Date posted: 14/10/2022 10 min read

Rarified air

Tim Fung and his friend Jonathan Lui created local services marketplace Airtasker in 2012 while working at a telco startup. Ten years later, their business is valued at more than A$255 million and pursuing huge growth in the UK and US.

In Brief

  • In the early 2010s Tim Fung and his friend Jonathan Lui realised there were plenty of tasks people would much rather pay to outsource than hit-up their friends and family for help with, such as packing and moving.
  • Besides helping people get odd jobs done Airtasker has become a popular way for people to earn money on the side, in-between jobs, or even as their main gig.
  • “When you’re creating a business, you want a problem you can solve, and by solving it have a serious impact and create real value for the community,” Fung says.

Story Stuart Ridley
Photos Nic Walker

It’s mid-July and Airtasker’s Sydney HQ, near Wynyard Station, is starting to be packed into who-knows-how many cardboard boxes for a move to a bigger space. It’s all being done so neatly and chaos-free, mind you, it’s easy to dismiss the enormity of the task. In a perfect world, every relocation would look this easy.

Coincidentally, this was one of the motivations for starting Airtasker – Tim Fung’s startup turned multimillion-dollar marketplace that enables people to connect and outsource tasks to others, known as ‘taskers’, in their local area.

In the early 2010s Fung and his friend Jonathan Lui realised there were plenty of tasks people would much rather pay to outsource than hit-up their friends and family for help with, such as packing and moving. Fung must have had an incredible talent for box-packing because he used to be the go-to guy in his social circles until he and Lui launched Airtasker to fix that problem.

Besides helping people get odd jobs done, as a marketplace connecting people with the wherewithal to outsource tasks to taskers in their local area, Airtasker has become a popular way for people to earn money on the side, in-between jobs, or even as their main gig.

“I think the gig economy, or flexible labour, changes the whole paradigm of zero is having no job and one for a full-time job,” Fung explains when we meet. “It can be very hard to get into a full-time job and for some people it’s very difficult when you lose one.”

Fung knows this all too well: when he worked as a senior analyst at Macquarie Group, he thought working at a bank was the most secure job one could have – until he was made redundant at the tail-end of the global financial crisis.

“There’s a fallacy around how secure that work is,” he tells Acuity. “Flexible labour can give you a softer landing by saying, ‘Hey, look, if I lose my full-time job I can jump in and start driving Ubers, or I can start selling my skills via Airtasker’.

“Equally, you can build up momentum: you can earn while you try to find that next full-time job, if that’s what you want to do,” he says.

“Flexible labour also says, ‘All of those things you do in-between jobs to earn money can now be a job’ and that can give people more security.”

An entrepreneurial spirit

After his Macquarie gig ended, Fung landed a job quickly at Chic Celebrity Management. Granted, it was in the unrelated world of talent management, but he put his commercial credentials to good use on money-making strategies for celebrities. He even developed the monetisation strategy behind an exclusive blog for models a couple of years before being a social media influencer was a thing.

In 2009 he also became a founding team member and investor, alongside Lui, in mobile SIM-only plan startup Amaysim. While there, the pair sharpened their entrepreneurial teeth on a couple of ideas.

One of them was something Fung describes as “a fairly convoluted B2B marketing QR codes and SaaS kind of thing”, that was possibly a year too late to catch the marketing buzz for QR but maybe a decade too early for mainstream adoption.

The other was an equally mobile-first concept connecting people who need things done with people who have the skills to deliver.

“When you’re creating a business, you want a problem you can solve, and by solving it have a serious impact and create real value for the community,”

Tim FungPictured: Tim Fung

“When you’re creating a business, you want a problem you can solve, and by solving it have a serious impact and create real value for the community.”
Tim Fung, Airtasker co-founder

Fung says. “So with Airtasker we’re solving a lot of problems for people and that’s really motivating.”

Fung and Lui agreed with the Amaysim owners they’d keep on working part-time for a few months in exchange for office space to develop their business plan and tech platform for Airtasker.

“We were pretty clear you couldn’t start a marketplace or a movement like Airtasker without going all in,” Fung remembers. “So, quitting our jobs was a big milestone to take the business to the next level. I think a commonality among a lot of founders is that you never feel comfortable because you’re driven to keep on pushing.”

Sure, Amaysim’s shareholders had a big payday when all the shares were acquired by Optus for A$250 million in November 2020, but by 2022 Lui and Fung had built a business valued at that amount anyway. (Lui is now an adviser and board director since standing down from day-to-day work at Airtasker and relocating to Singapore in September 2021.)

From cash burn to cash positive

Marketplaces are notoriously capital intensive in their growth stages because their infrastructure is expensive to scale before the network effect kicks in.

“If you can get through those really tough times, having scale in a marketplace is one of the great competitive advantages, and it becomes a really strong business,” explains Fung.

To help it scale faster, Airtasker has had five rounds of capital raising for a total of A$65 million. Some of that money was spent acquiring four competitors along the way, including Oneflare in May 2022 for a cash-plus-shares deal worth A$9.8 million (a bargain at a quarter of Oneflare’s earlier valuation).

