Martin Hosking’s career arc is pretty extraordinary. From a diplomatic role in the unstable Middle East straight after university to a corporate role with management consultancy McKinsey to internet entrepreneur for independent artists -- it’s not your typical vocational path.
But the co-founder and CEO of Redbubble says experience in all those fields were essential in making him the successful entrepreneur he is today -- in fact he’s convinced it’s the best way to form a startup rather than launch into a venture straight out of school or university.
“Startups are brutally hard, is the truth of the matter, and you should never underestimate this,” he told The Huffington Post Australia.
“Nobody should join a startup or start a company if they think it’s going to be easy because I don’t know of any startup who hasn’t had moments of looking into the abyss of serious self-doubt and serious challenges.”
Hosking said having roles in public service and corporate sector was invaluable -- and prepared him for the world of startups.
“The thing that being in foreign affairs gives you, which I still apply, is that you are given a significant amount of responsibility relatively early on,” he said. “So I was one of three diplomats -- I was a very junior diplomat -- in the embassy which meant that you’ve got responsibility and it falls on you to represent your country. And that’s very helpful.
“The capacity to operate under pressure and to be able to talk eloquently and convincingly about what you’re doing and to write about it in that way is one of the most important things you learn. People who are coming straight out of university, very rarely do they have those skills polished.”
Hosking says young entrepreneurs have a hard road ahead of them if they have not learnt any on-the-job skills and just plunge headfirst into their venture.
“I think it’s very tough to start up a company as a young founder unless you have the technical skills to do it,” he said. “So the standout successes of people who have started companies very young at university -- and you talk about Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg -- they were bringing technical skill to bear.
“In general, if what you’re bringing to the table is business skills, then you need to have more experience. Because it is quite possible to be a really crash-hot coder very young and being incredibly effective -- it’s quite difficult to be a crash-hot businessman very young.
“I look at somebody like the owner of Boost Juice -- Janine Allis -- she had had a number of years of experience before she started the company. And that’s the certainly the situation I had with LookSmart and Redbubble.”
After seven years as a diplomat in Canberra, Syria and Egypt, Hosking returned to Australia and did his MBA, then spent two years with global management firm McKinsey as a consultant. Then the internet happened.
“I saw the internet and thought ‘this is really going to change the world’,” he said.
He left to join LookSmart, a firm set up by two friends -- despite the risk.
“I guess it was a big jump from McKinsey and certainly very high risk at that stage,” he said. “In 1995 the internet was far from obvious that it was going to be as transformative as we now all know it has been but I certainly saw it in that way.”
It whet his appetite for tech startups, and in 2006 he and two friends, Paul Vanzella and Peter Styles, established Redbubble as an online marketplace where now more than 350,000 independent artists sell their artwork printed on shirts, hoodies, canvas prints, posters, stickers, iPhone cases and homewares.
And while it seems a leap to go from government service to the corporate sector and head-first into internet startups, Hosking’s love of the creative industry harks back to his days at Melbourne University. While studying history and economics he was also directing theatre performances, and has been a creative writer ever since.
Creating a market for creative types
Originally Redbubble was going to be a service printing customers’ own photos on mugs and T-shirts, but Hosking and his co-founders morphed the idea into something much more personal -- it was the kind of site they wanted to shop at.
“ I think it’s one of the characteristics of really good startups is that the founders are actually its first customers and we saw ourselves that way,” he said.
“People often create strong businesses because the founders see the need for themselves personally, and that gives them a sense of true north for the business, as a rudder by which they steer in those early days.”
Redbubble now employs 130 people and its 350,000 artists from around the world sold $71.5 million worth of products to 1.6 million customers.
Hosking says the artists have taken the platform and made it their own.
“It’s very much a marketplace, so the characteristic of an online marketplace is that you have to let the thing thrive itself -- you can’t heavily curate it,” he said. “And because the artists knew that and knew that we were on their side they really drove it from the early days -- it was their willingness to be there which made the whole thing work.”
He says that even though the company is growing -- with offices in the US, UK and a new office in Europe slated for this year -- some people still just don’t get why it has been such a hit.
“We’ve all grown up in a world where mass production and mass marketing seems like the right thing,” he said. “The idea that you can have micro marketing and micro production is still confronting to people.
“People still think why would anybody want to buy one of those T-shirts when they can go down the road and buy a polo Ralph Lauren T-shirt or Tommy Hilfiger or from Nike which is mass produced in China.
“And the answer is because people want things that other people don’t have.”