Building a Unicorn

Going Live with Finder CEO Fred Schebesta

Fred Schebesta is the CEO and Co-Founder of Finder, an online service that allows you to compare products, get expert advice, and make great decisions.


Host & Mixing: Kristofor Lawson

Theme Music: Nic Buchanan

Artwork: Andrew Millist


KRIS: From Lawson Media - This is Building A Unicorn, the show exploring what it takes to build a big, global business. I’m Kristofor Lawson.

KRIS: Finding the right credit card, or home loan, even the right mobile or internet plan can be a painstaking process. It usually involves looking up a bunch of different providers, getting quotes, looking for online reviews, or asking people you know for recommendations before you’re then ready to make a decision. And if you’re like me - sometimes making those choices can be really challenging. But today’s founder built a global empire on making that comparison process simple.

KRIS: Fred Schebesta is the CEO and co-Founder of Finder, an online service that allows you to compare products, get expert advice, and ultimately make great decisions.

Fred Schebesta: We compare things like credit cards, mortgages, insurance posts, loans, broadband, all sorts of things. And we do that in 83 different countries around the world. mainly focused, but our big offices are in New York, London, Sydney, Poland, Manila and Toronto.

KRIS: Fred grew up on Sydney’s North Shore, and as a young kid in the 80s, didn’t have access to much technology. So he spent a lot of his time outside riding bikes or skateboards. You know doing the things kids used to do before they discovered technology. The personal computing industry was only just starting to develop, and it wasn’t until later in Fred’s childhood when his Dad brought home a computer… and as someone who loved to tinker with things, Fred eventually started figuring out how it all worked.

Fred Schebesta: I just discovered how you could edit the code of and this was when games and everything was written in Basic. Way back in the day. Dot matrix printers, you know, my dad actually had a modem. And that was a big thing to have back in the day. And you used to connect to bulletin boards and things like that. And I never really understood exactly what that meant, but I just explored it and I was always curious. My dad wasn’t a massive computer’s guy, he just wanted to, you know, have a look at it, as an experiment, as a thing.

KRIS: Eventually Fred started playing around with website development, building things like Geocities websites. For those who don’t know, Geocities was huge in the late 90s as it allowed people to build their own personal website. He eventually branched out and started learning how to build more dynamic sites. Sites that could import information from a database.

Fred Schebesta: I actually remember the night that I learned about databases and how to get like PHP to query a database, and understood that, and building dynamic websites as opposed to flat websites. Yes. I remember that night in it was a big deal because that was the night that I failed my first exam because I'm supposed to study because our exam was the next day. And instead of studying for my exam, I, I remember consciously I said, I don't think I wanted to go and say that anymore. I was studying actuarial studies. I don't want to study anymore, I want to build websites because I think this is more exciting, this is the future.

KRIS: As he moved through university, Fred was selling websites to clients on the side. Learning whatever he needed to get the job done. It got to the point where he even rented an office space, and went all in on his own business.

Fred Schebesta: It's been a cowboy move. But um, and I just stopped going to university. So I did my last exam and then I kind of somehow passed that I don't know how. And I got enough points together, and I just said, I'm done. I'm just gonna graduate. And I just went full time. You know, I stopped going to uni, which is great. You know, I loved not going to uni because it just wasn't for me. And then I got to just full time build a business, which, you know, I don't think I actually knew how to build a business at all. In fact, I definitely didn't, and I made every single mistake you can possibly make. But through that process, I think that's probably the best way to learn right.

KRIS: Fred had a business partner who left to pursue other opportunities, and then in 2003, he teamed up with Frank Restuccia. At the time their business was mainly doing website development, but it soon started shifting to become focused on marketing.

Fred Schebesta: I learned what marketing was all about and how to do it. And that was fantastic. That's the moment in time when everything changed. That's when I learned about customers, listening to them, how people made ads, how people thought about campaigns, how they thought about their product, and how meet you met, how you get it out to the customer. It was a, it was probably one of the best educations you could ever ask for. Because building websites is one thing but marketing them that is actually truly where it's at. And marketing things is quite an art, in and of itself... A customer asked me once, they said ‘Hey, thanks for building this website’. And then I said, You know, I asked them, ‘Hey, what else can I help you with? What else can I do?’ because building websites is a one off. And they said there's this thing called Google. A lot of people are using that, can you get us to the top of that? I said, I'll check it out. And that just when I went and started just like with my dad with the, with the computer… I just went and figured it out.

KRIS: Agency work can often go in seasons, and in early 2006, Fred’s team didn’t have much work to do. So they started building their own websites, spinning up a bunch of new ideas, launching these websites, and then marketing them to see what would stick.