One of the hardest times Fung faced in the business came in 2019, when he had to pause work on a new product and cut staff to swing Airtasker’s cash flow in the right direction.

“We needed to turn the business from a cool startup that’s acquiring users and spending money at all costs into a real business that can be sustainable,” he says. “We thought it would take about two years to go from being cash burning to profitable. But when we focused the whole team on that, it only took us about seven months.”

These days a common challenge in the business is measuring the results of capital allocation decisions. Or as Fung puts it: “We have to make lots of different kinds of bets with Airtasker.”

Fung uses the term bets because one of his favourite books is Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts by author and former professional poker player Annie Duke. Fung explains how there are operational bets, such as deciding how much to invest in core business functions; optimisation bets on product improvements, including investing a bit more in making the posting of a task easier for users; and bets on pricing.

“Then we have long-term bets: building entirely new features, rolling out into new countries and things like that.

“One of the biggest challenges is deciding how you allocate that mix and then having a way to reflect on the bets you’ve made and decide on, ‘Should we do more or less of that?’ You can’t look at a long-term bet with the same lens you look at an optimisation bet. If you’re looking at improving something by 2% every month, that’s a very different type of bet to, ‘Hey we’re building this next thing and if it goes off, it’s going to be huge. And if it doesn’t go off, we’re going to be eating into our money,’” Fung says.

Mental health matters

Fung admits at times he’d almost cry from the frustration of not being able to solve problems fast enough and is grateful for his supportive life partner who “gives me strength”.

It’s something Fung tries to instil in his staff: the importance of supporting others. “People matter,” he says. “It’s one of our values at Airtasker. When someone’s hurting at work, I think it’s really important to prioritise that.”

Tim FungPictured: Airtasker co-founder Tim Fung at Sydney’s Pitt Street head office with his beloved Harvey

“People matter. It’s one of our values at Airtasker. When someone’s hurting at work, I think it’s really important to prioritise that”
Tim Fung, Airtasker co-founder

Fung believes business leaders also need to acknowledge and look after their own mental health so they can be there for their teams. He advocates boundaries at work, whether in the office or working from home, including blocking out lunch in one’s calendar.

To help Airtasker’s people reset these boundaries following almost two years of COVID-19 lockdowns, Fung and other leaders in the business made it clear they supported hybrid working. But rather than each person choosing on the day whether they want to come in or not, they agree within their teams which days they will be together in the office – and stick to that routine. Fung says this creates a network effect, which means no-one needs to second guess whether their colleagues will be with them in person or remotely.

“I think the narrative that ‘flexibility at all costs with absolutely no structure and guidance is good’, is not actually good for anybody,” he explains. “Structure can be a gift: you don’t want to be sitting there after 7pm on a weeknight or during the day on a weekend, thinking, ‘Should I be working?’ I think it’s great to tell people we don’t have that expectation.”

Becoming a household name

Fung’s own Tasker listing on his platform these days mostly focuses on helping startup founders build a better pitch deck, but over the last decade he’s done all sorts of tasks because he enjoys meeting customers.

“I’ve assembled furniture, cleaned fridges – it was bloody hard work – and cleaned every single pebble in a fish pond,” he shares.

“This epic fish pond was inside a house and I can tell you that removing pebbles one by one, putting them into buckets, carrying them outside, washing them and then carrying them back inside, well, it’s very labour intensive. It was super cool too because you get to meet lots of interesting people when you’re a tasker.”

The smile he shares with this anecdote has a glint of pride too – that someone who was very specific about executing the job, got it done through Airtasker. And that’s pretty much the point.

The platform has added offerings since it began. Fung says more and more professionals are posting and responding to jobs on the platform, including lawyers, architects and accountants.

“I’m proud of the real-life impact we’ve created in society: people can create job opportunities when they’re looking for ways to make extra money,” he says.

“Our marketplace genuinely supports our local communities in getting more done and we’ve become a part of Aussie culture. We introduced a new concept to market 10 years ago that back then seemed crazy and today is part of everyday life.”

Investor pitch advice

Tim Fung has his own profile on Airtasker. He reviews startup founders’ pitches to potential investors. Here are his top two tips:

Know who you’re speaking to

“You’ve got to know your audience: what are they likely to want to hear from you? And how much time will they give you?”

Make it sharp

“Ten to 15 slides is usually good. In some cases the people you’re pitching to just ask, ‘What’s your business and how does this thing make money?’ And you’ve got about 30 seconds to get their attention. In other cases you need to start with the mission and build it up over an hour.”

Four things to keep in mind as a boss

Tim Fung’s advice for founders about levelling up to create a sustainable business:

1. Ensure you always have a plan to being a sustainable business. Growth at all costs is not a sustainable business

2. Whatever your plan, for most founders it usually costs twice as much and takes twice as long as you think. Plan accordingly

3. Know what’s in your control and what isn’t in your control. Focus and manage what you can control and observe but don’t stress about what you can’t control

4. When making decisions, don’t worry about what people will think about you. Focus on your values and principles and what you think of yourself.

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