Practical Founders Podcast

#21: Bootstrapped in Australia then moved to the US to grow much bigger – Josh Cameron

Josh Cameron and three university friends started a scrappy software company in Brisbane Australia just after graduating. They had run the popular college bar where they discovered there was no simple software solution to track, onboard, and schedule hourly employees. They started Tanda in 2012 and it grew into a successful workforce management software company in Australia —without any outside funding.

The four founders moved to Chicago in 2019 to expand their North American business. Their product worked fine in the US, but sales, marketing, and operations all had to be rebuilt, which took years to figure out. They acquired the Workforce company and took on that brand and domain name outside of Australia.

Now Workforce.com is a leading workforce management software company that helps improve time and labor management for shift and hourly workforces. Their 130 employees serve 6,000 customers in 80 countries with employee scheduling, time and attendance, employee engagement, analytics, and automated compliance.

Best quote from Josh:

“It’s tempting to think there is this shortcut to finding product-market fit in this new place. But our founders needed more time to learn. We had to learn all these new things about the US, like how everyone here goes after a very specific niche that they know really well. And how SEO is a thing that can work here, whereas in Australia no one ever searched for anything!

“Venture capitalists told us they were experts at bringing companies into the US and they would help us find the right marketing people and the right things. But these are all very expensive. You’re going to chew through that capital really quickly and you’re going to need to do another round and another round to keep that going. It was really more of a strategy problem that we needed to figure out ourselves, which we did.”

Edited transcript of Practical Founders Podcast interview with Josh Cameron, co-founder of Workforce.com

Greg Head: And we’re live with Josh Cameron, chief strategy officer and co-founder of Workforce.com in Chicago. Hey, Josh, welcome to the Practical Founders podcast.

Josh Cameron: Hi, Greg. Thanks for having me on. It’s great to be here.

Greg Head: People might notice your accent isn’t from Chicago, my hometown. Your company is based there and your team is from Australia. 

Josh Cameron: The founding team is all Australian. So it’s getting more like 50/50 these days from Australian to non-Australians. But yeah, it all started in Brisbane, Australia.

Greg Head: Awesome. Well, let’s start with where you are now and then we’ll go back to how you got there. It’s an amazing story of a practical, bootstrapped business that’s getting quite large in a competitive marketplace. First of all, Josh, what is workforce dot com these days?

Josh Cameron: Yeah, so our mission at Workforce.com is to reduce the friction in employment. So for employers, they know it’s really hard to get the right people at the right time. There’s all these on costs there’s all this administration to having employees and it’s risky, there’s all this compliance burden. And then for employees, it’s all these problems with, Hey, I want shifts that are convenient to me, I want to work for someone that pays me properly and pays me on time, and I know that my employer is a good company. And we think that where that friction exists, it stops people from getting jobs. It stops people and companies from employing more people. And that’s really all of that productivity focus on trying to reduce that friction between employees and employers and helping them have a better relationship.

Greg Head: And so that’s a nice way of saying time and attendance management software. As you know, is workforce management software, and there are 1000 tools like that out there.

Josh Cameron: I think there might be 1200. Yeah, There are quite a few.

Greg Head: Yes. Right. And as long as hourly workers and shift workers have been doing it, there’s been technology, punch cards, and then software and the rest. So you didn’t create this market, but you’re competing in it with customers all over the world. How many customers do you have these days?

Josh Cameron: About 6,000 customers globally, all different sizes. Some of them have 20 staff. There are a cafe around the corner, others have like 15,000, or 20,000. I think Dominos has almost 50,000 globally on the platform. But you’re spot on. It’s all hourly workers. It’s all people who have those challenges of getting people happy, doing a job that’s on the front line and not at a computer.

Greg Head: Which is tough. And we’ve just seen within the last few years between the COVID downturn and then the recovery. The front-line shift worker, hourly worker, in any industry, the world has changed. It’s hard to hire these people. It’s hard to keep them. It’s hard to get them to show up. Your software is one of the main interfaces between the employer and the employee for those very important people.

Josh Cameron: It’s crazy how global it is. Every time I speak to a customer anywhere in the world, the first thing they tell me is how hard it’s been to find staff in the last three years.

Greg Head: Did that help your business grow? Did they need to get serious about this or did it challenge your business with fewer workers?

Josh Cameron: I think it was challenging in the sense that it didn’t seem like workforce management was the biggest priority. So we would call people up and we’d say, Hey, you want to do things better with your scheduling? And people would say, I don’t even have anyone to schedule. Why would I care about that? So it was a bit more nuanced. Explain why it was worth investing in this stuff. But I think especially as things are starting to shift a little bit, people are getting more concerned about cost as the economy is sort of heading into a bit of a downturn. Things are really looking up in terms of interest in products like ours. How do you offer your workforce flexibility around when they can work, give them shifts that work for them. There are all sorts of features about letting the employee select that and opt into that. But on the employer side, it’s also like we have a smaller group of people who can work, so how do we get them at the right time and so they can be the most productive, but there’s the limited pool we’ve got to optimize it. That’s a pretty big part of what we’re helping customers with.

Greg Head: And when did the company get started?