Fred Schebesta: And so we thought, Hey, we’ve got all of these developers and things like that. Why don't we just, what are we gonna do? Let's build some of our own websites. Because we know how to build them, market them, what else do you need? And that's where we planted… you know, built a Mother's Day present site, a Sudoku site, a poker site because poker, you know, Texas Holdem became big.

KRIS: And one of those sites that you built was Credit-Card Finder?

Fred Schebesta: Right. Yes, so Credit-Card Finder was another one. And so we learnt you know, Sudoku sites you can’t really make money out of. Mother's Day presents really only happens one time, one time a year. And poker was good, but it kind of died off a bit. We actually a sports betting site as well, and we just thought we don’t really want to make money out of people losing money. So all these sites may have made some money, a little bit of money. But Credit-Card Finder had a real scalability to it. And so we really lasered in on that. And we started, you know, writing guides and education. And that's something you know, I'm very passionate about empowering people. And in writing these guides and curating the internet for decisions they need to make and helping people. And from the back of that people would then go off and you know, they could make a comparison they can make a decision based on that.

KRIS: And was the site at that time, I mean, it was focused on credit cards. At the time, were you making money off the site, or was it just like something to build?

Fred Schebesta: Yeah, we made a little bit of money. I remember. You know, I remember the first $80 dollars and I remember looking at the bank account, I actually have statements back in back in the 2006, you know, we made $200 in a month and then $300, and $400 and you know, at the end of I think it was like six months, we were making $2500 a month or something… Then then we kind of parked it, because we sold the company. And we did an earn out, so we just put the whole thing on ice, so it just kind of sat there.

KRIS: But Credit-Card Finder would eventually lead Fred to creating a new business. And after this break, Finder is born.


KRIS: In 2007, Fred Schebesta and Frank Restuccia sold their digital marketing agency. As part of the deal they both had to stay around for a few years to wait out their contracts. In late 2009, both Fred and Frank were ready to quit their jobs and go all in on Credit-Card Finder… and together with their third co-founder Jeremy… they set to work launching their new venture.

Fred Schebesta: We paid ourselves $1500 dollars a month. Frank and I. And that's how we’ve always done it. You know, we always sacrifice ourselves in order to... because we didn't we didn't get any funding. That's the thing... You know we've sort of step by step, day by day, worked to put the money back into the company, but you know, take some out for ourselves as well along the way. And that's kind of how we've always treated it. Which is interesting. But yeah, we started and we moved into this little shared office and there was a barista and I think we drank them out of coffee. And then we were getting a bit much, I think there was like six of us or something. And then we were like, Oh, we better go and get ourselves a proper office. So we moved into 99 York street where we are today. And we had this tiny little room, this little back room. And it was, it was a great time. Jeremy at the time used to cook kangaroo steaks… Because he was into kangaroo. And he was trying to, he was into this, you know, this health programme. And he cooked the steaks on the George Foreman grill, in the middle of the office without a kitchen. And it was pretty punchy. But it was all part of it. And I loved it. I absolutely loved it. And when people came into interview with us, you know, we had a tiny little boardroom. We had a whiteboard, and we’d just tell people what it's all about. And they were like, hey this is kind of cool. And some people joined us and they're still with us today. A lot of people stayed, we just had a 10 year celebration. Our second 10 year person at Finder, which is, it's a pretty big deal.

KRIS: And how are you? How are you making money in those early days when I guess you're still figuring out what you want the product to be and what it's going to look like?

Fred Schebesta: You know, we were making some money, we knew what the, kind of, the product needed to be, we just needed to execute it more. It was making money, we just had to make it better. And then we continuously just improved the actual product and the way we marketed it by, you know, we did more marketing, and we got more partners on board. As we got more partners on board, people, you know, compared more credit cards, and revenues went up.

KRIS: With any new business you want to get the word out. So Fred and his team were doing everything they could to drive traffic to Credit-Card Finder, They were doing traditional PR campaigns through news websites and television. They were buying ads. And a big part of their strategy was content marketing. That content was used to raise their profile on search engines like Google. The team was also using other SEO tactics that Fred says, may have been a little grey… but with time those tactics landed them offside with Google.

Fred Schebesta: The tactics we've used over time have changed and that's when we got, we pushed it too far, a couple of times, and we got penalised by Google. That was [inaudible], so we went to Google jail.

KRIS: So this was 2011, that you sort of plummeted down the rankings?

