A hair-raising way to start making money
There can be few entrepreneurs who have been inspired to succeed by their father’s grey hairs.
As a boy growing up in Sydney, Tim Fung, co-founder and chief executive of Airtasker – an online marketplace that enables users to pay someone to do a task for them – was paid pocket money to pluck unwanted silver locks from his dad’s scalp.
“He used to say ‘every time you pick out a grey hair, I’ll pay you five cents’,” says Mr Fung, 32.
“I remember one time he actually said to me ‘I’ll actually pay you 10 cents for today’, and he fell asleep in front of the TV.
“I just sat there for a couple of hours picking out these hairs, and I made 25 Australian dollars [$18; £12] in two hours, which, as a 10-year-old, was a massive amount of money.”
That diligent streak as a child developed over the years into true entrepreneurial verve.
A former investment banker, Mr Fung started Airtasker in 2011 with his trusted business partner Jonathan Lui. The pair have been friends for more than a decade after meeting at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.
“We had a lot of sleepless nights in the first 18 months,” Mr Fung recalls of the fledging days of Airtasker.
However, the business has subsequently expanded quickly.
It now has 320,000 registered users across Australia, this includes people who ask for work to be done, those who bid to do it and some who do both. There are some 15,000 jobs or tasks being generated each month.
For the year as whole, this translates into annual transactions of 20m Australian dollars, with Airtasker taking a 15% commission from the money paid for each job.
“We have grown seven times year-on-year,” says Mr Fung.
“Airtasker works by posting a task either by one of our mobile apps on iPhone or Android, or on the web,” he explains.
“We then have a local workforce of people who will come and make you offers on your task. So they will say ‘I can do that job for 100 Australian dollars, or 200, or 300. You simply look through all of those choices.
“You then pick the best person for the job based on their reputation, and the feedback that they have received before, and you are away.”
Mr Fung adds that the people who carry out the tasks via Airtasker comprise three main groups.
Firstly there are students who complete tasks in between lectures, then there are freelance, skilled professionals aged between 30 and 45.
The third group is the “grey army”, made up of older Australians over 60, who are often highly qualified ex-professionals looking to make money and keep active.
Tasks carried out range from oven cleaning and furniture assembly, to services offered by website designers and market researchers. And then there are the quirky assignments.
Mr Fung says: “A neurosurgeon from Sydney had decided to propose to his wife, and had chosen a ring that was located in Houston, Texas.
“As he’d decided that he wanted to pop the question in just five days, he needed someone he could trust to fly to Texas and bring back the very, very expensive engagement ring back to Sydney.
“Alexa, a mother-of-two was selected to run the task – she is trusted, with over 250 five-star reviews – and she made the most of her time by catching up with an old friend who lived in Dallas.”
While Airtasker is not unique – rivals such as Fivrr and Handy occupy a similar space – it has secured multi-million dollar funds from investors including two Australian investment funds, Exto Partners and Bridgelane.
A further 6.5 million Australian dollars was recently secured from Shanghai-based Morning Crest Capital, as the company looks at expanding outside of Australia.
Mr Fung, whose father was born in Hong Kong, and whose mother is a fourth-generation Australian with Chinese heritage, says it was very pleasing to secure Chinese investment.
Mr Fung says his parents were industrious and persevering, although those traits didn’t always rub off on him. The youngest of three children – he has two older sisters – he attended the prestigious North Sydney Boys High School.
“I went in waves of being a good and bad student,” he recalls. “I think I was really good when I started out.
“I then had a terrible phase in my early teens, when I was last in the school. But by the end of school I did okay. I wouldn’t say that intellectually I’m any sort of powerhouse.”
As a boy he was often contrary, wanting to play ice hockey when his peers had chosen football.
And perhaps it is no surprise that his career at Australia’s mighty Macquarie Bank only lasted five years.
He says: “The way that you approach a problem in investment banking is to try and remove every risk out of the model.
“I was always thinking, hey, this is taking the fun out of it. A lot of businesses would never start if you had to do this kind of equation.”
Like many entrepreneurs, 32-year old Mr Fung relishes taking calculated gambles, even in his spare time when he is hurtling around a racetrack or defying gravity on a mountain cliff.
“The best thing to do is to force yourself out of work by doing something dangerous that requires your brain to shift outside of work, so something like rock climbing is a great thing,” he says.
But business has a magnetic pull, and although he intends to marry his Beijing-born fiancee Modi next year, and enjoys the boisterous company of his Labradoodle puppy, he devotes most of his energy to his endeavours in the “sharing economy” that is challenging conventional ways of buying and selling.
“It is a great concept, and all that we are talking about is taking resources which we already have out there in the world and making better use of them,” says Mr Fung.
“So whether it is renting out your home, renting out your car or making use of people who want to be working but aren’t. All of those things are sharing resources,” he says.
“This is not a cyclical sort of thing where we are looking at an economy which is either in a good condition or a bad condition, this is something which is quite fundamental to the way people are going to do business in the future.”