In the beginning…

March 21, 2009

This month it is 10 years since Trade Me was launched.

Last night there was a party for staff to celebrate the milestone.

As part of this they kindly invited a few of us who were there in the beginning to tell some stories about how we got involved and about the early days of working on the site.

Here is my part of that (the extended director’s-cut edition) :

In 1999 I was working as an IT consultant in Sydney and really wanted to move back to Wellington.

In those days to find a good flat you needed to get up really early on a Wednesday or Saturday and buy a paper and hit the phones - and by lunch time normally all of the good ones had been taken.

So, that obviously wasn’t very convenient for me over in Australia.

This was also the middle of the dot-com bubble, and I had this nagging fear that I was missing out on something, and was really keen to get my hands dirty and try to build my own website.

So, I put those two things together and came up with the idea for Flathunt.

That was all good.

The first version of the site was a bit rubbish, but I was proud of it.

Then, in a moment of madness, I decided to quit my job and work on Flathunt full-time.

I had an exit interview with the senior partner at the firm I was working at, and in as many words he told me that he thought I was throwing my career away.

In a way you could say he was right, because since then I’ve never worn a suit and tie again!

Anyway, I just put my head down and tried to make Flathunt as good as I could make it.

I called every property manager and real estate agent I could find, and asked them to list on the site.

And, surprisingly a few of them said “yes” and the site slowly started growing.

Soon after it launched, we actually found a flat for ourselves through the site - it was listed at 2pm and we went and saw it at 4pm and signed the lease that evening. Which was great, except that our new landlord straight away took the listing down, and at that stage I was a bit desperate for all of the listings I could get. So, that was a bit annoying!

After about 3 months my girlfriend (now my lovely wife) got a bit sick of paying all of the bills.

Flathunt was making enough to cover costs, but not enough to pay me a salary, so I had to go out and find some paid work.

Around that time I had lunch with Sam Morgan, who was an old friend from school, and with Phil McCaw who along with his colleagues from AMR had just invested, and they told me what they were doing with Trade Me.

I’d seen the “Only Turkeys Pay For Classifieds” billboard.

I thought it sounded exciting.

So we did a deal around Flathunt and they hired me as a developer.

I became the first employee who wasn’t a Morgan, and got to work.

And, there was no shortage of things to do.

Within the first year we completely redesigned the site: we put in place a new design - coming up with the yellow sidebar and tabs and the “Kevin the Kiwi” logo etc which are still more-or-less in place today, we introduced charging, and usernames (rather than just showing everybody’s email address on the site) and built photo uploading, and autobidding, and the first incarnation of text bidding (which nobody really used apart from us): and a whole bunch of other stuff.

It’s hard to imagine today that the site would have worked at all without all of those things, but somehow it did.

We even built a Japanese version of SafeTrader, of all things, but that’s a story for another day.

We were just making it up as we went.

Sometimes we’d have an idea while we were out at lunch and rush back and try and build it and deploy it before we went home. It was incredible that the site didn’t break a lot more than it did.

All the while the business was growing at a ridiculous rate.

But we were still impatient.

One day Sam decided to try and get on Fair Go…as you do. So he called the producers and said “I really want you to come and film a story about Trade Me”. They didn’t really know what to say, I don’t think, because the people they were used to dealing with would normally try and lock the doors or punch the cameraman.

But they came in anyway and filmed some interviews.

Then we panicked.

We were not really prepared for the sort of traffic that a top-rating prime time television show might generate. I think the site was running on a single server at that point. So we quickly rushed out and hired a bigger server and then braced ourselves.

We invited some family and friends into the office the evening it aired for some drinks, and we setup a projector showing the number of people online.

And, if I’m correct, that was the first time we ever had more than 1000 people on the site at once, which was an exciting milestone.

Anyway, it was a crazy time.

I’ve never worked so hard or had so much fun.

We got to experience a business growing at an astonishing rate, although what we didn’t realise at the time was that this was just the beginning.

It was a privilege to be part of it.

Trade Me Home Page Retrospective