Cameron Priest: Broody, Intense and SaaSy
After four short months, Cameron Priest had enough of his job and decided to leave. His employer asked what they could do to keep him. “I told him the only job I wanted was his,” he recounts proudly, fully-assured. The CEO was asking. After leaving, he started a few ventures, one of them, an apparel import business. “Some of the stuff wasn’t really savoury – Louis Vuitton’s lawyers even sent us letters,” he recounts. The other business worked out better, which eventually turned into TradeGecko.
The Kiwi is broody with dark, pondering eyes. A slight constant frown dances above his eyes, which probably happens when you’re so intensely focused on a mission. The bottom half of his face is framed by a thick but moderate beard. It’s easy to call him arrogant and megalomanic, with quips like, “Any business that anyone else runs, I can probably run as well.” He speaks quickly, as if that saves him time, so he can do everything he wants in life. “There’re so many things I want to fix, and the bigger the company I have, the more power I have to make the changes.” He thinks long-term, and sees each destination as a platform for increasingly bigger goals.
The office is abuzz with activity. People are sitting on what looks like second-hand sofas, having discussions with Macbooks on their laps. Others are pacing around, grabbing a drink, or having an impromptu stand-up chat. The interior is spotting the popularised industrial look, with untiled cement floors, high ceilings and large windows. The average age group seems about twenty-five. The traditional belief that people needed to work for a number of years before they can pursue a business seems so outdated in this era, where products can almost literally be conjured up from nothing, access to consumers largely available, and more a matter of skill, hustle and ingenuity (and luck). Cameron is a prime example of this. “If you’re my age, 28 years old, and you started out when you’re 24, and never held a proper job, you need to learn fast,” he says, well-aware of the pitfalls. He is engaged, and plans to get married next March. “Should be good,” he tells me with the same optimism which brought him to Singapore. All his brothers are also residing in Singapore – his influence, probably, causing his parents to be a little upset they’re not seeing the boys as much now. “I think when I’ve kids they’ll come to Singapore more often.”
YONG HUI YOW: Why did you come to Asia?
CAMERON PRIEST: I’ve always wanted to live in Asia and be an international businessman. At that time, I was running two businesses in New Zealand. One of them wasn’t doing well, and the other was doing better. The one doing well turned into TradeGecko. We applied to JFDI, and when we got in, we took up the opportunity to move here and focus on building TradeGecko. Access to capital is also easier in Singapore.
YONG HUI: How was the JFDI process?
CAMERON: They’re great guys. The most valuable part of the process was the idea of focusing intensely for 3 months. I think if we had not done that, it would be very easy for us to mess around and do a bunch of other things like client work for instance. It was the mental investment that helped.
YONG HUI: Did they require you to drop your other businesses?
CAMERON: It wasn’t forced upon us, but that was the implication.
YONG HUI: Your brothers are also involved with TradeGecko.
CAMERON: Yes. I initially started TradeGecko with another co-founder, but I eventually brought on my brother who’s now a co-founder as well. Now we’ve actually hired another brother, who’s also an engineer. My fourth brother also lives in Singapore now, so the four of us are in Singapore.
YONG HUI: What is your fourth brother doing?
CAMERON: He is starting a business as well. He’s building a company focusing on a real-time personal assistant. If you want to buy anything, you can message them, and they’ll go find and deliver it.
YONG HUI: It’s like Magic.
CAMERON: Yes, exactly.
YONG HUI: He was in San Francisco and he knows those guys. So he decided to do it for all of Asia-Pacific.
YONG HUI: What were your other businesses previously?
CAMERON: I had a business developing iPad applications and web applications for clients. We had another business importing apparel, cufflinks and so on. Some of the clothes were less than desirable. We got a letter from Louis Vuitton’s lawyers. This was when I was a teenager. It was a learning experience. When you’re a teenager, learning that you don’t need to spend an hour working to make money changes your perspective. Most people grow up with parents who work for money, like eight hours a day equals a certain amount of money. Learning at a young age that you can buy and sell things and make money on arbitrage was a really interesting experience.