Josh Cameron: We started about ten years ago. We really hit the ground running very slowly starting. In the first six months, I think we had one customer who didn’t exactly take off in a hurry. Over time it sort of slowly grew and started to get more people and gave us more confidence that we were on the right track and we were doing something right.

Greg Head: And how many employees do you have now at Workforce.com?

Josh Cameron: We have about 130 employees. A big group in Australia, a big group in the US, and not quite as big of a group in the UK.

Greg Head: For your European customers.

Josh Cameron: That’s the European office there.

Greg Head: So you’re a global company, you’re not a ragtag bunch of ten people fighting away, you’re over a hundred people and growing and you’ve got a leadership team and international offices and customers and big customers. Have you raised any funding or was this all built on the backs of the time and investment of the founders in the beginning and then funded with customer revenue?

Josh Cameron: Yeah. So we’ve never taken any funding from anyone. We’ve had many offers, obviously, as you do, as it’s more obvious that you’re going to be successful, but it’s just not something we’ve ever been interested in. We were always very conscious and we somehow managed to get to wherever we were without funding and we sort of backed ourselves. And we’ve got a lot of confidence in the potential of this business. So it never really made sense for us to dilute. We were more optimistic about what we could achieve than even the most optimistic venture capitalists.

Greg Head: So the practical founders had a bigger vision than the VCs.

Josh Cameron: And we were worried about changing the dynamics and changing the way we work and the risk profile we had.

Greg Head: Tell us about how the four founders in Queensland, in Brisbane, came upon this opportunity and decided to dig this out of the dirt and get a customer and make a business, and then eventually make it to the United States. All of those things are pretty unusual. What were you all doing before you locked arms and started this company?

Josh Cameron: It is a bit of a long story, but Jake, Tasmin, and I were running a college bar. And I think maybe in America, college bars there are probably heaps them on campus or none because you’re not allowed to have a bar when you’re under 21. But in Australia, there was one, so there was one bar on campus and this is a college of 25-30,000 people. So this was very busy, this is a serious venue, we were doing on big nights. We were doing like 40-50,000 of revenue. We became able to run that bar because we promised everyone that we would keep the beer cheap. That was the platform we got to do this by.

Josh Cameron: Once we were running it, that turned out to be quite difficult. Like we’re really trying to run this on a low, low margin. And we’d also said like we would take the profits from the bar to sort of support academic programs and advocacy things. And so it was very important to run the bar profitably. And it just the hard part of that was really the staffing costs and getting the right people there. We would be at one campus trying to look after that bar and then we wouldn’t know what was happening at the other bigger one. So we really don’t even know.

Greg Head: How many people did you employ, because that’s a serious game in Australia?

Josh Cameron: Yeah, the organization had, I think it was about 80 people. It was a pretty big deal, but I had had all sorts of things going on. Yeah, the bars were kind of the more interesting and fun part. There were lolly shops and news agencies and kind of other strange things happening, but keeping track of where everyone was and making sure that they were there at the right times became more and more obvious that that’s where the profits were being lost. And that’s why we weren’t being as successful as we wanted to be at doing this. Because we had heaps of customers. The customers weren’t the problem, but the cost side was kind of out of whack.

Greg Head: You would think a pub it’s about, the lease of the building and the beer and the paying people, but the mess of where is everybody and whether are they on schedule and the scheduling and getting them there you could actually see was the difference between profitability or not being profitable.

Josh Cameron: Yeah. Well, so many of the other costs are fixed and like you buy beer off one of the biggest companies in the country, you’re really a price taker at that point. Even with that volume, apparently, we sold more beer than any other college campus in the country, but that didn’t really help the price that much. And like all your other costs are fixed. And this is the situation most of our customers are in. They’ve got their rent. It’s fixed. .

Greg Head: Manufacturing, restaurants, everybody, right?

Josh Cameron: Yeah. It doesn’t matter what it is really. Where it’s the bit that’s variable is your labor each week. What’s that going to come at us? And it eats right into the profitability of all these organizations in a serious way.

Greg Head: Let’s look around for a better solution. You didn’t find anything? Or how did that go?

Josh Cameron: This was 2007 and it was very hardware-based. So every time clock was like, Oh. Invest like $10,000, $5,000 in this device that you put on the wall. And we were like, that doesn’t really seem to make sense. It was quite simple what we’re trying to do here. Tablets were just starting to become a thing that you could buy, but people weren’t used to tablets if that made sense. No one was quite sure what to do with the tablet. So Jake and Tasmin happened to be living with Alex, our CTO. He didn’t know how to make apps, but he kind of got someone to help him make a very bad version of the app to start with, which is what people clocked in and out on. And he was a web developer. So yeah, we went out to market. We were like This is just way too expensive. Let’s just build something ourselves. We’ll get Alex to build it for us. And that’s how the. That’s how the first version came about. He didn’t really know how to make apps, but he worked it out.

Greg Head: If you were a big bank or a big, you know, the largest restaurant change McDonald’s or whatever, you have custom software to do that or big expensive software, enterprise software, but a small and mid-sized business and almost every single company in Australia is a small and mid-sized business. There are few mega-large companies. When did you decide to get out of the pub business and get into the software business?

