‘As I see it’ The billion dollar baby

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Starting from small beginnings and one car rental booking website in 2004, Mike Ballantyne tells us how he’s taking his company, Online Republic, to reach a billion dollars in bookings.

 

With 100 staff working on thousands of travel booking websites across four countries, Mike Ballantyne’s global e-commerce business is one of New Zealand’s most successful private companies, and also, among its best kept secrets.

It’s likely you’ve never heard of Mike Ballantyne or Online Republic. Yet, when a tourist in Australia, Europe, the US or China books a car rental, motorhome or cruise, he’s hoping it’s through one of his websites – and the chances are it will be.

Last year, his business added $20 million to the value of its travel bookings and set targets of achieving $1 billion worth of bookings by 2020. Already the tenth biggest car rental booker in the world and a leading player in the Australian cruise market, Mr Ballantyne sees ‘massive potential’ for further growth.

“We’re turbo-charging our business by investing heavily in our future, not just taking out profits,” says Mr Ballantyne.

“Last year, we completed 230,000 car rentals, but the biggest player made in excess of five million bookings. There is room to grow tenfold and it’s the same for our cruise business, where there is opportunity to be twice or three times the size in a couple of years,” he adds.

Nearly a decade in, Mr Ballantyne puts Online Republic’s growth down to keeping good people and staying true to the company’s core values.

“We achieve our goals primarily by investing in our people and grabbing good e-commerce talent. The challenge is finding people who will help us get to where we want to be, locking them in and creating leaders quicker than our competitors,” he says.

In this, Mr Ballantyne takes a novel approach: reducing his own shareholding for his people’s, and ultimately, the company’s benefit.

“One hundred percent ownership doesn’t ring true to me. You’re better to have less of a bigger business, than more of a smaller one.

“As your business becomes more successful your good people will be offered jobs on a regular basis. Yet, if they are shareholders, they are with you for good.”

Online Republic currently has eight staff who have earned a shareholding in the company – covering finance, sales, programming and search marketing. But Mr Ballantyne cautions that a business needs more than a stable talent pool, it must have an eye for change.

“Never fall in love with your own success, or think you’re better than you are,” he warns.

“Innovate relentlessly. Be dissatisfied with what you have just launched and work

on a new idea the very next day. Know, tomorrow your competitor could unleash something that will change the playing field.

“We have seen people in our own industry who were quite strong that have completely disappeared. So, be agile and adaptive. Innovate or become extinct,” advises Mr Ballantyne.

“Sometimes you need to rethink how you do things. How can you keep your company agile? Even if you’re a big corporate, perhaps you can build an

innovation unit that has a license to bypass normal procedures and get ideas to market without all the usual layers of approval,” he adds. And innovate Online Republic continues to do.

Online Republic’s latest innovation is Search Republic, a digital agency which helps businesses make the most of their e-commerce opportunities.

“We are offering New Zealand businesses access to the same e-commerce experts who are driving the success of our business,” says Mr Ballantyne.

“We have ex-Googlers on staff who are world class search marketers, top SEO and conversion rate optimisation talent, and our clients also have direct access to the digital entrepreneurial talent of our shareholders.”

Unlike more traditional companies, the company has a big advantage over others with its 24/7 and geographically boundless online business model.

“We can move fast. Test ideas quickly. Fail fast and inexpensively,” he enthuses.

As his business has expanded, Online Republic’s relationship with its professional business advisors has too become more significant. “You need to maintain continuity with the team who work on your financials. Keep them involved with everything that’s going on and get advice along the way.

“Poor decisions can come back to bite you. It’s better to do it properly,” says Mr Ballantyne.

“We chose to work with PwC when our business got to a size and level of international complexity where we needed a firm with a leading reputation and global presence to help our company grow to the next level,” he concludes.

This article was sourced from PwC Private Business Insights

Brad has spent many years working on client side, developing digital strategies and managing teams to implement those strategies. He understands the challenges and priorities from an online marketer’s perspective ­ the high targets, tight budgets and the education required to gain internal buy ­in to digital strategies. He also likes riding his Mt bike and telling stories about all the mountains he has climbed before becoming a Dad.

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