YONG HUI: How did TradeGecko come about?
CAMERON: The original idea was an iPad application for sales reps. You can imagine sales representatives out on the road selling goods to shops. So the application was a catalogue, order management application plugged into big, old, ERP systems, such as oracle and SAP, and Microsoft systems. We found that there was a lot of demand for the iPad applications. After awhile, we got sick of big ERP systems, so we decided to build our own.
YONG HUI: What was the attraction?
CAMERON: Back then, if you want to have an inventory order management system, and you bought it from someone like Oracle, you’d spend a crazy amount of money. We wanted to do this for small and medium businesses.
YONG HUI: Is it the long-term plan to go after enterprise customers?
CAMERON: We target companies that do up to S$100 million in revenue. They’re very large, but they’re not technically enterprise. We will compete with them to some degree. Our average customer pays a couple of thousand a year.
YONG HUI: Is it the same functionality as traditional ERP systems?
CAMERON: Yeah, on the surface it is, but on the customisation end, we provide the best practices. With Oracle and SAP, you can do whatever you want, and you might pay tens of millions to customise it. With us, we connect to other systems and show customers what’s the best workflow.
YONG HUI: Is paying millions of dollars for an ERP system ridiculous?
CAMERON: Definitely, but above a certain point, say, if you’re making a billion dollars a year. You might want a completely customised system. But if you’re selling nice polo T-shirts, you don’t need a customised system. With TradeGecko, you can connect with Shopify, Magento and others. Our whole idea is that we can be your entire back-end system to manage your inventory, shipping, and purchasing.
YONG HUI: Do you do any customisations?
CAMERON: Some small, limited stuff, but mainly, our customers can use our APIs to build features on top of ours.
YONG HUI: What kinds of SMEs are you targeting?
CAMERON: Wholesalers and ecommerce companies mostly. Our favourite type of business is one that’s selling both offline and online. If you’re importing shirts and selling them to retailers or wholesalers, as well as online, that’s our perfect customer because you’re selling to multiple channels and it’s quite difficult to keep all of that up-to-date. That’s our sweet spot.
YONG HUI: Are these mainly solo designers and craftspeople?
CAMERON: Not necessarily solo. Designers and craftsmen make up a pretty substantial part of our businesses. But if you’re doing 5, 10, or 15 million a year, that’s quite a substantial business already.
YONG HUI: Are the invoicing and accounting systems just complementary?
CAMERSON: Yeah, effectively. We use this thing called the customer journey, where we ask – what do our customers need to do before, during and after using TradeGecko? Before managing your inventory, you need to connect with your sales teams, purchasing, and after managing orders, you need invoicing, and shipping. We want to be the entire backend system for our customers.
YONG HUI: Is it connected to offline point of sale?
CAMERON: So with online point-of-sale, we’ve got Amazon, Shopify, eBay. We can also be their offline point-of-sale. It’s all you need to have a centralised system. Sales are automatically reflected across all the channels they have.
YONG HUI: When you left New Zealand, what did your family say?
CAMERON: My parents always knew I’d spend some time away. They’re definitely a little upset and scared that I’m going to marry a foreigner [laughs]. I’m engaged to a Malaysian, and we want to settle down in Singapore. And they prefer that we move back home and raise our future kids there. I mean, they’re always supportive of me. They are probably a little more upset that the other brothers are living here as well. It’s a bit difficult for them because they’re not seeing us that much.
YONG HUI: Why not bring them over?
CAMERON: Mum can’t handle the heat that well. Dad loves Singapore and Asia. He likes dirty streets and scuba diving… being based in Singapore is great. Once I have kids, I think they’ll be here all the time… someday.
YONG HUI: Your Dad is an inventor?