Fred Schebesta: Yeah. And there's a ninja sword that hangs in our reception that signifies the recovery. But also reminds us of how sharp and careful we need to be about our tactics that we use, because it can cut us as well.

KRIS: Like what happened, what was it about what you were doing that sort of got Google offside?

Fred Schebesta: You know, we just push the limits, right. So we touched the… you’ve got to understand grey hat tactics back then are extremely black today… And you know, that's what everyone was doing. Everyone was buying links. So, you know, that's what they would do. That was just normal.And, and Google said nothing. They didn't, they didn't, they didn't say anything against that. Now they do, but in the past, they didn't say anything. So it was the wild west of the internet, you know.

KRIS: How did you deal with that? What did that process look like? Because I assume you'd be sitting around thinking... what do we do now?

Fred Schebesta: You know, with any problem, any crisis, like even you know, this is a bit of a situation going on right now in the world. I think it's just about thinking about what's in your circle of influence and what is in your circle of control. So what can you control from here? So we just sat down and we said, Okay, well let's go and, you know, unravel what we've done and figure out what does Google want. And you know we had to go and fix the website for three months. And that was devastating. And then we have to go and you know, re-engineer a lot of the things that we were doing and practices that we had in place and had to stop them. And yeah, we had to rebuild. We had to pivot and rebuild and make a real company and find other ways to promote Finder.

And we weren’t called back then we were actually still called Credit-Card Finder. So we didn't have a brand like that. And that was kind of the time 2013-2014 is when we kind of decided to make a brand. And that was, that was really, I think that was a big change and that was that was the change that really sent us to the next level.

KRIS: Building one core brand allowed the team to consolidate all the various comparison websites that they’d launched. So the company changed their name from Credit-Card Finder to officially become Finder. And that new brand and web site allowed them to expand their offering, and grow the overall business. And as the team expanded they had to start thinking about culture. And culture is a really important point for every business, it’s something we talk about in almost every episode of this show. So how did Finder as a team, think about building an effective company culture.

Fred Schebesta: Culture inside Finder has always been something I've been very protective of. And we have a pretty punctuated culture. Inside, you know, rocket ships and astronauts and winning, and going live. 2012 is kind of when we started, we wrote down the values of Finder. And that really came from a process of asking ourselves, what do we value? What behaviours do we care about? And we wrote those down and they became, that spreadsheet still exists, but they kind of became the values of the company. And it's always been a big deal internally inside Finder, the behaviours, and cultures, and rituals that we have around those. And we’re always trying to get better all the time, but it's definitely something which we we hold very dearly tools

KRIS: And gave those have those values evolved over time as your business has grown and you've become a bigger, bigger company?

Fred Schebesta: Yeah, so we were there was seven, and then we put them down to five. Um, which is kind of interesting, right? And that just made it sharper and people could remember them more. And, you know, it's kind of like, what are the behaviours that happen out the back of values? When you write down values I don't think you realise what actually it does. And then, over time, it's become part of our decision making. It's a real process actually I’d I'd say values. Values are a, they're a tough one. And I think it's something that needs to be reviewed over time. And we’re kind of probably coming up to that time again now. But you know, it's in the lexicon of what people say at Finder. They say ‘go live’. They say ‘up and to the right’, UTTR. They say ‘one crew’, they say straight up. The five values are just very strong and they are continuously echoing. And I think that's a good sign. That's a sign of a good set of values.

KRIS: And right after this break. Finder goes global.


KRIS: As Finder’s audience and team grew, so did their ambition as a company. So in 2016, the team started expanding globally, opening their first international office in the US. And Fred decided to move to the US so he could be the one to establish this new international presence.

Fred Schebesta: And so I got on a plane in August 2016 and I went to the US. I went with Jeremy, and Michelle, who’s, she’d been head of PR at Finder… We got a little Airbnb in Chinatown. I was just there. I just came back two weeks ago, and I saw it again and he was where we began and we got a little little office in Chinatown, and slowly crawled our way out of the primordial soup to be a start up again. And in the grimy, filthy, New York style we clawed our way up. And, that's really, when we began to really build a US business. And then I went in in January to the UK and we recruited Jon Ostler who's our US CEO. And I ran the US business for a while… But you know it's one of those things where I rediscovered that I'm a starter. I'm great at the beginning. That's where I'm really good. And after that, you know, the operational side, that's not my strength. Early on, you know, I'm quite good at that, but up, like, I'm looking for the next idea. I'm like the next unknown problem. And continuously building that until it's ready to go and then it's better if someone takes it over from there.

