Top talent key to Online Republic’s success

In his former life in adland, Online Republic co-founder and president Mike Ballantyne was part of a like-minded creative team, all pulling in the same direction to take on Auckland’s big agencies. That made him a big believer in assembling and locking in key talent — something he credits for the success of his current e-commerce venture Online Republic.

It employs 100 staff in four countries, has a stable of more than 3000 travel-related websites, turns over around $170 million a year and more than 90 percent of business is traded outside New Zealand. Ballantyne spun off a digital marketing consultancy, Search Republic, earlier this year.

He founded Online Republic in 2004 with his brother Paul, who while reselling Yellow Pages ads saw the shift to online happening among travel companies. The brothers began by grabbing opportunities in the car rentals market and cruises, now the business has diversified into motorhomes and the new digital advertising consultancy.

The company’s first hire, a year after it started, evidenced the Ballantyne brothers’ talent strategy. The recruit was search engine marketer Mark von Nagy, who’d previously worked at search engine marketing firm First Digital and is now Online Republic’s chief technical officer.

“There are a lot of talented people out there and you can get them too early or too late,” says Ballantyne. “Mark was looking for something new and he had something to prove. That’s a huge motivator.

“My brother Paul always had this thing that he had prove to someone he could do it. I’ve always been a bit like that too.”

Since then Ballantyne says he’s focused on getting talented people when they’re up for a new challenge and feel like they’re graduating in their career.

“Getting someone who’s achieved success or a really massive salary, there’s a lot of baggage that comes with that.”

Ballantyne also advocates giving away equity to retain good people. He and his brother began with half stakes, but have since given slices of five or ten percent to six or seven key people.

“I’d recommend to anyone to give people a cut in the business. If someone is truly world class and you see that person as ‘I hope they don’t get hit by a bus’, you lock them in. LinkedIn means anyone can poach anyone, but those people aren’t going anywhere.”

Among the other hires are Campbell Brown, one of the original team at GrabOne; Angela Worsley, who previously managed Air New Zealand’s international website portfolio; former Google search engine marketer Tamanna Ahuja; and web analytics specialist Israel Hartley.

It hasn’t been an easy road to success for Ballantyne, who lost his brother Paul to cancer in 2011 and earlier learned an expensive business lesson trying unsuccessfully to break into the UK coach tour and boat charter markets.

“One of our values is don’t believe the hype of your own success. We’re fighting for our life every day. It’s a real mongrel, dog eat dog industry in all these travel categories. We’re up against armies of experts in these US and UK travel companies.”

The ad industry (Ballantyne was in advertising for 15 years after starting the Ballantyne Agency in Tauranga with his brother Steve) taught him that glamour industries aren’t necessarily where the money is.

“We had Expose swimwear and fertiliser and farm accounts. They had a lot to spend. We used to laugh at Auckland and Wellington agencies scrapping over a $500,000 account that was glamourous, and we’d get a million dollar account that walked through the door that no one had ever heard of.”

Ballantyne says he never felt at home in adland: “I’m a reasonably shy person who likes my own company a bit more, not a type A personality.”

His leadership style is very much ‘shop floor’ and Online Republic and Search Republic are a chance to create an effective team, he says.

“I’ve never been an ‘I’m the boss’ type of ruler. I’ve always believed in sweeping the shop floor and mucking in and servant leadership. You help other people get to where they want to go and where you want to go in the business.”

Mike Ballantyne spoke at the second Auckland Startup Grind event recently. 

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