CAMERON: Yes. When I was growing up, Dad invented a lot of stuff. The Kiwi fruit industry uses a special trailer he invented. It helps you manage the fruit so they don’t get damaged. The entire Kiwi industry in New Zealand and the world uses it. The one thing I did learn however was that he was a very good designer and inventor, but he was very bad at commercialising his products. So while the entire world uses the designs, he makes nothing.
YONG HUI: What did you learn from that?
CAMERON: I think you learn from your parents what to do, and what not to do. If you see that your parents are not very good at collecting bills for example, and you see people saying to them all the time: “I’ve got no money to pay you” – you become good at collecting bills.
YONG HUI: How many customers does TradeGecko have?
CAMERON: I won’t disclose the exact figure but it’s a couple of thousand.
YONG HUI: What’s the largest customer you have?
CAMERON: We have some big customers such as [placeholder]… we do their entire Philippines franchise. It has 62 stores. We have other big clients – one of them sells car and truck tires. They sell US$85 million worth of tires. Another is the biggest car parts distributor in Europe. We have a lot of alcohol, fashion, electronics sellers. We also have marijuana and gun companies – companies I personally wouldn’t support, but it’s fascinating to see how much they make. That’s something I love the most about our business. We get to meet so many business owners and learn from them.
YONG HUI: What are some of the difficulties selling to SMEs?
CAMERON: Firstly, it’s very hard to find them. Singapore is considered a good market, but SMEs here are not as adoptive of software. In Asia, we’re still going to the cloud stage. In the US, Australia and New Zealand, they’ve already gone past that. So awareness and education are very important. How do we teach the 80,000 SMEs in Singapore about cloud-based order and inventory management software? It’s difficult.
YONG HUI: What do they use now?
CAMERON: They may be using spreadsheets today. But once they hear about us, and we can show them value, they’ll get it. If you’re an importing into Singapore 5 different fruits from Europe, and RedMart asks you to list on their marketplace, and you look at your spreadsheet, it’s a mess to sell to so many different channels. How do I sell to my wholesalers, retailers, and online channels? How do I make sure I don’t sell products to RedMart that I haven’t already sold to these other guys? The answer is you have to move to a system. Education is key.
YONG HUI: How long do you think it’ll take to educate this market?
CAMERON: Ten years from now, if you’re not selling online as one of your channels, you’ll probably have serious problems as a business. The answer is not forever, but it’ll take a long time.
YONG HUI: How much easier is it in other markets?
CAMERON: We’ve found some markets easier than others, because they’ve already had a lot of software education. In New Zealand and Australia, we’ve partnered with this cloud accounting software, Xero, which had already educated the market. In the US, we’ve partnered with Shopify, Magento and Amazon, and BigCommerce. They had also educated large parts of the market. That being said, the government here has been helpful in trying to push for the cloud and Software-as-a-Service.
YONG HUI: With all this data you have, what kinds of insights can you provide your customers?
CAMERON: We help them understand who their best and worst customers are, best and worse selling products, make sure they don’t run out of money due to cash flow issues, and more importantly, are you going to run out of product in 3 weeks? We tell you when to re-order. We can help you understand forecasting, seasonality and so on. It’s interesting because sometimes businesses fail because they are too successful. They might have paid for inventory today, and not sell it for another 60 days. We help them better manage this.
YONG HUI: Can clients do away with an accounting system?
CAMERON: We don’t do tax returns. So you still need an accountant to do profit and loss returns for tax filings. We do however, work with accounting systems.
YONG HUI: Will you eventually do tax returns too?
CAMERON: I don’t think so. Our customers are not using accounting software 8 hours a day because they are not an accounting firm. Our customers are businesses that are involved in warehousing, selling, and managing inventory. We want to be that – the product you use all day every day.
YONG HUI: What have you learned from starting multiple businesses?
CAMERON: The biggest thing with TradeGecko is I have more clarity about the business I want to build. The biggest thing for me personally is… this sounds so cheesy and everyone says it… but you don’t realise how hard it is, and all that matters is having the right people. One wrong person even in a 60-person company like us, can hurt the entire company. At first, it’s about money; then it’s about the change you want to see in the world. I’m starting to realise the things I want to achieve, and a really big successful company is a great platform to change the things you want.
