Vision and values with Gen George, OneShift

Gen George, creator of short-term recruitment platform OneShift, was named by the Sydney Morning Herald as one of the top entrepreneurs to watch in 2016, and took out the number one spot on Startup Daily’s Top 50 Emerging Leaders list. Samuel Tait spoke with Gen about the creation of OneShift, and the roles strategy, leadership, diversity and innovation play in the company.

Samuel Tait: What led you to create OneShift?

gen george 180Gen George: After finishing high school I got a scholarship to university on the Gold Coast. I signed up for a double degree in property and law. I completed the first year but it wasn’t for me.  When I came back to Sydney I worked at Knight Frank for 6 months as their receptionist, just trying to figure out what to do. Then I went on a gap year to Europe. 

When I landed back here in November 2011 I was like, ‘Oh I need a job, where can I just go to wait tables or work behind the bar so I can afford to catch up with all my friends on Saturday night?’ I said to myself, ‘Okay I’ll get somebody to put a website together so that I can help my friends and myself out to do this.’ I Googled how to get a website built, and found somebody in Houston, Texas to build a website. They said, “it’s going to cost $5,000 but give us $2,500 up front. We’ll deliver it, then you can pay the rest once you’re happy with it.” I sent them the $2,500 and never heard from them again. Although I did harass them over email for 2 years and got my money back.

After that I did it myself on WordPress and we called it Sneaky Shifts. I’d print off the posters straight after work at my day job with Colliers International. I literally went to every uni and just duct taped posters. Funnily enough we had about 300 university students using the website and a couple of night clubs using it. I would hit the streets in the same areas with an iPad and get people to sign up. We told people it was this amazing matching algorithm that brings up exactly what you need. But it was actually me working til 3:00am in the morning magically matching everyone together.

Once we had more people using it I thought, ‘Okay maybe this is an actual business’ and found contractors in Surry Hills so I could actually touch them and actually know that they were real to build a new website which we launched in June 2013 as OneShift.

In October the same year we sold 27.5% of the business for $5 million, effectively valuing the business just under $20 million. Everyone was pretty happy with that considering we were less than a year old. has now got over half a million users. 640,000 profiles. About 38,000 businesses using the platform and we get about 1,000 people a day signing up for the marketplace which means we manage more than 10% of the market in regards to short-term recruitment.

ST: How do you define innovation, and what is the definition of innovation in your experience as a start-up founder?

GG: Constant evolution for us is innovation. It might not be some technological approach to it, it just needs to be a better way of doing something. That’s what we’re always asking. How can we do it better? It can be as simple as not using a pencil, use a pen so you don’t rub it out accidentally. It’s just silly things like that.

For example, every end of month, every department comes in and presents the last 30 days and the next 30 days so everyone has visibility of the business and knows where we’re heading because if we’re all running in the same direction hopefully we’ll get there a hell of a lot quicker than headless chucks.

Then we use this time to literally lay on the table any new ideas, anything we’re missing, so that it’s not just the managers going, ‘this is where we’re going. Follow me.’ I don’t care what position you’re in, I don’t care what your job is, it’s how can we, as a team, get this business moving quicker? How can we do it better?

ST: How does this viewpoint impact the way you operate at OneShift?

GG:  We run special projects once a month. We call these ‘Project X’ where we literally pull somebody from every department, and not always managers. It’s trying to get the account manager that deals with Joe’s Garage on the team for example, and ask them ‘right, how are we going to disrupt our own model? If we were a competitor, how would we try and undercut ourselves?’

They will come up with new ideas and new models every time. We’ve been fortunate enough to even outsell our own business where we have done one week trials on different Project X ideas, which is both heart breaking and awesome at the same time. Which means the teams are doing their job. And that is how new services like have launched.

ST: What is the role of vision and values in relation to the success of OneShift?

