t want to lose so we had to set ourselves a challenge,” he said.

“I wouldn’t say we’re there yet, but I would say over the last four or five years we’ve started really rolling out leading products.”

Now, Bassat is hoping Seek will move into a new phase of growth, while “keeping an eye on disruption”.

The reality is, today, everyone is either disrupting or being disrupted, he said.

“We always need to be vigilant. There’s always someone coming to take our business from us.”

StartupSmart attended the Disruptive Innovation Summit 2018 as a guest of the event. 

NOW READ: A perfect storm: New FinTech Australia chair Alan Tsen says the time for financial disruption is now

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Stephanie Palmer-Derrien

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien is a reporter at StartupSmart.

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