Josh Cameron: Our time sort of ended, so we were only allowed to run it for a year, and then we had to hand it to other people. So that was a good way of really kicking us out of that business. By the end of that, we’re like, okay, we really need to work out what to do next. Are we going to get real jobs? Are we going to go work for banks and accounting firms and things like that and law firms? And thankfully, we decided not to, we kind of dodged that bullet. We found a couple of other customers that weren’t related to us. They’re still friends and family and things like that. The feedback we got from that led us well down this completely different path that we ended up on. And we closed a big pizza chain of like 12 pizza shops and they said, Oh, we’ll only use this if you build scheduling. Scheduling? We didn’t think we would need that, really. But sure, we’ll build it. So yeah, we kind of got forced along and the product just kept evolving and getting more and more useful.

Greg Head: You weren’t software start-up junkies, you just said we’ve got something we could sell. This avoids becoming a lawyer or an accountant and let’s go sell it. And if they want it, we’ll make it. How did you survive for that time before revenues made up and could pay you a salary? Did you guys just live on the beach?

Josh Cameron: And so we all lived together in this one place that we’d lived in since college. So our rent was pretty low, and our office rent was low. We were in this sort of logistics hub. So our office rent was like $1,000. We didn’t have that many other expenses.

Greg Head: So you were young and you could handle savings and you could afford it? Yeah, just to take a flyer.

Josh Cameron: I had a lot of aid, a lot of chili. Didn’t do much exciting stuff for a good couple of years. And people thought we were fairly crazy because we’d gone from sort of being in the bars and seeing everyone all the time to just being in this little suburb about 30 minutes out of Brisbane. Didn’t see anyone for a couple of years and it wasn’t the path that people expected you to take.

Greg Head: It not very cool. And was there much of a tech ecosystem saying if you do software you need funding like there are in most ecosystems?

Josh Cameron: At the time? No, at the time it was we really hardly knew what SaaS software as a service was, even though that’s what we were building. That really ramped up probably three or four years into what we were not.

Greg Head: Not everybody knows you started this in Brisbane, in Queensland, up the north coast, right? Very pretty beaches and beautiful coral reefs on all of the rest of that. So Sydney is the big city, the big metro, Melbourne is the second city like Chicago, you know. There wasn’t a lot of software tech going on in Queensland I imagine. And so you guys were just naive enough for you could live cheap enough to just build something.

Josh Cameron: Yeah, I think just even the whole of Australia, I don’t think there was a lot going up and going on in this startup time, but it definitely picked up about five years later.

Greg Head: So how did you get from, We see a problem, we think we can start selling to somebody. They tell us what they need and they’ll pay us money and that’s always a good sign. Follow the money. Meanwhile, everybody’s probably saying, When are you going to get a real job? And you say, I think we’re on to something. How long did it take to get up and running where you could pay yourself and you felt like you actually had a business, not a global software company, but you had a business that could sustain you guys?

Josh Cameron: I remember signing the lease on our first office and I think we had $6000 or $7000 a month in revenue. It felt like we were at a sustainable place because we could I think the word is “ramen profitable.”

Greg Head: Yes, ramen profitable.

Josh Cameron: Which was pretty accurate. And just the consistency of the growth we were getting by that point. Giving us a lot of confidence.

Greg Head: Yeah. And how long did it take between starting the company and getting to, I think we have a company here?

Josh Cameron: Around nine months, I would say.

Greg Head: So what were your superpowers that allowed you to do this? Was it? You could knock on any door and you could convince an operator, an HR manager, or whatever that they had a problem and you had a solution. And then you had somebody who could build it, you know, over the weekend or something. What was it that got you up and running with no other advantages, You know, no funding, no experience.

Josh Cameron: I think at that very early stage, the combination of Alex being able to build anything, just the, the hustling, the hustle to get in, and like the way we got into that pizza chain is just like a very long story of someone’s friend worked at one and introduced us to someone and you kind of need that. You need that commitment to following a lot of dead ends and being able to hustle through to get that first couple of customers because you see those customers take a huge leap. But like it’s like who is this company that has one customer?

Greg Head: And it also means that whatever they had was sufficiently crappy and painful and whatever you had, imperfect as it was, was sufficiently useful and beneficial. Right? What was the angle? What was the magic trick that you got people going in the early days?

Josh Cameron: In those early days, I honestly think it was almost, Hey, we’re going to give you a tablet and people will clock in on that and we’ll validate that they’re actually at work, right? And then it was built to get much more complex than that. But at the time everyone was just running out of time on a paper timesheet, so anything was kind of a win. You could be at home and you’d know people are at work.

Greg Head: There are fewer and fewer parts of the business world or our lives that are paper-based. But you just went out. It was still paper-based time clocks and everything, and you have this magical iPad. You are the first one to the mobile generation, right? And you guys look like young, cool kids who were doing a modern thing.

Josh Cameron: Yeah, and that’s basically it. And that worked. That got us those first ten customers and we could get more sophisticated and build more software and solve really hard problems later on. But initially, it was a pretty simple problem.