GG: ‘Make it happen’ and ‘no bullshit’ are two of our values. Another two are ‘family first’ and ‘test, fail, learn.’ The ‘no bullshit’ and ‘make it happen’ are big ones for me personally because we don’t know everything.

Managers, bosses, whatever, we’re only as good as the experience we’ve had. Same goes for the people who are in the team. It’s important to make sure that everyone’s perspective is put on the table so we can come up with solutions as quickly as possible.

We only established our values in January last year. Doing that has provided us a great framework moving forward. I mean, we always knew our values and morals if that makes sense, but really going, ‘right, here are our 4 key values’ and standing by that in all things we do.

For example, we have a vision of always putting the candidate first. Whenever we make a decision on something, someone will always go, ‘but is that candidate-first thinking?’ It’s like a sense check on everything before it goes ahead, and stating our values has really enabled anyone in the business to do the same.

It’s a great to see when a meeting is going on, for example, we’ll make a decision and then someone will go, ‘well hang on, no bullshit please. There’s no transparency in this. We need to approach it in this way because it’s not aligned with team values,’ and we’ll go, ‘yeah. You’re right.’

The key culture this creates is one of shared accountability, creating a two way street of feedback. It’s all well and good telling your staff, ‘this is where you’re doing it wrong,’ but it’s also asking them, ‘how can I improve? How can I do this better? How can I manage you better? How can the team work in a better manner?’

ST: What are the biggest challenges facing the business at the moment?

GG: Managing growth and finding the right skill sets for the team is the big one for us. For example, two years ago in terms of the style of people and skill set level, we were always hiring for what we needed right now, not what we thought we needed in the future, because we weren’t even thinking of what we would need. We would just hire because we knew these five things needed to be done today, not thinking of where we’re heading, and what skill sets we’ll need in the future.

However you always know who your star hires are and how they impact the business. Our CTO came on two and a half years ago now. There is always the key people that really drive the business. It’s also making sure that you hire slowly, but also fire quickly if things don’t work out. I have definitely learned that one the hard way.

ST: How are you driving the future growth of the business?

GG: Because we are in the startup world, there’s no set path for what this business should look like, or how it should operate. For us it’s saying ‘all right, we’ll set up how we want to do it, but how can we do it better?’ We’re constantly asking ourselves, ‘Can we streamline it? Can we approach it differently?’ ‘How can we get a better result?’

It’s not like we’ve set out to build a supermarket and we know what a successful giant supermarket company looks like. With us it’s, ‘okay, we’ve done that. Tick. Now how do we do it better? How do we go faster? How do we help more people?’

It’s always about the marketplace and how do we deliver a better result. Our future success and growth comes from having that mentality, always asking that same question: ‘How do we do it better?’

ST: How do you link strategy, leadership, and innovation?

GG: For us it’s been about making sure we have the right management team to drive our success. Culturally, making sure everyone is in line with those beliefs that we need to constantly do things better. That we can always rip the guts out of the business and change it up again and then put it back together. Nothing’s set in stone for life.

I also think because we’ve got such different backgrounds, but all very much in line with the values and vision of the business, we work well together. 

Our CTO for example. When we interviewed, we got on like a house on fire, I knew that we were in line with vision and values, and that he was going to be a good part of the team, but I had no idea whether his skill sets technically were actually what he said he had.

My dad called me crazy and told me to interview somebody else. I did, but the other person was crazy, and I hired the first guy I met. Two and a half years later, I’m as happy as Larry.

Our CMO, has the same sort of style. Just came at the right time, right place, right person, and you know it’s in line, and then you put everyone in the same room and there is healthy debate, there are facts and figures on the table.

We all know how each other operate; we spend so much bloody time together. Hence one of our values is ‘family first’. We are a family, and you back your family. It’s important that because we are a startup and we’re constantly trying to break the rules and do things differently, there’s no wrong answer. If something stuffs up, we learn from it and onto the next thing. Unless we stay core and together, it’s just not going to work.