KRIS: One thing, one thing that you talk, you talk a lot about, and I've heard I've heard you mentioned this in several interviews, is building a phoenix company? What do you mean by that? What do you mean by building a phoenix company? Because probably most people in the startup world know about unicorns, but what do you mean by building a phoenix?

Fred Schebesta: I don't want Finder to be a unicorn company. I want it to be a Phoenix. And what I mean by that is I want it to be… I admire companies like Sony. So Sony, continuously reinvents itself. Back in the day, Sony used to make RAM and actually it's one of the reasons why Intel reinvented itself… And Intel used to make RAM and then it actually reinvented itself and became a processor company. That's because Sony kicked its arse at making RAM. There was better, they're better at it. And then eventually other companies, you know, formed up in Japan and they took over that market. And then, what Sony did was instead of grinding it out until margins got thinner and smaller. They actually reinvented them. They actually did a disruptive innovation, and they made a Walkman. Now, a Walkman is very different from making computer RAM. And then Sony went and made mobile phones, flat screen televisions. Then they made a PlayStation… So this idea of continuously reinventing yourself as a company. That's what I want Finder to be, I want it to survive and endure forever. You know, I see, I think one day Finder will die, and our job in Finder is to prevent that for as long as possible. And one way to do that is to continuously reinvent ourselves and become relevant… As opposed to just, you know, getting one thing and trying to blitzkrieg all around the Earth. In a, as fast as possible, with bots, you know, and getting as much money raised as possible as quickly with valuations going as quickly as possible. And the whole thing being built on very unsure metrics. I want to instead build a great company that learns the hard grind, and how to continuously reinvent itself when the polish is gone off. You know, and I think that's what I want to start from there and become great.

KRIS: On that point, I mean, how important do you think it is for founders to focus on creating actual, like real revenue as opposed to just raising their way, through the process of, of building their business?

Fred Schebesta: I think all companies eventually have a moment when people ask themselves, no matter which investors, they ask themselves, investors will ask themselves, and they'll say, when will this company actually make some money? You know, I think people are continuously asking that about Uber right now. I think if you look at the AfterPay share price today, it's $13. It was $40 a couple of weeks ago… And, and, you know, yes, they have a lot of customers. Yes, it's very hot. But eventually people are gonna ask themselves, when will this company make a profit? That's a real company. And right now, that's not what is happening. So I think it's a lesson you can either learn at the start, or you can learn it later, and I'm all about learning that now and going from there.

KRIS: What kind of shift have you, have you had to make, like in terms of your mindset in running a global business as opposed to a business that was just focused on the local market?

Fred Schebesta: Yeah, so whenever you see an opportunity idea, the next actual question now I asked myself is how globally, how does this apply around the world? And then I kind of unfortunately just shut ideas down or tweak them to be global. And that's hard. It makes the idea of benchmark higher, you know, that the bar is much, much higher. So it's not easy. Operationally, it's hard as well, very hard, to operate globally when you have such long distances. You know, I think if we were in the Northern Hemisphere, it would make it just a little bit easier, but Australia is in this, it’s this tiny little island in the bottom of the ocean. And that has its benefits but it also has its cons, you know, in terms of no one else is really on your timezone unless you're dealing with in Asia. But other than that, you're actually in the complete opposite end from all major markets. Which is English speaking ones, that is, which makes it tough. But it's probably something that we need to adapt to and think about going forward in the future as well.

KRIS: At the time of recording, Finder had 310 employees across the business, along with another 150-odd freelancers. Fred is now even looking beyond the existing Finder product. They’ve launched Finder Ventures which is about investing in other ideas, like a cryptocurrency brokerage service called HiveX. They are an ambitious company which made me wonder, how do they actually measure success?

Fred Schebesta: I think it's about how many people we help. You know how many decisions do they make on Finder? We listen to our customers though NPS, we read the live chats, we get into the detail. Then, you know, we look at hopefully over time more and more and more people are using Finder and they're finding a lot of value from it. And I think as long as that goes up over time, I think that's winning.

KRIS: You've got over 300 staff now in offices around the world plus your remote team. You know, you're building this, this really sort of global brand. When you when you look at everything that, that you've achieved so far with Finder, how do you feel?

Fred Schebesta: I feel it's day one still. I feel we’ve only just begun. And I think our method takes longer. I'm okay with that. I love being small. Small’s fast, and small’s nimble, and small’s beautiful. And I think that I definitely sometimes feel hey, we've got, this is a cool business. It's pretty cool. It's pretty cool. And then I always think about, for you know, just after that moment ago, okay, now what do I need to do to make this thing better? I spend a lot of time doing that.