Greg Head: What did you think you were building? Did you say, We’re going to go build this big company and someday move to the States and keep on growing? Or did you think, Boy, it’d be great to get to $1,000,000 in revenue where we could pay ourselves? And I don’t know, What was the first idea? I’m sure you kept raising your sights, but what was it you thought you were building?

Josh Cameron: Yeah, I’ve got a spreadsheet. It’s like our first like, Oh, good, this work-type projection, and it caps out like, Wow, that would be amazing if we had like $30,000 a month. Revenue like that would just be crazy because we were kind of just like, Oh, what could you make in a grad job? Like if you work 70 hours a week, you might make like six grand a month or something.

Greg Head: So you guys were kind of fighting for your independence first and not having to get in the machine.

Josh Cameron: 100%. At that path, at that crossroad.

Greg Head: So you grew this company in Australia. Were you selling to New Zealand and the UK or, you know, the States early on, or was it really just?

Josh Cameron: Just so initially we thought, Oh, we must go to everyone’s site to install the time clock Like it would be too hard to do that. And then thankfully we worked out that No, that’s we can just send them this and we’ll send them some Velcro. They’ll stick it up, but for a lot longer than that, probably like five years, we did think a lot of the problems we were solving were Australian specific and a lot of the things about the compliance aspects of it where we were working out how much people should be paid, we’re like, Oh, that’s only a problem in Australia, let’s not worry about the rest of the world. People are familiar with Californian sort of labor laws. Just think of that, but more extensive and more prescriptive. That’s kind of what we were helping businesses handle. Yeah, so that kind of made us think, Oh, we don’t need to worry about the rest of the world, and we probably didn’t have the capacity and the bandwidth to think about it. Yeah, people will always be like, Oh, when are you going to expand to the US or something like that. We were we weren’t that interested for a long time.

Greg Head: The four of you figured it out, you divided and conquered. You go sell and you build product and you do service and you do, I don’t know whatever you do, the legal you do the accounting, right? You kind of divide it up between you?

Josh Cameron: The for the benefit of us all living together. It was just so, so easy to collaborate on the way to work on the way home from work to like 10 p.m. at night. It was never a problem around who would do what. Like, there was just so much communication that it was always obvious who would pick up the job.

Greg Head: Usually, the first milestone is to get to about a million ARR, and then you’re like, Wow, this is a real company. You know, like $3-$5 million. You actually have a bigger team and you need some management and you know, there’s a factory building to acquire customers and a factory to deliver. When did you get to the $3-$5 million, let’s say US dollars equivalent of recurring revenue?

Josh Cameron: In my head, the milestone is once we closed Dominoes in Australia. So there a big chain had 600-700 stores and with that came a lot more revenue, but also a lot more responsibility and a lot more things to work out. So that’s when the hiring kind of just went from a group of ten, 15 people to an organization with 30 or 40.

Greg Head: What was the hardest part of that transition from the scrappy rock star team to the first organization, right, with a big customer, they have higher expectations? What was the hardest transformation?

Josh Cameron: I think at that point it was, and I think has sort of been ongoing. It’s like learning how we can give people responsibility and accountability and let people run their own, who aren’t a founder, that aren’t able to communicate constantly, like letting people have to take responsibility for some things. And that that did that was a big learning curve. It was a big thing.

Greg Head: Yeah. That’s the difference between a 15-person company where they’re all in the same room and you don’t need to write anything down in a 30- or 100-person company: there’s a structure that allows people to succeed without asking for permission every 5 minutes and the founders aren’t saying, do this exactly. That’s a difficult transition.

Josh Cameron: In one place. It’s much easier. Like everyone still sees each other all the time. It’s the same time zone. It really got very challenging once we were trying to replicate what we had in Australia, in the US, and in the UK at the same time across time zones across it that was much, much harder. That’s been a real challenge.

Greg Head: How many employees did you have when you said, Let’s go to the States and let’s go to the UK?

Josh Cameron: Yeah, about 40. It would have been fairly early days. For whatever reason, we decided to do the UK very shortly after that. So we really went with a very global.

Greg Head: How were you selling the product or how did your customers buy it? Do they find you on the website and sign up and not talk to you? Or did you have outbound salespeople that called on customers or dropped flyers from the sky? How did you get customers?

Josh Cameron: Something that’s always driven a lot of customers for us is inbound in terms of how they get interested, but it’s certainly not a self-service inbound, sort of like we have a rule that like every time someone signs up, we have to call them within 5 minutes. We’ve had that rule for ten years. So it’s very much concierge, once you get into the top of the funnel we’re making sure that you’re very well looked after because we know the value of these leads and we know that our close rates on those can be very high if we do that properly.

Greg Head: You are the modern one, the first to the iPad in Australia and then you were the modern one with probably some content and organic marketing and maybe pay-per-click ads in the beginning days driving some inbound traffic and converting effectively off of that. Does that sound right?

Josh Cameron: That’s pretty fair. I think we’re always trying new marketing ideas and new marketing concepts. One we get on to a bit later in the story. But like CIOs become a much bigger part of that in the US and sort of how you convert from that and how we understand what the market actually wants based on a.

Greg Head: A lot of bootstrap founders in India or Australia and other Europe say, All right, I’m going to get up and running here, and then I’m going to come to the US. They imagine hiring a sales leader that’s going to start building it and so forth.

