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Martin Hosking of Redbubble on Why the Second Time's the Charm
January 19, 2017
Martin's first venture, search engine LookSmart, had a meteoric rise -- followed by a devastating fall. A few years later, though, he effected a personal turnaround with the creation of print-on-demand products company Redbubble, which now boasts nearly $115 million in revenue and designs from more than 400,000 independent artists around the world, as well as a 2016 listing on the Australian Stock Exchange. Martin recently spoke with the Australian Financial Review about what he did differently in his second venture to ensure its success.

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Martin Hosking (AUS 94-96) reminds us that there should be more to the adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” In a recent conversation with the Australian Financial Review, Martin describes the dotcom boom-and-bust of his former search engine business, LookSmart, as the most “emotionally challenging” phase of his career. It was a rollercoaster ride that included a meteoric rise in company valuation and a devastating crash.

"No one really believed that [LookSmart] was worth more than Qantas, but to feel that sense of the hyperexpectations through to when those were deflated, it was emotionally tough," he said.

A focus on building a solid foundation

Like LookSmart, Redbubble – a Melbourne-headquartered print-on-demand products company – faced massive market upheaval shortly after Martin founded it in 2006. The global economic crisis of 2008, however, didn’t do to Redbubble what the earlier dotcom bust did to LookSmart. This time around, Martin’s company weathered the storm.

"In LookSmart the business was never solid and when the balloon deflated we had a feeling that nothing would be left, and that turned out to be true," he admits. A decade later with Redbubble, he didn’t just “try, try again.” This time he took a very different approach: “Redbubble was always a much better business with stronger fundamentals. It was challenging, but we knew we could get through it because the business had always relied on a strong cash flow.”

A love of accessible art (as long as it’s done well)  

Redbubble is a marketplace that connects artists and consumers by offering a variety of art-printed products including clothing and homeware. Martin’s idea was that artists would get an opportunity to sell their work, and art would be more accessible to consumers. 

"I studied the pre-Raphaelite movement in England in the 19th century [...], which led to the Arts and Crafts movement. My view was, 'Why couldn't we make creative objects more accessible to people?'" he says. "I also like design, and I get horrified by things that are poorly designed."

A longer-term orientation

In addition to building a more solid foundation financial for Redbubble, Martin also adopted a perspective different from the one he took for LookSmart. "At LookSmart we were very concerned about the share price and we put out press releases that were designed to pump it up," he says. "That was the nature of the dotcom era and every other company was also doing it, but it wasn't the right thing to do."

Martin says that the nature of the marketplace model is challenging at first because real success cannot come until a critical mass of buyers and sellers has been cultivated, and that takes time.  

"You typically go for years in this smoldering state without catching fire, and during those years you're just looking for some glowing embers that indicate there is some hope," he says.

With his sights set beyond the day-to-day share price as an indicator of long-term success and his commitment solid financials, Redbubble endured both the global economic crisis and the “slog” of his business model.

"You have to have enough time to get through that. Eventually it gets traction. I remember the moment very clearly. It was 2010 and suddenly all the numbers were turning in the right direction. We'd been going for almost four years [...] and the difference was profound [...] it starts to build on itself."

With $114.6 million in revenue and designs from more than 400,000 independent artists around the world, Redbubble listed on the Australian Stock Exchange in 2016.

From diplomacy to the digital marketplace

Martin’s first job out of university was with Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs, and he could easily have been on track to becoming the country’s foreign affairs minister or an ambassador.

"I joined the Department of Foreign Affairs in the mid-1980s," he says. "I only applied for one job in my last year of university and they only accepted 24 people out of 5,000 applicants. When you get in, you feel like you have to accept. It gave me the opportunity to take on responsibilities well beyond my maturity […] I think it became increasingly clear to me that I was dissatisfied in the course of my career, because I couldn't see the tangible impacts of what I could do. Being an entrepreneur, you see something being driven through your own actions.” 


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