“Aggressive, but mixed with common sense”: Mr Yum co-founder Adrian Osman on lessons learned in overseas expansion

Mr Yum co-founders Adrian Osman, Kim Teo, Kerry Osborn, Andrei Miulescu

Mr Yum co-founders Adrian Osman, Kim Teo, Kerry Osborn, Andrei Miulescu. Source: supplied.

It has been an eventful year for Mr Yum. It finalised its acquisition of Myguestlist in May, has been expanding into the UK and US markets, and has grown its head count to more than 250. Along the way, there has been advice given and lessons learned about integration, growth and risk.

SmartCompany spoke with COO and co-founder Adrian Osman (pictured above, top left) ahead of his guest judge appearance at the Pitch, about mixing aggressive with common sense and the key to new markets.

You’ve made a big acquisition and are expanding into new markets. What lessons and tips have you learned in that time about sustainable growth?

Lots of lessons. The whole industry was growing headcount too quickly, so we learned some lessons there and have a much clearer idea now. All of my previous businesses didn’t have the luxury of growing headcount. You can’t make that mistake until you actually have the option to make that mistake.

We’ve learned some really good lessons. It doesn’t matter how many heads you’re adding, it’s all about the ratios, and how you sustain a high performance team. That needs to be the key. You can’t grow at a rate faster than anything that would break it. No matter how fast you want to grow, your north star needs to be the culture, engagement and performance of that existing team. Then, you grow at the relevant ratio in contrast to your current headcount. We learned a lot about that; I think we got a much clearer idea of what aggressive, but mixed with common sense, actually looks like.

We’ve also learned a lot about new markets through testing last year in the US a bit and then through the UK. Common sense would go ‘Oh, we’ve got this product, okay, we’ll just go into a new country and hire sales people and partnerships people’; that’s the common move and something we’ve tried. But what we’ve done in the US, which is by far the best that we’ve done so far of all the others, is we didn’t send any of them, we just sent product people, researchers, engineers first, and then just listened for one month plus. Meet everyone, and just listen.

Start with that, with understanding how different your product has to actually be for that market, then work on that, figure out the timeframes and then bring in sales and partnerships behind it. So, I think our ramp into new markets was slower than you would hope and previously was a pretty immature approach, but we’ve learnt through those mistakes more about what you have to actually do to unlock new markets.

It’s a challenging time for tech startups in Australia. What are your thoughts for new ones trying to launch right now?

I’m very pro entrepreneurship so it’s going to be a biased answer, but I think there is never a good time to start a business. There is never a perfect time, so no matter where the market is at, just start, is my advice. Because it takes longer to get there than most people anticipate. The market conditions are probably favouring pre-seed and seed, I would say, as larger funds are nervous about later stage, like pre IPO – that’s where prices have been hit the hardest. But there’s still great activity happening in pre-seed and seed because, essentially, from a financial standpoint you can just make the bet and you know that the market will have recovered by the time this business is maturing.

So you’re just betting on knowing that the bottom comes at some point. It turns around and then you know, that startup, as it gets to maturity, will be able to do series As and series Bs without having to cut its lunch too much. So, financially, technically, but from a markets point of view, it’s a really good time to start, because over the next year, seed rounds are going to be infinitely easier than series As and series Bs.

What recent developments have really stood out to you or excited you?

The most fascinating thing is just how fast the barrier to entry is going down. It’s exponential. I’ve been in tech for ten years, and when I first started you heard people talking about back in the dotcom era, how it used to cost millions of dollars just to start. To open the door. When I was starting I was like ‘oh, this is amazing, the barrier to entry now is so much lower than the books I’m reading about 10-15 years prior’. In contrast now, ten years from that, it’s orders of magnitude lower again than it was at that time. You can just build amazing things, you can get off the ground so easily now, I think.

A specific example of that is the low-code and the no-code progress. Things like Airtable and Webflow, and all the other tools that are out there. Most ideas I hear, I think ‘You don’t actually need an engineer to start that’. You can probably just get a freelancer to stitch a few things together to have a crack. And the risk there might only be five or ten grand. Comparatively, 20 years ago it could have been two million dollars.

It makes you wonder, what’s the end game? Where we will be in another 10 years?

There’ll be a lot more automation than most people would expect. So leadership, creativity and communication will become the most valuable skills in tech.

Want to hear more from startup leaders like Adrian? Don’t miss the Pitch, where he’ll be joining our judging panel.

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