Josh Cameron: Very common problem.

Greg Head: So you guys said we’re going to keep going, let’s get bigger and we’ve got to go to the US. And then you all moved to Chicago. Tell us about the process of that decision. And that’s not a small thing to do to move families and move the founders. Why did you do it? Why did you approach it that way?

Josh Cameron: It’s not what we initially thought. We do initially thought we could just send a couple of us to different places and yeah, to the UK. I came here. It really was that we just weren’t working that well together when it was across time and we lost a lot of the speed and a lot of the efficiency of having it all in one place. I don’t think we are naturally good communicators. We don’t like having meetings. We don’t like a lot of these things. We’re very used to just being in each other’s presence and arguing about things and deciding things and getting to the bottom of things quickly by just being around each other. You can sort of see it in the growth rates. As you can imagine, it’s like the time we were in the same place: company growing extremely fast. Times when we were in separate places and weren’t able to talk to each other weren’t on the same page, and didn’t have that shared accountability and responsibility: growth rates were very low. And then back together again: growth rates very fast. So I haven’t done a scientific analysis on it.

Greg Head: It makes perfect sense. What about the challenge that a lot of country-focused software companies have? Is that where they’re in France or they get to the UK and they don’t have their network? It’s a different game. It’s almost like starting over. There are different dynamics and channels and competitors. How different was the US market for you to get the business going here or was it pretty straightforward?

Josh Cameron: Yeah, I’d say VERY different. The quality of the execution of the sales and marketing is much higher here. We weren’t coming in in early to this market. It’s fair to say we are late in this market. It’s like every one of our potential customers, every one of our key accounts, I think they are on a first-name basis with PayCom, their ADP rep that PayCor rep. The 8 different people who are calling them. Right. They know who they are. And when you add another voice into that, you really have to be on top of your game to be successful with that.

Greg Head: How long did it take you to feel like it’s almost like a new startup, right? You have to come here and figure out some new mechanics and new language and new competitors and all that. But you had a product that worked. How long did it take you to figure out what your angle and approach were that would work in the States?

Josh Cameron: I suppose that was kind of a frustrating thing for us. Tasmin and I flew here and we accidentally got involved in a very large RFP, in which we came second in without any customization of the product whatsoever. Like the product. We were quite sure that the product is good to go we were having trouble finding a problem with this product despite very long sales processes and things. But our go-to-market efforts and just being a company, in general, as well, well behind. And that was a pretty frustrating process, trying to catch that up and try and sort of is not let the product down in terms of what we’re doing. And there’s a lot of missed starts and a lot of just hard things to work out.

Greg Head: Yeah. Was that a couple of years to kind of get the North American?

Easy. I’d say 3 or 4 years.

Oh, a few years, right? You had a sizable Australian customer base and you were getting customers. You were not raising money to go to the next region, the regional expansion. You self-funded it through this, right? You kept going.

Josh Cameron: I think raising money to go into the US would have been an amazing way to blow millions and millions of dollars. It’s kind of like these companies that raise money before they have any traction. You just you can spend the money, go-to-market. Yeah.

Greg Head: Let’s focus on that because VCs know that you say, Oh, it works in Australia, it’ll work in the States. The product is probably close, but everything else in the business is probably different. But you just said raising funding before you have traction would have been a disaster because you were trying things that did work. You tried another thing, but it didn’t work. And you’re a few years before you found a new system.

Josh Cameron: Yeah, I think it’s it’s tempting to think there is this shortcut to finding product-market fit in this new place. But also you need to as founders, you need time to learn. We had to learn all these new things about the US and how everyone here goes after a very specific niche that they know really well. And like all this stuff that was super new to us, like SEO is a thing that can work here, whereas in Australia no one ever searched for anything. The exciting search traffic for our key terms is like 200 searches a month. It’s like not really worth it. Here there is people out there looking for stuff like all sorts of things. Like I think it’s it’s compelling pitch, venture capitalists say, Oh, we are experts at bringing companies into the US and we’ll help you find the right marketing people and the right things. But these are all very expensive things. You’re going to chew through that capital really quickly and you’re going to need to do another round and another round to keep that going. And you might still be working out. It’s more of a strategy problem. So Tasmin is a bit of a visionary type, and he really came up with the concept when he was just hiking in New Zealand and it came to him that we should be called Workforce.com and that’s the best name for our business in this market.

Greg Head: And what was your call before when you started it?

Josh Cameron: Tanda. We were always called Tanda, which was meant to be like time and attendance. This was also Tasmin’s idea. It’s quite a good name like IP lawyers love.

Greg Head: Yeah, Tanda is a good name. Yeah, right.

Josh Cameron: But we had some problems like we would Tanda.co in the US didn’t seem to be working as well as it did for us in Australia and the UK. People would not know what that is. It’s got eroded credibility. Yeah, he wanted to be workforce.com, and that kind of set us off on this three mission to acquire this domain name. And we ended up acquiring not just the domain name but a whole media company.

Greg Head: Because a company already had was called workforce that had the domain?

