Redbubble co-founder Martin Hosking is stepping down as chief executive of the online art marketplace, but he says good startup founders serve their business, not themselves.
Speaking to StartupSmart, Hosking said he has always admired companies where “leaders are there as part of the mission, not bigger than the mission”.
This is something he has strived to replicate and so, in a sense, the idea that he would one day step down as chief executive was always there, he says.
“If you have that mindset, you’re always thinking about who’s going to be the next leader,” he says.
Launched in 2006 by Hosking and co-founders Paul Vanzella and Peter Styles, Redbubble completed a $40 million initial public offering in 2016, which valued the company at $288 million.
In its last quarterly results, the business reported revenue of $141.2 million and, at the time of publishing, has a market capitalisation of $331.7 million.
The startup has come a long way over the past 12 years, and Hosking says a key element of its success has been a willingness of the founders to accept governance structures. From year one they had independent directors on the board, he says.
When you’re a founder, “a lot of the early decisions come back to you”, says Hosking. But some founders don’t get beyond that; there can be a reluctance to set up a governance structure, appoint a board, or engage with auditors, with founders deeming them restrictive, he says.
“I’ve never thought of good governance as a restriction,” he says.
“The company is more than the person who created it.”
In order to establish a ‘renewable’ business, from the very beginning founders should not see themselves as “the centrepiece of the company,” says Hosking.
If after 10 years you don’t have an independent board, and the whole business is still looking to the founder for answers, Hosking says: “You have not set up a company for renewal”.
While not naming any names, he adds that there are some well-established startups that are “still very founder-focused”. In some cases, “the founder has not been prepared to put themselves at the service of the company”.
“It’s a question of not being too egotistical about it — not seeing the company as somehow an extension of you. There’s a sort of liberty in that,” says Hosking.
“The company and its mission is greater than any individual, including the founder.”
That said, while he appreciates independent input to the company, Hosking admits: “It’s not easy. You don’t get your way all the time”.
The next steps
When it came to choosing a successor for the chief executive position at Redbubble, Hosking says it was a board decision.
Incoming chief executive Barry Newstead has been with Redbubble for almost five years, and in that time Hosking says he has taken on an increasing number of operational roles, including as chief operating officer.
More recently, Newstead has worked on shaping the next strategic focus for the company.
Redbubble is defined by mission, values and strategy. While Hosking takes accountability for the former two, he says Newstead has taken the company strategy “to the next level”.
“As companies mature the strategy needs to go through evolution,” Hosking says, adding that “[Newstead] could form and articulate” that strategy.
Newstead tells StartupSmart he feels an element of responsibility as he takes the reins, and a “deep obligation to all the people who are involved in Redbubble”.
The business is on a “very strong trajectory”, he says, and he will stay focused on the marketplace, while “continuing to execute effectively on various growth strategies” and looking for ways to take advantage of new technology capabilities.
“We’re far closer to the beginning of the journey than the end,” he says.
Hosking will continue to stay involved in the company; he has not sold any of his shares, saying he is “completely confident” in the future of the business.
He is also staying on as a director, although he stresses he will “not be the first among equals”, but genuinely level-pegging with his peers on the board.
Outside of the office, he’s looking forward to taking a little more time for himself. He and his wife have set up a new charitable foundation, Three Springs Foundation, and while they’re just starting to think about where their philanthropy will be focused, Hosking says: “I know that Africa and animals will be winners”.
And he has also pledged some of his time to creative and arts projects, and to taking some time out for himself.
“I’m looking forward to having a bit more downtime … taking a bit more time [for] my own mindfulness and meditation,” he says.
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