Riding high with success

It was after a trip to the races that Jason Wyatt and his best mate Sam Salter first started talking about the feasibility of a business partnership.

They had been friends at primary and secondary school and had spent hours riding their BMX bikes together.

Wyatt, a chartered accountant, was working in London for investment bank Morgan Stanley but had returned home for the famous Melbourne racing season. Salter, from a well-known cycling family, was working with an online car classified company.

“We had been to the races and the next day, nursing hangovers, Sam said he wanted to start a classified business for bikes,” recalls Wyatt.

As Wyatt returned to London, they hatched a plan for what was to become BikeExchange.com.au.

First steps on the web

In London, aided by a web-designer girlfriend, Wyatt envisaged the site’s look and feel. Working by phone, he and Salter created a master plan, mapped out the site’s content and set out to find a developer to build it.

“We googled a web builder and went through the top 40 to 50 companies,” says Wyatt. “We got quotes from $5,000 to $350,000.” With $30,000 in the bank, they picked the $20,000 quote.

They also spent $8,000 on a branding exercise that left them with little more than a logo. “It was a pure mistake,” says Wyatt. “It ended up being a perfect lesson…I got sucked in. It made us seriously consider every dollar and cent.”

Soon after, Wyatt returned to Melbourne as financial controller for General Motors. (At just 27, he is thought to be the youngest person to be appointed to the role.)

Building a business

Meanwhile, Salter had quit his job and was door-knocking bike shops to get them to sign up for BikeExchange. The business idea they were touting revolves around a two-pronged approach, with individuals listing bikes and accessories for sale and bike retailers using BikeExchange to sell bikes to complement their bricks-and-mortar retail.

“We were two wide-eyed kids back then,” says Wyatt. “We jumped in the car and drove around the country, signing up bike shops. Sam did more driving than me. I was still working in my job, and my annual leave was spent in the car.”

In addition to the car journeys, they attended every bike event.

“We were ‘promo girls’ handing out merchandise,” laughs Wyatt. “We personally went to every bike event in the country – we were first to get there and last to leave. It was the hardest, but best, way.”

And it paid off. In April, 2008, they turned on the revenue stream.

“I was sitting at the Clipsal 500 race on the first day and I could see on the phone the first private sale listing was sitting there – it was $4.95,” says Wyatt.

“We were willing it to work. We at least knew our payment system worked. I think we put that first $4.95 towards a beer!”

Wyatt says that, while they wanted to build the business, they knew they could not afford the pay packets for the calibre of people they needed. Instead, they signed up passionate people who have taken a stake in the business. The pair also knew that top ranking on Google was essential, and they employed the right people to achieve that.

There are now 400 bike shops listed on BikeExchange, the site gets an average of 1 million hits per month and there are 200,000 cyclists on the database.

Testament to their success is the fact that BikeExchange was named Telstra Business of the Year for 2012.

Accounting keeps the options open

But that success certainly wasn’t the culmination of any grand career plans. Wyatt says he initially studied accounting because he didn’t really know what else to do.

“My father is an accountant and my brother is an accountant,” he says. “My dad’s dad was a pattern maker out in Footscray and he used to do the cast iron statues you see around the city.”

His father, Murray Wyatt, remains a director of second-tier accounting firm Morrows.

For a while in his teenage years, Wyatt recalls being more interested in socialising and competing in the ironman series. But he says he knuckled down in Year 12.

“I don’t think any kid of 18 really knows what they want to be, but I kept my options open by studying accounting, commerce and marketing at RMIT,” he says.

Wyatt says he later went to a career expo and got an interview with KPMG. “I wanted to get an interview at BP,” he confesses, “because they said they played cricket in the hallway. I just really wanted to play sport 24/7.

“I finished uni and started working with KPMG. I thought: ‘I am doing accounting with a big, chartered accounting firm. It is a good career plan and I am learning a lot’,” he says.

“It really taught me a great deal about the business world. On any one day, you would go to different businesses. I might be doing an audit with Ansett [then going] to Gillette Australia to Toll Holdings to Pacific Brands and Rio Tinto.”

Honing business skills

While describing himself as “the complete bean counter” during this period of his career, Wyatt acknowledges that it honed his skills. “I got to really learn how to read a profit and loss statement and a balance sheet,” he says, “as well as how to analytically review a business to determine what really drives it and what levers you can pull to make it successful.”

Wyatt says his stint in London, punctuated with powerboat racing around Europe, also taught him some valuable lessons.

“It taught me how a really big organisation worked and how antiquated and slow and unsophisticated they really were,” he notes of Morgan Stanley.

“I started off on the desk, but in the end I was put into a change management team. It was all about improving processes.”

Later, he moved to news service Reuters in its global infrastructure team. “I was the finance guy on the project teams. This really honed my analytical skills,” he says.

Success breeds success

In 2012, Wyatt and Salter applied that business nous again when they decided to leverage the sophisticated BikeExchange back end. They split the company into BikeExchange and The Exchange Group, with the latter now spawning a range of new online trading businesses.

There’s TiniTrader.com.au (baby and children’s products), RenoExchange.com.au (building and renovation products and services) and FurnitureExchange.com.au (furniture, bedding, homewares and antiques).

Wyatt says his accounting family is proud of his success. And when asked to nominate a major factor in that success, his answer is unequivocal:

“Passion – if you don’t have passion, you can’t succeed.”

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