YONG HUI: What kinds of people are the wrong people?
CAMERON: It is not necessarily the ‘wrong’ people. The main issue is clarity of roles and the stage the start-up is in. There could be someone who’s great, and we might hire someone on top of him or her, which that person might not like. As you get bigger, and the teams get bigger, you need to start hiring people who can take the company forward for the next 24 months. I’m learning how to be a manager every day. It’s probably our fault for not knowing how to communicate to our early employees.
YONG HUI: What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned about hiring?
CAMERON: TradeGecko is going from 18 people to 60 to 120 by the end of the year. There’re going to be so many more layers and opportunities to grow. Helping people understand where they can grow is very important. We didn’t do that. We just assumed everyone was happy. Now, we ask people: where do you want to be in 6 months, 12 months, 3 years, and then help them grow into the jobs they want, making sure they have a career path. A start-up… when it starts to become successful, has to learn how to become a company, and that’s a very hard transition.
YONG HUI: Do you think that many start-ups have this issue?
CAMERON: Yeah, I think so. At the start, everyone does everything. Later on, you want to focus. Some people are best at many different things but not good at focusing on one thing. Some people can only do one thing, and cannot do many different things. Some people are just the wrong people for the phase of the company. As the CEO, I might be good at starting companies, but I might be a terrible CEO of a public company – remains to be seen though. But, we’ll find out.
YONG HUI: How do you mitigate such issues?
CAMERON: As we grow, we need to adopt more processes and structures, which can be very hard. It’s difficult to tell people: we love you, you’ve been great and we want you to be successful, but if you don’t want to focus and be involved in 10 different things, you should join a smaller start-up. We hired a COO, Natalie. She was Head of Global Acquisitions and Integration at Autodesk. She’s got a lot more experience than us: 25 years managing and growing teams. She’s helped us put together structured processes, and map out a 12-month growth path for each and every employee. If you’ve worked at big business before, you’d know these things, but if you’re my age, 28 years old, and you started this when you’re 24, and never held a proper job, you need to learn fast from people who have the expertise.
YONG HUI: Do you think early start-up employees face a very hard choice because first, you don’t get much of the equity upside, and as the start-up grows, people come in to manage you?
CAMERON: I haven’t really thought about that one. Founders of start-ups obviously get most of the equity, but the early employees get more stock than most of any later employees, but still a factor smaller than the founders’ holdings, because, the founders hopefully, had absorbed most of the risks. But, I’d say probably yes to answer your question, and we are worried about this; that’s why we always strive to recognise the work and efforts of all our employees. One of the things we’ve done is make sure our employee earn at least market salary.
YONG HUI: What are the intangible benefits of being an early start-up employee?
CAMERON: Early employees do learn a few things. Hopefully, they learn how to build companies, so we have employees leaving to start their own companies. A lot of our early employees were very young, and they’ve had a lot of opportunities to grow. There’s definitely value in that. One of the guys who started PayPal said: “they learned it was possible, but not easy. If it’s too easy, you don’t learn anything; if it’s too hard, you learn it’s impossible.” Most companies like TradeGecko are not easy, pretty hard, but not impossible. If you were an early employee at Google, it might have seemed easy – went to US$1 million to US$10 billion in revenue over a few years.
YONG HUI: What’s the most difficult thing you’ve had to deal with?
CAMERON: That was the most difficult actually. The second was probably raising money. Raising money takes a long time, and emotionally drains you. If you’re coming to the end of the month, and you don’t have enough money to pay your staff, and you’ve got investors who’ve signed the paperwork but the money hasn’t come in, you just can’t sleep… and you haven’t taken a salary for 3 or 4 months to make sure your employees get paid… We’ve been lucky we’ve always made money, and have investors who were very interested.
YONG HUI: How long does it usually take after closing?