ST: Are there any specific tools or processes that you use within the organisation to help with the idea or the execution or the process around being innovative?

GG: To be honest, we don’t like adding in process for the sake of process. We don’t use lots of tools to manage things. We were using Skype because it is free. Then we decided to use Slack because it was an easy way to keep everyone chatting in rooms and transfer files, and also we could hook it up to our database so we could find out live stats then and there. It made more sense. That was, I guess, based on doing things better.

Other than that, it’s literally just whiteboard everything. ‘What are we doing? This is working. This is not working. Great. How do we change it? What are the live stats. Is that a better result? Great. What are we trying to benchmark? Are we going to run with it?’

I suppose the most we do is a project one-pager. ‘This is the project, this is what I’m expecting to achieve, this is what success looks like. If it achieves these results by this date, run it hard. If it’s not achieving this by day one, two or three, pull it straightaway.’

ST: How important is the idea of accountability for success within a startup?

GG: It’s the be all and end all. Your idea, you’re running with it. You’re coordinating the whole thing. I think the worst thing you can do is have a CEO who wants to have a finger in everything. I can’t be everywhere at once. I’m in here talking to you while they are running everything else. If they’re not accountable for something, then it wouldn’t work.

The person who’s passionate about the project, who’s come up with the idea, who wants this to work, is the person who’s behind it and knows the numbers behind it, really owns the project, whether it fails or succeeds. You might get managers doing everything every single time. But they are only going to have tunnel vision.

Get people doing things that they’re passionate about. They come up with this idea because they’re experiencing a problem and think there is a better way. Let them do it and lead it. By doing so you’re going to have someone a hell of a lot more powerful and successful than somebody who’s hand-balled something.

ST: What is the role and impact of culture in innovation?

GG: It’s huge. Primarily because you’ve got to set up a belief that things are possible and provide a framework to make it a daily conversation. Otherwise things don’t happen. If you’re constantly embedding culture into everyone’s language within the whole company, ‘how do we do it better?’, it becomes a momentum within the company that is unstoppable. Whether it’s, ‘How do we get coffee?’ To bigger ideas that change the whole business.

I view company culture like a marriage. It’s never done. It always needs work. It’s always adapting, especially as we get more and more people within the team, different things make different people tick. I think our culture is very much defined by our values. We put problems on the table, and deal with them. No politics. Family first. We always make sure that we’ve got our families’ backs. I guess just always making sure that we’re evolving, we’re sense checking, I think that’s what one-to-one meetings are good for, but also the team get togethers. Not just always talking about work, but knowing each others life outside work, asking questions like ‘how’s your family doing?’

ST: What is the importance of diversity in enabling successful innovation?

GG: Diversity, different cultures, different perspectives is critical for success. A bit of everything from Brazilian to South African to French, which is like it was when working on the boats and yachts overseas. More viewpoints enables you to get better. Why wouldn’t you want more viewpoints?

It just seems so strange, the concept for somebody to not want diversity, whether it’s gender or background, or the country they’re born in or whatever. I just don’t understand why that would even cross somebody’s mind? It just seems like a large disabler, rather than enabling them to make better decisions.

OneShift has always been a mini UN. We just hire the best skill sets for the right role. Somehow, we’ve ended up with 70% males even though most women-led businesses tend to have a 50/50 split. Its just all ended up that way.

We definitely want more diversity from a gender point of view. We’re trying to do it, but it’s really difficult, I find. I think it’s because we’re tech, versus I suppose recruitment. When you go to a normal recruitment business, they tend to have a lot more females than males.  Less women are coming through the university system with a technical background is a big reason. We could put in quotas but my concern is that we wouldn’t be able to hit it, because we genuinely just don’t find enough women coming through.

There are discussions about it all the time. I’m the only woman on the bloody management team and they could all be my dads. I’m like, “Come on guys, what’s going on?” We’ve got an amazing sales manager and she kicks ass and does an amazing job, but it’s like finding a unicorn.