Josh Cameron: It was called Workforce and it published for over 100 years a magazine about HR and workforce issues that was somewhat relevant to what we were doing. It seemed completely impossible at the time. We hadn’t met these people, but we came to Chicago and we got to know the owners of it and over time built enough of a relationship with them that they were ready to when they were ready to sell, or they were ready to do something else, that we were there. We were.

Greg Head: So you bought the company to get the domain name or did you just buy the domain name and they spun off the company with a different name?

Josh Cameron: Now, we bought the whole company. They were ready to retire and they didn’t want to own these things separately. So we ran the magazines for a while and worked it out. Eventually, we let some of the people who ran the magazine actually buy a lot of that business from us. So it’s all worked out fairly well, actually, in terms.

Greg Head: So having the name and the dotcom, did that make a difference to marketing and customer acquisition efforts in the States?

Josh Cameron: I think it’s a really good question. I think it’s not a silver bullet. It’s not like, Oh, once we were Workforce.Com that people just assumed that we were this great company. We then had a great brand and a great product, but there was still a lot of work to do for everything else to be at the right level and to meet people’s expectations of what they would get from Workforce.com. Maturing all those things is what we’ve really been working on and what we’ve been doing.

Greg Head: So even in Australia, it’s known as Workforce.com. It’s not Tanda over there?

Josh Cameron: Australia we’ve kept the Tanda brand. Some trademark issues, but mostly just already had so many customers and so much goodwill in that brand. It seems sort of crazy to go away from it. That’s interesting with its own challenges of having multiple brands, which I’m happy to talk to people about if they are considering that.

Greg Head: Well, you went from everybody in the same room and a dozen customers to multiple brands, multiple regions, and multiple offices. Do you have multiple products or is it one core product that can serve the mom-and-pop and Domino’s Pizza?

Josh Cameron: Yeah, it’s one core product. So really what we’re trying to do and what I suppose we’ve learned over the last four years is we want all the go-to-market to be highly regionalized. We want people to have full ownership over what they do to get the product to customers. But we still there are still so many benefits to having one product and one code base. The product stays the same. We’re not going to split this, but we do have we have developers in every market so that they can prioritize and work on the things that will move the needle for them. And it’s so important to feel like people have authority. You can spend so much time arguing about how one market hurt another market or did something that was wrong or bad. And like you can end up spending half your day just worrying about those things instead of people just being responsible for everything that our customers need, Let’s make it happen. And as we’ve got to that sort of call it like a happy federation, everyone’s just had such a happier working life and it’s been so much more effective.

Greg Head: And you didn’t come from a big company and start a small one in the image of a big company. You’re creating a big company in the image of a smaller company where there’s independent units.

Josh Cameron: Independent, you try to do ideally.

Greg Head: Yes. Yeah. And how’s that going?

Josh Cameron: So much better. It takes a long time. I don’t want to get too operational, but the crazy arguments like our support system, should that be one or three? Our CRM, do we need to standardize this everywhere? And then you try and do those things and then you ask yourself why? Why do we want to standardize? So this constant tension between standardizing things globally, having one process versus just letting people work things out for themselves and giving people ownership of it to do what is probably best in their market. It’s very hard to have eyes and ears on the ground in three countries. It’s almost impossible. You do need to let the people who are there work out those challenges. That’s basically the view we’ve come to, and it’s working a lot better. Be my recommended Path.

Greg Head: What was the hardest part of pulling up the roots of the executive team and moving? I’m sure it wasn’t totally simple.

Josh Cameron: It’s always all the personal sacrifice and costs that come with this, like the saying people’s families, and people have relationships that have been in for a long time. All our friends and everything were back in Brisbane. So everyone has different ways of dealing with that and different. It affects different people differently, but trying to keep the dynamics between your leadership group really strong is really important and it’s hard if there are people getting pulled in different directions because you’ve completely uprooted them and taken them to a new place.

Greg Head: What was the biggest challenge in between, We’re on to something here in Australia and an up-and-running serious company with regions and leadership VPs and organizations and plans and roadmaps and so forth? What was the biggest challenge that you guys faced as a bootstrapped company that you had to face and get over it without the excuse of funding?

Josh Cameron: Yeah, I think the hard stuff like one is like alignment. Like people in different markets are going to have different priorities and different things can be very hard for them to have empathy for the other ones. And then how do we choose what to resource fairly? Australia, How much money do you need for this project? How much should you give to other markets to fund these new things? And like new things are always annoying for an organization. I don’t know if this is great to say, but any new initiative is just annoying. It’s going to be more work for a limited amount of people who know how to do things. And it’s easy to lose patience with doing new things and ask, Why are we even bothering with that new thing? But I think we’ve seen that because it has been over ten years that these things that were new and annoying are now big drivers of revenue, right? Huge drivers of growth. Right? If we didn’t go through that annoying expensive process, we wouldn’t have that. And then we would be at the point where lots of companies get stuck. They plateaued at a certain level of revenue. It’s very common. I can see why because you probably just couldn’t be bothered at the time going through the pain of doing these new things and that might not work normally don’t work.