CAMERON: The last time it took probably 6 to 8 weeks. It depends on the funds. Sometimes, funds are in the middle in their own fundraising, which can slow it down. As you can imagine, you’ve got the paperwork signed, the money in the bank is going out slowly… not that slowly actually [laughs]… you’ve got sales… but you’ve to pay salaries all at once.
YONG HUI: There’s been a surge in the number of Series A funds recently.
CAMERON: Yeah, it’s interesting how it’s gone from one or two Series A funds to eight or nine over the last 4 months.
YONG HUI: Do you plan to raise again soon?
CAMERON: Probably not for another 12 months. That means we’ll probably start raising again in 6 months.
YONG HUI: Going public in the future?
CAMERON: That’s the long term goal. In the SaaS business, there’s a metric, which is that you want to triple revenue in the first year, triple in the second, then double each year for the next three years. If you follow that path, you can go public. We’ve followed that path so far, and if we can keep that up, we can go public in 3 or 4 years. The average company in our industry goes public after 8 years. We are 3 years old now, so we have 5 more years to go.
YONG HUI: What’s your revenue?
CAMERON: We can’t disclose the figures, but it’s a couple of million dollars.
YONG HUI: Are you profitable?
CAMERON: Not yet. Last year, we were very close, and then we started accelerating. We tripled from 18 to 60 people. We want to double again. A customer costs us about 600 to 800 to acquire, and they pay us about 100 to 200 a month, so it takes 6 or 7 months for a customer to become profitable. In our business, we need to acquire customers as fast as we can, so that means we spend a lot more money upfront. Then, they pay us forever, hopefully, every month. So, in a sense, we’re incentivised to never be profitable. That’s why Salesforce is not profitable and they’re 20 years old, because they can always go out and buy customers, and recognise revenue for a long time.
YONG HUI: How about churn?
CAMERON: Churn is the biggest pain in the arse. It’s the pain in every SaaS companies’ arse.
YONG HUI: What’s been the biggest reason?
CAMERON: There’re always people wanting more features. There might be customers signing up, and paying us for features we never had. It’s frustrating. The worse reasons are the customers who grow too quickly and for some reason, they become retailers, and they leave us, which sucks. Also, many customers who are start-ups or small businesses shut down a lot.
YONG HUI: How’s your workforce like?
CAMERON: There’re about 10 people in sales, 16 in product, 10 in support, about 5 in marketing, 3 in growth, a few designers, 5 in operations. We want to double all of these. We want 24 salespeople and 32 product people by the end of the year, so we’re going to do a lot of hiring.
YONG HUI: Why did you go to the Philippines?
CAMERON: A few reasons, but the main one was we needed support 24/7, and we couldn’t find people here who wanted to work at night. But over there, it’s quite common. We used to do this personally, and I used to answer all the calls. Longer term, we’ll open up in the US, so we don’t have to worry about late nights so much. 30 per cent of the Philippines’ economy is BPO (Business Process Outsourcing), so they’ve been doing it, and they enjoy doing it. It’s difficult to find people who want to do customer support long-term. We’ve struggled to find people who want to do that. It can be a fun job, and we’ve had some great people in those roles.
YONG HUI: Who inspires you?
CAMERON: Elon Musk. Biographies and business books are my focus. I also love books on Railway Tycoons, Oil Barons, Robber Barons… that era. I used to read Richard Branson’s books back in the day. Now, I try and read books to help address problems that I’m facing at work. I read a lot of science fiction as well.
YONG HUI: Business fiction like Fountainhead?
CAMERON: There is another book: The Green King, which is about some guy who built a massive business, and he tried to create a new country in the Amazon. As the Crows Fly, is also about a guy who builds a massive department store. I love both of them.
YONG HUI: You want to become those characters.
CAMERON: Yeah, there’re things I want to fix in the world, and the bigger the company I have, the more I’m able to bring about change.
YONG HUI: How is the culture like at TradeGecko?