ST: What role does the customer play in innovation?

GG: We speak to, say, 700 businesses a day. Feedback from those businesses is critical to our success. We have a weekly catch up session just on customer feedback, and we will take feedback from both candidates and businesses, and we will actually explore it, ‘Is what they are requesting in line with the model? Is that in line with where we’re heading? Is that in line with the vision?’

If it is, we go build it. We’ll sometimes even do it live. The sales rep will still be on the phone to the customer. Say it’s something as simple as, ‘We don’t like the button green, we want it blue.’ He’ll be on the phone going, ‘Yep, push that refresh button. Done buddy. It’s all good. Thanks very much, have a great day.’

Being able to have that fluidity with your customers I think is really important. We still have our very first customer calling us, me, every day telling me about how much he likes changes or dislikes the changes, which is great. I think it’s important. We want to have that small business mentality with the big business reach.

ST: What is your viewpoint on what the future of work will look like?

GG: It’s changing drastically. Technology has made us accessible 24/7, so you don’t need to be here from 9:00 til 5:00 to be seen and actually doing work. I think it’s very much task-based now, so, ‘I need to get these things done, or I need to hit this target and then it doesn’t matter what else I do with my time.’

For us, the casualisation of the workforce globally is having a huge impact on where we’re heading. Being able to change the way that people choose to work, whether it is one hour a week or 100 hours a week, I think is enabling people to realize that they have choice, and they can really plug and play when it suits them.

Everything’s so much more accessible now, and for businesses this is an awesome thing because you can plug and play skill sets when it suits you and as your business needs to ramp up and ramp down, rather than, ‘I’ve got to hire these 10 people for the whole year, even if I’m using them or not,’ which sucks. It sucks for everyone. It sucks for the employee because they’re bored out of their brains, whereas if you can have that variety in life, you’re going to be happier, you’re going to be able to spend more time with family, all that sort of stuff.

Then there is globalization. Now the world is getting a hell of a lot smaller. Being able to move countries, work in different companies, different roles. 20 years ago, if you didn’t have the same company, the same role in your resume, people would flip out. Whereas now employers want that diversity. They want different roles on your resume because you’ve been through different things, experienced different things, so you can bring a different outlook and diverse experience to the business.

ST: What three companies do you most admire for the way that they approach innovation?

GG: I like Google because they’re constantly pushing out new products, whether it’s a good one or a bad one. They’ll try things. I don’t think there’s any other really big corporates that make me go, ‘Wow, that’s insane.’

I don’t look at Facebook and think, ‘Wow, they’re really innovative,’ I find that they’re kind of drifting. As bad as it sounds, I haven’t seen anything that’s just been a game changer.

I’m always dealing with a lot of startups and I think the startup community in Australia is getting a hell of a lot better. With the innovation statement released, there is a huge spotlight on the ecosystem and a real drive to connect everything from Government, to universities, to business and startups. Which is the only way we are all going to benefit.

Australia has some incredible startups with the potential to have an amazing impact nationally (and internationally for that matter). Everything from Aipoly by robotics genius Marita Cheng, to Doctus by Sarah Beckwith.

ST: What three pieces of advice would you give for people to be successful when it comes to their own innovation programs?

GG: Just start. Have a conversation with somebody else in the company. Ask them what they’re doing, what’s working, what’s not working. Pull people from different teams. Get a different perspective, rather than always grabbing the same people. Make everyone feel involved, rather than just the managers.

Always take a punt with people’s ideas. If you’re giving anything a go, a good crack, setting up success even if you don’t always think it’s going to be the best, I think you will be surprised.

Samuel Tait
BY Samuel Tait ON 3 February 2016
Samuel Tait is a digital marketing and transformation specialist who has consulted with clients across a diverse range of industries to drive growth through a fusion of consumer psychology, data, and technology. He is managing partner, business innovation at innovation consultancy I/O.