Greg Head: So you’re a maturing, bigger company that didn’t exist when it got valuable enough that you, you know, hit your number or you sold it. You’re having to face those hard issues turning into a bigger company. That’s actually the line of a bigger company there that says when there were ten of us, we could do it in a week. And when it’s 120 of us, it takes us six months and then everything feels heavier.

Josh Cameron: Hugely frustrating for efficient people like us. I’m like Alex we need to kind of let people know that that we’ve got to launch this new product or whatever. They can’t start working on it tomorrow. That’s too shocking for people. That’s too late. We need to give them some time. But yeah, we still really try and move fast and we try and get around those things.

Greg Head: Now you’re 100 and 130 employees. That’s probably a $20-$30 Million company still bootstrapped. You’re turning down people who want to fund you all the time, probably getting acquisition offers because you got cool technology and good customers, and the big payroll companies and the big ERP companies might want to pull you in and you’re you guys have growth expectations. Your role is Chief Strategy Officer, I don’t know if that’s chief of “other,” that isn’t product of sales and accounting, or something like that.

Josh Cameron: Yes. Pretty much Chief of Other.

Greg Head: So what is the vision for you guys? Do you guys want to grow it forever? You want to start acquiring companies. You could get funding at any time. If you had the right kind of strategy. You could maybe have a big number. If somebody comes calling with a checkbook, what does the future look like for a sustainable company that gets over 100 employees and has growth prospects? How do you guys think about it?

Josh Cameron: Yeah. I suppose we just feel like we’ve got a lot of options these days because we are profitable. The pressure to get to a big payday is taken off because you can pay yourself a reasonable salary. It’s not going to be as life-changing as if you were paying yourself some small salary. So the pressure’s off, but more so we’re excited about we just still think we really feel like we’re just getting started in terms of the level of potential this brand has and this product has. And yeah, there is lots of potential to add more products besides it. And we do acquire things from time to time and they all sort of fit in together. But because we’ve got to this point as an independent company, we are now excited about what that lets you do and it’s almost like an obligation to do exciting stuff, to do the crazy stuff that other people wouldn’t do, and to stick with things longer than most people would. So we’re not we don’t have a two or three-year horizon. We have a ten year horizon. So you can take more risks and more bets. Yeah.

Greg Head: And you worked really hard for not a lot of money for a bunch of years to maintain your independence, which is kind of an Australian thing, even more so than the US. You know, our cowboy independence. You get to Australia and you guys will fight us for the title. Maybe Texans. But you guys have fought for your independence like Texans, I guess. Now you have options that you could do that if you’re a funded company with a gun to your head and a clock ticking on when are you going to sell it that they can’t do including just having a reasonable pace for employees and customers and to market or place some bets that don’t pay off right away. You’re in a crowded marketplace. How do you guys stand out and imagine you could keep growing in such a crowded marketplace?

Josh Cameron: Yeah, I think it’s probably the main question I get from anyone. Half my job is to go around and explain to people why this is working and why it does work. And I think a big chunk of it is there actually are very few people who do focus on what we do, focus on workforce management. Lots of our competitors get acquired. Almost every couple of months a new competitor gets acquired, then they become part of a much bigger company. They stop investing in it like we’ve reinvested 20% of what we have into R&D the whole ten years now. So there’s a lot of money going into making this good. When you do that and when you focus on it, you do make a product that is better, particularly for hourly workers and frontline workers. There are not very many people very focused on solving things for those industries. And most people who get like half or a quarter of the size of what we are, get bought out by someone who thinks it’s a cool idea for a while, and then there’s something new shiny thing over here or new CEO or the founders leave. So a lot of the benefit comes because we are so committed to it. We are so interested in solving these problems for people.

Greg Head: So this is a very common story, right? You get big enough and then the payroll company buys the workforce thing and they don’t really understand it, but they’re going to put it off to the side, and then it kind of goes to sleep. You know, it’s not the main thing at the payroll software company, they all have some features for this.

Josh Cameron: If you’re a payroll company, like 80% of customers don’t need this stuff because you have law firms and accounting firms and like all these other things, Oh, do we really want to invest more in that? Probably not. Like it’s not the big bang for Buck, right?

Greg Head: And if you got bought, you wouldn’t have the fanatic founders doing the hard stuff to do that new innovation, things that other people give up on. Right? It just kind of loses the charm that we see at Twitter. It lost all the charm. It was a bureaucracy inside a company. And how big can your company get?

Josh Cameron: We think pretty big. There are a lot of hourly employees in the US. millions and millions of them. We’ve got a pretty credible path to being a $1,000,000,000 company. I think that’s something we can do in the next three or so years like it’s not far away, and then who knows from there. I suppose that’s going to be the next chapter.

Greg Head: Yeah. So it’s a billion-dollar valuation. So you, you know, you grow towards 100 million and then you have a 10X just to get some round numbers there. But if you’re a stand-alone company, a best-of-breed company that is growing and independent and has the good DNA, good metrics, good customer satisfaction, good code, good employees, and good culture wasn’t, on steroids with funding all of the years. That’s definitely worth a ton of money. That’s really exciting.