CAMERON: I want people to be able to be completely open and transparent. As a Kiwi, we can be a little sarcastic. Sometimes, we need to be a little more careful about that as people may get offended. We have internal values such as ‘Kambana’, which means pride. We believe in always getting better. I think everyone in TradeGecko should be spending almost all their time on getting better at their job, or whatever it is that they’re doing in their lives. Longer term, I can see myself thinking about TradeGecko as the Gecko Mafia, much like the infamous PayPal Mafia. I want to help people who leave TradeGecko grow their own start-ups. To me, that will be the most exciting thing.
YONG HUI: If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
CAMERON: I’m not sure…maybe starting a different company? But I will not work for someone else for sure. I wish I’ll never work for anyone else. I couldn’t do it. No one would hire me. The only job I had lasted for 4 months. When I quit, they asked me what they can do to keep me. I replied: The only job I want is yours, and he was the CEO. It’s probably a little arrogant, but I feel that it’s not that. The CEO of Starbucks said he doesn’t work any longer than the coffee shop guy around the corner, but he runs Starbucks. Someone may have 30 or 40 more IQ points than me, but no one can be 10 times smarter than I am. That means that any business that anyone else runs, I can probably run as well.
YONG HUI: What is the misconception about starting a company?
CAMERON: I think it’s so much easier and so much harder than you think. Maybe we were lucky with our business. The moment I started, everything became so much easier, because instead of saying: I’m going to start a start-up, you say: this is my company. The moment your start, problems move. The hardest part is just starting, and once you start… it’s not easy, but it’s straightforward.
YONG HUI: What are the downsides of taking advice from people?
CAMERON: People have their biases. Survivorship bias for instance. If they were successful, they think it was because they did XYZ. It’s about being super critical about the advice you get, and trying to look through the lens of the biases. There are things that are always true, such as: build something people want, and talk to customers.
YONG HUI: What drives you?
CAMERON: There’s so many problems that I want to fix. Some of them I can fix now, some I can only fix once I’ve built a bigger business. One of the things I’m looking at doing is to develop a foundation to support women entrepreneurship in South East Asia. I thought I’ll start it in 5 years, but fuck that, I’m going to start now. I’ve got TradeGecko, I can go guilt trip all the other CEOs and start-up founders in Singapore. Give me some money to help me with this programme. The bigger the company, the more power I have to leverage to fix problems.
YONG HUI: What is it going to be called?
CAMERON: Haven’t named it yet. I’m working on it. From the research I’ve done, education is the biggest impact you can have on women. If you educate men, quite often they leave for the big city. If you educate women, they share the knowledge at home, teach their children, and groom the entire village community.
YONG HUI: What other causes are you passionate about?
CAMERON: That’s probably number one. There’s a bunch of things. There’re long-term things I personally would love to help solve. We should be able to extent life and double life expectancy. I’m passionate about bio-hacking. We should be able to control a lot more of our bodies. Space exploration is another thing I’m passionate about. I’m passionate about healthcare as well. There’s a great book called The Patient Will See You Now. The whole idea is that 20 years from now, I’m going to wake up and it’s going to tell me what I need to eat to have perfect health today. It’s about proactive medicine and health. In Japan, you used to pay the doctor every month except for months where you are sick. So you pay the doctor when you’re healthy, and it’s his job to keep you healthy throughout the year. It’s such a good model! I love that!
YONG HUI: Dying is a pity.
CAMERON: I think it’s a waste of human resource. It’s terrible. There are some very smart people trying to solve that. There’re problems in the world that if I don’t fix them, who will? If it’s not my responsibility, why should I expect someone else to do it? But there are so many problems in the world, and you can’t solve all of them. You got to pick and choose.
YONG HUI: What are plans this year?
CAMERON: Open up offices in the US, Australia maybe Hong Kong, double the team to 120 at least, and tripling the company in terms of revenue. We want to try and break the 10 million dollar mark.
YONG HUI: When are you getting married?
CAMERON: Ah! Next March. At Fullerton Bay, Clifford Pier – should be good.