Josh Cameron: It gets easier. So how fast-growing the numbers so big, the growth, new revenue just come in like all the time, if that makes sense. It’s so different to at the start. If you’re at $1,000,000 ARR and you’re growing, even if you’re growing fast it doesn’t really move the needle. It’s like it feels like you’re in the same place, but when you’re at a bigger startup, you’re still growing fast. It’s a lot of new things to think about each month, and it keeps the challenges good.

Greg Head: So what’s fast-growing for, you know, a well-managed, you’re staying in the well-managed zone of that size company. Is that 30% a year?

Josh Cameron: We’d say, that’s the bottom. Like we wouldn’t be unhappy, but we wouldn’t be happy. 40-50%, really good. 60%, I would say super good, amazing. We’ve had years of growing 60-70%%. That was a very good year.

Greg Head: And does it feel like you’re it’s a different company every 18 months? It is almost as it doubles in revenue and maybe doubles and employees and things like that. You’re going through all those phases very quickly.

Josh Cameron: Yeah I do feel like it has calmed down a little bit now, but it’s just such a big change.

Greg Head: You’ll hit the next one.

Josh Cameron: All these offices, all new people, that was a big that was a really big organizational challenge.

Greg Head: Did COVID hit you guys? So did you guys go quiet when nobody was showing up for work?

Josh Cameron: I don’t know how I didn’t really look into this that strongly. But most of our customers seem to keep most feel it’s like being in different parts of the world, at different times. Australia had their lockdowns later than other people, so we kind of were diversified enough that we didn’t grow as quickly. But it wasn’t. We also we signed one very large contract just before, so that also padded it a little bit.

Greg Head: Thanks for sharing that story. It makes it sound a little bit like practical founders do, like, We did this and we did this and we did this. What a crazy journey. I’m sure you’ve been working crazy hours for all these years and traveling around the world and moving families and doing all these things here. Do you have something you could share with practical founders from where you sit, where they’re saying, Do I want to grow a company that big? What does it take to grow it and go global? Could I actually bring a company from Europe to the States or Australia to the States? You know, what would you like to share with practical founders that you could see from your vantage point that they’re probably not hearing from the startup-industrial-funding complex out there?

Josh Cameron: The main thing, maybe it’s because I’m a bit of a bit of a finance-y person, but I think you really should question the money you’re spending and ask, do you need to spend that much? It’s always good to go back and look at the decision from two years ago. Is that still the best way of doing that? And the efficiencies you can get from that might remove the need to do some of these rounds and that probably there’s always a cheaper way to do something that might get the job done. I think it’s well worth looking into those ideas before you. And just the amount, we see all the time, the amount of time you need to spend raising money. Your personal efficiency and effectiveness get taken out of the business when you raise money.

Greg Head: Is that one of the reasons you didn’t raise money? I mean, first, there’s the independence, and you guys you’ve earned your independence and you would lose it if you raise big money. But then you kind of view it as an inefficient thing. It would actually take away from our growth rate.

Josh Cameron: To put one founder onto that all the time, like finding like raising the round again. You finally closed that one. You get to work out how to spend that money and keep those people happy. Then it’s time to do the next one. So it’s almost a full-time job doing that all the time.

Greg Head: Anything else you’d like to share, Josh?

Josh Cameron: I think that when you don’t have these time pressures on you, you give yourself more time to grow and more time to work out more things. And there’s so many resources out there to learn how to do all the stuff and when you’re in this safe place where you can give it a try. It doesn’t matter what, like a new country is, there are so many smart people out there. Most things are not hard to work out with time and like a few resources that you have.

Greg Head: So at the right pace, you have time to learn and do it yourself.

Josh Cameron: Yeah, like we didn’t know how to run a company with 130 people. We did it wrong for a long time. It’s a very forgiving environment. Is probably my view.

Greg Head: Well, thanks for sharing this. The story of Tanda and Workforce.com is a bootstrapped success story now with a global reach but started just off the beach and in Queensland.

Josh Cameron: It’s a beautiful place I’d get down there. Josh Cameron: Worth a visit.

Greg Head: Awesome. Thanks for being on the Practical Founders podcast, Josh.

Josh Cameron: Thanks so much for having me on, Greg, and I really, really appreciate everything you’re doing for practical founders. It’s great.

In this episode, Josh explains:

  • How he and his university friends chose to start a scrappy software startup instead of taking big jobs after they graduated
  • How they bootstrapped and grew their company in Brisbane in Australia for 5 years before the founders moved to the US and settled in Chicago to expand their North American business
  • How they compete and win in a crowded marketplace against bigger competitors
  • The growing pains they experienced growing from a small team in Australia to a global organization with 130 employees with offices in three countries
  • The benefits of being frugal, growing at a steady pace, and not taking big VC funding
  • Why they bought a 100-year old company to get the Workforce.com domain name and brand 

Workforce.com Company Facts

  • Founded: 2012
  • Description: Workforce.com is a workforce management software technology company that helps improve time & labor for shift and hourly workforces. 
  • Number of Employees: 130
  • Funding: Bootstrapped completely with no outside funding
  • Location: Offices in Brisbane, Australia; Chicago, US, and London, UK

Links

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Greg Head recorded this on episode on November 18, 2022 for the Practical Founders Podcast see all of the episodes.

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